Stay tuned as we take you down the Owyhee on our trip with Helfrich River Outfitters!
Day 2: “Keep Left”
I wake up early to find a slight frost on my sleeping bag. It may be 90 degrees during the day, but at night, the canyon gets down to borderline freezing. We go for a little hike to find the best spot to photograph the sunrise. Kelsey and her team start preparing breakfast: steak and eggs with pancakes on the side.
Camp gets packed up onto the rowboats, and they set out to find the next spot to set up. The drift boats and our raft set out about an hour later–a little after 10:00 am.
We are definitely in the Owyhee Canyonlands now, passing in and out of large canyon walls. Unique lava spires and formations dot the landscape. Birds of all shapes and sizes fly overhead as we make our way downriver.
Today’s course covers the most whitewater out of the five-day trip. Not long into the float we hit “Read-it-and-Weep” (class III+) and “Artillery” (class III+). After Artillery, Chad and I hop out of the raft to fly the drone and snap photos of the drift boats as they hit the whitewater. At certain points of the rapid, the drift boats disappear from sights, dipping into holes, only to launch out of moments later. Most of the guests have looks on their faces like they are taking the plunge at Splash Mountain, while the guides are grinning at the opportunity to splash their guests.
We take a quick break at Rustler’s Cabin, a dilapidated homestead hidden up a hillside by a large grove of poplar trees. In the 1800’s, bandits from Idaho set up this hidden ranch to hide the stolen cattle they took from the Owyhee region. The rock corrals they built to house the cattle still stand today.
After our little side track we head three miles more down river and pull out to have lunch under Pruitt’s Castle. The holes in the monolith’s large eroded walls resemble windows and ramparts, and the tall spikes of white rock on top look like turrets, altogether giving it the appearance of an ancient castle. The spikes are banded with brown and red streaks of lava. This is one of the most impressive sights on the Owyhee.
After lunch at Pruitt’s Castle, we make our way through beautiful Chalk Basin. Composed of pale ashy sediment left from an ancient lake, and a volcanic rock, rhyolite, the basin is a beautiful mosaic of reds, browns and blacks, dotted with bright yellow balsam root. After maneuvering the class III “Dog Leg,” we come upon our last rapid of the day, “Whistling Bird.”
Whistling Bird is a class IV rapid, with a flat bank to our left, and a huge canyon wall to our right. Also to the right is a large slab of the canyon wall that has eroded off only to come to rest in the middle of the rapid. Having never run this rapid, Sena seeks Kelsey’s advice. “Keep left,” Kelsey keeps saying. “You need to keep left.” In theory, this is correct; you need to keep left of the huge slab in the rapid, but only after you’ve started on the right. Along the bank to our left, the river is shallow with good-sized rocks. The correct route is to start far right and come back hard left before the slab in a U-shaped route.
Following Kelsey’s advice, we start left, and soon find ourselves wrapped on a rock halfway down the rapid. Sena scrambles onto the rock and tries to push us off, but with no luck. She instructs me to jump down onto the rock with her. The raft still doesn’t budge. During this little ordeal, Chad is trying to store our camera gear in dry bags and strap them to the raft, something we quickly learn should be done before hitting serious whitewater. After a couple extra minutes of Sena telling Chad to hurry up, the three of us are all down on the rock trying to dislodge the raft. Finally, after being stuck for ten minutes, the raft loosens and we hop in frantically as Sena takes the oars and safely guides us the rest of the way through the rapid. Kelsey takes responsibility as soon as we get into camp.
We camp at Lower Whistling Bird, the last campground before Montgomery Canyon. Like the campsite the night before it is a large spacious area with a cliff at our backs. A short hike up the cliff provides a spectacular view down the canyon. Dinner is the most delicious fried chicken I’ve ever tasted, cooked in a pan that our guide George refers to as the “Paul Bunyan.” The evening is a little cooler, so we retreat to our tents after enjoying the view of the stars by the fire.
Watch more “Behind the Float!”
Text and video by: Jonathan Conti
Photos by: Chad Case (unless otherwise noted)