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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.

But it’s safe to say that most Americans have not heard of the Owyhee. Few people have a reason to be here, except for scattered ranchers and the occasional outlaw on the run; fugitive Claude Dallas eluded authorities here for a full year after escaping from prison in the 1980s.

And while outfitters routinely guide the logistically easier lower Owyhee, few ever lead trips on the upper. There’s the aforementioned timing challenge; plus the strenuous, multihour portages aren’t “client-friendly.” One Owyhee veteran advised us, “Don’t bring any whiners.”

Our small party has a collective 120 years of wilderness experience. Geoff Sears, an expert paddler from Hood River, Oregon, pilots the group’s only hard-shell kayak. Fellow Boiseans John McCarthy, Tim Breuer, and I each paddle a two-man inflatable kayak, giving us extra gear space.

We put in on a gentle stretch of Deep Creek, but there’s little time for easing in. We alternately drop class I and II rapids and drift calmer water between obsidian and rust-colored cliffs streaked with brilliant green lichen. A pair of golden eagles soars overhead. I notice motion to my left, then watch something swim underwater in front of my kayak and poke its head up to look at me—a river otter. Four-hundred-foot walls and hundreds of freestanding pinnacles rise above us. It’s like the Grand Canyon’s Inner Gorge: severe, dark, and spectacular.

I take my impromptu swim on day three, just past a rapid called the Boulder Jam. We need to punch through a keyhole between rhyolite blocks the size of train cars, and needless to say, my attempt is somewhat punchless. Holding on to my boat and paddle, knees whacking rocks underwater, I kick to the muddy riverbank, stand up, and right my kayak. Geoff, Tim, and John nod and smile, simultaneously relieved and already crafting wisecracks about my paddling.

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