We left Grants Pass and headed for the Owyhee River near Rome, Oregon. This is in the extreme southeast part of Oregon and a good long drive from most anywhere. We ended up camping at the put-in at Rome late that evening so we could get an early start on the river the next day. Ha! Inflating the boats, setting up the frames, sorting out gear, etc. at a very leisurely pace (we do have the time!) took most of the day. We hit the water in the late afternoon and luckily there was no wind. With a flow of around 3,700 cfs, we averaged about 4 miles an hour, even through the flat agricultural section and made camp about 9 miles downstream. This was according to the Western Whitewater book from which I copied the mile-by-mile guide, our only guide to this particular river.
This upper section was not particularly scenic, but did have some cool eroded bluffs in sections that hinted at what was yet to come. The deeper we went into the canyon, the better the scenery was. The second day we covered about 15 miles, again averaging at least 4 mph. Camping was downstream of the Ryegrass Flat hot springs, which were particularly inviting and welcome with the cool weather. The scenery (and weather) was quite variable and the water mostly Class II or less. The BLM guide we obtained later counts a lot of these rapids as Class III though. It could have something to do with the reasonably high flow as many of them would become shallow rock gardens at low water.
The next day we entered a particularly scenic part of the canyon with the volcanic Lambert Rocks on river right and the “Badlands” of sculpted ash on the left. The badlands were very colorful, ranging from grays and tans to quite reddish, with layers of chocolate as well. The hike up to and around Pruitt’s Castle is interesting as you can enter some narrow, but not deep “slots.” They are actually more like chimneys or folds in the rock formation. This section of canyon was very pretty without much whitewater.
The major rapid at Whistling Bird (BLM Class IV) was more like Class II at this level. You could see where at extremely high water it could become dangerous if you got pushed far right into the cave formed by a large slab that has fallen in the river. There is a really cool alcove on river left downstream about a mile to camp in. The river then enters a sheer-walled rhyolite canyon that is pretty impressive, with cliffs towering far above the river.
Just after entering the canyon, you get to experience the Squeeze (BLM Class III) and Montgomery (BLM Class IV and most difficult rapid on the river). Both of these rapids probably were worth a Class III rating at the higher water level. The large rock at the bottom of Montgomery was a trashy pour-over, but pretty easy to avoid to the right. The wind came up strong about then and we were forced to seek shelter at the next available campsite. This one had a little cave to get out of the rain and wind. Once the wind died down a bit, we moved out under the overhang where there was still dry sand.
Our final day the sun came back out and warmed things up a bit. A welcome change as we both had worn our drysuits some of the time so far. The Morcum diversion dam proved to be nothing of consequence as all of the debris and steel was well covered by the high water. The Hole-in-the-Ground ranch downstream was an interesting collection of buildings that hadn’t been lived in for some time, at least by humans. I took a quick look for the petroglyphs on river left downstream and found a few, mostly faded and uninteresting. On our next trip down (see below) we explored further and the best panels are just downstream. This site turned out to have a good collection of petroglyphs with some very weird designs of which we may never know the meaning.
We never did find Greeley hot springs on the first trip because it was mostly under water. We did find them on the second trip, but they were a muddy pool full of hot water and not very inviting. It was only a short row downstream through yet another beautiful section of the canyon to the take-out at Birch Creek, where we took our time loading and then camped for the night before driving out and on to Boise.
Deja Vu (Trip 2)
After getting cleaned up and hooked back up to the internet in Boise, we spent a day boating the main Payette River from the North-South confluence to Beehive Bend. At around 10,000 cfs the rapids in this section are mostly washed out, but a few do provide some relatively large waves. We took a look at the Staircase section of the South Payette and the Lower 5 on the North Payette and while they both looked runnable, we didn’t want to run them without others for support in case something bad happened. Since we couldn’t find others up for the big water and a posting to the Idaho Whitewater group brought an invite for a second Owyhee trip, off we went to see the canyon for a second time!
Our new friends Brian and Keith were great fun to boat with. Brian ran his 16 foot cat while Keith was in an inflatable kayak. The water was a bit lower this time and the first day we had wind to contend with. Heavy, upstream wind… It took us a bit longer, but we made it further than the first time before sharing a small camp with another small group who were also tired of fighting the wind. The first night was a bit cold, but the sun was out in the morning and no wind to contend with. Yeah! The miles just seemed to speed by.
A quick lunch at Ryegrass hot springs and we continued downstream to Whistling Bird where we ran into group after group of people. It seemed like every possible camp was occupied by groups of 10-20+ people until well below Montgomery. This explains the 40+ cars at the Rome put-in! High water and road closure on the MF Salmon may have had something to do with it as the Owyhee is often an alternate. If anything the scenery on this second trip was better than the first because the sun was out and really brought out the colors of the badlands and other rock formations.
Lacey was having fun spinning Poi while standing on her boat. Great exercise and good for improving your balance. She even kept spinning through some of the rapids! Brian was intrigued and tried his hand at spinning while at the Hole-in-the-Ground Ranch.
The lower Owyhee is a very good run for everyone from novice boaters to experts that just want to float with little stress. The wave trains in some of the rapids would be great fun in an inflatable kayak. At the flow levels we experienced, there was nothing over Class III on the run, easy Class III at that. Our smaller cats would have been more fun, but we took the larger cats to build strength in preparation for running the Colorado through the Grand Canyon later this summer and running rivers in northern Mexico in August/September.