TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

The Wildest River–Kayaking the remote upper Owyhee

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.

Tim Breuer paddles in Lambert Gorge on the East Fork Owyhee River

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 canyonlands 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; most Americans will never hear the name “Owyhee” in their lifetime. Few people live or have a reason to come out here, 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. 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.

Read this full story and see its photo gallery, as well as other stories about outdoor adventures, at TheBigOutside.com.

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