Come Hell or High Water, Mail Arrives Weekly in This Remote Canyon

Every Wednesday for nearly 30 years, the Koch's go to Hell and back. By jet boat. The couple has weathered storms, swirling currents, and other perils to bring mail to the residents of Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, a desolate expanse of the Snake River that traverses Eastern Oregon and Northern Idaho. It is one of the most remote mail routes in the Lower 48.

Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America, with its lowest point sitting almost 8,000 feet below the rim. The area had a population boom in the early 20th century when miners settled there in hopes of finding gold, but today the canyon is mostly a cattle ranch.

The river route has been worked on by the Kochs. They deliver mail in a boat along the canyon with tourists on board. The challenges and joys of bringing mail to the middle of nowhere were discussed by Atlas Obscura.

How did you start delivering mail in Hells Canyon?

Jim was a lifelong mariner who operated two crab vessels in Alaska. I worked as a deckhand for eight years. We moved to Asotin to be near our grandparents. A real estate agent knocked on our door in 1993 to see if we were interested in buying a neighboring ranch. The business for sale was told to us when we explained that our main industry was commercial fishing. We acquired the mail delivery contract after we purchased Beamers Hells Canyon Tours from the Beamer's who started it in 1974. The mail contract has been held by Beamers for 47 years. I deliver the mail while Jim operates the boat.

The Kochs have been delivering mail in Hells Canyon for nearly 30 years. It was courtesy ofJill Koch.

When did tourists start riding?

The Saturday Evening Post published a story on Captain Kyle McGrady, who delivered mail by boat in Hells Canyon to 350 patrons at the time. That was the beginning of tourism in Hells Canyon. It used to be mostly delivering the mail and trying to make a living by selling things. Everyone wanted to ride along with Kyle and deliver the mail after the Saturday Evening Post article.

What are some of the items you deliver?

Hells Canyon residents have a harder time traveling by road in the winter than in the summer. They are stuck there for the winter. They will ask me to pick it up for them, just about anything they could want, in addition to letters, periodicals, and packages. We deliver to several states. Everyone in Hells Canyon has the same address.

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The Hells Canyon National Recreational Area spans more than 600,000 acres and is located in Idaho and Oregon. Alan Majchrowicz is a photographer.

What are the most challenging parts of the job?

It takes just under 200 miles to go from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. We do it every Wednesday no matter what the weather is like. Jim can pull the boat in closer to the mail boxes so I can reach some from the bow of the boat. It is a longer trek during the low water season. The mail boxes aren't all located right along the river because it rises quickly when we have high water. The boxes are high. In the summer, I watch for venomous snakes, spiders, and poison ivy along the rocky shorelines. I have to get into the water to get to them. Not all of them are boxes. There are drums of 55gallons. We almost ran into a deer swimming across the river while shoving off at barely dawn. Deer, bighorn sheep, and eagles can be found in Hell's Canyon.

What is it like to deliver during winter?

During winter, there isn't a lot of tourism. Patrons are excited to receive their holiday gifts on the Wednesday before Christmas. I love that day. On the Wednesday before Christmas, they are usually not right by the mail boxes, but they are there waiting for the delivery of the mail and whatever packages are coming in to celebrate the holiday. Volunteers from the Forest Service work at facilities that need year-long caretakers. The volunteers bake cookies in the middle of winter to show their appreciation. We are out in the middle of nowhere and there is no one around. The Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is large. We are the only people who are going to see the rest of the day when we untie and shove off in the winter.

The interview has been edited to make it clearer.