Chad and I had the recent and rare opportunity to document a five-day guided tour down the Owyhee River. Unfortunately we didn’t have wi-fi on the river, so we couldn’t post live updates, but we did get tons of cool photo and video material to share with you guys! Check back at the blog over the next weeks as I recap this amazing experience, made possible by Helfrich River Outfitters. -Jon


Day 1: Water and Weather

“Water and weather–two things you don’t see on the Owyhee.” This is the first thing we hear at the put-in at Rome, Oregon, where we’ve arrived after a two-hour bumpy bus ride from Caldwell through Jordan Valley. “Untouched” is the perfect word to describe this landscape. The Owyhee is unique in that it needs a strong snowpack to run, which it doesn’t always get. You can’t just drive your car into the canyon and camp along the river either; you have to float down it. It’s been six years since rafters could float this pristine stretch of beauty. But this year the canyonlands have both: water and weather. And we get to experience it all.

We have signed up with Helfrich River Outfitters to take us down the river. Prince Helfrich was the first person to ever guide a trip down the Owyhee in the 1920’s. Now, almost one hundred years later, his great granddaughter, Kelsey, and her father, Ken, carry on the family legacy.  Their pristine drift boats provide an experience like no other.

We are in one of the cargo boats all week with Sena Strenge, documenting the drift boats cruising down the river. Sena is a talented guide who hails from Cooke City, Montana. On this trip, she faces the challenge of navigating this river for the first time, while delivering us and our exposed cameras from class IV whitewater.

It’s a calm run just after Rome, with no big water–yet. Still, the scenery is amazing. Hundred-year-old bridges span overhead while local farms drift by. The first big rapid we hit is “Bullseye (so-called by the BLM, but referred to as “Snark” by our guides). You see, Helfrich was down here before anyone started naming things, so for every other big rapid, they probably have a name of their own. Sena navigates the rapid just fine, though I get hit with my first cold splash of the journey.

In the two-mile stretch of Sweetwater Canyon, the first glimpses of the “Grand Canyon of Oregon” rise up on both sides of us. Sheer cliffs with swallow nests tower over the drift boats and everyone strains their necks, staring at the breathtaking canyon walls as we float calmly by.

We arrive at our campsite, Hike-Out, around 4:00 pm. After setting up camp, we eat some delicious burgers cooked on the grill, cliffs all around us. We shoot sunset at the top of the cliffs behind our campsite, a serene and phenomenal view.

Dinner is freshly grilled salmon and jackass bread cooked in a large dutch oven. Prince Helfrich got the recipe for the bread from some Basque sheepherders he met during an expedition many years ago. At dinner, Ken regales us with a tale about getting bitten by a rattlesnake during his youth.

I sleep outside under the stars tonight. Our tents are magnificent and comfy, but the stars are out and the canyonlands is one of the last places in the lower 48 without light pollution. Falling asleep on the cot I think to myself, not a bad first day.

The group gathers under the stars on the first night.

To see more action from Day One on the river, check out our behind the scenes video!


Read more:
Day 2
Day 3
Days 4/5

Text by: Jonathan Conti

Photos by: Chad Case