Lower Owyhee River – Part 2.1 – On the River
Wednesday, June 2, 2021
River Mile 0 - 15, Flow at Rome Gauge 244cfs
I had trouble falling asleep last night. The deer that always ventured out in the evening and early morning to graze in the pastures outside the motel window in past years did not appear. I missed them. That’s different too, I thought.
Fully awake at 4:30 and with the outlines of low-lying hills, fence lines and structures taking shape in the dim light of a new day, I rose, showered, left the motel keys with the gas station attendant already busily pumping gas, and began the 40-mile drive from Jordan Valley, to meet John at the take-out. It was 5:10 a.m.
Headlights from oncoming traffic still glimmered in the twilight, but within 20 minutes, the sun’s rays poked through the dips and valleys of the mountains to the east, spotlighting the undulating desert uplands along the mostly graveled road that would lead to the Birch Creek drainage. In years past, even
the first 25-mile section of unpaved road required high-clearance, four-wheeled-drive vehicles. Intersecting BLM roads were unmarked. GPS didn’t yet exist, and a good map was essential. But now, one could take a passenger vehicle on this first leg, and major junctions were marked. I was surprised at the number of cattle grazing along the way and slowed to a crawl when passing them, as young calves are unpredictable, sometimes jumping out in front of your vehicle.
At the edge of the Birch Creek drainage, once you cross a cattle guard, the road deteriorates. In a little over four miles, you descend 1800 vertical feet into the river corridor, down a steep gully, along numerous, tight switchbacks, crossing the creek bed many times. Despite efforts to improve this section, there remained numerous rocky outcroppings in the road bed that defied road grading. Thank God that hasn’t changed, I thought, as I happily, albeit slowly, made my way to the river.
My concern for John finding his way into the Birch Creek campground last night was unfounded, as he was there, ready and awaiting my arrival. We loaded his gear into my pickup and began the drive back up and out of the canyon. By the time we reached Jordan Valley, I had been three hours in the truck, and neither of us had had our first cup of joe. A stop at the charming bungalow-turned-coffee-house, called Skinners’ Rock House, was definitely on the itinerary. Originally a stone bunk house built in 1872 with locally quarried sandstone, it had been converted into a coffee house in 2000 and has been a traditional stop for Mike and me, and many others, over the years. John and I both went for a large latte and a hefty chunk of local homemade banana bread. He kindly picked up the tab and we were on our way to the pillars of Rome, Oregon, a short 33-mile drive west on Highway 95.
Since John and I would be headed in opposite directions at the end of our
river trip, both of us needed our vehicles to be at the Birch Creek take-out. We agreed that he would leave his vehicle at Birch Creek and I would shuttle him from the take-out to the Rome put-in. This meant that only one vehicle, mine, would require a shuttle back to Birch Creek — an expense we shared.
It was 9:30 a.m. when we arrived at the Rome put-in. After unloading our gear, inflating our kayaks and strapping in our loads, I completed the river trip permit, stuffing a copy in the registration box. Afterwards, I reviewed the shuttle instructions I had given Owyhee Adventure Shuttles, to be certain I placed the keys of the pickup truck where they were expecting to find them, made sure I had a set of spare keys, and then locked the cab. Mike had always taken care of this task in the past. Since it was not a part of my routine, I checked and double-checked those instructions to ensure I would have my pickup truck awaiting me at Birch Creek at the end of the trip. We were on our way by 10:20 a.m. It was already quite warm, and I was glad for the earlier-than-planned start. If we didn’t run into any significant headwinds, we just might make the alternate 15-mile paddle day.
The first six miles of the Owyhee River are muddy and cut a broad swath through a low-lying valley. With little elevation change, it meanders through small ranches, agricultural fields, badlands, sage-covered benches and willow-covered islands. We heard the faint drone of irrigation pumps, their long metal straws drinking from the river, as we neared each diversion dam. There were more dams than I remembered, no doubt exposed by reduced water levels.
We spooked several mule deer browsing among the willows and found our way down the main stem of many braided side channels, grateful for the small drops in elevation and the brief corresponding current that assisted us down the river. John, used to the sleekness and speed of a hard-shelled sea kayak, felt like he was paddling a barge in his one-man inflatable. He had packed light, but in low flows such as this, 244 cfs at time of put in, even the weight of basic gear could cause you to drag bottom in the shallows. No doubt reading the river in such thin flows would be a new experience for him, but I hoped a good one. I also hoped that the variety of canyon geologic formations and their beauty would interest him.
Lower Owyhee River – Part 2.2 Audio – On the River
John Roskelley, world class mountaineer, was the recipient of the Piolet d’Or award (French for “The Golden Ice Axe”) held in Chamonix, France in 2014, to honor a lifetime of climbing achievements. This annual ceremony is considered mountaineering’s highest honor. John had traveled the world and encountered some of its most stunning landscapes and geology. But climbing isn’t his only focus, as he has paddled our rivers and has authored several books. While I felt the rhyolite formations in the upper regions of the Owyhee River offered many breathtaking moments, my hope was that the few examples offered in the lower section of the river canyon would pique his interest, that he might want to see more of the region and be inspired to write and advocate for its protection. In addition to John’s mountaineering books, he has written what I consider the definitive guide book for paddling the Columbia River entitled “Paddling the Columbia: A Guide to All 1200 Miles of Our Scenic & Historical River.” The book is useful not only for its comprehensive logistical and safety information, but also for its sidebars. In these sections, John wrote, “I include detailed informational pieces about the river, the people who have influenced its development and the environment through which it flows.”
I’ve often thought my next effort would be to develop a guide book for the Owyhee that would include some of its history. Perhaps I’m not the right person to take on this task. John’s book on the Columbia offers a fine example of how it might look and what it should include. Consider the seed of this idea planted.
At the three-mile mark, we drifted under an old steel bridge constructed in 1906, along a historical route known as the Skinner Toll Road. An old stage stop is also located here, and before the bridge emplacement, the site was known by European Americans as the Owyhee Crossing. There is evidence that the site had been a major river crossing for indigenous communities for eleven thousand years.(1) The bridge still sees some light use, and secured along its outer edges are large irrigation pipes. In past years, streams of water would leak from the pipe seams, and we would have to dodge
them. Now repaired, we were spared the unwanted shower.
Then just downstream, one sees a brief view of cliff walls, etched out in such a way they appear to be two wide, standing columns of creamy white stone, with colored streaks of rust, gray and brown running through them. To a man named William F. Stine, these geologic formations suggested the ruined temples of Rome, from which the town of Rome, Oregon, took its name.(2)
The portal to the wild and scenic river section of the Owyhee begins at a canyon constriction, where Crooked Creek flows in. It took 2-1/2 hours to paddle the six miles to Crooked Creek. Here, we took a break for lunch on a small island mid-river.
At mile nine, we had a decision to make: we could camp here among tall grasses with a backdrop of gently sloping, sage-covered hills with steep, willow-lined banks that could make access cumbersome; or we could paddle on through a deep canyon for another five miles to the first available camp;
or we could continue six miles to a better camp. No other campsites lay in between. After explaining our options, I asked John if he had a preference.
“I think it’s your call,” John replied, and went on to explain, “you know the river.”
Considering it was still early afternoon and the air temperatures were hot, it seemed to me a better choice to be on the river than sweltering in camp for several more hours in our current location. The encampment I had in mind downstream was more appealing too; it offered a sandy beach shaded with hackberry trees. If we encountered any afternoon upstream winds, it would be a hard paddle; but so far, we had been lucky. I decided we should go for it. In just two short meanders, we entered a basalt-lined canyon corridor.
From the river, the canyon rose about 500 feet to table-lands above with columnar basalt trimming the upper edges of the rim. From here, an overlay of broken off boulders lined the steep slopes all the way to river’s edge with intermittent islands of sagebrush that fashioned a patchwork of flora and stone; dark green stems and leaves of poison ivy poked up between rocks wherever they could find enough soil to put down roots. Boulders occasionally punctuated the river, creating rapids of various sizes and interest for the paddler. It was here that I heard the first cascading song of the canyon wren and the ever-present, friendly, chatterings and whistles of the yellow-breasted chat who seemed determined to follow us for the entire journey. Numerous springs run out from beneath this rocky corridor at river’s edge, which accounts for the canyon’s new name – Sweetwater Canyon. It was nature’s rock quarry with a river running through it, a fun little stretch, rolling along in a series of pools and drops that pulled us alongside river-polished boulders, smooth as glass, black as onyx.
Bulls Eye, a class IV rapid at low water, and probably a class II+ at this very low flow, sat just around the next right-hand bend in the river, at mile thirteen. As we approached the corner, we could not see the rapid. But a sizable eddy on river left, like a very large pond, formed just at the bend, which made it easy to remain in slack water and observe the rapid downstream.
The rapid is a broad rock garden, extending perhaps 100 yards in length, with several enormous boulders near the end of the run that are positioned just right of center stream in higher flows.
The current funnels you into these boulders, the bulls eye, which can be easily avoided by pulling hard to the left. Today, in this lowest of flows, the rock garden was more exposed, creating a boney approach, while the main current still pulled you towards the bulls eye. The only line to run was to follow the single, narrow channel from the top. I went first, still pulling hard to the left, relieved that the low flow didn’t require the muscle strength of former runs. John followed and made a fine run of it.
At mile fourteen, we passed two men with pack-rafts beached at Hike-out Camp, so named for a gap in the canyon walls on river left that allows a party to hike out of the canyon. I saw one of the men standing several hundred feet beyond the raft in the shade of the canyon rim. With temperatures near or above 100 degrees, it was a wise place to be if you could not be in the water.
We continued to paddle another mile, our arms ready for a long break from the day’s work. John put in a request for a camp with a swimming hole, shade and a sandy beach. The bivouac I had in mind, at Hackberry Camp, provided the shade of hackberry trees and an expansive, sandy campsite. As we approached it, I noticed the landing was smaller and steeper this year, as willows, grasses and poison ivy had encroached upon its banks, filling in what used to be a shallow, rocky
approach and eliminating some of the beach property. The swimming hole would have to wait, but there were no complaints.
It was 6 p.m., and it had been a long but pleasant paddle day: getting to know John better as we paddled the slow stretches, sharing stories of our respective lives, learning more about his family, wife Joyce and their children. We passed the short evening in pleasant conversation, intermittently fiddling with gear. I swear, no matter how many years you might have packed for a river trip, you never get it packed just right the first time. It’s why we call our first day the “shake down day.” John needed to rebalance his load, and I had some things I wanted to rearrange. I was sure we’d have it down by the end of the trip.
(1) – Based on research by Dr. L.S. Cressman. His work is cited on page 26 of the book In Times Past – A History of the Lower Jordan Creek Communities by Jordan Valley local historian/author, Hazel R. Fretwell-Johnson, 3rd Edition, Caxton Printers
(2) – Oregon Geographic Names by Lewis A. McArthur & Lewis L. McArthur, 7th edition, OSU Press