There’s an unusual amount of hustle and bustle in the sleepy community of Rome on this Sunday in April. It’s a warm morning as we prepare the rafts and drift boats for our four-day journey through the Lower Owyhee Canyonlands. Individuals, families and outfitters alike have come here to run the 67-mile stretch of river from Rome to Leslie Gulch. For the past six years, this desert region has been suffering from drought and has not built up the winter snowpack that provides the amount of water necessary to run this stretch. But water has finally returned, and for a few short weeks, this is one of the most sought-after runs in the Pacific Northwest.
A Family of Drifters
Kelsey Helfrich and her father, Ken Helfrich, owners of Springfield-based Helfrich River Outfitter, take one last look at their map together before pushing off. For the next four days, they’ll lead a group of 12 guests and eight guides on an undulating river through a volcanic landscape. It’s an area that the Helfrich family has missed over the past six years due to low water levels. But this place has a special history with the family, dating back 65 years.
Prince Helfrich founded Helfrich River Outfitter in 1925. He was the first person to take people down the Owyhee River, in 1951. Sometimes referred to as “the last of the mountain men,” Prince made his family name synonymous with river guiding. He helped design and build the early drift boats used on his trips, and estimates put his river-run miles north of 50,000. “Oregon rivers were just rivers until we met Prince Helfrich,” wrote Bob Straub, former governor of Oregon, in 1990. “Running rivers with Prince made them come alive.” Prince passed away in 1971 after a battle with cancer, but the company has continued in his absence, always with a Helfrich at the helm.
Now in its fourth generation, the family tradition is carried on by Prince’s great-granddaughter Kelsey. And it’s a tradition that’s not lost on her: “I’m so proud to be a part of this. It was never something that was pushed on me,” she says. “But at the same time, there really wasn’t ever a question in my mind; I think I’ve just always known that this is where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do.” With her father and her husband, Kidd Youren, at her side, Kelsey and her family carry on the legacy her grandfather began more than 90 years ago.
“The people you get to meet, and the experience of introducing people to these places is so special. It’s such hard work but so rewarding at the same time. I think the Owyhee is such a unique trip — because it’s such an untouched landscape. And that’s something that’s really rare.”
That Wild Beauty
Twelve miles past put-in at Rome, we enter Sweetwater Canyon. Civilization disappears. Lava walls rise to spectacular heights on both sides, leaving no question as to the area’s nickname: the Grand Canyon of Oregon. For miles the canyon walls squeeze in around the boats, but just as suddenly as the rock formations closed in, the river widens and the land opens up into the Chalk Basin. This portion of the canyonlands is composed of pale ashy sediment and a rusty red rock called rhyolite. It is a beautiful mosaic of reds, browns and blacks, dotted with bright yellow balsamroot flowers in bloom.
This is a recurring theme in the Lower Owyhee Canyonlands, an ever-changing landscape of color, size and texture. At mile 25 we catch sight of Pruitt’s Castle. With holes in its large eroded walls and tall spikes of white rock banded with brown and red lava streaks, it has the appearance of a medieval fortress. After 7 miles we enter Iron Point. The canyon narrows and the cliff walls rise to over 800 feet in spectacular fashion. Light and color constantly change as sunrays sparkle off the gray reflective rock faces covered in green lichen.
History is also abundant in the Owyhee Canyonlands, with places like Rustler’s Cabin, an old homestead hidden by large poplar trees. In the 1800s, bandits from Idaho set up this hidden ranch to stash the cattle they stole from Oregon ranchers. The rock corrals they built to contain the cattle still stand today. There are also large outcroppings of petroglyphs dotting the banks of the river, carved by the Native Americans who used to live in this region. No one is exactly sure how old the rock art is, but estimates put them at 6,000 years or more.
The river itself is tame for the most part. Due to the large sediment deposits in this area, the water remains brown and murky throughout the season. Class II and III rapids emerge every so often during the float, but nothing that would frighten a decent boatman. The Montgomery rapid (Class III-plus) in Iron Point canyon is the most challenging water on the trip, but nothing an outfitter can’t handle. This is a trip that families of moderately experienced boaters can enjoy.
Nights in the Canyon
Good campsites are easy to come by throughout the trip. And being one of the few places in the Lower 48 without much light pollution, each spot provides breathtaking views of the night sky. A warm fire and our guide George playing some old river classics on his guitar make the stars seem even brighter.
Nights in the canyon are a different kind of special. Every night when our group arrives at camp, the Helfrich guides who set out ahead of us in the morning greet us with cocktails. Unlike traditional camping, our large tents and cozy cots are already set up and waiting, giving us the opportunity to relax and watch the river flow by, read a book or tell stories from our day on the river.
The relationships formed on the river are just as much a part of the experience as the whitewater itself.
The idea of an extended river family is something that Helfrich has embraced wholeheartedly and a feeling that seems to spread to everyone on the trip. The river has a way of connecting people from different walks of life. In addition to a gratifying wilderness experience, you’re bound together by moments in the white water and laughter around the campfire.
While watching the sun set over Devil’s Tower, I ask Kelsey what’s kept her guiding river trips all these years. “The people you get to meet and the experience of introducing people to these places is so special,” she tells me. “It’s such hard work but so rewarding at the same time. I think the Owyhee is such a unique trip — because it’s such an untouched landscape. And that’s something that’s really rare.”