An Oregon Desert Trail Adventure on the Owyhee River


Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator Renee Patrick shares her exploratory packraft alternate on the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) in the Owyhee Canyonlands.

Getting to the West Little Owyhee River where Oregon Desert Trail Section 21 begins is a logistical challenge. I had arranged for a variety of rides to get from Bend to the river for my mid-July adventure, and after a full morning on the road finally set off with a very heavy pack.  I never weighed the overflowing load, but with seven days of food and packrafting gear, I’m guessing it was about 60 pounds. Yikes.

Since most of our past ODT hikers reported heavy bushwacking in the first miles north of Anderson Crossing, I decided to hike an alternate that would skirt the west side of the canyon rim to drop in at Flag Crossing, about 13.5 miles into the canyon. I was happy to make easy miles that first afternoon, but the heat took its toll, and as I reached the river bottom that evening, I was completely wiped out. I made my camp right there, and spent the twilight hours marveling at the jagged canyon walls around me.

The next day I found myself in a boulder-choked canyon with a long drop down to a deep pool of water. Even though I knew the terrain would be a mixture of willows, boulders, and water, I decided to blow up my packraft and see how much of the canyon I could float. I was happy that I didn’t have to swim these sections, but the pools were short, and then I was left picking up my boat and pushing through the thick willows until I found the next pool of water to paddle.

The West Little Owyhee is extremely impressive, and challenging. If I didn’t have my boat I would be in for some swimming, but with my boat I was worried some sharp willow branch or thorny bush would pop the light inflatable craft. Fortunately the boat stayed afloat, and all in all I was happy with my decision to inflate the packraft … at least that day!

Plenty of fish and crawfish darted around in the water, and the canyon walls narrowed to squeeze the river into slim channels of deep blue-green water. Lots of sandy beaches dotted the canyon, and the air was alive with birds. The day was blissful despite the challenges.

At the end of the second day I put my boat away, and not a moment too soon for I was in for some bouldering. Rocks the size of houses and cars choked the river canyon, and I had to carefully pick my way up and around the obstacles. The rocky terrain continued into the next day before the canyon eventually opened to release the deep pools of water into intermittent shallow ponds where fish darted and hid from my shadow. I was thankful for my tall gaiters and thick-soled hiking shoes since I had been walking in and out of water and through thick brush the past few days. As much as I like to hike in a skirt, this was not skirt territory.

Evening on the third day found me a few miles from the confluence with the main Owyhee River. Right before making camp on a sand bar, I looked up at the sound of some rock fall to see two bighorn sheep surveying me from their lofty perch. I was thrilled at the sight, and felt it was a good omen for the rest of my trip.

The next morning I made short order of hiking the final few miles to the confluence. I began to spot numerous caves in the canyon walls, and imagined they had been used by the Northern Paiute, Bannock, or Shoshone tribes that lived in the area for thousands of years. If these walls could talk!

I waded through the deep water and willows in the final stretch before reaching the river, and had my fingers crossed that I would find enough water to paddle … soon I saw I was in luck, the Owyhee had current! It was flowing and I would be able to turn this hike into a packraft trip.

After all my gear was transferred into my boat (a very smart design in my Alpacka Raft allows me to pack all my gear INSIDE the inflatable boat) and my day bags were loaded with snacks, sunscreen, maps, and wag bags, (all river trips need to provide for human waste, carrying wag bags on Owyhee trips are necessary) I was ready.

River time! I was laughing at how hard the first few days of the trip had been, but now all the weight was off my shoulders (literally) and I was floating. The canyon downstream of the confluence was nothing less than spectacular with rock spires and hoodoos lining the shore; I spent as much time looking up around me as looking down at the schools of fish and fresh water mussels that sparkled along the bottom of the river.  Warm springs poured out of the canyon walls in numerous places, and when it was time for lunch I pulled over at a cascading flow of water to lie down in a shallow pool.

Later in the afternoon I saw the first people of the trip a few miles before Three Forks; Ron and his grandson Gavin were out for a few days of hiking in the Owyhee area, and also happened to be ONDA members! Small world. I paddled on and soon saw Three Forks warm springs, where multiple groups of people were floating in inner tubes and fishing. I pulled over to climb up to the warm pools in the side of the cliffs, and shared the soak with a family from Idaho who was out for the day. I enjoyed the clear, warm water and company, but desired my solitude more, so after a short soak I continued down the river. The 11 miles from the confluence of the West Little Owyhee to Three Forks was a very pleasant float, and would be appropriate for boaters of all levels. The river after Three Forks however, was another story.

After passing the last car-accessible spot at Three Forks, I was soon to my first big rapid: The Ledge. Rated as a Class IV+ rapid at higher flows, I wasn’t sure if the low water levels would allow me to pass safely through the big boulders that normally cause dangerous hydraulics, or if I would need to find a safe way to walk around. I decided to scout the rapid from both sides of the river, and soon determined there simply wasn’t enough space between the rocks for my boat. That started a 45-minute expedition to carefully walk over and around the rocks until I could paddle once again. The water levels were low enough to walk in the water for short sections, but overall I found myself slowly picking my way around the river edges. Whew, getting around some of these larger rapids would prove to be a time consuming task, but as I had already determined, each step needed to be intentional; my mantra became “one rock at a time.”

That evening I had to withstand strong upstream winds in camp, and tried to keep the blowing sand out of my dinner and eyes as much as possible. I brought a light-weight tarp to use as a shelter, but a clear forecast had me sleeping out instead. Unfortunately the full moon got in the way of the some of the darkest skies left in the whole country, and in retrospect I will bring a light net-tent next time. I might have avoided rain, but sleeping on the sand will bring out all sorts of little gnats and bity things.

The next day I had some big rapids to contend with, but not before 5 miles of calm flat water. I got into a steady paddle rhythm since there wasn’t much current in the river, and when I got to Half Mile, a Class V rapid, I got out for what would be an hour-and-a-half portage. Again I was able to paddle short sections between the boulders, but had to carefully find my way around some of the shallower but rocky sections. I’ll let you guess why the rapid is called Half Mile, and well into the portage I realized this rapid had combined with Raft Flip (a Class III below it) to make for one long, rocky stretch at these low flows. When I began my trip water levels were about 200 cfs and dropping, but already I was pleasantly surprised at how much of the river I had been able to paddle at these levels.

I had a few more mellow river miles before Subtle Hole (Class III), Bombshelter Drop (Class IV), and Sharks Tooth (Class III). I was able to run the Class III rapids, but Bombshelter was too rocky for the inflatable boat. I was always aware that a sharp rock could puncture the boat, so I tried to be careful of pointed pokey things where I paddled.

I pulled over at Soldier Creek to make camp, and was happy to see there was a path up the drainage so hikers up on the canyon rim would have an option to hike down to the river for water if they needed it. Again the wind picked up, but I was so tired I wasn’t as bothered by it as the night before.

I woke the next morning, made some coffee and psyched myself up for the big rapid I had heard so much about: the Class V+ Widowmaker. If a big giant boulder-strewn rapid wasn’t enough, the rapid was surrounded by five other Class III rapids. I repeated my mantra: “One rock at a time,” and added “Don’t get lazy.” I added in the lazy part because I wanted to remind myself to scout everything where I couldn’t see a clear line of travel. Getting lazy could get me into trouble, and I wanted to be sure of every move.

The three smaller rapids before Widowmaker were passable for the most part, and by the time I reached the larger rapid I could see the narrow and steep canyon walls had crumbled into the water creating a big barrier in the water. It took well over an hour to pick my way around the rapid, huge boulders blocked the river, and my passage, and at times I had to lift my full boat up onto rocks, climb up behind it, and lower it on the other side with the rope from my throw bag. Again and again I lifted and lowered, careful with every step. At one point I didn’t see how I would get through, but found the extra bit of strength I needed to hoist the boat up one more time, and felt incredible relief at finally seeing the clear river channel below me. The next few rapids after Widowmaker were somewhat passable, and I was finally able to lay back in my boat and rest some as I floated beneath the towering canyon walls.

I took a nice long lunch complete with nap and swim, and the afternoon passed smoothly as I got closer to Rome and the half way point in my trip. Towards camp I realized I had sprung a leak in the boat and in my inflatable seat, so I took the time in camp to patch both and do a good survey of myself and the rest of my gear. I had some scrapes and bruises, had almost stepped on a little rattlesnake on one of the portages, had slipped and bruised my tailbone, had bug bites spread evenly everywhere, but all in all I was in good shape and great spirits. I was doing it! A paddle alternate is possible … for experienced boaters not afraid of some extreme portaging.

The next morning I had a 7-mile paddle to Rome, where I had planned to take the rest of the day off. When I arrived at the Rome boat launch I met a group from Idaho fishing in the warm waters, and they were quite interested to hear what I had been up to. I was even given a cold beer, which made the chore of transitioning my boat back into my backpack a much more pleasant task.

As soon as I walked up to Rome Station, the staff knew I was the Oregon Desert Trail hiker. I had called the store to confirm I could send a resupply box there, and had also arranged to stay in a cabin for the night; Rome doesn’t get too many hikers in July … could be the 100+ degree heat. Owners Joel and his wife and young son were welcoming and I indulged in a huge burger while reading an abandoned newspaper. A lot had happened during the week I had been on the river. Disconnecting can feel so blissful, but even a week without news or internet can feel like a slap in the face when faced with tragedy. Terrorism attacks, hate crimes, floods…it was incredibly overwhelming news after spending seven days in the canyon, and after the peace of the river I felt vulnerable to the tragedies of the rest of the world.

I spent the rest of the day luxuriating in the air conditioning of my cabin, eating Oreos, and finding nothing good to watch on TV.

The next morning I inflated my boat again. The first miles out of Rome were slow and the shallow river wandered in and out of farm land. I saw lots of deer and numerous fish sucking bugs off the surface of the water. Can’t say I’ve seen that before!

I was relieved to enter the canyon again, and floated by chalky pillars of rock. Apparently the first homesteaders chose the name Rome after a well-known location in Italy…something about the white pillars of rock reminiscent of the Colosseum.

Even though I knew water levels had dropped to 140 cfs, there appeared to be more water, which could have been attributed to the numerous springs that poured into the river channel. There were so many springs that the flow became quicker; instead of the 2 miles an hour I had been making above Rome, I was now making a steady 3 miles an hour. A handful of Class III rapids were quite easy to navigate, and before I knew it, I had gone over 20 river miles that day. I was astonished at my progress, and pleased the boating was going so well.

I had purchased a book in Rome about the history of Jordan Valley, In Times Past by Hazel Fretwell-Johnson, and was fascinated to read about the early homesteaders and their struggle to exist in this beautiful yet often harsh environment. Harsh that is, when trying to farm or graze livestock. Native Americans had lived in the Owyhee region for over 12,000 years and didn’t take to the settlers lightly. The Jordan Valley was one of the most violent fronts in the clash between the tribes who had called this area home for thousands of years and the westward expansion. I’ve found it incredibly engaging to read about eastern Oregon as I am traveling along the Oregon Desert Trail. An immersive adventure like the ODT can be an incredible opportunity to know a place at a deeper level. To learn about the history, geology, and wildlife can all make a place come alive. I hope to provide resources to Oregon Desert Trail hikers to not only learn about the area they are hiking through, but to assist in really knowing a place like the Owyhee Canyonlands.

I had a restful night camped near White Rock Creek and started paddling in the morning knowing I had a fun day ahead. The Class III Artillery rapid was probably the biggest water I had yet on the trip, and I splashed through the waves and holes with glee. The rapids definitely had more water down here. I soon floated past the hot springs near Lambert Rocks, and even though I love a good soak, found the water too hot in the equally hot air. Turning the corner I was faced with the incredible colors and striations of Chalk Basin. Simply incredible. But the day would get better.

I had lunch after portaging the rocky Class III Whistling Bird rapid, and entered the dramatic Green Dragon Canyon area around Iron Point. The walls were vertical and the water a deep deep blue-green. Simply astounding! I was envisioning another long portage around the Class IV Montgomery rapid, but the low water made the rapid almost nonexistent. I lay back in my boat and watched slivers of sky float by the towering walls.

After few more rapids I was ready to make camp at an old road grade near Morcum Dam. It looked like this would be a good alternate for hikers to descend off the rim to walk along the river again. Part of my goal on this trip was to identify other places hikers could access the river, or walk along the banks. By leaving the rim and hiking down to the river near Morcum Dam, people could stay low all the way to Birch Creek. The alternate would increase miles, but be a nice change of pace from the drier rim walking.

The next morning I pulled over to inspect some pictographs on the side of the river. The remote nature of this area has done well to protect it for thousands of years, but I fear increasing development could change that in a matter of years. I started to understand on a much deeper level why ONDA has been working to permanently protect this area for almost 30 years. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

I glimpsed the iconic Devil’s Tower from miles away, and as I approached, the impressive basalt pillars appeared with more clarity. The river continued to reveal many more geological wonders, and after passing Greeley Bar (the hot springs there were a bit too murky for me) the canyon got even more interesting. Colors streaked across rock pillars, rock pillars gave way to side canyons, and side canyons revealed huge rock walls. It’s hard to find the right words for so much beauty … this is an area that needs to be experienced firsthand.

By the time I passed Birch Creek (the popular take-out for rafting trips), I knew the river would slow and the canyon widen out. About half way to the next boat launch, Leslie Gulch, the Owyhee River would turn into the Owyhee Reservoir. Even though the dam was 50 miles upstream, the lake snaked for miles to create the longest reservoir in Oregon which in turn provided water to thousands of farms in eastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho.

Because water levels were low, I passed the spot where the river usually turns to slack water, and continued to see flowing currents in the river channel. I was able to find moving water, and when I turned a large bend in the river near Diamond Butte, the currents finally slowed. I could see the high water mark about 15 feet above my head, and the muddy shores were now covered in bright green grasses.  Unfortunately the dropping water had left lots of carp stranded on the banks of the river and a pungent odor in the air.I passed another hot spring on a rocky outcropping and made camp on a gravel ledge around the corner. I had to flip a few dead fish away from where I wanted to camp, although I enjoyed the view despite the smell.

The next day I passed Willow Creek, where the hiking route meets the river once again. At Spring Creek the hiking route seemed to cliff out and I realized hikers will have to climb about 50 feet above the river to safely traverse over to Leslie Gulch. I believe this route had been scouted when water levels were even lower than what I was experiencing and it had been possible to walk along the shore. This year there was simply no place to walk north from waypoint OC163 unless hikers found the faint trail up above.

I pulled over to the Leslie Gulch boat ramp and took the next hour to pack my boat and transition over to hiking mode. It was very hot, so I filled up on about 5 liters of water, and just as I was walking up the road to where I would meet Juniper Gulch and begin my overland traverse for the final 25 miles, a car pulled over. Ross and his friend were out for a drive, and after chatting for a few minutes about how spectacular the area was, they offered me some cold water. Yes please! Every cold thing is most welcome. The day had to be over 100 degrees, and soon I was laboring up the road, second guessing my plan to hike to the end of the trail.I had only gone a little over a mile when I stopped in a bit of shade from a large sagebrush and debated going any farther. If I hadn’t been carrying the extra boating gear the hike probably wouldn’t have been as strenuous, but the added heat had me fearing heat exhaustion or heat stroke. I didn’t think it was safe for me to be hiking, so after a long break in the shade, I decided to walk back to the water, inflate my boat, and paddle the 25ish miles to Indian Springs Campground at the end of the Oregon Desert Trail.

I was walking back down toward the boat ramp when a car pulled over and asked if I wanted a ride. I jumped in the back of the pickup and the couple deposited me at some shaded picnic tables where I could unpack everything all over again. They were out for a few days from Portland, and were so taken with the area that they were considering forgoing their plans to head to Zion for a family vacation next year, and instead come back to the Owyhee. That’s how spectacular it is!

My original hesitation in paddling the reservoir all the way to the end was the packraft’s inefficiency in flat water. Because it’s an inflatable boat, strong wind can blow the craft all over the place. It tracks pretty well in moving current, but on a lake I would have to paddle harder to go the same distance than in something like a canoe or sea kayak. However, I didn’t want to suffer in the heat, so decided a long hard paddle on a lake where I could swim frequently was preferable to a hot and dry walk with a heavy pack.

The lake north of Leslie Gulch was stunning. It was late enough in the afternoon when I started my paddle that I had only gone about 5 miles before the afternoon wind picked up and I decided to make camp. It was probably the hottest evening I had experienced yet, and relief came only after the sun set behind the west hills.I wasn’t exactly sure how many miles I would have to paddle on the lake before getting to the end, but that morning I woke early and decided I would try and finish the trail. The end was in sight, and that is a powerful motivator! I was in my boat by 6 a.m. and took my coffee to go. I paddled hard and made good time on the still water, only pausing a few seconds in the first few hours of the day to take sips of my coffee.

I paddled, paddled, paddled. When I couldn’t tell where the lake continued, I got out my smartphone. I had been using the Gaia gps app, and was tracking my progress on the lake. Because the reservoir was so large and had so many forks, I often checked the map so I could travel the most direct route. Without it I surely would have paddled up some dead ends … the perspective on the water made it hard to determine the best path.

About midday my shoulders were starting to ache and my hands were stuck in a painful claw-like grip. I passed a bunch of lake houses, and saw a man waving at me from the shore. Dave pulled up a while later with his dog Clue. He had spent the weekend at his house, and because these homes were boat-access only, had a motor boat to get him the 12 miles in from the boat launch at Lake Owyhee State Park. He stopped to ask what I was doing out there, and we chatted for a few minutes. He offered to take me the rest of the way to the end, but I had come this far under my own power, I wanted to complete the journey. I immediately second guessed myself as I turned the next corner and met a strong headwind. Oh no.

The next five hours the wind blew, if I didn’t paddle I would get blown backward, so I had to dig deep and continue on despite the growing pain in my arms and shoulders. I can be stubborn like that. The waves got a little bigger, and I had to be sure to paddle directly into the wind so I wouldn’t get blown over. This is why I was hesitant to paddle on the lake, but I was already here and I could only go forward, so paddle! Paddle! Paddle!

By late afternoon I had only taken a few short breaks, and a few more boats had passed offering me rides. I continued on, and the last few miles seemed to take forever. At about 4:30 I could see the rocky jetty that marks the end of the Oregon Desert Trail behind Indian Springs Campground, and I dug for the last little bit of energy I had left. I made it to the boat ramp at just about 5 p.m. Done! Paddle alternate complete!In 12 days I had thru-paddled the Owyhee River section of the Oregon Desert Trail for a total of 140 miles of packrafting. There is a certain beauty in an unmarked route that can be experienced through multiple modes of travel. The Owyhee River hiked is an entirely different experience than the Owyhee River rafted at high flows, or the Owyhee River packrafted at low flows. What I explored from a lightweight inflatable boat is a good example of how I see the entire 750-mile Oregon Desert Trail. Whether on foot, on bike, in a boat, on a horse, or even on skis, there are sections of this route that can appeal to entirely different types of quiet recreation. If the goal of the Oregon Desert Trail is to facilitate a deeper connection with our remote high desert, to engage people on a deeper level to care for this land and join us in wanting to see it protected, or simply to create the framework for a grand adventure in an often overlooked part of the country, than I think a trail that appeals to a variety of people is a step in the right direction.

Stay tuned for more information on packrafting sections of the Oregon Desert Trail; my goal this winter is to identify sections appropriate for all types of quiet recreation, all to help you get out there and explore our public lands.

— Renee Patrick