The Power of Place

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Owyhee May 1-5, 2010 Canon 148

In nature, certain places have a special power to pull in one’s soul.  The mystery of why these types of places have such a magical feel to the traveler that discovers them, may never be adequately expressed by words. Just as photos can never adequately paint a picture of those same areas. Only the human in real world experience can feel such things.  To me, the Owyhee River in SE Oregon, is one of those places that continues to suck me in each spring when the snow begins to melt.

Owyhee May 1-5, 2010 Canon 163

It is a time I relish, because this desert river only provides enough water to float in the spring time.   It is also a fickle time of year weather-wise, which in turn affects flows and boating. Crossing fingers, doing a sundance or raindance, maybe an incantation or two, and a lot of hoping help describe the waiting times for floating this river.


For me, aside from winter steelhead fishing by driftboat, the Owyhee is the first extended, multi-day river trip we begin to run each year. It is our kick-off to another whitewater season, so it also means a lot of elbow grease working on boats and rafts to get the dust and cobwebs off.  The water levels of the Owyhee dictate which type of craft we will take, as hard boats do not do well in very low water conditions. Wood and rock are not a good mix when it comes to floating.   Rafts are better, but in extreme low flows, size of those critters are critical too.  Trying to squeeze a 7′ wide raft through a 6′ wide slot, is in the realm of a magic trick gone bad.


Having floated this river for around 40 years worth of trips now, my back log of stories includes lots of personal relationships with a lot of rocks, hard places, and some experiences I am glad are behind me.  A lot of images come to my mind as I work on boats and visualize up coming adventures.  These same extreme experiences have given me a good backlog to evaluate water conditions and develop cut-off levels for determining what kind of boat or raft I will take for the next trip.  Reducing risk for potential problems from day one is the name of the game for minimizing problems and having more time to enjoy the canyon, rather than pulling rafts off rocks or putting bad dings in hardboats.


So far, based on rare evidence of other party wreckage and carnage, I have been pretty lucky not to have the worst nightmare stories to tell, and I plan to keep it that way, as much as possible. Those kind of stories are better for someone else to have and tell. But, I do whisper all this, nare the river might hear my words and reciprocate by playing  tricks on me.


But as I work on boats getting them shined up for the Owyhee, I can feel the river’s pull from this high desert sage plateau. I can even smell the pungent sage and feel the desert breeze wafting its aromatics across the wide expanses.  It is hard to put a finger precisely on just what that magic is that contains such a power.  It’s only a feel, and one must go there to really know what that really means.  All I know is that it exists, is real for me, and that it is calling now. Only a few more suns for trip number one on the Owyhee and soon magic will be all around as each oar grabs another foot of downstream progress.

Owyhee May 1-5, 2010 Canon 063

Always room for more


Who Needs A Guide?

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No one, and everyone, is the finely distilled answer.  If you could ask Lewis and Clark what value a guide has, you would soon discover how important their guides were to the success of their mission.  For example, on the 1806 return trip in June, Lewis and Clark had great apprehension about crossing the snow-covered mountains in ID/MT without guides. They felt they could not cross without them and luckily were  able to persuade  Speaking Eagle, Black Eagle, and Ahs-kahp, who were three of the very best Nez Perce guides to lead their way. Of course, these were not their only guides, as Sacagawea also played a huge role in leading them a good part of their distance in uncharted territories.

These  Indian guides were as excited about leading the expedition then, as guides of today often get when taking modern people into some of the same  rugged and beautiful landscapes that continue to drop jaws.  The Nez Perce were paid with guns which made their hunting easier, while guides today get paid in money which  make their livelihoods possible. Though the more esteemed value to both types  of guides was deeply felt in the heart and spirit where no material things can be taken.  What is life really about, if not to get out and see what there is to see and to share with others the utter magic that it represents to all ?

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But, in the process of getting out and seeing things we have never seen before, it is only reasonable to find a good guide. It can be a writing guide, or human guide, but in either case it is the information and knowledge they contain that we seek. Sure, anyone can go out on their own without consulting any form of guide for true unadulterated exploration. But, aside from that goal, guides help us save time and offer more opportunities to see cooler things we might otherwise miss.  It takes a large chunk of time to make your own trial and error path trying to negotiate any new jungle.  The learning curve is greatly reduced by piggy-backing off someone elses  consumption of time to figure things out.

Even guides consult other guides, maps, guidebooks, and any source that might provide additional insights into becoming more intimate to an area. Whether it is new country, or a different perspective in familiar country, one can never learn too much.  So while some say adventure is not the map, it is still true that a  map  has an advantage to make the adventure less risky and time effective endeavor.  Dead end trails eat away time and back-tracking efforts can sometimes even be cause for missing a final planned destination when time runs out.

Hidden dangers, and dangers not even suspected to be dangers that are known to guides, but not the uninitiated, can mean the difference between failure or success, or in extreme cases life and death.  All through time humans have sought the advice of guides. From soothsayers to Youtube, people continue to seek some kind of source to guide their way forward through the world.

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As a river guide, I often find myself in places such as where  the Nez Perce guides of yester-year once stood, in awe of their surroundings. Like a special place in the mountains where Speaking Eagle, Black Eagle, and Ahs-kahp stopped before a rock Caryn built by their ancestors to remind other travelers to pause and wonder at the meaning of their world.  It is said that the voice of Itsi-yai-ayi, or spiritual Coyote, would sometimes speak to those who listen:

“Frail Human, standing tall with head near the stars above,

Proud-standing, with feet on the birthing-place of rivers,

Safely have you come thus far through these mountains.

How could you tell which way to go?

Looking up, what do you see? Nothing but sky.

Looking down, deep canyons.

Behind – mountains. To right and to left – mountains.

Looking ahead – mountains. Mountains as far as eyes can see.

You, who are a mere Human! How can you find your way?

Something Greater than you has been your Guide.”


Who floats your boat?


See for guided adventure.

Aliens Arrive on Meteorite Rock

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It would appear that a giant meteorite landed on the banks of the Salmon River near Riggins, Idaho with suspicious looking characters from another world. I believe that may be like in  “close encounters” of the Cottonwood kind. This group from the Cottonwood area on the Camas Prairie, are neighbors to Rigginsites (the small “drinking town” with a big whitewater problem). Often they must get away from the hay  fields and high Ag country to skip town for fun in the sun down in the canyon where “in your face” whitewater can cool your jets and allow the river’s medicine to sooth the soul.

At least that was the intention of this group that Misty rounded up for this weekend float trip. Most were friends and neighbors from her neck of the woods, and they certainly know how to cut loose and let their hair down.  Running two paddle rafts, vying for the best possible runs at every rapid encountered, turned out to be highly successful. That is, success, as defined by hitting everything big, but precise, keeping all paddlers in the raft and not the river, and rafts right side up at the bottom of each run.

We did have to also  stop at Meteorite Rock for some root beer floats, to wash down a couple of beers that may have snuck out of the cooler. Oh, and did I mention a good place for a “group picture.” This unusual rock is so out-of-place, in relationship to all the other uniform rocks around it, that my mind has tumbled around different theories as to how it got there. It is a smoothly polished rock , with voluptuous pothole sculpturing, and is testimony to a fluted art form that only a river can be artisan of.  But, why doesn’t all its similar sized sister and brother rocks have the same markings, rather than the drab “just another rock” appearance they surround it with.

There is only one other similar rock, about a quarter-mile upriver that looks like it could be the parent of this smaller meteoric bedazzled boulder.  Both look exactly alike, and it is not hard to picture that the smaller one broke off the larger and somehow got transported down river. But how? It certainly didn’t float down river, and even tumbling downriver in high water seems highly unlikely. My theory is ice. Perhaps this area had some glaciation and the ice carried this large boulder to its current location, then melted away, leaving evidence as to its passing.

In Alaska, this happens all the time, and the large boulders deposited on various river beds, miles from any source material, are called “Devil Stones.”  Does Salmon River have its own version of a Devil Stone? After all, Hells Canyon is just over the divide, 15 miles away, as the crow flies.

Nez Perce legend has it that Coyote made the Salmon and Snake River Canyons. So it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine Coyote may have played a few tricks and left some Salmon River Devil stones just for humor.

Of course,  geologist tell us their version of what happened to our area of the planet, too. They say that the Riggins area is a “Fracture” or “Suture” Zone.  This means that millions upon millions of years ago the east shore of the Salmon River was the main continent, and the west side was ocean. Then islands somewhere offshore of Alaska drifted their way to this west shore location and collided with the mainland, as plate tectonics did its work, pushing up mountains and ruffling the relief.

However, the  landscape on both sides of the river now looks the same due to relativity. Thank you Einstein, for such a convenient explanation for many things in nature. That is, in relatively a short time geologically ( the last 30 million years – an age called the Miocene Epoch) we had the Columbia River Basalt Flows. Cracks opened in the earth’s surface, lava spewed out, oozing over the landscape, damming up rivers and creating lakes.  Then sedimentary materials filled the lake bottoms, as new outlets cut canyons  ever deeper with the passage of time. So within that Miocene time span there were from up to 70 to 80 different lava flows that filled the canyon, so now the landscape takes on the appearance of a giant “Nature Cake” layerd with lava and sediments, just like a fancy gourmet layer cake baked by professionals and wannabe Betty Crocker’s (after jail time, Martha Stewart may not be as much of an idolized wannabe  now)??

At any rate, the important thing here, regardless of legend or science, is that there are sure a lot of cool things to see that nature has to offer. And the most wonderful thing of it all, is that so much of it is available just by floating a river and paying attention. While thrills and spills (planned ones to swim and relax) are high energy boosters to excite the adrenalin,  the other attributes that floating through “Nature’s Disneyland” invoke, are both interesting and curiosity quenchers. There never is a dull moment for those who seek time on the water.  And that is especially true for the aliens from Cottonwood whom landed on Salmon River this past weekend. Fortunately, they were all my kind of aliens, fun to be around, good sports,  and great country-neighbors.  Encounters with the Cottonwood Aliens is welcome, anytime, with the Wapiti Clan. Thanks Misty, for landing your friends on Salmon River to become acquainted and converted to River People for awhile.

People of the Oar

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When a group of people come together to participate in some kind of common endeavor which holds special meaning,  a natural kinship is strongly formed with one another. Be it by blood or not, there is a bond that unites them all,  and is often referred to as a clan.  Indian cultures have always had clans from day one, and is probably how various ties developed to make these sub-tribal groups adept at various pursuits in living upon the planet.
While often first nation people, that is, the original inhabitants of an area, have always been considered as indigenous people, I have often wondered where that designation originates or terminates.  The line seems blurred to me, because we are all indigenous to Motherearth in some aspect, simply because it is a common place we are all born into.  History is a bit  relative. Once we arrive, each day forward creates our own personal history. It matters not, where the starting point is, upon our time-line, as we travel during our life long burning of the human flame. What matters is how we burn our flame and what we leave behind.

To me, having evolved into a river outfitter and guide, over the years, it has always felt like the professionals of the river community-sphere  comes close to being a similar form of tribalism. Like Peoples of past centuries  who  lived close to nature and were dependant upon earth’s natural resources at a more primal level than most people of today appreciate, the land and river  guides this day and age seem to mirror that same connection to earth. They are  a little like a second generation of beings engaging the world in more raw terms and similar kinship with Indian people in their world view.

As guides eke out a living, simple, and far less materialistic than corporate flavored Americanism, they have developed a common spirit of appreciation for the natural world.  When living close to nature, in a hand and mouth, more or less subsistence level, there comes a deep appreciation for base values that sustains our existence.

As the oarlock turns, and each stroke contributes to the designing of our own destiny, there is a powerful feeling of accomplishment that comes with navigating a rapid right side up.  When negotiating difficult waters, the challenge is often daunting, yet ever so electric when safely accomplished.  Amping up on the river’s juice, is power in itself, that courses through the veins of our own being. Our very veins are only an extension of the river – itself a vein of Motherearth.  Being one with the river, is more than zen. It is a way of being that helps us feel the efficacy of the life-giving water our tiny orb sustains us with as it spins through-out the universe.


Go Where Lewis and Clark Didn’t


In 1805, when Lewis and Clark ventured west, they worked their way through and around many barriers  during their search for an inland Northwest Passage. One such obstacle was the Salmon River near North Fork, Idaho. When they got to that point, the local Indians told them that if they continued downriver, they would “no return”.  Thus, to this day, the Salmon river in Idaho is known as the “River of No Return.”

While Lewis and Clark by passed by the Salmon River to find passage over the Lolo Trail and old Nez Perce Indian Trial along the Lochsa and Clearwater River’s, they missed out on floating through the second deepest gorge in North America. Actually, the early explorers, fur trappers, and miners, built wooden scows with long sweeps fore and aft to propel them downriver, floating the section of river, Lewis and Clark didn’t.

They spent 5-6 months at a time, floating from North Fork to Lewiston, living off the land, hunting, fishing, trapping, and looking for gold. Once in the city of Lewiston (Idaho’s first capital) they cached in all their treasures and dis-assembled their boats to sell the wood. Then they bought a pack string of horses or mules and packed all the way back to North Fork to do the same journey again the next year. Thus, “The River of No Return” resumed its notoriety for being a one way river.  That is, until jet boats arrived on the scene and changed man’s ability to ascend the river, too.

We, here at Wapiti River Guides live along that famed “River of No Return” in Riggins, Idaho – on the bottom hundred miles of river. The Salmon is the longest (425 miles) free flowing river contained within one state (aside from AK) in North America.  It originates in the Sawtooth Mountains and Redfish Lake, near the small town of Stanley, and makes confluence with the Snake River in the bottom end of Hells Canyon. which borders Oregon on the west side.

Our 5 day trips take route on the remote section of canyon comprising the bottom 60 miles of river, where it eventually merges with “grandmother” Snake River.  The Seven Devil Mountain Range (nearly 10000′ elevation) form the divide between the Salmon and Snake Rivers between Riggins (1800′ elevation) and the confluence of these two rivers. With only 500′ difference in elevation between the two-mile deep canyons, similar geology make these canyons more or less twin sisters in geomorphology.  Both are deeper than the Grand Canyon, much to the surprise of many of our guests.

But, dazzling views, between daunting rapids, make this journey one of the most beautiful and exciting adventures on the planet. Oh, did I mention we might be a bit biased in our assessment of our favorite river run? Well, based on miles of smiles from previous river guests, surely we must not be too far off in our inflated assessment of the canyon splendor.

Also, for those who like more solitude and the sound of nature, rather than engine roar, the lower gorge has less jet boat traffic than the main salmon which flows through the Frank Church Wilderness Area.  Ironically, designated wilderness gets more man made noise in the canyon than non-designate (though very remote) wilderness. But that is fine with us. While people herd voraciously  to see sanctioned wilderness, we escort fewer folks into country just as spectacular, yet less popular. After all, people are like sheep and seem to want to go where everyone else does.

Not a sheep? Then travel with us, we will take you where Lewis & Clark dared not go, to uncrowded country where your elbows touch only the wide expanses.

River That Flows Into The Far Beyond

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Welleweah is an old Nez Perce word used to refer to the Grande Ronde River, in Northeastern Oregon. Like many Indian words, that often have more than one meaning, this word had two: “river that flows into the far beyond” and canyon where horses winter well.” Similar to place names that meant different things at different times or to various individuals, many of the words used by the Nez Perce are also onomatopoeic. This long, rolling greek derived word,  describes  rhetoric formed to copy sounds that are associated with an object or action. For example, coyote is called itsiyiyi or iceyeye, and comes from the yiyi or yeye yiping that is often heard when these wild canines howl at the moon, or whatever it is that they howl at.

It is also a word that describes what we sometimes yell as we plunge through exhilarating rapids of the wild rivers we float.  Why this primal urge hits when bouncing through lively whitewater may be related to the electricity in the water that comes from the spirit of the river.  Like a static charge, it jump starts the heart and promotes a surge of energy through one’s soul.

Before maps, google earth, and cars, when travel was confined to foot of man or horse, places and distances were larger than they are today. Or at least, relatively, that is, when the earth was still thought of as flat, rather than round.  Though circular thinking was large in primal times, by direct observation of nature’s way, it took more human inventions (telescopes, etc) and  thought evolution to determine the earth was a sphere and not something to fall off from.

From an early Nez Perce perspective, looking at a canyon like the Grande Ronde, more than a hundred miles long from where we launch boats and rafts today, near Minam Town, to our take-out at Heller Bar on Snake River, was like staring into oblivion. It probably seemed like the river, indeed, flowed into some far beyond place that took days to get to or could  never be  arrived at. But, they did winter their horses in the canyon parts they were familiar with, as the forested canyon of pines and fir also had lush grassy slopes for their animals.

Not only horses did well in the mix of grass and tree montane habitat, but so did deer and elk, and even the wooly mammoth, of times even farther back. This canyon provided wonderful forage for stock animals of the Nez Perce both in summer at the upper end, and winter on the lower elevation parts.

Unlike horse travel used to traverse the ridges and old Indian trails, our boats make sight-seeing in this canyon much easier and less impactful than grazing animals. While there are no Appaloosa horses, for which the Nez Perce are a famous for developing, or mammoths ambulating around, we do often see deer and elk getting their fill of the green of spring.

For river travelers of today, enjoying a watershed is much more than getting “rapidly” entertained.  Watching natures show, with all her cast members fading into and out of various scenes along the way, add a stimulating dimension to a river that will transport you into a time and place of the far beyond.

Rivers make good medicine with us, we make good medicine with rivers.

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Fools Peak On The Owyhee

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It is hard to believe, but the Owyhee River peaked at 2710 cfs  (at 1:45 pm)   on april fools day for the 2012 seasonal run-off.   So, those of us who hoped for higher flows to boat the river in late April and  early May, were fooled into a false expectation.  Low snow packs and warm weather happening much earlier than normal created the unusual happen-stance.

Is this related to global climate change?  In my mind it is highly  suspect.  The number of climatologist and scientist that support the anthropomorphic causes to weather pattern alterations is too vast to ignore. Since I am an evidence sort of guy, I tend to side with those things that can be measured by mathematical means rather than mere faith.  Fortunate are we who have the science gained from those wise folks before us.

It was not that long ago that many people believed a person might fall off the edge of the earth if one adventured too far, or that the sun came up and went down every day. But we now know our globe is not flat, and revolves to make it appear the sun is doing all the moving.  We now even measure flows of rivers and can appreciate recognizing levels, high and low, when running them with rafts or dorys can be good or bad.

How coincidental or cosmically poetic it has been that the Owyhee found its zenith of run-off on April Fools day.  Mother nature can play the game with the best of man’s tricks and contrivances.  So, now that the Owyhee is boating history fo this year, I can now get back to anticipating and planning trips on the river I grew up on – Oregon’s Grande Ronde. While the Owyhee flows in the SE corner of Oregon. The GR flows through the NE section of the state.  Unlike the desert of the Owyhee canyonlands, the Grande Ronde permeates the forested flanks of the high Wallowa’s.  The saw-toothed granite peaks of te Eagle Cap Wilderness and Elkhorn Mountians are the headwater sources of the this great cold water salmon and steelhead stream.

Rivers make good medicine with us, we make good medicine with rivers.

For more river trip information, please go to our website:

or (more pics)  Facebook page:


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