The gorge closed into a pair of dark, forboding gates and we pulled to the left bank to reconnoiter the rapid rumbling below. Thousand-foot volcanic rock walls pinched in from both sides and car-sized boulders blocked the river ahead. This was Owyhee Falls on the Owyhee River's East Fork, hailed by most as Class VI—unrunnable. From a cursory scout, I wasn't about to argue with that. Still, we spent a few minutes spotting imaginary lines through the maelstrom, before beginning the grueling portage.
“I guess that's the trail, if you can call it that,” said Leon, a professional Grand Canyon guide, pointing to a faint scar winding up and over a precarious scree slope on the left bank. I let out a groan. The BLM ranger we talked to prior to our trip had said we'd need at least three hours to finish the mile-long carry. He also cautioned us to watch where we step—the Owyhee canyon has one of the densest rattlesnake populations in Oregon. “Be especially careful when portaging across those rocky paths,” he'd said. “That's when a buzzworm will getcha, when you're not looking at the ground at your feet.”
Ironically, the arduous portage before us was a principle reason for our being here. It and another tough carry farther downstream make the run prohibitive for rafts but perfect for the boats we're piloting. Our Aire Lynx II inflatable kayaks can handle stout whitewater, haul enough gear for a nine-day trip like this, and can be easily rolled up and carried across the burliest portages. The Owyhee's Main and South Forks are well known to river runners, but those portages—together with a remote put-in and finicky water levels—usually conspire to keep paddlers off of the East Fork, a 77-mile section from Garat Crossing, Idaho, to Three Forks, Oregon. This year a generous snowpack assured us enough flow for a May run, and the three of us—myself, Leon, and Jeff, a pharmacist from Madison, Wisconsin—met for the nine-day adventure through a canyon where few ever venture.
Three Hawaiian trappers from their party were sent to explore the Owyhee River country and never returned. The expedition named the region in their honor: “Owyhee” was the traditional English spelling for Hawaii at the time.
Our first load across the scree hill was with the heavy drybags, cumbersome paddles in our hands, and anything else we could loop around our necks. The next trip we made with the deflated boats, which we stuffed into the empty drybags along with air pumps and lifejackets. By the time we re-inflated the kayaks below the falls and were ready to roll, two and one-half hours had ticked by, meaning we'd beaten the ranger's estimate by 30 minutes.
Downstream, long, quiet pools between easy rapids allowed us to gaze upwards and squeeze every last bit out of the stellar views. About 10 million years ago, the Owyhee canyonlands consisted of rolling lava flows with rivers on the surface. Over time, the water sliced through the basalt and rhyolite to form cliffs that now range from 200 to more than 1,000 feet in height. Whenever we thought the extraordinary geology couldn't get any more dazzling, even more diverse columnar basaltic formations would appear.
IF YOU GO:
East Fork Owyhee River, Garat Crossing to Three Forks
Length: 77 miles
Difficulty: III (IV)
Gauge: Owyhee River at Rome
Recommended Levels: 500- 1,500 CFS
Number of Portages: 1+
Gradient: 12 feet per mile
Put In: Heading south on Idaho 51 take an unmarked road to the west between Gasmere and Riddle. The unmarked road leads to Garat Crossing, a gas pipeline. Be sure to take the road that crosses Shoofly Creek and go west to the river crossing and access. A high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle is needed to drive down to the river.
Take Out: From Jordan Valley, Oregon, take US 95 west for 2 miles and then go left on a secondary road. Drive approximately 37 miles on this road to the take-out at Three Forks. The final 2 miles to the take-out is steep. When it rains, the Three Forks Road often becomes impassable.
A couple miles below Owyhee Falls, we forced ourselves to quit gawking at the surrounding cliffs and pay close attention to what lay ahead. Thread the Needle rapid was approaching quickly, a solid Class IV that required our undivided attention. We pulled over and carefully scouted the sieve-filled rapid—the downside of the close-looming, crumbling canyon walls. We traversed the rapid using the full bag of river-running tricks: first lining, then running a Class II sneak route, a quick carry on river left past the center of the drop, followed straight away by a finale through several narrow, twisted Class III chutes between boulders.
A few Class IIIs followed in the next two miles, but then it was mostly smooth and languid paddling as the afternoon waned. A pair of curious river otters popped up beside our boats at one point, chirping excitedly to each other as they repeatedly dove and re-surfaced, apparently unaccustomed to visitors. Other wildlife sightings—California bighorn sheep scrambling across the rock walls, flocks of Canada geese guarding flotillas of tiny goslings, a great horned owl eyeing us from atop a rock hoodoo—only added to this strange and magnificent land.
Finally, the sky-scraping walls receded a bit and we found a pleasant spot to pitch our tents near the mouth of an alluring side canyon. We wolfed down freeze-dried mac and cheese and admired the pale brilliance of the rising full moon. We probably were the only people for 40 miles around. As remote as this country is now, though, people have lived and worked the Owyhee canyons for thousands of years. Lining the river bottoms and draws are well-secreted petroglyphs and other artifacts from early Native American hunter-gatherers. Old cabins hug the river, remnants from stubborn, enterprising ranchers from the 1800s and early 1900s. Each of these forlorn homesteads offers a treasure trove of old ranching equipment, from dilapidated water wheels and wooden culverts once used as aqueducts, to creaky buckboard wagons and single-blade wood-and-iron plows, abandoned where they lay when the land could no longer yield sufficient returns, or the solitude just grew too heavy.
Many of the place names on our map reflect this ghostly human past as well. Battle Creek, a narrow, brush-choked tributary we passed on day one, was named for a skirmish between whites and Bannock Indians in July 1864. Crutcher Crossing, a mile or so upriver from our present camp, was named for a pioneer cattleman who set down stakes here in 1887. His log cabin and a nearby stone structure with a sod roof is still standing, providing a landmark to the very occasional passing boaters. Most interesting, however, was how the river received its unusual name. The story goes that fur trappers led by Donald Mackenzie explored the middle Snake River region for the North West Fur Company from 1818-1820. Three Hawaiian trappers from their party were sent to explore the Owyhee River country and never returned. The expedition named the region in their honor: “Owyhee” was the traditional English spelling for Hawaii at the time.
The next few days of mostly flatwater paddling ushered us past the confluence with the South Fork, and into the Owyhee's main stem. Eventually, we made it to our next mandatory portage: Class IV-V Cable Rapid, marked by a boulder garden full of sieves with no clear lines. The drop is named for a long steel cable hung high along the right bank in 1951 by a pair of industrious fishing guides. They used the contrivance to portage heavy wooden drift boats around this dangerous, complicated rapid after having made their way down the mellower South Fork Owyhee.
It was here that Leon hatched his plan. Rather than deflate the boats, why not use the cables to transport them over the rapid? We'd already taken one load of gear over the 10-minute-long trail. Jeff and I were skeptical—we'd need to break out our cache of emergency pulleys, carabiners, and webbing to sling the empty boats along the cable to the eddy below the rapid. “What's the point?” we asked.
“Just for fun, an historical thing,” Leon replied. “I'd like to see if it can still be done.” Leon's enthusiasm won us over, and after two hours—probably four times as long as it would have taken us to carry the boats overland—we finally pulled the last inflatable kayak across the cable contraption. I was hot, parched, and irritable by the time I settled back into my boat. By contrast, Leon was bouncing with energy, pleased with the successful scheme. Noting how red in the face I was, he suggested that I might be dehydrated, “which would account for your pissy mood.” I looked to Jeff for support, and chuckled when my pharmacist friend shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes.
We paddled another three miles of fun Class II water, finally making camp on a slender strip of sand as the sun dropped behind the red-hued cliffs. The view, plus a hot meal and a couple liters of Gatorade helped my frame of mind, but the real mood-altering event came at our last camp the following day. As the canyon walls lowered, replaced by rolling hills and grassy benches, we closed in on one of the most soporific campsites imaginable—a world-class warm springs was waiting for us, to be ours alone.
Hurriedly, we beached the boats on a tiny patch of flat sand beneath a staircase of natural soaking pools rising 30-40 feet above the river. Connected by a cascading creek, the water temperature in each of the knee-deep spas was bath-warm. Jeff and I slipped into the spacious lower pool, still high enough to provide a penthouse view of the valley down below. Leon decided he wanted his own secluded tub, so he tip-toed through the poison ivy farther up the steaming ravine.
And there we soaked, three grubby river runners, totally relaxed and at peace. I closed my weary eyes and lay back. Our take-out was only a couple of easy miles downstream.