The Owyhee


As I was nearing my birthday this year, while deep in the process of healing a sprained ankle and undertaking a personal construction project, it became apparent that a springtime visit to the desert to go climbing was looking unfortunately out of the question. So it was much a surprise and delight that I received a call from my old friend Jon Kranzley from his home in Hood River. As he was planning for his spring break as a teacher, and as he loves days on wild rivers more than anything, he proposed that we coordinate to spend a week on a notoriously wild and scenic stretch of river in the desert of southeastern Oregon. Once the gears of planning started into motion, it was clear to me that this would without a doubt end up a week to remember.

As the dates of Kranzley’s vacation neared, the logistics of our stated goal became a crux of difficulty. Long driving hours, unstable weather on the high plains, flooded dirt access roads in very remote areas - it wasn't clear that a trip down the fabled Owyhee River would be possible even with our earnest efforts. Parallel plans were drawn up, with simpler logistics, shorter drives and easier access. They, too, would make for memorable river days, but none held the combination of grandeur, remoteness, beauty and enjoyable paddling for which the Owyhee is known. The night before we were set to start our long drives we were still on the phone planning - checking river levels, hashing out travel and shuttle logistics, debating probabilities of catastrophic failure hours from cellphone service and outside help. A call needed to be made, but there was only one call to make.

Suffice to say, words won’t do those five days justice. Nor will photographs, videos, or the like. I’ll include some of each, to make the most of the use they might be in sharing our experience in broad strokes. We slept under the stars, the only sounds the wind and the rushing river, the bird life and occasional coyote to accompany us as the moon waxed to fullness. Our necks grew sore in some sections of canyon from craning to take in the towering rhyolite cliffs that rose precipitously from the water’s edge. Around each bend, when the sheer cliffs would give way to sculpted architecture of the beauty only the desert can imagine, our words failed us, and the scenery would change again to entrance us with basalt towers like roman coliseums from ancient volcanic relief, or beckon us at day’s end with the warmth of a natural hot spring to rest our bodies. Oregon’s desert beauty reveals itself to that river in ways I couldn't even have imagined.

We wondered at our place in that canyon, the only humans for miles, kept alive by our specialized boats and equipment, our knowledge to recreate among a landscape known to humans for millennia but a blank space on the maps of bustling modernity. Our presence felt both natural and intrusive, akin to the river’s own: starkly at odds with its surroundings but inherent and persistent, life carving its way through the bones of the earth. At the end of those five days, sunburnt and exhausted and called back to our lives by schedules and responsibilities, we were rejuvenated. As we unpacked and loaded the boats, prepared ourselves for the long drive out, I smiled at the thought of not going so far out of our way, of not taking those manageable risks, of not experiencing these places. These places are sacred. Our greatest feeling was gratitude.

A view of our first campsite after we hiked to the canyon rim. Note the white raft at the edge of the river.

Kranzley at the oars of his beloved raft 'Delilah' with 'H' proudly riding the bow into a small rapid.

Wearing many hats, Kranzley shows off his skills not only as river guide and amateur archaeologist but also as an ever-so-slightly morbid ventriloquist.

Even once we'd arrived at an amazing campsite, it was hard to leave the boat - unnecessary, even, when we could get comfortable and take in the view.

That view, without us in it.

A long exposure shot from that campsite at night, illuminated by the raft's lantern and a full moon still brilliant even obscured by some clouds.

Boat time with the boys.

Taking in the views during a stop for lunch. Often, when the walls of a canyon rise so steeply right out of the water, it can signal that the rapids will become more dangerous and with less options for finding slack water to slow down. Not so on the Owyhee, where the river kept its mostly mellow character through the deepest sections of canyon.

Delilah, posing at the river's edge, ready to continue on downriver.

Along the banks of the river was a veritable playground of rocks to play on, explore and find new vantage points to take in our surroundings.

Our last campsite was probably the most intense by far. Not the first one with a natural hot spring for us to enjoy but with a backdrop that was almost overwhelming to immerse ourselves in.

A view across the river bend below that campsite when the evening light cast a dramatic glow over the cliffs.

Behind us lay another formation that became almost eerie as the sun set and the moon rose.

Likewise, the landscape across the river from our favorite hangout in the hot springs took on an array of demeanors as the light continued to shift.

A view from Kranzley's camera of me enjoying myself through a fun little rapid in the lower section of the canyon.

Even when we weren't craning out necks to take in sheer cliffs, the Owyhee never for a moment failed to leave us speechless. The only downside to kayaking was my inability, or unwillingness, to take my camera with me in a dry bag. Thankfully I wasn't the only one with a camera.

A short video I edited up from clips when I wasn't too worried about my camera ending up in the river: