Oregon Desert Trail: 175-Mile Packraft on the Owyhee River: The Prep

This is a repost from a blog I wrote for the ONDA website:

Ready to packraft the Chewaucan River outside Paisley in 2015

Ready to packraft the Chewaucan River outside Paisley in 2015

I have been looking forward to the exploring the Owyhee River section of the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) ever since I visited Anderson Crossing with Sage Clegg on her 2013 thru-hike. Even though it was early July when we went to the Little West Owyhee that year, I saw pools of water and fish darting into the shadows; the sight had me dreaming of coming back with my packraft. I wondered: Is it boatable in the summer at lower flows? How low is too low? Do I have the skills to packraft the entire river? Could I create a river “alternate” to the 175 mile hike of the ODT in this area?

And so the seed of a great adventure was planted in my imagination. Couple that with my new job as the Oregon Desert Trail Coordinator, and ONDA’s efforts to protect the stunning wilderness of the Owyhee Canyonlands, and I had multiple reasons to immerse myself in the remote canyon.

Before I could start the next section of the trail I had some serious planning to undertake. Since I would be making the trip solo and adding in a more “risky” sport like packrafting on top of backpacking, I wanted to be sure I was going about the trip in a safe and smart manner. In addition, I was paddling a river I had never been on before that contained Class IV and V rapids, so I needed to be confident in my abilities, and my ability to get help if I needed it.

My boyfriend Kirk and I have been paddling remote rivers in our Alpacka Rafts since 2012, and I have enjoyed broadening my horizons beyond just backpacking. Since we live in Bend, many of our high desert rivers only flow in the spring, or usually have low flows. When I was a beginner packrafter I enjoyed paddling low-flow rivers, and have loved getting out sections of the North Fork John Day River, North Fork Malheur River, Chewaucan River, Crooked River, Wychus Creek, and others.

North Fork Crooked River

The North Fork of the Crooked River was one of my first packrafting trips in 2012

A large component to running remote rivers – either at low flow or at high – is scouting. I knew I would have to scout (or get out of the river to look for safe passage) a lot on the Owyhee River, especially since some of the larger rapids like Half Mile and Widowmaker were most likely impassable in my little boat. I tried to look up trip reports online to get a feel for what I would encounter, but didn’t find much about what these rapids would look like at 200 or less cfs (a river measurement for cubic feet per second). To give you perspective, a normal raft trip down the Owyhee River would not launch below 1,000 cfs, and many people run the river up to 10,000 cfs. 100 cfs would seem impossible to many…but to a packraft? I’d find out!

Renee Scouting

Scouting rapids is crucial for a safe and fun river trip

With 7 years of paddling experience, and 5 years of packrafting on desert rivers, I felt confident in my ability to make the right decisions in the Owyhee canyon to keep myself safe. Going solo, however, added another layer of risk which required me to consider all the scenarios of what I would encounter, and pack extra gear to cover my bases. My safety gear included a helmet, PFD (personal flotation device), a throw bag (could also use to line my boat down the river as I walked along the side), patch kit, well-stocked first aid kit, and Delorume InReach GPS device. The Delorume Inreach could send text messages during my trip, the device would track my progress every hour so Kirk could stay up-to-date on where I was, and in the event that I did need help, I could press the big red button that would bring search and rescue as a last resort. All of this helped put my and Kirk’s mind at ease.

Packing was another story. Since I wasn’t sure how many miles I would have to backpack down the West Little Owyhee before getting to a spot on the river with enough water to paddle, I was prepared to spend over a week in the first 87 miles of the route. I knew the West Little Owyhee was extremely challenging. Navigating in and around the boulder-choked narrow canyons and thick willows could make the trip so slow that my planned seven days to reach Rome (the half-way spot) could easily stretch into 10 or 12. But something I learned on my Continental Divide Trail thru-hike last year was to be prepared to be unprepared. I packed extra food, extra boating gear, extra shoes, extra everything so I could make decisions on the ground. But in reality all that added up to a HEAVY pack.

Renee packraft gear

Packrafting means lots of gear

Renee pack

Regardless of the results of my river trip, I was excited to be able to explore a different mode of travel along the Oregon Desert Trail, and asses the skill level needed to take this “water alternate.”

To the river!

Stay tuned for another blog post coming soon about the trip. Questions? Contact Renee at renee@onda.org.

5 thoughts on “Oregon Desert Trail: 175-Mile Packraft on the Owyhee River: The Prep

  1. Hiked on the North Fork John Day last summer. So many fish jumping but it was quite low. Love hearing about this packrafting…might be something I have to learn about.


  2. I’ve been fascinated by packrafts and kayaks for a few years..I’ve only sea kayaked and canoed. Would you recommend learning in a kayak before a trying a packraft? I live in Bend, OR…lots of places to explore.


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