I spent last week paddling through the canyons of the Owyhee River in far-Southeast Oregon.
Five days in some of the most remote parts of the state with biologists from state and private agencies looking at the health of freshwater mussel populations along 49 miles of this river that stretches from Nevada to Idaho.
I don’t think I could’ve done this trip five years ago. Too much living in my head. Too little time spent experiencing the world around me. Too much time trying to carry humanity around on an inflated-sense-of-purpose.
Twenty thousand people float through the Grand Canyon every year. And many more would if it wasn’t strictly permitted. By comparison, nobody floats through the Owyhee Canyon country at low flows.
It’s a popular spring float, when for a period of about two weeks in April or May, the river’s flow’s reach 2,500 to 5,000 CFS, and people from all over the west come to float and camp in these canyons.
In mid-August, flows reach 150 CFS, and that’s on a good water year. In a typical summer, these flows will top out around 80 CFS and stretch a 5-day float into 8 or 9 days.
The put-in at Rome is already hot and dusty on a Tuesday morning as we set up the shuttle. I stayed in Rome with two biologists, while the other two biologists dropped a truck in Birch Creek.
We made coffee, snorkeled, fly fished and cleaned camera equipment after we inflated the boats and distributed equipment among the five travelers.
We took off down the river through the agricultural lands nearly three hours later when the shuttle team arrived.
I managed to get lost less than an hour into our float. When the river braids its way through the valley near the Pillars of Rome, I took a fork less traveled.
I wandered downstream until I found a bridge, the last possible take-out before entering the canyons, and waited to see if the group was upstream of me.
If they were downstream, I was going to give myself until 5 p.m. and then find a farmhouse to see if I could make a phone call.
Turns out they were just upstream doing mussel surveys, and at 5:05 p.m., they floated into view.
We made good time the rest of the evening, and the Canyon wrens started calling as soon as we crept into the shade of the big canyon walls of the Jump Creek formation, leaving the agriculture and civilization behind us.
The rhyolite walls of the canyon made us go silent as we floated through time, and the swirling madness of the cooled lava could make you dizzy for a moment until you looked back at the swirling madness of the water on which you traveled.
Our first camp was on a nice sandbar about 8 miles downstream of the put-in. It felt like we were already fifty miles away, as I set up to cook that night’s meal.
As designated camp chef, it was my job to get food into hungry mouths as soon as possible, and I planned the meals that way. Pulled-pork sliders and my wife’s pre-made potato salad for the first night.
We ate in the dark sitting high up on the beach looking down at the river.
The moon came up about 10 p.m., and it was bright. Not full but waning gibbous and bright enough to light up the hills and spires around us throughout the night.
“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear—the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break.”
― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
The sandbar was covered with the tracks of little critters when we woke up in the morning, suggesting that in spite of the big light in the night sky, we had been visited during our deepest sleep.
We started late that Wednesday, and the wind was already up by the time we moved downstream.
We paddled through the first few rapids with ease, setting up a false confidence in myself at least. I’m not an experienced paddler, especially in whitewater, but I’ve spent enough time on rivers to understand your basic hydraulics.
By the third or fourth class 3 rapid, I had no problem guinea pigging while my companions carefully looked for freshwater mussels along the banks or took temperature readings at the many springs that enter the river from the hills above.
At one such rapid, I went down first and cascaded splendidly down three-quarters of the run before encountering a rock that seemed to catch my boat like a glove.
In a half second, my boat was swamped, and I was casually flipped over the side.
Of the things you remember to do in an emergency, taking a big breath should be first. I grabbed my fly rod and paddle and promptly forgot about breathing.
The next thing you should remember is to keep your feet off the ground and head ass-first down the river to where you can recover your boat and garage-saled items.
I didn’t manage this either, and my Chaco’d left foot got wedged in a nice pair of boulders with a V-shaped wedge between them. I let go of my paddle and reached for my strap just about the time my leg was able to pull the shoe free of the rocks.
I floated ass-first down the remaining rapids clinging to the edge of my boat and realizing that my hat and sunglasses were committed sacrifices to that particular rapid.
What you pay in material goods is always a fair price to what you could pay for disrespecting the dynamics of water over rocks.
I went overboard one more time that afternoon and felt a twinge of anxiety knowing a rescue from these canyons was an hour or more away and a cool $35,000 in costs.
By evening, having changed into dry clothing, prepared dinner and rested long enough for my heart-rate to slow down, I noticed the quiet of these canyons for the first time.
It wasn’t purely quiet, in fact, we were camped next to the Weeping Wall, a large hanging-garden with springs cascading down a sheer cliff rising 800 feet above us on the other side of the river.
But the sounds of water trickling down a cliff, the crickets, the sounds of bats cutting up the air, all are so distinguishable when there is no road noise, no airplanes or televisions or the hum of refrigerators.
I sipped on some whiskey in my stainless steel camp cup, swishing it around to catch the moonlight reflected in brown bourbon, and a relaxing melancholy crept over me.
I don’t sleep well anyway, probably something to do with growing older, but on trips like this, my senses are all quite heightened. I blame low-use of my fight or flight instincts in my daily life. But I sat up alone until well after 11 p.m., watching this quiet, remote world go on, much the way it has for millions of years,
In fact, with every river mile traveled, you move 100,000 years further back in time, geologically.
The rocks at the put-in point are roughly 10 million years old, while the rocks at the take-out area are closer to 16 million years old. Moving through the strata is a short one in geological terms but fascinating coming from the perspective of a human, who’s entire species’ life history is but a fraction of a moment on that timeline.
In the most simple terms, the Owyhee plateau is a fairly young, again by geological terms, volcanic area. A river doing what rivers do, cutting into rock and finding the easiest possible way down hill, is the vehicle for this story.
But glossary of this story, if you’ll forgive me, is the ancient lake that characterized the region since at least the Miocene epoch if not earlier.
Between the layers of volcanic activity are smaller layers of gravel, or old lake shorelines.
And petrified bones of the mammals that existed in the region since the ancient lake formed.
The otters we see along the river are resourceful critters, carving a life out of a very inhospitable place. In fact, the otters and their middens full of shells, or eating areas, are often the most visible clues we need in our search for freshwater mussels.
Otter fossils dating back to the Miocene age suggest they have been living the otter life on the Owyhee River for a very long time. And that is something to ponder over a glass of bourbon beneath a slice of sky visible between the canyon walls above.
On Thursday we set off with a goal of achieving 12-15 miles of paddling to put us in good shape for a short float on Saturday due to the need to shuttle back to our put-in point and then the 7-hour drive home to the Willamette Valley.
The float went well-enough until we were perched above Whistling Bird rapid, one of the river’s toughest, looking at our camp just across the large and languid eddy from the raging left-turn of a rapid.
After a quick assessment, and after perhaps not realizing we were more tired than we looked, it was decided to press through. Our first boat became pinned against a rock, with all the force of the river pounding it into submission.
The biologist who had been riding in it was carried downriver and out of harm’s way. A second biologist charged through and made for the items that were floating away, including a cooler-full of food.
The rest of us rescued the raft after running ropes up the river in every direction until some law of physics allowed us to peel it off the rock and away from the angry water.
We were all a bit charged up that evening, and most of the biologists sipped a little bourbon from the old, red flask that night as we waited for that still-big moon to come up and bathe us in moonlight again after a big dinner of sausages and pesto salad.
“If you wish to see it as it should be seen, don’t wait – there’s little time. How do you get there? Well, I couldn’t tell you.”
― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
On Friday morning, we moved into the Green Dragon canyon, a place that conjures scenes from “Lord of the Rings,” which got us into a mood to quote movie lines that reduced the stress of some more significant rapids.
We had become adept at hand-lining down tougher rapids since our experience at Whistling Bird.
Montgomery Rapid, another of the river’s famous drops, proved to be less forceful than Whistling Bird but no less complex. I ran the top section of it but promptly got high-sided on a rock.
It took me so long to dislodge myself, I could’ve sent a dove out to search for dry land by the time I could move downstream again.
Green Dragon canyon is spectacular, something that looks more like the desert Southwest than the Pacific Northwest. Proof that the PNW is far more diverse than people give it credit for.
I could’ve floated through that section of river for days, and I promised myself another trip down just to camp out in those canyons.
I went overboard for the final time on the trip just before exiting the canyon. It was on a short, left-hand-turn rapid, but I high-centered again, and the pressure of water leaving the canyon flat-out dumped me.
Only I came up under the raft, and being in the shadowed part of the canyon, I could not see anything. I thought I had slipped into an underwater cave, and the panic was instant.
It wasn’t until I hit my head against the rubber side of the raft that I realized I was under the boat. I finally surfaced, and with the help of my colleagues, was able to right my boat for the journey downstream.
The banded rhyolite of Green Dragon canyon gave way to spectacular mesas and formations that looked like the dwellings of the sand people from Luke’s home planet of Tatooine.
We had to make 15 river miles so we could have as few as 5 to travel to the take-out on Saturday. By 11 miles, my arms felt as if they were going to fall off. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was compensating for a chronic shoulder injury, and inadvertently caused a tendon in my elbow to swell up.
At this point, I was swearing at every rock my boat decided to run aground on, grateful that for the most part, my colleagues were too far up or down stream to hear me curse these rocks all the way back to the foundations of the world.
I was so exhausted by camp that night, that I could barely haul my gear up on the beach, and my traveling companions were gracious, and probably hungry enough, that they did it for me.
We ate flat-iron steaks, because a good friend who had paddled the Owyhee just two springs ago, had suggested them, and because it was a way to celebrate 44 river miles.
One colleague seeking a private place to pee, found a rattlesnake, one of many animals I had hoped to see on the trip, and I scrambled to locate her voice in the sprawling camp.
Once I did, I crossed the snake’s path gingerly to get a little video of the very perturbed pit-viper as it moved off into a den for the evening.
I was grateful to have not lost my cot during the flip earlier in that day as I lay out under the stars waiting for that big moon to come up one more time and illuminate the river and all this is old and holy.
Morning was cool and pleasant, mostly for the knowledge that we didn’t have to work 15 river miles that day. We took our time around some coffee, which I ground by hand, carefully measuring out the last of the rations. Not that I planned that, but the coffee outlasted the cream, so everyone drank it black that day.
We paddled out under huge pinnacles in the Sucker Creek formation, and they were lit up by sunfire and magnificent and worthy of letting our inflatable kayaks meander in circles so we could see it all in a slowly rotating panorama.
The last five miles was a conveyor belt of smaller rapids that led us eventually to some frog water and about a mile paddle to the takeout at Birch Creek.
I got out gingerly, my legs a mass of contusions and cuts and scrapes from river rocks higher up, and took a final swim in that water I had been in or on top of for the last five days. It felt good to cool down and wash away the sweat of the morning’s paddle before a 2 and a half hour ride back to our put-in point in Rome.
As I said at the beginning, I doubt I could’ve done this trip a few years ago, when my mind was so taken over by worry and stress. Mental health is as important as physical health, something I realized even more strongly in the days after the float.
I’m grateful for good and caring companions and for the chance to do something that I may never have chosen to do in the past or before I realized just how much being outside and part of the natural world means to our mind and body.
“The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky- all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.”
― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire