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Brooke Hess Jul 12th, 2019

The Jarbidge-Bruneau: Idaho’s Hidden Gem of A River Trip

Three kayakers resting on the water below a Ecuador gorge.

Driving the dirt road to the put-in, the surrounding land is flat and barren. No river or canyon in sight. Not the typical scene I usually associate with an Idaho river trip. But as we approach the put-in, a slight canyon starts to appear. It’s small at first – just a trickle of a river that makes me question what we are doing here. Is this it? Did we drive all this way for a low-volume, rocky creek?

After the first mile or so of paddling, the canyon unexpectedly deepens. Less rocks, more water, and a deep canyon to paddle through. Okay – this is what we came for.

The Jarbidge River originates in northern Nevada, and flows north through the Owyhee Desert in southwest Idaho. Outside and above the river canyon’s walls, you will have no clue the river canyon exists. It appears out of nowhere on a flat, desert plateau. Flat land for miles until suddenly, and without warning, it drops down into a canyon. But once you are inside the canyon’s walls, the enormity of its affect takes hold.

Paddling Class IV rapids through massive canyon walls, hiking through wildflowers up an unexplored canyon, cooking sweet potatoes, beets, and sausage on a camp stove, sleeping next to the river. I can’t help but think that this is where I am meant to be. 

My only regret? I wish I had brought climbing gear! The sheer rhyolite walls tower above us as we paddle through the canyons. Stopping in eddies to check out the cracks in the rock and fantasizing about hand jams and gear placements, the possibilities seem endless.

The first night’s campsite is a juxtaposition of towering rhyolite cliffs parked next to calm meadows of wildflowers. The scene is relaxing, yet invigorating at the same time. Tired hands cut vegetables next to the flowing river, while tired eyes absorb the surroundings. Small droplets fall from the sky as hungry bellies are filled, which means a starless night is in store. 

As daylight appears, sore muscles and rhythmic rain drops lull us back to sleep. The first sleep-in I have had in months, and my body is very much appreciative of it. 

Putting on wet kayaking gear is always the worst part of the day, and today is no exception. Cold, damp, and hesitant, I push my boat into the river. The first few splashes are an abrupt wake-up, leaving me refreshed and ready for some big rapids. Approaching one of the biggest rapids, we pull over on the side of the river, exit our kayaks, and take a look at it. A large tree has fallen across the river, blocking the safe path down the rapid. It only takes a few seconds for our decision to be made – we must walk our boats around the rapid.

While packing for this trip, I somehow failed to take weight into consideration. Weight of my kayak, weight of my gear, weight of my food… let’s just say I didn’t pack light. Shouldering my gear-filled boat to start the trek over the field of talus and driftwood, my legs cry out in protest. The phrase ‘chicken legs’, is a very fitting description for my body, making the 30-meter hike a daunting task. I somehow succeed in getting my boat and all the gear inside from point A to point B, and back in the water heading downstream.

The group continues paddling downstream for several more hours, chit-chatting and telling stories along the way. Somewhere between a fun rapid and a good story is the confluence of the Jarbidge and Bruneau Rivers.

The flow triples, and the river widens. As the river comes around a sharp bend, all of our voices simultaneously go silent. Just ahead, the river enters a narrow canyon. Massive rhyolite walls jut up from the river, forming a tight gorge just wide enough for several boats to fit through. Entering the gorge feels like kayaking through a scene in The Lord Of The Rings. Towering and intimidating, the walls reach deep into the depths of the Jarbidge, forming massive swirling whirlpools as the river sweeps around each bend.

Camp that night is situated on a small beach nestled in a side canyon. It appears as if a small tributary flows through the side canyon during storms, but for now it is dry, allowing us the perfect spot to pitch a tent and cook dinner.

Morning arrives along with the rain. Motivation is low as we debate getting out of our sleeping bags versus sleeping one more hour. Cooking breakfast inside the tent is the compromise, and soon our bellies are filled with oatmeal, nuts, and peanut butter.

The last day of a river trip is always filled with mixed emotions. Excitement for a hot shower and warm meal is clouded by the reality of returning to real life. Jobs, bills, and social expectations are awaiting our return from the river. 

Reluctantly, we paddle the last stretch of whitewater to the takeout, load our kayaks on the car, and drive off into the desert. One of our group members jokes, “Anyone else want to drive straight back to the put-in and do it all over again?”

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