Kayaking the Powder River April 11, 2011: Thief Valley Reservoir to Big Creek

I love exploring areas where there is limited human presence.  If there is a section of river that has no road, my interest peaks.  Show me a section of river with neither road nor trail and I may become blind to everything else until I have seen that water.  In the past I have most often relied on foot power to get me to those locations, but foot power has its limitations.  Boats open up a lot of options though.

With the purchase of some new Aire Outfitter rental kayaks and dry suits for my wife and I’s new business www.minamraftrentals.com my mind had been returning to the roadless section of the Powder River on BLM ground.  Last year I eagerly floated this roadless section of the Powder River with little experience and little knowledge of the canyon.  My good friend Jeff had accompanied me and we ran some pretty decent whitewater.  At the time it scared the hell out of me because I didn’t know it was coming, I didn’t know what an 8 foot pontoon boat could handle, and the speed of the river and the amount of brush and trees along the banks made it difficult to get off the water.

With many more float trips behind me I wanted to return to the Powder River and view it with more experienced eyes.  A second trip would certainly not be as big of an adventure as the first since I now knew the flow of the river before I showed up, knew where the rapids were on the river, and have progressed a long ways in my paddling skills.

Grant kayaking the Powder River

For this return trip Jeff again agreed to join me and I talked Trever into coming along as well.  Upon hearing that I wanted to float the river a second time, Richard Gushman of Baker City kindly offered to shuttle us from our take out to the put in below Thief Valley Reservoir.  We met up with Richard and his friend Larry Yeske at Baker City and he followed us to the take out near Big Creek.

Richard and Larry gave us a ride to the put in

The sun was shining and it looked like it was going to be a reasonably nice day compared to the heavy snow and rain we had drove through to get there.  After leaving Big Creek, the weather began to change quickly and it first began to rain, then hail, and then snow.  When the snow began to blow in a horizontal fashion in front of the pickup, Richard seemed to get great enjoyment out of our stupidity/determination to float the river that day.  When we arrived at Thief Valley Reservoir we again experienced all the seasons of the year as we got ready to launch.

Today the Powder River was running about 550 cfs compared to about 1300 cfs when Jeff and I floated it the year prior.  Another advantage we had this time were drysuits.  No waves splashing down the top of my waders today.  We began the float and besides two fences to get around, it was the same lazy beguiling float.  It was quite peaceful.  There is hardly a rock to avoid in the first several miles of river as it meanders through the canyon.  I was hoping to spot the herds of elk that we had seen on our first trip, but we had to settle for ducks, geese, and chukars.

Trever on the Powder River

As we progressed down the river I was on constant watch for signs of the rapids.  After a while I saw two dead Ponderosa trees sticking up beyond a bend in the river and thought we were getting close.  This time as soon as the river began to lose elevation we beached the kayaks and hiked up the hillside to scout the river.  As we surveyed the river I must admit that I felt a bit of anxiety.  At 1300 cfs nearly all the rocks were covered and there were just good sized wave trains.  Now at 550 cfs there were lots of big boulders in fast water with big waves to boot.  There were two extra large boulders with nice drops beside them that made me the most nervous.

We discussed our best path through and made our way back to the kayaks.  Trever had the least experience and I wanted him to follow my path down the river with Jeff in the rear.  Apparently I only thought this and did not tell Jeff my plan since he followed me and let Trever bring up the rear.  Once started it is difficult to stop though.  As we weaved through the boulders and waves I noted several spots that I thought I could paddle to shore if needed.  It would still be difficult, but I know that I could paddle to shore now if I needed to.  As the biggest waves and boulders began to subside I eddied out and tried to make sure Jeff and Trever made it through OK.

Jeff kayaking the Powder River

Eventually everyone got to the bottom and we beached the kayaks.  This was really Trever’s first time through any rapids and he did quite well.  Apparently Trever got himself stuck on a rock at the very start and nearly ended up in the water before he got off the rock.  Jeff made it through mostly without incident, but said he got turned around backwards at one point.  Although it gave me some anxiety looking at it from the hillside, I was never worried once we were in the water and navigating through the rapids.  I had marked the beginning of the rapids on my GPS and it was about a mile and quarter of continuous rapids.  I have not floated enough water to be confident in saying what Class of whitewater it was, but it was certainly tougher water than anything on the Wallowa and Grande Ronde.

Once again we had lazy scenic floating down the Powder River.  It really is a neat place.  It is mostly covered with sagebrush and rock with a smattering of birch trees, willow, and some scattered Ponderosas but I enjoyed it.  I have seen herds of Elk, deer, antelope, a few coyotes and a few rattlers in there as well.  Oh yes, and there are trout in the river as well although we could not fish for them on this trip since the river is still closed.

A mile past the end of the first set of rapids, the river goes from a lazy pool into a violent channeled drop and turn to the right.  There is no mistaking this spot.  You can hear it from a distance and the river drops out of sight before getting to a basalt cliff face.  Before our trip I had reviewed some video I had taken from the hillside.  Looking at it from the safety of my home I thought I might attempt the drop.  Standing there now hearing the water pound against the rocks, I had no desire to try it.  Besides dropping a lot in a short distance, there is a very small path between two very large boulders.  I am sure some experienced kayakers would think this is great fun.  To me, it looked only dangerous and we once again examined the canyon for a better path around than we had found last year.

After safely portaging the big drop, the river had a short section of small rapids before returning to its mostly lazy ways.  Our take out was just below Big Creek.  We had parked my pickup at the top of the canyon, out of sight of the river.  I did not want to take the pickup down that excuse for a road in case it rained heavily during the day.  Last year I had parked my Jeep beside the river and had no problem knowing where to take out.

We passed Big Creek and as we came around the next turn of the river I looked up at the hillside for the road that I thought should be there.  I saw no road and thought it must be a little further.  After a couple more bends in the river I knew for sure that we had missed the takeout.  You cannot see the road from the river.  It is disguised by big sage brush, so we had the enjoyment of packing our inflatable kayaks about a mile back up the river.  After everyone cussed me (under their breath I am sure) we headed to North Powder to stop at the café for a Hungry man’s Omelet.


-Float took about 4 hours including portage and scouting

-River flow is available here

-Aire Outfitter Kayaks and NRS Extreme dry suits provided by www.minamraftrentals.com

-Photos from the weekend

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