The Owyhee Bruneau Canyonlands All Forks Sabbatical


I thrive on experiences that invoke slight suffering. When I am sleeping on the ground, a little cold, and my focus is on food, water, shelter, and paddling, it seems to me that I am a little more alive, a little clearer in my thinking, and more at peace. I have a passion for seeking the bare necessities of survival—and teaching. Combining those makes me whole.

The 2019-2020 school year marked my twentieth year teaching school and I was granted a sabbatical to study the Holocaust and World War II in Europe. As our world began to struggle with Covid-19, I was slow to realize my studying (and a little paddling) in Europe was grinding to a halt. I was thankful I wasn’t sick, but I couldn’t help the feelings of depression and frustration. So, I turned my energy to paddling locally in my backyard of the Owyhee/Bruneau Canyonlands. Soon, the ‘All Forks Sabbatical’ was mapped out in my head.

The Owyhee/Bruneau Canyonlands encompass Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada. It has very remote, unpopulated canyons accessible only by rugged dirt roads that are often impassable. I have run a lot of the forks before but doing it all in one spring, in a little over a month, created a new challenge. Luckily, my brother runs a shuttle service in the Canyonlands with two massive vehicles, which made that part of this story easier.

When I first launched, I still thought I would be traveling to Europe, so I began on the Lower Owyhee. The Lower Owyhee is super scenic with wonderful hiking, hot springs and a few class III rapids to keep us on our ‘toes.’ My friend Melanie paddled a packraft while I kayaked. The late March weather included freezing temps, snow and rain, so we spent each night at a hot spring. I opted for an early morning wake-up for a warming soak while everything was still coated in a frozen layer from the snow and rain during the night. When I took off of the river, my future plans—the Santa Cruz Paddle Fest and my Europe trip—were looking less likely.

And so, began a more legitimate plan for an All Forks Sabbatical. I quickly replaced my ocean kayak surfing with a trip on the North Fork of the Owyhee and the Middle Owyhee. My husband Mike, brother, Jon Barker, and one of his guides for Barker River Expeditions (BRE), Shane Moser, joined me. At the confluence with the Main Owyhee at Three Forks, Jon and Shane left us, and Mike and I continued down the Middle section. We looked forward to the fun rapids ahead like Ledge, Half-Mile, Raft Flip, and Sharks Tooth all leading up to Widow Maker, a rapid I have portaged more than I have run.

Jon said as he got in his massive truck to drive away, “This is a good flow for Widow Maker.”

Shortly downstream, I flipped over in Ledge. I just hit a little bobble after the three-foot ramp and tipped. A little cold and pissed, I urgently paddled to the hot springs just downstream and hopped in, Crux drysuit and all, to warm up before setting up our MegMid (Yvon Chouinard vintage) 40 feet from the springs. It was a cool night with all of my layers pulled up around me and Mike snuggled next to me. A slight chill made me feel so alive.

Widow Maker Rapid at 1,000 CFS. Photo: Mike Hicks

On my last trip on the Middle in 2019, David Steel wrecked his dory below Raft Flip the day before we launched. Once it filled with water, he had to abandon it before it rolled on him. He had an epic hike out with one Sawyer Square Top Oar he ended up using for a fire starter. I found the other. This spring, the dory broke loose from the bank where he tied it up after wrestling it off a rock on a recon trip back into the canyon. This season, I spotted part of the gunnell as I paddled over it. We found the hull, latches, and lots of parts as we paddled downstream.

Still, Jon’s suggestion was playing over in my head, “This is a good flow for Widow Maker.” I nailed the left line at 1,000 CFS having only run center at 25,000 and center to right at 6,000 CFS. I was stoked but a little stunned as well. Some rapids become so large in your mind that it is hard to counteract that image. That evening, in the gorge below and before the class II runout, I sent an InReach message to my mom letting her know we were below the big rapids and that we could come out tonight or in the morning. She texted back ‘OK.’ Her response didn’t sit right, as she usually updates me on the horses, cows, and dogs. I should have paddled out.

Turns out, she had been kicked by her horse and was in the hospital with broken bones and two injured knees. My mom and late father raised my brothers and me as river runners and adventurers. She later told me she thought I should have a little more fun before returning home to care for her and didn’t want me distracted paddling out even if it was only class II. As we drove from Rome, Oregon to Lewiston, Idaho, I couldn’t help but think about how I should have been flying to Amsterdam to paddle in the canals in front of the Anne Frank House instead.

I took a three-week break from the sabbatical (a break from my break) to look after mom. But once she was able to feed the horses using her walker, I needed to get back on the river. With a little urging I convinced Jon to go on a West Fork of the Bruneau (WFB) adventure with me. I love his company and I needed his truck. Driving through the desert can range from a mud-slinging fest at the top to creeping over rugged terrain at the bottom—a landscape not made for my Subaru.

As I finished up a webinar for Holocaust Remembrance Week with a Partisan from the Warsaw Ghetto, I realized we were running late. A second story was playing in my head as we left for the put-in. Julie Wilson was an avid paddler who came to Idaho to begin a year of paddling out West. Unfortunately, she died after a swim and a pin on the WFB. I have always wanted to see her gravesite and honor her by paddling the WFB.

Rereading Walt Blackadar’s story in Never Turn Back, I realized there’s a small connection to my Holocaust studies. In addition to its challenging rapids, the WFB has many Basque homesteads and a cool stage stop with an iron door at Black Rock crossing. My family and I are Basque, and I’ve always enjoyed studying the homesteads that were built by our relatives who immigrated from the Basque provinces in France and Spain.

The last part of my original sabbatical itinerary had included hiking along the Comet Line through the Basque Country, where the locals helped downed fighter pilots and other people who were trying to flee Nazi-controlled Europe. Along the route, we planned to visit some of the Basque safe houses. In addition, the Basque Surf Kayak team was holding a surf kayak competition in Mundaka. They offered to provide all the gear and kayaks for me to compete.

But instead, my brother and I camped at a Basque homestead just above Al Beam and Julie Wilson Falls after Jon swam. A fire a few years ago burned 90% of all the junipers along the riverbank. After climbing on blackened log jams to retrieve his stuck IK, I myself was a charred mess. Soot covered my hands, face, drysuit, and PFD before I had the boat free.

The next morning, the water was too low to run our original lines and charred junipers blocked all of the Plan B lines, so we portaged. I had waited a long time to run these rapids, and I guess I would wait a little longer. It took us two hours to carry our boats up the shoulder of the slope and across the top. Then we strapped my kayak to my brother’s IK to lower them down to the river.

Once we reloaded our boats, we ferried over to the other side of the river to hike up to Julie’s gravesite. We walked up to pay our respects. I laid an antler and a piece of blue glass at her grave marker. Today, her body rests in peace. Even though her parents had instructed and gotten approval from the county that she be laid to rest on the river where she had been kayaking, her body was exhumed and transported away from the river. Eventually, they reburied her at this spot. A close friend of Julie’s had given her a Jewish Chai medallion that came off when she was recovered from the river. Her parents kept the medallion rather than burying it with her. Instantly, I knew I would bring one on my next trip. We both kissed her marker and made our way back down to the river.

When we reached the Bruneau put-in, no one was in sight. I somehow managed to lose my Goretex socks that night but had a nice paddle out the next day and enjoyed 5-Mile rapids. Albeit the entire day felt a little rushed because I had to get home for a five-hour place-based online workshop for my sabbatical back at the BRE shop in Bruneau. During the workshop, I kept thinking of Julie, the canyons, and how much I learn about the world and myself in the wilderness.

Camping on the East Fork Owyhee.

By that time, I had paddled just shy of 200 miles of low-volume desert rivers on my All Forks sabbatical. Still, the next morning, Alison Roehner joined me on an East Fork of the Owyhee (EFO) trip from Duck Valley to Crutchers. Paddlers need approval from the Shoshone-Piaute tribe to access Duck Valley, which has 32 class II+/III rapids before you reach six awesome class 4+ rapids at the Garat Gorge.

I last ran this section in the mid-1990s and I only remembered one really fun rapid that I got to run twice. At low flows, the rapids on the upper stretch are fun and rocky, but not really remarkable at higher flows. Shortly before the gorge, Alison and I picked the worst camp for its lack of a bank making it easy to haul our fully loaded boats out of the water.

Water surrounded most of the camp, therefore the mosquitoes made up for its lack of riverbank. Those pesky bloodsuckers flew into our MegaMid with us and into our bags. We got an early start in the morning as we were not going to hang around any longer. Alison did not feel up to running the first drop and I got to run it twice, just like in the 90s.

Pipeline in the Garat Gorge.

The second rapid is called Number 2, Raft Bridge, or as I call it at low flows, Nowhere to Run. We were able to portage and fire up the rest of the drops. Pulling into an eddy, we found a nest circling in the water with a lone egg. After we finished Garat Gorge, I took off my elbow pads. Not thinking to put them back on before the portage at Owyhee Falls, I fell on my third step and bruised the hell out of my elbow and bum. (My bruised rear and elbow ended up being a literal pain in the ass on a later trip.)

Rounding the bend, two antelope drank from the water’s edge and a blue heron joined up for miles, stopping on rocks before each new drop. At Crutcher’s Crossing we cooked dinner and waited to hear the faint rumble of the shuttle vehicle creeping over the rim.

After returning to Lewiston, I participated in the Walk of the Living virtual march in Poland. Mom was doing well so I began planning for the South Fork of the Owyhee (SFO) and Deep Creek. My brother was on a commercial trip that I could catch for a takeout. Craig, Jon’s shuttle driver, could drop me off at the Pipeline put-in, but going solo was looking likely. Luckily, Melanie called and asked what I was paddling next.

Hours later, packraft in tow, we reached the put-in just before midnight. Anyone who has done a self-support trip with me knows I bring a salad for my first night on the river. The problem was the temperature was already below freezing. Too tired to put up my MegaMid, I pulled my tarp over me and wrapped my salad in my H2Core Lightweight layer. I froze that night, but my salad didn’t. For the record, it wasn’t worth it—put your salad in your sleeping bag and wear your layer.

The last time I paddled the SFO it was 1993, just after a huge high-water year. This time, we had a few hundred CFS at the most. While we were getting ready to launch, two men came down from their camp to chat with coffee and a whiskey bottle in tow. Of the entire Owyhee Watershed, these two were the only other group I came across. The river was mine. Melanie was a champ for the long days so we could catch the shuttle out of the hot springs above Three Forks. Starting in Nevada, crossing into Idaho, and then into Oregon made this a three-state trip.

Sitting on my rear was out as we paddled the SFO toward the confluence with the EFO. I had to tip forward as far as I could in my kayak. My elbow to my wrist kept going numb. I needed some adrenaline. Challenging rapids named Cabin and Cable meet you below the confluence, at which time the river turns into the Main Owyhee. Beaver Charlie’s cabin sits just upstream of Cabin rapid. It is an amazing testament to the grit people had who lived in the canyon. You can’t paddle past without stopping to sign the guestbook.

We ran right in between huge house-sized boulders down to the main part of the rapid. It almost seems like you cannot make it through only to exit into the main drops. Shortly after Cabin is Cable rapid. I eddied out below the top boulders to look over to make sure the center slot was clear. Motioning to Melanie to boof the center, I followed her. A few years back, I swam here on the Main Owyhee when my paddle wedged in the slot, followed by me missing my hand role. Redemption!

We met up with the rest of the group shortly above the hot springs take out. These are the most amazing hot springs with pools deep enough that you can stand up in! They are only 100 degrees, which is a perfect temp for a drysuit soak.

Reality set in—again—on the way back to Bruneau. I was going to have to cancel my trip to Europe not just postpone my travel date.

Back home, all the cancellations and refund requests made me pretty depressed and overwhelmed. I just wanted to get back on the water as my antidote to sadness. My bug bites still itched and black and blue marbling still colored my elbow from my fall portaging Owyhee Falls on the East Fork when Sam Goff called wanting to run Deep Creek. I told him it could be really low; it would be a mission, and I had not been back since 1996. We needed to leave at 4:30 a.m. from the warehouse in Bruneau. We returned at 11:30 p.m. after what we called a fabulous Barker Adventure. Mike, doesn’t use “adventure.” He says we are always rushing. I say, rushing to the next adventure.

With tight slot canyons and vibrant lichen covering the large walls, Deep Creek is by far the most scenic of the canyons. We drove out from Rickards Crossing on the EFO which is four miles down from the confluence with Deep Creek.

This beautiful confluence was the location of our second night on the EFO. On that trip, Alison and I hiked up Deep Creek and took a little video. I knew I would be coming back.

Packing up the hill to the truck was hot and dusty but we were glad Craig was there. We got a little stuck in the mud on our way out but reached the Star Ranch at sunset. The homestead buildings are my favorite as they are intertwined with willows and mud with sod roofs. The construction is a little similar to the willow corral at Coyote Hole on the SFO.

Star Ranch at sunset.

Sam and I both opted to sleep in our rigs at the warehouse after our late-night return. I wanted to run Jarbidge, Sheep Creek and Clover Creek/East Fork of the Bruneau but didn’t have any success finding someone to paddle with me so, I drove back home in the morning. Wanting to return, I made a few calls and before I knew it, the Voorhees family signed on to run the Jarbidge/Bruneau.

Any time spent with the Voorhees is always a blast as they are so supportive on and off the water. When we paddle together, I often say I am in a Voorhees sandwich! Running Jarbidge Falls with Mike in the lead was a long-awaited personal first descent. Plus, the boys taught me how to cook Croissant Cinnamon rolls over the open fire.

I’ve done a lot of self-support trips, but I’ve never eaten so well. We were excited to celebrate our last night and my personal first toasting beverages from a secret cache left at the hot springs, but after traipsing all around, we didn’t find any beer. Turns out that Craig had forgotten to leave it when he ran a shuttle to the Bruneau the day before. A little deflated, we paddled downstream. Alec and Hayden skipped rocks while Connor, Anneke, Wes, and I made our way down the river, stopping at hot springs and eating Connor’s snacks.

I left the takeout this time realizing that I was probably not going to get Sheep Creek or Clover Creek trip in unless we had a huge rain, but this time I was not depressed.

My “All Forks Sabbatical” was amazing, and if I am lucky maybe a window will open up for me to go to Europe. If not, I will still return to teaching in the fall with dreams of going back to Europe and the Canyonlands, my passions converging.

In all, I paddled a total of 398.1 miles. I drove 409.5 miles of dirt road, but Craig drove 832 as my shuttle driver. I portaged seven rapids (and took two falls doing so…), got stuck in the mud once, had a boulder block the road once and only one encounter with a barbed-wire fence. Lastly, I soaked in 10 hot springs and had endless memory-making views.

End Note: The weather did warm up and the rains came. I was able to paddle Clover Creek with Jon. This small creek had the most rapids of all the drainages! And then I paddled Sheep Creek with Tom Termain which converges with the Bruneau. My brother was on a BRE trip on the Bruneau so Lexi left us a cache at the confluence to celebrate the official All Forks! We had a complete Thai meal, two bottles of wine, chocolate, and a six-pack of beer! Having just completed 454.1 miles on self-support rations, this was more than a treat!