An Owyhee packrafting adventure

Nick McEachern is an outdoor educator who splits his time between Central Oregon, Salt Lake City, and the Teton Valley. He is an instructor for the Northwest Outward Bound School where he seeks to educate the next generation of river runners and conservationists. His passion is looking at the edges of the map for out-of-the-way hidden gems and using human power to cross unique landscapes with his close friends.

The adventure begins. Photo: C. McEnry

The gray dust around my GMC Safari settles to the ground as I step out into the August heat of Southeastern Oregon. The smell of warm sagebrush fills the air. 20 seconds ago, I was driving down a desert dirt road in a van filled with five fellow adventure seekers, road-trippin’ jams and cold AC. Now, I’m changing a very flat tire. As we swap out the shredded piece of rubber, we decide that the best course of action is to begin our Owyhee adventure immediately. And so our packrafting trip starts with an unexpected seven-mile cross country hike in the soft glow of the desert evening.

We’re traveling in the Owyhee Canyonlands—a two million acre tract of land that lives up to its reputation as the “largest unprotected wilderness in the United States”. Even in 2018, with public lands visitation rapidly growing, parts of the Owyhee region are still largely unexplored and untouched.

Taking in the Owyhee Canyon. Photo: A. Owens-Baird

Over the next 12 days, we’ll paddle 130 miles via packraft from the confluence of the West Little Owyhee and Main stem Owyhee rivers to Leslie Gulch on the banks of Lake Owyhee. Our first night we sleep next to the North Fork of the Owyhee river, surrounded by dramatic rock spires and the vast, wild sagebrush sea. The following day we trek ten miles and 1,000 feet up and over a sagebrush plateau. Our map shows an old trail leading to the river – but when we reach the so-called ‘trail’, we’re met with a steep, loose cattle path. Our enthusiasm for taking off our heavy packs and floating down the river grows as the sun glares overhead. We inflate our packrafts and launch that very afternoon.

Hotsprings and laughs along the way. Photo: C. McEnry

We made our way down river with a steady flow of 150 cfs. We stop and soak in the warm springs near Three Forks complete with cascading waterfalls of clear water into deep pools. We spend our evenings underneath the clearest night skies in America and pass our afternoons staring in awe at the towering canyon walls. We portage Half Mile rapid and most of Widowmaker rapid before arriving at Rome Station for giant milkshakes and conversations with friendly locals.

Rome marks the halfway point of our trip. With no portages on the Lower Section of the Owyhee, we just relax and take it all in. The next week on the water is filled with fun Class II rapids scattered between calm sections of flatwater. A few windstorms keep things interesting. With nobody else paddling, we have our pick of sandy beaches and tranquil hot springs.

We reach Leslie Gulch on day thirteen, exchange hugs and high fives, and take a long celebratory swim. As we drive home, our heads are left spinning, dreaming, and planning our next Owyhee adventure. With over 1 million acres of Wilderness quality lands, the inspiration and recreation options are endless.

Falling in love with the Owyhee. Photo: C. McEnry

The good fortune of remoteness has preserved the Owyhee thus far, but development pressure – particularly the potential for mining and natural gas exploration – continues to close in on this place. As an advocate for wild places and public lands, I view untrammeled lands and waterways like the Owyhee as a necessary resource for our minds, bodies, and souls. I feel grateful and privileged for the opportunity to visit the wild Owyhee and I hope it is protected so future generations can have the same experiences here that I cherish.

What can you to do help ensure this wild place stays the way it is? See it for yourself and discover how amazing and unique it is. But don’t stop there. Support organizations like the Oregon Natural Desert Association who are working to protect this landscape. Or sign this petition calling on Oregon’s Senators to protect Oregon’s Owyhee. Let’s all do our part to safeguard this high desert treasure that belongs to all of us.