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Backpacker Magazine – March 2011

Right Place, Perfect Time: Best River Paddle

Hit Idaho's Owyhee River just right, and you get one of the West's best paddles to yourself.

by: Michael Lanza


Fortunately, they don’t have long to dwell on my spill. That same day, we take out above Owyhee Falls, a stone-pulverizing class VI waterfall, and commence a notoriously difficult portage.       
We unload kayaks and carry every dry-bag and boat over a muddy, rocky goat path that climbs 400 vertical feet up a grassy slope, traverses a quarter-mile, then drops a slippery 400 feet to a boulder-strewn shoreline below the falls. I make the trip seven times—5,600 feet of elevation change over about two miles. Only five days to go.

On our fourth morning, we scramble onto boulders to scout class IV+ Thread the Needle, one of the East Fork’s most infamous rapids. Massive boulders clot the river, which explodes through a gunsight slot too narrow for our boats. Eyeballing the geologic clutter, we devise what might be dubbed the Rodeo Strategy: One at a time, we line each boat, sans paddler, into a slot just below the Needle, holding the boat in a constant firehose of whitewater. The boat’s owner then climbs in and braces himself. Then the others release the rope, jettisoning kayak and kayaker into the torrent. Amazingly, it works.

The sun finally comes out midway through our journey. At our campsite, where the East Fork joins the South Fork to form the main Owyhee, rays of low evening light slash through drifting, puffy clouds, bathing the canyon in rich gold. It’s brilliant, but fleeting: Deep in the canyon, the sunset starts to fade almost as soon as it peaks. The sight reminds me of the trip itself—breathtaking, and there but for a moment.




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