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Environment | Water

Hells Canyon: Still A Haven For The Man Who Fought For It

Boyd Norton is an internationally known photographer and writer who uses his talent to shed light on environmental problems around the world. He first cast his spotlight on a proposed dam right here in the Northwest. Taking on the Pacific Northwest Power Company in the late 1960s and ‘70s after it applied for a permit to build such a structure. That project would have built the 670-foot High Mountain Sheep Dam along the steep corridors of Hells Canyon.

Norton let more than three decades pass before returning to Idaho in 2010. He came back for a second visit this summer, joining a handful of photographers to share his memories and relive the experience of casting a camera’s lens on the natural beauty of Idaho and Oregon’s shared wonder: Hells Canyon. It’s a place he loved so much he fought for eight years to protect it from development. Upon his most recent return, Boyd declared it looks exactly the way it did when he first saw it. “The canyon has just maintained, it’s just continued on the way it has for millenia.”

Norton and his camera have a lot to do with the unchanged nature of Hells Canyon. A proposed hydroelectric dam was planned there more than 40 years ago — before Norton went to work documenting the area’s natural beauty and making sure important people were aware how all that could have been lost if development plans weren’t stopped.

(Boyd Norton on Hells Canyon in Idaho and Oregon.)

Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America - almost 8,000 feet deep. Every year, hundreds come here to the Idaho-Oregon border to raft, boat, and fish along the Snake River.

Norton lived in Idaho back in the early ‘60s. One of his first jobs was studying nuclear reactor safety at what is now the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls. On his off time, he and his wife Barbara would take advantage of Idaho’s scenic back-country. It was here he took up photography.

“We used to go backpacking and mountain climbing, and river running together. There was a whole gang of us all about the same age,” he recalls. “We started learning about some threats to some of the areas, one of them being Hells Canyon.”

The Pacific Northwest Power Company had filed an application in March of 1958 to build what it planned to call the High Mountain Sheep Dam. But the application was met with criticism by some like Norton, who felt a dam would damage both the landscape and hurt the fish and wildlife that call that 110-mile stretch of Snake River home.

“And it really would have wiped out that last free flowing stretch of the Snake River in Hells Canyon,” he said.

Hells Canyon: Deepest River Gorge in the U.S.

  • 7,993 feet (2,436 m)
  • Sits on the Idaho, Oregon Border

At the time, however, Dams were taken for granted by the region’s residents as monuments with purpose: they delivered electricity, powered industry, kept floodwaters at abeyance so farmers could coax crops from deserts.

Norton joined a group out of Pocatello, Idaho called the Hells Canyon Preservation Committee to make their case for the damage dams brought to the natural world. But getting people to understand the problem wasn’t easy. There are few roads that take you even close to Hells Canyon. Unlike the Grand Canyon, there isn’t place to stop and take pictures “our biggest obstacle was overcoming this ignorance on the part of the public about Hells Canyon. Nobody had ever heard of it.”

Norton, who wasn’t a trained photographer at the time enjoyed it as a pastime. He used his hobby to pitch stories to various national magazines like Life. In 1970, Norton used a combination of photography and writing to describe Hells Canyon to Audubon Magazine’s national audience.

When the magazine gave him a set of proofs of those pictures they used, he jumped on a shuttle to Washington D.C. He wanted to use those pictures to appeal to a senator from Oregon who had just been elected - Bob Packwood. Norton recalls being let into the senator’s office:

“He sat there leafing through the pictures and his eyes got wider and wider. And of course Oregon borders on Hells Canyon but even people in Oregon didn’t know what Hells Canyon was like.”

Packwood co-sponsored a bill Norton and the Hells Canyon Preservation Committee helped promote that made Hells Canyon a national recreation area. It would stop permits for any dams from being built once it was signed. It was passed in 1975 - enacted on December 31.

Fix Your Coordinates

Hells Canyon is still largely unknown - it doesn’t get the attention that destinations like Yellowstone or Yosemite enjoy. But Norton says that’s part of the appeal to a place like this. He describes the experience for those who haven’t been there…“you’re drifting along in a raft and if you listen, you can hear the river and you watch it - and it’s almost like a living being. Because you see these…all of the sudden for no reason a swirl will start…almost like a whirlpool and then it will just gradually quiet out…and get smooth again…for no reason.”

Norton is still a photographer and still actively fighting to preserve untrammeled places in the world — most recently Africa’s Serengeti.

If you visit Hells Canyon today, a scrapbook of his, including pictures and notes, is on display for visitors to leaf through at the Kirkwood Historical Ranch.

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