Helicopter mapping in Hells Canyon

so wildRecently Laurie and Odel, of Semi-True Tales of our Life on the Road, have been staying in Joseph, Oregon. Like so many others, I love Laurie’s blog; wonderful writing, beautiful photos, great humor and always interesting. Laurie’s blog was the only one I followed for several years before I had any clue there was such a thing as an RV blogging community.  Last August, when we met in Minot, Laurie brought me up to speed on RV blogging in general, introducing me virtually to Rick and Al and many others. But I digress.

Laurie posted a photo of the Hells Canyon overlook that instantly brought back some amazing memories.  Last October I wrote about what it meant to be a soil scientist, mapping soils in the field.  If you weren’t around for that post, and are interested, you can read it here. Another little side note here, all these photos are scanned from my old scratchy original prints and I haven’t really had time to get them all clean and shiny. ( As usual, you can still click over the photo to enlarge it if you choose.)

so wild, but still a road along the Snake River in this part of the canyonMapping soils in the wilderness of Hells Canyon was one of the highlights of my career. At that time, GIS (Geographic Information Systems, a fancy name for maps on a computer) was just a budding science, and our crew was part of a pilot project using digital imagery and digital elevation data to evaluate landscapes.  It was called the Soil Landscape Evaluation Project, SLAP.  To the current generation of mapping soil scientists, this stuff is old hat, and Digital Soil Mapping is the way of the future.  In the mid 80’s however, we still used aerial photographs and a stereoscope to make soil maps. 

For the Hells Canyon project, however, we had several hundred thousand inaccessible acres to cover in the most efficient manner possible.  With the cost of the helicopter and the pilot, we had to make our choices count.  We used the SLAP project methodology to determine the sample pit locations by evaluating the slope, the aspect, the vegetation patterns, and with the geology and climate maps we determined positions that would best represent what was most typical for that particular set of parameters, since how soils form is directly related to those variations in climate, vegetation, geology, and landform.

My tent is a bit aflying into the base camp on Wapshilla Ridge my tent is over by the tree on the leftpart from the guys on the left side of the photo by the tree.

Then the real work began.  I worked at that time with a crew of six, of course I was the only woman on the crew, since soil mapping in those days was usually done by men. Some of the men I worked on this project with are still pretty important in the world of soil survey.  Pete Biggam is now the lead soil scientist for the National Park Service, Tom Hahn is the MLRA Leader in Colorado, and Mark Keller has retired after a wonderful career mapping soils in the west.

If you look very closely, you can see our camp on the upper right Base camp on Wapshilla Ridge Hells Canyonside of the ridge next to the trees.

At that time, the soil survey office for Lewis-Nez Perce soil survey was in Lewiston, Idaho, and I still remember the excitement of loading up the trucks with all our camping gear and food for the duration and heading south into the wilderness as far we we could go on a rough dirt road.  Our campsite was on a high, flat ridge overlooking the wild canyon, broad enough for the helicopter to land and for us to set up a base camp.

With a huge campfire and a great supper we settled in to the dark night anticipating the days ahead with excitement.  During that time period, soil survey in the west was well funded, and several crews were using helicopters for access, but it still wasn’t something that was very common.

Sunrise from our ridgetop camp was always gorgeous.sunrise from camp

Our days were long, up at sunrise with a good breakfast over the fire, we would then suit up in our flight suits, load up our maps, aerial photos, shovels and description kits, and pile into the helicopter. Even though I tend to get seasick, I was never bothered in the helicopter.  The pilot was an old Viet Nam vet who owned the copter company in Lewiston and was a great guy.  I rode in the navigation seat, locating our predetermined sites, with my mapping partner in the back seat.  The pilot would land that copter on one runner on a rocky ridge, hovering as we bailed out with all our gear.  There were three crews of two people each, and he would drop each pair to a site and then spent the day leap frogging from site to site. 

the copter2Our job was to get full soil descriptions in the hour that we had before the copter returned.  The two of us hiked down opposite sides of the mountain, dug a pit as deep as the soil required, and described our soil.  Lucky for us, the soils in the canyons were usually less than the five feet deep required for a full description and we would get stopped by hard bedrock ranging from a foot to 3 feet deep.  We would then climb back up with our tools and soil sample boxes, packs and shovels and be ready as the helicopter approached  and hovered and we climbed back inside.

steep canyonI’ll never forget the engulfing silence of the canyon as the copter left and I hiked down to my pit location.  I remember sitting silent and still as an unwary coyote trotted past me sitting by my pit, oblivious to the idea that there could be a human in this wild place.  We did ten to twelve sites a day, and by the time evening rolled around we were all pretty much exhausted.

Of course, we had only limited water on our high ridge, but the pilot took great care of us.  In the late afternoon light, he would drop us into a sandy beach on the Snake River and we would all swim and laugh and cool off before he took us back to our high ridge for another night of canned beans and a big campfire.

This is one of my favorite favorite photo of Petephotos of Pete. Great Legs!

down to the riverThroughout my career, I had the opportunity to map in many wild places, but Hells Canyon was the wildest, the most magical and remote and something I will never forget.

At the time, I was also a wife and mother, in my 40’s, and my husband was the long-suffering spouse who managed the farm and teenagers until I would come home on the weekends. 

It was always fun when he picked me up on Friday nights after my week in the wilderness.  He would meet me with a bouquet of flowers when things were especially bad.  The time my daughter broke her leg getting thrown off her horse was the Friday night that I got the biggest bouquet.  There weren’t cell phones or internet at the time, so I was inaccessible for a week at a time.  I still remember him saying, “OK, what do you want first, the good or the bad?”  The good was often an especially big load of peas on the vines, and the bad was often related to whatever craziness the teenager would get into.  Good days, all of them.  cool water

Just thought it might be fun to share.  Thanks for reminding me, Laurie.

Author: kyotesue

Soil scientist/mapper working for 35 years in the wild lands of the West. I am now retired, enjoying my freedom to travel, to hike without a shovel and a pack, to knit and quilt and play, to play with photography and write stories about all of it.

17 thoughts on “Helicopter mapping in Hells Canyon”

  1. You have certainly had an interesting life and career. You have done things that most people only dream about. Thanks for a great post and some wonderful pictures. What an adventure.


  2. It is all about the memories, isn't it. That's why I like to blog about our travels … and the occasional post about other things.

    Lucky you … when it comes to helicopters, the horizon skimming flights always get to me, but undaunted I press on.


  3. One of the things I love about blogging is the people we meet and the stories they tell.

    What a wonderful career you had, not to mention sense of humour. I can see many more amazing things ahead of you. Also thanks to you I'm reading the blogs of a couple of Alaskan travellers. I'm so blessed to be able to meet so many interesting people.

    I feel privileged to have you read my blog. Thanks for kind comments.



  4. A lovely and fascinating life you've had. And a great intro to an area of the country I've yet to visit! Thanks for sharing! Nina


  5. For MA, who actually hiked around north idaho with me a time or two…I mapped in my first survey at Priest Lake in the mid 70's on a motorcycle, in the roadless bear country there, but trails enough for a dirt bike. By the mid 80's I graduated to trucks and helicopters!


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