It all started with a few friends planning to climb Rainier. Beta was gathered, plans were made, gear was prepped, and crevasse rescue was practiced. About two days out from our departure, the weather took a turn for the worse. It hadn’t looked particularity good for about a week, but now we knew for sure it wasn’t going to be worth the drive to Washington. We were scheduled to leave on Thursday night and it’s early in the afternoon on Wednesday when we decide to call it off.
So now here we sit with a cancelled trip and a precious summer weekend on the horizon. Plus, we all have Friday off so our summer weekend is actually a three day opportunity for a different adventure. A discussion ensued on our Facebook messenger. We all had our mountaineering gear packed and ready to go. We still wanted a mountain objective. How about adding some skiing in? North side of Borah? A Sawtooth couloir? Devil’s Beadsted East? Diamond Peak? We wanted to rope up and strap cramp-ons on our feet. The problem was, the same weather system that was moving into Washington was also moving into Idaho. There was rain/snow, clouds, and cold in the forecast.
Weather off to the south looks awfully nice. Mark suggests that the Bureau is still flowing at 1700 cfs which is rare for this time of year and a serious departure from the last few years when there wasn’t enough water to even think about rafting it. At 9pm the group consensus is to pivot to a river trip running two R2’s. One in my Super Puma and one in Brian’s Sabertooth. Only Brian had been down the river once before, six years ago, at low water, in an IK. We now have less than 24 hours to totally change out the packing list and make other arrangements. My cramp-ons, ropes, and harness goes back in the gear room and the dry suit, life jacket, and paddles come out.
I’m gonna say here that I love the people I hang out with. We are all experienced enough that we can change from one serious objective, to another serious objective, in less than 24 hours and pull it off with success. The objectives we choose to tackle ain’t no joke and neither are the people we do it with. Probably the most impressive performance was Eric’s. He was in Las Vegas for business and his flight didn’t arrive in Boise until 6:25pm on Thursday night. He got home, packed, and made the meet point at 7:50pm.
All loaded up in my Tundra with two boats in tow and we were off! The miles click by and daylight begins to fade. We stop off in Bruneau to pick up our shuttle driver and then we are back on the road heading south into the remote desert of southern Idaho.
The ride from Bruneau to Murphy Hot Springs was more entertaining with Ed in the truck. I spent a long time tracking down his phone number and I’m glad I found him. As hard as the river is, as remote as the country is, the shuttle is one of the easier ones out there. Pick Ed up at his house in Bruneau, he rides with you for the 76 miles to Murphy Hot Springs while regaling you with interesting stories of people and history of the area, you dump your gear at the Jarbidge put in, he drives your truck back north, keeps it safe at his house, and drops it back off for you at the Bruneau takeout at a time of your choosing. When you pull off the Bruneau River, you are only a mile from the pavement and about 8 miles the city of Bruneau. Easy peasy. If only the river was that easy. Of course if it was, everybody would do it.
We arrived at the Jarbidge put in somewhere around 1030 or 11 in the dark. We unloaded as quickly as we could so Ed could get on his way. It was gonna be late before he got to bed. I had brought some firewood so we had a little fire and drank some beer before heading off to bed. The fun begins tomorrow.
It was a little leisurely in the morning. Around 11am we were ready to get the boats wet. The sun was shining and it was truly wonderful day. It was much nicer weather here than anywhere 5000 feet higher. We shoved off and right away you can feel there is something different about this river. If there was a term for a flowing body of water that is something between a creek and a river, this would be it. It isn’t quite a river, but it’s bigger than a creek. I’d say it averages 30-40 feet wide. It’s fast too. Holy smokes it is fast! The gradient of the Jarbidge is an average of 45 feet per mile. It drops 1300 feet in 29 miles. That’s steeper than the Middle Fork.
The river is narrow and the banks on both sides are guarded by junipers, willows, and poison ivy. Branches and downed trees hang out into the river at every corner. There are no eddies. Pulling off the river is a challenge and dangerous at times as we soon shall find out.
The first five miles of the trip are great. Brain said, “I don’t think I have ever had that much fun on class II water!” The scenery is spectacular and the water is busy. There is constant rock and tree dodging to be done. Eyes need to be downstream at all times especially going around corners. There were times you had to make a move happen in several paddle strokes or risk being in a really bad situation. We aren’t even to the hard stuff yet. Strainers kill boaters and destroy gear. Out here, you are about as far from help as you can get in the lower 48. Self rescue, self preservation, and self reliance are pre-requisites for being on this river.
It’s worth noting here that Mark and I are really new to the R2 concept. Neither one of has a ton of experience doing it. It’s easy to explain in theory, but tougher to pull off in practice. Two people control one boat with their own paddle while sitting side by side. It’s a true team effort. Mark and I are really good friends and have been adventuring together for a few years now doing a bunch of different activities. There were times on this trip that we totally crushed the R2 and everything was going great. More often than not however, we were fighting each other. They don’t call it a “divorce boat” for nuthin’. We each had out own idea how an R2 was supposed to me run and it was not the same. There was bickering and some shouting from time to time. This is part of the adventure. This is part of the experience. You have to find a way to get the job done out here. This is also the great thing about who we are. No matter how much arguing there was on the river, in camp and in life we are friends and that doesn’t change. We are able to put it behind us on only the highlights of the trip remain in memory. Love you Mark.
Somewhere around mile 10, the boys in the Sabertooth spotted a traffic cone wedged in a log jam. There was a gravel bar behind it and they decided to pull over and grab the garbage out of the wilderness canyon. The problem was, Mark and I didn’t make the stop and kept going down river. There are no good eddies to catch, so we tried to catch a micro eddy on river left behind a rock and missed it. We just sat there for a second going “crap” with our stern floating downstream first. We weren’t looking and floated into stiff juniper branches that were only a few inches off the water. We were in trouble right away. The branches were catching on gear and trying to force us out of the boat. We were doing everything we could to push past. In a matter of seconds the upstream tube of Envy (my green Super Puma) was going underwater and we were in danger of flipping and pinning in the tree branches. The only thing I could do to save us was bail out of the boat and give the boat a shove as I went under. It was enough and the boat freed its self from the branches. I was under water and under the boat. I popped up and grabbed the chicken line. Mark grabbed my life jacket and hauled me back in the boat. I was pissed. How stupid were we? Poor choice of eddy, not looking downstream and almost wrecked in a really bad spot. We are only ten miles in and so far have only hit class II and minimal class III water. Things go wrong really quickly.
Our shenanigans playing with the juniper trees allowed the Sabertooth to catch up to us. The next five miles were great. The canyon walls closed in and the scenery was spectacular. This canyon is truly unique. Hoodoos abound. Canyon wrens call from the cliffs. The river races along without a care you are there. Side canyons tantalize us while we wonder what it would be like to hike or canyoneer them.
At mile 15, there is a canyon that comes in from the left and there is supposed to be a camp there according to the map. Both boats were following the map pretty closely and we were just about there. It’s after 2pm and time for lunch. Yep, launched at 11am and in three hours we’ve knocked out 15 miles. I was in the lead and saw the canyon coming in from the left and decided to grab the eddy to check it out.
The entire river drives hard against a cliff wall as the canyon bends to the right. The front edge of the cliff peels a little water from the main flow and creates a counterclockwise swirling eddy big enough for our two boats. Honestly, it’s one of the best eddies we’ve seen all day. It’s a real eddy as opposed to some soft water behind a rock or a fallen log. Once we are both in the eddy swirling around with some sticks and foam, it becomes apparent this probably isn’t the camp. There’s no trail or landing and high grass, willows, and poison ivy guard the bank. We decide to peel out and keep going down river.
Both boats set a steep upstream ferry angle to break the very strong eddy line. The Sabertooth goes first and the main currant spins the bow downstream as Mark and I get ready to paddle and break the line ourselves. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch something that doesn’t look right. I turn back to see the Sabertooth going vertical against the cliff wall! The boat comes completely out of the water, I kid you not. Brian and Eric splash into the powerful water driving against the cliff, the boat flops upside down, and then proceeds to go downriver. Eric’s head pops out of the water in the eddy amongst the swirling sticks and Brian is nowhere to be seen. I vividly remember thinking, “Please come up. Please come up.” For a split second terror takes over. I can only imagine what it was like for Brian to be pushed against that cliff underwater. After what seemed like an eternity, albeit a few seconds, the river had released Brian to pop up in the eddy.
Two people in the eddy, one boat down river and we need to make a decision fast as we are riding the eddy line towards the exact spot that flipped the Sabertooth. I shout, “Want us to grab you or the boat?” Brain answers “boat!” from the water. Then better judgment takes over and I call an “all back!” to Mark. People first. Always people first. If we had left that eddy, they would have been screwed. If they weren’t able to break the eddy line in the boat, there was no way they were going to as swimmers. Plus, the river continued to drive hard against the cliff for the next hundred yards and they wouldn’t stand a chance. They would have had to somehow get up the bank, fight the vegetation back upstream far enough to get past the eddy, swim into the middle of the river away from the cliff, and then make an extremely dangerous swim down river with no boat or support. We would have been screwed too for that matter. We would have been on our own to catch a boat and get it stopped/flipped back over in nonexistent eddies. And oh yeah, by the way, the class V portage at Castle Greyskull is less than two miles away. At the speed the river is moving that is only a little over 15 minutes of river time.
Eric fights to free himself from the swirling sticks as we pull Brian into Envy. We pick Eric up after that. They both miraculously managed to hold onto their paddles and we are now an R4. We break the eddy line but bounce along the cliff while desperately trying to keep the boat oriented so we don’t flip this thing too. I’m pushing off the cliff with my paddle in the left rear position and the other three are furiously paddling. Finally we are past the danger and Eric and Mark switch spots so Eric can call commands and keep the four of us together.
A mile goes by and the boat is pretty silent. We know what is ahead and the unknown is weighing on us. Will we catch the boat before the falls? Will we come around the corner and find it wrapped on a log or a rock? If that’s the case, will we be able to safely stop to attempt a rescue of the gear? I know these exact thoughts were going through all of our heads. Nobody needed to say anything.
Finally, we catch a glimpse of red and neon yellow webbing though a gap in juniper branches around the corner. We all hold our breath. As we round the corner, we all breathe a sigh of relief as the boat is floating free down the main current.
Now we are within a mile of the portage. We don’t know exactly, but we are close. The Sabertooth is now alongside Envy. Brian and I do our best to keep the two boats away from danger as Eric and Mark perform a mid river flip of the Sabertooth to get it right side up. It’s now right side up, everybody is back in their normal place on their boats, and all the gear survived. Even the traffic cone.
Sometimes the anticipation of what lies ahead when running a river for the first time can be excruciating. We know something big lies ahead, but we don’t know exactly where to pull over and when to begin the portage. The only beta we have is, “Look for dead or dying juniper trees.”
The water slows and pools as we start to see the dead juniper trees which were drowned by the damming of the river after the rockslide in 2009. It’s a big one. It is still apparent where the rock is freshly exposed to the air on the cliff wall for the first time in millions of years. This rapid is called Castle Greyskull and it’s a mandatory portage.
I’m just going to come right out and say it. This portage sucks. It makes the portage around Big Falls on the South Fork of the Payette look like a Sunday walk in the park through tulips. Hardly anybody runs this river so there is only a mildly established foot path. No improvement has been done to build a trail at all. We are running this river fast and light. No frames, oars, dry boxes, or coolers. I can’t fathom trying to move the contents of a gear boat over this trail. It’s hard enough as it is. The portage doesn’t take a terribly long time although it took a ton of effort.
As we re-rig the boats in the shade of some junipers, we are all getting excited and nervous for what lies ahead. The real rapids start now. According to the map, the next 10 river miles contain 26 class III rapids with a mile long section that is labeled “Tonsmeire Torrent III-series of class II-III”. I just counted that as one of the 26. There are 6 class IVs and one of those is a mandatory scout and possible portage at Wally’s Wallow. Last but not least is Jarbidge Falls, a class V with a portage. Buckle up!
It all kind of blends together at this point. The scenery is beautiful but you can hardly take your eyes off the river. Mark and I are hitting a stride as an R2 team and things go well through this section where it counts. It’s really hard to tell where one Class III ends and the next one begins. We know we have to stop before Wally’s, and the Sabertooth is on it.
They pull off river left in as decent of an eddy as is available on this river. Stopping usually requires one person to bail out of the boat with the bow line in hand as they grab a branch or a rock to stop momentum. This is it. They hit it perfectly. Well, almost.
There is definite trail to scout this rapid on river left. Wally’s looks seriously challenging. Personally, I’d call this a V considering the difficulty of the moves that need to be made and the consequences if you screw it up. While looking at this rapid, there are many things that concern us. The first is the log which is wrapped on the entrance rock. This appears to be new since last weekend when my buddy ran this. He gave me beta, but this log wasn’t part of it and I don’t think it’s something he would forget. There is an open channel and the river isn’t totally blocked, but it’s narrow. If you make it, you won’t be set great for what comes next. A big drop and hole right as you need to make the most critical move. At the crux move, there is the log between two large rocks where a massive amount of the river flows though. It’s about a five foot drop on the other side. You need to make a hard right 90 degree turn to avoid a pin or a wrap. If you don’t wrap there, you need to make a seriously tight horseshoe bend back to the left around the two said rocks in the middle of the river. Then, you just have another big drop of three or four feet and threading the needle between at least another couple rocks, any of which are a serious wrap danger.
Nobody feels good about this one. There is no possible way to line or portage on river left. We need to get on the right. The problem is we are only about 25 yards above the log jam and there is no soft water or eddies to hide behind as you ferry across. There is only the fast moving water driving straight towards the log jam. There is a totally decent place to land on the other side of the river, but if you miss it, you’re running Wally’s and you’ll be totally discombobulated to make the critical entrance past the log.
Now that we are on the right side, the discussion ensues about lining or portaging. Eric seems to be confident it will go well lining. He has quite a bit of experience doing it in California where he used to guide. The rest of us? Not so much. We opt for the portage. This one is long and you need to gain elevation before dropping back down to river level. It entails climbing over massive rocks, searching for a trail, fighting brush, and avoiding poison ivy. Many calories were burned on this day.
It’s getting late. It’s around 6pm. The map doesn’t show a ton of camps between here and the portage at Jarbidge Falls. We need to grab the right spot or it may be an uncomfortable camp someplace jammed in some rocks and poison ivy. We shove off and head downstream.
The next two miles are pretty much nonstop class II-III with a few class IVs thrown in for good measure. We want to hit the camp just before mile 25 which is right after a class IV called “The Maze”.
The Maze is named appropriately and you know it when you are there. The river is very narrow and fast here. Massive boulders stick out of the water 6-10 feet high and block 50-80% of the river bank to bank. You can’t see what is around the boulder and you need to choose left or right. I am sure most of this river story thus far has come across rather ominous thus far. This was different. This was downright fun! I smile as write about it. Mark and I were jamming as a team and it was just a blast. What a way to cap this day!
We find our camp and it was phenomenal. It had a good spot to tie up boats, a big open flat patch for tents surrounded by juniper trees, a great view, and no poison ivy! We were glad to be home. In just eight and a half hours we had covered just shy of 25 river miles, I swam, the Sabertooth flipped, Brian and Eric swam, we accomplished two massive portages, saw some amazing scenery, and crushed some super fun whitewater. Time for some booze.
The Sabertooth goes first with bow pointed dead upstream. Watching Brian paddle is something else. He moves so much water with every stroke. It’s impressive. They make to the other side and Eric clings to juniper branches as the boat floats in the landing where we should have stopped in the first place.
It’s our turn and we don’t have a Brian on our boat. Just me and Mark. We aren’t confident we’ll make it, so we opt to have Eric throw us a bag and tie it to the bow. They will wrap the line around some vegetation and leave it slack so it doesn’t affect our ferry angle as we paddle across. If things go south, they’ll pull the slack tight and we’ll pendulum right into the LZ. It works perfectly and we are super relieved. We did a pretty good job getting across, and I think we would have made it without the line, but it would have been bad had we not.
We were up fairly early but still didn’t manage to get on the river until 10, only an hour earlier than yesterday. We had five miles left of the Jarbidge before the confluence with the West fork of the Bruneau where they form the Main Bruneau. In the next two miles we have some class IVs to tackle right out of the gate, a bunch of IIIs and the mandatory portage at the class V Jarbidge Falls.
We left camp and entered The Labyrinth. It was more of the same like The Maze was yesterday and it was an awesome way to start out the day. Mark and I crushed it again as team this morning. After some more II-IV water which all ran together, we pulled off on river right to scope the portage for Jarbidge Falls. Nope, don’t wanna go down that.
The standard operating procedure is to stop at the eddy on river right and then ferry across upstream of the house rock to the little eddy on river left where the portage begins. The problem is, if you miss the eddy or something gets screwed up in the middle of the river, you are going down the falls. You will probably come out at the bottom; it’s just a matter of how many intact bones you will have left in your body.
Brian and Eric discussed their plan and paddle strokes. When they shoved off I booked it down river and climbed on top the house rock with my throw bag in case they missed it. By the time I got on the rock, they were safe on the other side. Our turn.
This is another scary ferry. The consequences are so high and the area so remote. We decided to try the same thing we did above Wally’s and get a throw line attached to the other side. The river was just too wide. We either didn’t have the gusto or my 75 foot bag was just too short. Mark and I both made a few attempts, but neither of us could get it there. At least it was good practice throwing a bag and repacking the line. However, time was ticking away and we have a long day.
I looked at Mark and said, “Well buddy, we decided to do this river and here we are. This is just one of those times in the wilderness you have to commit to make a move and make sure it happens.” He agreed and we got ready to paddle. Brian and Eric got ready with their throw bags and posted up waiting to catch us on the other side.
We shoved off and set our upstream ferry angle. It was a whole lot of build up for nothing. The water was a lot softer and less pushy than it looked. We made the ferry with ease and coasted into the eddy without trying too hard. At this level it was super easy. Add another 500-1000 cfs and that wouldn’t be the case. The eddy on the left bank would disappear and landing would become a serious challenge.
Oh boy, another portage. This was longest one of them all. At least there was a good established trail for this one. We hauled all the gear to the end and then came back for the boats. We also figured out that turning my Super Puma upside down made it a hell of a lot easier to carry. The portages got easier and easier. Too bad this was the last one. Not really though. We were happy to have them over with.
After Jarbidge Falls, the river slows and widens. The canyon opens up and vertical walls give way to wide open hills. After a few easy miles we arrived at Indian Bathtub Hot Springs and had lunch.
This is where the put in for the main Bruneau River is. The river is much, much easier below here, but the shuttle is a huge PITA. It’s a trade off. You get the easy shuttle by running the very difficult Jarbidge River. Or, you get the easier Bruneau River by running the very difficult road into the canyon. I’ve done that road on my adventure moto a number of years back. It truly is a Class V shuttle. You better have a lifted 4x4, know how to drive off road, and have recovery gear. Any way you slice it, the difficulty of being out here keeps a lot of people away. This is a really remote and infrequently visited area. That makes the journey that much more special.
We have now dropped so much elevation that we are in a different layer of rock. The color, shapes, and feel of the canyon are different than on the Jarbidge. The Bruneau is different still that the Owyhee canyons further to the west. The Owyhee desert and canyonlands are truly a splendid area with so much variation it never gets old being out here.
There is little white water over the next 30 miles of the Bruneau. Just a few IIs and III’s here and there. It’s all read and run, drop and pool style. However, the river still moves along at a pretty good clip. We are shooting for the camp at mile 52 where the East Fork of the Bruneau comes in. There is still 22 miles to go today. I wish we had another day because the camp at Cave Draw, mile 37.5, is one of the best looking camps I have seen on a river in a long time. That would just leave too long of a day on Sunday in which we have to conquer Five Mile Rapids in the heart of the Bruneau Canyon.
The hours and miles tick by. Gorgeous canyon walls and photo ops abound. The Sabertooth is faster through the water than my round boat and for the most part Mark and I are a few bends behind enjoying the scenery. Finally we drag into camp around 8pm. It was only a 29 mile day today with a portage and some of the best river scenery to be had anywhere.
It’s pretty easy to tell when you are at the entrance to Five Mile. You can just feel the river is about to drop a lot of altitude. The Sabertooth enters first and we follow shortly thereafter. Very quickly in, Mark and I are off line. We are not working as team this morning. There is a big horn rock that splits the river and the line is to go left. We aren’t going to make the line and we go right. We are now headed towards two rocks sticking out above the surface that 90% of the water in this channel flows between. If we hit it perfectly straight, my narrow Super Puma will probably still scrape both sides. The bow catches an eddy on the right side and begins to spin us right. Mark either didn’t see that coming or didn’t anticipate, and then missed the backstroke to pivot us back left to line us up to split the rocks. I could only do so much paddling on my side to straighten us. We were screwed. The bow hit one rock, the stern hit the other, and we parked. We were able to high side a little bit, but the boat still filled with water. I was on my whistle right away to alert Brian and Eric we were in trouble.
As I looked down river to the Sabertooth’s position, something weird was going on. I saw Eric jumping up and down and stabbing his paddle into the water. “Where’s Brian?” I thought. Oh, there he is. I saw the yellow of his dry suit flash for a second as he rolled over a rock and out of view into the next hole. Brian was floating down river and Eric was doing everything he could to keep the boat straight as he surfed in a hole solo. He was jumping from one side to the other to dip his paddle. We were both blowing our rescue whistles at each other.
Here we are in the first 300 yards of Five Mile, Mark and I are parked and pinned, Eric is surfing a hole solo, and Brian is swimming. Mark was on the high side and able to crawl onto the rock where the bow was parked. I was able to climb up and get one foot out on the rock. We gave it the ole college try and yanked on the chicken line. We moved it up a little and a little water drained out. We yanked again and were rewarded by more progress. After several tries, we are able to drop the bow down into the channel and point downstream. As the stern spun off the rock, the lower tube goes underwater again and the entire boat fills with water as we float free. Of course, this boat is a self bailer, but it doesn’t drain instantly. It’s once again a heavy boat for about 15 seconds as we resituate and begin paddling downstream. I don’t know how people did it in the early days of non self-bailing bucket boats. We would have been toast.
At this point Eric has freed the Sabertooth from the surf hole and is trying to catch up with Brian who is using his paddle to backstroke upriver from the California lawn chair position to minimize the distance between him and his boat. I’m trying to make a move to paddle hard downstream to assist and Mark is arguing with me that we won’t be in any position to help if we are dog tired when we get there. We find middle ground and paddle down river unintentionally missing the surf hole they hit which was hidden at the end of a wave train. That hole would have flipped my boat and there was no way to see it was there.
Eric did one hell of the job guiding the boat down 100 yards of class IV water solo to rescue his partner. By the time we catch up, Brian is back in the boat and we coast into moderately slower class II water before the next class IV drop.
That was one exciting way to start Five Mile. The rest of Five Mile went really smoothly. Hughes Horn, Devil’s Garden, and Nemesis were fantastically fun read and run class IV’s. Mark and I got back on the same page and crushed the rest of the run only minorly missing one line we wanted to hit with no consequences.
Over the next four miles the canyon changes a bit as it heads through yet another rock layer. This time, it was lava rock. We just had one more class IV to run at Wild Burro which was a super fun chute in which you get to bounce off a big pillow of water that piles against a cliff. After that, the canyon falls apart and comes to an end. Now you can feel civilization approaching.
We learned the take out is mismarked on the map. Mark and I pulled over where the map showed it to be just to find out it definitely wasn’t the take out. We knew there was a low head dam ahead that the beta says “do not go over.” We didn’t want to miss the takeout. Turns out it is around the next bend about 50 yards from the dam. Brian and Eric were there in the sunshine and my Tundra was waiting.
And the best part? Ed, the shuttle driver, had left four ice cold beers waiting for us in a styrofoam cooler in the cab of my truck. Those beers were hard earned and well deserved.