My Desert Adventure: Paddling Oregon’s Grand Canyon

Author: Ajay Sapre  |  Published: April 2, 2021  |  Category: Profile

A Portlander comes to understand that a trip down the Owyhee is about more than chasing rapids — it’s about experiencing the landscape itself.

After moving to Oregon in 2016, I focused most of my paddling on rivers close to my home in Portland. I started kayaking in high school and moving to the Pacific Northwest was an easy choice since this area is known by paddlers for its variety and beauty. I started hearing more about the “Grand Canyon of Oregon,” the Owyhee River, which sounded nothing like my weekend favorites, seeding the idea of heading into this unexplored territory farther from home.

Making my first trip into eastern Oregon and to the Owyhee during the spring of 2019 became an obvious choice. The river season is variable year to year, but the above-average snowpack from the prior winter meant the flows would deliver for a couple of months.

Driving east past Bend gave us the taste of hours of rolling sagebrush plains and wide-open landscapes. We saw pronghorn pairs dotting the landscape but not much else before arriving at the boat launch site in Rome. There were surprisingly few buildings there, with the most reliable gas over 100 miles away in Burns. While the put-in was crowded with excited boaters, the Owyhee still felt like a welcome escape from the bustle of everyday life in Portland.

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Julie Weikel on Wilderness

Julie Weikel on Wilderness

voices

John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

Restoration is hard slow work. It takes hold, or it doesn’t, in fits and starts. The immensity of the need can be discouraging, but we must carry on. I am so thankful ONDA carries on.

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Chad Brown on Fly Fishing

Chad Brown on Fly Fishing

On the river, I knew we’d find some flat water and the first day delivered with long stretches between class III rapids as the river slowly gained some gradient and flowed closer to the infamous canyon. Further downriver, there are two class IV rapids, Whistling Bird and Montgomery, which kept me on my toes to avoid hazards including undercut rocks. My favorite rapid of the trip was Artillery, which delivered a splashy series of big waves at the flows we paddled.

The one thing I didn’t expect was to be blown away by the amazing scenery. The entire Owyhee landscape was outstanding. I had no idea how big the canyon walls were going to be or all the colors in the rocks. My neck was sore from staring up at the beauty as we floated by. Now I knew why this area is called Oregon’s Grand Canyon! Every day there was a new type of formation to see and I wish we had a geologist with us to better understand the ever-changing volcanic landscape. Hiking up to the canyon rim from our campsites each day became a highlight of the trip as the views gave us a better perspective on the river carving deep through the desert plateau. We also saw many different wildflowers, birds, and our fair share of rattlesnakes along the way. 

My first trip to eastern Oregon was one I won’t forget. I’m already scheming my next visit back, with plans to paddle the middle Owyhee during our next solid water year. With deeper canyon walls, bigger class IV and V rapids, and more public lands to explore, I can’t wait to go back to the Owyhee.