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
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
Canyon Vistas From Camp | Photo: Jo Kemper
Camp Life | Photo: Natalie Carpenter
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
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