Upper Owyhee Trip Report (April 16 to 23, 2011)
Jason (Lynx II IK), Bubba (14’ Sotar Cat), Doug (12’ Sotar Cat), Kenny (15’ Aire Cat), Tom (13’ Sotar Raft), & Mark (11.5’ Aire Puma)
Photo. From Left, Doug, Kenny, Jason, Bubba, Mark, and Tom at the confluence of the East Fork and South Fork of the Owyhee River.
South Fork Owyhee (Pipeline Crossing) to Mainstem Owyhee (Three Forks), approximately 69 River Miles. This run starts in Nevada, passes through Idaho, and ends in Oregon.
I had been talking to my friend Mark about doing a river trip the week of April 16 in the upper Owyhee area (South Fork or East Fork). Other ideas included running the North Fork Crooked River in central Oregon, but there was too much snow to access, or possibly the Jarbidge/ Bruneau in Idaho. We both tried to coax some of our friends out on a trip, but no dice. Two people didn’t seem enough for any of these potential trips. I had a fall back plan to hit up Joseph Creek in northeastern Oregon with Brian until I read on the Idaho Whitewater Newsgroup that some folks from northern California were looking to launch on the upper Owyhee someplace on April 17. Perfect, so I emailed Doug and we exchanged phone numbers and eventually talked on the phone about a week out from the launch date. Doug was a great mellow guy on the phone and his 4 person crew were all highly experienced Class IV+ to V cat rowers, plus their friend Tom from Boise is a guide and had been on the upper Owyhee previously. Mark was on the fence as he had a Grand Canyon trip within 2 weeks after the planned take-out date, but eventually he was in (Mark also had run the upper Owyhee). Tom and Mark had both only run it at low flow.
1. Meet at the Rome launch site and camp out on 4/16 and drink beers and otherwise cause commotion.
2. Meet at Eva’s for the shuttle in her suburban (pulling a trailer) at 6:00 am on 4/17.
3. Get to put-in at Pipeline Crossing around lunch, rig and get on the water for some miles in the afternoon.
4. Take off late on 4/21 or early on 4/22.
5. I continue on to Pocatello for my Grannies 90th birthday party happening on 4/23
Everyone arrived at Rome on 4/16 and merry was made. Cocktails and beers were imbibed profusely as I became thorough acquainted with my new comrades. Dan (the BLM Ranger) is friends with Tom, and Dan came over to join the festivities and river discussions. Everyone was great and many stories of past trips indicated all were highly experienced in adventurous boating.
I was charged with wakeup call round 5:00 am on 4/17, which was no problem. Dan the BLM ranger made us coffee shortly after 5:00 am that morning. As we sat on the couch in the new BLM Rangers station sipping our hot black gold, we discussed the merits of the need for a potentially more formalized permit system for the lower Owyhee due to its ever increasing popularity.
We made it to Eva’s by about 6:10 am. We started loading all our gear into Eva’s rig, a suburban with trailer. The trailer was an old converted full size truck bed with high rack, and there was a fair amount of speculation whether we could get our 6 boats and 1,200 lbs of men plus shuttle driver into the rig. Mark and I packed light due to the fact that a lot of folks portage at Cable Rapid. We were concerned with the load that our new friends showed up with, dry boxes and coolers and all sorts of goodies. However, the trailer and suburban gobbled our river gear like a fat man at thanksgiving in about an hour, and we were off for Pipeline Crossing. The trip from Eva’s to Pipeline Crossing is about a 260 mile trip ±, mostly on pavement until shortly after passing through Owyhee (NV) for the final 40± odd miles to the river.
I sort of had a premonition of things to come on the shuttle drive. That morning, I put on my Carhartt overalls and work boots. Further indications of the impending situation were provided by the fact that Marvin was our shuttle driver. Marvin is probably in his 70s and has been driving shuttles to the upper Owyhee for Eva for a very long time. We discovered shortly after meeting, that Marvin played a prominent role in a story from 2001 (that I had read prior on the internet) of an epic 2 day sojourn in which a group from the University of Oregon’s Outdoor Program attempted to access the South Fork Owyhee, but were unsuccessful due to “poor” road conditions, eventually changing plans and running the middle Owyhee, launching at Three Forks.
“The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew.” – Robert Burns (1785)
1. The road in to Pipeline is basically a 2 track path out in the desert over clay substrate. When it gets wet it’s a slippery mess of the highest degree.
2. It was wet.
3. It got wetter as we traveled and it started to rain.
4. We got stuck the first time about 10 miles from the river (Photo 1), which was when we realized the shuttle driver had not looked over his boss’s rig before we left, and we had no high lift jack, no tire chains, and no shovel. The suburban was also in great need of new tires. We were high-centered and this was still on the good part of the “road” and before it became wet.
Photo 1. The good part of the “Road” before it became wet.
5. Luckily we had three Carlisle paddles, while much maligned as oars, do indeed make great shovels.
6. Several times proceeding on, we locked up the wheels and slid bumping and grinding down a steep muddy hill with the trailer bucking and swaying, somehow impossibly staying up-right.
7. Then it really started to rain and we got stuck on essentially flat terrain, with the nearly bald tires on our shuttle rig. With no chains, we were done about 4.5 miles from the river.
8. Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo
9. It was looking bleak and I know everyone was contemplating that we would be camping there that night for sure “kicking and a' gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer”.
10. We broke out some Miller Highlife (the new tall-boys with oversized dancing girls on the can) since the obvious was at hand, we weren’t going anyplace without chains.
The Angels Appear:
Somehow, Marvin managed a little cell service and called his son in Jordan Valley. Several partial conversations latter a message was relayed that the Duck Valley Indian Reservation fire-rescue boys were 4x4ing in to bring us some chains. Marvin and his son are on the search and rescue in the Jordan Valley area (OR) and they called in a favor (training mission) from the Duck Valley boys (NV). It took awhile, but the Duck Valley boys made it in with some chains, all-be-it several sizes too big. Some great work with Doug’s raft frame straps and they were stuck to our shuttle rig tires in no time and we were off to the river (Photo 2). The clay mud was so sticky it gripped on the outside of the chains making huge clay cookies on the outside of the tires twice as wide and nearly the same diameter as the tires. Bottom line, we made it to the river 14 hours after meeting at Eva’s that morning.
Photo 2. Kicking and a' gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.
We made camp the night of 4/17 at the put-in, and before hitting the rack, we put a stick at the water’s edge. The next morning the water was up over a foot higher. By the time we launched a couple hours later, our kitchen spot and Doug’s sleeping spot were nearly totally submerged. Normally at lower flows, there is a lot of slow flat water, but with the high flows things were moving along nicely (Photo 3). We had a fun time running Devil’s Pinball, a series of several Class IIIs over the first few miles downstream of Pipeline. They were all big-waterish fun Class IIIs.
We made camp that night in a sunny spot on a nice bench across from Coyote Hole and put another stick at the water’s edge; the next morning the stick was gone, and the water was up about 4 to 5 feet or so! The water’s edge was about 2 linear feet and 4 vertical inches from Kenny’s tent. My IK and Mark’s Puma were way out in the water and our tie-off was submerged. This is the day that the Rome Gage peaked at 18,000 cfs (flood stage is 10,000 cfs on the Rome gage). It was around 4,000 cfs (Rome gage) the night we got to put-in. On Day-2 we hit Sentinel Rapid, which was huge and long with big fun waves, especially paddling the IK. I had one small swim on another rapid due to a missed brace at a lateral wave, the only swim of the trip for anyone. All the guys on the trip have run the Grand Canyon multiple times, and there were several comments that the rapids were Grand Canyon like (big waves in muddy water).
We were surprised to meet a group from New Mexico (1 guy, 1 woman, 1 teenage kid, and 1 Chihuahua) camped just below Sentinel Rapid. The guy had a crazed look in his eye and made a very strange comment about us joining them for a “safety” meeting and wondering if we were “old enough”. We got a weird vide, especially after Tom made a comment about their clear lack of fire pan usage (in addition to their fire at that camp, we found remnants earlier that day of a fresh fire at their previous camp). A short, but boisterous discussion of this guy’s merits as a previous river ranger in New Mexico pretty much ensured the two groups weren’t going to be roommates anytime soon.
Photo 3. Camp upstream of Cabin Rapid day before the snowstorm.
We spent 5 nights on the river total and ran Cabin Rapid (one of 2 major rapids on the run) on day 4. We woke up that morning to a blizzard snow storm, no one was excited to get on the water, and there was serious talk of a lay-over day until Bubba took charge and kick us in the ass to get going. We were on the water around 1:30 pm. Anticipation built the entire trip as Cabin Rapid drew closer. This rapid is normally Class IV and with the high water, we could only speculate what we would find. The rapid is long, maybe >0.5 miles of fairly continuous busy water with a few runable lines at the high flow we encountered. We all scouted for about an hour or so. It looked very runable in the larger boats (still in the big water Class IV range), but Mark and I decided to line the first 100 yards or so with the IK and Puma to avoid some laterals that could potentially cause a flip, just being on the safe side. The lining was easy.
Photo 4. Upper Cabin Rapid, Kenny’s line (inset).
After lining, Mark and I both took a sneak route through the middle section via a rocky side channel on the left (Photo 5). The guys with the larger rigs ran it all on the left side of the main channel without much problem. The snow storm continued with vigor during the entire affair. The most exciting part was a gigantic pillow at the end of the Class IV section with the crux move being to ride up onto the huge pillow and slide off left around the giant boulder hugging the left shore, with a couple hundred yards of big-wave Class II+ to III run-out blow (Photo 6). The sneak route that Mark and I took avoided the pillow move, and we enjoyed the run-out wave trains.
Photo 5. Middle part of Cabin Rapid.
Photo 6. Huge pillow rock (right side of photo) at the end of the Class IV middle section of Cabin Rapid.
It was a little after 5:00 pm when we were all through Cabin, and luckily, there is a bitchin camp just downstream of Cabin Rapid on river right. Miraculously as we landed for camp, the skies cleared and the sun came out for a couple hours before it dropped below the hills (Photo 7). We were able to dry out and make an excellent camp.
Photo 7. Bitchin camp below Cabin Rapid.
Day 5 was Cable Rapid, reportedly Class IV+ to V at lower water. We had about 1.5 miles and 2 fun Class IIIs to run before the business at Cable was at hand. At lower water you have to make a drop through a slot, and then a very quick ferry left over very fast water to avoid a death sieve. At higher water there is a big-water line to the left through some very busy water and huge holes, but which avoids the death sieve problem (Photo 8 and 9). At higher water it was IV+ and the cat-boaters all styled the left line. Doug had the surf of his life in the big hole and somehow managed to keep upright with both oars; Kenny came by and made a planned clip of Doug’s tube, which kicked him free, then Kenny got a little surfed. Bubba made an essentially clean run (Photo 8 inset). We used the steel cable, rigged by Prince Helfrich many decades ago, to line the 13’ Sotar raft, Puma, and Lynx past the sieve, without too much trouble with all 6 people on deck to help (Photo 10). All said and done, no flips, pins or much problem at Cable Rapid. We had all 6 boats downstream of the rapid within less than 2.25 hours from leaving camp.
We also met 2 guys (of few words) at Cable Rapid that had come off an 8 day mission running the East Fork Owyhee starting at Duck Valley (they may also have indicated 12 days, but no one from our group is exactly sure what they said). Each was rowing about a 12’ raft. One boat was already downstream of Cable Rapid when we arrived. As we were lining our boats, they ran their second raft through, taking the river right run, dropping through the right slot, then quick ferry left of the death sieve and dropping through a second slot. The move looked easier than the bigger water river-left line our cat-boaters ran, but with significantly worse consequences if he missed the line. The guy made the run flawlessly. Everyone gave a head pat and thumbs up, we never saw them again. They were continuing on past Three Forks either to Rome or Leslie Gulch, we weren’t sure.
Photo 8. Scouting Cable Rapid, with Bubba on the edge of the Big Hole (inset).
Photo 9. The Big Hole in Cable.
Photo 10. Portaging the Puma and 13’ Sotar rafts using the cable.
That night, we made some miles and camped at a small warm springs on river right about 5.5 miles upstream from Three Forks (our take out). On our way there, Kenny and I were lagging back and hiked up to what we thought might be a good Indian cave. There was a small Black Angus bull (probably a yearling or so) standing at the cave entrance, and as we approached Ferdinand had other ideas. If it weren’t for a boulder in the way, the charging bull may have taken Kenny out. That would have made an interesting headline in the papers “Rafters run upper Owyhee at flood stage, but are taken out by bull”. Luckily my skills learned during summertime on the family farm kicked in; my best cowboy hollers scared the bull away. The next morning we woke at 7:00 am and were on the water by about 8:00 am, and made a couple miles to the most beautiful warm springs (Warm Springs Canyon) on river left (Photo 12). The warm creek was flowing clear around 5 to 10 cfs with bathtub water. There are a few great rocky and deep pools, with a final 15 foot water fall down to the Owyhee. A quick soak and we were off for a couple more miles to Three Forks.
Photo 11. Someplace below 5-Bar Ranch downstream of Cable Rapid.
Photo 12. Warm Springs Canyon soaking pool.
We arrived at Three Forks and the weather was clear and sunny. Marvin, our shuttle driver, showed up to drop off John Barkers monstrous 4x4 (they were out running the West Little Owyhee I believe, and would arrive later that day) and Marvin was picking up a rig from a group that was getting ready to launch on the Middle Owyhee that morning. Marvin related the rest of his story after he dropped us off at Pipeline. He threw 2 chains on the way out and spent the night in the suburban, making it out the next day. On the drive in, he said he was going to have a “talk” with Eva about the shuttle rig supplies and tires. The suburban had new tires latter that week while we were on the river. I must also point out that I have used Eva to shuttle my rigs on the Lower Owyhee for many years with no complaint. This time however, the lack of common preparedness was totally unexplainable and nearly killed our trip, if not for the greatly appreciated assistance of the Duck Valley boys.
Everything was loaded in my 2x Tacoma and Doug’s big diesel 4x4 in about 1.5 hours. The drive to the canyon rim was dry and un-eventful. Some sardines, anchovies and crackers at the rim, with cell phone calls to all of our significant others (as were a day late getting out) and a last barley pop and we were off back to civilization? We took the fork back to Rome; the flat up on top was fairly dry, but there were a lot of mud bogs. I followed Doug out (I did have a shovel, tow strap, and chains) but none were needed. I drove rally car style and surfed through all the mud holes no problem bolstered by a little barley flavored liquid luck. At a few of the longer bogs, the boys got out of the 4x4 to watch the rally car action. At Soldier Creek crossing, water came up to the hood on my Tacoma.
We parted ways at the pavement. I had to take Mark back to his rig at Eva’s house. However, when we got there, he had lost his keys, his only set of keys, they had recently lost the other set and hadn’t replaced yet. It was Saturday, and the key is an electronic affair that can only be made by a dealer. A key couldn’t be made until Monday and he needed the rig a week latter to head down to the Grand Canyon, but that is another story entirely. I’ll be back for sure next year at low water to see the upper Owyhee in an entirely different character. I am looking forward to many more trips with my new found friends. We already have a low-water bass assassin family trip planned on for the lower Owyhee coming up in June this year. The Owyhee Country once again served up a great trip, much to the liking of all involved.
Photo 13. Clear evidence that the Easter Island inhabitants migrated from the Owyhee Country.
After making it back home, I heard through the grape vine that a family we had met at the Rome put-in campground with small children ended up epic-ing on the lower Owyhee as we were having great fun on the upper river. From what I understand they ended up leaving their gear and hiking out near Rustler’s Cabin and being rescued after encountering the 18,000 cfs peak flow on the lower river. I find it strangely ironic how conditions can prove fun and enjoyable for some and yet, at the same time, nightmarish for others. The Owyhee Country is a harsh and unforgiving place, especially in the spring. I have been visiting the Owyhee for several years and encountered significant challenges, weather and otherwise, on every trip to this wondrous land. Conditions can change drastically from one day to the next, and even within the same day in the Owyhee Country. Be safe out there and plan accordingly.