Join Date: Apr 2019
East Fork Owyhee in a raft: Fear and Boating on the loneliest river in the lower 48
I am fascinated with the Owyhee. Every spring I look forward to high flows and hope to escape the snowy Tetons for a high desert river. Ive been down the Middle and Lower a few times and had a blast, but I've been intrigued by the upper sections, especially the East Fork. It seems to be the pinnacle of the Owyhee experience. Seldom run in rafts, super remote, fickle, hard to access, with difficult portages. Duck Valley to 3 forks was the goal, and I knew it would be a tough way to dust off the cobwebs for my pasty pale snowboarder ass.
Finding the right crew was the most difficult part. I had to find someone with a 13 footer who likes to portage(a lot), plenty of skills, and a sense of humor.My buddy Jake fit the bill. We had run the middle stretch 2 years ago and he was a great asset. He expressed interest in the East Fork although I don't think he really knew what he was getting himself into.
I knew that to get a raft down the East Fork, especially from Duck Valley required high water. This years snowpack looked good and we both could take time off since there is nothing going on around here after the ski hill closes besides a lot of drinking and bitching.
The weather the first half of April down there was shit, so we waited for April 16. We lucked out with mostly sunny good temps. We set up a shuttle with a woman named Judy and her husband Alan. They had never been to Duck Valley, but promised they would get us to the put in. We met in Bruneau so we didn't have to drive all the way to Jordan Valley. This allowed us to leave Victor at 7 am and actually launch around 4pm!
We decided to go light but not completely. Jakes new boat is heavy to begin with and takes on water due to a bunk floor design. Im not going to name the company but we named the boat the "Josey Wales" which should be a clue. Although we brought backpacking meals, we also brought a ton of snacks and a well stocked bar. There was no way I was going into that vast wilderness without a bunch of food and booze. Also, I figured a portage around Owyhee Falls is bad enough, without something to drink afterwards it would be downright hell.
The clouds were breaking up in Duck Valley as we set up the boat and launched at 4pm with the intention of camping about 8 miles in. For the first 2 miles the river was placid as it meandered through a quaint marshy valley. Soon we approached the canyon mouth which is one of the wildest entries into a canyon I have ever seen. The river literally flows right into a chasm in the ridge, the beginning of the vast canyon of the Owyhee.
Immediately the whitewater begins. The BLM map says class III+ so I was undaunted. I thought the flows were enough for the 13 foot Josey Wales, and things would be closer to class III.
Ha Ha. The joke was on me. I was soon picking between one barely doable line and something unrunable between a gauntlet of jagged basalt boulders choked by willows on both sides. The canyon itself was stunning with small waterfalls pouring off the rim, but the river demanded all of my focus. It was more of a descent than a float, as the horizon dropped away in a series of long drops. There were a few eddies to catch my breath, and a few times I would stuff the boat into the willows to stop and read the water. Overhead, Air Force jets were on maneuvers punctuating the roar of the water with sonic booms. They were dropping flares on exercise. I actually wished they would drop some napalm on the willows which are a huge nuisance, or some HE on the boulder chokes which were calling for me to dig deep into my bag of rowing tricks. Half the time my oars were shipped, other times they were grabbed by willows. We got stuck a few times, but wiggled the boat off. I kept waiting for things to calm down and get easier, but they actually got more difficult.
So on we went crashing down the canyon through slots and pour overs. My wetsuit became a sweatsuit. By the way, Jake brought a paddle which was extremely helpful in fending off rocks and willow tangles.
Finally, around 7pm I spied a cool little camp complete with Juniper trees, grass and plenty of firewood. We eagerly set up my firepan and drank some beers while the sun set.
There was evidence that intrepid people had camped here before. There was a old rusted coffee can with two rusty coffee cups hidden in the rocks behind the camp, plus an old wire attached to a piece of wood.
Next morning frost coated everything. The sky was blue however, which was a good thing since we planned on going all the way through Garat Gorge. Garat seemed to me to be one of the crux challenges of the whole trip, and well, I was right.
But first, there is another Gorge that isn't on the map! it was absolutely spectacular and felt like we were floating on Mars or somewhere otherworldly. There are however, a scattering of class2-3 bouldery rapids in there that aren't marked on the map.
As the walls of Garat closed in, I was overcome with anxiety. Would there be enough water to run the rapids? or did we have some epic portaging ahead?
You guessed it. Our first move was pushing and shoving the boat over a low boulder obstruction. Next was "Pipeline" which I've seen run in videos, but not for us that day! the problem? a saw blade like rock in the narrow slot which looked like it would slice us in half like a cartoon. The portage wasn't bad - only about 30 minutes. Then came "Raft Bridge".
The flows were too low to run it.To portage would require rock climbing rope work We got creative and figured out why it is called raft bridge. The funny shenanigans and strenuous moves worked.
Next were a few rocky narrow rapids which I would rate class3, but since I couldn't really get my oars in the water 4 might be the call. One of us had a brief scary swim, but made it through unscathed. Another class 3-4 and I thought we were through. Again, the joke was on me!
"Heartbreak Hotel" isn't my favorite Elvis song nor my favorite Owyhee rapid. Once again the medium flows weren't enough to provide a safe line through the myriad of boulders and rocks. It looked like another portage until, I spied a good way to line the boat down.
All went well until the final boat wrangling caused Jake to Fall and smash his leg on said rocks.. He was bummed but the adrenaline kicked in and the euphoria of having escaped Garat buoyed our spirits.
At Garat crossing there is a BLM register so i signed in. A famous guide and 2 clients had put in there the week before in kayaks. They were the only ones so far. Below the crossing we spied some Bighorn sheep high on the cliffs above. It was amazing to watch as they nonchalantly scrambled up what looked like 5th class terrain.
We camped a little ways down in a huge amphitheater of rock. We broke out the Absinthe to celebrate. The almost full moon came up and we sat around looking at all of the crazy faces and shapes in the rock walls and shadows. Jakes leg felt better with each sip, and my anxiety faded.
The next morning Jake expressed his discomfort with his leg. Sure enough it was quite swollen between the ankle and knee. This concerned me greatly since Owyhee falls was 30 miles down and would require a lot of use of his leg. He seemed a little doubtful. I pointed out that if we needed to, now was the time to walk out since it would only be about 20-30 miles instead of something like 60 at Owyhee falls. He decided that floating would be easier on it.
The next day was incredibly scenic. The canyon of the East fork is stupendous and eerie. The pesky willows clogged the banks in some spots, but the vistas were ever-changing and compelling. We stopped at the Thules which provided an easy hike to an amazing panorama. Somewhere up there is an ancient hunting blind in a strategic location, testimony of the earlier inhabitants of the canyon.
We kept going past a few choice campsites until I found a sandy one across from a prominent creek. After 5 months of winter I needed a beach to sink my pallid toes in. Unfortunately there was an armada of mosquitos, night drove them away as we started in on the nalgene full of whiskey and busted out the box wine to compliment our mountain house spaghetti and meat sauce. That night the stars and full moon were nothing short of phenomenal!
Across the river was an old stone ruin. There was also some very old, heavy iron farming implements! How in the hell did they get that stuff there? A testament to the fortitudeof the old homesteaders.
We startled some Elk at Rickerts crossing which is a glorified goat path to the water, and then we dropped into Lambert Gorge.
Of all the gorges on the river, it is probably my favorite. Beautiful, stark, imposing, claustrophobic, it heightened our sense of isolation. First there is a rapid called "Boulder Jam" class 3. Cmon man! Are these really rapids? Where are the haystacks and holes? As the name implies its just another rocky obstruction. The line was on the right and felt more like spelunking than rafting!
Since Owyhee falls was coming up, I was being extra observant for a good campsite. The nice thing about there being just the 2 of us meant that we could make do with small spots. We found a really cool one complete with a sandy spot between Junipers, and a flat grassy spot for the tent and of course, magnificent views. Since the portage of Owyhee Falls was going to be in the morning, and it appeared that the weather was changing, we decided to lighten our load and consumed our bottle of tequila and limes that night while relishing in the glory of the river. Some hilarious stories were told around the fire, and our optimism elevated the whole situation.
Owyhee Falls. I love it. It is the main reason that the East Fork is seldom run. To be sure, its a sumbitch but as the adage goes "if it was easy.."
It sure aint. At first, we thought we would use the traditional path up and left and along the hillside. Are you frigging kidding me? With our raft, dry box and cooler? We would still be there! Instead we opted for the right side which involved a laborious, tricky and somewhat dangerous excursion up and over giant boulders and tilted talus. It worked. In a couple of hours we had the boat in a tiny eddy rigged and ready to go. One problem: go where? We had two choices and they both sucked.
My original plan was to stay along the right wall and shimmy the boat through a narrow s-turn slot. It looked like the boat would get stuck for sure, but then we would be along the side of the river and be able to maybe take out the heavy gear and move the boat again-into the next narrow choke of rocks. Jake liked door #2 which involved a tremendous ferry move out of the eddy, into the raging current and through a gap between 2 boulders. Since I had been rowing this whole time, I knew our vessel. She was heavy, clumsy and hard to move. It was however, Jakes boat, and the idea of getting it pinned in the rocks that he didn't want me to run made me go against my original judgement.
Off we went! I managed a few solid backstrokes into the current. I felt good. I thought I had it.
Ha ha. once again the Owyhee had me played. as i pulled into the slot the current slammed us broadside into the bottom rock, and uh, well, the boat flipped.
It seemed more like a car crash as I was fully ejected . i came up and looked for Jake but couldn't see him. I faced feet first downstream just in time to go into a large-ish hole which took me under briefly. When I came up I saw Jake, my hero, who was grabbing the boat! We had wetsuits and helmets on and were both fine. We pulled the boat ashore and in 5 minutes had it handled. (flip lines work great).
I really had rigged to flip, so we lost nothing except, to my chagrin, a small bag of extra straps. I swear I clipped em in but more than anything, I hate to litter on such a pristine river.
That was only my second raft flip. Interestingly it didn't sting my pride like the first one. The water felt really good and had washed away all the sweat and anxiety of the portage. We were safe and done with Owyhee Falls, and our gear was dry.
We found a kick ass camp a few miles down with a big gravel bar, and some eerie Junipers. Even though it was early, the weather was moving in so we figured it would be as good as spot as any. On the beach where we pulled the boat in, some joker (the guided party?) had left a mini canoe carved out of wood...WTF? There were also a few other human signs including some broken glass(!) a AAA battery and a couple of unused hand warmers. I guess that the party before us was traveling so light that they couldn't haul out this garbage. We did.
We set up the tarp and the rain moved in. I took a nap while Jake had a beer. IT got really windy that night, and we sipped on the Canadian Whiskey to ward off the cold. Right before bed , it started to snow big wet flakes. What would an Owyhee trip be without some snow?
The next morning was cold and blustery. We took our time and even considered a layover, but by 10 or so the sun was coming out so kept on truckin. Next stop : "Thread the Needle"(IV+).
Ha Ha.. Another typical East Fork piedra-pile. Not too bad however. We dispatched the portage in about 30 minutes and then ran the class III runout which was actually fun.
Then came a "series of class 3" which left me wondering who in the hell rated the rapids up here? To be sure, there was some maneuvering and a little splashiness, but nothing more than class 2 in my book.
Then came the upriver winds that are ubiquitous on any section of the Owyhee. Due to the meanderings of the East Fork however, these same winds became downriver around each new bend.
Soon we came to Crutcher Crossing. Since we hadn't seen another human for 6 days I was actually hoping to see someone-anyone, to talk to or talk shit on. Nobody was there. Akthough the road in looked pretty wild and the old homestead (mostly burnt) included a new-ish metal grain silo. Meth lab perhaps?.
We kept on going to the confluence of the South Fork which in a canyon full of spectacular-ness, was impossibly even more spectacular. We ended up camping at a spot which I will say is probably the single greatest campsite on a river that i have been fortunate to camp at and that includes two Grand Canyon trips. Once again it was small, but all of the elements of a great campsite were included. We pulled out the vodka that night and howled at the moon rising over a convoluted rim of pinnacles and spires.
For the first time on the trip, the water came up a foot or so. I think the South Fork was adding a lot of snow melt and muddiness.
The character of the river immediately changed. It became wider with bigger pools while the canyon itself somehow became even grander.
There were a couple of gut-less rapids (House Rock, Bald mountain) but maybe I was just jaded at that point. Our goal that day was to camp before Cabin rapid. We rolled up on the eponymous cabin above the rapid where surprisingly there were 5 cows grazing! No people though, and our thoughts of fresh steak were dashed as we realized we were rolling into the first part of the long class IV rapid.
I scouted and ran the first part which was interesting and required a few strong moves. We then landed so I could scout the next long section which culminates with "Thunder Rock".
I left Jake with the boat and scrambled over a high water channel which had a little water. Downstream I could see water exploding into the air around Thunder Rock. The roar of the rapid was loud and un-nerving. Then the main rapid presented it to myself.
Shit.. I knew right then and there that we were going to portage....again! Why? its just a class IV? people in duckies run it! Heres the deal. Cabin was the first big water, big consequence rapid I had seen yet. The boat I was rowing was marginal. It was late in the afternoon and we still had 20 miles to go. I hadn't come this far to wreck the boat (or ourselves) and walk out.
The rapid sweeps right in a series of large Grand Canyon style waves up against a cliff. Similar to Granite Rapid. At the bottom you need to pull very hard left to get around Thunder Rock which looked like it would destroy a boat and flush a human down a toilet to hell. I know some people have stayed right and snuck through the rocks. But they weren't rowing the Josey Wales. I spied an inside sneak that kind of looked like Dubendorff on the Grand, but it was beset by numerous rocks and holes that would surely throw me off my line. Another boat, another crew another day? Maybe. But not that day for me.
I conveyed the bad news to Jake who was slightly miffed. Once he saw Thunder Rock though, he understood. The good news was there was a cool camp to the left with a rock shelter and a spot for 1 tent! we could portage the boat and be all set for the morning.
It was a gorgeous camp. We plowed into the better half of the boxed wine and I think Jake realized that we had made a good call. After all we were fed, buzzed and comfortable instead of wrecked, cold, walking, or sent to Davey Jones Locker!
So the next morning we packed up, rigged up and charged into the classIII runout. We now faced our last major challenge of the trip: Cable rapid.
Of all the wonders of the Owyhee canyon Cable Rapid stands out as a marvel. It is a marvel to behold, and a wonder to think, how in 1951 two bold, intrepid fishing guides (Pruitt and Helfrich) contrived, and completed the stringing of a heavy cable in just the right spot to facilitate the portaging of wooden drift boats around the maelstrom of rock and water that blocks the river. True, at high water there are a couple of lines around the nastiness, but not at the flows we had! Hooray for the cable!
which is almost 70 years old, weighs a shitload and was somehow transported and strung up in the right spot.
First I had to crash the boat into some shallow rockiness and then line it into the right eddy. I whipped out my pulleys from my z-drag kit and Jake went to work. His mechanical mind figured out the best way to rig the whole shebang and soon we had the boxes and gear cabled over to the put-in eddy. Next came the boat, which by the way wasn't exactly easy but was way easier than carrying the god damn thing. It was all over in 2 hours.
With a great sense of relief we were on our way down the last section of river. We weren't exactly patting ourselves on the back yet, but we knew we just had to enjoy the last stretch of our trip.
We set up our last camp in a rad little spot across from the West Little Owyhee. Our sense of accomplishment soon became melancholy as we realized our trip was over. We had lived day to day, challenge to challenge for 8 days and now we were almost finished. We pounded the last of our booze and wine, giddy but anxious about returning to civilization.
Our final day was amidst glory of rock and nature. We pulled in at the famous Sniveley warm springs which are luke warm but refreshing. It felt good to soak but our anxiety grew.
And so we pulled into Three Forks where we saw the first people we had seen in 9 days. they offered us a beer which was bitter sweet. We took our time packing up the boat and drove with trepidation back into the forest of civilization.
The shock of Boise was dulled by beers and mexican food. Jake decided to drive on through while I played classic metal albums to ensure we stayed awake. He dropped me off around 1 am. i took a long hot bath and pondered everything. We did it! and we did it in our own style. For several nights afterwards I woke up in the middle of the night thinking that I was still in the canyon, the walls of my room were walls of rock, and the shadows were dark glimpses back to that place that had engulfed us for days.