A first time on the Owyhee River

Today is World Water Day, an international day to recognize that the quality and quantity of water matters. Living in Oregon we are lucky enough to have access to a variety of rivers with fresh, clean water for wildlife and recreation. But a true gem that is on many bucket lists is the Owyhee River. Coming from the mountains of Nevada and Idaho, this truly beautiful river cuts deep canyons, meanders through the desert sagebrush and rolling hills of southeastern Oregon. 

After years of low snowpack and little rain, trips down the Owyhee River have been limited. With the snowpack in the 80 to over 100 percent-range all winter, the Owyhee is on many boaters’ minds this spring. The Owyhee Canyonlands is known for its expansive landscape, incredible bird diversity and wild remoteness. River trips can be tough to plan; there needs to be water, weather can be variable and, ever-changing, and getting to put-in and take-out takes time. However, the beauty of the canyon lures many.

 The Owyhee River has been on my radar for a few years. I have been watching flows and keeping my fingers crossed for enough snow to produce a decent spring runoff. Every so often there would be enough rain to bring the water up, but the weather called for blowing snow, and subfreezing temps. I enjoy being pushed to my limits but cold, snowy, windy river trip in the middle of January is a hard sell. As the western states finally started to see snow pile up in late 2015 and early 2016, it looked like dreams were going to coming true for a great spring runoff. 

Things started coming together after my friends Tyler and Cole made the commitment and showed up at my house ready to do a food buy, and load all the gear into my truck. We hit the road early Wednesday morning and drove south. 
We had planned to put-in at Rome, on Wednesday afternoon and float down to Leslie Gulch with the hopes of making it back to Hood River Sunday night. This plan seemed a little crazy. We knew we were probably going to get into the first camp at dark, and there was still the chance that we would be pushing, maybe into a strong headwind, across the reservoir to Leslie Gulch. Either way, we pushed off the shore ready for whatever the Owyhee had in store for us.

Floating down a river for the first time gives me a feeling like no other. There is something new and spectacular to take in as you move your way down the river. 
The Owyhee sure doesn’t disappoint, greeting you with rolling desert hills, big canyon walls, towering spires, and riverside hot springs. As we made our way through the canyon, the most common phrase was “oh look over there, how awesome!” From a pair of Merganser ducks, to the stripped red and white Lambert dome, everywhere you look there is something unique and special.   
Each morning we got a little sunshine, but we had a pretty consistent grey sky, with some downstream breeze and pockets of rain. After a riverside soak in Greeley Hot Springs, the Owyhee decided to put us to the test. With dime-size hail, tent-destroying winds, and a brilliant lightning show, we were put through the ringer. Once things calmed down, we made some structural adjustments to our tarp and went about cooking dinner. Dinner by the fire was filled with laughs and stories about the storm we had just been a part of. 
Our time in the canyon was special. We were lucky enough to have the canyon to ourselves, minus a dozen different bird species that were flying overhead and a couple of beavers. We made a handful of stops for side hikes, and even checked out some petroglyphs not far from the water's edge. On the fourth afternoon the clouds parted and showed us the sun and blue sky as we passed Birch Creek Ranch. There was just enough current to keep us floating all the way to Black Rocks hot springs without working too hard. A little more rain during the night reminded us that we were in the wilds of the desert in the springtime, and anything could happen. 
 It is hard to believe how little protection this spectacular pocket of Oregon has. It contains a beauty like no other, habitat for so many plant and animal species, and recreation for boaters, hikers, anglers, and hunters. Sweeping desert hills and deep canyons are not what people think of when they hear the world Oregon. The remoteness of this vast landscape has helped protect it from development, but that won't last forever. The Owyhee Canyonlands is one of the largest, untouched, wild places left in the country. Permanent protection would give us, as well as future generations, the opportunity for recreation and backcountry experiences so anyone enjoy it in its wild state.
Many people have only heard and seen photos of the Owyhee, but those who have spent time in there have stories of amazement. My collection of Owyhee stories is small for now but will hopefully grow as I explore more of this area. Mother Nature has put snow in the mountains, and hopefully rain in the forecast, to make for a great spring of rafting and kayaking in Oregon’s Grand Canyon.

-- Michael Hughes, Northwest Rafting Co.