story and photographs by Morgan Tilton
The underbelly of the sky-blue raft is wrapped against a huge chunk of Idahoan boulder. Only a sliver of the side rail peeks above the water, flagging the boat’s burial. We have covered less than 25 miles of our remote whitewater expedition: a six-day, 72-mile journey up two testy, back-to-back waterways, the Jarbidge and Bruneau Rivers. Galen Barker, a guide for Far and Away Adventures and rower of our pinned craft, stands atop the villainous slab, dead-center in a river two raft lengths wide. Barker’s grim expression says it all: This is the exact scenario we don’t want to be in.
The Jarbidge carves a deep vein into the desolate desert of southern Idaho as it flows north from Nevada. The resulting canyon, which we entered shortly after our put-in at the river’s confluence with its eastern fork, towers 1,000 vertical feet over sustained Class III-V rapids. The only escape is downstream. Guides often avoid this stretch thanks to its quick flow, abundant rocks and wood, and low-hanging junipers. Choosing to put in at the Bruneau River junction instead, and skip the 29-mile Jarbidge, isn’t sure-fire. After rain, the rutted dirt road devolves into slick, impassable mud. It’s the only thoroughfare along the entire route.
Remoteness hasn’t completely hidden the place from view. The Jarbidge-Bruneau run was ranked among the top 10 adventures in the world by National Geographic, in 2012. That media attention followed one of America’s newest public land designations, the 90,000-acre Bruneau-Jarbidge Rivers Wilderness in 2009, along with the rivers’ addition to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Both designations exemplified rare bi-partisan success. But the waterway’s protection extends further. The Owyhee Initiative, a coalition comprised of the Jarbidge-Bruneau region’s stakeholders that launched in 2001, confronted the area’s decades-old land management strife. They helped pass the Omnibus Public Land Management Act (OPLMA), which guarantees collaborative and localized resource management and protection.
Despite the National Geographic spotlight, though, the Jarbidge-Bruneau has not blown up. Beyond Far and Away Adventures, a 40-year-old rafting company out of Ketchum, Idaho, only three other companies are certified to lead commercial trips down the stretch. In contrast, 27 licensed outfitters operate on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and an estimated 10,000 people float that river each year.
“Guiding the Middle Fork of the Salmon River is easy compared to the Jarbidge-Bruneau,” says Jake Miczulski, Lead Guide for Far and Away Adventures. “This cut in the earth is remote, dangerous, and there’s nowhere to land an emergency helicopter. Hazards, like strainers and log jams, aren’t visible until you’re on top of them. It’s one of my favorite river systems I’ve ever boated.”
A high-traffic season on the Bruneau River typically tallies close to 210 boaters and 20 commercially-guided guests, according to the Bureau of Land Management. The Jarbidge sees far fewer visitors—close to 70 independent boaters and, many years, zero commercial trips at all. If the snowpack is low, the number of paddlers on the Bruneau can drop to 20.
“Over the past decade, we have not seen a significant increase in use, on the Jarbidge and Bruneau Rivers, during good snowpack years. Use during low snowpack years stays consistently low: 60 users or less,” says Evan Worthington, a BLM Wilderness Ranger for the Boise District. We only see two other overnighters on our whole trip—a ranger accompanied by a friend.
With Barker’s boat pinned, I stand on the muddy, steep embankment, relieved to be exploring this challenging river with seasoned professionals. The water’s roar muffles the guides’ voices. In unison, they heave a rope that’s anchored to Barker’s raft in a Z-drag pulley system. Eventually, the weighted boat flips and is freed from the river’s 1,200-pound pummel. . With the raft recovered, we attempt the passage again. This time, withmy boat, guided by Reed Stokes.
No more than a minute later, we beach against the same behemoth rock where Barker stood. The powerful current pours over the raft’s tube and begins to sink the boat. We quickly leap out and wait mid-river as the other four guides, shocked, re-establish the Z-drag. A storm of icy, side-cutting rain lets loose from above.
The double-rescue depletes us. Miczulski says it’s the most technical back-to-back emergency scenario of his outdoor career. With glazed eyes, we paddle out of The Maze—a series of Class IV rapids after mile 24 on the Jarbidge—and pull into the next beach. Ancient, towering Junipers create a wall around the sublime meadow like a fortress.
We establish camp before twilight and watch the slow-shifting afterglow. I gaze upriver at the ravine’s serrated path. The rhyolite-basalt walls that have been carved by this riverway are an intimidating geologic masterpiece. Above the chossy shores, virescent slopes of sagebrush rest below sky-reaching spires and erratic columns that remind me of giant organ-pipes. Their jagged silhouettes resemble hyena teeth. Patches of poison ivy, wild roses, willows, and syringas follow the water. I finally relax as the top of the gorge basks in an orange-red hue.
I ask my Idahoan guides why this place is so special to them. Despite the existing protections, a few of them worry about the future of this water and landscape. As the West becomes more populated and an upswing of visitors discovers these canyons, can this place stay wild? Will the self-issued permits eventually be exchanged for a lottery system?
On our last day, Barker leads our vessel through the stillness of the Bruneau Canyon. Perched on a ledge near the water’s surface, a Golden Eagle snaps open her glistening black beak. Her lustrous, brass-speckled head ticks toward the sky. She rustles her sable-hazel feathers and opens her broad wings—phwoom, phwoom. I watch as she glides into a thermal and swivels around the invisible tunnel. Her chocolate-gold hues become lost in the puzzle of the rock face.
Seconds feel like minutes. The north end of the chasm fades into rolling plains andfarmland that border our take-out. I don’t want the trip to end, but even more so, I want to leave this place undisturbed.
“When we’re not guiding, it’s amazing to walk into the wilderness and fill out a self-use permit for a river that’s not wide enough to fit another boat,” says Miczulski. “You pack your groover, fire pan, and strainer [for dishes]. No one checks on you. It’s on the honesty of your own heart to take care of this place.”