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Breaking Up the Monotony: An Eastern Oregon Monologue

Written By: Jo Kemper
I was diagnosed with mono in early April 2018 and told that I’d likely had it for the past several months. What I had at first suspected was jet lag from Pakistan, followed by a strong case of the PNW SADness (seasonal affective disorder), turned out to be mono that didn’t go away with a trip to Mexico, and the arrival of daylight savings time, spring runoff, and the long-awaited return of my friends who fled winter. In January it was funny when I would just pass out, face down on the floor, mid-meal and amidst a room full of people and puppies. By April, it was pretty frustrating to battle my eyelids every day from sunup till sundown, even if I’d slept for ten hours the last seven nights in a row. Despite the Epstein Barr Virus unknowingly sapping my energy, I mustered some mellow adventures to break up the monotony of waiting for the PNW to turn on, and the return of my pre-mono puissance. If you’re looking for adventures to do when it seems like nothing is running, everything feels off the couch (or maybe you're simply too tired to get off the couch), and the weather sucks, I’d highly recommend Eastern Oregon.

Wallowa and Grande Ronde, January 2018

Jo clearly excited about something on the Grande Ronde, Photo by Jackie

Back in January, I started my weekend tours to Eastern Oregon on the Wallowa and Grand Ronde Rivers. We paddled from Minam, Oregon starting at the confluence of the Minam and Wallowa Rivers into the Grande Ronde, to the Snake River at Heller Bar. This roughly 90-mile trip was full of gorgeous scenery, easy whitewater, and superb camping. There was no shortage of wildlife to view from the river, and aside from the occasional fisherman, we didn’t really see anyone. About ten miles from the confluence with the Snake, the Grande Ronde Narrows provided some quality rapids and all-time surf waves.  

Fog encroaching on Jackie, Grande Ronde River

Jackie lunch napping, Grande Ronde River

Lower Owyhee, March 2018

By mid-March, I was searching for my next weekendable multi-day adventure and decided on the Lower Owyhee, despite the sub-300 cfs of water gracing the riverbed. The only other time I’d done the Lower Owyhee it was over 6,000 cfs and I imagined this would be a slower, and potentially more technical trip than the one I did a few years ago.
After navigating some pool drop, willow choked channels, we entered the canyon and the downstream progress wasn’t too difficult. We planned to camp at Ryegrass Creek and enjoy the hot springs, but the pool was full of bugs and the camp smelled overly sulfuric, prompting us to continue on and camp beneath Lambert Dome, in the heart of Chalk Basin.
Ryegrass hot springs, Owyhee River
Unfortunately, the Greeley Bar hot springs were either hiding really effectively, or non-existent, and our happy hour soak plan turned into a wishful thought, and after a snack, and a little romp in the sun, we kept paddling. The Rome to Birch Creek section is probably better suited for a 3 day trip at sub 300 cfs flows; the last few miles were a bit of a struggle, that coming from someone who typically enjoys a grueling slog. The Owyhee is gorgeous country though, Jack and his shuttle drivers are splendid, and the cafe in Jordan Valley makes a damn fine breakfast. The road out of Birch Creek in a 4WD truck was significantly less terrifying than the last time I did it in a Honda Fit, which I would not recommend.
Following Max through Chalk Basin in the morning stillness, Owyhee River

 

Imnaha (lower), April 2018

My next great idea was the Wenaha River, a tributary to the Grande Ronde. Unfortunately, the road to access the trailhead was still snowed in, and that great idea got moved to my ever-growing list for later in the year, when the snow recedes.

 I shifted gears and starting making plans for an overnighter on the Imnaha River, a tributary to the Snake. With a plan to spend Easter in Easternmost Oregon, we met our shuttle driver, Buz, at his house on a Saturday morning, and then went to the Imnaha Store for a quick bite and more coffee, and to thank the lady for the shuttle hook up. The store in Imnaha is definitely worth visiting; it’s a cultural masterpiece and the rattlesnake souvenirs could be the best in the state. We loaded our boats and launched from Buz’s backyard, while he slayed steelhead from his private fishing hole and invited us back to Imnaha for live music the following weekend.
Following Jordan and Clancey through layered cake tops and farmland, Imnaha River #cowlandia
The road parallels the river for the 13 miles from the town of Imnaha until the bridge at Cow Creek; the whitewater in this section is minimal, but the scenery is still quite spectacular, and there were no portages. After Cow Creek the road vanishes and is replaced by a well-maintained trail, and the gradient picks up. The four or five miles between Cow Creek and the confluence with the Snake are full of quality and continuous class fun rapids.
Jordan and Clancey enjoying the change of pace after Cow Creek, Imnaha River #imnahaing
At a flow just under 600 cfs we made it from town to the confluence in a very easy day, with plenty of time for lifestyling on the river, and at camp. At the confluence with the Snake there is a beautiful campsite on river right, inaccessible to the hiking trail on the other side of the Imnaha. A trail from the campsite leads to an old mine, conveniently near a huge pile of driftwood for easy campfire makings. We spent the morning enjoying avocado BLTs and coffee from our sleeping bags, doing yoga, and mooning jet boats on the Snake. The paddle out on the Snake is a bit of a slog compared to the Imnaha, but I guess it beats hiking out to Cow Creek carrying a loaded long boat. Maybe if we hadn’t mooned all the jetboats earlier, hitchhiking to Heller Bar would’ve been a more feasible option.
Jordan and Clancey hiking back to camp from the Mountain Chief Mine, Imnaha River

North Fork Owyhee, April 2018

Slightly worn down from the must-make-miles theme of the past few trips, on top of my then unbeknownst mono condition, for my next adventure I chose a leisurely 18 mile section to celebrate my dirty thirty on a new one for me, the North Fork Owyhee. First stop: Jordan Craters. As I noted in my planning from the lower Owyhee trip, there is a large, black, and kind of fascinating void on the Google, not too far from the Owyhee, and sort of on the way to Jordan Valley. We drove to the Jordan Craters to camp and explore in the morning, with plans to meet our shuttle driver at the cafe in Jordan Valley at 9. Interestingly, the craters are just far enough west to put us in the Pacific Time zone, and our shuttle rendezvous was in Mountain Time. The cratering plan got sacrificed for breakfast when we realized we were an hour behind schedule, but I did get a glimpse into the black hole before we left.
Left: Owyhee River                              Right: big black void aka Jordan Craters
The North Fork Owyhee dramatically drops into a canyon of black basalt formations, visible from the road on the approach to where we put in, at the North Fork Crossing campground. The river flows through a tight canyon, with blind corners and periodic midstream willows, and then opens up into a more classic basalt canyon landscape. The approximate 150 cfs combined with loaded longboats made for an extremely technical paddling endeavor. Aside from one tree, the only other portages were to get around each other, as we occasionally took turns getting pinned and blocking the channel.  
Jo admiring the scenery, North Fork Owyhee   Photo by Max
As planned, we arrived at camp with plenty of time to chill. We set up a tarp, made cocktails and played cards while it rained. Just as our shuttle driver had confidently predicted, the rain turned off at 5 pm and the evening was beautiful, and sunny; we went for a hike on the ridge and found a deer shed in our campsite. The next morning we made bacon and coffee, soaking in the sunny camp time, knowing we only had to make roughly four more miles to reach the takeout at Three Forks. Almost immediately after leaving camp, the river gorged up again and we paddled around blind corners through sheer canyon walls and river level caves until reaching the holy trifecta at Three Forks.
Max on the North Fork Owyhee
Three Forks is a spectacular confluence, aptly named. For a little icing on top of this birthday adventure, as we’d reached the takeout by noon, we set out to find the rumored riverside hot springs on the nearby East Fork Owyhee (maybe the South Fork? Or Left Fork? Or sometimes just called the Owyhee). To arrive at the hot springs we drove over the North Fork, through the Middle Fork, and up and over a ridge before dropping back to river level directly across from the cascading pools entering on river left of the other Fork, and then we paddled across the river. It was definitely worth the effort, but I wouldn’t recommend it without good clearance and trustable 4WD. The pools were clean, and the water crystal clear and warm, not hot, but not too cold to prevent a delightful soak.  
Max soaking in the glorious not-quite-hot springs, Left Fork Owyhee River

North Fork John Day, April 2018

For my first trip of the season that I was actually aware that I had mono, and with aspirations of kicking Epstein Barr in balls, I set out for a chill, 44-mile section of the North Fork John Day that I’d never done. The morels were popping and the elk sheds falling; Eastern Oregon was calling. The longboats were loaded and the Lyrid meteor shower was forecast to grace the night skies, expected to peak in the early morning hours on Sunday. I was doubtful that I’d be awake when the stars came out, but optimistic of the chance, and not stressed about it either way.
Camp one NF John Day, tucked into the trees
The whitewater, which was minimal, was fun and we reached our second camp by 2 pm. We napped, played games, went hiking, dined like royalty, made some fancy cocktails and really marinated in the whole experience. This section of river transforms from densely forested ponderosas to nearly treeless Eastern Oregon landscapes.
Team lifestyling, NF John Day River   is that a mono-cular?

Eagle Creek, June 2018

This Eagle Creek did not burn last year, nor is this section stacked with some of the most picturesque waterfalls in the entire Pacific Northwest. This Eagle Creek emerges from the heart of the Wallowas, somewhere near Sparta and the sacred and proverbial Mt. Kailash of the Eagle Cap Wilderness, a zone in the holy headwaters from which Minam River flows west (and then north), Lostine River flows north, Imnaha River flows east, and Eagle Creek flows south.
Eagle Creek
I was expecting to meet up with just one or two people for a casual weekend exploring the rivers in the Wallowas; I felt honored and was pleasantly surprised to be putting on the river the next morning alongside 5 of my homies. The roughly 7 mile section of Eagle Creek between Paddy Creek and Six Dollar Gulch provided some quality fun, and a few wood portages. Brian had arrived a few days before the rest of us, and done a lap on Eagle Creek the day before (and biked his 12 mile shuttle), he knew where the wood was and we had a fairly quick, low stress lap. After a quick lunch at the campground we started making our way to the upper Imnaha River.

Imnaha (upper), June 2018

The upper Imnaha was definitely on the stouter end of my spring endeavors, and combined with the hike-in, felt like somewhat of a monolithic undertaking for me. It rained hard the night before, though it was cold enough to bring the river level down a tiny bit (to just under 1200 cfs @ Imnaha), and leave a fresh trace of snow not far above us. We started hiking around 8 am and we were putting on just after noon, the cool and cloudy weather made for ideal hiking conditions. The trail was well maintained, the wildflowers spectacular, and periodically, monster king boletes poked through the duff.
Nicole crushing the hike into the Upper Imnaha
The whitewater on the upper Imnaha was high quality, and high consequence. The entire river was action-packed, and gorgeous; we made progress downstream cautiously micro-eddy hopping, carefully watching for hand signals and passing them on, and scouting. By the time we reached the final gorge, and a massive logjam to portage, the hanger was setting in and it was starting to snow. It did not help the hanger and waning energy levels to have three more portages in the class 3 paddle out, after all the gorges. In the end it took us 9 hours, parking lot to parking lot, and we saw a whopping one other group of hikers on the trail when we were on the river. The Wallowas did not disappoint. Brian, thank you for driving my sleeping ass back to the gorge. #imamonoprincess
It would be unfair to not recognize, and thank, my friends for repeatedly saying yes to, and committing to my adventure ideas. Also, shouts out to Jacob Cruser, Matt King, and Dan Thurber - your blogs are amazing and I’m a huge fan of your adventure tales!  I’m not finished with Eastern Oregon, but my timeframe for squishing it into this season is rapidly dwindling. Ideally next time, mono won’t be in play.
Nicole in the runout of one of the final gorges, Imnaha River (it was snowing)
One of the more impressive gorges on the upper Imnaha
Max lining up, Imnaha River
 
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