Exploring the Owyhee
by Tate Higgins
It's Just Rocks and Water (River Rescue Part I)
Our mid-morning float is punctuated by the occasional class III rapid. The upstream wind is gone and the current is swift enough to carry us through the sweeping high desert landscape of eastern Oregon without much effort on the oars. After six days on the river together we’ve all fallen into the natural rhythm of multi day river trips - sunrise and sunset and downstream travel. Justin, Zach, and I lounge on the boat - reliving upstream class V adventures, singing songs, and making jokes. The sound of downstream white water vibrates the air and we perk up, tighten pfd straps, and start to look for a clean line through the read and run obstacles downstream.
The river makes a slight right hand turn and from upstream we can see a nice horizon line as the river drops through a series of truck sized boulders. Three house rocks and an assortment of other smaller boulders stand guard in the swirling and boiling water. The entrance rock is guarded with a smaller sidekick rock so that a boat running the right line will have to get her tubes and her timing just right to make the slot. The second rock stands just downstream and a boat length towards river center and 15 ft. of violent whitewater later the final house rock is decorated with a violently wrapped and mangled canoe.
Zach picks a center line, squeezing the boat between two smaller boulders, then begins to pull hard left. We narrowly avoid the river-right boulders and at the bottom of the rapid deem them gnarly enough for us to eddy out and run down stream safety for the other three boats in our party.
From our downstream vantage point, we watch as the first two boats barely sneak past the boat eating rocks. The third boat gets bumped right—exposing her downstream tubes to the house rock like a centerfold stretching across a bed for her cover shot.
Each of us know what comes next, and as the upstream raft buckles against the rock, spare oar snapping in an explosion of splinters, we’re already gathering our ropes, securing our own boat and heading up the rocky bank. I glance at the river and see ammo cans, shoes, and a cooler floating downstream. With minimal discussion, another boat assumes the role of downstream gear/people collection and the rescue begins.
We’ve been trained for moments like this and inside each of our heads steps are being reviewed and possible solutions mapped out as we hop from rock to rock, watching out for poison ivy and sunbathing rattle snakes.
For the last few years I’ve been hooked on rivers. It's come at the expense of a couple girlfriends who didn't understand why I was always coming home wet and smelly and wouldn’t stop talking about anything except river stories on our dates. But it’s been on rivers, not in dimly lit restaurants, that I’ve found a place and a lifestyle and a whole tribe of life-loving folks who remind me that working on the river and especially sharing my passion with customers makes me happy and feels important and worthwhile at the same time.
I moved to Colorado from South Carolina to attend graduate school and to work as a river guide. I spent two great seasons working day trips on the Cache la Poudre River outside of Fort Collins and with the completion of my degree in sight decided the only acceptable career move was not to enter the professional world of academia my degree and student debt had prepared me for, but to continue dedicating myself to the always glorious, never glamorous world of professional river guiding. Over the winter, I sent out applications to the best companies on the best rivers in the world and with a little luck and some smooth talking found myself driving across Idaho with all my possessions in my truck and the promise of spending a summer working for ECHO: The Wilderness Company on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
For me it's a total dream come true and I'm haunted by a tiny feeling of paranoia that someone is going to tap me on the shoulder any minute and tell me it was all a joke, and I should just go home now.
It’s not that I don't belong here. I’ve spent the last five years racking up Wilderness EMT training, Swift Water Rescue training, close to 1000 logged commercial miles as a river guide, and private trips through the Grand Canyon and Peru. It’s just that I've cheated a little bit. I've skipped the minor leagues and jumped right into a starting position in the big show. Most guides spend years with the same company earning their way onto a Middle Fork crew. I'm showing up with a smile and a reputation, and I’m a little nervous that there'll be some resentment.
The original plan is for me to tag along on an advanced guide school on the Middle Fork, a river I’ve never actually seen other than in pictures and dreams. Of course, plans change. A couple days before I finish moving into my truck, I get an email from my new boss that says because of water levels and cancelations on the Middle Fork, we're to meet in Rome, OR in front of the rowdiest bar we can find on the night of May 26th. The revised trip is now a five day float on the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon which we will call the 2008 ECHO Extravaganza. The training/exploratory trip will consist of ECHO guides from Oregon and Idaho. This is as much information as I have. I've never met any of these people in person, and I've never even heard of the Owyhee River.
I make arrangements to meet up with another guide in Arco, ID and split the drive. Her name is Maggie, she drives a blue car, and she'll be waiting at a big gas station around 3pm. This is as much information as I have. As Arco nears, I forget to worry about meeting and impressing my new coworkers and worry instead about where I'm going to leave my truck (containing all my possessions) in small town Idaho for a week.
Turns out there's only one big gas station in Arco. Maggie's petite, confident, and attractive. She flashes a big smile as I pull up to the pump next to her. It turns out I don’t have anything to worry about. Maggie’s already made arrangements with the Sheriff to leave my truck in an employee space behind his office. My first encounter with an ECHO employee, and a pattern that will become familiar has been set, the initiative to solve problems through foresight and professionalism and friendliness.
Meeting the Owyhee
"You must be Tate." My new boss stands on the porch of the rowdiest bar in Rome, OR. He sets down his beer and offers a friendly hand shake. The rowdiest bar in town is really just a convenience store on the highway with a couple ratty looking cabins for rent. These are the only buildings in sight in a town that doesn’t always get included on maps.
"They're kicking us off the porch," he says. "You guys want to go hang out at the put-in and wait for the rest of the group so we can drink beer?" Of course we do. I like these new folks already.
The half dozen or so of us that have arrived out of our group of 15 gather at the put-in that marks the division between the middle and lower sections of the Owyhee River and get to know each other. It's very unofficial and laid back. We drink PBR and Olympia beer and organize our gear as we wait for the caravan coming in from Grant’s Pass, OR. As the beers flow and introductions are made, the anxiety of being the new guy begins to fade into memory. Before I know it, we’ve decided to stretch our 5 day trip into 8 days. Most of us have been waiting all winter to get back on a river, and everyone agrees it's a good idea.
I walk down to the edge of the river and take a moment to stretch and listen to the passing water and breathe in the scent of sage brush. The Owyhee is wide and mellow here-its water an opaque brown that reflects nothing. The land is flat and treeless, checkered with light green sage and browning grasses-a high desert that reminds me of stretches of the Colorado River. The Owyhee is often referred to as Oregon's Grand Canyon, but from where I’m standing there’s no evidence of the dramatic canyons hidden both upstream and down.
Here, the grandness of this isolated region is contained only in the land and sky's vastness, but I know that the river promises much more. The middle section of the Owyhee winds 39 miles through dramatic canyons and gorges from Three Forks put-in upstream to the Rome launch where I stand. The middle section is rated as class III-V and at this water level we anticipate one portage at a class V rapid known as Widowmaker.
The Oregon crew arrives just after dark, all cheers and fist pumps and open windows. From the dark around me, greetings are shouted to Charlie Brown, the seasoned brown truck that has arrived like a long lost friend. Charlie Brown’s racks are overflowing with the gear that will keep us alive and happy for the next 5, I mean 8 days, and its cab is overflowing with river guides eager to get wet on this new river.
More handshakes and introductions, and we all laugh at the fact that it's hard to remember new faces and names in the dark.
In one hour of frantic head lamp action, all the gear, food, and beer is assembled, organized, labeled, and packed. I spend much of the time trying to help out with a system I don’t yet know, trying to always stay busy without setting down my beer. I'm following the examples of hard work all around me. There is no standing around here. Everyone finds what needs to be done and does it. There are no rookies here.
Shuttles are arranged and the tone is set; this will be a combination training course and also an exploratory journey of the Owyhee River to decide if it's worthy of being added to ECHO’s repertoire of commercial trips.
It’s a two hour drive down dirt roads and stream crossings to the Three Forks put-in - a journey that leaves our trailers and our dry bags caked with a inches of Oregon mud. It happens so fast that I don't realize how impressive of a feat has been accomplished until later. In a short amount of time, in the dark, we have come together (some of us meeting for the first time) and rigged an 8 day trip for 15 people with no problems and heavy doses of smiles and laughter. This group may look like a generic bunch of dirt bag river runners on the outside, but it comes together as a team that devours the less glamorous duties of multi day trips with professional ease and good attitudes.
The Three Forks section of the Owyhee River has been called one of the least accessible rivers in Oregon. In places, the desert canyon cuts over 1200 ft. deep. There are no roads or development or power lines in sight. The road we came in on last night can only be described as rough. For much of our float on the middle section the nearest human development will never be closer than 35 miles away. The Three Forks area is so remote that the Air Force has considered using it as a bombing range—an idea that’s been consistently fought by the boating and recreational community.
I had no idea that this sort of terrain existed in Oregon, a place I'd always associated with the deep wet greens of the Pacific Coast. This country is wild and hard and renowned for a huge rattlesnake population. Here, it's easy to forget that I'm still in America. It’s easy to forget that just a couple weeks ago I was administering final exams and worrying about what to wear to the bar or finding a parking spot downtown. As the sun rises and the blaster cranks up under a pot of cowboy coffee the pace of the world, and of my life, has began to shift in a pleasant way that can only be mimicked in short doses by good books and first loves.
As we float, the canyon walls close in to form sheer sided gorges and places that do look a lot like the Grand Canyon. In other places, the canyon recedes to give us breathtaking views of the sage and scrub brush covered terraced slopes. It’s amazing how green the desert scenery remains this late in the spring. Yellow and purple wildflowers and pink primrose are everywhere—we're catching the desert world in a special and temporary time of year when it’s fully awake with spring rains and tolerable temperatures. This show will not last through the dry heat of the summer.
Al, taking his turn in the captain’s seat of our paddle boat, positions us in the middle tongue of the first drop of our first day's substantial rapid. The "ledge" that gives this class IV rapid its name is steep and technical. The raft drops into the ledge hole like a dream and we have just enough time to yell in pure enjoyment before Al's hollering strokes at us to get the raft left as we enter the boulder garden. We've scouted the long rapid and planned our path through the long complicated lower section. The moves are fairly technical, requiring good timing and anticipation. We make our line on the right and begin working back towards the center for the last ledge drop. The slingshot effect and munchy whitewater sends Al right out of his seat in the stern. We catch an eddy and pull him in with a laugh - the only damage done is to his pride.
The rapids in the middle section come regularly as the canyon walls constrict the river through long steep boulder gardens and steep drops. This is an exploratory trip for all of us which makes my role as the new guy more transparent. In the afternoon, I weigh in on discussions about which line looks the cleanest in Half Mile Rapid, another class IV on the first day, and everyone listens like I have always been part of the team.
No one in our party has ever run this stretch of river before and one of the goals of the trip, besides drinking beer and honing river skills and relationships, is to explore the possibility of running commercial trips on the Owyhee. With the warm Oregon sun warming our skin, it doesn't take long to agree that the river has everything that makes for an epic multi day experience. Amazing and unique scenery, exciting and challenging rapids and the solitude and remoteness that make it a true wilderness float.
On the morning of our second river day we encounter Widowmaker Rapid. It carries a class V rating and a reputation for surprise endings. It's guarded by an entrance rapid—a long technical class III with a must make river right eddy. Here, the canyon is at its most constricted, light green slopes and wildflowers replaced with dark foreboding rock walls and river banks littered with black boulders of all sizes. We scout the entrance moves and find our eddy just above the class V ledge drop. I watch each boat successfully maneuver the tight tongue between two nasty holes then work hard to make their way through the boulder garden below. I know exactly how each one of those river guides is feeling—that rush of jitters deep inside the belly, the tingling fingers, and the bounding heart rate. None of us has ever run this rapid before, none of us has even seen it run successfully or read a guide book on recommended lines. This is whitewater rafting at its best. Choosing lines based on best guesses and a confidence in our ability to read and react to water. As I climb into the stern of the paddle boat and ready my crew, I take a deep breath, dip my hand into the cold water of the river and push off into new experience.
My line is clean. I catch the crowded eddy and scream in pure exhilaration to match the roar of the whitewater all around me. By the time I get my bow line secured to one of the many rocks piled on the shore, a gear boat portage has already begun. Guides climb along the rough trail, carrying brightly colored dry bags and gear in an endless procession like a group of rainbow colored ants. The kitchen crew breaks off to begin lunch at a spot that offers a dramatic view of Widowmaker.
We decide to rope the gear boats through, a complicated series of maneuvers that this crew makes look effortless and safe. The paddle boats are paddled through. It’s hard to get a bunch of guides to walk around any rapid and although we all recognize the consequences of swimming here with a class IV rapid continuing around the next bend downstream, the paddle boats nail their lines and make Widowmaker look a little less intimidating.
The last few miles of the middle section are marked by calm flat water as the river leaves the canyon and meanders through the sweeping desert landscape. Zach, Lex, and I take advantage of the calmer water to freshen up on our boat flipping skills. I spend much of the morning in the river or climbing back on top of upside down paddle boats. We discuss strategies and experiences and have fun as the rest of the group cheers us on.
The Owyhee River runs through the southeast corner of Oregon before joining the Snake and heading towards the Pacific Ocean. It’s one of Oregon’s Wild and Scenic Rivers, earning its protected status in 1986. The water is surprisingly warm and before long we have arrived back at the Rome put-in and the mid way point of our river adventure.
The Lower Section
The lower section of the Owyhee runs about 50 miles from the put-in at Rome to the Owyhee Reservoir. The lower section is more popular with boaters because it's easily accessible and doesn’t require the advanced boating and rope skills of the technical rapids of the upper section. We have lunch at the Rome put-in and restock our beer supplies. By the time the late afternoon sets in, we're floating as a group through the grasslands of eastern Oregon listening to our own impromptu bluegrass band strum tunes on their rubber stage. We camp at the entrance to the lower canyon, drink hot buttered rum cordials, and dine on rosemary chicken and grilled asparagus. The group mood is celebratory and light hearted even as evening showers force us under the shelter of our community tarp. The first appearance of dare wear comes as the evening's first surprise, a mix of sequined outfits and lots of posing for the cameras.
The rapids on the lower section are mostly class III read and run drops through boulder gardens. The current remains fairly swift and channelized and the scenery continues to impress.
Layover at the Disco Cave
Because we've turned a five day trip into an eight day extravaganza, we opt for a layover day in Potter's Cave. The cave is really a huge rock overhang, big enough to shelter a large school bus. It’s the perfect camp and before long we're sitting in our circle of camp chairs, eating hot food and sipping on cold drinks and debating whether this is truly the best camp site in the world. These folks have seen a lot of campsites all over the world and although the merits of a couple spots on the Grand Canyon are mentioned as competitors we decide in the end that this really is the best campsite that any of us has ever seen.
At the back of the rock overhang, there's an entrance to another chamber. This second cave is completely walled in and about the size of a large living room. We name it the disco cave and before long improvised dance lights are set on the cave ledges and its sand floor is filled with dirty raft guides dancing to eighties tunes coming from a set of small portable speakers.
I wake up on the expansive sand beach and watch the far canyon walls catch the morning sunlight and listen to the Owyhee River charging along its banks. My view is interrupted only by a plate of fresh fruit and a full bloody Mary bar, complete with all the fixings that someone has set up for all of us to enjoy while we spend the day hiking up the canyon ledges, playing bocce ball on the beach, Frisbee golf up the hills, or just sitting by the river reading books or writing in journals.
The camps have all been spectacular. This is our second cave camp, an added bonus when evening rains come, but every camp has been spectacular in its own way. We've played bocce ball and Frisbee golf on huge sand beaches, curled up in the shade of overhanging desert trees, rested against sheer canyon walls, soaked in river side hot springs, and had ample opportunities to take side hikes in the surrounding hills. The amenities of the Owyhee have impressed us, and this is a group that is not easily impressed.
"Cutting the Brake!" (River Rescue Part II)
When we reach the wrapped boat, all three of its crew members are standing on top of the house rock in the middle of the river. They signal that they're okay and smile sheepishly like kids caught making out in the back seat. Priority one is always the safety of the people and although these three boaters are stranded in the middle of the river above a series of nasty rocks and sieves, they're safe. Zach, Justin, and I relax a bit and begin making plans for getting our friends and the wrapped boat off the rock.
Hata assumes the role of team leader with grace, even though I'm sure he wants to get his hands dirty like the rest of us. As more group members make their way to the sight of the rescue, Hata assigns each of them a task. In quick order, all individuals are operating as a specialized team. The stranded boaters are ferried to shore and a z-drag is set up to unwrap the taco shaped boat.
The plan changes when the now unwrapped boat begins to be forced underwater by the tension of the upstream z-drag. The prussic brake is locked, and quick decisions have to be made in order to protect the safety of individuals. Justin begins yelling, "I'm cutting the brake! I'm cutting the brake!" With a flick of his knife he cuts the prussic and the tension in the system is released in a violent whine. The raft floats free. Everyone is safe. All equipment is accounted for and the only casualty is a broken spare oar.
At camp that night, we refer to the rapid as Trouble Maker. It's a reminder that all rapids have consequences and that in an instant things change on the river. I couldn't imagine a more qualified group of individual team members to be surrounded by when the inevitable unexpected happens and plans have to be changed in the heat of the moment. We sit around the campfire discussing the rescue and what we might do differently in the future - a conversation that revolves around minor details and personal preferences. We all agree that it was a success and on a deeper level I realize that this is why I love floating rivers - it's one of the only venues I've found where everything you do matters and where the payoff is memories and experiences and landscapes you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
I realize that at this moment I have everything I need and want in life. I've got a whole new set of stories to tell, I'm surrounded by great people, my belly is full of great food, there's a cold drink in my hand, and everywhere I look I see something I want to take a picture of - all courtesy of the Owyhee River