Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Owyhee Canyonlands River Rafting - Wild & Scenic Life

What started off as a random decision to go see our friends Adam and Susan Elliott kick off a 2 year rafting journey at Base Camp Brewing in Portland turned into a 7 day adventure that we will never forget.  65 miles of rafting over 6 days through what is known as the Grand Canyon of Oregon.  We saw a lot of wildlife including antelope, raptors of all varieties, and a great horned owl.  Jason V was kind enough to let us take his 15’ raft and I guided the entire trip with Ryan and Emily on the boat.  We ate well, drank well, and saw some of the most beautiful scenery this state has to offer.  Read on for the story and more photos.

This trip began on April 11th when I joined Ryan Anderson and Ira at Base Camp to watch Adam and Susan kick off a 2 year journey to boat as many Wild and Scenic designated rivers in the United States.  This was to raise awareness for protecting our waterways, especially under the current administration, as well as a celebration of the 1968 Wild & Scenic Act which lead to the protection of so many beautiful rivers in our country.  They will be traveling around the country living out of an old RV for the next two years!  Truly, an amazing couple.  

When we got our chance to chat with them I mentioned that I was planning on floating the Owyhee probably over Memorial Day.  Susan’s response was “we are doing it as one of our first official rivers for this journey in about a week.. you want to come with us?”…. shocked I said I doubted it with Emily’s work schedule but to my shock when Emily showed up to join me she said she could pull it off and Ryan said he was 100% in as well!

With a bit of planning, borrowed gear, a lot of grocery shopping and a big bottle of Pendleton we loaded up the truck a week later on Thursday the 20th and headed out for the very long 8 hour drive to Rome, OR where we would be putting in along with 11 others.  It was a beautiful drive through Central Oregon.  We stopped at the wonderful Ochoco Brewing Company in Prineville for lunch where I had one of the best french dip sandwiches I’d ever had. 

From there it was onward into the vast high desert of Central Oregon where you could drive 5 miles without seeing a single tree.  I had forgotten just how big this country was.  This is a part of the Northwest where it feels like you can actually see the curvature of the earth in front of you.  Adding to the dramatic landscape was sporadic rain storms on the horizon that we could see for hours before actually driving through them.  

In 2007 when I started with the Geography Department at OSU we toured around Oregon and we had made it all the way out to the Steens mountains but this time we were going even further  into the Southwest corner of the state.  So far, that we even entered a different time zone while still within Oregon.  Emily and Ryan didn’t believe me at first until we actually passed the sign into Mountain Time!  Along the way we saw huge flocks of Oregon Snow Geese outside of Burns, OR and small groups of antelope amongst the big leaf sage bushes that Ryan and Emily helped point out to me.  As we dropped down into a Basin just east of of Steens Mountain we could still see snow on the summit.

We arrived in Rome around 7:30pm mountain time and we filled up the truck with gas at the lone gas station there.  If I were to bet I would guess the population of the town would be about 50 people, max.  This is a part of the country where you feel like you just traveled back 50 years in time.  Hand pump gas stations with several hundred miles between each one, everyone looks like a rancher, and there is a deep-rooted anti-government feeling.  A very red part of the State of Oregon.  

We were there to raft the Owyhee River and celebrate land preservation by the Federal Government through acts such as the 1968 Wild & Scenic which designated so many wilderness waterways but there were clear signs everywhere against the creation of an Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument which had been proposed before the current administration took office.  Looks like the locals got their wish.

When we arrived at the put-in we unloaded all our gear while Wilma and Dick cooked a delicious first meal for us of a thick lentil soup with bread and sides.  I hooked up Susan and Adam’s Trailer to my truck for the shuttle in the morning and we all huddled up to discuss plans for the first day of the trip.  We enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the river while eating dinner and broke out the whiskey to help us get a good nights sleep.  There was a full sky of stars as we settled into our tents for the cold night, wrapping Leo up in his own sleeping bag and pad to keep him warm on the possibly cold trip.  As I drifted off to sleep one thought prevailed in my mind… had we ever agreed on what time zone we should all be thinking in…..

I awoke at 4am mountain time for the shuttle.  It was still pitch black out under a starry sky as I wandered over to the truck with a bag of chocolate covered pretzels as my breakfast for the 4-5 hour shuttle to Birch Creek.  Soon it was 4:15am and I had seen no other lights.  Clearly I was the only one who was in the correct time zone so I put on a movie on my iPhone, reclined my seat and waited… Around 5am my time everyone else woke up at 4am “their time” and headed out of Rome through Jordan Valley towards the take-out at Birch Creek.  I led the way towing the trailer with 3 trucks following me - Don, Eric, and Mike.  

It was a beautiful drive complete with foggy valleys, lots of cows in the way along the backroad to honk at and of course big, beautiful scenery.  The descent down into Birch Creek was super steep with tight turns and a signed warned that it was dangerous and slippery when wet.  Thankfully, we had blue skies as we were headed down to the river.  Leaving my truck there we all jumped into Eric’s truck and headed back.  Unfortunately, his truck started to make a very odd rumbling noise so we had to stop in Jordan Valley to have a mechanic give us his opinion which amounted to, “just go for it man” and to get it looked at after our trip.  Crossing our fingers we continued on to the put in where we found everyone up and loading the rafts… along with a ton of other people!  I even found out that good ol’ Tim Nortz was on the river ahead of us but only doing a 3 day trip.

It wasn’t until about 1pm that we got on the river for our short float towards our first camp site.  We crossed under a few road and rail bridges but soon found ourselves leaving the farmlands and entering into small canyons.  We floated past cliffs covered in clay swallow nests, saw magpies and various raptors soaring above us or hanging out in the bare branches of trees yet to sprout leaves.  We stopped for lunch at a quiet bend in the river and I got some photos as Ryan, Adam and Susan climbed up a small ridge of a beautiful cathedral of rock towering above the river.  

Dick and Wilma again provided a great lunch for us.  These two were the parents of Eric on the trip and they clearly had been rafting their whole lives and had a very efficient system down.  If you could imagine a utensil at home I’m pretty sure they had a version of it on the trip.  Once again, Emily and I were in awe at the amount of gear you can take on a rafting trip compared to a mountaineering trip.

Back on the river we enjoyed a leisurely float down very calm waters to our camp a few miles downriver.  Along the way we saw some very cool looking American Pelicans with very unique knobs of bone atop their beaks which I had never seen before.  We also saw a sharp-shinned hawk which was new for me as well as a ton of Canadian Geese which stood like sentinels along the cliffs of the river or on the shore every quarter mile for the remainder of our trip, honking at us as we floated by.  

Because there were so many other rafters on the river as us the first day and our late start we had a tough time finding a legit campsite and ended up in a pretty tight spot along the shore.  Unfortunately, this also meant that we were setting up our tents amongst newly sprouting poison oak stalks…. Emily, Ryan and I survived without too much damage but it wreaked havoc for poor Thomas for the rest of the trip whose tent was right next to the worst of it…

We had a relaxing first evening on the river with Sparky on guitar, and a nice fire along the shore of the river.  Susan and Adam made an amazing meal of fresh fish and shrimp burritos and of course Wilma had snacks for us around the fire.  After being up since 4am I was beat and slept like a log with Leo as usually stretching out in the tent and pushing Emily and into the tent walls… Typical.  

We had a very relaxing Saturday morning with a great breakfast of sausages, eggs, etc from Susan and Adam again before packing up and getting on the river around 12:30pm.  We then had a huge 8 hour day of rafting and were all exhausted before… kidding.  We got on the boats and floated about 15-20 minutes through one bend in the river before pulling over at an expansive campsite and calling it a day!  ha!  Strategically, this was the right move as it allowed the “weekenders” to get further up the river than us who were taking our time which meant better campsites would be open to us on future nights.  

Getting to camp early allowed us to go for a short hike to the rim of the canyon we were now in.  We weren’t yet in the deep part of the Owyhee Canyon so it only took us about 20 minutes to scramble up the hillside for a spectacular view down to the river below.  Leo and I actually both fell asleep in the warm sunshine at the top of the hike for a little while.  When we got back to the campsite we then had all afternoon to relax.  This of course meant that we also had all afternoon in the sun to drink… To be completely honest, I have no idea what Mike and Morgan cooked for us that evening but I remember it being delicious.  I also have a vague memory of two Sheriffs pulling up on an oar boat to check our permits which Mike, Sparky, and Dick took lead on providing to their satisfaction.  

After a delicious breakfast from Mike and Morgan again we hit the river Sunday morning for a longer day of floating.  Today we saw northern harriers, more sharp-shinned hawks and of course geese as we progressed deeper into the Owyhee Canyonlands.  We stopped briefly at a natural spring to fill up big water jugs we had brought with fresh, safe-to-drink water.  We also floated past a couple hot springs on the side of the river before reaching our amazing camp site around 1pm after about 3 hours on the river.  Words can’t express how amazing this camp site was.  Right behind our tents was a natural cathedral of colored rock, similar to what is seen in the painted hills of Oregon.  On the other side of the river was a vast, dark lava flow spilling over the canyon wall and just upstream were the hot springs we had recently passed.  Paradise.

But.. this was my day to be hungover.  Too much sun and too much whisky the day before led me to go lie down in the tent for a while and chill with an iPad movie for a couple hours slipping in and out of naps while watching it.  When I emerged from the tent a few hours later and heard from Ryan and others that they had spotted a great horned owl hiding in the towers of rock behind our site I experience the worst case of FOMO (fear of missing out) I’ve ever had.  

Hastily packing up all my camera gear in a daypack Emily, Leo and I hustled out of camp up to to the towers of colorful rock to hunt for the owl to no avail as the sun began to set and clouds began to move in.  I ended up snapping some amazing photos but wound up walking back to camp without any owl shots, extremely disappointed in my luck and my decision to drink so much the night before.  Not again… the rest of the trip I would focus on photography and keep the whisky to a minimum!

That night we had a wonderful dinner of pesto pasta from Eric and Kerr, fresh baked brownies, and campfire songs from the amazing duo of Eric and Mike while sitting around a fire built under a big tarp to protect us from random showers that were beginning to blow through.  By then I was feeling much better and actually turned in a bit early with Leo to make sure I was wide-eyed and bushy tailed for adventure photography the next day.  As a group we decided just before I headed in that we would take a layover day the next day.  This was great news as it meant I could get up early for photography and explore the scenery.

When I opened my eyes on Monday I was disappointed to realize it was pouring out.  So much for dawn-patrol photography…. Thankfully, the storms rolled through and by 10am everyone was up, eating breakfast and watching as glimmers of blue sky began to poke through the clouds. Emily, Ryan and I geared up for the short hike up to the rock formation so Ryan could help me spot the owl.  We couldn’t find it at first but after I had climbed up to the top and walked the narrow ridge for some amazing panaramas of the surrounding landscape I was able to spot it on the way down, hiding in some shadows between the pillars of yellow, orange and red rock.  

Ryan headed off to the other side of the small side canyon to explore while I set up the tripod and 900mm lens to grab some great shots of my favorite bird species looking wisely down at us from the rocks above.  Most bird species spook easily but I’ve found with owls that they simply don’t scare easily.  I was able to stumble up the crumbly rock slope to a position where I could just capture it around the curvature of the rock columns which helped conceal it for hunting prey.    It is always amazing to me to when I can look through a lens and watch a majestic creature such as this great horned owl stare back at me, winking occasionally, totally unconcerned by my nearby presence.  It turned out to be an amazing morning for both photography and time-lapse cinematography of our campsite.  

After eating some lunch Susan, Adam, Ryan, Emily, and I along with the dogs Wallace and Leo headed upstream about a mile to the hot springs we had passed for a warm dip.  The main one was already filled with naked rafters so we headed a bit further to one Sparky had pointed out to us.  This one was smaller but just the right size for the 5 of us.  I set up a time-lapse to capture the clouds soaring by upstream from us while we took a 20 minute dip.  Having a hot tub at home we are a bit spoiled and the muddy bottom of the spring kicked up a lot of mud into us along with mushy algae coming down the rocks.  So, to truly get clean it required a dip in the frigid river which we all forced ourselves to endure!  Cold!… but after we felt much cleaner for doing it.  

When we made it back to the camp only Wilma and Dick were there and they clearly had been through it… One of the camp chairs was completely burnt through, a tarp was down and the scene looked like a small disaster.  Apparently a strong wind and rain storm had blown through and knocked everything over, including the chair into the fire!  We all set about helping erect it all again with bigger rocks and more paddles and soon had everything protected again.  

That night was our night to cook so I pulled out the 6 pounds of raw hamburger meat, boxes of elbow noodles, and zip lock bags of onions and peppers to make my dad’s goulash recipe.  It was fairly easy to make and the giant wok that we had toted along on the trip thus far made a great meat browning tool (worth taking it along).  By the time we had everything simmering in two huge pots my arm was exhausted from stirring so much food and I realized I had made probably twice the amount I had needed to!  Everyone really seemed to enjoy it and we ended up with several big tupperware containers filled with leftovers for when we got home.

That evening Ryan, Emily and I took it easy hanging out by the fire with Dick, Wilma, Sparky and Don who all had truly amazing stories to tell us of their long lives rafting amazing rivers.  The others decided it was a perfect night for a booze cruise in the eddy just offshore of our camp.  They all loaded up into a raft, whisky bottles in hand for some relaxing circles of spinning around in the eddy and drinking.  Having promised myself not to go overboard again I was happy to have a relaxing night by the enjoying “Gandolf” with Ryan and the others by the fire before heading to bed, listening to Don chuckling in the tent behind us.

I awoke Tuesday at dawn to blue skies and perfect opportunity for some great photography as the sun broke the rim of the canyon and lit up the cathedrals of rock behind us in brilliant color.  I ran around with my tripod, long lens, and wide-angle action cam to catch all the beauty before I lost the warm glow of the rising sun.  For breakfast Emily broke out her pre-made breakfast burritos and easily heated them up over the grill to the delight of everyone.  We then broke down the campsite and Emily and Ryan took lead on getting our raft strapped down what would turn out to be the most amazing day of rafting I’ve ever experienced.  

We hit the river at about 10:30 am floating first by Chalk Basin which looked exactly like The Painted Hills of Oregon.  The colorful layers of rock on the eroding hillsides were stunning.  As we left camp we could see the full expanse of the lava flow on the opposite side of the river as well.  Of course this was hundreds if not thousands of years old but it was still fresh enough to darken the hillside without enough soil within it to support plant life.  

An hour and many photos later we found ourselves drifting into the deepest canyon of the Owyhee Canyonlands called “Iron Point Canyon”  Many people call this the Grand Canyon of Oregon and I can see why.  With the exception of Mike who had rafted this a few times as a guide and Dick and Wilma whom had been here 20 years ago, this was all completely new to us and we were in sheer awe at the beauty and size of the canyon.  The walls on either side towered into the sky above us, easily several thousand feet in places.  We felt tiny, we felt insignificant in this landscape.  It was a humbling feeling.  I couldn’t take photos fast enough. :)

This was also the section of river with the only significant rapids (III) that we would encounter on the trip.   The first one was called “Whistling Bird” where a debris fan on the left forces the river right into a big rock slab that has fallen off the cliff above.  With the higher flows of late April this wasn’t too bad for us but with only two paddlers on our raft (we were the only paddle raft) we ended up bumping the slab slightly as we went by it.  Not really too dangerous and Ryan got a big hearty laugh out of it.  

The other rapid is called Montgomery (class III as well) and we reached it after our lunch break.  It is the most challenging drop of the section and involves navigating through a tight constriction of the river while avoiding rocks below on the left that could be trouble.  Again, at the higher flow it wasn’t too bad but we still took the time beforehand to scout this one out with me filming everyone going through before we jumped in and ran it ourselves.  

Sparky in his drift boat looked really cool going through the rapids, pulling big “wheelies” in the craft as most of the weight in it was towards the back allowing the bow to really come out off the water on big rollers.  We paddled hard and were able to navigate very well through the rapids, only splashing Leo a few times in the face along the way.  

We did stop at a very nice sandy bar midway through the canyon for lunch.  Dick and Wilma broke out some amazing smoked salmon for us and we took time to both soak up the massive canyon walls around us as well as explore a neat little cave that was hollowed out by higher waters into the side of the canyon.  Adam was having a rough day after the booze cruise the night before so he and Susan enjoyed a nice nap in the sun with Wallace as well.  We really had timed the trip perfectly.  Rafting the canyon in mid April meant that the canyon walls were covered in fresh green grass contrasting the dark red browns of the rock and really enhancing the beauty of the landscape compared to later in the year when the grass dies and everything is more a homogenous brown hue.  

This was our longest day on the river putting in a solid 6 hours before reaching our final campsite around 4:30 in the afternoon.  By this time all the other raft groups were either far ahead of us or off the river already so we were able to enjoy much more solitude and had our pickings of prime camp spots.  We camped in a large flat bend in the river just before a final canyon we would pass through the last day before Birch Creek.  This area was covered in big leaf sage and bright yellow wildflowers.  It was gorgeous.  

After setting up camp I headed off amongst the sage for a walk and discovered an ancient cattle coral built at the toe of of the canyon wall.  I have no clue how old it was but it looked ancient to me.  Early settlers or Native Americans perhaps.  That night was the night for Ryan and Don to cook.  Ryan had brought homemade pulled pork for dinner tacos and we enjoyed helping him cook some appetizers with nearby big leaf sage, fresh dates, and chopped mozzarella sticks!  We even used the red onions and beet juice pickled juice for tequila and whisky shots!  That night the weather was perfect and we had a great night by the fire listening to sparky play guitar for us all.  

On Wednesday we awoke to partly cloudy skies and a little bit chillier temperatures.  Don and Ryan had a great breakfast for us including smoked salmon and bagels again!  We were on the river by 10am for the last few bends of the river before reaching Birch Creek.  By now the river had widened a bit and slowed down so as we exited the last of the beautiful canyon we were left to paddling along.  Unfortunately, this is when the weather totally turned on us.  

The skies opened up on us relentlessly and we were left to paddling along in solid rain for the last couple hours of the trip to the takeout.  We unloaded the rafts and began packing everything up all under a steady torrent of rain.  Wilma set up an umbrella at a picnic table with some lunch snacks we all enjoyed but my mind was preoccupied with the mental image of that sign at the top of the canyon that said dangerous and slippery when wet… and I was staring at my overloaded truck now pulling a much heavier trailer.  It was so heavy that my tires almost looked flat!  I was worried that it would be trouble but my little 2004 Nissan Frontier was a champ and easily climbed the steep canyon walls with ease. :)

From there we drove the long dirt road out past cows to Jordan Valley where we filled up with gas before continuing on to Rome.  We said our goodbyes to everyone at the end of the dirt road with only Don following us back with Sparky to the Rome put in where Adam and Susan had left their RV.  It was then a long drive back across Oregon to Portland where we again stopped at Ochoco Brewing, this time for dinner.  Leo, I’m sure, like the three of us was tired of sitting in the car and we were all happy to get home around 10pm in the evening.  

It was an amazing trip and I certainly got some amazing photos and videos to share!  Best of luck to Adam and Susan on their future Wild & Scenic boating adventures. 

No comments: