Many who see this landscape are apt to agree with Kimball’s assessment. Yet hidden within this vast, desolate plateau are spectacular gorges where the rivers draining the surrounding mountains have cut deep, cliff-lined canyons through the region’s volcanic bedrock. The Owyhee is one such river and its thousand-foot-high, rust-colored walls are accented by streaks of fluorescent-green lichens. Trapped within these walls, the Owyhee’s frothing whitewater cut the canyon deeper day by day. The beauty of this canyon, the solitude it affords, and the excitement of its rapids make it coveted whitewater trip that’s quite removed from the vision of Hell Kimball described 150 years ago.
Though now coveted, running the Owyhee is no easy matter. First, it requires a modicum of skill to safely navigate its furious waters. Even more difficult is to contend with the variability of the river’s flow. The spring runoff is quick and erratic and, on successive weeks, the river can vacillate between frighteningly high and scrappingly low flows. On two occasions my attempts to float the river have fallen apart days before departure when we’ve concluded the river was too low for the time we had allocated.
In late April of 2010, my luck changes when, on my third attempt to float the river, I make a snap decision to join the Payette River Company, one of the outfitters with permits to guide commercial groups. We arrive at Three Forks, where the North, South, and Main stems of the river all converge, with the river running at 2000 cubic feet per second, a good level for this stretch. As the late afternoon light illuminates the pipe-like cliffs of the gorge, we ready the gear. Then we sit at river’s edge near a fire talking into the evening. The sky bleeds color; then it bleeds heat into the vacuum of space. One by one, we trickle away from the fire to tents pitched under a cupola of stars. Thinking about what lies downstream, most of us sleep a bit fitfully.
RIVER DAY 1
We awaken to heavy frost coating the meadow bunchgrasses where we sleep. To run the Owyhee means arriving in early season when some of us are still likely to be spending our weekends skiing solid white water rather than submersing ourselves in liquid whitewater. We dress in sleeveless wet suits covered over with nylon splash jackets and nylon rain pants. It’s a combination that will keep us 90 percent dry and 90 percent warm – if we stay in the boat. Fall into the frigid water and we’ll be cold but functional enough to get ourselves ashore. All of which means that boating at 4,000-feet, down 45-degree water, through Class IV rapids, during the fourth month of the year must be accompanied by a willingness to shiver.
My boat on this trip is a paddle raft powered by five clients and one guide who orchestrates our efforts. Ted Tuma, our conductor, does this with surprisingly few commands: 1) all forward 2) all back, 3) back right (which means the right side paddles back while the left side paddles forward) 4) back left, and 5) stop.
That’s all there is to it. Ted drills us for half an hour as we float away from the put-in before he’s comfortable that we’re ready for The Ledge, a serious rapid which we will encounter within our first hour of travel. On a scale where class VI represents a major waterfall and where the popular rapids on the Wenatchee River (between Peshastin and Cashmere) are class III, The Ledge is IV+.
We pull over above this rapid and scout it to determine the safest line through its danger zones. Then, with Ted issuing terse commands from his playbook of five, we enter the rapid. We drop over what is almost a four-foot waterfall, slam into roiling waves of water, and punch a few recirculating pillows of water before emerging right-side-up at the bottom of the rapid. All the cargo rafts loaded with our gear come through the maelstrom drenched but unscathed.
This day on the river is short and after several hours of paddling and several more Class III rapids flanked by sheer cliffs, we pull over to camp. We inhabit a sun-soaked bench above the river covered with juniper trees and situated at the mouth of Loveland Creek. Those of us with energy to burn hike up this boulder-strewn creek, scramble a short headwall, and find ourselves looking out over an 8,000-square-mile plateau forming the catch basin for which this river is the only sewage pipe.
RIVER DAY 2
Yesterday got our feet wet but today the river is in our face. We hit several soaking wave trains before Halfmile, which is, surprisingly, a half-mile-long stretch of water that is both boiling and freezing. We hit the initial plunge into the rapid a little off line and take in a boat load of water. The raft is a self-bailer and the water that rushed in over the tubes leaks out through the floor. The boat, however, is unwieldy while it sheds the excess water and we paddle with a trace of panic to move sideways of what we know is coming—a hole at the bottom of the rapid where a wall off crashing water tumbles over and over on itself as if trapped in the roller of a cement truck. Should we enter that liquid frenzy, the little island on which we float is likely to be put on a rotisserie. Our panic proves to be ill-founded–we slip to the side of the maw with several leisurely seconds to spare.
Immediately after Halfmile comes a hose of lesser rapids like Raft Flip (Class III), Subtle Hole (Class III), Bomb Shelter Drop (Class IV), and Shark’s Tooth (Class III). All of these keep us well soaked. That’s a good thing because the upstream breeze with its 50-degree air, and the 45-degree water sloshing around in our wetsuits has us in serious danger of overheating.
After lunch, a few more drops help with digestion before we pull over on the right side of the river to view the meanest rapid of all, a nasty Class V+ stretch of anger, appropriately named Widow Maker. Here a jumble of hut-sized boulders is attacked by an enraged river that is smashing into, washing over, and churning around these impediments.
We bring the rafts to shore near the top of the rapid and then line them, empty of people, over spillways along the edge of the river. One rafter who is along as a client but also rowing his own raft is Warwick Phillips, an Australian chef living in Sun Valley. Panic consumes him when he realizes he has missed the eddy at the top of the rapid where the rest of have exited and has committed himself to shooting Widow Maker. His best hope of survival lies in the fact that he isn’t married. The very stable platform of his cataraft is also crucial. He spins sideways off one of the spillways that threads two boulders and washes into a massive recirculating hole sideways. Most rafts would flip here, but the square footprint of Warwick’s rig lets him spin around in the whirlpool for several seconds before he is spit out, right-side-up. The boat pinballs off several more boulders and, after seeing his life flash before him, Warwick becomes an accidental survivor of the rapid. White knuckled and shaking with adrenaline, he follows the Australian tradition of giving thanks by cracking a beer. He seems oblivious to the irony that giving too much thanks upstream is, likely, what fed him to the Widow Maker in the first place.
Below Widow Maker, we enter a beautiful bronze canyon with neck-crimping walls bolting skyward right out of the water. Part way through this vertical landscape the unlikely horizontal oasis of a sand beach creates a chink in the armor at river’s right edge. We pull over and erect nylon hotels on the cushioned sands of an otherwise hard world. Soon a driftwood fire is blazing in the firepan and we’re enjoying a sunset we can’t see but which paints the walls imprisoning us gold. The rumble of rapids reverberating off the walls melds into a wild, yet strangely comforting, white noise.
RIVER DAY 3
The big whitewater is behind us. Our final day on the river features a number of Class II and Class III drops, but this day is about aesthetics rather than adrenaline. Initially we float through high walled canyons of volcanic origin. Sometimes the walls are chocolate columns of basalt, sometimes a volcanic breccia of peanut-brittle consistency. For a while, the valley floor is carpeted by wall-to-wall water.
Halfway through the day’s 17-mile float, we squirt out of the slot canyon. The landscape broadens, allowing for long, panoramic views. Cattle ranches with green alfalfa fields start to parallel the river, boisterous bands of birds occupy the khaki reeds choking the river’s edge, and vultures and raptors ride the thermals radiating upward from the desert floor into a lazuline sky.
Options. The Main Owyhee, has a 35-mile Upper section, a 38-mile Middle section (which we floated), and a 65-mile Lower section (which is the most popular section). We started our trip on the Middle Owyhee at Three Forks and floated to Rome.
Difficulty. The Middle Owyhee has several Class IV+ rapids and one V+ rapid (Widow Maker). Very experienced boaters run Widow Maker but most people portage or line boats around it. The Lower Owyhee has about a dozen Class III rapids and one Class IV rapid (Montgomery).
Water Levels. Good water levels on the Owyhee can occur between March and mid-June and, depending on spring rains and snow melt, are annoyingly variablet. Optimal flows for running the Middle Owyhee are when Rome gauge reads 1,000 to 3,000 cfs. Best flows for the Lower Owyhee are when the Rome gauge is between 1,000 and 6,000 cfs.
Permits and Info. Permits for the Owyhee are not issued on a lottery basis. You can mail-in a registration form or register at your launch spot. To mail-in a registration form and/or to obtain more information, use one of these Bureau of Land Management offices: 1) BLM, Lower Snake District, Owyhee Field Office, 3948 Development Avenue, Boise, Idaho, 83705, 208-384-3300 or 2) BLM, Vale District, Jordan Field Office, 100 Oregon Street, Vale, OR, 97918, 541-473-3144
Commercial Outfitters. A list of commercial outfitters permitted to guide the river is available from the BLM (contact the offices listed above). I floated the river with Payette River Company (PRC) based out of Lowman Idaho, and give them high marks for their professionalism, the quality of their guides, the tastiness of their food, and their knowledge of the river. Different Owyhee trips are listed here. For more information see their website (payetterivercompany.com),call 208-259-3702 (summer), or call 208-726-8467 (winter).