Packrafting the Owyhee

Ever heard of packrafting? It combines backpacking and rafting, and it’s perfect for exploring some sections of Oregon’s Owhyee Canyonlands. Here, Jon Muyskens shares his first experience packrafting — in the Owyhee Middle Fork — as well as his stunning images. He says in the end, “It is safe to say it is the only time I have ever asked myself whether it was worth risking going into hypothermia just to spend a bit more time in a beautiful area. It’s really that good.”

Floating the Owyhee had been on my mind for some time, so when I got a mysterious email request asking if I wanted to do a pack rafting trip down the Owyhee, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

After saying yes, I had to do a Google search for “pack raft” to figure out what I had just agreed to. Packrafts are inflatable, 5-pound boats suitable for river travel and can be folded into a package small enough to carry lashed to a backpack, opening up a whole new dimension in wilderness travel. They make it possible to do miles on a trail and miles on a river in one backcountry trip. Awesome.

The plan was to hike up the Middle Fork of the Owyhee from Three Forks, hike out of the Middle Fork via North Cross Canyon, descend South Cross Canyon, and float the main stem of the Owyhee all the way back to our car. Ideally, the trip would be done in four days/three nights, but we shortened it to three nights because of increasingly bad weather.

Upon arriving at Three Forks, we made a number of critical trailhead decisions. Because we would be hiking with rafts (albeit 5-pound packrafts) over largely unknown terrain, we wanted to keep the rest of the gear to a minimum. We made the decision to use just an MSR tarp as shelter for the two of us, an important decision as things got really cold and damp on the third day, making a third night out somewhat out of the question.

The mysterious email had come from Brent Fenty of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. He had a report from someone who had done the trip so we knew it was possible, but otherwise information on the Middle Fork was pretty sparse and we really didn’t know what we were getting in to. In June of 2011, Brent and some friends had a done a trip featured in the New York Times about the West Little fork of the Owyhee. That trip had turned into an epic. While we knew we would be facing similar challenges, this route is significantly shorter and a bailout option is available involving walking a road back to Three Forks.

On the West Little trip, Brent and his friends learned that most often the best course in navigating these canyons is to stay low even if it means blasting through willows and tramping through the water. Staying high and traversing the sides of the canyon too often leads to backtracking and even slower progress. So very soon into the hike, we were wet and dirty. And also very quickly, I was way behind, being unfamiliar with this kind of hiking, and Brent, I was convinced, being part mountain goat.

As we progressed into the canyon, the walls narrowed and the scene became reminiscent of the famous slot canyons of Utah. There were boulders to climb over, stinging nettles to avoid, slippery rocks, and deeper and deeper pools. The temperature was going down quickly when we hit one really deep pool and, not wanting to get soaked to the bone, we got out one of the packrafts and floated ourselves and the gear across on it. Shortly thereafter, we made camp on a sandy bar in an amphitheater of towering rock pinnacles.

The next morning Brent set a blistering pace while simultaneously pointing out all kinds of amazing birds and amphibians along the trail. I had no idea how this was possible. The canyon was a bit wider and there were fewer and fewer deep pools so, at this point, we were mostly just ambling upriver facing fewer and fewer challenges. After a couple hours of this, we arrived at a bend in the river that went east and a faint side canyon came in from the southwest. We were happy to have a GPS at that point because this was our way out and from our perspective in the canyon, it certainly did not look like an obvious exit point. The GPS said it was North Cross Canyon, so we gave it a try. But before leaving the Middle Fork, we explored upriver, which was stunning with beautifully sculpted rock and more high pinnacles.

Exit from this canyon was fairly straightforward. There were cattle trails to follow, and apart from a steep rock scramble at the rim of the canyon, it was basic hiking. After leaving the canyon, it felt like a totally different world as the terrain opened up into a vast plain with a horizon that stretched seemingly for hundreds of miles — a striking contrast to the narrow walls of the Middle Fork. The next challenge was to find South Cross Canyon and safely climb down to the main stem of the Owyhee. This was a much more difficult task than leaving North Cross Canyon.

Our initial attempt to descend into the canyon dead-ended with a cliff of probably 30 or 40 feet. After this setback, we decided to climb high and survey the landscape from above. This was an excellent decision both strategically and because the view from this spot was incredible and a highlight of the trip. We planned a route, and though steep and loose at times, we followed it down to the river and found a nice flat gravel bar, where we camped. With an hour or so left of daylight, I headed out with my camera and got some great shots from upriver. Brent surveyed the river with a fishing line and was happy to find an abundance of redband trout.

The next morning it seemed the bad weather had set in for good and we were in for a cold, rainy day on the river. Even though it was May, the flows were low so as the day went on that we were in and out of the boats, frequently portaging shallow sections of the river. We had hoped to float for two leisurely days, but the idea of spending the night under a tarp with all of our clothes soaked sounded like misery. This section of river is incredible and I would love to go back in better conditions.

As we drifted the last half mile, entrancing flocks of swallows flew overhead and I was really sad to leave. It was an amazing moment and I have never been so torn at the end of a trip between wanting the comforts of civilization (or at least a car with a heater) and the sadness of leaving a beautiful area. In fact, it is safe to say it is the only time I have ever asked myself whether it was worth risking going into hypothermia just to spend a bit more time in a beautiful area. It’s really that good.

— Jon Muyskens

Read more about Jon Muyskens’s adventures on his blog, 
Oregon’s High Desert: A Photodiary and Adventure Guide.