National Geographic : 1951 Jun
A Map Maker Looks at the United States now mature, begins to work its way through Idaho. As we followed the Snake's crescentlike course across the State, I looked down on dams that shunt its water into canals that feed it into irrigation ditches, which in turn lose themselves in green fields of potatoes, sugar beets, alfalfa, and beans. Impressed with the importance of the Snake River to Idaho's economy, upon my return home I looked for its reflection in the 1950 Census figures. The result? No less than 71 percent, or approximately 420,000 of Idaho's 588,637 citizens, live within 25 miles of the main channel of the Snake. Airlines Avoid Hells Canyon From Weiser to Lewiston the Snake flows north through the Seven Devils country and Hells Canyon, deeper than the Grand Canyon. I had hoped to soar over this 7,900-foot gorge, but airlines avoid the area, no doubt with good reason. So I flew to Lewiston in a big westward detour which took me over the spring-green slopes of the Blue Mountains to Pendleton, Oregon; to Pasco, where the Snake joins the Columbia; and to Walla Walla, which in Indian language, and fittingly, means "Place of Many Waters." In Lewiston I looked up Kyle McGrady, riverman and postman extraordinary. At the time of my visit he was delivering mail by boat once a week to the handful of sheep herders, cattlemen, and placer miners who live in the rugged, roadless valley of the Snake between Lewiston and Hells Canyon (page 748). Because the Snake River is the Idaho Washington boundary along the first part of the run and the Idaho-Oregon boundary the rest of the way, Kyle filled mailboxes in three States. All mail bears the same address: River Route, Lewiston, Idaho. So here's a place where you can live in one State and have an address (tax free) in another State. Next morning, with a twin-engine roar and a mountainous wake, we headed upstream with the mail. "She'll do nearly 40 miles an hour in still water," shouted Kyle of his 28-foot craft. "But why this talk about still water? There's none around here. And what about those rocks and rapids ahead of us?" (This to myself as I nodded understandingly to "the captain of my fate.") With resounding whacks and thumps against solid water, the powerful boat ascended the first of River Route's 46 rapids. The sensation was that of hill climbing, but I doubted my senses. Not until I con sulted detailed maps weeks later could I fully believe my own experience. In Pleasant Valley Rapids, for example, we were gaining altitude at the rate of 38 feet per river mile. Total climb in the 92 river miles between Lewiston and route's end at Rush Creek is 555 feet, the exact height of the Washington Monument. These figures raised the eyebrows of "staff canoeist" Ralph Gray, who allows that a drop of 20 feet per river mile is fast water for shoot ing rapids in a canoe, to say nothing of going upstream in a powerboat!* Once clear of that particular stretch of raging white water, Kyle threw it a glance of respect, respect born of many encounters, and said, "Those rapids have been given various names, but 'Pleasant Valley' is the only one you can print." Typical mail stop was a burlap bag tied to a pole where a threadlike trail off the canyon wall met the river's edge. Out jumped Kyle's helper Everett with the mail-letters, a bundle of newspapers, a bag of flour, a box of dynamite, or a crate of eggs, as the case might be. Instead of "ringing twice," Everett simply upset the pole and burlap bag. Stray Lamb on Passenger List On the return trip we carried a stray lamb in a sack with a hole just big enough for his head to stick out; we picked up a gold miner who was going to town after a solitary winter at his diggings; and we picked up a 79-year old National Geographic Society member, Thomas Morgan, with quick, blue eyes set in a smiling bronzed face. He talked about "lambing" 1,200 sheep (his business on the Snake), about prospecting, and about ocean ography (Dr. Maurice Ewing's articles in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC in particular) . Airborne again, I shared a seat between Lewiston and Spokane with a boiler inspector from a well-known Hartford, Connecticut, firm. "I have a heck of a time figuring towns from the air," he complained. "Things seem a little different." The steward joined us, and we three, aided by The Society's map of the Northwestern United States, spotted Colfax, Steptoe, and * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Down the Susquehanna by Canoe," July, 1950, and "Down the Potomac by Canoe," August, 1948, both by Ralph Gray. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "New Discoveries on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge," No vember, 1949, and "Exploring the Mid-Atlantic Ridge," September, 1948, both by Dr. Ewing.