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.
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.
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.
The Upper Owyhee River
Paddle through guaranteed solitude for 82 miles.
Day one From Deep Creek put-in, paddle a narrow gorge to a gravel bar campsite on river right (at 10.2 miles).
Day two Continue down Deep Creek; stop to explore a slot canyon at 12.2 miles, on river left. Camp at the confluence with the East Fork of the Owyhee at mile 22.2.
Day three Enter Lambert Gorge, portage Owyhee Falls (mile 32.5). Continue to beach camp on river right, at 34.1 miles.
Day four Portage a boulder jam called Thread the Needle (mile 35.5). Float to super campsites at the confluence with the South Fork of the Owyhee (mile 44.7).
Day five Side hike up Duke’s Canyon at mile 51.4, river right. Camp on grassy bench several feet above the river (mile 56.6).
Day six Run class IV Cabin Rapid and
class III wave trains. Portage class V Cable Rapid. Camp on river right (mile 64.5).
Day seven Camp at a gravel bar on river left (at 78 miles) and hike 10 minutes downstream to warm springs pools.
Day eight Paddle the last 4.2 miles on easy-moving flat water to Three Forks (mile 82.2) and your take-out.
Put-in The author’s party started on private property along Deep Creek, which required permission from the landowners. Ask a local shuttle driver (see below) to serve as a liaison. Alternatively, use the public Garat Crossing launch site on the East Fork, which cuts just one mile from the itinerary; it’s upstream of Deep Creek and six miles northwest of Duck Valley Indian Reservation. Take-out End at Three Forks on the main Owyhee. At 22.4 miles from Jordan Valley on Juniper Mountain/Mud Flat Road, turn southwest onto Fenwick Ranch Road. Continue about 17 miles, then turn left onto Three Forks Road and go about five miles to its end (where there’s primitive camping). Access roads require high-clearance, 4WD, and can become impassable when wet.
Info No permit required, but register with the BLM’s Lower Snake River District Field office. Map Owyhee & Bruneau River Systems Boating Guide ($10, 208-373-4000) Shuttle Eva Matteri, (541) 586-2352 Kayak rentals Idaho River Sports, idahoriversports.com Guide Barker River Expeditions; barkerriver.com Contact BLM Owyhee field office, (208) 384-3300; blm.gov/id/st/en/fo/owyhee.html GPS Get the tracklog and key waypoints at backpacker.com/owyhee.