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Clear as mud
The early June flooding that devoured a section of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway created more than just a mess that will cost millions to remove.
The raging waters of North Pine Creek also spawned a cartographic confusion that could drive tourists away from Baker County during the lucrative summer season.
Fortunately, straightening out the travel implications of the flood is simpler, and considerably cheaper, than is fixing the road.
The problem has much to do with names.
The Hells Canyon Scenic Byway doesn’t, strictly speaking, go to Hells Canyon.
But a popular side excursion does delve into the canyon. That route follows Highway 86 to Oxbow, and from there Idaho Power Co.’s paved road that leads to Hells Canyon Dam and the U.S. Forest Service’s Visitor Center and boat launch just below the dam.The boat launch is where Hells Canyon Adventures begins its jet boat tours through the deepest part of the canyon.
The section of the byway that is closed due to flood damage is on Forest Road 39, also known as the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road.
It’s a paved two-lane route that runs between Highway 86 east of Halfway, and Highway 350 near Joseph.
The reader board on Highway 86 near its intersection with Interstate 84 in North Baker City, accurately notes that Forest Road 39 is closed 60 miles ahead.
Trouble is, a visitor could well overlook the Forest Road 39 part and focus instead on the “60 miles ahead.”
And since a nearby highway sign notes that Hells Canyon is 68 miles ahead, tourists might assume — mistakenly, as we’ve just pointed out — that the road leading to Hells Canyon is closed eight miles short of the canyon.
Mistaken though it is, such a presumption is not altogether unreasonable.
After all, if someone told you that the Hells Canyon Byway is closed you’d logically expect that, as a result, you can’t get to Hells Canyon.
What’s needed, obviously, is a sign that explains that although the Forest Road 39 section of the Byway is blocked, the side trip to Hells Canyon — and in fact the whole of Highway 86 and the Idaho Power road — are open.