In a moment of inattention—the scenery on either side of me is distractingly gorgeous—I lose track of the current and the powerful flow draws my inflatable kayak straight toward a Civic-size boulder. Things might go badly.
Three friends and I are on an eight-day, 82-mile descent of the upper Owyhee River, which carves sheer, narrow canyons of rhyolite and basalt hundreds of feet deep into the high desert of southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon. Only about three dozen people in a busy year attempt this float—not because the paddling is Red Bull material, but simply because the ideal flows and access window are so fleeting. The snowmelt-fed waterway runs high enough to paddle for just a few weeks each year when runoff peaks—usually in May, depending on snowfall and temperatures. And that’s only if approach roads—4WD required in good weather—are passable. We arrive on May 2, and our timing’s impeccable: no marooned trucks, and the river is running at 1,200 CFS, double that of summer flows.
But even if you nail the window, there are arduous portages, plus a good chance of snow, rain, hail, temperatures in the 30s and 40s, and powerful up-canyon winds. Flip your kayak, and the best outcome is a chilly swim. The worst is an unthinkable disaster, with rescue likely days away. Which is what’s undoubtedly going through my friends’ minds as they watch me tumble out of my boat and disappear under the frigid water.
The Owyhee Canyonlands are four times the size of Yellowstone. The river slices deeply into volcanic rock laid down 14 million years ago, gouging out one of the world’s largest concentrations of rhyolite canyons. The country’s largest herd of California bighorn sheep lives here, as do pronghorn antelope, elk, deer, raptors, sage grouse, redband trout, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions. And as of March 30, 2009, when President Obama signed a bill creating the 517,000-acre Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness and 315 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers in southwestern Idaho, the area is a federally protected wilderness.