'A Natural Trail': Kayaking the Owyhee River

Thomas O'Keefe is the Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, which is the primary advocate for the protection and restoration of whitewater rivers across the county. Also core to American Whitewater's mission is to ensure that the public can access and enjoy rivers safely.

This year, Thomas journeyed down the upper Owyhee River via kayak. Here, he shares what made the trip remarkable and why he's convinced the area must be permanently protected for future generations.

Our headlights pierced the inky darkness as our car sped across the open expanse of the high desert nearing our destination on the banks of the Owyhee River. My day had begun with an early morning flight from the East Coast and 20 hours of travel later I was crashed out on the inviting lawn at the river access in Rome. In the fog of exhaustion my brain had not questioned why green grass would exist out in the desert but that quickly became apparent a short two hours later as the sprinklers erupted with a blast of water showering my bivy sack on each 30 second pass. I rolled myself over to a bare patch of dusty ground in the parking lot, just out of reach of the spray but too exhausted to consider other options.


The morning sun came all too early but soon our crew was assembled, our gear consolidated, and we were on our way to Three Forks for a journey through this incredible desert landscape. The Owyhee Canyonlands is a vast 9-million-acre region of public land where the states of Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada come together, offering endless opportunities for adventure and exploration. A long-term conservation vision to permanently protect the region is underway. The river itself, a thin artery that winds its way through the landscape giving life to this desert ecosystem, was designated an Oregon State Scenic Waterway in 1980. In 1984 and 1988 the river and major tributaries were designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In 2009 a half million acres in Idaho were designated as wilderness and additional wild and scenic river miles were added. The Owyhee Canyonlands region in Oregon however remains as the largest conservation opportunity in the conterminous United States, with over 2.5 million acres of backcountry wild lands.


Our life was simple on the river. Under an overcast sky our primary task for the day was packing everything we would need into our kayaks: a sleeping bag, bivy, the minimal clothing needed to stay dry and warm, cooking pot with a few utensils, and a bag of food. It simply takes a determined shove and a little muscle to cram it all in. While I have been on many multi-day river trips with raft support, a certain freedom comes with leaving the chairs, tables, Dutch ovens, coolers, and cases of wine behind. The river provides the natural trail though the landscape, a spectacular float occasionally interrupted by whitewater rapids. A rapid known as The Ledge proved to be our first puzzle, a jumble of boulders scattered down the river channel requiring precise maneuvering. We celebrated clean runs at the bottom of the rapid and then it was time to call it a day. Finding a camp for the night was as simple as dragging kayaks up the beach and finding a piece of flat ground to lie down. Our bivy sacks shielded us from the misty rain as the canyon walls disappeared behind a dark curtain and we drifted off to sleep.

In the morning camp stoves hissed into action as hot drinks were prepared and boats were repacked. Blue sky with puffs of clouds beckoned us down the river through more whitewater that included rapids like Half Mile, Raft Flip, Subtle Hole, Bombshelter, and Sharks Tooth. The day ended with a camp at Soldier Creek where we climbed up to gain a vantage point offering a panoramic view of the vast landscape. Overlooking the Owyhee Canyonlands, one gains an appreciation for what this place is: a vast expanse of wide open, wild country completely uninterrupted by the pin pricks of drilling wells, green circles of irrigation spraying precious desert water up into the sky, or resource development that so often extends right to the edge of river corridors across so much of the Western United States. That night the sky exploded with the light of the stars as the arc of the Milky Way spanned the canyon walls. It's a view so rare in our world today as the constellations that have captured man's attention for centuries marched across the sky.



The biggest rapid of the trip was there to greet us the next day. Eddy-hopping through the entrance we came to the crux move, a jumble of massive boulders with tricky slots. After contemplating the line, one that could be improved with a little more flow, we quickly made the decision to carry around the committing drop. The whitewater tapered off as we left the canyons behind. We enjoyed one final night on the river before beginning the short paddle through ranch land to the take-out in Rome. While other groups, their rafts piled high with mountains of gear, were just getting ready to begin their own adventures through the lower canyons, ours had ended. Work and family have called us back, but the simplicity of river life has left its imprint on our soul.