April 18 - 22, 2006
  By Jason Rackley

  Rome to Birch Creek
  Flow: Medium, dropping from 9,000 to 6,000 cfs during our trip.
  Class: III ( at this flow range )
  Length: 45 miles over four days, including one layover day at Lambert Rock.

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On big snowmelt years Oregon's Owyhee Canyon is about as close as you get to a Grand Canyon experience this side of Arizona. Much like the Grand, most of the lower Owyhee is flatwater ( which moves fast at peak runoff ) but when the rapids come they feature big, splashy waves and fun, swirly hydraulics. The Owyhee also features a breathtaking array of colorful desert side canyons, spires, rocks, and animal life.

The biggest challenge with this run is timing the runoff from the Spring snowmelt events. We ran this section during the Spring of 2006, which was a stellar year for snowmelt runs. We put on at just under 10,000 cfs and the river dropped gradually to 6,000 cfs while we were on it. We all agreed this was an optimal medium flow for the Lower Owyhee.

Pete Giordano organized this particular adventure. Pete had last run the Owyhee twelve years ago, and had been talking about getting back on it ever since. We had a fairly large group on this trip, including: Pete, Becky Wolfe, Brian Davies, Jonathan Rawson, Mark Squire, Micaela Theisen, Paul Bunce, Ryan Windsor, and Scott Boring.

Most of the group departed from our rendezvous point near Portland on Tuesday morning and headed east. It is a ten-hour drive from Portland to reach the put-in at the tiny town of Rome in the southeast corner of Oregon. We crossed the Oregon Cascade Mountains and enjoyed spectacular views of a snow-laden Mt. Hood and the Three Sisters near Bend. Once across the Cascades, the drive became more monotonous as we entered the vast high desert region of eastern Oregon.

Jonathan and Keewah saddle up for the long haul across the Eastern Oregon high desert.

We reached Rome as dusk fell and set up camp. Becky arrived as the sun set, and we racked out as darkness fell. The next day we were up early but took our time getting ready. It was a warm, sunny day, and we were already starting to align ourselves with the pace of the river, which was flowing languidly by without a care in the world.

We finally got going just after lunch, launching in ones and twos. Soon we were all headed downstream, spread out over a half mile of river. ( Jonathan was first to launch because he had just purchased his first raft and was chomping at the bit to get going.. )

Downstream we enjoyed some smaller desert features and I noticed the first in series of old west relics hidden in the sagebrush along the bank. I caught a tiny kayak-only eddy next to an eight-foot wall of sand and scrambled up to find an old corral, constructed entirely of wood..

There are many old west relics in the Owyhee canyon.
I found this corral a few miles below the put-in, by catching a kayak-only eddy along a steep wall. The corral was really interesting, constructed entirely of wood.

We reached the first canyon and got out to enjoy the view. At this point we were passed by another group of rafters, who waved and were soon out of sight.

Scott and Becky watch as another group enters the first canyon.

The first canyon has some nice wavetrains and a couple of very large holes that were easy enough to avoid in a kayak, and only slightly more difficult to avoid in a raft. Of course, not all of the rafts avoided the holes, with about half of the group dropping in and testing their hole-punching prowess..

Brian and Becky drop into a large hole in the middle of a rapid in the first canyon.

We reached our first camp fairly quickly ( the river was really moving along nicely at this flow ) which left plenty of time for hiking. Everyone quickly pitched their tents and then wandered off in different directions. I decided to try and top out and see what was around us, so I hiked up the wall and after a few sketchy bits was able to reach the canyon rim. I shot the photo below from the canyon rim, looking down on our camp. Our rafts and tents are visible in the picture.

Looking down on our first camp at the end of day one.

The next day we lazed about for awhile and then put on in the early afternoon. We floated downstream and encountered more great desert scenery and one of the most exciting rapids so far, which I think was called Artillery or something like that. We stopped at the hot springs but there was another group camped there and the day was still too warm to consider soaking. At this point we were trying to find our layover camp, so Pete suggested we head downstream and camp at Lambert Rock ( He had camped there on his previous trip ).

We arrived at Lambert Rock and set up our layover camp. As soon as I saw Lambert I said to myself: "I wanna climb all over that thing!!" For avid hikers and rock climbers like myself, Lambert and the nearby White Dome have an irresistible allure!

Jonathan and company with Lambert Rock in the background, taken just upstream of our layover camp.

Of course, we still had plenty of daylight left so nobody could resist the temptation of having such a fascinating set of spires and cracks nearby, so we headed out in ones and twos to check out Lambert.

I was completely fascinated by the vivid colors, fantastical spires, and body-width micro-canyons that characterized the area around Lambert Rock. We spent a great evening climbing, exploring, and enjoying the spectacular views from the top of Lambert, then racked out under the brilliant stars.

The next day was our layover day, and we had a common objective: to climb the towering white dome downstream of Lambert. We got up and relaxed by the river for awhile, then we started trickling out of camp again, all headed downstream to the white dome.

I headed out first and had a wonderful time wandering through the hidden gulleys teeming with wildlife. I was hoping to see a Rattlesnake but they must have felt me coming and I wasn't that lucky.

The area around the huge white dome monolith was even more otherworldly than Lambert, with narrow, twisty mini-gorges and more of the vividly colored orange and yellow spires. This area is a hikers dream, and I definitely consider this hike to be one of the high points of the trip ( literally and figuratively ).

We all finally converged at the top of the white dome and enjoyed the dizzying view of the river canyon spread out below us. Unforgettable.

At this point I decided to head over and climb another rock formation nearby, and I was descending from that formation just as Ryan, Becky, and Jonathan were topping out on the white dome. If you look carefully in the photo below you can see them as they near the top of the dome.

Climbing the white dome near Lambert Rock on our layover day.
If you look carefully, you can see Ryan, Becky, and Jonathan near the top of the dome.

I decided to head off downstream and descend to the river through another of the fascinating mini-gorges by myself, and I had a great time. Once at river level I was about a mile below camp, but I was in no hurry and as I headed back upstream I checked out all of the little gullies and rock features along the way.

I was almost back to camp when some rafters drifted by, and I managed to get this photo of the white dome and the surrounding area we explored ( some of us also climbed the dark basalt dome to the right of the white dome in the photo, which had more great views ).

Some rafters enjoy the view of the white dome near Lambert Rock.

The next morning we got up and headed downstream. As usual the kayakers ( Pete, Ryan, and myself ) ranged far out in front, and this is how we found what I refer to as the 'White Dome wave' about a mile downstream of the white dome monolith.

The river turned gradually to the right and rushed along a rock wall on river-left, forming the wave. This was the single best play feature on the Lower Owyhee at this flow, and we could have spent all day there. The only tricky part was catching the surging service eddy against the river-left wall, which required an accelerating exit from the wave into the eddy. If you flipped or were flushed off the middle, you had to hike back upstream on river-right ( you could also rig a pair of throw ropes and haul yourself upstream on river-left, but we weren't that organized.. )

For pure playboaters, there was some camping opportunities across the river from this wave, so if you were more interested in playboating than hiking this would be a good spot for you.

Ryan Windsor surfs it up on the best play feature on the Lower Owyhee, the all-day White Dome wave

Now were were approaching Iron Point canyon, which is at the heart of the Lower Owyhee Canyon. This section has the biggest rapids on the run as well as the most spectacular canyon scenery.

First up was Whistling Bird rapid. At Whistling Bird the river sweeps to the right, and much like many of the rapids in the Grand Canyon the outside corner is where you don't want to be! The outside of corner of Whistling Bird is especially ominous for rafters, because it contains a large cave formed by a huge rock that has fallen off the wall.

I arrived at this rapid first and boat-scouted it, crashing down through the hole in the middle and catching the eddy on the left. I immediately saw that I wasn't going to be able to get any good photos from this side, so I hiked my boat back upstream and ferried across above the rapid so I could get a good angle of the cave and the hole from river-right.

Everybody had good lines over this drop, with the closest call coming when Brian almost flipped in the hole sending Becky on a wild ride as she was half-in, half-out of the boat ( pictured below ). Somehow Becky manage to hang on and fall back in the boat when it came back down upright..

Becky ( white hat, black pfd ) hangs on for dear life as Brian nearly flips his raft at Whistling Bird.

Downstream of Whistling Bird the canyon walls soared overhead as we entered Iron Point Canyon. Most of the group stopped upstream to enjoy the views, but I wanted to see what the rapids were like downstream so I kept going.

Ryan Windsor enters Iron Point Canyon.

The canyon walls immediately closed in and the river started going around corners and dropping over rapids. I was having a great time and then I caught up to a group of rafters, which had stopped to scout a steep rapid on a blind left corner.

There were a couple of kayakers in the eddy against the far left wall, so I went over and started talking to them.

"Is this Montgomery rapid?" I said to one of the kayakers.

"I think so." He replied.

Suddenly, one of the kayakers looked upstream and said: "That raft's got no pilot!!"

We all spun and looked upstream, and sure enough, a raft came barrelling around the corner with no driver. I was relieved to see it wasn't from my group, but I still wasn't going to let somebody lose all their stuff, either.

"Well, see you guys later!" I said.

The raft had stalled above us on an eddy line, but it was obviously getting ready to go around the corner and run the rapid. I decided to run the rapid and try to catch the raft below the drop, because I didn't want to risk boarding the raft and losing my kayak in the violent eddylines in the pool where the raft was currently stuck.

I peeled out in the current and dropped into Montgomery rapid, which I don't remember that much. There was a hole at the top, and then it banked off the left wall into a pool at the bottom. Once I reached an eddy below Montgomery I saw a group of rafters downstream on river-left and I decided to let them deal with the raft because my group was approaching and I wanted to be ready for any problems that might occur.

I started blowing my whistle and waving my arms, signalling the rafters to pull out into the current. They just looked at me for a few seconds, then started moving slowly. Then the raft came down Montgomery, and there was a flurry of activity downstream as the rafters scrambled to intercept it. They caught up to the raft and hauled it back into the eddy.

Our group came down and had no problems, but just after we ran it a raft from yet another group flipped upstream and came down belly-up, prompting yet another scramble and recovery from the rafts clustered downstream against the river-left wall..

Paul and Micaela round the corner at Montgomery Rapid in Iron Point Canyon.

Paul and Micaela soak up the view downstream of Montgomery rapid.

We floated slowly through the remainded of Iron Point canyon, soaking up the scenery. Soon the walls peeled back and the river started winding through more open country, with the occasional rapid here and there..

Somewhere on this section Mark Squire ( who was paddling the community IK ) got stuck in a hole and swam, ( pictured a second before he swam below ). I told Mark after the trip that he needs to take up hard shell kayaking, because later in the day he dropped into two more large holes, both resulting in swims. He has the right attitude, now he just needs the right gear!

The biggest rodeo moves of the trip: Mark about to swim out of a hole downstream of Iron Point.

After an hour or so we arrived at out last camp above the take out at Birch Creek. This was the best campsite of the trip, with endangered Hackberry trees providing shade and a nice warm, sandy beach. Of course, everyone immediately took off in various directions on hikes because we had plenty of daylight left over..

Looking down on our final camp a few miles upstream of the Birch Creek take out.

Another incredible view in the Owyhee Canyon, looking upstream.
( Taken on my hike above our final camp ).

As the evening wore on and the sun went down, we all started to feel the world start crowding back in as we contemplated the take-out the next day. That feeling is always the hardest part of multi-day trips like this, because each one is unique and when the group chemistry is good it is a always a little bittersweet when they end..

Brian Davies takes a nap on the warm sand at our final camp above the Birch Creek take-out.

I really enjoyed this river, but the Lower Owyhee isn't really what I would call a whitewater trip. It's more like a camping and hiking trip through a spectacular high desert canyon that is most easily accessed by floating down the river. I think if you come with the proper mindset you will have a great time.

I would describe the flow we had as an optimal medium level. The river was at 9,000 cfs on the first day and gradually dropped to 6,000 cfs by the last day. At this flow there was no stillwater, so the rafts had it pretty easy.

We paid for someone to shuttle our vehicles to Birch Creek, and that worked out great. One car had a flat tire when we arrived at Birch Creek, so be sure you have a good spare or bring a tire pump.

You have two options for taking out: Birch Creek road ( the 'official' take out, assuming the road is open ) and the lake. Birch Creek is the best of these two options, but since the road gets blown out every year ( it crosses several streams as it climbs out of the canyon ) you have to call ahead to ensure you can get in there. The road out of Birch Creek is not too bad, we had no problems with an overloaded Toyota Camry station wagon and a mini-van.

The second option ( if Birch Creek road is closed ) is a tow-out across the lake. You can supposedly pay someone to tow you out, but we ran into some rafters on our way down to the Owyhee who got stood up by the guy who was supposed to tow them out. These rafters ( who looked very sunburned and tired ) ended up spending a tortuous extra day and a half rowing their rafts ten miles across the lake.. No thank you!

Flows on the Owyhee while we were on the river.

The Owyhee River Canyon is located in the southeast corner of Oregon, near the Idaho border. The section we ran is indicated by the red dotted line.