Don't know if my trip report worked or not, so I'm going to go ahead and post it here:
The Art of Self Rescue
“Ted” you have to get up and move your tent right now!” I yelled as my headlamp played along the water’s edge. Unfortunately, the water’s edge was at his tent door. Six o’clock in the morning, and Jeremy and I have already been up numerous times to check water levels, move boats, move the kitchen, and now we have to move Ted’s tent.
The Owyhee Desert is famous for its beautiful, remote, and often times wild whitewater canyons. We three are here to run one of the most remote; the Bruneau River Canyon. Forty miles of canyon walls and lots of whitewater thrills to go with it. The river is small, unpredictable, and undammed for its entire length. We have been vigilantly watching the weather, and the flow to time our trip. Some years the river is in season for a couple of months, sometimes it’s a couple of days! Our crystal ball says it’s a great flow, the weather gods are smiling, and it’s time to pack and get out there right now!
The logistics of any Owyhee river trip are daunting. Rough roads, no amenities, and long miles make for a time consuming endeavor. The Bruneau is no different. The take out is easy, barely off the paved road outside the small town of Bruneau, Idaho. The start, or put in is another issue entirely. Sixty miles of wide open desert expanse that progressively becomes worse and worse until the final two mile section arrives at the canyon rim. The road to the Indian Hot Springs put in could possibly be one of the worst roads anywhere in the Owyhee’s, and that’s saying something. Literally tumbling off the canyon rim, the road is narrow, rocky, and the cliff drop on one side can unnerve the most experienced driver.
As we drop into the canyon, I have to get out of the truck and guide Ted as he positions his wheels over the best line of ledge drop offs. The lava is sharp, and the view from the windshield is impossible to see any road at all. We creep down the ledges, bouncing through. I get back in only to climb out a few hundred feet down farther where we do it all over again. A few times I get out to pry rocks out of the way as there is literally no way around them. Heaven forbid if we were to meet another vehicle coming up this thing!
It takes us a full 30 minutes to travel the 2 miles down to the river’s edge. We pull up to a wide spot by the river. A very unstable looking bridge spans the water and in the distance we can see steam from the hot springs. We begin to pull out gear, in a hurry to get on the water. Our shuttle driver will take our truck back up this road and back to the take out where his car is waiting. We will arrive back at the truck three days from now. For three people we seem to have a lot of gear.
We will be using two boats for the three of us. Jeremy’s cat is about 16 foot, and will carry him and Ted. I’ll be in my 14 foot cat, and will carry a proportionate load of our gear. Loading gear to keep the boats trimmed and level is a delicate balance. We shift and move bags until we feel it’s about right, then get on the water and hope for the best. Pumping up the boats, we fit frames, lash bags and finally change into wet suits and neoprene.
We are all a bit nervous, as the first rapid is a class IV, and is almost in your lap as soon as you enter the river. We are looking to “sneak” around it on the left, but as we slip down the canyon, and come up to it, we see the left side clogged with trees and debris. A sure sign of disaster! We frantically shift to river right, and see why it’s called Cave Rapid. A large cave is looming, with churning whitewater in its mouth. We have to go to the edge of the cave, and then move back left to drop away from this dangerous trap. I pull back into my oars as the adrenaline pumps, and slide down a rocky and fast white road. I hear and feel my frame bounce and hit a couple of rocks as I shoot thru and out into the current again. WOW, what a rush!
The Bruneau is only 30 feet wide, maybe 2 feet deep in many places. But in its 40 mile length, we will run 20-30 class III rapids, and a handful of class IV’s. The big day will be day 3 with the infamous Five Mile Canyon to deal with. Actually 3 ½ miles long, the canyon is a constant barrage of III’s and IV’s as the river steepens and shoots along thru rock gardens, drops, and holes. This is a true adventure.
We begin to settle into the river, to feel and learn its pulse. The scenery is absolutely stunning. Huge canyon walls rise out of the water for hundreds of feet. Green Juniper trees dot the banks, and an ever changing array of reds, browns, and oranges flow past. Amazing rock spires, called Hoodoos, tower up and over our heads. It’s hard to row and keep an eye on all that’s flowing by at the same time. We gain and lose our GPS signals constantly. The river canyon is so narrow that satellites have a hard time being received. We are hoping to camp at Cave Draw, where rumor has it that one can hike up the draw to see a beautiful cave carved out of the rock. Unfortunately, we miss our landmarks, and pull up about a mile downstream at a high perch off the river.
Camp is set and dinner eaten as darkening skies begin to sprinkle. The rain is not heavy, nor even constant, just a small patter on the nylon tent roof as I drift off to sleep. I wake up intermittently to hear the rain still softly falling, but as the morning skies lighten, the rain stops, and the sky clears. Day two on the river begins early with hash browns, eggs and sausages. Properly fueled we launch under clearing skies and the hint of sun. The plan for today is to cover quite a bit of ground. Twenty river miles will take us to a camped marked at river mile 60, about 10 miles from the take out, and just before the wild water of Five Mile Canyon begins. We feel that if we can start fresh right at the beginning of the hard section, we will have most of the day to deal with any unforeseen issues that we might encounter.
Today the river flows with a tricky intent. Wave trains, holes, and other rock drops look to push or pull in one direction, but upon entering, do the opposite. Oaring with patience, we learn that we do not have to hurry our strokes, but wait to feel what the current is giving to us. Once the confluence of Sheep Creek is reached, the river increases dramatically, and the flow begins to run quickly. The miles begin to slide by quickly, and we reach the landmark Clover Creek, often called the East Fork of the Bruneau in time to take out and have a late lunch. The sun is overhead, the sky blue, and we lay on heated rocks above the river, just stunned by the views all around. We push off reluctantly, but also excited by the fact that we shouldn’t have any trouble making the last camp with plenty of daylight to spare. I feel so confident with my boat and the river today. The flow is in my mind, my body, and my oars seem to move without any extra movement. I see rocks, holes, and other obstacles as a whole, and not as something to just avoid. It’s an incredible feeling of being at peace with, and on the river. This is the first time I have felt this way on my boat, and I really wish the river could just go on and on. I think that this is the magic of the desert doing its work in and on me. Each time I venture out into the desert, the desert asserts itself, the sheer vastness, the grand vista of such a simple view, of such basic and earthly things like water, rock, grass, and trees. I feel very small in this environment. Once again, the Big Quiet has worked its spell.
Our camp is situated on a small beach, with rocks, a small grove of beautiful drooping Junipers; soft grass covered tent sites are plentiful. As I climb off my boat a small animal skull sits on the beach, and I sing out to the others, “Aye! There’s skullduggery afoot!” that remark would be repeated often in the next 24 hours. We move into the small grove of trees, underneath a canopy that blocks the freshening wind, and set up the kitchen box, stove and table. I begin to put together a dinner of chicken alfredo with roasted red peppers, and the day is re-hashed in the good natured spirit of tired river runners. Underneath our banter though is a tension based on the realization that the jaws of the Bruneau are just below us, and we are about to enter the dragons lair. As the dishes are being washed, rain begins to fall. We have a tarp pitched under the Juniper canopy, and we sit in relative comfort, listening as the rain picks up. Jeremy takes a stick and pushes it into the ground at water’s edge, a common river rats measuring device.
My sleep is interrupted by Jeremy, “Steve, the water is coming up, and we have to move the kitchen.” I sit up in my bag, wondering why we have to move the kitchen. “What?” I reply. “The water is rising fast” he repeats. Ok, I get up, now I hear the rain, its steady drumming on the tent forces me to look for my rain jacket as I shuffle into sandals and out into the night. I walk over to the tarp, and my headlamp shines on the legs of our kitchen dry box. The water is over a foot up the legs, and waves are pushing up farther literally every minute. What the? Our stick in the water shows a level that has risen about a foot in the last couple of hours! Ted and his tent are only a few feet away, but on a higher terrace. We don’t feel that it’s much of an issue, but soon we will feel otherwise. I walk over to the boats to see that Jeremy’s boat is actually floating one pontoon in the water. Two hours ago this boat was on dry land. We slide the boat up a couple of feet, and call it good. It’s tied off to a large rock as well. Staggering back to our tent we climb in to get some more sleep.
Sleep is hard to come by as the rain continues its steady drumming on the tent. Jeremy continues his vigilant night watch and soon we are out again, this time moving boats to higher ground again. My boat is now on a level with my tent! This can’t continue.
I am awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of the earth ripping apart. There is this wrenching scraping sound of large rocks that three decades of rock climbing has conditioned into my soul. I literally leap out of my bag, grabbing headlamp and jacket; sure that something has just torn our boats off the beach and down river never to be seen again. As I leave the tent I am overwhelmed by the sound of the river. It has reached an entirely new level of sound. The dragon is awake, and his roar is mighty. The sound of debris and rocks dislodged from across the river continue. The boats are fine, but Ted’s tent is not. The water is at his door, lapping onto a dry bag being used as a welcome mat.
Day break comes slowly, as we are now in a steady rain that has continued for almost 12 hours, and the Bruneau River has turned into something that no one has ever seen before. The word “Bruneau” is French for “brown”, and now we know why. A raging, roiling mass of foaming brown water is surging past our camp with alarming speed. Every 30 seconds or so large objects, sometimes an entire tree will sweep by as we watch awestruck and not just a bit frightened by what we are seeing. The original kitchen is now a memory, as 25 feet of water now separates what once was our dining area and where we now stand. In the rain we re-position camp. We take oars and tie the tarp to make another kitchen where we can hide and plot our course of action. The rain continues. The river keeps rising. We can actually see it climb steadily up the bank, and inch or two at a time. This is becoming serious. There is no way we are going to float downstream in this witches cauldron.
The idea of rescue is not feasible in these kinds of canyon. Once you go in, there is usually only one way out, and that’s at the bottom. We are now actively discussing how we are going to get ourselves out of this situation. We can see that today is a non day for sure. We also realize that the river will need more than one day to return to any kind of normal flow. We had been told repeatedly by other river experts that you can’t attempt the lower canyon in flows above 2.000cfs. When we started our trip, the flow was at 900cfs, with good weather forecast, and stable flows predicted for the next week to ten days. Above 2,000 the lower canyon rapids are life and death consequences for anyone trying to get thru. We sit under the tarp and continue to watch the water, large trees, and the day go by. If we are going to get out of this situation it will only be by making clear and deliberate choices. We only have a couple of choices. We sit and wait for the water; too long, we don’t have that kind of time. We float out; no way, none of us feel like dying on the river. We abandon the river and get to the rim hoping to walk far enough to get a ride back to our truck. How to get to the rim? We do a short exploratory hike upstream and see only a very sketchy gully to the top. Not our best bet, and it’s on the west side of the river; we need to be on the east side to be closer to any hope of help.
The old kitchen area is now almost 4 feet deep, and our stick has long since disappeared entirely. We do some rough math. 3 feet by 75 feet across, guessing one foot is 750cfs, so three would be over 2,000, plus the original say 1,000 and we are now at or above 3,000cfs for sure. We are in the realms of full on flood stage now. We pore over our river maps, looking for more information. About a mile below us is a mark labeled Roberson Trail. This is an historical trail, but we have no idea on if it can get us out of the canyon. Ted and I decide to walk down along the river to see if we can see it. We clamber over rocks, thru bushes, and across sand for about a mile before I move out ahead and reach the last cliff further blocking us from going any farther. I can see the trail. But even better I can see that there is an eddy pool at the trail for us to get out boats to shore. With the current moving at these speeds, we need to be able to stop our boats and get on shore without being swept downstream to disaster. “Aye, skullduggery is afoot for sure!”
It’s decided that in the morning we will attempt to drop downstream, eddy out, and then hike out to the rim, and then continue on hiking until reaching a point where we can hitch a ride. A minimum of about 10-15 miles to reach the main gravel, as much as 20 to reach pavement. There isn’t anything left to discuss. We sit back, watching the river, amazed that we have a front row seat to such an incredible display of Mother Nature. The rain finally stops, but the river continues to rise. It has been a full 24 hours and there is no sign of relief from the water.
We head to the tents under clearing skies and dropping temps. The noise of the water is a constant reminder, and it is hard to sleep for any length of time before nerves push us to back up to wakefulness. The night passes uneventfully, and by morning, we see that the river has ceased to rise. It hasn’t fallen any, but hey we will take what we can get. We load up our gear just like we would if we were planning on spending the entire day on the water. In all probability, the race downstream will literally take minutes. I’ve scouted the entire way on foot, and try to remember my landmarks, trees, rocks, eddies. Time to go. We push off together knowing that we will have separation instantly at these speeds.
I lean into my oars, ferrying across to river right, hoping to slide along the eddy line all the way to our proposed take out. The river is seriously powerful today, almost pushy in its engorged state. Simple waves are at least three feet high, and I don’t want to accidentally take one with to much of my boat sideways. This is not the place to make any mistake at all. I lead downstream, showing the way. I feel like the river and my boat are in slow motion. I feel the need to hurry, but have no control over the speed of the boat. I am along for the ride. I see the take out ahead, and also see a nasty rock slide and hole at the corner that will sling me out to river center exactly where I need to be pulling for river right as fast and as hard as I can. I let the boat get pulled into the hole as far as I dare before spinning the bow around and pulling on the oars steadily. The eddy pool is large, and I need not have worried, plenty of room, and I’m into the slack water, pulling straight into the bank and safety. Five minutes of eternity. Ted pulls in alongside and we shake off the effects of adrenaline overload.
For the next hour we disassemble our boats, organizing gear and caching our equipment for removal at a later date. With our pockets full of some food, a couple of water bottles, and a headlamp, we start up the trail. To make a long story short, we hiked about 11 miles before a truck pulled alongside and asked us if we were all right. Our ride back to the shuttle/take out was relatively quick, and when we pulled down alongside we were awestruck by the state of the river. Overflowing its weirs, the river had pushed out into farmers’ fields, overflowing banks and pushing everywhere.
As we made our way closer to civilization, we began to get calls out, alerting all to our safety; we learned that the river had crested at a hairbreadth below 5,000cfs. The highest point recorded before was 2790cfs back in 1984. The river officially hit 4,985cfs while we sat on the bank and watched it happen.
We look back and are very pleased with a few things. First and foremost, we didn’t need anyone to come and rescue us. More importantly, that means that we didn’t put anyone else at risk because of our situation. We were very pleased with our decision making process, and our deliberate and correct line of action to minimize our risk at every step of the way. There is an art to Self Rescue after all.