Posts Tagged ‘rapids


the owyhee



A passenger seated by a starboard window on a cross-country flight from Portland to some southern city looks down on the expanse of beige basin-and-range area that he is now over. He notices a deep gorge carved in the rolling desert below, and is excited to see an abundance of dark spires on the canyon walls, watching over a thin ribbon of water flowing in the bottom. He is a geologist, and is familiar with the history of the area.

Beginning about seventeen million years ago, huge amounts of basaltic magma flowed from fissures in the Earth’s crust, inundating much of the Pacific Northwest beneath several lava flows, some hundreds of feet deep. This is the rock that lies below the high desert landscape that the plane is flying over. Water has carved several long canyons through the beds, and the geologist is wondering which of them he is looking at. Studying details of the chasm, he looks right at the river where we are and doesn’t see us because we are tiny specks –three men in inflatable kayaks lightly packed with our minimal gear.

We are floating the middle section of the Owyhee River in Malheur (French for “Unfortunate”) County at the southeast corner of Oregon. This county is almost 10,000 square miles, slightly larger than Vermont, with a population density of 3 people per square mile.

When I left from San Francisco, anyone I told that I was going to Oregon via Reno and then Winnemucca Nevada would cock thier head and question me. But Oregon borders Idaho on the east, and that border is north of central Nevada. From Winnemucca I turned left and headed north across a hundred miles of high desert –a sea of sage with a green/blue/grey color appropriate for the Japanese tea ceremony; tasteful and subdued. The tranquility that the color brings is balanced by the view of inhospitable mountain islands in the distance of all directions. They are burdened by wet spring snow and a dark, heavy, bitter mist.

Once again, I was headed for a river trip in weather that makes me wonder what I’m doing. Cold weather and water don’t go together well in my book, but some rivers are only runnable during spring runoff, and I face this slight sense of dread often, especially when I do trips with my friend Kirk.

This trip is to celebrate Kirk’s fiftieth birthday. He and I met thirty years ago when we worked together as whitewater guides, and have remained like brothers over the years. He’d invited Silas, ex-wilderness guide and expert kayaker, as our third partner. An expert outdoorsman, kirk has had a fascination with the upper reaches of this canyon for a few years and wanted a good adventure to mark his semi-centennial. But unpredictable weather makes unpredictable water flows and unpredictable dirt road access to some of the most remote river miles in the lower forty-eight, and since he has a desk job, managing the risk for a wilderness therapy company, he needed to schedule the trip, so he opted for this middle stretch.  Even so, he had a couple of back-up plans for other rivers should the water level come up too high from intense rain or intense heat melting mountain snow.

I deferred to his judgement, only expressing my desire to finally see more of the Owyhee Canyon, which has been on my mind since he and I backpacked in a couple of it’s forks several years ago. When he settled on this thirty eight mile run, I searched the internet for information. One website described this trip as, “A spectacular journey on a river rafted by only a handful of boaters each year. Why? Because it’s as difficult to get to as it is to run. Slicing through the steepest volcanic rock canyon in the country, the Middle Owyhee’s whitewater is surprisingly rough. On this four-day trip, not everyone gets through Halfmile Rapid unscathed, so the group decides to make a grueling portage past Widowmaker, one of the most dangerous rapids in Oregon.” It sounded like a good adventure.

We met at an isolated roadhouse where a ribbon of blacktop crosses the river, and loaded our gear into the back of a cowboy’s pickup. Clint makes a few extra bucks in the spring by shuttling river boaters. He drove us fifty-two miles, up a dirt road through the sage, past occasional  clans of cattle, under the watch of pronghorn antelope on distant hills, to a wide section of the canyon where its two main forks converge,allowing the road to drop down switchbacks to the river. Clint knows the country like most people know their living room, but he’s never floated the river. He has a desire to, though, and studied the process of our preparation; inflating the kayaks, enclosing ourselves in long underwear and drysuits, and lashing down gear in dry bags, all with the humorous banter of my two quick-witted partners. Much of that banter was at my expense, since I have never been in an inflatable kayak. I abandoned kayaking over thirty years ago when I had the sudden realization, while seated in an inverted kayak bobbing down a rapid, facing downstream, that hitting a rock with my face was probable. I decided to remain an oarsman, and have been rafting ever since. Clint was dumfounded that I am about to run this river, but I was confident that I will survive, though I may not do so by kayaking skill.

We would descend thirty-eight miles to our parked vehicles, passing through a canyon that only allows escape in a few locations, where, by severe effort we could make the canyon rim, but still, we’d be out in the middle of nowhere. Basically there is one way out: downstream. When we shoved off, we committed to running the thirty-eight miles of river.

The first big rapid was only a couple miles downriver, a class-four plus, and I flipped, learning what kind of wave will flip me, and gaining confidence in the borrowed drysuit I’m wearing. I was able to right my boat and get back in it while still in the rapid.

Rapids are often separated by long stretches of flat water, in what is commonly called a “pool and drop” arrangement, and when we entered that situation, we found several pairs of Canada Geese raising young goslings in the pools. These are wilderness geese, not accustomed to humans, not trusting any large animal, and they protected their young by scooting downriver, honking and trying to lure us to them.  When we came along-side the tiny, peeping goslings, colored like not-quite-ripe bananas, they’d dive and remain under for a half-minute; an effective strategy to avoid death by raptors.

This seems to be prime country for Peregrine Falcons; the tall cliffs for nesting, and the abundance of waterfowl in the river. But all I see are Marsh Hawks (now known as the Northern Harrier), and lots of them, in pairs too. While the waterfowl is abundant, it is not diverse. Ninety percent of the ducks are mallards, in pairs, I’ve only occasionally seen a pair of mergansers or teal.

Nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is famous for being one of the best birding locations in North America, noted for it’s diversity. For this reason I am doubly impressed by the narrow range of species diversity in this slot in the earth.  As it appears, in the spring, Canada Geese and Mallards raise their young in the grass-edged pools, marsh hawks may hunt those young as well as the rodents in the grassy slopes. Vultures clean up. Violet-Green Swallows eat the airborne insects, Dippers eat the aquatic insects. The Red-winged Blackbirds eats insects off the grasses as well and the small seeds and fruits they can find. There’s not much else wildlife to see.  We are here before the snakes come out.  This river is famous for it’s rattlesnakes. It has the highest density of rattlers in Oregon. There is a good side to the otherwise miserable weather we have been paddling in.

On that first day we had tailwinds–extremely rare on whitewater rivers–that pushed us downstream effortlessly. But still, it was wind, and at a constant twenty-five knots with gusts up to sixty, it cooled us. We passed a hot spring, but couldn’t bring ourselves to emerge from our dry suits. It wasn’t the emergence that concerned us, it was the drying off and re-dressing in the wind after the soak that we thought would leave us colder than we were now. So we soaked our feet for a few minutes, and warmed them through the rubber and wool.

We found a pleasant camp of flat sand surrounded by junipers that gave it some protection. After camp was made, we set off on a hike up alluvial slopes to a perfectly rectangular cave in the cliff side above. It looked more like the entrance to a highway tunnel than a cave, so we had to inspect it, joking about it being the entrance to a subterranean UFO base. Moving through the sage, we jumped pair after pair of Chukar.

The cave was shallow, but offered a good, well-framed view of the river downstream, and housed a beautiful collection of verdant moss and pumpkin-colored lichen art on its walls. On our descent a squall came upon us and hit us first with Graupel, then cold rain, and this has been the condition ever since; passing squalls dropping various forms of precipitation.

Back in camp the wind had tossed our boats around the beach, but they and the gear were tied and nothing was lost. Kirk and Silas went into action, rigging a large kitchen tarp in no time, tying knots with fingers aching in the near-freezing rain, while I changed to dry clothes and rain gear. These guys are experienced in foul weather because they used to guide troubled youth and therapists year-round on three-week-long wilderness treks intended to be demanding and uncomfortable.

Guys like myself pick our weather for a week-long trip, and only venture out in the best seasons. By the time I got to the tarp they were building a fire with the abundant sage, and I proceeded to cook a chili and rice dinner after a nip of whiskey to chase the shivers.

The next day the wind eased a bit, but was still strong. Worse was that it had switched to blowing upstream, so progress downriver was difficult and cold. At times we pried ourselves into driving snow, eyes squinting, using the eyelashes to catch the flakes and protect the eyes, cheeks numb, fingers stinging. When we ran the long, class-four, “Halfmile” rapid, an eddy spun me around, causing me to lose precious time as I ferried across the river to avoid big rocks, and I hit a wave sideways and flipped.  This time I got separated from my boat and Silas paddled me to shore while Kirk pushed my boat into a calm eddy. So when we came to another class-four that was an easy run, but had severe consequences for a mistake, I opted to walk it and have Silas paddle my boat through. In this remote situation, prudence is wise.

After a long day on the river, floating below thousand-foot tall, dark, charcoal-brown walls splashed with neon lime lichen, we advanced ten miles and camped below towering basalt pinnacles in a roomy, sand-bottomed cave warmed by another sagebrush fire.

By the time we got in our sleeping bags the stars were out, and today we had morning sun for the first hour on the river, then the wind and clouds came again.  The clear night allowed the temperature to drop, and it’s been a cold day on the river punctuated by calisthenics on the beach to pump blood into our extremities when we stop to scout big rapids.

We’ve seen few planes overhead, so I noticed the plane that just passed by.

We are now at the half-way point of the trip where an other-worldly collection of tall dark spires juts from the canyon walls over a class-five-plus rapid named “Widowmaker” which has a tricky class-three-plus leading into it, and another class-three flowing out of it. I opted to walk the entire section. But in order to save a hundred yards of carrying boats over the talus on the bank, Kirk and Silas decided to run the top rapid, then portage around Widowmaker, and get back in the boats to run the bottom. An upset in the easier water above could have dire consequences if one failed to get oneself and one’s boat to shore before the big spill, so I am standing on a big rock in the water a hundred feet above Widowmaker with a throw line ready in my hands. They enter the rapid, Silas first.  He makes the first drop and eddies out to wait for kirk, who picks another route and perches on a rock above the drop. He has to lean to get off the rock and when the current catches the boat he flips instantly. It’s not good, but not threatening, as there is a small pool below, and Silas paddles to the rescue, pushing the inverted boat into dead water in a cove, kirk hanging on. Soon Kirk’s back in his boat. He’s a good kayaker, so he must be wondering what he did, and thinking that he can’t let that happen again. Psychologists say that the subconscious mind does not recognize a negative.  That is, if we think, “I can’t flip again,” the subconscious hears, “I can flip again.” And so Kirk does, to my amazement, about a hundred and eighty feet above Widowmaker. Good thing he asked me to “bag”–to stand here for safety with the throw-bag, and when he’s in range I underhand the bag past him and it pays out a rescue line for him to grab, but Silas can’t get to kirk’s boat in time, and it runs through the heavy water. Kirk swings in to shore in an arc that leaves him just thirty feet above the falls, and while I’m pulling kirk through wading pools, Silas scales rocks to see Kirk’s boat drifting far downstream, so he yells for us to de-rig his boat and portage it ASAP, so he can paddle downriver to secure the phantom boat. We act, and Silas is off. Kirk and I begin shuttling my gear. The long portage is the best way to warm up.

By the time all the gear is at the bottom of the whitewater, Silas is back. He left Kirk’s boat on a beach not far downstream with a big rock in it so the wind wouldn’t take it. We’re all warm now, but hungry, so we find a depression in the talus where the wind is less aggressive, and begin a lunch with Kirk’s thermos of miso soup, heavily garnished with ginger and garlic.  This has been our life-saver every day, when we stop for food and feel that warm soup glowing in our bellies.

Once we’re back on the river our hands get cold in only fifteen minutes. Neoprene gloves only seem to isolate the fingers so they can’t warm each other. When we resign ourselves to the fact that the wind refuses to relent, we surrender to a rough camp after only three more miles. A nip of whiskey takes the edge off the day while Kirk cooks on a sage fire roaring with horizontal flames on this exposed beach. I retire early to relieve the fatigue of bracing against the wind all day, and to quiet the roar in my ears. Sprays of rain sounding like radio static blast the tent fly as I drift off.

In the morning, I’m not so enthusiastic when we get on the river again, and without mental preparation, I flip in the class-three rapid right below camp. If it weren’t for the drysuit, I’d be in for a miserable day.  As it is, I just got a good wake-up call. Finally, I spot a falcon up at the canyon rim. Though the wind has lessened overnight, it’s still in our face, but snow flurries are fewer and we reach the terminus of the canyon easily, and make camp for the last time. Silas sees a reservoir on the map so we hike to it and find ruins of an old homestead–subterranean block walls made of diatomite, a soft rock composed of the exoskeletons of plankton which lived in ancient, vast lakes of interglacial periods. Cottonwoods circle the little pond, meadowlarks sing, and a muskrat swims along the shore. This river got it’s name, legend has it, when three Hawaiians came here to trap, and never returned. The local Indians had a unique pronunciation of “Hawaii.” This muskrat is a descendant of the survivors of the trapping craze.

In camp, while the sky clears, allowing the last rays of sun to light canyon walls, we feast on a gumbo modified by any extra food that could be used. Stars shine brilliantly before we retire, and the clear sky brings a frost.

In the morning it’s overcast again. We have a chilly, but uneventful paddle past rolling hills of sage to the bridge where our vehicles are waiting.

Despite the anticipated relief from the battle with the elements, there is an hint of sadness at the end of this river trip just as there is with all of them. They always seem to end too soon, even when the weather has been challenging. And there is something about deep canyons that instills a sense of place–of limited location, that I miss when I leave.

This canyon is majestic.  In one sense, just a big ditch, but in another sense it provides access to an inner world where rare desert water has sculpted earth’s solid skin; a process requiring such vast epochs of time that the contemplation of it helps me view my life in a truer perspective.

I’ve already forgotten the cold.



June 2019
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