Quick housekeeping note before you continue reading this post – I need you to make a promise. Promise me that you’ll not tell anyone about this special place. Promise? Okay, good. You may keep reading now. 🙂
They say that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. They also say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. While I mostly agree with those sayings, I think whoever “they” are never ran the Middle Owyhee river during a five day long hail storm. That all said, when we set out for a trip through Oregon’s Grand Canyon this past April, we had no idea how much fun we were going to have.
We rolled out from Bend in late April with dry bags full of gear, a cooler full of beer, and smiles on our faces in anticipation of the first river trip of the year. Well, at least for me. My copilot Lucas had just run the same 50 miles of the Owyhee River a few weeks before hand. He bragged of sunshine, beautiful hikes, starry nights, and endless adventure. His recollection of his adventure would mostly apply to our trip, too, but with a few changes thrown in for good measure.
To me, the Owyhee River was a place of legend. I had always heard of this magical place, designated as a Wild and Scenic river; the Owyhee is a tributary of the Snake River, beginning in Nevada, then making its way north along the Idaho and Oregon border before joining the Snake. Upriver from the Snake, however, the river runs wild, with flows only dictated by natural runoff. To those of you unfamiliar with rafting, this means that there are only a few times of the year when you can float the river, when flows are just right for boats to navigate this rocky, sometimes narrow river full of class II, III, and IV rapids.
We were meeting a group of others from Boise, as part of a trip with several like-minded outdoors brands. The trip was deemed “Adventure Outpost,” and an adventure it would turn out to be. We pulled in an hour late (note to those on Pacific Time, although the put-in for the river is in Rome, Oregon, they’re on Mountain Time), to find everyone waiting on us and ready to go. We quickly loaded up the rafts, handed out brand new Hydro Flask bottles to everyone, and pushed off with a goal of covering 50 miles of river in three and a half days. No big deal. Or so we thought.
When you raft a river, you generally let the water do most of the work. This leaves time for the important things, like drinking beers, making friends, telling stories, and taking in the sights. This was just how the trip began, with shining sun and smooth waters, paddling only to get a jump on the day in order to get to our first camp site with daylight to spare.
Then, just like that, the clouds started to appear, and a brisk wind picked up out of the north. Suddenly, as the water continued to flow downhill, we seemed to be floating upriver, despite the current. With another ten miles ahead of us, and only about four hours of daylight, we started to put some work in to the paddling. We hit our first real rapids just before camp number one, which made for a good test of our crew. We also quickly started making fun of the other raft who seemed to have a more carefree approach to the rapids. This proved to be fun throughout the remainder. Camp on night one found us at hike-out camp, where we were able to pull out boats up on a small beach before setting up camp, and cooking the first warm meal of the trip. Side fact here – food tastes better in nature. At least I think so.
A full moon lit the conversations in to the evening, but we soon drew tired from the day’s paddling. Knowing we had just three more days to get nearly 40 more miles down the river, we knew we had to rest up. We crawled in to our tents and drifted off to sleep, excited for the unknown that was ahead of us.
A light pitter patter of rain on the fly woke me the following morning. This is where you perfect the art of packing up your belongings in to a dry bag, and taking down your tent, all while staying as dry as possible. By the end of the week, I had this dialed. We packed up the boats, and shoved off for a 20 mile day on the river.
This is where I should tell you that Lucas and I found out our four day/three night trip was actually a three day/two night trip. As we paddled downriver, the headwind grew stronger. The clouds darker. The rain heavier. Suddenly, we were surrounded by thunder and lightning. Rain turned to hail (the kind that leaves welts), and the wind picked up from a steady 15-20mph, to somewhere north of 40mph. We were literally being pushed upriver by the wind. We tried everything, even resorting to having one of us jump on to the shore, attempting to pull the boat with a rope while the rest of us paddled. The only thing that kept us going was the promise of hot springs “just around the next corner.”
The weather never really did let up, but it made for some great memories. Waterproof clothing stopped being waterproof, but then, just as all hope was fading, up around that next corner, we saw steam rising from the hill side. The hot springs had arrived. We had never paddled so hard to reach the shore. Then, in an attempt to get on shore as quickly as possible, I tried to jump on to shore and pull the boat in. Only the spot where I jumped in the river was up to my chest. But that’s okay, I was going to go jump head first in to that spring.
And that’s the magical thing about hot springs. Just like that, as rain is pouring down and temps hover in the low 40s, we were the happiest bunch of people in the world. We were surrounded by the most majestic works of Mother Nature, the sulfuric water warming us to our bones. It was hard to get us out of those pools, but we knew we had to continue on. As we shoved back off, we finally got some reprieve in the weather. The clouds began to part, the sun came out, and we made our way in to one of the most beautiful sections of the river.
With walls shooting up thousands of feet from the river floor, I couldn’t help feeling like I was on a different planet. It was like Zion, only different. It was like Mars, only, well I don’t know what Mars is like. Whatever it was, it was breathtakingly beautiful.
We pulled up river right at the first campground we saw, about 20 river miles from the takeout, but with more promising weather surrounding us. After quickly setting up the tents, we busted out the packable, Tenkara Rods to see if we could land any fish for dinner. Spoiler alert, we didn’t. But at least we had fun trying. Most of the fish in this part of the river are small mouth bass, one of the most fun fish to catch, and perfect for these rods.
Rain welcomed us by the next morning, but hot coffee in the Hydro Flasks kept us warm for those first few miles. With our sights set on the birch creek takeout, we had a few more stops planned, one at Weeping wall, a natural spring for topping off on drinking water, and one more hot spring.
The rest of the trip was more of the same. More breathtaking sights, hot springs that were too hot, and of course, an epic hailstorm as we approached the take out. The guide books say that if it’s been raining, the road out of Birch Creek can be challenging. We’ll label that as an understatement. The shuttle service had delivered two of our vehicles to the takeout, a four-wheel drive truck, and a two wheel drive VW Bus. One of these had an easier time making it up the road than the other, but a few well placed tie downs helped to get us out alive.
I started planning my trip back to the Owyhee River the second I got off the river. This place is beyond magical, and I cannot wait to get back. Want to come with me?