The Lower Owyhee River – Part III

Stomach Knots & Splendor

Lower Owyhee River – Part 3.1 – Stomach Knots & Splendor

Thursday, June 3, 2021

River Mile 15 - 26.1, Flow at Rome Gauge 228 cfs

I slept well in my new, small, one-person tent and had pitched it without the rain fly to view the stars. A low, mournful chorus of bullfrogs sang all night. The deep range of their vocalizations was more comforting than irritating and lulled me to sleep. It was wonderful waking in twilight and listening to the birds sing their first, “good morning!” I lingered in my sleeping bag until just before 5 a.m. and then rose to make coffee. As soon as the yellow-breasted chat detected movement in camp, it began chatting away, as if eager to tell us what it had heard and seen during the short night and what we had missed in our slumber. John was moving about too and had his stove going. It was such a pleasant morning that I didn’t want to rush after yesterday’s early push. We both deserved a more relaxing start. And so, while sipping my coffee, I took some time to jot down a few notes about the previous day’s paddle. After all, we were on the river now, and with only 10 miles to navigate, it should be an easy, familiar routine from here on.

I finished writing my notes, made a second cup of coffee and decided to take a few minutes to check the air in the inflated tubes and floor of my kayak. After untying the kayak from its mooring and dragging it off river and up onto our high sand beach, I pressed my hand against the floor. It seemed a little soft. I opened the cap on the floor valve and, as I began to pump, the valve fell right through the floor valve opening into the floor chamber. Well, that’s another first, I thought. I pushed the valve back up through the floor opening, trying to hold it up and pump it at the same time. It wasn’t easy, but the floor bladder began to fill with air. Feeling relief, I kept pumping, but just as the floor became taut, air came hissing out again. The valve would not hold. My stomach knotted.

I looked up to where John was busy with his morning and said, “John, I could use a little advice.”

John helped push the housing back up through the floor again, duplicating my attempt. The valve wouldn’t hold. I retrieved the kayak tool kit which included supplies and instructions for patching a hole or tear in the kayak. It also included a replacement valve and a valve wrench but no instructions for how to replace the valve. John tried tightening the housing and re-inflating the floor. It still wouldn’t hold. He tried unscrewing the valve, but it wouldn’t budge. He didn’t want to force it, leaving a broken part in the housing and making things worse. I agreed it was a wise decision. We tried sealing off the valve opening with repair tape by inflating the floor, quickly covering the valve opening with tape, and then screwing the cap on, hoping that would create a seal. It didn’t work. Frustrated and worried, I finally said, “John, let’s leave it alone for a bit and go pack up some gear. Maybe if we get away from it and free our minds from the task, we’ll think of something.” 

A few minutes later, after retreating to my tent to pack up, I pulled out my inflated air mattress from beneath my sleeping bag and looked at it. Could we unzip the floor, exposing the floor chamber, and replace the floor bladder by inserting an inflated air mattress, and zip the floor back up? Holding up the mattress, I called out to John at his tent and asked, “This might be a crazy idea, but do you think this could work?”

John didn’t hesitate. He thought it was a great idea and expressed that he had been thinking along the same lines while packing up. Thus began our day with yet another first.

Lower Owyhee River – Part 3.2 – Weeping Wall

Weeping Wall

We had been fortunate yesterday not to have any headwinds. I hoped today would be the same. Weather reports prior to our departure forecast this would be our hottest day — 102 degrees in Ontario and probably hotter in the canyon. I would welcome a thunderstorm, but only after we were in camp because a storm would mean strong winds.

With a little more current in the river, we drifted in the quiet stretches and soaked ourselves in a few of the unnamed rapids. Despite being wet, the already warm air and water temperatures kept us comfortable.

My kayak worked marginally well, but I sat in a deep puddle of water most of the time. It filled with water when going through a rapid, and like a bathtub, drained slowly, making it difficult to handle. I adjusted by sitting on my dry bag just behind my seat, and I sat on the floor only when necessary, where keeping a low profile helped balance my load and me.

It seemed to me a gentle morning — quiet except for the chat of the chat, the sunny “cheerio” song of a robin, or the sounds of rushing water. John was surprised we weren’t seeing more mule deer, noting it was great country for them.

We stopped at Weeping Wall Springs to replenish our drinking water. The cliff wall rises about 40 feet above river. A band of river rock, approximately 10 to 15 feet high, begins about 10 feet above river level and runs horizontally along the length of the wall for about 200 feet. Mike believes it to be a section of an old river channel, buried in an ancient lava flow, now exposed by thousands of years of erosion.

From small silver streams to hundreds of flashing drips in the morning sun, the springs leak along the entire length of this porous layer, creating a cool green ribbon of lush grasses and  blanketing rocks with deep green moss. Bright yellow monkey flowers and pink wild roses flourished beneath the black basalts and red lava cap of the cliff wall.

I drank freely from these springs and others in the canyon, having done so with Mike for many years without ill affect. John was a bit more cautious, having suffered several water-born  illnesses in his years of climbing and taking unfiltered water from remote streams while traveling third-world countries. He was fine with boiling this water for cooking but employed a special water-filter straw through which he could drink — a very handy device indeed, if one is in doubt.

Lower Owyhee River – Part 3.3 – Read-it-and-Weep

Read-it-and-Weep

We left the springs heavily laden with seven to eight quarts of water each and entered a broader canyon corridor. John commented that he couldn’t believe he was actually adding 14-16 more pounds of weight to his kayak.

Rounding a bend, receding cliff walls retained their crown of rimrock while expansive, earthen benches bordered the river from its banks on both sides to the base of the cliffs. These benches, covered with sage, the occasional juniper tree, native bunch grasses, and sadly, the drooping burgundy seed heads of invasive cheat grasses, provided several, now-overgrown, shadeless campsites. While uninviting during a heatwave, they’d make great camps on a cold day. We shared this long, two-mile stretch of gentle, quiet waters with a few remaining late-spring families of geese and mergansers. Then, as long dark fingers of an ancient lava flow began to find their way to the river, we rounded a corner, and the sounds of the next rapid broke the silence.

I mistook the first two smaller rapids for one named Read-it-and-Weep. At higher flows, not every rapid is a rapid, and the BLM has not taken to naming all of those that are always present either.  That rapid was too easy, I thought. The big eddy that preceded Artillery Rapid wasn’t in sight. I looked back at John and said, “I was mistaken! Next corner.”

Reading the river, understanding the power of hydraulics and behavior of water as it flows around and over objects in its path, is a skill that comes from years of experience. Deciding the best path to take down the river through the boulders is called “finding your line.” It’s a life-long learning process, and being good at it enhances your enjoyment of the river experience and, more importantly, your safety.

I confess that there is a little part of me that is delighted when negotiating a rock garden. When done well, it’s a dance as graceful as a ballet — sliding around a boulder, catching the eddy below, using it to slow down, you briefly stall, followed by a graceful pivot, turning you into the falling current, you continue gliding down the river like an ice dancer. It’s a move with a thousand variations. I’ve experienced this feeling of dancing only a few times; two of the best were upon the crystal clear waters of the Selway and the South Fork of the Salmon rivers in Idaho. The rapid we were approaching on the Owyhee called Read-it-and-Weep couldn’t compare to the challenge of the boulder gardens of these other rivers for size, nor match their waters’ icy clarity. And yet, I found myself smiling with anticipation as we rounded the bend, ready to engage my dancing partner on this fun little rapid that spanned the river. Only this time, I imagined the experience would be like taking a ride in bumper cars at a carnival. Turning to look back at John, I called out, “This is it.”

To be completely honest, I can’t remember how I executed that run! Did I hang up on a rock? I think I would remember that. Was it bumper cars or ballet? I don’t know. What I do remember is that I stalled at the top, read the water, found my line, and for a few brief moments, in my memory at least, I danced.

Pivoting at the bottom of the run, I checked on John; he was just finishing up and, in unguarded truthfulness, declared, “I think I dragged over every rock in the river!”

Smiling to myself, I thought, So it was bumper cars for John, but he came through okay.

Lower Owyhee River – Part 3.4 – Artillery Rapid and Rustlers Cabin

Artillery Rapid

We drifted into the large eddy that pools just above Artillery Rapids and discussed the run. The river funnels into a narrow constriction. It’s a bumpy ride on the lead-in before falling into a series of large standing waves that fire, one right after the other; the last wave was hiding a hole at its base. It’s always a soaker. Every flow level changes a rapid, so the only advice I could really give John was to stay in the tongue and be prepared for the drop at the end. He ran it like the skilled mountaineer he is, scaling the summit of each wave and repelling down the other side without a hitch.

We took a break at a small gravel and sand beach near the

rapids’ run-out on river right. Many freshwater clam shells lay open on the sand; their lustrous, pale, bluish gray and white pearl interiors glistened in the sun. I wondered if the opened shells were the work of river otter and if they enjoyed taking a break here too.  In past trips, on cold days, I liked to warm up here: pressing my body against the enormous, heat-absorbing, polished black boulders; laying out wet clothing, watching the steam rise from their surface as they dry; feeling the warmth of sun on skin. But on this day, it just felt good to stand, stretch the legs, get off the butt and enjoy a snack. No doubt those boulders could fry an egg!

Rustlers Cabin

About a mile and a half downstream, we pulled over on river right near the site of an old homestead, formerly known as the Navarro place, but now named Rustlers Cabin. In 1902, it had been purchased by a Basque sheepherder named Jose Navarro and became a thriving sheep ranch. Navarro had even hired a Basque stone mason to construct a house on the property.(3)  He lived there for about 17 years, after which it changed ownership several more times. But sometime before WWII the ranch had been abandoned, and the remoteness of the ranch, with it’s stone corrals and spring water source, made it an excellent hide-out for rustlers to stage their stolen herds of livestock — thus, the new moniker. Years ago, a few quarried stone walls of the old home rose above the surrounding vegetation. Now, nothing but tall cottonwoods and poplar trees marked the site as an oasis in the desert.

As we left our kayaks and began the short hike up the hill, the air temperature off river was stifling. Gigantic cumulus clouds were stacking up to our southwest. Knowing that our campsite would be in the badlands of the Chalk Basin, cloud shade would be a welcome development in temperatures above 100 degrees.

At the Navarro homesite, little remained but foundational stones, while along the road that led into the ranch, the skeleton of a now beautifully rusted-out mowing machine sat abandoned. And just beyond, one could see the half moon shape of a stone quarry carved deep into the hillside. Downhill from the homesite, poplar trees had been planted at the head of a series of spring seeps, creating a shady rest area. From the the spring’s source, flowed a wide, green trail of tall grasses and cattails that led all the way to boggy marshlands near river’s edge. And here, something we did not see on this day but that I know, a hot springs lay hidden in the tall grasses along the river bank where, basking in warmed river pools, carp wallowed. 

From the shade of the tall trees, looking upstream and a bit downhill, we paused for a moment to view two expansive stone corrals in the distance. Afterwards, we headed back down the hot hillside, welcoming somewhat cooler air temperatures wafting off the river.

Lower Owyhee River – Part 3.5 – The Chalk Basin

The Chalk Basin

We drifted pass Rye Grass Hot Springs, an unofficial entrance to the Chalk Basin, with little interest in taking a soak and no need to warm up in a very hot spring. The thermal waters were located in an area known as Rye Grass Crossing, and it’s easy to see why one would choose to ford the river here. The canyon breaks, well set back from river’s edge, provide a forgiving gradient and less precipitous route to the river. A primitive wagon road weaves its way down to the shallows along the right bank. A bedrock shelf spans the entire width of the  river just below the hot springs and creates a low-lying weir. Below the weir, the river is extremely shallow. It’s a natural site for a crossing.

About three-quarters of a mile downstream from the hot springs, we rounded a bend in the river. Lambert lava flow, in shades of burnt sienna, came into view on river right. Several white pillars of mud and ash towered in the foreground like the walls and turrets of a castle fortress and stood in striking contrast against the dark lava.

Each bend in the river revealed a new and magnificent formation. On the left bank, Pruitt’s Castle and Lambert Dome, two named formations, rose three to four hundred feet above river.

Etched out, rounded off and sliced through like cake layers, they revealed multi-colored bands of sediment and lava laid down over millennia. We were looking at the bottom of ancient Lake Idaho, now sculpted into many beautiful creations by wind and water, set off in sharp relief against a darkening sky.

My original plan was to camp at mile 25 near a drainage that flowed out from beneath Lambert Dome. But now, on a scorching hot day, this open area did not look so appealing,  and storm clouds were definitely headed our way. Not marked on our river map was a non-designated campsite I remembered from past trips that might provide shade. It was on river right about two-tenths of a mile below a small rapid. We landed our kayaks on a small muddy bank, opposite Lambert Dome, where I could review the map and evaluate the distance to this unmarked camp. It appeared to me that its location was just another mile downstream and only a mile beyond our planned, ten-mile paddle day. If we continued beyond it, we risked being on the river during the storm, perhaps stalled by strong winds and without possibilities to camp for several more miles. This alternate camp seemed a logical choice, and so, we paddled on.

Except for the landing, the campsite was as I remembered. It sat upon a high sandy beach about five feet above the river, with a long row of hackberry trees that grew along the edge of the lava flow as a backdrop. The docking was not the best. We had to leave our kayaks in the water and, without any place to stage our equipment, unload them there, hauling gear up a steep bank through a nine-foot willow barrier. It was a slog, but a good camp otherwise. 

Ominous clouds and rain streaked the sky to our south. Within minutes, the first few large drops of rain bounced off my dry bag. I located my tent, leaving the rest of my gear safely tucked away. John was already busy assembling his tent and commented that the rain probably wouldn’t last long. No sooner did we have our rainflies secured than the storm hit. Strong gusting winds hurled a deluge against our tents and carried fine sand particles underneath the rainfly and into them. Moments when it seemed that the storm might have ended lasted only seconds before the next punch. This went on for 30 minutes or more. I ached to stick my head outside to see and enjoy the storm and watch the action. Not a chance! With my rain gear in my dry bag outside, I waited. Dry in my new little tent, I wished for windows but was impressed it was holding up so well. Only the vestibule stake had been ripped from the ground by wind, but I was able to reach out and secure it again.

Finally, as abruptly as it began, the rain came to a dead stop. I stuck my head outside and found John doing the same.

Two heads poking out from their tents, like two rock chucks awaiting the “all clear” signal, we were reading the sky. It appeared to us, for a little while at least, we would have time to finish setting up camp and prepare dinner. I knew what John thought of my packing job when he called out from his shelter, “Hey Bonnie, can I borrow your vacuum cleaner to vacuum the sand out of my tent?” As my friends all know, I’m the quintessential straight man for their comedic act. It took John less than a day to figure that out, and I enjoyed his sense of humor. 

John had a second sleeping mattress and offered the spare to me, so I didn’t have to retrieve my wet air mattress from my kayak. Not trusting that this “travel light” mountaineer really packed two, and not wanting to find him sleeping on the hard ground, I asked for assurance. “Do you really have two?”

“Yes,” he said, and showed me a foam pad that he would use instead. It folded together like an accordion and, when unfolded, made a very nice sleeping mat. If only I had words for this redundancy. Instead, the only rejoinder I could muster was a grateful, “Thank you so much!”

With dinner complete and our camp and gear secured, a second wave of storm clouds approached. We retreated to our shelters when it began to sprinkle, but the rain was short-lived this time, as we caught just the outer edges of this front as it passed to our east.

When all turned quiet, and looking outside a second time, we witnessed the setting sun, shining through a western cloud break with illuminating alchemy, turn distant lava flows into gold. Suspended above the lava, a magnificent double rainbow formed against dark clouds. So entranced by its fluctuating beauty, the dimming and intensifying light, I forgot to grab my camera until too late and captured only a single fading rainbow in a photograph. Even without it, the splendor of that moment will be forever etched in my memory.

(3) In Times Past – A History of the Lower Jordan Creek Communities by Jordan Valley local historian/ author, Hazel R. Fretwell-Johnson, 3rd Edition, Page 95 & 96, Caxton Printers 

Thanks for taking the time to read this chapter. Ready for the next one? The Lower Owyhee River – Part IV – Deep in the Canyon will be published next week. If you are already a subscriber, you’ll receive an email with a link to the next chapter, when published. If you’re not a subscriber, be sure to check back.

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