Stacking the Deck For Adventure: Rafting Oregon’s Wallowa and Grand Ronde Rivers
By Michael Lanza
The Wallowa River hisses and slithers past us like a fat snake with ill intentions. An urgent line of muscular waves emits a constant, low rumble on this June morning at the launch site in the tiny burg of Minam, Oregon. The outfitter who rented us our rafts informs us that this waterway and the Grand Ronde River, which we will enter nine miles downstream, are running high enough to whisk our two rafts down the course of this 45-mile, normally three-day stretch of whitewater in just 10 hours.
Then he tells us that the first bit of technical whitewater we’ll encounter, Minam Roller Rapids, has flipped several rafts in recent days—and its hole is “guaranteed” to toss us into the frigid, snowmelt-fed water, too, if we fail to make the turn there hugging the right riverbank tightly. That grabs our attention in a hurry.
My family has come to raft the Wallowa and Grand Ronde with our friends the Serio family. Also joining us are my 13-year-old nephew, Marco Garofalo, who lives back East but leaps at every opportunity for a Western wilderness adventure; and Kathrin Sears, a college-age family friend and former babysitter of ours whom we invited because she is intelligent and fun and our kids love her—and she has worked as a whitewater rafting guide.
We brought Kathrin in part because we wrestled with that pivotal and crucial question that people sometimes face when considering an outdoor adventure: Do we possess the skills to do this safely? (For tips on how to answer that question for any trip you’re planning, see my story “Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself.”)
The other three parents on board have virtually no experience piloting a raft in whitewater. I have paddled an inflatable kayak through water up to class III (not with a high degree of competence) and oared a raft just a handful of times, and never on a class III river (with the exception of taking the oars once on the Snake River in Hells Canyon and plowing our raft straight down the gullet of a class IV recirculating hydraulic). Our quandary is only magnified by the keen awareness that we have five children age eight to 13 with us on a whitewater river whose water temperature is just a few ticks above freezing—meaning that if some of us go in, we have to fish them out very quickly.
Recruiting a ringer—Kathrin—seemed a prerequisite for us to run the Wallowa-Grand Ronde. (Kathrin continues a proud tradition within her family in this regard: When I wanted to take an inflatable kayak down the remote, class III-IV upper Owyhee River of Idaho and Oregon, I got her expert-kayaker father, my buddy Geoff, to join us.) I also solicited the advice of friends who had run it with their families, including one parent who managed a raft just fine with little prior experience. Although the water level was lower and easier for them, they assured me that I’d have no problem, given the relatively straightforward nature of the rapids.
Still, when our outfitter tells us we can drive down the road to Minam State Park and launch right below Minam Roller Rapids, avoiding it entirely, we reach a swift consensus on doing just that. No point in starting a three-day trip by tossing any kids—or adults—into a shocking ice-water bath.
Wallowa and Blue Mountains
Flowing out of the Wallowa Mountains and Blue Mountains in the remote northeast corner of Oregon, the 45-mile stretch of the Wallowa and Grand Ronde rivers between Minam and Troy offer a class II-III whitewater adventure, much of it on federally designated wild and scenic river, with no sign of civilization. Sightings of deer and elk are common, as well as the occasional black bear. Parties often spread the trip out over three days, spending about half or less of each day on the water, leaving plenty of time for hanging out in camp or hiking.
The landscape transitions over the trip’s course from ponderosa pine forests to steep desert canyons. Spacious campsites line the river; vast meadows of wildflowers fill the uplands above it. We’ve come in late June, a time when the water level is normally a little lower but still fast, and the weather is often pleasant. (In fact, we’ll enjoy three warm, sunny days and mild nights with lows around 50° F.) It sounded like a perfect trip for families with limited skills—as long as we had one person with us who could keep from getting into trouble.
As soon as we’re on the water the first day, the super soakers come out and the hooting and hollering commences. Our first challenge, Red Rock Rapids, doesn’t test my skills (and certainly not Kathrin’s) as we easily dodge the huge boulder squatting in the center of the current by going river left. Blind Fall Rapids requires a little more maneuvering, but mostly just presents us with a long set of big, fun waves that we bounce through like a rollercoaster.
The three kids in my raft—my son, Nate, and Sofi Serio, both 10, and Marco—have decided to pit themselves against the two in Kathrin’s boat—Lili Serio, also 10, and my daughter, Alex, eight—in a contest to see who gets wetter in the rapids. They shout at me, “Hit the waves! Hit the waves!” The bracingly icy water smacks them in the bow, drawing peels of laughter, but a hot sun saves the kids from teeth-chattering hypothermia.
Nine miles downstream from Minam, the Wallowa joins the Grand Ronde, just about doubling the volume of current we’re riding. About 15 miles from our put-in, just past Clear Creek, we take out at an unoccupied campsite that could probably fit a dozen tents. Ponderosa pines crowd steep hillsides rising hundreds of feet in every direction. As the sun abandons us for the hilltops, the kids bust out fishing poles and troll the river’s edge, catching only the prize of feeling like authentic wilderness adventurers.
Martins Misery Rapids
“Get me out!”
Marco screams this to us as he kicks and dogpaddles back to our raft. On our second morning, after we bounced and splashed through Martins Misery Rapids, a long series of class III wave trains, my nephew decides to test his tolerance of the icy water. So in a stretch of swift but calmer water, he leaps from our boat (with his PFD and helmet on, of course). He surfaces gasping for breath, with a look on his face like he’d just spied the fin of a great white shark circling him. The other kids howl as we fish Marco from the river and he flops into the raft, shivering.
Nate and Sofi were both considering a plunge, too; now, seeing Marco, they look doubtful. But within the hour, both have slid over the side of the raft and dunked themselves. Nate comes up screaming just as frantically as Marco; Sofi handles it like a dignified lady, calmly waiting for us to pluck her from the ice water.
Later, floating an easier stretch of the Grand Ronde, someone points upward. We watch a bald eagle soar just overhead and land in a tall, dead snag on the riverbank, where we watch it through binoculars.
By mid-afternoon, we take out on river left just beyond a sweeping bend in the Grand Ronde, at a sprawling campsite just before mile 60 on the river map. We’re in the Grand Ronde’s canyon stretch now. Pine forest grows in patches along the river and a thousand feet above it, separated by slopes of desert grassland. After pitching tents, adults and kids hike for about an hour up the steep, grassy and rocky ridge behind our camp, through fields of wildflowers. Far below us, the Grand Ronde sparkles in its cradle of cliffs and steep hillsides turned lushly green by spring.
Risk and the Outdoors
Like any parents who are trying to raise kids that love adventuring outdoors, my wife and I sometimes struggle with questions of safety. Risk is not entirely avoidable in any aspect of our lives, of course, but we can control and endeavor to minimize it. Still, choices are never clearly black and white in activities like whitewater rafting and kayaking or rock climbing. So it helps tremendously to have someone in your group who can draw from a substantial mental database of decisions made in similar circumstances. That’s a good place from which to crunch the odds on choices that can have real consequences.
On our third morning, we bob briskly down the last few miles of the Grand Ronde, where the river has widened and smoothed out its big waves. We let the kids take turns at the oars—giving them their first, clumsy attempt at steering a raft, laying the first tiny stone in the foundation of a skill set that may one day prepare them to run rivers and make good decisions about safety on their own.
Note: For tips on how to figure out whether you have the necessary skills for a trip you’re planning, see my story “Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself.”
If you’re looking for an easy, multi-day float trip on a wilderness river with no rapids, but five-star scenery, check out my story about floating the Green River through Stillwater Canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. See all of my stories and photos about rafting, kayaking, and canoeing trips by clicking the Paddling link in the menu at left.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR people with at least intermediate whitewater-rafting skills, as long as you have someone along who is capable of reading the rapids and making decisions about how to run them safely. There are rapids that require maneuvering a raft to avoid dangerous obstacles. In late spring and early summer, the water is frigid and can quickly induce hypothermia.
Make It Happen
Season Late spring and early summer are the peak season for rafting the Wallowa-Grand Ronde.
The Itinerary/Getting There
The put-in for this 45-mile trip on the Wallowa and Grand Ronde is at the OR 82 bridge over the Wallowa, in Minam, Oregon. There’s a motel across the river from the put-in and a campground at Minam State Recreation Area, 1.6 miles downstream from the put-in. The wild and scenic stretch of the Grand Ronde begins just below its confluence with the Wallowa. The takeout is on river right at the bridge in Troy, Oregon. There are a number of primitive riverside campsites along the route, all available first-come, and numerous places for hiking above the river, including nice hikes at Sheep Creek and Little Bear Creek.
American Whitewater has a good description of the route at americanwhitewater.org/content/River_detail_id_3081_. See another good description at:
Shuttle Service Shuttling vehicles would take a full day on very remote roads. Shuttle service is provided by two outfitters, Joining Waters Shuttle Service and Raft Rentals and Minam Raft Rentals (see below).
Permit Self-issue boating permits are required for every boating party. These are free of charge and do not restrict the number of trips or affect trip itineraries, and are available at all major river access points.
Map and Guide The Wallowa-Grand Ronde rivers map and guide, $6, is available at some of the Outfitters that support this trip (below) or at fs.fed.us/r6/w-w/maps/orderform.shtml.
• Every boating party is required to carry and use a portable toilet suitable for the size of the group. These can be rented from outfitters (see below).
• All open fires (unless prohibited during high fire danger) must be contained in a fire pan and ash and charcoal must be packed out with other garbage.
• Raft rentals, including all boating gear plus the portable toilet, and a vehicle shuttle for an additional fee ($90/vehicle when we did it), are available from Joining Waters Shuttle Service and Raft Rentals, Elgin, OR, (541) 437-0275, joiningwaters.com.
• Raft rentals, vehicle shuttle, and guided trips are offered by Minam Raft Rentals, Minam, OR, (541) 437-1111, minamraftrentals.com.
• All Star Raft Rentals and Shuttle will guide it or customize a trip for a larger group, but doesn’t normally provide rentals on the Grand Ronde; (800) 909-7238, asrk.com.
• Oregon River Experiences offers guided trips on the Wallowa-Grand Ronde, oregonriver.com.
Bureau of Land Management Baker Resource Area Office, (541) 523-1256. National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, rivers.gov/rivers.
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