Rapid Musings: Widowmaker on the Middle Owyhee River
My winter had been tumultuous. I craved my people, my oars, my rivers, and big-water springtime boating. I needed to row. I wanted to maneuver my body down frigid rivers, puffed up in a dry suit. I wanted to move my bed to a sleeping bag on my boat. I wanted to flit around a river kitchen. I needed my soul to dance again.
I was headed to the Middle Owyhee River, a whitewater epic in the remote wilds of southeastern Oregon. It’s a continuous 30-mile stretch of dazzlingly-technical Class IV+ and V+ rapids. Though some outfitters offer rafting trips on the equally as stunning Lower Owyhee section downstream, the Middle Owyhee is rarely commercially run. For a guide training trip, however, it would be the perfect challenge.
Our crew was eager and cohesive. We had the honor of boating with Curt Chang, OARS’ longtime Idaho manager and humble river legend. He had been on this stretch ten or fifteen years prior. This time, the U.S. Forest Service had tasked Curt, and our group, with hanging signs to warn other boaters of sunken drift boat debris throughout the canyon: a somber reminder of the river’s power.
We spent careful hours on the water, loads firmly adjusted, attired in full river safety gear. This type of river, water level, water temperature, and air temperature meant we were outfitted in dry suits with warm layers underneath, sturdy river shoes, helmets, guide PFDs (with rescue equipment such as river knives, pulleys, prussics, and locking carabiners inside), and throw ropes. We had our training, but most of all, we had the trust, support, and encouragement from each other.
After a few days boating some of the most spectacular and challenging whitewater many of us had ever experienced, we approached the most difficult rapid on this stretch of river—Class V+ Widowmaker.
Three days of boating led up to this moment, an awkward pull-over below a minor riffle that pounded between thick walls. All of a sudden, we were there.
After scrambling up a football field of scree, boulders, and vertical exertion for the scout, I exhaled.
“Wow, this looks okay,” I called out. “This looks like we could run it.”
“Go look at the other half,” Curt yelled.
“Oh,” I managed to mumble.
The second half was a violent roil, an inhospitable crash of basalt, turbulence, and ugly whitewater.
“Oh,” I said again as the gravity of the task in front of us sunk in further.
Running Widowmaker would be violent. Lining the boats would be unnecessarily risky. Portaging seemed to be our best option.
Still, we had to run part of the rapid. Cerebrally, I broke it into thirds:
The first third was a steep drop, followed by aggressive currents spinning you toward center, followed by a must-make pull through the current on the left to park and prepare for portage. We generously called the pull-over an eddy. It was not.
Making that pull was the hardest, most technical, most high-stakes rowing I had ever done. It was also the most proud of my skills on the water I had ever been.
The second third, the portage, was the most tedious. We completely (yes, completely) derigged the boats: oars, baggage, boxes, coolers, everything. Moving as a team, we precisely and precariously huffed the gear about 100 yards through a boulder-strewn mazeland, across a narrow cliff, dropped down through a crevice, and over another precipice of house-sized boulders.
The final third was still high-stakes boating, especially because we could not see the final moves we needed to make. Read and run. Once we hit the bottom, we hiked back up and did it two more times.
From the time we pulled over to scout to the time all four boats pushed off below the rapacious tumult, seven hours had passed. Seven hours of planning, seven hours of portaging, seven hours of teamwork, seven hours of exhaustion, fear, but also some kind of twisted form of fun.
At certain levels, in certain crafts, Widowmaker rapid can be run, but that day we were content with the conservative choice. All options have risks, but we agreed portaging was the most prudent, and would help us achieve our ultimate goal: arriving home unscathed.
The joy of challenging trips like the Middle Owyhee is not in some sort of misplaced sense of conquering the river. The true joy of boating big-water rivers is: knowing you can trust your crew.