Running the Wild Owyhee

The Owyhee River, oft called Oregon's Grand Canyon, is renowned as a bucket list rafting trip. Here, ONDA volunteer Bridget Welch interviews Brian Sykes of Bend-based Ouzel Outfitters, who shares why this place is so exceptional.

The Owyhee has been called “Oregon’s Grand Canyon.” What draws this comparison?

If we were going to have a Grand Canyon, it would be the Owyhee. It’s one of the longest, if not the longest, river trip you can take in Oregon, and it’s the only place where you’ll get the grandeur that even comes close. With 1,500-foot red rhyolite cliff walls coming right off the river, the drama down there is amazing. It’s a desert river, it’s remote, it’s Oregon’s Grand Canyon for sure. Far less traveled than the real Grand Canyon.

Tell me about your first experience rafting the Owyhee River.

My first experience on the Owyhee was in ’93 or ’94. It was a training trip in May and it was warm and sunny and beautiful. It was T-shirt weather and there was a lot of water and it was an amazing experience. It’s the second trip that was more interesting. It was the following March and we were doing a guide school there. It rained, we paddled through a blizzard, my tent blew into the river, we flipped a raft … it was crazy and it made me fall in love with the river even more. Since the first time I started guiding I wanted to get on the Owyhee — everybody wants to get on the Owyhee. It’s just such a unique opportunity. It’s got such a short season. Something that is hard to obtain is always more desirable. Even for our senior guides it’s an adventure. The beauty of the Owyhee is the adventure. You don’t know what it’s going to throw at you. That’s part of the intrigue of it.

How long have you been guiding trips on the Owyhee, and how long has Ouzel been running trips?

Ouzel has been running trips on the Owyhee since probably 1979. I guided there for 10 or 11 years.   

What have you learned over the years about the Owyhee? 

What makes it a special and unique place? As a rookie guide back in the early '90s, the Owyhee was challenging because there was so much to learn. There was the weather, flora, fauna, geology, pioneer history, Native American history — it’s got it all. I was like a sponge down there. Senior guides were teaching me all about the flowers. I learned to tell Sharp-shinned hawks from Cooper’s hawks from Peregrine falcons. It was gratifying and challenging. And you continue to learn more — we’ve been taking a group of geologists down the river for 10 years. It’s a work trip for them — and they’re starting to rewrite the geologic history of the Owyhee. So we’ve learned that a lot of stuff in the guidebooks is wrong! Recent excavations are redefining early settlement, with evidence of permanent settlements rather than seasonal habitation. What have I learned about the Owyhee? Only a fraction of what there is to learn.     

Do you have any favorite areas or sections of the river? 

I think most people will tell you their favorite section of the river is Green Dragon Canyon, also called Montgomery Canyon. Usually it’s day three, so you’ve fully relaxed. You enter the deep part of the canyon and these towering cliff walls appear, and you feel like you’re entering the Land of the Lost. You begin to feel, “Wow, I’m really somewhere else, somewhere few people have seen.” That’s the point when all of a sudden, you’re in the place. You’re not thinking about the meetings or what you’ll do when you get home – you’re relaxed and the big drama comes. You’ve got the big rapids and the big cliff walls and maybe some bighorn up on the cliff walls, and you truly feel like this is somewhere special. Coming up on Montgomery Canyon, the big class IV rapid is thundering, and the rain starts and it’s gray and it’s ominous – for the person who appreciates true adventure, there’s nothing like it. And then there are the hot springs. There are a few spots on the river that have natural pools, on day two and day four, which spreads them out really nicely. On a cold day pulling into Rye Grass Camp or Greeley and then hitting the hot springs before dinner – and maybe before breakfast in the morning – is really quite amazing.   

Tell me a little bit about the hiking along the way.

The most popular side hike is Chalk Basin. The geology mimics an ice cream sundae. You have layers of red lakebed sediment, layered with brown lava flows – layers of tan, red, and brown that go up for a thousand feet or more. The hiking along the Owyhee is spectacular – just follow a side stream or a side canyon. That’s a huge part of the draw for the river. We spend a lot of time hiking.   

How about wildflowers? Wildlife? What kind of flora and fauna can rafters expect to see? 

Typically by May you get amazing fields of wildflowers. That’s where I really started to learn my mariposa lilies, and penstemons and buckwheat and yarrow. Desert wildflowers are a draw for some. For others it’s the birding. We have a Nature Conservancy trip that counted some 20 species of raptor in a single trip. The area is on a flyway for migrating raptors in the spring. You always see the Golden eagles and the Golden eagle nests, as well as fly catchers and some curlews, grebes, all sorts of water birds … and of course the Water ouzel! Some people are there for the geology. Unlike a lot rivers where the geology is fairly homogenous all the way down, the Owyhee changes. You have everything from columnar basalts to red rhyolite, welded tuffs, dikes and inter-canyon flows. Other people go there for the archaeology. The Native American history is spectacular. Everywhere you look, you find lithic scatter. You don’t have to look long or hard to find petroglyphs. They’re all over the place. There are 125 or so rock shelter sites mapped within the section. Folks have found folsom points. The archeological evidence is amazing and even a layman can find evidence everywhere. The pioneer history is fascinating too. Some of the last Indian wars in the country were fought in the area. Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea, came through and died there. His grave is in the area. A lot of history came through. The Owyhee is only a place you came through. Those who stayed lived a very hard life. On occasion if you go down the river early in the season, you might see a cowboy on horseback, looking for stray cows.   

How popular is this river with rafters? Is this the kind of trip where you might not see other people? 

You can do a trip where you won’t see anybody. It’s less popular than other rivers in Oregon because it’s a harder river to do. You’ve got to plan for everything. You’re out for usually five days or more, and you’re isolated. There’s not a lodge, a road, and there might not be another group within miles, so you really have to be prepared. Boaters need good solid class III skills. There’s not a lot of water in the Owyhee, but if the water is low it can be very technical. There are a lot of class IIIs. There’s one big class IV, which is a difficult rapid.

Is there an age limit?

For us it’s 10. If we were rafting in the summer, it would probably be 7. The thing with kids is the climate. It’s the extremes of temperature that are worrisome for both young and old.   

Have you seen any changes in the river and surrounding area over the years you’ve been running trips down the Owyhee? 

Some of the changes that I’ve noticed guiding there from the mid-90s through the mid-aughts — in the early season you used to see a lot of cattle on the river. Over the years, the ranchers seem to be better about removing cattle from the river. The other thing we’ve noticed over the years, since the BLM has lost funding, is that there’s a certain amount of damage the river has sustained. The petroglyphs down there, we’ve seen them defaced or completely missing. People have chopped whole sections of rock away to take home a petroglyph. There’s places like Potters Cave and others where people have been digging — not just digging for stuff, but digging and sifting. Professional treasure looters. We’ve seen campsites thrashed, we’ve seen some of the hot springs dug out. There used to be a group of rangers down there and every group that launched got a long speech, and they patrolled the river. The rangers — it was their home, they loved the place, and you could tell. They took care of it. And that’s largely gone away. We’ve seen both good and bad. That’s why ONDA’s efforts are so important. I think they’re responsible for helping keep cattle off the river, and their efforts, especially initiatives for wilderness protection, are going to help bring more attention, and hopefully in some way make more funds available for management.   

What experiences and feelings do rafters remember most after running this river? Is there anything you hear again and again?

You know, on some rivers, people come off and they go, “Oh, that was fun.” And they have specifics on what they liked about it. On the Owyhee, there’s more of a sense of awe – “I can’t believe this place exists.” You drive out to eastern Oregon and it’s flat. It looks like there’s nothing out there. Cross the Owyhee at Rome and it just looks like a meandering river through a little agricultural valley. You don’t know that these deep, dramatic oases exist. It’s important that it’s a long trip too. It usually takes two or three days for people to get their heads out of civilization, for their minds to relax. We call it the “exhale.” After two or three days, you truly start to relax. If the Owyhee were not a mandatory 55-mile run, it wouldn’t be as special of a place as it is. So when people come off the Owyhee, they tend to be overawed by everything they’ve experienced. Knowing that your trip is part of maybe three weeks of runnable conditions, you feel fortunate. You’re just amazed at the totality of the experience, more so than any other river. Rafters come away with a resounding, overarching “Wow.”