Another Northwest canyon, another trip, another tale. Rob Lyon takes his traveling float show to the Grande Ronde River seeking wildness, steelhead and a story to tell.
Looking for yet another northwestern, high desert river canyon providing that tasty, tri-blend sauce of adventure, primitiveness and a freestone leitmotif, we’d saved the Grande Ronde for last—or next, as it were.There were other streams like the Bruneau and the Jarbridge on the radar, but our guess was that come fall they wouldn’t have enough water to float a Popsicle stick, much less a fully loaded IK. I’d been kicking around the idea of finding a stream running off the east side of the Continental Divide onto a Montana prairie full of sharptails, like the Dearborn, but that’s probably a pipedream. There were the tribs of the Owyhee above Three Forks—inspiring, uber-lonely country—but that would be a land safari.
So we ran the Grande Ronde this last fall, a party of eight including my brother Hal and his son Gregg, who flew out from the East Coast; Joe Vranizan, an old fishing buddy from Montana; Steve Thomsen, my partner on these trips for decades; Dawn Rachel, who had been our Dutch-oven Diva on previous trips, was along just to fish this time; Robyn Minkler, a veteran of several of these trips and our primary cameraman; myself, and Morgan Jenkins, co-owner of Winding Waters River Expeditions, who would serve as our cook and camp man.
When you found a skookum camp with fine camp fly water, ground birds chuckling in the background, a sandy kitchen floor and wind breaks for the bedrooms—throw in a view—hell, why would you not want to stay an extra night?
Guided trips are anathema for our group. It takes too much of the discovery and ownership out of the experience, which are exactly what we’re after. But farming out the kitchen program to someone who knew the river—for our maiden voyage, at least—seemed like a smart compromise. I got a hold of Paul Arentsen, Morgan’s partner at Winding Waters, early in the season to talk about just that. Paul, his wife Penny, their young daughter and Morgan are based in Joseph, Oregon, a little mountain town on the doorstep of the rugged Wallowa range. (Joseph looks to have a bit of that mountain town chic, reminiscent of 70’s Crested Butte; If I were younger I‘d sure think about moving there.) Quick first impressions of a solid, family owned, green-thinking outfit with true passion and a sense of stewardship for the outdoors made running with them a no-brainer.
An operating imperative of ours was to explore shorter stretches of river in greater depth. I can well appreciate an expeditionary approach to water travel, having operated thusly for many years on the ocean and the Deschutes, but that’s a young man’s game, I think, a pedal-to-the-metal approach to adventuring. On trips in recent years, we’d often wanted to throw out an anchor because we dug the places we were paddling through so much. When you found a skookum camp with fine camp fly water, ground birds chuckling in the background, a sandy kitchen floor and wind breaks for the bedrooms—throw in a view—hell, why would you not want to stay an extra night?
But exactly which stretch of canyon might fit that bill was tough to figure. Knowing no more about the river than what I’d read, it was invaluable to talk it out with Paul and come up with a well-thought-out itinerary.
The plan was that we would bring all of our personal gear and boats, and would row and paddle ourselves down the river. Morgan would provide kitchen and camp support, including doing all the cooking, with us helping out wherever needed.
As luck would have it, this is a popular type of trip with the Winding Waters guys. I think they recognize that there are many savvy fishermen who can guide themselves on the river no problem, but would be happy to hire on a camp wife to run the kitchen and camp scene.
It was a long haul across Washington from the San Juan Islands, where I live, into LaGrande for a night’s stay at the hot springs at Hot Lake Springs Resort. The site of a rare and naturally occurring hot lake, it has been a sacred healing place for native peoples through time immemorial—including us, that night. Steaming hot tubs situated around the grounds inspired a tub crawl from one to another to test the waters. Over the years, this has been a great stepping stone on our way into and out of river canyons in the region.
Entrained in a queue of semis and cattle transport trucks the next morning we motored across this lonely corner of Oregon. We stopped at a local store in Wallowa to buy some liquor and chatted up some friendly locals on the bench in front. I couldn’t help but feel a severity to the country and grimaced at the thought of howling blizzards come winter. We rolled steadily across a windy plateau, then turned due north at Enterprise and motored straight as an arrow past scattered single story ranches, grazing goats and thin-soiled valleys high above Hells Canyon, not far to the east.
We dropped deep into the canyon of the Grande Ronde, crossed the bridge at Boggan’s Oasis, took the access road upriver for half an hour and met up, finally, with the WWR crew at the launch site at the state line. Only Morgan would stay with us throughout the week, but it was good to meet Paul and Tom, his head fly guide, and get a briefing on what to expect.
It took a good three hours to sort out boats and gear and get on the water. Gregg turtled his kayak in a hair pin bend, and no steelhead were hooked, but there were some nice rainbows caught. It was nearly dusk by the time we reached camp, where Morgan whipped up a hot meal for us. It had been windy up until then, but only a hint of what was in store for us that night.
By dusk, a hard, cold wind funneled down the canyon and pummeled the flat where we had camped. Harkening back to memorable first-night blows in other canyons, I recalled a literal horizontal sandstorm at Macks Canyon on the Deschutes that had us hunkering in the lee of rocks and rigs and coolers throughout the night, then digging out in the morning.
For this trip, at the last minute I’d decided to bring along a tarp shelter, rather than a tent. No holing up like a fetus for me this time around. My thinking was that with my bro and nephew and friends along, and Morgan to check in with regularly, I’d want to stay more aware of what was going on around me. My MSR Twing, a nifty unit that had proven itself on river trips in the past, is open on three sides with a wall at the back, built low to the ground with a catenary cut. You can snug it right down like a mushroom, but I’d never run it in the kind of wind we encountered this night.
Sixty click gusts—strong enough to rip Morgan’s new MSR wing right down the middle! People struggled to erect their tents, but once they got them up, they held. Not so my tarp. After repeated attempts to get it up, and slipping a pole each time, I said screw it and left and it lying in the grass. I’d wrap myself up in it if it rained. But later that night, after a couple of Scotches in the kitchen, I decided to give it one last try.
To my surprise, I got it up, and it stayed up throughout the entire night. The irony was that I didn’t get a wink of sleep. If it wasn’t the constant flapping of the wings, it was the half dozen times I jerked to attention to grab the support pole before it cashed in. With that long night behind me, the fishing prognosis in the morning looked good. The place sure as hell looked birdy, too, so maybe the shotguns we’d brought would see some action. Despite the ragged night, I was pumped.
The river was dropping and clearing nicely after rainfall earlier in the week, and fish were being caught—we’d had reports of such, at least. Tom had hooked a steelie while floating into camp the day before, and when we’d stopped in at the Minam Store to reckon shuttle arrangements, Grant Ritchie, the owner and a journalist colleague, told me they had hooked several earlier that day.
Cobble bars climb to grassy flats with scattered pine, larch and shrubs. The draws are splashed with red and gold, and the bare flanks of the canyon border them like tawny thighs.
In any case, the wind had gone elsewhere, the sun was out, and the weather prospects looked fine—a mix of sun and cloud for the remainder of the week. The drill that morning was to help Morgan load up the kitchen barge so he could head downriver and secure our next camp. We helped schlep the massive amount of gear from the kitchen down to the gravel bar and across the bar to the boat, then handed it up to Morgan when he was ready to load. Built like a compact bull, he quickly secured each piece of gear in its proper place and was soon set to go.
The caliber of river gear these guys use is impressive; it smacks of their Hells Canyon runs, a staple summer gig. Used to packing along the old Coleman two-burners, this was undeniably the biggest, baddest river swag we’d ever seen, lots of custom welds and just some serious looking shit, including a wall tent with stove that would do an Alaskan trapper proud. Loaded down and strapped up, Morgan pushed off and waved, and we were on our own for the day.
We’d come to the Grande Ronde for steelhead and upland birds. But we’d been catching some very respectable trout in front of camp. We’d had no idea there was a trout fishery this low in the river. Steelies and smallies (earlier in the season), yes, but the trout were big and strong and a welcome surprise.
We drifted at our leisure that second morning, with Hal and Gregg riding along with me in the big raft. We stopped to fish the likely-looking steelie runs we came across. I missed running a little boat like the IK or hybrid we had along, but Dawn and Robyn were enjoying them. Dawn was our river kayaking commando; she likes to shred the Class IVs on the Deschutes. The bag boat I was rowing was like a river palanquin, but made up for its boorish performance by keeping our rods and guns conveniently at hand, not to mention a short reach to the beer cooler. We stopped a lot to fish, but sometimes I would grab my shotgun and greyhound out over the flats and flanks at a fast clip, looking for sign of quail or partridge.
The Ronde is a beautiful, clean, freestone stream with moderate depth and currents. Boulders are scattered throughout the watershed, but mostly it’s cobble. In low water, plentiful cobble bars climb to grassy flats with scattered ponderosa pine, larch and shrubs. The draws are splashed with red and gold, and the bare flanks of the canyon border them like tawny thighs. I was disappointed only that there was no sagebrush in sight, and the access road along the west bank was in my head. We would lose it, finally, on day three.
We caught up with Steve, who was fishing the west bank. He shouted out that he’d just released a steelhead a few minutes earlier, about a six-pound buck, he figured.
That got our attention. I spotted a good looking run just downriver from us on the east bank and ferried in tight at the tail of the run above it. Gregg jumped out and bucked the boat to a dead stop, and we all filed down to fish.
There was room for everyone. Hal slipped in at the head, Gregg in the middle, and I walked down to see what I might find at the tail above another riffle rapid and a big bend. It was lovely fly water, and I found it hard to believe that I hadn’t had more than a suspicious bump.
We hooked half a dozen trout between us. It was some very fine fly water, though, and we enjoyed wading down through it and swinging our flies out across the dappled surface. Hal has caught both steelies and Atlantic salmon before, while Gregg had never had a chance at them. When Hal brought his other son, Eric, along on the Deschutes with us a few years back, they had both tied into fish. I got the impression that Gregg was more of a hunter than a fisherman and had even brought along a shotgun for him.
Day three, and I was at the sticks. Gregg sat on the rear tube with his legs in the water and Hal sat atop the pile of baggage like a mahout on a lumpy houdah, fishing. You can fish out of the boat on the Ronde, kind of like drive-by shooting. Hal was casting every which direction and catching fish damned near every cast. Seriously. Didn’t matter if it was a dead drift or bouncing along like a puppy behind the boat, it was on some fish’s to-do list.
And these were big rainbow, some of them pushing the 3 lb. mark. It was uncanny how many trout the guy hooked from his perch behind my seat (and I’ve seen it all). Gregg wasn’t hooking Jack, but we were both shaking our heads and laughing about it.
But Hal is a fisherman of the brightest stripe, and he easily out-fished (out-everythinged, really) all of us on the trip, at roughly twice our age. As the author of a variety of psychology textbooks and a Doctor of Education, he flies to Europe regularly on fellowships to lecture young doctors at universities, hunt remote locales, fly fish the hallowed streams of the old world, and, not in the least, to give his young wife Karin, who lives in Germany, a squeeze. The guy has a motor.
Around the corner we caught up with Joe, fishing a boulder run on the west bank. I shipped the oar handles under my legs and held my palms right side up. He cracked a big grin and held up an index finger.
“Right on,” I shouted and raised a fist. The guy has always been a human litmus test for the presence of fish. Now if we could only get into some.
I had plenty of Perils in my box, passed a couple out and tied one on my own line.
We approached the Highway 129 bridge at Boggan’s Oasis, jockeying for position in the narrow channels with a driftboat pulling plugs. A man was at the oars and a woman was sitting primly in the front seat. Between the driftboat, the access road and the drone of semis barreling over the bridge ahead, I was glad things were about to turn the page. The next eight miles or so would be roadless. A feeling of intense relief swept over me as we drifted under the highway and the bridge shadow cleaved us neatly from the mess.
Not to make overmuch of it, but for me the relief was palpable. I just don’t like roads alongside my rivers. A few bends out of sight of the bridge, I pulled over, feeling like a million bucks. Hal hooked a fish here at the head of a tight riffle that had him whooping and hollering. I was downriver with the raft with nowhere to tie off, so I could only watch. It was a small one-salt steelie, as it turned out, but we’d take it.
We were pumped for the second half of our float as we drifted into camp.