Jarbidge Bruneau and the Owyhee Canyonlands

May 15, 2014

In Idaho, the spring brings water to the desert rivers of Southern Idaho. The rivers of the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness are lesser known Idaho gems, laying in the shadows of the famous whitewater state classics like the Middle Fork Salmon, Selway, Lochsa and Salmon River. These secret canyons hold whitewater treasures, incredible wildlife, bird life and rewarding side canyons to explore.

Jarbidge River Owyhee Canyonlands

These canyons see very few adventures each year for several reasons.  Many of the rivers in the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness are guarded by challenging 4×4 access roads.  Once you reach the river there are still more potential obstacles ahead.  Does the river have enough water or is there too much water?  These rivers fluctuate dramatically.  The last two winters have left relatively weak snowpacks, making it hard to plan a rafting trip to hit the limited spring runoff.  On a year like this, you really have to be ready to go at a moments notice when it happens. Carefully watching snotel sites, local weather forecasts and river gauges is crucial when trying to plan your next move.

Cave Draw Owyhee Canyonland Wilderness

When the stars align and everything comes together, you are rewarded with one of the best wilderness experience in US.  Myself and fellow river guide Ryan Blackadar had carefully watched and waited for the Jarbidge Bruneau to run this May. It started to happen and we rounded up another friend and photographer Alex Sholes and headed to the desert.  We gambled on predictions and guesses that the un-gauged East Fork Jarbidge was starting to run and we headed for the put-in with our kayaks.  We got lucky this tributary of the Jarbidge River was running brown with water that had not registered on any USGS gauge.  We rode the bubble of water all the way to the Bruneau take out over the next five days.  The river level was too low for our smallest rafts, but still running and a good level for self support kayaking!

Bruneau River Canyon

We saw no other river runners on our five day trip and we had the canyon to ourselves. We spent time exploring many of the beautiful side canyons along the way (photo below is from Cougar Creek on the Jarbidge) and soaking in the impressive canyon scenery.  The second day on the river we floated up on four bull elk laying in the shade of the Jarbidge canyon.  Their young velvet antlers glistened in the sun as they ran up the hillside, probably equally surprised to see us as we were them.  That same morning as we paddled the first class IV rapid of the trip, we came upon an otter with a large fish in the run out of the rapid.  Every day the skies were filled with birds of prey: eagles, hawks, falcons, kestrels, and vulchers to name a few.  Floating through a cross section of the ancient 17 to 18 million year old caldera volcanoes, every corner exposes another secret of these remote rhyolite canyons. The lower water is more relaxing on the river and we could really take in the scenery without constantly focusing on the next whitewater move.

Cougar Canyon Owyhee Canyonlands

The bottom line, without an above average snowpack it’s extremely difficult to plan a trip on any section of the Owyhee or Jarbidge Bruneau river systems.  For those local Idaho people who can go at the the drop of a hat, you can pull off a trip on a low water year.  For those with a set schedule, wait for a good snow year and plan the best you can and try to be flexible if needed.  Hopefully water levels are suitable and you will be rewarded with one of the best adventure trips of your life!

More spring run off and good river trips in the near future!

~  Seth Tonsmeire