The Wild & Scenic Lottery: An Envious Season on the Owyhee River


“Due to sporadic precipitation and a lackluster snowpack in recent years, water levels have dwindled and rafting seasons have been abbreviated. [The Owyhee is] a river as unpredictable as it is beautiful.”  – Charles Gearing, Salem Statesman Journal, April 20, 2023

At the bottom of a towering river labyrinth on the Lower Owyhee River, I braced in anticipation for the crux challenge: Montgomery Rapid. At 9,000 CFS, all the lead-up topographic markers I’d previously noted at bony flows (between 800-1,200 CFS) were drowned like the fixtures of a ghost town in the backflow of a dam. In the farthest reaches of my psyche, I hoped I wouldn’t meet the same fate. This was my third trip down Iron Point Canyon since my first launch of the season at the end of March 2023. Including two previous private trips in 2017 and 2019, this was far and away the highest water I had seen on the run.

It was arguably the best season to guide the 67-mile stretch from Rome to Leslie Gulch in two decades or more. The snow cache at this point, according to SNOTEL, was still over 100% in the Nevada hinterlands which feed the Owyhee headwaters.

On April 12, the river spiked to 18,000 CFS. The outfitter I worked for had to cancel the commercial trip I was slated to gear boat. With my schedule unexpectedly free, I quickly pivoted and made the eight-hour roundtrip home to nab my boat. When I returned for a piece of the spike, side tributaries had flushed, the sun hid behind the clouds and the flow had halved to 9,000—still high. I launched and puckered for the meat.

Fast forward a few days. I faced Montgomery, and she was juicy. Spitting fire like a dragon, the tongue along the left wall had a gravitational pull stronger than anything I had ever dropped a blade into. From the entrance pool, the left funneled rafts into a chute between two house-sized boulders which spit boaters out like a gushing fire hydrant.

It all went well until the dragon recoiled its tongue, slurping my upstream oar out of its oar right and into the drink. I reloaded the spare and managed a quick pull to catch the collateral damage. This would be the greatest carnage I saw all season. Shuttles notwithstanding.

Not to bu(r)st your bubble…
In early March 2023, a month before I met with Montgomery’s April juice, everyone had predictions for the Owyhee season. Whitewater forums heated up with data-driven forecasts and off-the-cuff speculation. Methodology aside, after three back-to-back La Niña seasons, a legit season on the Owyhee River looked promising.

By March 14, the USGS Rome gauge located at the Lower Owyhee put-in, jumped an order of magnitude to 2,500 CFS from its previous fall stronghold at 250 CFS. On Mountain Buzz, one commentator on the Owyhee 2023 thread captured the rapture with a simple: “Game on!”

If you aren’t familiar with the Owyhee watershed you might ask what all the excitement was about. Why do aspiring Owyhee boaters feverishly watch hydraulic and SNOTEL stats like NFL fans follow draft predictions? Let me explain.

First, the window to even hope for an Owyhee float trip is small. Sometime between late March and early May the Owyhee River will come in once or twice, maybe more if you’re lucky. Even then, if the snowpack melts too early or isn’t big enough, this untamed section of river may only hit raftable flows (1,000 + CFS) for a few days at a time. It’s a real catch-the-bubble kind of situation.

Second, fair-weather boaters further suffer when the runnable bubble is timed with subzero temps, snowfall and/or icy rain showers. More often than not, it is.

Third, bad weather mixed with a remote Wild and Scenic atmosphere makes for a proverbial stiff backcountry whitewater cocktail. A perhaps dangerous and tough duo when thinking about flips, whitewater rescue and extraction plans.

Many a heavy heart has canceled an Owyhee River trip for lack of flows and/or unfriendly atmospheric conditions. Even though it’s only a four or five-day trip, it’s the kind of trip you have to block out two weeks for just to see if the flows come in over that period.

Smart rafters have a backup river in their pocket. Having somewhat tolerable weather and flows lineup with the vacation days you set aside is like winning the lottery. Each season, only a small percentage of commercial and private trips teed up for a launch actually have the luxury of launching.

Hence lying in wait for a “game on” call.


I saw the Owyhee at creeky flows firsthand when the company I guided for launched an early season training trip the last week of March 2023. On that trip, we saw every weather condition known to (wo)mankind. If you’re comfortable with creeking, shipping and oar management and self-rescue from sticky rocks, many feel the Owyhee is runnable down to 900ish CFS.

At higher water, those with guiding or extensive private boating experience will find the river gets fluffy and forgiving, though the water is pushier and sheet flows can catch boaters off guard. I would be aware of this at the top of Whistling Bird.

Another point that deserves caution is a mystery hole 100 hundred yards or so after the tail of Bulls Eye rapid (Class IV). It’s hidden within the horizon line and easy to overlook. I watched a fully loaded paddle raft take on a gnarly 30-second surf in that hole during one of my commercial trips. I fully anticipated a flip, though one never came to fruition.

Later, I heard about two separate crews who flipped at Bulls Eye’s mystery hole. For one of the crews, this was their first Owyhee trip and they had launched on the spike. After Bulls Eye, one boat flipped and the others struggled to catch an eddy. Half an hour later a body wasn’t accounted for. Fortunately, they found the missing person under the flipped raft chilled but alive. An oar shaft had caught their vest, preventing self-rescue. Many in the crew were close to hypothermic after this incident and it put a damper on the remainder of the trip.

The hole is easily avoided if you stay hard left once you think the rapid is over.

A college trip launched on the spike as well. After hunkering down for a day or two, decided to hike out 14 miles along a fairly unmaintained dirt road.

At flows somewhere between 9,000 and 18,000 a standing wave above Montgomery is rumored to appear. Speed and a hard brace is required to crest it.

The Vale Bureau of Land Management District issued a more general press release shortly after the spike began to fall, “Caution advised but conditions have improved on the Owyhee,” which captures the dangers and general fever pitch land managers are concerned about when highwater strikes at a remote, self-issue river permit site.

Besides the boating and rescue skills required for remote, high-water, expedition rafting, bringing the appropriate amount of provisions can be more challenging than one might think. Do you have enough propane? Have you accounted for the appropriate volume of groover space? What about fresh water? During the post-spike but still somewhat high water (measured at 6-3,000 cfs) trips later in my 2023 guiding season, I wasn’t included in the packing discussions, although I had to deal with the consequences when supplies fell short.

To cope, I recommended our trip camp at an alternate take-out, Birch Creek. Located 49 miles above Leslie Gulch, Birch Creek has a primitive toilet. It’s also common to meet private boaters at the end of their trip with excess fresh water and propane to share. I was lucky to find a friend who loaned us their propane tank for the remainder of the trip and filled several of our five-gallon water jerrys.

I never did locate the spigot noted on some BLM literature rumored to be in the ranch ruins itself. Sometimes problem-solving can be a chance for strategy and bring guides and private boaters together. We were lucky to have such positive outcomes.

So, what’s the future of the Owyhee?
Has the Owyhee always been so elusive? Have flows always been so difficult to catch? Against the backdrop of staggering climate change statistics and quotes like that noted at the opening of this story, it’s hard not to think it’s gotten worse—and that it will keep getting worse.

The Lower Owyhee Watershed Assessment notes that the rain and snowmelt-driven nature of the Owyhee River Watershed dictates an overall more ephemeral pattern, regardless of climate change. However, findings from the 2018 Future Climate Projections document don’t seem promising with claims like, “Climate change is expected to result in lower summer streamflows in snow-dominated basins across the Pacific Northwest as snowpack melts off earlier due to warmer temperatures and summer precipitation decreases.”

In light of the very real likelihood of even fewer opportunities to raft the Owyhee due to climate change, I’m exceedingly grateful to have put in a full commercial guide season during 2023. I’m crossing my fingers for 2024, even though it’s already looking bleak with a warm and possibly dry winter on the horizon.

My advice: Get it while the getting’s good.
Whether a boater catches creeky conditions or high-water flooding, the Owyhee earns her reputation as the Grand Canyon of Oregon. For now, boaters can witness most of her marvels regardless of flow. Here’s a list of my personal highlights with approximate mileage from the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge Boating Guide.

Mile 3/4: USGS Rome Gage (river right, rr) and former site of stagecoach station (rr) an Owyhee Crossing river ferry where Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, son of American explorer Sacagawea, fell in the river and subsequently died in 1866.

Mile 4-6: The Pillars of Rome appear (river left, rl and rr). Constructed from ancient riverbed sediments composed of siliceous diatoms and subsequently cemented together due to burial, pressure and time, this rock formation strongly resembles Grecian ruins. This is the perfect spot for bird watching. You can often see Owyhee flamingos (aka Canadian geese), sandhill cranes, and other birds of prey in the spring.

Mile 14: Hike-Out Camp is commercially considered the last location accessible for a hike out. The route heads back upstream on a poorly maintained dirt road that parallels the river (rl).

Mile 18: Weeping Wall Springs (rl) is a cliff wall that intersects the water table. Noticeable for lots of lush greenery and the sound of running water.

Mile 22: Rustler’s Cabin (rr) is the former site of a homestead. Those with a careful eye and adept scavenger hunts may find artifacts—though leave only footprints and take only photos.

Mile 24: Ryegrass Hot Springs (rl) is a primitive, small, riverside pool formed from a cascade in a cliff drainage blocked with a man-made rock wall.

Mile 25: Just before the 25-mile mark, the outstanding volcanic formation of Pruitt’s Castle booms across the skyline (rl). A rainbow of jagged spires and cliffs, it’s thought to be named after a long-past raft guide.

Mile 25: If you thought Pruitt’s Castle was something to gawk at, you’ll lose your mind over Lambert Dome (rl). A layer cake of colorful volcanic and lakebed sediments, the rocks have taken on many secondary weathering textures and features. There are slot canyons in the softer formations and fairy spires in the rough and lacerating volcanic rocks. When hikers top out on the skyline, at river level, the dome strongly resembles a birthday cake with candles.

Mile 25: Just past 25 miles, Chalk Basin, like the Pillars of Rome, is a second example of how weathering can shape cemented lakebed sediments.

Mile 30: Potter’s Cave is visible from a raft (rr) as a house-sized A-frame shape blocked by a boulder in gray rhyolite volcanic rock. If you explore this site and find artifacts, remember LNT.

Mile 44: Devil’s Tower (rl) is a smaller version of its counterpart in Wyoming but is still a geological point of interest.

Mile 45: Greely Hot Springs (rl) is a riverside pool that can be underwater at higher flows. From this zone, one can easily hike to Devil’s Tower and back in an afternoon.

Devil’s Tower on the Owyhee.

Mile 49: Birch Creek Historic Ranch (rr) is included in the National Historic Registry and contains many buildings and points of interest. The BLM maintains this site.

Mile 50: Birch Creek take-out (rr). The road to Birch Creek can be questionable. It’s best to check with shuttle operators and the BLM before counting on this road for take-out. Washouts, snow, access to a well-maintained four-wheel drive vehicle and other elements can affect its drivability, and the road out has left many rafters stranded.

Mile 67/68: Leslie Gulch Boat Ramp (rr). I recommend an outboard motor when using this take-out, although if the reservoir hasn’t filled in yet or in a low water year, you may have to raise and lower your motor often. It is possible to row this stretch, but the possibility of wind intimidates many boaters as well as increasing lake-like conditions as the reservoir fills in.


To stay up-to-date on announcements, findings and restoration opportunities, check in with local non-profits Owyhee Canyonlands and Friends of the Owyhee.