Low Water Owyhee: Part II


Rob-Lyon-100x100For Rob Lyon, river trips are an art. After years of trial and error and months of preparation, he and his merry crew paint a low-water masterpiece on Oregon’s Owyhee.


Photo: Steve Thomsen

By mid-morning, we had our inflatable fleet lined up in the willow shoots at river’s edge under a low-angled sun in a cloudless sky, making last minute tweaks to the load. Moore was out playing in his hardshell already, looking like a large, graceful, duck. The two rigs that had brought down the gear the day before were waiting to make the run back up to the rim. But we had to finish with the boat prep first so they could take with them whatever we didn’t ultimately need. I’ll never forget the time I was running bag boat for a fly fishing outfitter on the Deschutes and dismissed Babe, the shuttle driver, a minute too early.  I found the van’s spare tire leaning against a tree just as Babe disappeared from view, leaving naught but a cloud of dust, and of course, the damned tire.

Steve and Robyn went from boat to boat to see if anyone needed any last minute straps or dry bags, and we were tight when the trucks started off up the grade. With a week of river ahead of us it was glorious to finally wade out to our knees in the cool current, hop into our boats and let the river take us. I expected we had the river to ourselves, and there was a high pressure system in place for the week. We all felt like we’d stepped into something pretty good.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of a fall run on the O’. Even in a good year there is damned little water to work with. This year the water was running a mere two thirds of what it had been in years past, and that had seemed plenty low to us. There is not quite enough flow to fire up the hard-boat set. Paddling a Wave Sport cross-over, Moore said the hydraulics were just too soft to get his groove on. A competitive boater on Colorado waters, Moore was slumming on the O’. But the rest of us were looking for a simpler hydraulic experience, just wanting to spend a week in the canyon exploring around. That meant big IKs. They certainly did not have the performance capabilities of Moore’s hardshell and were more labor intensive in the shallows and rockiest runs, but they had their fluid moments, and most important, they got the job done.

Low Water
Photo: Steve Thomsen

We had a cook along, you’ll remember from Part I of this story, but Callie, or C as I call her, was new to the O’ and rivers in general; sea kayaking was her thing and the girl had flow in her soul. The food scene worked out well, with lots of organic, local produce on each night’s menu along with whatever fresh game we could rustle up. We would have eaten bass and catfish as well, were it not for the naturally occurring mercury in the river. Unlike bigger rivers where we travel in 18’ palanquins with a killer kitchen set up, we had to divvy the food up in small Ricksacks to make it happen. Callie had a new assistant each day to carry the food and help with dinner.

We flipped three boats in the course of the week. No one was hurt, although Callie broke her ukulele.

Steve had our camps way-pointed on a Magellan GPS. He’d printed and laminated a topo map of the section of river canyon we’d be running, and if we had any questions as to exactly what bend or fold in the river we might be at, we could get him on the radio to get a fix. The thing with radio line of sight is that meandering canyons shut it right down. But as we were typically strung out a bit in the canyon, we could relay a message up or down river. We lost six Cobra radios on this trip, by the way; next time it’s waterproof units or some kind of case.

We traveled in an easy rhythm. After a day of packing, paddling and unpacking it was nice to take a break and layover the next day. That in itself is worth the effort of a trip here.  With a day to blow, we took our fly rods and fired tiny drys out into the green currents, watching handsome, bronze-scaled bass rise to take them; on my little two weight they felt enormous.  There were hot springs nearby most of our camps and matched up well with long days on the water or hiking the canyons. The springs attracted frogs, big northern leopards, and the ones that weren’t dissolving into goo on the bottom of the pool would just hang out with us looking inscrutable.

Photo: Moore Huffman

There was always someone out doing something or resting in camp a minute or firing up espressos to stoke a second excursion. Some of the chunks of jasper that Steven and Callie brought down with them were stunning. The hunters worked hard to keep fresh game on the table, and the days drifted by like Indian summer.

By the end of a second day in a camp we are all eager to get back on the water. Much of the river flows through steep basalt canyon, narrow as a slice of ham.  We were paddling through one such when Robyn shattered the silence by shouting out: “Goats!” and pointing high up the canyon wall. We all looked up to see two magnificent bighorn rams staring down at us from a narrow shelf. Seen through cleaving shafts of sunlight the animals looked majestic bordering on mystical and we back paddled for half an hour watching them. The deepest, narrowest reaches of the O’ like this are cathedral like, and where the deep rumble of rapids fills the canyon air, we tend to whisper. Slivered beams of mote-filled light glance overhead accentuating a single, vertical route to heaven, and if it’s mid-day and a beam should strike you, the feeling is beatific.

Photo: Steve Thomsen
Photo: Steve Thomsen

Frankly, I haven’t changed much from when I was a kid when it comes to cathedrals of any kind. While I can appreciate a visit, I can’t wait to get out into the open again. My scenic esthetic is more about sun, panorama, and more sun, and on this trip we picked our camps as much for early sun as anything else. Rolling out of my tent to warm sand, a blue sky dome and a green river running beside camp, that with a cup of hot coffee in hand and hunkered in the sagebrush, is as good a wakeup as I can imagine.

We flipped three boats in the course of the week. No one was hurt although Callie broke her ukulele near the end of the float. We had a fair idea where the problem points were likely to be and Moore would drop down first and report back while someone with a working radio would wait at the head of the run to cue in the group. Then it was an individual decision whether to run or line.

The deepest, narrowest reaches of the O’ are cathedral like, and where the deep rumble of rapids fills the canyon air, we tend to whisper.

At one point, we were scoping out a nasty bit of work where a brisk current funneled into a large, somewhat undercut, boulder. Moore radioed up that we’d probably want to line river left because of this rock. I was standing beside my boat in the shallows at the head of the run as Callie paddled down. I shouted over to her to pull in with me, quick. But she had a head of steam up and didn’t think she could make it in time, and so proceeded down the right channel.

I radioed down to Moore to get him on the move. There was nothing but the rest of us could do but watch and wince.

Sure enough, she pancaked on the rock.

After a few tense seconds, Callie stood up in front of the boat up to her belly in some gnarly current and . . . smiled. She shouted over that she was okay and began to try and shove her boat off the rock. Moore hiked up, and together they freed the boat and walked down to the eddy below.

Photo: Robyn Minkler
Photo: Robyn Minkler

I was relieved that she’d come out okay. The rest of us continued walking our boats through the shallows. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Callie hiking back upriver to the spot where she’d flipped, and wading back out to the rock. I caught her eye and threw out my hands in the universal gesture of “what the fuck?” but she just pointed at the base of the rock. Then dove.

She came up spitting water and smiling again, shouting something that I couldn’t make out over the roar of the rapid. Reading her lips, I made out the words “I see it.”

She dove again.

This time she came up with something in her hand – a bag, it looked like – and held it on high for all to see, laughing and excited. When we finally convened in the eddy below, I asked her what that was about.

“My rocks,” she said, beaming, holding up a dripping pillow slip. “There are some great ones in here. I wasn’t about to leave them.”

Rocks, I thought, shaking my head,  “You gotta be kidding.”  But then, thinking back on this young woman, she had proven to be nothing on this trip, if not intrepid.

“Nope,” she said, “I knew exactly where they were!”  I gave her a big hug.

Photo: Steve Thomsen

Camps were awesome –  fine, flat camps with big sand kitchens fairly littered with spear heads and bird points, putting us in mind of other people long ago cooking their own game over a little beach fire like us. There were always three Primus stoves on the kitchen table ready to fire up a much needed espresso or chai or left over lunch. Callie expanded on her cook gig by offering massages at $20 an hour. One of the oddest things we found was the skeleton of a big horn sheep with an ODFW dog tag hanging around the neck bone, the deceased Number 22.  In fact, the first I heard of it was across canyon on the radios. Steve rang up and told me he hadn’t gotten any birds but that he’d found old Number 22, which had me scratching my head till I made it into camp. We found the ruins of several stone huts that shepherds and prospectors had built; reading Lonesome Dove at the time, it challenged the imagination to picture living off the land here with a bag of beans and pot of sourdough starter. If we ever perfect time machines it will put a whole new spin on adventure.

Photo: Steve Thomsen

We got high tossing golf discs  over the broad flats around camp. Robyn was always the one to drum up a game and we played for dishwashing clemency. There were some incredible, towering shots launched out over the sagebrush and some jaw dropping aces when someone’s disc tagged a tent seventy yards off, or went into the river. Some of the ”holes” were enormous basalt blocks fallen from nearby palisades, and we checked each one for petroglyphs.  Icons of ancient man, these artistic glyphs and bits of artifacts gave the trip a deeper, humanistic dimension , I think, for everyone.

It’s not all fun and games in the desert, though. Other than the arterial of moisture whetting the canyon bottom and the very odd spring, the ambiance is bone-dry dessicative and sucks up moisture like a sponge.  The Mojave it is not, of course, but for people used to a marine climate – Man!  By mid-trip every finger on my hands was cracked and bleeding. I couldn’t pick my nose or pull a zipper without wincing in pain, and I have to confess it was hard to get above it. Even sitting still they kept up a low grade throb. I’d had this problem when I worked on the Deschutes –  most of us did – and no one ever really found a solution. Bag balm, Nivea cream, Vaseline – nothing touched it.  I have resigned to sleep with my hands in latex gloves filled with some kind of emollient on future trips; as bizarre as that sounds, it has it all over the cracking.

Photo: Steve Thomsen

As for living off the land a little, ironically, my favorite meal was the one I was worried about most: jack rabbit.  Rabbit replaces chicken on the menu at home where neo-peasant is our culinary style, but I’d never eaten jacks, let alone shot one. When Moore hiked down out of the rimrock carrying something in each hand that dragged on the ground, it took a while to register what they were. Fearing the worst (tough), we ‘hung’ the rabbits for three full days before Callie assembled a rabbit cachitorie (hunter’s stew) our fourth night out, with garlic and onions and ginger – fall off the bone delicious.  We washed up afterward and settled down around a little fire. Callie brought out her uke and her voice was young and fresh with the river singing backup. Steve cleaned out the Dutch oven and baked a cake. Vapors and smooth whiskey were passed around. Then somehow the conversation turned to the food revolution going in our country. Callie was the idealist, hot about how certain agribiz put profit before environment and sustainability. Robyn and Moore played the realists, explaining how the modern tech-food juggernaught was feeding the masses and would not change overnight. Steve exercised his political acumen, pointing out that he was currently working with farmers in his county to improve sustainable practices and that change in the real world was most definitely afoot. About this time I drifted out of camp. I hiked up to a flat spot of hard ground overlooking the river. In the dry air at 3,500 feet, the stars looked fit to explode! It had been a long time since I’d seen them this clearly, and I spent the next hour putting myself back into a much bigger perspective. When I heard C pick up the uke again, it all melted back into me and I hiked down to hit the hay.

Deserts are like a clever host, ushering guests out the door before their welcome is overstayed. Seven nights was ideal on the O’; it seemed quite specific to all of us, not a day more or less. After a night at Ryegrass, two nights at Pruitt’s castle and two at Whistling Bird, we spent a single night at Jackson Hole and Greely Bar, rather than one over-long day on the water. We had a short drop on the last day and I figured we would skate the few miles to Birch Creek in leisurely fashion. Not so. We had as many near flips and rubs and caroms and tight spots as anywhere in the canyon.

Photo: Robyn Minkler

Nearing the last bend to our take out at Birch Creek, I glanced to my left. There, within a long spit, framed in the willow shoots, was a beautiful four-point buck, the monarch of the desert –  but no, that would be the big horn. He locked a steady eye with mine as I floated past. But the highlight of our last day in the area might have been Hot Lake Springs Resort, where we spent the night after pulling off the river.

From a huge hot lake, big soaking tubs were filled with steaming sulfur water that we crawled into like great assuaging wombs. Ancient tribes, apparently, were drawn to this lake here in the Grande Ronde Valley like a shrine. Early explorers and travelers camped at the base of the towering bluff beside the steaming water. For us, it was a great wrap-up to a great trip. Geothermal water, bubbling up at riverside may have been the leit motif of our trip, and the hot water lake at the venerable Hot Lake Springs seemed like the mother of all springs hot.

On the drive home the next day, I spelled Steve behind the wheel.  As the Director of Public Works of a huge county in Washington, it’s a wonder the man can get away with me as much as he he has over the last thirty years. While he caught up with his deputy on his smart phone, I stuck the tranny on cruise control and my mind on meta. Great trip. One of the best ever, Steve and I had agreed. Do it again? Oh yeah. Maybe a couple of turns down the road, though. In the meantime there were other accounts that needed servicing… thinking the Deschutes, the Grand Ronde, the Salmon and the John Day.

But first there was the long winter to get through – and thank God for the game of football.  A poor substitute for running a river, maybe, but at least I watched it outdoors, behind the wood shed in a camp chair with a little Coleman heater beside me.  HD and fresh air, a pretty sweet combination.

Photo: Robyn Minkler