A Day on the Hell’s Canyon Mail Boat

boat running upriver in limestone canyon toward snowcapped mountain

“The U.S. Postal Service will deliver mail to anywhere in the United States with a mailing address,” says Jill Koch, part owner and operator of Beamers Hells Canyon Tours. Jill and her husband Jim hold the mail delivery contract for what may be one of the most remote mail routes in the lower 48.

Once a week via jet boat, they deliver mail to the dozen or so ranches and year round residents that live within the deepest gorge in North America. Jim and Jill have been doing this for the last 25 years; 2019 marks the 100-year anniversary of mail service within Hells Canyon. Nowadays, internet in the canyon is common and residents are able to place orders and communicate with the outside world in ways that previous generations could have never thought possible.

The winter morning broke clear at a crisp 23 degrees as I climbed aboard the mail boat, a blaze-orange, 25’ vessel, with the words US MAIL displayed on the side. Jim took his place in the driver’s seat as the boat shook to life. Jill, in charge of hand delivering the mail, sits behind him. Their neighbor, Gene, clambered aboard, the final crew member. We shoved off into the morning light, steam rising off the warmer-than-air Snake River. “43 degrees today,” Jim states over the roar of the engine, referring to the water temperature.

A pair of Common Mergansers lift off the water as we start our 120-mile round trip upriver through the three states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Most of the canyons residents pursue a living from the ranching of cattle and sheep, although, around the turn of the 20th century, there was a brief moment in time where mining was popular. We make our way upriver, stopping at a few properties along the way, until we get to Mountain Sheep rapids, where a narrow column of water is making its way through the canyon. Jim tells the story of the stern-wheel steamboat, the Imnaha, meeting her fate in these rapids November of 1903 on her way upriver to the mining settlement of Eureka. “Back then, the steamboat had to ‘line’ the rapids. The crew would use a cable secured to the rock to winch the boat up the rapids. On that fateful day, the Imnaha made it up and through the rapids, but as a crew member was throwing the lining cable back, the cable became entangled around the ships stern-wheel. The ship was sent back downriver. The bow collided with the Idaho side and stern hit the Oregon side. The boat was then crushed by the weight of water being pushed through the rapids. All of the passengers were rescued except for one horse that wasn’t able to get untied in time.” Today, our modern jet boat makes quick work of the rapids as we continue our way upstream.

yellow motor boat grounded at rocky river bed
man driving boat with black coat on
man and woman stand on boat in black coats

Along the way we spot Bald Eagles perched in cottonwoods, Bighorn Sheep tip-toeing across basalt cliffs, and Blue Herons fishing the banks of the river. Large herds of elk dozing in the sunshine are visible high above. Stopping at the Flying H Ranch, The Ranch manager greeted us at the river’s edge well below the high water mark, and therefore, the mailbox as well. “Just moved down to the low house,” the manager states after living at the higher elevations all summer and fall. Dan runs a herd of 600 cow-calf pairs on roughly 40,000 acres in the canyon, carrying on a tradition that has gone on for over 100 years in this wild country.

yellow motor boat in river going past brown foothills with snowy peaks in distance

Our final mail stop along the route is marked by Kirkwood Bar where caretakers are watching over the historic Kirkwood Ranch for the winter. The Kirkwood family began ranching here in the 1880’s. Now it has been passed down through many hands including former Idaho Governor Len Jordan who was a sheep rancher here during the great depression. After delivery to Kirkwood, we begin the 3-hour ride back down river. As the drone of the engine echoes through the canyon, I can’t help but think that it would take several lifetimes to fully absorb this vast place and its’ history.

Jim and Jill Koch are licensed outfitters and guides. They open their mail boat to the public every week, year round. Every Wednesday, for a small fee, you can hop aboard the mail boat and see the beauty of the canyon yourself.