I'm lying flat on my back. Three hundred-foot vertical walls seemingly surround my vision on all sides. The river bends so sharply here that it feels like there is no way out. It is day two of our three-day float. We are camped at what we call the Bend, an absolutely incredible oxbow in the canyon of Deep Creek. The high canyon walls are covered in shades of green, yellow and chartreuse lichen. The contrast is remarkable against the darker volcanic rock.
Deep Creek is a tributary of the Owyhee River. It travels more than 30 miles before emptying into the main Owyhee. Rarely does the creek exceed 30 feet across, and with a plunge of my paddle I can feel the rocky bottom almost everywhere along its length. The paddling season is short, usually starting by April and finishing in May. It is entirely dependent on the spring snowmelt and runoff. Some years, when the water levels don't rise enough to float a boat, there is no season. Timing is everything. There is no whitewater, per se, but its sinuous track forces a never-ending navigation of current, rocks and steep canyon walls. Access, takeout, and the shuttle are as much an adventure as the paddling. Rough roads, uncertain weather and private property stall all but the most determined adventurers.
For me, the desert rivers transcend time. We paddle, we stop, we explore, we joke, but often we are very quiet as the landscape slides by. River otters play in front of us, geese honk angrily as we approach. If we are fortunate, we will see bighorn sheep on the canyon walls, watching us as we watch them. I remember my first float here; three bighorn ewes swam in front of my kayak as I sat astonished, dripping paddle held still. They climbed out, shook themselves and walked away.
The confluence of Deep Creek and the Owyhee is a magical place. As one canyon ends, another begins anew, on an even larger and grander scale. The wind always seems to blow upriver as we fight the final miles to our takeout. Our trip would not be complete without the character-building boat and gear haul to the canyon rim.
As we leave, painstakingly bouncing over rocks, scraping through sage and sliding into wet muddy holes, we are intensely aware that just a few days here often has an ability to bring restoration in a person.
The world moves forward at breakneck speed, screaming for attention. Here in the Owyhee desert, our trip has given us another magical experience, forcing us to slow, to smell the sage-scented air. To hear and feel the rushing water. To be quiet amidst the clamor.