Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Trip report: Oregon's Owyhee River 2011

A four-day raft trip last week on Southeast Oregon's Owyhee River reminds me of how puny our human brains are for taking in detail. I'd been on the Owyhee two years ago and remembered it as a great trip. Going back, I got a new "wow" experience, marveling all over again at the breath-taking beauty of the place.
We put in at Rome, Ore. and floated 45 miles through spectacular canyons and rolling high desert landscape filled with spring-time wild flowers, blooming sagebrush while enjoying an array of bird species and millennial signs of Native American habitation along the river bank. Petroglyphs carved into house-size boulders left us to wonder and marvel. Every bend in the river offers something new upon which to remark.
The Owyhee is considered one of the best floats in North America after the Grand Canyon for its spectacular canyons and continuously changing waterscape. Tucked into the southeast corner of Oregon, it's a 10-hour drive from Portland, Ore. and five hours from Boise. The little cowboy town of Jordan Valley is the jumping off point for the one-hour drive to the Rome put-in. The town has a frontier history with two restaurants with Basque menus. The Old Basque Inn also has accommodations. Most years, Jordan Valley hosts the Big Loop Rodeo in May but this year a horse virus forced a postponement. New date, not set.
The river starts flat and relatively uninteresting but within a few miles your into the Owyhee experience.
Camp sites along the way offer sandy beaches, shade and the occasional hot springs. Although this year the best shoreline spring was submerged by the river's high water.
The Owyhee was running at about 6,100 cfs (cubic feet per second) at the put-in. By day four levels had dropped to about 5,100 cfs. The river is unrunnable at about 8,000 cfs where it had been just two weeks ago. Levels can drop fast when the weather cools and it stops raining. At http://www.waterdata.usgs.gov/ you can get an hourly update on river water levels. The information is recorded at the Rome put-in and automatically transmitted to a satellite, which then updates the Web site.
Two years ago in May, the Owyhee region was having a normal to dry spring with the river at about 1,000 cfs. High water actually makes the river easier to float and safer since many of the hazards are submerged. There's also less work on the oars as the current carried us along at a 5-mile-per hour clip. Kayakers are looking for lower water and more splashy fun.
No rain. We found a three-day back-to-back window offering mostly sunny skies and daytime temps in the 60s. Others had apparently looked at the same report because there were a lot of people on the river last week with nearly every camp site occupied each night.
Rafting is a great way to get into remote areas without a lot of work. A "dry" box and big ice chest can accommodate plenty of food and drink. Clothes, jackets, gloves, hats and personal items go into water-proof "dry bags." Camps are pristine because of "pack it in-pack it out" rules. Port-a-potties are required.
My younger son was along to help heft the big stuff out of the raft and to set up camp. He also fashioned a "sweat lodge" on our last night. The experience brought us closer to the Native Americans who in ancient times must have used the same techniques to warm tired muscles and offer up prayers, rising with the steam created by throwing cold river water on rocks heated to high temperatures in the campfire.
Fishing was lousy because of the high muddy water but Indian Paint Brush and a variety of other wild flowers made up for that. Birds were abundant including Canada geese with young, ducks, Killdeer, Red Wing blackbirds and hawks. Chukar (an upland game bird) by the hundreds ranged along the canyons walls daring us with their clucking.
We quit the river early every day so there would be time to explore side canyons and climb to looming lava outcrops. The beauty of the place is stunning for its solitude, subtle desert colors and spectacular every-changing geology. Take along books on birds, geology and wild flowers. We had fun trying to identify what we were seeing.
Menu planning has always been key element of the outdoor experience for me. No hotdogs or chili. We go gourmet. This time we enjoyed grilled steak with mushrooms and onions, grilled tuna with sliced lemon and duck breasts with huckleberry sauce. Ummmmn. Some great Oregon wines helped wash it all down.
A highlight for me is a Day Two visit to the petroglyphs on river left where Indians over the centuries carved images into giant rocks in a boulder garden. The place is fascinating.
Getting there: For those without the gear, a quick Internet search will turn up plenty of guide outfits ready to accommodate an Owyhee adventure. The cost split among several people (single or married) should make a trip possible. Most years, the float time frame is short...only six weeks in May and early June. My guess is that this year the water levels will stay high until late June.  There's still time!
Two more 2011 summer float trips coming up: Oregon's Rogue River and Idaho's Selway River.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It brings fond memories of trips camping at Three Forks.