Magical Owyhee
Journey to the Edge of the Earth

By Chad Case

Idaho Magazine August 2008, Volume 7 Number 11

Serpentine canyons of red and brown cut through the high desert in one of America’s most remote territories, the Owyhee Canyonlands. I expected another paddling adventure and was thankfully surprised to be awarded a true wilderness experience, drifting off the edge of the earth into a magical land.

Our exotic journey to the brink of civilization began at a local hotel parking lot in Boise, Idaho, loading trucks, suburbans, and trailers with gear, food and people. As I sipped my coffee and chatted with my fellow paddlers, I gazed out the window at the flat sagebrush step and snow capped Owyhee Mountains beyond as we rumbled down the highway through Mountain Home, Bruneau and Duck Valley Indian Reservation. It was mid May and we were embarking on a 7 day expeditionary style float trip down the South Fork of the Owyhee River.

It had rained the night before and Marvin, a cowboy that grew up ranching in these parts,  gently guided our fully loaded suburban with trailer attached down the slippery muddy road  with one hand draped over the top of the wheel. As we started to slide off the road Marvin  stopped, kicked the vintage suburban into 4 low and crept up the hill fish tailing from side  to side.

Floating rivers in the Owyhee Canyonlands is challenging to say the least. Unpredictable  river flows, a short season, and washed our roads make the Owyhee an intimidating  landscape. It is these very reasons that have kept this land a hidden jewel from droves of  people and where you can experience isolation and the magic of a last true wilderness.

After we aired up the kayaks and lashed down the gear, we wiggled into our neoprene bibs,  cinched up our personal floatation device, and put on our helmets. Dustin Aherin, our lead guide, proceeded with the safety talk in which he told us everything that could go wrong and what to do to prevent or survive those situations. It began to sink in that we were alone in an isolated land of 2.5 million acres. A satellite phone and a long lifeflight were the only options if something were to go wrong.

With the safety talk fresh on my mind I launched my kayak loaded with my personal gear into the current. There was not a cloud in the sky and we had little time to get used to the kayaks before our whitewater initiation on “Devils Pinball”, a succession of eight Class III rapids.

Anxiety and excitement began to build along with the sound of the whitewater in the distance. Dustin went through first with the supply  raft and  barked back orders on which line to follow. Two additional  guides in kayaks,  Lexie and Tyler, took us into the frothy roller coaster.  My heart raced and my  hands gripped my paddle with adrenalin as I  feverishly paddled through wave  after wave. The cold water rushed over  my face and body taking my breath  away at times. I could hear whoops,  hollers and wee hees over the churningof the whitewater from the rest  of the group.

That night there were big smiles on a lot of faces as the magic of this land  started to  sink in. After thunderstorm raged through camp nearly taking some  tents with it, we  enjoyed a prime rib dinner, then kicked back around the  sagebrush fire with nothing  to hear but the pops and cracks of the flames, the  song of a bird and the gentle hush  of the river flowing near by.

The next morning the green slopes of grass, sagebrush and willow transformed into  thousand foot high red and brown cliffs characteristic of Bryce and Zion Parks in  southern Utah. Jaws dropped and necks craned as a mystical silence blanketed the  group while we paddled slowly down river being pulled further into the heart of this  land.

Time melted away from day to day. The tranquility and serenity of the canyons occasionally gave way to the exhilaration of whitewater. Some whitewater broke the stillness of the canyon with a deafening roar. Cabin and Cable Rapids were both so mammoth we portaged our gear and boats around the rapids and put in downstream. The Cable Rapids portage was a character building experience; climbing up steep slopes with shifting rocks and working as a group to get the support raft through the dangerous, frothy water.

Seven days, eighty miles and no shower made our final day soak at the hot springs near Three Forks extra special. Lush green vegetation and the cascading waterfalls contrasted the desert environment as we nosed our boats into shore. After a “power shower” in the pounding waterfall, we soaked in the deep pools above and stared up at a cobalt blue sky with a sigh of accomplishment and melancholy as we finished the trip and headed back to civilization.

After one week on the river, the unique power of this rarely visited place had sank into my soul. I pondered the current state of the Owyhee Canyonlands and the proposed wilderness area. Native Americans, ranchers, the military and conservationists are working together with the Bureau of Land Management on this multi-use land. Off-road vehicle use, overgrazing and the bombing range threaten the purity of this awesome place. As an individual who has done a fair amount of world travel, the Owyhee is the first place I truly felt like I had dropped of the edge of the earth and I sincerely hope we can preserve and pass on this pristine area and its rugged isolation to future generations.

If you go:
ROW Adventures 800-451-6034,

When: April to late May

Look for:
Big Horn Sheep
Mule Deer

The Nitty Gritty:
Seven days and 80 miles of river
Paddle through one of the lower 48’s most remote open spaces
Plenty of Class I to Class III rapids to get your blood pumping
Two monster rapids to admire and portage around
Thousand foot high canyon cliffs
Variety of topography from canyon floor to desert plain

Idaho Magazine

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