The Lower Owyhee River – Part V – Last Day

Saturday, June 5, 2021

River Mile 36.5 - 51.5 - Flow at Rome Gauge 203 cfs

My wristwatch quit working several days ago, but I’m sure I was up at 4:30 a.m. In softly diffused light of the canyon, I made coffee. I wasn’t in a hurry to get going, but I did feel a need to tidy up and reorganize. I took all the gear out of my dry bag, laying it in organized piles for later repacking, and shook the sand out of the duffle. Once I had completed that task, I emptied my tent, picked it up by it’s frame, and with its door hanging open, shook the dirt out, disassembled it and packed it away. Then, with everything in its place, I made my second cup of coffee, sat and watched the river. A dipper bird worked the riffle near me. He had been there last night too. 

I saw that John was awake and moving about in the upper flat. He too, was organizing his gear. It was a two-cup-of-coffee morning, or maybe three. A short time later, he asked about hiking. We had already discussed it somewhat the previous evening, and I didn’t think we should go. But John must have 

detected my ambivalence and so asked again this morning to confirm.

This was to be our layover camp. The original plan was to hike to Iron Point today, and I had been mulling this over all of yesterday afternoon and again this morning. I would have loved to show John the canyon from high above: stair-stepped cliff walls etched with bighorn sheep trails, bighorns if you were lucky, and grasslands scattered with small wildflower communities. While we were long past seeing the sunny, golden blooms of arrowleaf-balsam root, there might be a delicate cream-colored sego lily swaying in the breeze on its very long stem, an electric blue penstemon flashing its amazing color among the bunch grasses, or a scarlet desert paint brush poking up through sagebrush, and always a scenic view, an amazing panorama in every direction.

Scarlet Desert Paint Brush
Sego Lily
Blue Penstemon with Buckwheat

One of those views is from a rest stop about three quarters of the way to the summit. A single stunted juniper tree grows near the rim and provides a small shade oasis. Sitting back about fifteen feet from the juniper stands a Basque cairn, and tucked into this stack of rocks is a rusted out sardine tin. Sardines are a common food of the Basque sheepherder, and one can’t help but wonder how long the tin had been there. And did the sheepherder think, like I did, how beautiful it was to rest here? The tablelands on either side of the river canyon look like negative images of each other, as if they were puzzle pieces that would fit together perfectly if you were able to push the two sides of the canyon rim together.

These images and many more, coupled with the wholeness of spirit I felt when making this hike, created a deep inner struggle. A longing to stand once again at Iron Point acted like a powerful magnetic force in favor of the climb. Despite the fact that it was strenuous, without trails, and with full sun exposure, it was a hike I loved.  My dilemma? The weather. We were in the middle of a late spring heat wave with temperatures in the low 100s. I don’t function well in intense heat during hikes that require great exertion. If there were intermittent streams where I could soak my clothes and let evaporation keep me cool between creek drainages, I could manage it well.  But we didn’t have that luxury in the sagelands above us. We would have to leave right away for me to summit without heat stress. Less critical, but still important, was the fact that John didn’t have long hiking pants with him. They do offer protection from the sun and some defense from sharp rocks and desert vegetation. John was used to discomfort. He would probably be fine if he lathered up with sunscreen. I didn’t know how he fared in the heat, but I knew there was some risk for me. John didn’t need to be put into the position of coming to the aid of his guide and friend in unfamiliar territory. Already warm in our shaded camp along the river, I glanced at my iphone and noticed it was 6:30 a.m. It would take me another 30 minutes to get ready. Despite the early hour, the sun had fully illuminated the canyon rim, and once we climbed a couple hundred feet above the river we would leave shade behind us. Heat was the deciding factor, and so, reluctantly, I said to John, “No, we won’t go. I think it’s too hot

for hiking,” all the while knowing what we were missing.

Neither of us had rushed the morning, but by 7:30 a.m. our boats were packed and ready to go. Accustomed to enjoying a morning campfire on the river with Mike, I realized the presence of a fire, and the time it took to attend it, helped slow the pace of our morning routines. Currently, campfires were prohibited on the river due to fire danger. In addition, new regulations require that you bring your own wood. Ignorance is responsible for that rule. People don’t take the time to learn about desert vegetation and can’t tell a live tree from a dead one. They’ve even sawed the limbs from the few standing trees in the canyon to use for fuel. We never had a problem with this. A good rule of thumb would be never to remove any vegetation that is still attached to anything, even if not green!  Some living things, like hackberry trees, do not begin to leaf out until June.

Looking north, down canyon, the sun had not yet hit the river. That’s what happens when you awake at 4:30! It was still too early. We wanted more sun on the river for warmth, when our paddling cloths became wet. We could wait. Grabbing our life vests to use as seat cushions, we sat on the river bank visiting for another half hour and then launched. I was pleased that my kayak was working so well with the air mattress stuffed in the floor bladder acting as the inflatable floor. It was working so well, in fact, that I occasionally forgot it was there.

Jackson Hole Basin

After leaving the embrace of Iron Point Canyon, the river corridor ran almost straight for one-and-a-half miles before a right-hand bend in the river opened to Jackson Hole. The morning sun reflected off broken cliff walls and weathered formations in shades of rust, orange and brown, casting a warm glow throughout the sweep. Here, where canyon rims recede from the river, many open, sage-covered flats appeared. Huge boulders punctuate the landscape, some known for their petroglyphs. Mike and I have combed the terrain several times over the years and have yet to find them. The flat-sided panels on many gigantic boulders do seem like a perfect place to share an ancient story.  I’m still hoping to read them one day.

A view looking downstream to the bowl known as Jackson Hole.

A Real Nuisance

As we floated and paddled beyond Jackson Creek drainage, a few strong head-winds kicked up, taking control of our kayaks, pushing us in directions we didn’t want to go, but fortunately, didn’t last more than thirty minutes. I told John that Nuisance Rapid (considered a class IV rapid at low water) and the Morcum Diversion Dam (a class III at low water) would be our only real challenges today and that Nuisance Rapid would be coming up soon.  I mistook a smaller rapid upstream for Nuisance, which we both ran successfully. As we approached the true Nuisance Rapid, I recognized my mistake and, looking back at John, confessed, “This is the real Nuisance!”

It is more than a nuisance — it was a real challenge at low flows, with boulders tightly spaced and few clear paddle lines. One error was bound to lead to some degree of trouble. I don’t believe anyone makes it down gracefully, and I was no exception. After bumping my kayak against rocks a few times in the rapid’s narrow channels, I turned in the run-out to watch John come through. Instead, I found him in the river, already at the bottom of the rapid, trying to corral his kayak! He handed me his paddle as he made his way into an eddy close to shore and found footing where he could stand, recover and check gear. Still surprised, I said, “I didn’t see you flip!”

“I felt like I was inside a pin-ball machine,” was John’s response, and he went on to explain that his body would hit a boulder and then be hit again by his kayak ricocheting off a rock. He suffered a series of one-two punches all the way down the rapid. He commented on the water’s depth. Most of the rapids we had encountered had been shallow, but he couldn’t find bottom in this one. The deep waters of this rapid were probably due to two factors: a constriction in the river channel at the rapid’s location, and the beginning effects of backwater caused by Morcum Dam, another 1800 feet downstream. Fortunately he was not hurt.

Below Nuisance Rapid, we drifted into view of Rinehart Falls. It is a large waterfall that, when viewed from the river, is about 300 yards away. It begins halfway up the canyon wall, nestled in a concave section of rimrock carved out by Rinehart Creek. The now-historic Rinehart Ranch is located in an open valley above the falls, a little more than a mile from the river. The ranch is near the source of several springs that flow together, creating the good-sized creek; we welcomed the respectable volume of water added to the river. A dense barrier of brush and wild roses begins at the base of the falls and extends all the way to river’s edge, protecting the drainage from all but the most tenacious explorer. We viewed it only briefly before our attention turned to Morcum Dam, just a little over 200 yards downstream.

Morcum Dam

Morcum Dam is a diversion dam, constructed in 1963 to provide water for the now abandoned Hole-in-the-Ground Ranch. The sharp rocks that span the river, creating a class III rapid at low water, can spell trouble. Without greater volumes of water running over the dam, there are only a couple of places where kayaks might sneak through unscathed. Our shuttle company had warned us to be careful at Morcum because another river party had suffered a tear in their raft. Never having run this stretch at this flow, I planned to scout it, and we would line or portage it if we deemed it too risky to run. 

We beached our kayaks on river left, tied them up to a dense border of willows which continued along our scouting path all the way to river’s edge near the dam. We bush-whacked through the vegetation to find a clear view.  Looking at the dam from the downstream side, I saw one slot just right of a triangular shaped boulder that remained fairly clear. Although we’d probably feel a rock or two going through, we decided to run it.

Returning to our kayaks, I went first, paddling out into the current, keeping my eye on the triangular boulder. As I drifted closer to the drop and more of the river’s flow through the long span of the diversion dam became visible, I began doubting

myself. The view from upstream looked so different! The plan was to run left of the boulder. Was I wrong? My indecision cost me, as I drifted too close to the boulder to correct my approach. I hit the boulder sideways, which rolled my kayak and threw me into the river. The fall below the dam wasn’t very long, and I drifted into the deep pool at the runout. I had never flipped in Morcum Dam, and only one other time had I flipped my inflatable on the lower stretch of the Owyhee. Both times were avoidable. Both times involved reading a small rapid and then doubting my own judgement. It was a good lesson for me to have more faith in my assessments, a lesson I hoped I had learned this time.

John negotiated the small, tricky, rock opening in the dam just fine and helped steady my kayak for me while I hoisted myself from the river into it. The kayaks came through undamaged, and as far as I could tell, so did I, only hitting my left shin bone pretty hard. It was bleeding.  I’d check it out at our next stop, Hole-in-the Ground Ranch, about a mile downstream.

From Morcum Dam, the rimrock receded far into the distance as we entered an open landscape. To our north, badlands exposed eroded, multi-colored layers of ash and mud. To our south stood the abandoned home and out-buildings of the former ranch, and we stopped there to visit the old homestead.

Hole-in-the-Ground Ranch

Ranching along the river’s high grassy floodplains on the south side began in the area in 1901 at what later became known as the Hole-in-the-Ground Ranch. Ranching continued for many decades, passing through the hands of several owners, along with their hopes and dreams for the place. It all went up in smoke when a fire raged through the ranch in 1985, destroying most of the buildings. Eight years later, the BLM acquired the ranch, whose lands are now a part of the Owyhee Wild and Scenic River Act. 

Surveying the grounds and the few remaining structures revealed construction materials and excavations spanning eighty years. With freshwater springs nearby and an expansive area for growing hay or alfalfa, we could see the appeal of

living here. It’s a shame that the BLM hasn’t found a way to protect what remains, not even signage requesting visitors to “take only pictures, and nothing more,” as bits and pieces of the ranch disappear.

Returning to the river, the next four miles remained somewhat open. Except for Devil’s Tower, a distinctive mesa of columnar basalt that dominated the background, there was little of the desert landscape in this stretch to command our attention; but the river did, as it contained many more rock gardens and elevation drops than in previous days, and it kept us challenged finding a line through them. The elevation drops meant that the river flowed a little faster, too, putting us at Greeley Bar sooner than I expected.

Greeley Bar to Birch Creek Take-Out

I pointed out to John a large marshy area of green grasses at river level where hot springs lay hidden, just upstream of Greeley Bar. We landed at the bar and headed to the shade provided by hackberry trees that border the camping area. Taking a lunch break, we discussed our options. I had originally thought we’d camp here, but it was just after noon on a very hot day, and the campsite was overused, dusty and uninviting. We discussed taking another site downstream, but given the time of day and the short five-and-a-half miles to the Birch Creek take-out, we decided to paddle on and camp at Birch Creek instead.

In these last miles on the Owyhee, the canyon walls close in once again. It is the canyon’s last embrace, reminding us of all the beauty we had witnessed in the past few days: displays of red-rock rhyolite cliff walls, towering hoodoos, lava flows, and even a miniature Lambert Dome.

A couple miles below Greeley Bar, strong winds slowed us in a few areas, then released us to the river current.  I wondered if they’d trouble us, as they usually did, when we rounded the corner from Birch Creek Ranch.

Bonnie Olin overlooks the campsite at Greeley Bar on the Lower Owyhee River.

They did not disappoint. 

Here, in the last half-mile stretch to the take-out, the river is broad. A narrow, one-lane road into the campground sits well above the right bank. It is carved into cliff walls before it passes into open fields scattered with old farming equipment and a few cabins. The timbers from the framework of an old waterwheel, and what remains of the wheel, hang on the steep bank just below the road. The wind did not confront us when we rounded the bend at first but did by the time we drifted past the old wheel. John was ahead of me. Strong wind gusts hit the water, creating ripples and small white-caps upon its surface as they made their way upstream. Instead of being caught out in the center, John headed to the right bank, where vegetation along the river might offer a wind break. I did the same. That last half mile was a hard paddle; wind gusts sometimes brought me to a full stop. How fortunate we had been in the last four days to experience so little wind in the canyon, especially on a low-water river trip. The Owyhee winds had given us a pass, showing us its muscle for only a few hundred yards.

We unloaded our gear at the take-out on a semi-grassy area near the water, retrieved our vehicles, threw our gear into the truck beds, and drove downstream, picking out a good campsite. Each site had a picnic table, and there was one pit toilet a short walk back up the road. The camps were on a high flat bench off the river, shaded by cottonwood trees that lined the river’s bank, with just enough grass in certain areas where pitching our tents kept us out of the dust. While not as isolated as the campsite at Greeley Bar, it was a cleaner site. We had the place mostly to ourselves, with only two other parties camped at opposite ends of the road and no other campers surrounding us. 

It was a good decision to continue down the river to Birch Creek this afternoon and would give us a half-day head start on our respective drives home. But for me, it came with a dose of melancholy, a chronic condition I experience at the end of every river trip. It was too short, I thought to myself, as I was just settling into a new pattern of living, one not guided by the hands of a clock or the days of the week. But it was enough to sustain me — for now.

(6) – When boater’s deem a rapid too difficult or dangerous to run while sitting in their boat, they may decide to “line the rapid.” While standing on the shore, they attach a rope to their raft, kayak or other floatation device, push their raft out into the river and allow the water’s current to float it through the rapid and around obstacles in the water. Lining a rapid is not an easy exercise. A  lengthy rapid greatly increases the chances of having your raft flip in the river, hang up on a boulder or wrap around it sideways. All of these situations complicate the lining and add to a boater’s misery. In this last case, the worst, you have the force of the river flooding your boat and keeping it pinned to the boulder. Because of this, it’s best to keep your boat close to the shoreline when lining it, so that you have more control in guiding it and can push the raft off rocks where it may hang up.

(7) – For more information on Hole-in-the-Ground Ranch and the Owyhee region in general, check out the very fine blog postings of Bill Crowell at owyheemarginalia.com

(8) – In North America, the term “hoodoos” is a noun to describe a column or pinnacle of weathered rock.

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