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40 Miles of Drops, Deep Holes, Boulder Gardens, Eddy Hopping, and Lots of Portaging on the Minam River – A 5000 Miles of Wild Story

Renee Patrick, and Her Friends Kirk and Grant Take On the Minam River – A 5000 Miles of Wild Story

When Kirk and I traveled to the Minam River in the Wallowa Mountains in June 2012, we hit the spring snowmelt and were faced with flows around 3,500 cfs, and in effect did not do as much boating as initially planned. When Grant Ritchie, a fellow packrafter, and owner of Minam Raft Rentals contacted us about packrafting the Minam again from higher in the drainage, (a trip of 40 river miles), we jumped at the chance. In his estimation, hitting flows at about 600-800 cfs would be perfect. We started at 900 cfs and dropping.

We could find only one other reference to boating this section; a group of boaters ran the section in September of 2010 with water levels around 300 cfs. Since much of what they ran would look and act completely different at the higher water flows, we weren’t sure what to expect! Grant, Kirk, and I had seen different sections of the river from different points, but there are quite a few spots where gorges or overgrown brush make it difficult to see what is happening from the trail. It would be a true adventure.

We left Bend late afternoon on July 3 for the six-hour drive to Minam. Rolling in about 11 p.m., we crashed on the lawn of the Minam River Motel (Grant’s business). In the morning we hemmed and hawed about what to bring. Hammocks? Beer? Our 13-mile hike from Buck Creek Trailhead would take us over an 8,000′ pass with thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, so we tried not to make our packs unbearably heavy. It didn’t work. They were still heavy.

Grant met us with his load including a very nice camera, tripod, and GoPro. We would have some great footage of this trip. Our point-and-shoot camera usually stays in our PFDs during the rapids. Taking pictures and paddling at the same time is hard.

Lottie, Grant’s wife, shuttled us to the trailhead, and after sweating to get our packs on, we began the slow ascent to Burger Pass. There were some traces of snowfields once we approached the pass, and the view was worth every drop of sweat. The day was clear and the mountains towered over lush green meadows below. We took a lunch break and then donned the gear for the final leg of our hike to the confluence with Elk Creek and Minam River (about 18 miles above where we launched in 2012 at Red’s Horse Ranch.) Evening found us at the bridge crossing the river, and we promptly took off our packs to rest our aching shoulders, legs, and backs. The water looked lovely and clear, and the water levels appeared to be just about perfect.

On July 4 we had a slow morning, and I played catch the sunlight as the mountain chill slowly gave way to the heat of the day. When all the boats got loaded, we set off on the first day of our adventure. The first few miles were a pleasant class I and II. The day was brilliant, and the water was a deep jade color in the deeper pools. By mid-morning, we found ourselves doing quite a bit of eddy hopping and log-jam portaging (approx one portage per mile). We slowly proceeded into a class III boulder run separated by sections of flat-water with two significant drops (class -IV & III+). One was a steeper boulder garden and the other a ledge drop; an exhilarating and exciting section (and again no pictures, too busy paddling).

Mid-afternoon we came around a corner to see our first horizon line, a relatively large ledge drop of about 15′ consisting of three 5′ ledges. After a few minutes, I decided to walk around this one, or more aptly described, hopped over rocks above the rapid and ducked under trees and pushed through brush and then scrambled some more until I was below and could set safety for Kirk who decided to run the rapid. Grant and I were down below and watched as Kirk seemed to slowly and easily make his way through the raging water. He made it look so easy.

By early evening we were getting tired; the portage had taken a toll on our bodies (continuing at about 1 per mile) and our boats. The long hours on the river had me dreaming of dinner and rest. Every time it gorged up we knew there was a good rapid, and sometimes a log in it. This meant lots more eddy hopping and boat scouting.

We were at mile 10ish of a 14-16 mile day. After passing the Little Minam River and Big Burn flat (a nice spot where we had camped last year), we figured we could go about four more river miles before taking out above the Minam Falls to camp at a grassy meadow.

We floated, the water was quite calm and serene until we turned a corner above a short gorge section and another horizon line. A fallen tree had blocked the entrance to the gorge; Grant bushwhacked over to see if we had enough room to squeeze our boats through. After going Grizzly Adams on some tree-branches, he returned and reported that we would be able to pass. Go Grant! We were in for two ledge drops and a short rapid with a big pool.

If I had been scouting, I would have been a lot more nervous about what was to come…

I followed Kirk into the rapid, and soon we were in solid class IV water. We flew down sloping 10′ drops and deep holes, and I can say I was elated not to swim in this section. Grant had described it well, but I was in a state of wanting-to-be-done, and if I had listened better before we ran it, I probably would have walked around.

We all regathered below the gorge with a renewed sense of exhilaration and excitement. We surely only had a short way to go before camp, so set off on the last few miles, only to encounter yet another gorge and possible log portage.

Kirk and Grant got out to investigate. After bushwacking a good 1/8 mile, they saw the log was passable and the rapid, a good class III boulder garden with an eddy on the corner. Um, that’s how it started, the class III built into a class IV boulder garden ANOTHER EXTREMELY DEMANDING section ending in another horizon line.

What began as mild whitewater turned into massive hydraulics as we negotiated boulders in continuous 4-6′ pour-overs, this truly is a 100′-per-mile-section as Google Earth would suggest. At the bottom, we were all surprised, and I was shaken up by the experience. But no carnage, and after I regained my breath and pulse before going over the next horizon line, we only had to descend a short and steep rapid before we were in the clear for the rest of the float to camp.

Unfortunately, Grant’s GoPro had run out of batteries, and we neglected to take any photos of these last two sections. Kirk and Grant are already talking about going back next year to GPS the rapids and get some footage.

The large meadow where we made our second night’s camp was above the quite intimidating Minam Falls (what also used to be a splash damn, or a temporary wooden dam used to raise the water level in streams to float logs downstream to sawmills). Though Minam Falls only has remnants of a splash damn, down the corner, there are still two river-wide logs from two other splash dams making deadly river-wide, low-head dams/holes. It was practically dark by the time we ate dinner, and I turned in completely exhausted.

In the morning light I could almost forget my fear in the last few sections the day before, but not entirely. I decided to walk the trail around the final four miles of “unknown” river and gorges before the water widens out and is much calmer at Reds. I was beaten up and bloody and enjoyed the hiking.

The water level was down to about 700 cfs, and the guys portaged this section; running Minam Falls isn’t out of the question. At this water level with three river-wide holes at the bottom of the falls you might not come out unscathed … then getting out in time before the log splash-dams around the corner might be a much hairier situation.

When I met Kirk and Grant at the bridge at Red’s they reported a relatively easy class III section, and although I was a bit remiss to miss this section, there were still 22 miles of river left to go.

We floated to the far end of the meadow and took out near the Minam River Lodge. With boats in the shade of the midday sun, we walked up to the lodge with hopes of cold beer. A couple of Pale Ales and IPAs later, we left the lodge to get in a few more miles before dark.

We made camp on some prime river-front property. Granted the flat spots were few and far between, but we had a long beach of rocks and a great view of the water.

We woke on our last morning and loaded up the boats for one long stretch directly to the door of the Minam River Motel. The water was calm and the day was a significant improvement over last year when we had rain for most of the section.

Arriving at the motel, we were all still sore and stiff from our four days, and Grant was greeted with a slew of rafts ready to launch and a busy business needing his attention. Only a slight disadvantage to living the dream.

Since we finished mid-afternoon, Kirk and I drove up the Lostine River and found a pristine camp on the water and proceeded to relax in style most of the rest of the day.

Independence on the Minam River from Renee Patrick on Vimeo.