2006 Powder River

July 29, 2006 at 8:25 AM


By Tom Riggs

Sore and tired from riding the dirt bike trails in the Unity and Elkhorn Crest areas the boys, Kyle 19, and Brian 17,and I decided to grab a respite from the 100 degree heat the last week of July.  We had ridden the motorcycles to the North fork of the Burnt river (yeah, it is in Oregon) only to find what could scarcely be called a creek.  Back at camp we pulled out the Oregon Atlas and Gazeteer to see what other streams might support a rafting expedition.  Hmmmm, the Snake was too far and required a permit, we just got off the Deschutes and we had just swum the John Day three days ago.  Aha! There was a tinge of blue on the map called the Powder.  Something to think about.

We ran across an employee of the State of Oregon Forestry Department while riding up Deer Creek drainage.  She had not run the Powder herself but was pretty sure we could catch a decent float just down from Mason Dam that impounds Phillips Reservoir.  Great!  After a few wrong turns to get to the river from Hwy 7 we pulled into a recreation area along the Powder.  Before inflating the boat I walked down to the river and cornered a fisherman about the navigability of the run.  He thought it was ok but had only inner tubed from the weigh station 7 miles downstream.  Directly under the foot bridge was a crude weir that was runnable but made me wonder about future diversions.  The fisherman mentioned a short gorge section ½ mile below us that we may want to look at first.  Basically he did not know much about what lay ahead. 

“Let’s take a short drive before we inflate the boat and put in here” I told the boys.  We found a turn around and walked over to the gorge section and found a skinny passage full of filing cabinet sized boulders.  That was not good, but the deal killer was the outlet of the gorge where there was a log jamb followed by a boat high cable and then a collapsed bridge that made for a nice strainer provided you could make it past the obstacles above.  No deal.

We drove on downstream to a more pastoral area and found a school bus turn around, so pulled in.  The lady who lived on the highway there came out to see what was going on and when I described our quest for a section of water to float she was more that willing to let us launch from her back yard and enjoy the trip.  She mentioned the dam was releasing water this week and the flows would be high, meaning enough to float a boat.  “ Oh by the way, “ she said  “I have not floated this section before but I think it could be done”  This third comment of the locals not having done the section should have sent my Spider Sense tingling but the beer was in the cooler and the boys were inflating the boat and rigging the paddle frame.  Besides the river was only 12 feet wide and you could walk across it without getting your waist wet.

So off we launched at Hwy mile post 36.  Since Kyle had injured his shoulder on the dirt bike he was absolved of paddling.  With a 14 ft bucket boat I put Brian on the prow and I was at the stern.  Hey, we could run it like the sweep boats you see on the Middle Fork.  Since the river narrowed into hedgerows it was the only way to navigate without becoming a casualty of the brush.

Whoa, what’s that drop ahead?  Standing I could see it was a crude rock style diversion dam that was turbulent enough to run over a 1 ft drop.  Not too bad but the boat needed more air.  We could tough it out with a floppy boat being there was no place to beach and air up.

The next scenery was the abandoned bridge pilings which were fine except they blocked our view of the upcoming cable that stretched across the river at guillotine height.  Hell, we could just lift the cable with our paddles and float right under.  Good thought.  Bad plan.  As we approached the cable Brian grabbed it to make the lift to minimize our ducking.  It lifted about two inches and it was scraping Brian into the boat well.  The boat pivoted and then it was my turn to be the cable guy.  I only could raise it 1 inch and dove into the boat well.  Kyle saw our futile antics and was sliding down and won the Limbo contest as the cable scraped the bugs off of him.

I’m glad that was over.  Oh crap, a log jam.  Ah but a small slot to the right.  We can just squeeze through, but below the jamb the river braids.  Let’s take the right channel.  120 ft and a submerged barb wire fence that had fallen over ,thankfully, over the years.  When can I crack a beer?  This is a lot of maneuvering for a non rafting river. 

Another weir with debris but we can scrape down and go.  Around the bend and the call goes out for “evasive maneuvers, abandon ship, walk the plank!”  We crashed the boat into the shore and clung to the bank just above a river wide barb wire fence.  The armor on the inflatable was too thin to ram this obstacle so we decided to call it quits.

The road was in sight but we had to run the gauntlet of sticker laden bulrushes.  With bare legs and arms this looked like it would be worse than wrestling with the barb wire fence ahead.  Brian came up with the thought of using the boat as a bulldozer and flattening ourselves a path to the highway.  It worked until we came to another barb wire fence then we hacked our way around with paddles and hoisted the raft and gear over it to the safety of the 3 ft wide shoulder on the Sumpter Highway. 

We had traveled about ¼ mile on our adventure but at least the walk back to the motor home was short.  I knocked on the door of the house at the launch, thanked the owner for the access, and advised her that her back yard was not a viable launch point.

That was day one of our quest for a Powder River Run. 

Some folks are just too dumb to know when they are licked and the nut doesn’t fall too far from the tree as Kyle and Brian were game for a second attempt at the Powder the following afternoon.  This time we would go downstream.

We pulled into the weigh station and sure enough the river was right there but no one was there to give us advice of what lie ahead.  “Let’s drive down a little farther and see if we can conjure up some more guesses from the locals” I said, so about ½ mile beyond the weigh station we pulled into a truck repair yard where some 62 year old fellow was hammering on a chassis. I asked him about launch points on the river and he was honest and said he didn’t know much but “the old guy inside” might be able to help us.  Well the ”old guy” overheard as he was walking out the door and chastised the hammerer ‘cause he was only about 63. 

Anyway, “the old guy” said he was familiar with the run and had done it several times and said we should have no problems putting in at the weigh station.  He could not recall the take out location “but we would know it when we see it”.  It made me curious how long ago he last ran the river and being the “old guy” I wondered if Alzeheimer’s may have claimed the moment.  We thanked him for the info and as we were leaving he said “Oh, by the way, a boy and his girlfriend got caught in the weir last week and someone called 911 and all hell broke loose when The State cops, County Sheriff and paramedics converged on the area.  But it wasn’t nothin’, just a panicked girl who was pretty sore at her boyfriend”. 

“Tell me about the location of the weir” I said. 

“It’s just up at that point but you can’t see it from the road, but I’ve run it a number of times.  Oh, and there is another one 10 feet below the first one so you have to be ready for two in a row”.

Indeed we could not see the weir on our drive back up to the weigh station due to the brush and topography.  Once at the weigh station we began filling our raft when four 13 year olds came floating down the river in inner tubes followed by a mother and her 9 year old.  That was the clincher.  If it’s safe enough for these children it must be a laid back drift.  As one of the boys floated by I asked him “Where did you put in?”  He replied “Upstream a bit”.  I love details.

We rigged the paddle frame and installed the cooler, stashed the keys to the motorhome and shoved off.  As we did I looked 80 ft upstream and saw a fence across the river.  Does 80 ft constitute “a bit”?

The brush quickly filled both banks and we were rafting down a green walled path about 12 ft wide.  Back to our sweep boat positions. Oh look a rock weir, but it was merely a short drop.  Where was the second one that was supposed to be 10 feet down. Maybe the river wiped it out and the “old guy” didn’t know.  Whatever;  we continued our descent and found the parts yard for Packards, Edsels, Desotos, Hupmobiles, and other vintage cars from a bygone era.  The only problem was these heaps of metal were the rip rap lining the bank and were still bristling with jagged protrusions looking for a meal of rubber raft.  Stay in the main channel and hopefully there will be no Ramblers lurking below with trunk lids and doors poised for attack.

Ahead was the horizon line.  This had to be the weir that we were warned about.  I stood in the boat and could see about a 3 ft drop and indeed there was another shorter drop about 10 ft beyond.  There was no place to get out and scout or line it due to the brush but where did the 13 year olds go?  It was an imperfect weir meaning it had turbulence and rocks that would allow a craft with momentum to pass but it also required continued thrust to bust the second drop.  “Full speed ahead” was the command as captain Sparrow and his crew smashed through the mild maws of Baker county.

Below the double drop was a house with 3 life vests attached to a line poised as a throw ring for rescue.  No one was manning them but perhaps a cry for help would have the homeowners springing to rescue if needed.  This may have been the result of the authorities’ response at the weir earlier.

Past the obstacles it was time for a Miller.  Most of the time it was between my legs as we had to constantly maneuver to stay out of the brush.  Oh, another small weir and piece of logging equipment holding in the bank.  No fences so far.  But what is this?  A collapsed bridge!  Wait a minute I see a skinny passage on river left that we can fit through if we duck.  On the approach, Brian says “There is a stick in our path.”  

“That’s no stick” I say, “It’s rebar and on the left is cable!”

Brian reaches his arm over the tube as he is ducked down in the boat well and bends the rebar away from us and Kyle is pushing the thick cable closer to the bank to ease our passage.  Most rivers have rocks and hairy rapids as their defense against rafting intruders.  This one has evolved into the Iron Age.

After the collapsed bridge Brian stopped to relieve himself and could hack his way up the right bank.  He could see no other obstacles, but then again, he could only see about 40 ft down the river. A little further downstream we avoided a new obstacle lodged partially in the brush – a 2 x 12 board with several rows of spikes  pointing up.  Recalling the sharp edged rip rap cars we passed, the image from the movie “Twister” popped into my head where the two tornado chasers are seeking shelter from the approaching maelstrom in a shed filled with knife bladed farm implements.  After surveying the room full of cutting tools one looks at the other and asks “Who are these people?”  My thoughts exactly regarding the hazards we have avoided so far.

We passed next under a bridge made from a railcar flatbed, and dislodged several swallows who were making it their haunt.  We weaved through the brush lined river and Kyle remarked that a person could get caught under the shore bushes and what would become of them.  Brian smirked “For God’s sake, they would just stand up.  The river’s only two feet deep!”

Around the next bend I saw the entrance to a diversion channel and next to it a large weir.  “Pull over the to left shore” I commanded.  This one needed investigation.  From the left bank I could not get to the river because the diversion channel was too wide and cut off my approach.  Up on land was a rail yard for a lumber company but the loaded train obscured the employee’s view of my trespass.  I walked upstream then crossed over the last bridge we passed under. It was blocked by Jersey barricades at both ends spray painted “No Trespassing”. 

“To heck with that.  I have to scout a river.” So over I went.  From the right bank the rock weir was the most significant drop on the river but again it was turbulent and therefore passable in a raft.  Just below the weir was a railroad bridge with an abutment in midstream.  It looked like a candidate for a place to wrap a boat.  I hollered at the boys to pump up the raft.  It was floppy from the get go.

I hiked back to the boat the same way I came and helped top off the raft.  “The plan” I said, “is to get in mid channel and bump down the weir straight on then try to draw stroke to the left of the abutment”.  We shoved off and made the drop alright, but through lack of coordinated effort rammed straight into the oval steel abutment but due to our inflation efforts bounced straight off.  With the floppy setup we probably would have wrapped.

Just down from the diversion channel the river bank was lined with stones set there by the early residents of Baker and soon we were at what appeared to be a takeout at the baseball field.  I got out of the raft and asked the guy walking his dog “Is this the takeout for the float trip?”

He replied “I suppose you could take out here, but most people put in here and float down to Hughes Lane on the other side of town.  The Les Schwab Tire Center is about the halfway mark and the entire run should take about 40 minutes”.  Finally some details that had some meat. 

I asked “How will I know when I am at Hughes lane”?

“You’ll know” he said.  “You can’t go any further”.

So we hopped back in the boat and resumed our trip through the shaded tree lined Powder river of Baker.  What did he mean by “You can’t go any further?” I thought to myself.

Picture scenes from “The African Queen” where Humphrey Bogart is on the bow of his tramp steamer hacking the overhead brush while Katharine Hepburn chides him for his character in general.  Well, those lovely trees along the river became droopier and droopier such that we felt like we were doing a first descent down some river in Togo.  At least they weren’t sticker trees but we did erupt with the compulsory monkey chants and tucan calls as we floated through in our behemoth raft.

Another low bridge, but this one was concrete and actually had traffic over it.  No ducking into the boat well this time, only picking the spider webs from our heads.  We floated under several more bridges then “splash”.  A kid had swung out from a rope swing just in front of us and was as surprised as we were when he saw the 14’ raft almost upon him.  Further down some other kids were playing in the river between the trees.

In town the river is the boundary for several back yards and the rock walls are channeling us by BBQs, dog yards, and then the Library where there is a foot bridge by a park.  Les Schwab comes and goes so we must be halfway from the baseball diamond.

The trees get thicker and we are passing under fewer bridges as we leave the heart of the city.  A low bridge requires us to escape to the well again as traffic rumbles above us. Actually the bridges are a nice respite from battling the low hanging branches of the cottonwoods and willows.

The rock wall gives way to a dirt bank then some trails that lead down from the adjacent bike path.  “Was Hughes Lane on the right or left?” I ask.  Both boys reply “The right”.

There is a slight clearing up ahead where a raft could exit river right.  Then I stood up and understand why the dog walker said “You can’t go any further”.

One hundred feet downstream Hughes lane crosses over the river with about 6 inches of clearance and would surely scrape any boater or tuber from their perch.  Just on the other side of the bridge is a large diversion weir channeling most of the river through a wooden grate.  Yikes.  This puts the meaning in the term “strainer”.    End of the line.

When we get out and pulled the boat up the 13 year old boys are waiting there for their ride.  I asked them how they navigated the railroad drop and weirs in their inner tubes.   “Oh,” he says, “we get out and walk around a lot of the bad spots.”

It’s nice to know the details of a run but sometimes I just can’t pass up the adventure of the unknown.  

Tags: Powder River
Category: Trip Report

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