By Michael Lanza
I follow a short distance behind Geoff, our expert kayaker, as he weaves with deft turns around rocks in the East Fork of the Owyhee River. Sheer, 300-foot cliffs of black rock rise close on our right and left, amplifying the roar of whitewater. Although paddling vigorously, I shiver in my wetsuit, soaked from the 37° F downpour unleashed by a thunderstorm 20 minutes ago. It’s our third day on the river and our third day of cold rain and wind. Wet and shivering has become my default status.
Then Geoff cuts left around a boulder parting the swift waters like a hippo standing broadside to the current. I try to coax my inflatable kayak to mimic Geoff’s maneuver, but the river has other plans for me. An instant before the impact, I get an adrenaline rush with the realization that things are about to go very badly.
My floating balloon slams broadside against the boulder. In a split-second, water pouring into the boat flips it, hurling me out—and I’m underwater, under my kayak, and spinning downstream, my heart pounding on its cage of bones from the shock of frigid water that was snow yesterday.
Four of us are making an eight-day, 82-mile kayaking descent of the upper Owyhee River, which carves narrow canyons of sheer rhyolite and basalt walls hundreds of feet deep into the sagebrush and grassland high desert sprawling over southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon. From our put-in at Deep Creek to the takeout at Three Forks on the main Owyhee, these waterways run high enough to paddle for a brief window of a few weeks when snowmelt peaks, usually in May.
But at over 5,000 feet above sea level, these canyons are now, in the first week of May, just emerging from winter. Snow, rain, hail, temperatures in the 30s and 40s, and powerful up-canyon winds are the usual daily special. Flip your kayak, and the best outcome you can hope for is an unpleasantly protracted case of shrinkage. The worst is an unthinkable disaster, with rescue likely to take days.
Four times the size of Yellowstone, the Owyhee Canyonlands are the loneliest corner of the West. This is the kind of forgotten place that was never remembered to begin with; unlike Yellowstone, most Americans will never hear the name “Owyhee” in their lifetime. Few people live out here or have a reason to visit, except for scattered ranchers and the occasional outlaw hiding out, as fugitive Claude Dallas did after killing two game wardens and escaping from prison in the 1980s.
While outfitters guide the more-accessible, logistically easier lower Owyhee, in a busy year, fewer than 50 people see the upper Owyhee canyons. The numerous rapids are mostly class I-III, with a couple of IVs, but at least three sections require strenuous portages that can take three hours. Tales abound of unfortunate boaters stranded for days, until evacuated by helicopter, when rains transformed the area’s rough dirt roads to impassable, watery oatmeal. Marvin, a local guy in his 70s who we hired to shuttle Geoff’s truck from the put-in to the takeout, remarked straight-faced as we drove the long, slow, rain-slicked two-track to Deep Creek, “Some roads out here get bettah the futhuh you go out on ’em,” he told us. “This one doesn’t.”
Before this trip, a few Owyhee veterans told us: “You won’t see anybody out there.” One grimly advised us, “Don’t bring any whiners.”
To a certain kind of person, these aspects make the trip irresistible. In contrast to some national parks and heavily managed rivers, the Owyhee promises a rare kind of wilderness adventure: no designated campsites or pit toilets, no signs of people, no backup if you get in trouble, and uncertainty around every bend. That’s what adventure is supposed to be—as unpredictable as the plot of a good novel.
With any luck, I’ll survive it.
It was my friend John McCarthy’s idea. My neighbor in Boise, John worked for many years for the Idaho Conservation League (he’s now with The Wilderness Society), including several years on a panel with ranchers, off-road vehicle advocates, county commissioners, enviros and others hammering out an agreement to protect the Owyhee region. With two other friends, fellow Boisean Tim Breuer and Geoff Sears, from Hood River, Oregon, we’ve arrived just weeks after President Obama signed the bill designating the 517,000-acre Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness and 315 miles of wild and scenic rivers in southwest Idaho. We’re undoubtedly among the first people to run the Owyhee since this place officially became wilderness.
From the moment we push off into a gentle stretch of Deep Creek, I feel a powerful awareness that we are way out there, committed to eight days on a river of tightly guarded mysteries. On our first afternoon, we alternately drop class I and II rapids and drift calmer water between obsidian-black 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.
For our first three days, we paddle through intermittent, chilling squalls of rain, snow, and hail, and brief respites of eagerly received sunshine. We battle afternoon headwinds that spin our inflatable kayaks, or IKs, like roulette wheels. (Three of us are in IKs; Geoff’s in a hard-shell kayak.) During the fiercest up-canyon gusts, we paddle as hard as we can just to stay in place, going nowhere on a watery treadmill. At one point, Tim yells to me over the gale, “At this rate, we ought to make our next campsite in about five days!”
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We explore side slot canyons, walking cobbled bottoms and wading pools of clear water beneath cracked, vertical walls framing a strip of gunmetal sky high overhead. I wonder how many people have set foot in these little tributary canyons, and contemplate how rare it is to visit a place where you can almost forget there are six billion other people on the planet.
Just past a rapid called the Boulder Jam, where we punched our kayaks through a keyhole between rhyolite blocks the size of train cars, I take my impromptu swim. Holding onto my boat and paddle, knees whacking rocks underwater, I kick to the muddy, weedy riverbank, stand up, and right my kayak. Upstream and downstream of me, ready to fish me out if it had come to that, Geoff, Tim, and John nod and smile—amused at my spill and glad it did not turn out worse.
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“This is one of the most special places in Idaho.”
Tim utters these words reverentially as we drift languidly on our third morning through the enveloping silence of Lambert Gorge on the East Fork of the Owyhee. Lying back in our slowly revolving boats, we gaze hypnotized at cliffs shooting 400 feet straight up out of the water on both sides. Hundreds of freestanding pinnacles—exclamation points of eroding rock—punctuate the walls. A goose, honking aggressively, flaps its wings and splashes alongside Geoff for several minutes, a distraction intended to draw us away from its camouflaged nest.
We follow this amazing stone corridor for about 10 miles. Geoff and I agree it reminds us of the Grand Canyon’s Inner Gorge: not nearly as deep or long, but just as severe, dark, and spectacular, and much tighter.
Thousands of years of catastrophic floods muscled the Owyhee River to slice deeply into volcanic rock laid down 14 million years ago, gouging out one of the world’s largest concentrations of rhyolite canyons. Shoshone and Paiute inhabited this parched, harsh land; some 3,000 cultural and historical sites pepper the canyons, along with fossils of nine-foot-long sabertooth salmon, Pleistocene Epoch wolverines, and scimitar-toothed cats. Trappers came in the 1800s, followed by gold prospectors, homesteaders, and ranchers plying the Oregon Trail. The odd name Owyhee purportedly derives from a phonetic butchering of “Hawaii” that stuck after three settlers from the islands disappeared in the lower Snake River Basin in 1818.
But very few people managed to scratch out a life here, and the Owyhee region today remains sparsely populated. You can drive a hundred highway miles without a building in sight between the scattered, dusty, struggling little towns.
While humans rarely found the region hospitable, the world’s largest herd of California bighorn sheep calls the canyonlands home, as do pronghorn antelope, elk, deer, raptors, sage grouse, redband trout, rattlesnakes—and mountain lions. At one East Fork beach, John discovers a fresh cougar track.
At about 3:00 p.m. on our third day—not long after I’ve finally warmed up again following my swim—we take out on a beach to commence a notoriously arduous portage around Owyhee Falls, a stone-pulverizing class VI waterfall. We unload kayaks and carry every dry bag and boat over a muddy, rocky goat path that climbs a steep 400 vertical feet up a grassy slope, traverses a quarter-mile, then drops a slippery, butt-sliding 400 feet to a boulder-strewn shoreline below the waterfall. I make the trip eight times—3,200 feet of vertical over about four miles. Even though we’re traveling “backpacker style,” staying as light as possible, three exhausting hours pass before we finish the portage and start paddling again.
An hour later, we haul our boats out onto a stony beach to camp. I’m wet, chilled, and famished. My body feels like I just endured a day of being dragged by my wrists behind galloping horses. From the haggard, weakly smiling faces of my quiet friends, I gather that I’m not alone.
On our fourth morning, we scramble onto riverside boulders to scout Thread the Needle, another of the East Fork’s infamous rapids. Massive boulders clot the river, which explodes through a gunsight slot—too narrow for our IKs—as if spouting from a giant garden hose with a thumb over its end.
Eyeballing the daunting geologic clutter, we devise what might be called the Rodeo Strategy: One at a time, we’ll line each IK, sans paddler, on a rope into a slightly wider slot just below the Needle, holding the boat in a constant fire hose of whitewater. The boat’s owner will carefully climb inside and gird himself. Then the line gets released, jettisoning the boat as its occupant strokes furiously to eddy.