Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Owyhee River

The Owyhee river is tucked deep in the SE Oregon desert and traverses what has been called some of the most remote terrain in the lower 48 states. I’m sure that there are some Montanans, Wyomingians, and even Utards who would argue with that distinction, but suffice to say that the Owyhee area is really rugged, remote, and wild (it's formally a Wild and Scenic river, of which Utah has unfortunately zero miles of!) and the river snakes through it for literally hundreds of miles; about 10 years ago a couple of friends and I did 220 continuous miles of it, making it nearly as long as the Grand Canyon.  Formally the drainage is 346 miles long, with a drainage area of 11,000 miles, which is bigger than Massachusetts (and not much smaller than Maryland), but because it’s high desert, the basin doesn’t get a ton of moisture.  It does run most years (and a bit earlier than most other snowmelt rivers, more like April/May rather than May/June), but has been pretty much dry for the last few years due to the drought.  But an average year yields average water, and to start out our 2.5 week trip “to California” (which originally was going to begin with skiing Nevada’s high point Wheeler Peak and then going to the eastern Sierra to ski those peaks!) we blasted up to paddle the mighty Owyhee, since a good remote,  self-contained kayak, multi-day river trip is about as soul-cleansing as anything there is. 

There are several sections to float, and we chose to do the Middle and Lower.  The Middle is typically referred to as the Widowmaker section due to the presence of a formidable rapid by the same name about halfway down the 37 mile portion, and the lower is from where it crosses highway 95 at the “hamlet” (even that term is a stretch) of Rome.  Below Rome is a 57 mile stretch that goes to a 52 mile-long reservoir created by the 1933 Owyhee dam that was created to irrigate the local potato growing areas. 
the river is highlighted in pink
Because Widowmaker is a class 5 rapid and the same boulders that create the rapid also make for a challenging portage, the Middle gets very little use, but the Lower  - being class 3, with great beach camps, a beautiful gorge, and hot springs – is pretty popular with rafters.  So we knew that we’d see almost no one for the first half of our trip and at least a handful later.  

For better or worse, we had a pretty uneventful trip:  the two class 4’s (the short Ledge rapid, just a ways down from the put in, and Half-mile, a longish rapid) above Widowmaker went well:
A nice little boof midway through Half Mile
and we violated typical rafter-type protocol by running Widowmaker late in the day, mostly so that the sun was well-positioned for a nice photo!
The move here is to come in hard from the side, because that looker's right side is fairly nasty.  I wasn't sure I could make it across to that center slot, and in three previous attempts at this rapid - over a 20+ year span! - I flipped upside down here....

But this time I made it clean, albeit at lower/easier flows.  
and as expected we saw no one for the first couple of days down to Rome, with great camps like this:

And lots of nice class 2's and 3's:
Ash given' er!
with some amazing canyon scenery:

We did a resupply in Rome:
Slim pickins for Rome beer, but was better than the mini-cans of Coors?  And I thought that Budweiser had recently cornered the market on Patriotic Swill by renaming themselves "America"?  
Clearly no place is too remote for wayward mylar balloons.....I hate those things! 
it's a bit hard to tell here, but that thing outlined against the sky is a sprinkler in the flatlands near Rome that was doing a pretty good job of exclusively sprinkling.....the river!  
The river itself runs pretty silty, but there are some nice springs along the way
Utah clearly doesn't have the corner on the market of nice river scenery! 
Everyone hopes for that perfect opportunity when you find a cave/overhang camp just as it starts to rain.....and that's what we got!
The Green Dragon Gorge is a several-mile long canyon near the end of the run that has 2000 foot walls of basalt; even in the basalt-rich Northwest, this is pretty unusual, and really stunning. 
The gratuitous artsy shot, channeling my inner Colter....
More awesome drinkable riverside springs
This is the end of the gorge, where the walls back off a bit and you're able to hike up the steep hills. 

Coupla folks stoked to be on the rio.
And a guy who thinks he's hilarious....
We were stoked to get on the river when we did; the flow was dropping by the day and just a few days later it got generally "too low".   A great start to our "California Trip!"  The next stop:  skiing Mt McCloughlin, about halfway between Klamath Falls and Medford......

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