Oboz Trail Tales / Now, More Than Ever, Public Land Matters

As part of my ambassador roll with Oboz Footwear, I’ve been writing a series of blog posts for them the past two years. While I sat down in the days after the election to write my final blog of the year about nutrition on the trail, I just couldn’t bring myself to start the post when my head was a swirling mess of surprise, anger, confusion, and disappointment at the results of the presidential election. A lot of what I hold dear is in jeopardy under this new “leadership,” so I wrote this essay instead:

Now, More Than Ever, Public Land Matters

Cover image: Wildhorse Lake embodies the incredible beauty of wild places in Eastern Oregon. All images by Renee Patrick

Since I began backpacking 14 years ago, I have hiked through more national forests, wilderness areas, national parks, and tracts of BLM than I can count…literally over 10,000 miles worth of public lands. But their worth has only recently been on my mind. I guess you could say I have taken for granted that the United States is incredibly rich in wild places.

Public Melting Pots

I’ve seen clues…the long distance trails are a melting pot of cultures from foreign countries. Many of those hikers come to the U.S. because of the lack of public lands in their home countries. Their wild lands are gone, developed, extracted, or patchworked so that one could not walk 2,000 continuous miles for months on end in a space that has been created for the trees, elk, butterflies, rivers and recreation.

Oregon Desert Trail

Since starting to work on establishing the Oregon Desert Trail with the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) last year, I’ve begun to pay closer attention to public lands. ONDA has been working for 30 years to protect, defend, and restore the land in Eastern Oregon, and the Oregon Desert Trail passes through some of the most spectacular areas east of the Cascade Mountains. Not all of these lands are equal; not all are managed for wildlife or river health, or recreation. I’ve learned there are many layers to the puzzle of public land throughout Oregon and the country.

Why does this matter?

No Guarantees

Because there’s no guarantee the land we currently love to explore will be open to us next year, or in perpetuity. Our modern culture of wants and desires do have an impact on the world around us; consumption on a global scale does impact where we get our lumber, minerals for technological devices, and oil to fuel the cars we love to road trip in.

And those resources come from the land. So the question becomes, where is it appropriate to extract versus protect? If we extract too much or cause environmental damages (intentional or not), we can destroy the very land that sustains us and our wildlife and way of living.

Economic Impacts

If we protect everything from development and extraction, the cost of those goods and services can go up; it impacts those who make a living from timber harvest, mining, or drilling. It’s not an easy answer; it’s not an easy question. But since working to build a 750-mile route through Eastern Oregon, I’m ready to tackle the hard questions.

Our land management agencies are trying to strike a balance between extractive practices and protective measures…that balance strives for sustainability, but is often difficult to manage for all purposes out there…even recreation.

After 5 sections and over 6 weeks, Renee finished the entire Oregon Desert Trail.

Multi-Purpose Management

Working to build this route provides an opportunity to learn about the different layers of public land management: what influences it, what threatens it, what happens if pieces don’t get protected… if they do…it’s given me the chance to know a place on a much deeper level than I ever considered before when my main concern was getting to Canada before the snow falls.

Public land is essential for outdoor recreation, and while my recreation has been a relatively personal experience in the past, now I have the opportunity to help facilitate recreation experiences for a much bigger audience: hikers, ultrarunners, boaters, bikers, horseback riders, snow shoers, skiers…the list goes on.

Be The Change You Wish To See

I love the saying “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” and for my part I wish to better educate myself on public lands, and want to help others to do the same. Through understanding, I believe we can better care for and steward our special places.

The Steens Mountain Wilderness became the first cow-free wilderness in the United States in 2000

I plan to explore these layers of land management by using the Oregon Desert Trail as a guide. As one hikes, bikes or paddles across Eastern Oregon, the maps, guidebook, and companion materials can be a tool to understand the different landscapes, their importance in the ecological diversity of the area, and the ways in which they are managed.

Speak Up

We all have a say in the future of public land, I believe the first step is through exploration and adventure in these wonderful and wild places…the next is through education.

 

This is how it feels to have completed the Oregon Desert Trail 

 

Wow, what a journey this year! I’m sitting in my hotel room in Fields making hitch sign in hopes of getting a ride to Frenchglen where my car is parked. Of course that will happen after I devour a breakfast worthy of a hiker that has been on the trail much longer than I have.

I’ve never section hiked a trail before, and loved dabbling in the different mountains and canyons of eastern Oregon during 3 different seasons. From when I started in May, it has been over 5 months and 5 different trips to pick away at the miles.

Immersing myself in the hike, and the job, and in supporting other hikers has felt like a great coming together of all my past experiences; I have never felt so incredibly engaged on every level. and there is so much to do! So many other areas to explore, connections to make, and hikers to tell about this route.

I has a great realization recently…I went to grad school for museum exhibition design…a field I’ve never actually worked in besides my internship at the Smithsonian years ago. But at the heart of my desire to design three dimensional spaces to share an idea or artwork or knowledge, is facilitating an experience. The more interactive and immersive…appealing to all senses, the better. My exhibit has become the desert of Eastern Oregon.

The trail is an introduction to a landscape, and through maps and guidebooks and research into the incredibly rich history, geology, land  management, and wildlife, I feel like the information the trail has the ability to impart is endless. Walking for weeks in the immense sagebrush seas and craggy fault block mountains, soaking in the numerous hotsprings, eating at the small cafes, and meeting folks who have homesteaded out here since the westward expansion is facilitating an experience much larger and deeper than I ever could have in a museum.

Dude.

I’ll leave you with one of my first video experiences talking about the trail. Ultrarunner Christof Teuscher has been producing a video series, about his 17 day, 15 hour run of the entire 750 miles this summer! and stay tuned for some upcoming podcasts by Cascade  Hiker Podcast where I talk about the ODT and hiking.

Final ODT stretch Day 4 – 22 miles (784.5 total)

Ahhh, I woke with another soak in the hotsprings this morning. I made myself a cup of french press as is custom, and saw the first glimmers of light from the massive desert sky. I didn’t linger though, cause I knew I had over 20 miles to hike today, and I wanted to get to my ending point of Fields before the store closed at 6pm.

I was hiking by 7, and had a quick stop at Frog Springs which would be my only potable water for the day. Most of the water around here is too alkali, brackish, or has high levels of arsenic. Good idea to pay attention to the water report around here folks!

I walked on dirt roads for most of the morning, and then had some cross country sections that had me wishing for pants. Whatever it is that looks like sagebrush but pointier, feels like a thousand sharp needles. Ouch.

Lunch

I was on the playa and getting close to Alvord Lake. Cool sand and mud formations started popping up, and a white crust started coating the ground. At one point I started walking on the dry lakebed, and saw numerous tracks of ATVS that had done the same….but it had rained since the summer, and I sank into mud in places. I had several muddy streams to cross and I started to worry about quicksand, not knowing if that was a thing around here.


The patterns in the desert earth were infinitely interesting, and I loved the hike despite worrying about getting sucked down into the ashy alkali mud.

I knew I was approaching Borax hotsprings when the earth’s crust turned whiter and I could start to see steam rising from the countless scalding pools. These pools are too hot and temperamental to soak in, and it was here that I decided to skip up to Frenchglen back in June because I had blisters the size of small children on my feet.


I was back! Back at the scalding pools of arsenic water, and that only meant one thing! I had finished the Oregon Desert Trail!

Well, almost. I was still over 6 miles from anywhere, but fortunately I had booked a room at the Fields Sation and had a few hours to get there before the store closed.


6 miles takes forever when you are done with a thing, but texting and instagram helped pass the time. That and some Pandora.


When I got to Fields I order a beer and a round for anyone who wanted one. I only had one taker, but had a great time chatting with Sandy, Nancy and my domestic beer drinking new friend.


I missed the last call for the grill, but Sandy offer to microwave something for me, so I grabbed a frozen dinner and burrito to take to my room. Celebration time!

Final ODT stretch Day 2 – 20 miles (762.5 total)

I didn’t sleep well, actually I don’t think I slept at all. I don’t know why my body does to me. And i knew I had a big day ahead of me, climb 2,000 feet up to the top of the Steens which appeared to have snow, and then drop down 5,000 feet to the Alvord Desert with some gnarly bushwacking.

I saw the impending snowy wall get bigger as I hiked up, I was nervous my route might have a lot of snow, but the closer I got the more doable it seemed. I still had some ice and snow to contend with, it was mearly my snail pace that kept me plugging along. 

When I got to the top, it wasn’t the top. Just kidding! There were a few false summits and by this time I was either walking on crusty snow, or slogging through drifts of a few inches. Still ok since I’m used to snow travel, but I wouldn’t recommend hiking this in November to many people. I had a few miles on the Steens Loop road where I got to see down to the desert below, so stunning!


As I approached the trail to Wildhorse Lake I was nervous the snow and steep trail wouldn’t be passable. It was getting icy and i had to walk through increasingly deep snow drifts, but I knew the trail was south facing so hoped the snow would at least be soft.

The first 5 steps were the worst and I kicked steps in. I could see the trail covered with snow, but there was a lot of rock showing, so I was reassured I could get myself down. It was after noon by this point and the snow was nice and soft. Yes!!


By the time I made it the the lake’s outlet I wasn’t feeling so hot. I think I had been driving myself hard this morning, and barely eaten anything, hadn’t drank enough water and was going on no sleep, so I took the next hour and lay down on some rocks…there was still snow all around. I couldn’t eat, which isn’t a good sign, but drank some drink mix and closed my eyes. I was starting to doubt I could make it another 10 miles down to the desert, but I finally got up and tried.


The first bit I descended open terrain and passed several waterfalls, but after a while the bushwacking got intense. Fireweed this summer had some particularly rough words for this section and I echoed her sentiment. It got even worse and couldn’t tell where I was supposed to navigate around some huge rock formations and lots of loose dirt. I just didn’t get this part…will have to see if anything else makes sense here. I finally saw the big cairn that marked my last pass; remnants from the 1980s Desert Trail route. Soon I was cruising on a dirt road. Man, there is nothing like some intense bushwacking to make you appreciate a dirt road! I was feeling much better and was able to eat my lunch at an earlier break.

Where am I supposed to go????

I flew down the road, and at Tuffy Creek took a road that wasn’t on my map down to the Alvord Hot Springs. It was after dark when I got there and was thrilled to find soda and chips for sale. Electrolights and salt!!


I checked in for a campsite and chatted with Rose the caretaker for a while. Then set up my tarp, ate some mac and cheese and went for a soak in the hotsprings. Bliss!!!!!!!!!

Final ODT stretch Day 1 – 24.5 miles (742.5 total)

I had a great stay at the Frenchglen Hotel last night…and it was the last night they were open for the season! The hotel was full when I hiked through this summer….I ended up taking a few 0 days because I had massive blisters, and relaxed at the Steens Mountain Ranch then….so I was excited to get to experience the historic hotel. The caretaker John made an excellent dinner even though there were only three of us, and when I came down before sunrise this morning he already had the coffee going and gave me a goodie plate for Halloween full of candy and a Frenchglen Hotel mug. Sweet!!!!

Barnes warm springs

The first few miles out of Frenchglen are rerouted (will be reflected in the update over the winter) on the Steens Loop road due to some changes in access, but I took a side trip to Barnes Warms Springs that looked inviting in the early morning ,  but I had miles to make.


I met with the Burns BLM on my way out yesterday,  and got some info on an alternate or possible reroute along the Donner und Blitzen river. There is a trail the goes up about 4 miles from Page Springs campground, and I was doubly curious since this is a water alternate I hope to packraft next spring. Boaters can paddle 17 miles of this wilderness river, and I’m excited to come back.

Donner und Blitzen river

I climbed out of the river channel at Fish Creek and met back up with the ODT at Big Springs. The rest of the day was supposed to follow a road, but it was so overgrown it either looked like single track, or I lost it. Even though the ODT is supposed to be ½ on old roads, many times you can’t even tell it was a road.

I made it to the South Steens campground by late afternoon. My alternate had added on about 1.5 miles, so I had already hiked 20 miles. I really only wanted to go a few more miles, but the Big Indian Trail was in great shape, and I ended up hiking another 4.5 miles before it got dark about 6pm. That’s what I get for hiking in November! There is snow on the higher elevations where I’ll be climbing tomorrow, but it looks amazing. 

Short ODT Section – 13 miles (718 miles of the ODT so far)

You may remember that I skipped a short section of the Oregon Desert Trail last month when I miscalculated my miles out of Christmas Valley. Well, I picked a random afternoon to finish up Section 1 from Spencer Wells Road to the Flatiron Rock Trailhead just outside the Badlands Wilderness. That random afternoon was yesterday.

Since I was so close to Bend, I had my co-worker Ben drop me off at Spencer Wells Road and I left a car at Flatiron so I could head home when I was finished. (Side note, Ben or Bluegrass, hiked the PCT in 2006 too although I never met him on the trail. Now we work together on the ODT!)

I walked up a series of OHV roads for the first few miles, and what had been poofy volcanic dust that coated everything last month, had been tamed by some recent rain showers. I lucked out with the weather though, and even though the sky was overcast, enjoyed a warm afternoon for my hike.

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After my first short climb up the side of an unnamed butte near Horse Ridge, I took a break and was surprised at some voices behind me. Mountain Bikers were making their way on the next ridgeline. I hadn’t realized the bike trails came out this far. I couldn’t see anything on my maps, so was curious to see where they were riding. I was a short way into a 3 mile cross country section when I happened upon one of those trails! Trail! Trail where I didn’t know there was trail. SWEET! I decided to see where it went, and followed it for about 2.5 miles until I determined it was going the opposite direction I wanted to go, so made my way another mile to the end of Horse Butte. It would be fantastic to be able to take a few miles of cross country onto an existing trail. Bonus! I’ll have to touch base with the Prineville BLM to find maps of these new trails, perhaps there are other opportunities in this area.

That's trail!!

That’s trail!!

I circled around the south edge of the butte, and soon came to a trailhead where I’ve been several times before with my good pal Speedstick. This was one of her favorite hikes outside of Bend, and would park and hike up the steepest section of Horse Butte regularly last year as she was preparing for her calendar triple crown hike this year. (If you haven’t heard, Speedstick fell in love with another hiker, Rookie, and left her adventure on the CDT – after her winter hike of the AT – to explore the even more exciting prospect of true love.)

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I only had a short cross country section to go to make it to the car and the completion of this section.

NICE

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Only 65 more miles to go (I’ll be re-hiking 7 of these miles to finish in Fields where I got off in June)

That will make 783 miles hiked on the ODT this year. Yep, the total mileage of the trail is 750, but I’ve been hiking alternate routes left and right, so that seems to have added on a few miles! Nothing wrong with that!

Almost there…

I’m about a week and a half from completing the entire ODT! If all goes well that is.

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I’ve uploaded a couple hundred more photos to ONDA’s Flickr site here.

AND I’ve got my last 5 presentations of the year scheduled. Come out if you can!

Eugene, November 8, 7pm @ REI – 306 Lawrence St, Eugene
U of O, November 9, 6:30pm @ U of O Student Union Lease Crutcher Lewis Room, Eugene
Salem, November 10, 6pm @ Salem Library – Anderson B Room, 585 Liberty St SE, Salem
Corvallis, November 12, 7pm @ Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall – 2945 NW Circle Blvd, Corvallis
Bend, November 15, 5:30pm @ REI – 380 SW Powerhouse Dr, Bend, Oregon 97702

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Owyhee Trip Report

I wrote up a pretty long trip report from my July adventure on the Oregon Desert Trail in the Owyhee Canyon. Click on the link or read below:


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.

Little West Owyhee

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.

walking in water

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.

5 bar

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.

The Ledge

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.

Widowmaker

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.

lunch

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.

pictographs

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.

River sit
It was so hot I took lots of swim breaks

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.

packing up at leslie gulch
Packing up at Leslie Gulch

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.

sunset
Relief only came when the sun went down

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.

owyhee reservoir

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!

The end!
The end!

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.