Oregon State University
Feature Stories

Tracy Vallier: Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon South

Tracy Vallier at Hells Canyon, south of Suicide Point. (Courtesy: Tracy Vallier)

January 24, 2013

Tracy L. Vallier received his PhD in Geology and Oceanography from Oregon State University in 1967. He retired in 1997 from the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, where he worked as a marine geologist for 22 years. Before that he worked as a marine geologist for the Deep Sea Drilling Project at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, and as a professor at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. Since retiring, Tracy taught geology at Lewis-Clark State College, Whitman College, and the University of Oregon, and worked as a marine geologist at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, California.

He recently returned to campus to present the talk, “A Geologist’s 50-year Journey through Hells Canyon on Boots, Rafts, and Ships,” in the CEOAS Geology and Geophysics seminar series.

Vallier spent a vast portion of his professional career in or near Hells Canyon, his four-pound sledgehammer shattering the silence of many a rocky outcrop, his backpack heavy with rock and mineral specimens carefully chosen along the way. From the early 1960s through today, his research and publications have led to a greater understanding of the rich geologic history of the region.

Hells Canyon Below Dam

Rugged outcrops eroded in Triassic lavas. (Photo: Tracy Vallier)

Hells Canyon is a ten-mile wide canyon located along the border of eastern Oregon and western Idaho in the United States. It is North America's deepest river gorge at 7,993 feet (2436 m). The canyon was carved by the waters of the Snake River, which plunges more than a mile below the canyon's west rim on the Oregon side and nearly 8,000 feet below the peaks of Idaho's Seven Devils Mountain range to the east.

Vallier has authored two books on Hells Canyon, including “Islands and Rapids: A Geologic Story of Hells Canyon” (1998, Confluence Press, Lewiston, Idaho), a synthesis of regional geology and also a geologic guide for nearly 100 miles of Hells Canyon. And he has written four books of fiction. He has also co-compiled and co-edited nine other books on geology and oceanography. His scientific bibliography as author and co-author includes more than 250 entries.

Vallier's work continues in Hells Canyon. Currently, he is finishing geologic maps of several 7.5-Minute quadrangles, each of which covers about fifty square miles. He also is mapping the Permian-Triassic unconformity in more detail and interacts with science colleagues, students, and members of the general public who are interested in the area.

Logistics caused by a general absence of roads and physical challenges forced by the rugged landscape make geological work slow and difficult. High summer temperatures, up to 115 degrees in the bottom parts of Hells Canyon, compound difficulties. All geologic maps are “works-in-progress” and never really completed. Some areas within quadrangle maps, by virtue of logistics, changing interpretations, and stratigraphic or structural complexities are reconnaissance level only. Other areas are mapped in detail.

Snake River

Snake River in Hells Canyon below Rush Creek. (Photo: Tracy Vallier)

In September of 2012 Tracy was recognized in the Congessional Record of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington D.C. Part of that record states,

“Hells Canyon is a breathtaking, nearly-inaccessible American treasure that has been over 300 million years in the making, during which numerous geological processes ranging from volcanic uprisings to the slow carving of the Snake River to cataclysmic glacial floods have provided a landscape filled with some of the most complex and intertwined geology in North America.

“Dr. Vallier has dedicated the last half-century to understanding this geologic masterpiece. His colleagues tells us that he has probably explored more geography of Hells Canyon than any person alive. In his 50 years working in the Canyon, Dr. Vallier has led to an understanding of not only the geologic history of the Canyon, but also of the regional tectonics of the Pacific Northwest.

“He has shared this knowledge of the Cayon’s history, native sites, flora and fauna, and ecology to colleagues, students, and almost everyone he has met. Dr. Vallier is a born teacher and his love and knowledge of the Canyon is passed on to students and strangers alike.”

A petition has been sent to the U.S. Forest Service to name the campground at Pittsburg Landing in Hells Canyon the "Tracy L. Vallier Campground."