Deep in the Canyon
Lower Owyhee River – Part 4.1 – Deep in the Canyon
Friday, June 4, 2021
River Mile 26.1 - 36.5 - Flow at Rome Gauge 223 cfs
I awoke to clear skies, and I had slept so well! After yesterday’s trouble with my kayak valve, a relaxed morning of coffee and conversation would be welcome. John noticed a dark stain near the top of a cliff wall across the river that continued down its face, indicating that water had recently run there. The sand in camp was still wet to a depth of several inches. We wondered if the river came up over night, but I hadn’t marked the level upon our arrival, so we couldn’t be certain. We removed our rainflies, spreading them out and over the bushes to let them dry in the morning sun, and had another cup of coffee. Finally, some internal clock signaled it was time to get moving and we began to organize and put away supplies.
Packing up was easy enough, but loading our gear was inconvenient and awkward. Both of us needed to inflate our kayaks while they floated in the water. I had only my air mattress in the floor to inflate, which meant unzipping the floor again. It required three hands: one to hold the opening of the air mattress, which had no protruding valve stem to hang on to, one to pump, and one to hang on to the pump. I was making little headway on my own and grateful for the third hand when it appeared. We pumped my sleeping mattress to the maximum this time. I hoped it would hold and really make a difference in negotiating the river.
We had two rapids of concern to go through, and in my mind, we both needed all the lift we could infuse into our rafts to allow us the control we needed to navigate them. In such low flows, you didn’t have powerful hydraulics and swirling eddies of a swollen river to contend with. Instead, the runs were technical in nature, with fewer channels to choose from, usually just one. Your gaze was always on the water, looking
out for what might be hidden just beneath the surface. Our kayaks needed to be nimble.
With the toughest chore of the morning behind us, and after one last check for stray gear, we pushed off and drifted on through the basin. It was an easy, windless morning — quiet except for the sound of rippling water and occasional bird song. Periodic and uniform elevation drops in the river channel kept the water flowing and moved us along. Soon, we could see a primative road coming off the rim and winding its way down onto the expansive river bench to our right. Potters Cave was just ahead.
Potters Cave is an ancient rock shelter lying at the base of a tall, overhanging cliff wall. Huge slabs of the wall had broken off and filled in much of the shelter years ago. It had long been looted for its artifacts. John had read about the shelter and its condition, so we did not hike into it, but we did take a break here, had a light snack, and John adjusted the cargo in his kayak to achieve a better distribution of weight.
From the cave, the canyon narrows, and rhyolite cliff walls begin to appear on either side of the river. It’s a straight shot down the river for about a mile in waters as smooth as a lake. I checked for a familiar spring on the left bank. In the few years since my last run, it had carved a trench in the soft earth, leading it away from the river bank, and had dug its way up the steep slope beneath grasses and poison ivy. The force of the spring’s flow had also diminished to the point it no longer ran to the edge of the bank. With no landing site for the kayaks, and since I knew of a better spring down stream,we passed it by.
Whistling Bird Rapid
As we approached the lead-in to Whistling Bird Rapid, we beached our kayaks on river left and made our way thru the tall grasses to the downstream edge of a small boulder garden for a better view of the run. From the placid, lake-like waters we had been paddling, the river suddenly drops elevation, making a sharp bend to the right and immediately left, as it deflects off cliff walls. The rapid’s double danger lies in the fact that a giant rectangular slab of the cliff had broken off and slid into the river, standing upright and at a slight angle, leaving a large gap between the main wall and the broken slab. At both high and low flows, the river runs on either side of the slab. It is a death trap, and there have been drownings here. Even at low flows, the sudden drop in elevation has the entire river
funneling you into the slab, boiling up against the rock. Following the river’s curved tongue, your speed increases as you quickly drop into a strong current, so you want to begin pulling left long before you think you need to. Even after running this rapid many times at various flows, you can’t assume the route is clear of debris, as you don’t see it fully until you’re in the current’s grip. Mike and I have always scouted it.
I went first, shot through like a bobsled on ice without a problem, and pulled out quickly, so I could film John coming through. I doubted he would run into trouble, as he’s a strong paddler. And I was right, he had a safe run.
From Whistling Bird, we entered the deepest, most magnificent section of the Lower Owyhee — Iron Point Canyon. The river is squeezed between walls that tower 1,360 feet above river at its greatest height. There is a geological mix in the canyon of rhyolite, sedimentary layers and basalt, but it’s the rhyolite that stands out. Some cliff walls fell perpendicular all the way to the river while others were footed with rock piles, sandy beaches, or both.
This canyon caught John’s attention. As he was gazing at those magnificent vertical walls, I wondered how a mountaineer might see them, so I asked, “John, would these walls entice a rock climber?”
“Rhyolite is good hard rock,” he said, “but I don’t see many seams in the rock.” By “good hard rock,” John meant rock that wouldn’t crumble, flake off or easily break apart when a climber’s life depended on a solid weight-bearing foundation to stand on, or for a secure and stable piton placement or handhold that wouldn’t give way under pressure. By “seams,” John meant long, vertical or horizontal cracks in the rock a climber might wedge fingers, toes or a piton into to assist in climbing a rock wall.
The first two miles of Iron Point canyon run due east, before making a sharp dog-leg bend to the north. One-and-a-half miles in, I began looking for a spring we would use to refill our water bags and found it. About 15 feet from river’s edge sat a large boulder, and the spring ran out from beneath it. The small stream it created had carved out a small, deep channel
and was lined with poison ivy on the right and tall grasses with a little poison ivy on the left. We entered left to replenished our supply. After securing my water bag beneath the bow bag, I looked up to discover a bighorn sheep looking down at us. Only its head was visible, but it kept looking back over its shoulder and then to us, as if telling the rest of the herd they were not alone. As much as I respect and admire the skill set of a rock climber, I will confess that I didn’t want to see anything looking down at me from these cliffs but bighorns. It was comforting to know they were still up there.
Lower Owyhee River – Part 4.2 – Deep in the Canyon
Montgomery Rapid was just around another sharp, nearly 90-degree, bend in the river. Just before the rapid, we pulled out on river left and walked ahead a short distance to scout the run. It too, sat on a corner. It was a long, snaking curve that funneled a paddler left, into an undercut cliff wall, and then right, just above a series of large boulders, followed by a drop. The lead-in was very shallow — we could have walked down most of it. At this flow, if you stayed far to the left and followed the small but distinguishable main tongue, the current would carry you through the shallows, next to the cliff wall, and not into it. The river then pooled briefly, allowing the kayaker only a moment to set up for one of the three drops that followed.
The water flowed around three large boulders where the path through was easily seen. But what obstacles might lie in the path beyond each drop was difficult to determine from our scouting position. Counting the boulders from river left, a large gap appeared between boulders two and three. A kayak might slip between boulders two and three at higher flows, but in low water, normally-submerged large rocks could be exposed.
Instead, I pointed out to John that I would take the usual route between the third boulder and the right bank. I’d go first, allowing him to spot any areas where I might run into trouble, which he could then try to avoid. I made it down just fine but remember dragging at the bottom of the drop as I slid over the top of one rock near the water’s surface.
In hindsight, with the river this low, we could have paddled into a large eddy above the rapid on river right, beached our kayaks on the now-exposed gravel bar, and walked to the downside of the rapid to scout it. I did not think of this at the time. But for John’s sake, I’m sorry I didn’t. It would have given him a far better view of the best paddling line to make it through unscathed at the bottom.
I took a video of John making the run. He executed the upper half perfectly and set himself up pretty well. It was reading the drop that caught him off the mark, and he found himself stuck on a submerged rock in the shallows. It took him awhile to free himself, but he was able to manage it without my having to throw him a rope.
From Montgomery Rapid, the canyon flows due north for nearly four miles, but in the next two miles we would remain deep in the canyon’s embrace; and unlike the first half, this section contained few rapids. While we stayed alert to avoid many shallow riffles, we had more time to savor the scenery.
We arrived at our campsite around 2 p.m. It has a name now. They call it Exit Camp, and it’s on river left. It begins as a large gravel bar on its upper end and extends about a tenth of a mile, ending as a sandy beach, and lined with hackberry trees on the downstream side. Above the gravel bar sits a high flat bench extending out from the base of vertical cliff walls. We had room to spread out and many choices for tent sites. John offered to help me carry my large duffle bag to the upper level of the bench where the cliff walls had already provided some shade. But after two camps where it was inconvenient and difficult to unload, I wasn’t going to work any more than I had to, even with a kind offer of help. Instead, I pitched my tent about fifteen feet from my kayak on the flat, partially-graveled beach near the river. It was in the sun, but in a couple of hours, maybe less, the shade of the cliff wall would reach me.
After setting up my kitchen, I went for a swim. I waded into the river just below the little riffle near camp. Buoyed up by the water’s surprisingly strong current, and while floating on my back, I rode it to a deep pool at the end of the run-out. Then, catching the upstream eddy along the shore, circled back three
more times, like a river otter might do. Afterwards, I changed out of my swimming suit and freshened up in the privacy of the nearby trees.
I was sorry to see that several hackberry trees were dying and the sand beach beneath them had partially washed away, leaving a steep, eroded bank. Tall swamp grass now grew at river’s edge. Foot-long willow spikes poking up through the sand had encroached upon the sand beach, threatening to overtake the entire length of the gravel bar. The Owyhee River was years overdue for a good scouring. It would require a deep snowpack and a sudden spring run-off to generate the power needed to rip out the willows and poison ivy that had infiltrated the canyon corridor, and so, refresh the beaches. The last time that happened was March, 1993, when the river’s fury reached historic flows exceeding 55,000 cfs. Mike and I had put in on the South Fork of the Owyhee about a month after that momentous runoff. I remember beautiful beaches then, but also entire juniper trees flattened from the force of the river: some ripped from their mooring and tossed twenty feet or more above riverbanks, a few balanced atop boulders, and others jammed between boulders. Debris and grasses were threaded throughout the dying branches of mangled junipers. These trees were a testament to the power of water at flood. It needed to happen again, which caused me to wonder, what was the natural state of the Owyhee?
In 1819, Donald McKenzie sent three Hawaiian members of his Northwest Fur Company up the then-unknown (to European Americans) tributary of the Snake River. The river was called Tim-mo-a-mon by local Shoshone Tribes,(4) which may translate to “the fishing place.”(5) The Hawaiians were to investigate the river’s suitability for the fur trading market (specifically, beaver pelts) but they never returned to report their findings. McKenzie, learning of their deaths the following year, named the river The Owyhee, in their honor. Owyhee was the spelling of Hawaii during that time period and the name used to reference the inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands. But what did the Hawaiians see? What did the Owyhee River corridor look like in 1820? And were beaver plentiful?
McKenzie speaks of an abundance of beaver along the Mulheur River in his journal but little about the Owyhee.
Peter Skene Ogden mentions the Sandwich Island River in his Snake Country Journals, but a review of maps outlining his journey during the period show that he never went up the Owyhee River from its confluence with the Snake River. He did travel the upstream edges of the East Fork of the Owyhee, along the borders of Idaho and Nevada, in what is now the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. He wrote of “cut canyons” in reference to the beginnings of deep canyon country along Battle Creek, a tributary of the East Fork Owyhee, north of the Duck Valley Reservation, but then his journey takes him northwest, along the Snake River. I cannot find a journal entry from either man that details the vegetation, or the presence of beaver, in the interior of the Owyhee River canyons. However, having kayaked the canyons of the East Fork several times and having hiked along the “cut canyons” of Battle Creek, we can make an educated guess about what the entire river corridor once looked like.
There are areas in the upper regions of the Owyhee River that hint of once-thriving beaver colonies and offer a glimpse of what the river may have looked like farther downstream 200 years ago. In June, 2001, Mike and I made a low-water trip down the East Fork of the Owyhee from Garat Crossing. This put-in is located a short distance northwest of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. We came upon many beaver dams constructed of willow branches during the first days of our trip, portaging four dams in a single day! At the confluence of Battle Creek with the East Fork, willows lined the riparian areas, creating a dense barrier. The bottom of the Battle Creek drainage was filled with them, nearly blotting out a view of the creek. And once, while paddling a few miles above Three Forks, I watched the largest beaver I had ever seen slide silently into the river. I thought then that they once must have been here in great numbers. And I hoped they might be again. Their presence would help to restore the river and create a welcoming environment for the native redband trout, a unique desert-type trout. To see that happen, I would be more than happy to bush-whack my way through willows to a campsite.
Rivers reflect many human qualities. I like to think that they represent the vascular system of our planet. And like the human vascular system, they do not function as intended when the life-giving waters they carry are impounded or blocked by dams. Imitating our lungs, it is nature’s intent that rivers be able to expand and contract with the increased and decreased flows of the seasons. We now understand that there are many factors working together that create a healthy river environment. A vegetated riparian corridor helps to keep water cool, which is necessary for many fish species. Wetlands filter toxins and absorb flood waters. Beaver dams and downed trees help slow the river’s movement and provide resting places for fish. Salmon once migrated up the Snake River to the Owyhee River and into Nevada. At the end of their long migration, they spawn and then die. We now know that their decaying bodies add important nutrients to the water and surrounding soils on which other life depends. With the completion of the Owyhee Dam in 1932, and with the absence of a fish ladder due to the dam’s height of 417 feet, salmon migration came to an abrupt halt, eliminating an important food source for people and wildlife, both upstream and downstream of the dam.
These reflections kept streaming through my mind while setting up camp. Every view of the canyon, every inflection in temperature, light and weather evoked a memory.
And like a river, they kept on flowing.
Looking up from my work momentarily, I noticed that John had staked out a really nice space on the upper bench. A month ago, he would have found, scattered about his tent, the long-stemmed blue-flowered brodia. Even so, he still enjoyed a sparse scattering of green grasses and a few naturally placed boulders to lay out his gear. We both had a room with a view, and I was delighted to have my supplies so close at hand. It felt good to be early in camp, with enough downtime to read or write in our journals. We passed the afternoon and evening in pleasant conversation tucked between periods of personal, silent reflection.
Late in the afternoon, John pointed to turkey vultures soaring back and forth along the edges of the canyon rim above our camp. “Yes, we always see them here,” I said in response. As I watched, I remembered an afternoon years ago with Mike when the vultures dropped into the canyon directly across river from us in this same camp and engaged in an activity that looked like play. They soared close to the rock face, their wing tips nearly touching the rock, their huge wing spans casting giant shadows against the brightly lit cliff wall. Riding the canyon thermals, they chased their shadows repeatedly, demonstrating remarkable aeronautic skills that we watched with envy
(4) Maps of Historial Oregon, Western Guide Publishers, Corvallis, Oregon, Copyright 1972 by R.N. Preston – Map of Lewis and Clark’s Track 1804, 5 & 6
(5) Shoshone dictionary, Knight Library, University of Oregon. The early spelling of indigenous words were not yet standardized, so the spelling of Tim-mo-a-mon could be different. I went through the dictionary looking up spellings that began with: Ta, Te, Ti, To and Tu, never finding the exact word I was looking for, but found a close look-a-like that meant “a fishing place.” The reader should not take my research as the final word on the meaning of this word – I could be wrong.
Did You Know?
Did you know that despite their large appearance and 6 foot wingspan, turkey vultures weigh only 2-4 pounds? Their light weight and ability to catch rising air currents allows them to soar for hours without flapping their wings, taking them as high as 20,000 feet! When you see a turkey vulture “sunbathing” with its wings spread while perched, it may be warming up in the sun after a cool night, but it is also a method of disinfecting its feathers after a meal.
Despite eating carrion, turkey vultures like fresh meat. “They can smell carrion less than 12-24 hours old” from a mile away! And to help them digest their food, the stomach acid of a vulture is stronger than battery acid! For more interesting facts about turkey vultures, click on Audubon.