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Fly In Minam River Trip | Eastern Oregon

Written By | Jo Kemper

The Minam River has been on my Eastern Oregon paddling todo list for as long as I can remember having an Eastern Oregon list. The Minam River emerges from the heart of the Wallowa Mountains, flows northwest through the Eagle Cap Wilderness, and joins the Wallowa River at Minam. It starts from a modified natural alpine lake where one end of the lake is the source of the Lostine River, and the other end of the same lake is the source of the Minam River. The Minam can be accessed by hiking, horse packing, or flying to one of two grass airstrips along the river, inside the wilderness boundary. To my knowledge, it is the only fly-in access to wilderness paddling option in Oregon.  

The fly in | Photo - Jo Kemper
To keep this adventure within the scope of my recently fused spine’s current limitations, I spent my stimulus money on a packraft, and convinced my friend Catherine to get one as well. Our packrafts unfortunately didn’t arrive until the PNW heatwave was already stripping my hopes of enough water to paddle the whole Minam this season. With a loose plan and a lot of optimism, we set out to fly from Enterprise, Oregon to the historic Red’s Horse Ranch, and ideally float the lower part of the Minam from there to the confluence with the Wallowa River. With steadily dropping flows of less than 150 cfs at Minam, and high temps in the forecast, we hoped the packrafts would prove sufficiently durable for this endeavor, and that we wouldn’t find ourselves hiking our comically oversized packs out down the river trail, or trying to hitchhike with horse packers. 
The get out after a velvet smooth landing | Photo - Catherine Loke
Impromptu photo op at Red's Airstrip 
Hop, skip, and a jump to the river | Photo - Catherine Loke 
The pre-float explosion |  Photo - Jo Kemper

River flow at the get in | Photo - Catherine Loke

Floating | Photo - Jo Kemper

Portage one | Photo - Catherine Loke

Portage two | Photo - Catherine Loke

From Enterprise, we flew in a Cessna 206, over Cougar Ridge to the smoothest landing on a grass airstrip I could have imagined (shout out to Spence Air Service!). Smoke from the nearby Elbow Creek fire on the Grande Ronde could be seen from the flight, as well as a few other clouds of smoke in the distance. The volunteers staffing the horse ranch welcomed us enthusiastically upon landing. From the airstrip, we made the roughly quarter-mile trek past the horse ranch carrying all of our stuff to the river in remarkable time. Our first attempt at loading our packrafts with all of our overnight gear and food took, well, slightly longer. 

 Super technical rock garden | Photo - Jo Kemper

Stoked to be floating again

Walking the dog | Photo - Catherine Loke

Camp 1 breakfast spread | Photo - Catherine Loke

Starfishing | Photo - Jo Kemper

Upside-down starfishing | Photo - Catherine Loke

At first the river was deep, clear, and gorgeous. It was channelized enough to float effortlessly, and it appeared we were in for a leisure float through a ponderosa filled wilderness heaven. A few log portages and gravel bars later, we were a lot more appreciative of the channel depth at the very beginning of our trip. We did not make quick downstream progress. We stopped at plenty of swimming holes, and took lots of snack breaks. We found a few things helped with our ultra low flow experience, one being to forgo the spray skirt and starfish on top of our boats to spread the weight out as we encountered extra shallow spots. We also did a lot of dog walking.

Dog walking in the haze | Photo - Jo Kemper

Still floating....sort of | Photo - Jo Kemper

The questionable goods | Photo - Catherine Loke

Pool time | Photo - Jo Kemper

Elbow Creek Fire haze settling in above camp | Photo - Catherine Loke

Considering the current hydrological outlook for this area, I’m grateful we had any water. We enjoyed a pristine slice of paradise, and we didn’t see anyone else on the river. We saw more wildlife than mosquitoes, lounged around camp painting watercolors, sunbathed in swimming holes, ate lots of good food, went on hikes, slept out, slept in, and tried to be Winnie the Pooh as much as possible. Our window of opportunity was tight, and the river was closed by the time we reached our takeout, due to the active fire downstream. I’d still like to get into the upper section of this river at a proper flow, where the whitewater lurks in the mountain canyons. For now, I am stoked we were able to make this adventure happen, especially after years of talking about it. Extra special thanks to my friend Catherine, for doing the packrafting things with me, and for taking lovely photos.

Packrafting things | Photo - Jo Kemper

Still figuring out this whole packrafting thing | Photo - Catherine Loke

Winnie the Pooh sighting - no pants

The get out sign | Photo - Catherine Loke

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