September 17, 2019, Day 13
Louse Canyon (beneath Overtime Reservoir) ~OC 67 to Louse Canyon (beneath Rawhide Pocket & Section 16 Reservoir) ~OC 57, ~11.3 miles, ~157.8 miles total
A few stars twinkled in the sky as we packed up our wet tent and started walking. A bit chilly this morning – warranting jackets, hats, and gloves. I felt a tad apprehensive about wearing cool weather gear on a day I knew would involve swimming. But I put those concerns at the back of my mind as a canyon wren trilled its descending song; sweet notes of great comfort and encouragement. Right now, Louse Canyon is an amazing place to be.
The early morning was one of slow walking on slick river cobbles. We watched the moon move across the sky and set beyond the canyon. Beautiful walls to admire, rhyolite cliffs of burnt sienna and umber, towering spires, bulbous forms all rising above vibrant slopes of bunchgrass illuminated by sunlight in a palette of ochre and pale gold. Above the canyon, bright azure blue skies. The play of light warm and glowing; though down here on the canyon floor we are mostly in the shadows. Here the air feels crisp like it often does on a late summer, nearly autumn morning. Which it is.
Around most river bends we encounter small pools – the size of hotel swimming pools and hot tubs. Pools of water with small fish, tadpoles, snails, and crawfish. We stop to observe these aquatic desert creatures. Some are in pools that should last through the year, others pools are more like puddles just on the cusp of drying up. Will the tadpoles transform or the fish escape? Either they will make it or be someone’s meal. Pond selection is high stakes gambling.
Pretty walking. Slow walking. Canyon travel days aren’t supposed to be measured with trail or road mile expectations. We accept this. But we are aware that the effort to make three miles here on the canyon floor feels about like the effort to cover 8-10 miles of good trailed terrain. So while we stop for breakfast, to admire wildlife, and take photos – we never linger anywhere for long.
By late morning we entered a broad stretch of Louse Canyon where Long Canyon joins in. This reach felt different than the first miles of the day – the stream filled with more algae and the abundant slope-side bunchgrasses appeared scraggly and cropped. What’s happening here? A few hundred feet more of upstream walking and we got our answer: cows. We were surprised and less than thrilled to see them down here at the bottom of Louse Canyon, the West Little Owyhee River, a nationally designated Wild and Scenic River. I thought livestock grazing had been phased out of Louse Canyon years ago. (Perhaps the phase out is still in process? Or maybe there’s a broken fence up above?) After hours of walking through what felt like a healthier ecosystem, this part of Louse Canyon has a cow hammer feel and fecal contamination flowing downstream. It was disappointing. Sometimes, everything isn’t better with cows around.
Upstream from Long Canyon we passed through a constriction that deters bovines and returned to Louse Canyon’s ungrazed character. Up here we encountered tree frogs, snakes, chukars, wrens, and more crawfish. We watched coyotes trot expertly across talus slopes at the base of cliffs.
By mid-afternoon the canyon was filled with shadows, with light touching only the uppermost walls near the rim. It was then that we ascended to a really rugged part of Louse Canyon with its house-sized boulders. Gigantic rocks acting as chokestones impeding the deposition of rock rubble downstream. Geology in action. Scrambling required. Boulder fields followed by knee and thigh-deep wading pools. Narrows where the canyon was hardly 40-feet wide across. “This is Oregon?”, we kept asking ourselves.
Our timing wasn’t the best, as it was shady and in the low 60s as we started to wade across deeper pools, chest deep at times. Not seeing our feet, we’d feel blindly with our poles to avoid stepping down into the depths of these still waters. A few times we realized we were following the tracks of other canyon travelers, given that few people come through Louse Canyon in a year, we deducted we were likely following DNR and Dan. This part of Louse Canyon really does feel remote. Knowing that exiting isn’t easy, that there’s no one around up top, and that it would be hard to send a signal via our InReach – we proceeded with extra caution.
A little after 5:30 pm we were at our first legitimate swim of the day. A narrow, overhung stretch of canyon with water filling the bottom in a dark, deep, still pool. Dry ground a few hundred feet upstream on the other side. Swim time.
We double checked our packs for swimming configuration. Sealed the cameras inside. Took our shirts off (no need for them to be wet or impede strokes). And stepped in, walking along until body and pack began to float. Submerged in the cold water, awkwardly dog paddling. The cold shocked my system. In the middle of the swim I hyperventilated a bit from the chilling waters and sense feeling tired (it made me think of Navy SEAL cold water training and search and rescue scenarios Yana has talked about). Fear kept me going. I banged my knee into a submerged rock and then flailed on to a spot where I could stand once more. My panicked breathing alarmed Gabriel and I’ll remember the look of worry on his face for a long time to come. Both of us thankfully kept moving and reached the other side.
Dripping water, shivering, exhausted, we paused for a few seconds before pushing through a thicket of willows. We needed to keep moving. In order to get warm. In order to find a spot to camp. It was getting dark here in the deeper, narrow part of Louse Canyon. We had a few more deep wades, splashing through on a mission.
On the other side of a willow thicket, Gabriel paused. At first I was alarmed. Oh no, another swim, I thought. But Gabriel told me he had good news. I came up behind him as he stood looking down at his feet. There, at his toes: a cow pie.
NEVER IN MY LIFE HAVE I BEEN SO HAPPY TO SEE COW SHIT.
I was elated! If a cow could get down here, we could get out of here. We now have options, instead of having to swim more to find an exit out of the canyon. That cow excrement provided a wave of relief from rising anxiety.
Finally, we came to a dry spot with level river cobbles where we could camp for the night. Still in a bit of shock, we shivered out of our cold wet things and pulled, dry warm things onto our clammy bodies. Laying our wet clothes on a rock slab to drain (drying would be too big an expectation).
I was able to send a message to our friend Brett back home. He was sending us forecasts (far more accurate than those on the InReach) and was one of our back okay check-in people. The information we got from Brett confirmed our thinking: We needed to exit Louse Canyon. The forecast for the next couple days is supposed to be cooler than today. With highs in the 50s, cloudy, with a high likelihood of rain. Definitely not the right conditions for proceeding up the rest of storied Louse Canyon when we know there are more swims ahead. Another time (ideally with a packraft or drysuit).
We ate some snacks to warm up while sitting wrapped in our sleeping bags. The black walls of the canyon framed a dark night sky filling with brilliant stars. Bats flew about. Peaceful, beautiful, place. But I couldn’t sleep and found myself looking up at the sky most of the night, watching clouds move in, obscuring the stars. I kept thinking about the cow pie. Taking solace in knowing an exit was feasible.
Sometimes, everything is better knowing cows have been around.
Other trip reports from traveling through this part of Owyhee country:
- Jeff Browning’s account for Patagonia about running in the Owyhee Canyonlands and link to the video with his swim in a 2,000 cfs Owyhee River! And the piece he wrote for Trail Runner magazine with more information about the four adventurous days.
- And here’s a New York Times journalist’s account of trekking through Louse Canyon with folks from the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
I appreciate having read about these experiences. They help me calibrate Gabriel’s and my time in this magnificent, rugged place. It’s comforting to know that we aren’t the only ones who had to adapt our plans on the fly.