If you want to raft a remote Class V desert river, one with risky, demanding rapids, you want some assurance that the river you have chosen is familiar even if it isn’t. You might first check the geology—canyons formed in soft, easily eroded rock tend to contain predictable rapids forgiving to rafts, promising a margin of safety on unfamiliar water in most conditions. But if the unfamiliar river looks to be filled with rock-choked rapids falling over steep ledges—unusual for a desert river—an experienced boater might still think it reasonable to scout and run the rapids one-by-one, regardless of water level, and that a small group could handle 38 miles of canyon wilderness on the Middle Owyhee, then another 50 miles on the lower Owyhee to the takeout at Birch Creek, a ranch homesteaded by Basque sheepherders a century ago. I thought it reasonable, anyway, though in retrospect running an unfamiliar river on a one-boat trip in bad weather may not have been the best choice. Nevertheless, with Geoff, a Salt Lake City friend with Midwestern roots, John, his 60-year-old father, and Tim, a Minnesota-based kayaker, I found myself jolting 30 miles across a rutted dirt road to the put-in as bands of purplish storm clouds descended across a flat, featureless countryside. Acres of sagebrush hinted at the rugged, remote essence of these broad tablelands, known as the Owyhee Uplands plateau. From here, it’s pleasant to imagine the distant headwaters in the mountains of northern Nevada, the numerous tributaries in southwest Idaho and southeastern Oregon, the boulder-choked reaches of the upper stems of the Owyhee, all fanning out like dark swollen capillaries across the pale green spring landscape.
Yet the reality—the raw put-in at the confluence of the main stem, the North Fork, and a tributary stream—had all the ambience of a crime scene. Brass shell casings and liquor bottles lay scattered under aluminum lawn chairs and blue tarps, where a rough-n-ready Oregon clan had laid a muddy camp with trucks and coolers at the river’s edge. Substitute horses for trucks, add some period costumes, and you’d have an old-time gold-mining camp after a binge. In fact, a stagecoach line once crossed this spot, carrying passengers from the Idaho mines to Nevada. Still visible is a series of crumbling switchbacks carved into the opposite side of the canyon in 1866. The rattlesnake-infested route was used only once; passengers likely did not appreciate watching the stagecoach get lowered by rope a harrowing 150 feet from the canyon rim. Neither the history nor the weather nor the high water nor the redneck camp seemed a particularly good omen for our trip. Quoting scripture has never been my habit, but the notion that “time and chance happen to all men” began to make its presence felt.
Overnight a strong low pressure system out of the Pacific brought a damp chill to the morning air. The guns-n-booze clan watched carefully as we slowly rigged the boat under ever-thickening clouds, and then at last we shoved off into bank-to-bank brown water. In the U.S. Bureau of Land Management river registration sheet I noticed that well-known expedition kayaker Mary DeReimer had descended one of the upper forks and stopped here. Did she know something we didn’t about the severity of the river downstream? That question would trouble me all day. As I pushed on the fiberglass oars, feeling how the unfamiliar boat handled in the swift current, a steady rowing rhythm proved elusive, like riding a bicycle that skips between gears.
This rental raft was new enough, but the center-mounted oar frame was like a mouthful of rotten teeth, nothing but crumbling welds waiting to crack apart. All that would not have been half bad if one oarlock was not rudely bent, which explained the herky-jerky rowing motion. And that wouldn’t have been so bad, either, if we had a spare oarlock. But after the three-hour drive from Boise, the last 90 minutes over the desolate, rutted dirt road, followed by a white-knuckle descent from the canyon rim to the put-in, driving another six hours round-trip in the truck to a now-closed rental shop was out of the question. Returning was a moot point anyway, since we were already far downstream from the put-in, closing in on a long and powerful Class IV known as The Ledge.
On the middle Owyhee there are no warm up rapids before this one, a sloping ledge that requires a 90-degree turn partway through. Scouting from shore revealed a long rocky rapid that stretched several hundred yards below this initial drop, before the river vanished around the corner—tricky but doable. Tim, a veteran kayaker, paddled his blue plastic boat down the middle chute into a surging eddy and waited to rescue any swimmers if something went wrong. I oared the raft into position above the right-hand chute and we glided down the tongue, slid left for the 90-degree turn, and dropped the last of the ledge. So far so good, I thought, rowing for the main channel and heading around the corner. But the river was uncooperative, less a manageable rolling train of waves and more of a technical, high-volume steep creek, and the boat, only a 14-footer, was sluggish with the three of us, six days of supplies, and the gimpy oarlock.
I suppose it would be best to admit at this point that we hadn’t bothered to investigate the river’s intentions as it disappeared around this corner. Scrambling across endless slopes of blocky basalt boulders seemed like a hassle, and we guessed the rapid, like those found on most desert rivers, would end in an easy wave train. Yet this final stretch grew bigger and more powerful than it had looked from shore. I sensed a bad run unfolding. The raft, leaden when I tried to back away from a six-foot pourover, fought my efforts just to keep it straight as we rode up on the churning pillow. The move was not ideal, but it had worked on other rivers without incident and I counted on spinning the boat off and back into the main current.
Then the yellow raft stood on edge and John and Geoff were gone. I’d never flipped a fully loaded oar boat, and now underwater, it was time to remember my own safety talk: Get out from under the boat. Now get away from the boat. Don’t get crushed between it and the rocks. Swim! I flipped on my stomach to swim away from the raft and took a bruising in the rock-strewn channel. To my left John and Geoff had escaped the raft and were stroking strongly for shore, buoyed by their brightly colored lifejackets. About then the river smoothed out above one of those symmetrical holes with a flat horizon line. I caught a breath and went under, tumbling, and surfaced far from the ledge. But a strong backwash reeled me in as the underwater cycle prepared to repeat. As energy and air dwindled, I recall thinking how foolish it would be to drown in such an unexceptional river feature.
I struggled to get as much of my body on the surface to break the grip the deep backwash had on my torso and legs. The ordinariness of the hole irked me, as if it didn’t have a right to make me struggle, and somehow this fact made the water’s patient force seem sinister. Eventually I broke across the eddy line, caught the current as it flushed past the hole, swam to shore, and dragged myself out. The raft was gone.
The swim wasn’t my worst—and in one sense the flip wasn’t catastrophic: there were no falls below, we were past the crux of the rapid, and the water was neither freezing nor at flood stage. Still, it stung my pride. Since moving to Utah six years ago, I had been on the river infrequently, aside from a number of multiday river trips on the Green and Yampa rivers in Dinosaur National Monument, a weeklong kayaking trip to Colorado, and a 14-day Grand Canyon trip. Maybe I had been on the river more than I thought. But it seemed like I hadn’t been in serious whitewater ever since my daughter was born five years ago. And though the Owyhee initially seemed like an adventure to savor, things felt different, now, as if I wasn’t going to be able to dial back the intensity, like life itself, or aging, perhaps—that unfamiliar, inevitable process, characterized by unpredictability.
Downstream, Tim had corraled the raft and pushed it to shore with his kayak. But a new problem appeared after we had righted the boat and dried the gear on a grassy beach: the flip had bent the bad oarlock’s pin over at a right angle, rendering it useless. The only option was to pry it back and hope the metal could take the strain. Using an oar, we forced the pin back toward the vertical and waited for the ugly snapping sound that would signal the beginning of more trouble. The steel held, somehow, and soon we were back on the water, bouncing over big Class III standing waves—normally the fun kind.
But the sky continued to darken and a stiff, steady wind kicked up, adding to the apprehension I felt about the upcoming Class V rapid called Halfmile, one of the more difficult we would face. John and Geoff seemed rattled as well. Who could fault them for being on edge? They were careening downstream on a powerful river running bank-to-bank, with Class V to come, not another boating party in sight, and worst of all, with someone at the oars who might be incompetent. After getting flipped in the first rapid, surely some doubts must have set in—the notion that perhaps I had exaggerated my rafting experience, for instance?
Anyone who has rowed a boat with uneasy passengers knows doubt can be contagious. Besides, the flip itself had already dented my confidence, and the 90 miles of unknown water to run and a looming storm on a free-flowing river did nothing to restore it—a hydrograph from mid-May of last year, for instance, showed a startling 6,000 cubic feet per second rise in 24 hours. Hard rain tonight could triple today’s already pushy 3,000 cfs, the guidebook’s recommended maximum flow for this section, making it terrifying at best and unrunnable at worst. And there was Widowmaker, an intimidating Class V—perhaps even Class V+ rapid—that many rafters portaged. Rain coming… high water… DeReimer bailed out at Three Forks… no locals putting in…? The doubts festered as the river began tilting down toward Class V Halfmile, and a fierce upstream wind whipped the standing waves into a maelstrom.
I strained to reach shore above the rapid, and then we set out across a boulder field to scout the long and powerful drop. The jagged black rock found on the middle Owyhee gives it a fierce and untamed feel, as if the river has not yet been tempered by experience. Still firmly in the process of downcutting and smoothing the rough edges off its rocks, the river seems to be hunting its future, like an adolescent, and is dangerous in that way. And on this stormy afternoon, the rapid seemed to celebrate its violent potential. A five-foot pourover hole—hitting it meant a certain flip—guarded the main channel. Below it the current raced around a bend and through a Stonehenge-like strainer filled with sharp basalt. In a loaded boat with a bad oarlock in high wind on a one boat trip in a deep canyon 30-plus miles from the nearest town or person, with another rapid right below—no way, I thought. The tight faces of John and Geoff reflected my own apprehension, though the wiry, bespectacled John said only, in the understated way of those from the Midwest, “This looks bad.”
So we broke down the raft and carried the gear and frame piece by piece, a demoralizing 300 yards over and across the boulder field to where we bivouacked for the night with the roar of the rapid in our ears. Normally sleeping next to whitewater is one of rafting’s pleasures, but this evening the constant reminder of the water’s power proved mocking.
Running rivers reveals a lot about people. The sport lets you assess yourself and others—it’s hard to hide much out on the water, though I try to disguise my own worrying. I’ve worried about upcoming rapids, the weather, the oarlock, my passengers, worried about worrying too much, knowing that the worrying is worse than the doing of the thing. Most everything can be dealt with as it happens, and anyway, on the river it’s the stuff you don’t worry about—like the bottom of the rapid we just flipped in—that proves humbling. I tell myself being nervous increases alertness. But perhaps the net effect is negative if anxiety impairs decision-making.
In the morning a fierce snowstorm soaked the gear, but the situation didn’t seem hopeless. The puzzle posed by trying to get around Halfmile rapid offered focus; still, responsibility for how things were playing out weighed on me, and I mentioned my concern to Tim. “I like hardship,” said Tim, who during a cold-weather kayaking trip in New York’s Adirondacks split his forehead open on a rock and then glued the skin back together with crazy glue as I watched. “No need to worry about me.” I wasn’t concerned about Tim. He had kayaked all over the world and knew the unpredictable nature of river trips. But I felt bad about the possibility that I had somehow misrepresented the trip to John and Geoff, who now found themselves on a hard Class V river in the middle of nowhere.
“You can’t worry about other people,” advised Tim, though such thinking was largely impossible for me at that point. But then warming sunshine broke through the clouds, and within an hour we had portaged and, using ropes, lined the raft down Halfmile. After repacking and floating a short distance we scouted another ledge drop known as Raft Flip, notorious for a heavy breaking wave that can stop a raft dead in its tracks, twist it sideways in the current and flip it upside down. With John and Geoff on shore setting safety with throw ropes, Tim made the run look easy in the kayak, and then I followed, driving the raft through the hole. We were ready to head downstream when three catarafts bobbed lightly down the tail end of Halfmile and through Raft Flip, making the whole thing look stupendously easy—and my worrying ridiculous.
“Got a spare oarlock?” I shouted, and the catarafters pulled over. “We flipped in The Ledge and bent the oarlock, and, uh, we don’t have a spare,” I added by way of explanation. A look of disbelief came over the craggy face of one of the catarafters, a burly, bearded guy with an open can of beer jammed between his lifejacket and drysuit. His expression said it all: You’re running the middle Owyhee without a spare oarlock?—perhaps the most basic piece of backup equipment a boater should have in addition to a patch kit. At least they didn’t see us portaging, I thought, as they helped us bolt the new oarlock into place. With a functional oarlock, suddenly the trip had new life. After having dodged drowning and, now, portage-related emasculation—as the old river saw goes, if no one captured it on camera, it didn’t happen—we found a comfortable camp where the canyon opened to reveal the sublime green of spring in the high desert, where the swollen river twisted through a silent land. A measure of confidence flowed back into me, perhaps from the notion that I hadn’t made a mistake in doing this trip. In fact, it felt good to be here. Widowmaker, the nail-biting Class V, could wait another day. At dusk a Seattle-based group floated by—one raft and two kayakers stoned to speechlessness. The now fatigued oarsman and his female companion had run Halfmile, but were carried into the Stonehenge strainer river right and ripped up the floor of their raft—vindication for our caution, I supposed. But in the morning the seminar in humility had reconvened, and we were back to scouting pushy, technical Class IV rapids with no backup. To make matters worse, during the key move above a pinning rock in a steep rapid called Bombshelter Drop, the parts on the other original oarlock worked themselves loose and fell overboard, leaving the raft adrift.
Since I tend to imagine worst-case scenarios when initially scouting a rapid, I’ll admit that quirk adds a half-class to the rapid’s perceived difficulty. Even knowing that, when we reached Widowmaker the sick feeling in my stomach returned—the horizon line was like those on a steep creek, where the riverbed tends to vanish from sight. And something about the bare lava rock lining the narrow canyon made the rapid here seem pitiless. The main drop was a boiling, 15-foot tripled-tiered ledge, where a long diagonal wave funneled water into an anvil-shaped pinning rock that lay dead center like a big wet snare. Just getting here would involve a tricky 50-yard lead-in by way of either a powerful V-shaped tongue of water with the potential to flip a raft, or sneaking river left down a five-foot chute, through a swirling channel, and tucking in behind an enormous boulder known as House Rock. Then, by creeping out of the eddy, the boat would have to work close to the boulders on the left without being swept right by the diagonal wave into the pinning rock.
No question, Widowmaker was bad. Worse than I had imagined, even, and in this case the reality was worse than the worrying, despite earlier thoughts to the contrary. Options included a ghost run—strap down the gear, push the raft in at the top, hope it stayed upright, and let Tim wrestle it to shore downstream with his kayak. Alternately, we could make an arduous three-hour portage over slippery cliffs and the sharp basalt. Lining the raft with ropes through the lead-in and over the main drop looked even more complicated, though commercial trips often use this approach. The fourth option, abandoning the raft and hiking out, seemed excessive, though later we learned Widowmaker’s malignant hydraulics have so spooked rafting parties they have done exactly that. But eventually the ghost run, portaging, or lining seemed more dangerous than running Widowmaker, and I convinced myself that the diagonal wave could be punched and that it would not drive the raft into the pinning rock. “I’m not going to try and convince you either way,” Tim said, not exactly endorsing the plan, “it’s your decision.”
After one last look, I scrambled upstream, settled into the boat and plunged over the initial five-foot chute. Without the extra weight of John and Geoff, who were walking around Widowmaker, the tight slot moves in the remaining 50-yard lead-in was simple, and soon the raft was eddied out behind House Rock. A couple oar strokes nosed the raft inch by inch into the current—and then the raft careened toward the pinning rock and disaster seemed imminent. I dropped the oars to highside, but then the raft slammed through the diagonal wave and plunged down the falls. Grabbing for the oars, I began rowing away from obstacles below, as my brain tingled with the neurochemicals that surely are an evolutionary-based reward for successful risk-taking. The buzz made me crave a more primal existence where success is easily measured. I thought of my life as an English professor—with its questioning, subjectivity, uncertainty—and how surviving a difficult rapid offers a black-and-white result.
The blue- and yellow-clad shapes of John and Geoff soon descended the black cliffs to rejoin the raft and then, group mojo restored, we crashed through frothy Class III rapids on our way to camp—a long, two-tiered beach. The ganja-numbed Seattle crew pulled in to share camp, and with the help of their keg of beer, we swapped the usual stories about good and bad river trips and realized that death, or the threat of it, is the glue that holds together so many outdoor tales. Do such narratives appeal to a society that seeks to burr the rough edges off death? Family members “pass away;” they go to “a better place.” In this context, maybe finality—black-and-white-reality—is harder to embrace than the intangibles of the afterlife. Yet, perhaps the latent awareness of mortality draws us to dangerous rapids or the sweep of geology, since river running, like other adventure sports, reminds us of finitude. And this odd juxtaposition of life with death—our short time here against the sweeping backdrop of geologic time—fosters celebrating the immediacy of experience.
Still, I have been brooding about those who have died—friends in kayaking accidents, from disease, by their own hand. Adults I knew growing up continue to fall, one after the other, including my father. And with each death a transition takes place—one less person who shares your history, your identity. Maybe the reason is even more selfish: Each death means I am next in line. Does such thinking mark the end of youth? When I return home from this trip, news arrives of a kayaking friend back East who killed himself the same day we arrived at the malevolent Three Forks put-in, in some dark karmic twist. This energetic, optimistic guy was one of my favorite river running partners. After his death I was stunned to learn he battled severe depression his entire life—contradicting my belief that rivers reveal the truth about people. Or perhaps flowing water did bring out a truth—that Adirondack rivers and woods stoked an enthusiasm for life that the depression otherwise would have snuffed out much sooner. His death was so troubling I later made a list of those friends who have died or killed themselves, in a glum and futile attempt to gain some measure of control over time and chance.
In the morning an easy float down the final dozen miles of the middle section greeted us. With the strain of the big rapids past, another concern returned. My young daughter had an evil-looking black mole on one of her toes. I know just enough about melanoma to know that large black moles on toes are not good. She had the mole removed and biopsied, and until the test results came in there was little to do but wait. River trips used to offer an escape from troubles, but perhaps that’s the difference 20 years makes: responsibility places limits on escapism, leaving us to confront our fears. Where do these fears have their headwaters? In parenthood? Is parenthood—the process of giving life—ironically the first step toward the acute awareness of mortality, of the fragility of life?
I finally shared my concerns about the mole with John and Geoff. The white-haired John just happened to be a Mayo Clinic pathologist specializing in dermatology. Melanoma in a five-year old, he said, is “very, very rare.” I relaxed a little, but at the same time wondered if I shouldn’t be at home in Utah, just… checking on stuff, even if nothing can be done. It seemed impossible to live in the moment—or maybe I was living in the moment, just not the moment I preferred. I wanted it to be a week later, when the biopsy results would be back.
After refilling our water jugs at the BLM Rome boat ramp on a brilliant, sunny high-desert afternoon, we floated past a scabby ranch, with its riverside manure piles and obsolete, rusting machinery. Then canyon walls rose up, hinting at the easier Class III and challenging IV rapids to come. Would they be steep drops packing a punch, like those upstream on the middle section? By evening all was well, though: we’d cruised 35 river miles since breakfast. If the middle Owyhee’s rapids all felt a class harder than the published rating, here on the lower Owyhee the smooth, easy-to-read Class III drops were just that.1
Next morning another deep low, still off the Oregon-Washington coast, drew hot, gusty winds from the south that fairly sailed the raft downstream. In this part of the West strong south winds portend the approach of powerful cold fronts, similar to backing easterly winds in New England which mark the approach of a nor’easter. Knowing this pleasant day would come to an unpleasant end, John, Geoff and I took leisurely turns at the oars, soaked in a hot spring, surfed a river-wide wave with the raft, and studied the unfolding primer in geology: the erosional features of Chalk Basin, reminiscent of the South Dakota Badlands; Lambert Rocks, a swath of barren, reddish basalt lava more Mars than Earth—all a brief painkiller before the next round of trouble. At Potters Cave, looted multiple times by pot hunters, fractured gray rock from the ceiling covered the cave floor, and I began to think of this entire canyon as a place consumed by entropy—but rebuilding itself in new ways, perhaps as does the human body and spirit as the years pass. One hears of people emerging from multiday river trips, determined to quit a job, a spouse, or some unpleasant situation, and who have rearranged themselves in new ways, like rocks tumbled from canyon walls.
As the river entered Green Dragon Canyon, soaring asymmetrical walls cloaked in vegetation so green it seemed to glow, made us feel as if we had floated from southeast Oregon into Southeast Asia. Deep in the heart of this canyon lay Class IV Montgomery, though the river seemed to have lost the spectacular punch it had upstream. The main threat in this rapid was pinching an oar between exposed rock and scraping over a bony pourover—this rapid could be run in an inner tube. Tim, scouting on the opposite bank, chopped his hand forward like a referee signaling first-and-ten: go for it, a straight shot.
Just downstream we set up tents and the cook table on a sunny beach strewn with rocks that appeared to have tumbled recently from the canyon walls. Reveling in the newfound benevolence exhibited by both river and weather, John and Geoff read while Tim and I ventured upstream to explore, discussing girls we knew and loved. Or wish we had loved. Or wish had loved us. And rivers we’d run and rapids we’d scouted and paddled and adventures we had and hoped to have. And then about dinnertime, the wind swung around to the north, and a light rain began to fall as the first wave of the cold front arrived. The rain would be a grind tomorrow, I thought as I dozed off, but at least the end is near.
Then, later, a series of bass explosions climaxed in a ground-shaking thud, as if the end was in fact very near. I lay paralyzed in that awakened-in-the-middle-of-the night confusion, staggered out of the dome tent, saw the flashlights of John and Geoff bobbing my way. Driven into the sand was a dishwasher-sized boulder that had tumbled a thousand feet down the canyon to home in on my tent. The near miss kept me awake until dawn. Usually a tent provides a significant sense of security and control that is wildly out of proportion to the actual protection its thin walls provide. As I considered this illusion, the clutch on my imagination began to slip, and I lay listening for the first snap of fracturing rock that would send another boulder crashing into camp, thinking my love for camping in narrow canyons was lost.
In the morning the jagged, thigh-high bomb sat dully ten feet from my blue and grey tent. The rock in Green Dragon Canyon is a rust-colored rhyolite, formed from lava flows and supposedly erosion-resistant. I imagined some minor newspaper headline, “Rafter Crushed in Bizarre Accident,” and wondered why at age 40 the cavalier attitude toward such misadventures had vanished. Years ago each complication would have added to a growing joke: the screwed-up oarlocks, the flipped raft, the swim, the grueling portage, the raw weather, the near crushing. Now, this malignant river and its canyon offered unrelenting reminders of time and chance—not offering the escape I needed, as if a decade-long springtime love affair with rivers had morphed into wariness.
How to face the moments when the stars seem to conspire against us? If there is an answer, it is found in running rivers in remote canyons. That’s why I find the sport, despite its hardships, oddly soothing: the only reasonable choice is to head downstream. And that’s what we did on a raw, snow-flecked day, rowing the final 15 miles of lonely spring canyon, hoping to beat a winter storm bearing down on us.
1. In summer 2011, however, a man drowned in this section on a guided commercial trip. In a Class III rapid known as Bull’s Eye, the victim’s tandem inflatable kayak drifted over a violent pourover hole. Though his companion escaped the backwash, a 65-year-old man recirculated in the hole and drowned. The body was evacuated by helicopter, but the rest of the rafting party had to spend three more days descending the river before they could escape the canyon.
Header photo by Hal Crimmel.