“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.” — John Wesley Powell
In April of 1989, I bushwhacked down a steep hillside with a Seahawk inflatable raft that I bought at a Pullman garage sale for ten bucks and entered the waters of the Minam River in northeast Oregon with four days of supplies and a fly rod.
By the end of the day, I had paddled nearly 25 miles down the frothy waters of the Minam, Wallowa, and Grande Ronde Rivers and made camp on a lone rock in a deep and inhospitable canyon in the Umatilla National Forest.
I would run out of “supplies” two days later, lose my fly box and my wallet in a flipped raft while negotiating whitewater that the Seahawk was not designed for, and crawled into a grocery in Troy, Oregon after 50 miles of paddling, begging for food and duct tape (graciously purchased for me by a local rancher). I was still 45 river miles from the end of the Grande Ronde, and a long way back to Pullman, where I was attending college.
I had a semester final in a few hours, so I phoned my professor, told him enough details about my predicament to make him proud to have an adventurer as a student (as opposed to an ignorant yet highly excitable apprentice), and he wished me good luck, promising to offer me a makeup exam upon my return.
So, with another day and half of my supplies (certainly I could float the remaining 45 miles in 36 hours!), I embarked on the second leg of my journey.
Fifty four hours later, with a much lighter boat, I limped into Boggan’s Oasis (26 miles left!) with a single Hershey bar and six feet of duct tape covering a variety of rips and holes suffered at the hands of the infamous Grande Ronde basalt.
I called my professor again from the phone behind the diner bar at Boggan’s. “You’re still alive!” He was genuinely excited now. This was before adventurers could tweet from a sat phone, and updates couldn’t come fast enough.
Grande Ronde River Corridor. The Grande Ronde River source lies SE of the Blue Mountains and NW of the Wallowa Mountains on the Columbia Plateau. It flows 180 miles through agricultural lands in its upper reaches and deep, scenic canyons in its lower reaches en route to its confluence with the Snake River at Rogersburg, WA.
The waitress comped me a burger and a piece of apple pie, and packed me a bag of smoked steelhead and two pounds of frozen french fries (these would be heated up in foil over a campfire) for the journey to the end.
The next morning, only five miles from the Grande Ronde’s terminus, I hit The Narrows with the river rising from the rains and running a bit on the hot end at 4,000 CFS (base low flow is about 600 CFS).
My raft lasted about forty feet through the first rapid, when a sizable wave poured over the bow and swamped it. I grabbed my pack and swam the remaining 50 yards, and then scrambled along the rocks to rendezvous with my raft, stuck in an eddy downstream a quarter mile.
I arrived at the confluence of the Grande Ronde and Snake River (Rogersburg WA, population seasonal?) that afternoon to blank stares from the steelhead fishermen dredging deep holes there with bait.
I called one of my college friends from a local’s house and asked him to pick me up. The conversation went something like this:
Him: “Where are you?”
Him: “Where’s that?”
Me: “South of Asotin, on the Snake River.”
Him: “Oh, OK.”
Then, a pause.
Him: “Where’s Asotin?”
Return to the Ronde
Rubber-boating expeditions, steelhead fishing, chukar hunting, and canyon backpacking in the Grande Ronde’s 90-mile “primitive” corridor was my saving grace of outdoor adventure while attending college in the middle of a wheat field.
So, when Brian, my long time friend from Pullman, invited me for an overnight float through some of its more remote and rugged canyons, my skin crawled with excitement. Some people relive their college years through alumni football tickets; others revisit their fraternities and try to show the young kids how to party. As for me, I’d do it with wet feet on the Grande Ronde River, which holds a special spot in my heart as one of earth’s most amazing places.
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Packrafting GearFor this trip, I left the Seahawk home so as to avoid flashbacks, and replaced it with an Alpacka Raft, leaving the spray skirt rolled back for open boat posterity. In addition to an inflation bellows bag, PFD, paddle, and a few short pieces of paracord for lashing my pack, I added the new Alpacka Dry Suit to the kit. Latex gaskets at the wrists and ankles meant that I could use the suit instead of fisherman’s waders, with a larger margin of safety and dry comfort. Under the dry suit, I wore two sets of base layers – one silkweight Capilene, and the other Capilene 4. To keep my feet warm, I wore thick wool socks under thick neoprene socks, and stuffed the bulky lot into a pair of oversized Salomon Tech Amphibians (my favorite packrafting shoe). I wore neoprene gloves on my hands, and for really foul weather, added a bit of redundancy with a hooded rain anorak.
Sleep Clothes & QuiltFor sleeping, I just took off my dry suit, wet socks, and wet gloves, added an extra top layer (a merino wool hoody), merino wool beanie cap, and fleece socks, and crawled into a thin (14 oz) down quilt. My luxury item was a pair of dry shoes for in-camp wear (on most trips, I simply bring a pair of Gore-Tex socks and wear my wet shoes in camp).
Camping GearFor shelter, I brought a flat tarp (8.0 feet square, Cuben Fiber), and supplemented it with an eVENT bivy sack. I slept on a NeoAir XLite pad. We had lots of rain and wind at night, but I stayed warm and dry.
Cooking GearThe Jetboil SOL Ti is my go-to stove when I don’t want to think about cooking. Simplicity has its advantages on short trips when you’re pressed for time (we wanted to spend our time fishing and boating, not fooling around with gear). Unfortunately, the canister threads on my (first generation SOL Ti) stove finally softened and stripped beyond use, and I wasn’t able to screw the canister in for my hot soup breakfast on the second day. Instead, I used an Esbit tablet to heat up my soup, which of course, is well outside the scope of the manufacturer’s recommendations, but it worked and my pot doesn’t look worse for the wear. Dinner was comprised of sausages that we roasted over the fire, washed down with a few cans of Trout Slayer.
Fishing GearI stuck it out with tenkara gear for this trip, and brought two rods – a 21-foot Daiwa and the Tenkara USA Amago. Within ten minutes of fishing my first run with the Daiwa, I hooked into a large steelhead that might have gone 10 or 12 pounds. A few minutes into the fight, the fish decided that it had had enough and made a beeline for Portland. It took my fly, line, and the three top sections of the rod with it. I fished with the Amago the rest of the trip. I did hook another smaller fish with the Amago, perhaps five pounds or so, but the Amago was seriously undermatched, and I allowed the fish to break off the fly. Pound for pound, steelhead are most definitely not trout – they are in an entirely different league!
The Washington State section of the Grande Ronde flows primarily through primitive land administered by private landowners and the Bureau of Land Management. Here are the basics to consider for a trip:
- Floaters’ permits are required, but are available at self service stations usually found at infrequent highway bridge crossings.
- Human waste must be packed out. Most floaters take portable toilets, but the packrafter can enjoy the lighter privilege of WAG bags (which only require a little better aim).
- Fire pans are required. A lightweight option is stainless steel sheet that can be rolled up and stowed in a tube. Then, the pan can be rolled on the ground, covered with a little sand as an insulating layer, and surrounded by cobbles for containment. Make sure to engineer a six or eight inch high “rim” on your pan so you don’t scar rocks.
- If you’re fishing for steelhead (the run lasts from September to April), you’ll need both a fishing license and a steelhead permit. Steelhead here readily take dead-drifted nymphs (large Prince Nymphs and Girdle Bugs are effective), spey flies and soft hackles on the swing, and October Caddis and Bombers skated on the surface. Oh, and hang on.
- Shuttles are available in Troy, Oregon and at Boggan’s Oasis where Highway 129 crosses the river.
- Camping on the river corridor is available in many locations, but respect the rights of private landowners who don’t want you camping on their land – they’ll let you know with conspicuous signage.
- Expect to see a lot of wildlife – deer, elk, bighorn sheep, great blue herons, and rattlesnakes are common in the river corridor. Black bears are not infrequent visitors, so be sure to hang your food.
- Safe low water packrafting (Class II / PR 2-3) occurs along most of the Washington section of the river at flows less than 1,500 CFS. Above 1,500 CFS, expect the occasional Class III / PR 4+ runs, which can usually be portaged. The Narrows offers big waves and a few holes (Class III / PR 5) at flows above 3,000 CFS.