The Trip of a Lifetime

The Owyhee River, oft called Oregon's Grand Canyon, is a renowned bucket list rafting trip. Here, Brian Sykes of Bend-based Ouzel Outfitters shares why this place is so exceptional and why it’s worthy of permanent protection.

If Oregon has a “Grand Canyon,” it would be the Owyhee River. 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 grandeur that even comes close. With 1,500-foot red rhyolite cliff walls coming right off the river, the drama there is amazing. And it’s far less traveled than the real Grand Canyon.

Ouzel Outfitters has been running trips on the Owyhee since probably 1979, and I guided the river for 10 or 11 years. Since the first time I started guiding I wanted to get on the Owyhee — everybody wants to. It’s got such a short season, and something that is hard to obtain is always more desirable. Even for senior guides it’s an adventure. You don’t know what it’s going to throw at you.

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’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.

As a rookie guide back in the early '90s, the Owyhee was also 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. Yet I’ve only learned a fraction of what there is to learn.

There are so many amazing spots on the Owyhee River. Most people will tell you their favorite section is Green Dragon Canyon, also called Montgomery Canyon. On a float trip 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.” You’re not thinking about the meetings or what you’ll do when you get home. 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.

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.

These hikes are typically packed with amazing fields of wildflowers. That’s where I really started to learn my mariposa lilies and penstemons and buckwheat and yarrow. The area is also 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! Plus, 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.

And all along the way 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. There are 125 or so rock shelter sites mapped within the section. Folks have found Folsom points. 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. The Owyhee is only a place you came through in those days. Those who stayed lived a very hard life.

In the years since I started guiding the Owyhee, there have been some changes. 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. We’ve seen campsites thrashed, we’ve seen some of the hot springs dug out. I think efforts for permanent protection are going to help bring more attention to these issues and hopefully in some way make more funds available for management.

It is so important to protect the Owyhee Canyonlands. One trip on the Owyhee River stays with you for a lifetime. I’ve seen it time and again: On some rivers, people come off and say, “Oh, that was fun.” On the Owyhee, there’s more of a sense of awe – “I can’t believe this place exists.” You’re just amazed at the totality of the experience, more so than any other river. Rafters come away with a resounding, overarching, “wow.” People want a place like the Owyhee Canyonlands to remain unchanged by the forces of man and always dream of someday going there again.

-- Brian Sykes

Learn more about Ouzel Outfitters on its website.