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Donner ünd Blitzen: Desert Scarcity | Rain, Not Reindeer.

Donner ünd Blitzen: Desert Scarcity | Rain, Not Reindeer.

Written By: Jo Kemper 
Host to the largest fault block mountain in North America, a population density of roughly one person per square mile, and a free-flowing Wild and Scenic river sprouting predominantly from spring-fed and Wild and Scenic tributaries, in the desert, Harney County beckons. In this quiet, ag-dominated corner of Southeastern Oregon, the Wild and Scenic Donner ünd Blitzen River flows from the flanks of Steens Mountain through rugged basalt canyons before joining Fish Creek and settling peacefully into Harney Basin and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, never to be seen again. The Donner ünd Blitzen originates adjacent to the Alvord Desert, notably the driest place in Oregon, and from the snowy crest of the 52-mile long singular Steens Mountain (not quite the highest place in Oregon), which reaches nearly a mile of vertical relief above the desert below. Donner ünd Blitzen is 1 of approximately 13 rivers in Harney County; in less than a 100 miles the river is born, reaches its crescendo, and returns to its final resting place, infiltrating the desert abyss beneath the earth. 
Alvord Hot Springs Lodging | Photo: Jo Kemper

Donner ünd Blitzen, German for thunder and lightning, is not your average potato ditch classic with desert whitewater appeal that draws kayakers and rafters alike, as certain as the seasons. At first glance the logistics for this trip are simple; go to the put in, float to the takeout, no permits are necessary and established campgrounds at either end of the section provide confident landmarks, and convenient access to the river. The BLM manages the Steens Mountain Wilderness and controls seasonally locked gates on either side of Steens Mountain Loop Road. The existing trip reports for this section of river recommend 600 to 800 cubic feet per second (cfs), and for perspective, in 2018 the river’s flow never reached as high as 400 cfs in Frenchglen [National Weather Service Donner Und Blitzen Near French Glen Gauge] With ever-changing conditions, my opportunity for this endeavor was found in a narrow window, with a sense of urgency between work, access due to snow, locked gates, spring runoff, and rainfall. I knew that on May 15, 2019 the first gate on the South Steens Mountain Loop Road was opened by the BLM; the river was flowing at just over 500 cfs and forecast to bump to 800 cfs, and rain was coming. Carpe Diem.

Rain In The Alvord Desert | Photo: Natalie Carpenter

Respite From The Wind | Photo: Catherine Loke

On the drive to Harney County from the Columbia River Gorge, as if on cue, lightning careened across the open night sky, illuminating the desert landscapes along the way. The wind was blowing sideways rain across the Alvord Desert, creating a particularly warm welcome for us when we arrived at the Alvord Hot Springs [Alvord Hot Springs Website]. It was a slight, but worthy, detour on the way to our kayaking destination, to enjoy some Harney County hospitality. The expected rain clouds hung low over Steens Mountain and delivered just enough of the forecasted precipitation to turn the dry desert valley into a vast expanse of mud, and a mirage toying with reality in the distance.
Donner ünd Blitzen At The Put In | Photo: Jo Kemper

We arrived in Frenchglen the afternoon before our scheduled river trip and went straight to the Frenchglen Mercantile, and the only available gas and supplies nearby. This mercantile, not unlike others in rural Oregon, aside from being a cultural masterpiece, served as a portal into the soul of the community. The proprietor, Malena, was undaunted by my offhand questions regarding the availability of a shuttle driver. Malena made some calls on our behalf, and after a brief stop at the Mercantile on our way to the put in the next morning, we left assured that the shuttle would be taken care of.

Donner ünd Blitzen Stoke | Photo: Catherine Loke

Picnic At The Little Blitzen Confluence | Photo: Jo Kemper

We stayed at Page Springs Campground, the take out for this trip, and a well-maintained model of a developed campground. The river runs eloquently along the edge of the manicured campsites, pit toilet walls were decorated with beautiful photos of native birds, trash receptacles and separate recycling bins were readily available, as was toilet paper, potable water and a shared covered cooking space. The campground bustled with birders, binoculars ready, anticipation palpable and excitement rivaling our own.

Donner ünd Blitzen In The Sunshine | Photo: Catherine Loke

The next morning on the drive to the river from the south, the snow-capped Steens Mountain occasionally graced the horizon, displaying the Wild and Scenic headwaters sprawling, penetrating the desert earth. Ice and snow rendered to trickling streams joining forces and gathering speed down the mountain, through the mountain, the canyon walls swallowed the river. Horses and antelope scattered from the road, gliding over the terrain and nimbly disappearing within it. Somewhat abruptly the river returned to view and a bridge marked the Blitzen Crossing Campground, our put in. We gave a final salute to civilization, marked by an empty parking lot and a box with a wilderness user registration log, and launched our boats just below the confluence with Indian Creek.

Canyon Vistas From Camp | Photo: Jo Kemper

Camp Life | Photo: Natalie Carpenter

The river carried us swiftly around bends, under branches, between rocks, and into the depths of its wild gorges. Novelty tempted us around each corner with the lure of front row seats to the canyon walls, blooming wildflowers and all the associated magic of spring in the desert. Tantalized by the echo of whitewater, and alert to the near-constant need to navigate the obstacles in the flow, we playfully leapfrogged our way downstream, taking turns maneuvering our kayaks through the scenic maze of rapids. We paused for a picnic lunch at the confluence with the Little Blitzen River, enjoyed sandwiches and cold beer, and then continued on our quest to make camp before reaching the confluence with Fish Creek.
Important Fly Fishing Decisions | Photo: Jo Kemper

The canyon was flush with delightful campsites and it was not difficult to accomplish our mission. By 3 pm we had emerged from Tombstone Canyon and were basking in the afternoon sun at our campsite, reveling in the success of our trip, so far. The camp was complete with amenities that constitute prime in my book: flat spots for tents, access to water, cliffs to scramble up and canyon walls to hike, fish to catch, caves to explore, trees for shelter, rocks for backrests, and an all-star cast of friends. With no rush for dinner, nor imminent rain, we settled into the more difficult tasks, like sharing the binoculars, agreeing on exactly which fly would catch a fish, and putting a dent in our healthy supply of cold beer. Half of the group set out to catch some trees, I mean fish, and the rest of us went exploring on the cliffs surrounding the camp. Everyone reconvened later to tell tales and dine in the dry duff under the shelter of a large juniper as thunderheads rolled over the canyon rim, threatening ever so sweetly to rain on our party.

Snow In Camp | Photo: Jo Kemper

Canyon Scenery | Photo: Catherine Loke

For a particular high desert treat we awoke the next morning to the subtle transition of raindrops morphing into the soft pitter-patter of snowflakes accumulating on our tents. Prepared for the weather, we had a leisurely breakfast, packed our kayaks and continued our downstream discovery of the Donner ünd Blitzen. With a few instream surprises, and the occasional intimate encounter with unsuspecting waterfowl sauntering in the riparian vegetation, the canyon walls and whitewater dissipated and the river meandered calmly into the familiar Page Springs Campground. Our truck was right where we’d hoped to find it, and our tour of Harney County’s whitewater by kayak had come to a bittersweet end.
Evidence Of Higher Water On The Donner ünd Blitzen | Photo: Jo Kemper

I set out for home very pleased with the outcome of this trip, but my fascination with Eastern Oregon is far from finished. It turned out that the forecasted rain, in the form of low elevation snow resulted in flows of just over 400 cfs at Frenchglen while we were on the river. I may just have to come back for some higher water, cloudless views of the mountain, and maybe even a self-guided loop tour as well [Field-Trip Guide To Steens Mountain Loop Road, Harney County, Oregon], if the gates are unlocked. For some added insight on this particular piece of your public lands, listen to Bundyville [NPR: Bundyville Podcast] on your way. Special thanks to Cat Loke and Natalie Carpenter for sharing your photos, and as always, to all of my friends who believe in my ideas, and join me on adventures.

Success Stoke | Photo: Catherine Loke


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