I just got back home from an early season private river trip on the Bruneau River with two good friends. ‘Wow’ is the first word that comes to mind, and that is a big understatement. The canyon that the Bruneau River flows through is a magical landscape of stunning beauty. The narrow canyon walls tower a thousand feet above you. With each bend of the river, spire after spire of Rhyolite (a volcanic rock) come into view.
ROW offers trips down the Bruneau River, but because the spring runoff is earlier than our traditional ‘summer’ river trips it can be hard to match guests to this trip. Don’t let that deter YOU, though! The river flows at runnable levels from March to (hopefully) May, and even then, a cold snap or heat wave can make it too low or too high to run. I always hope to get on a ROW trip there as a guide, but the stars never aligned. So this year I decided to take matters into my own hands, and now I want to tell everybody to GO SEE THIS RIVER!
The trip starts with a rough ride over the high sagebrush steppe of southern Idaho just southeast of Boise. The dirt road is great until about 15 miles from the river then the adventure begins. The slow and steady hand of Dan, our shuttle driver got us safely to the canyon rim on a rough and muddy road. At that point we stopped to stretch our legs and look over the rim. Two more rocky miles of creeping in the 4-wheel drive shuttle vehicle got us to the river’s edge 800 feet below. After unloading and saying goodbye to Dan, we explored our surroundings which included a hot spring complete with an old cast iron tub to soak in.
The next morning, we rigged our boat and set off to explore a short side canyon we saw from the road on the way in. A short walk under a natural arch at the mouth of that side canyon gave us a taste of what was to come. The vertical canyon walls immediately engulfed us. It was a truly awe inspiring landscape we were entering. Around every turn there was a new spire or hollow to view as we slowly drifted on the small river channel.
The wonder continued as we floated, and we decided to stop for the night at the opening of a side canyon called ‘Cave Draw’. Home for the night, we set up camp, ate some food and went to sleep.
The next day after coffee, some breakfast, and packing up a lunch, we started up the ‘draw’ to see what we could see. ‘Cave Draw’ lived up to its name, and the several cave spaces we poked around in were spacious and fun to explore. After an hour of cave explorations, we checked out another branch of the draw which allowed us access to the canyon rim a thousand feet above. It is hard to decide whether the views from the rim or the views from the river are better. Better to see both, I say.
A surprising (perhaps not after you think about it) benefit of rafting in such a seldom visited place was the abundance of birds that we saw. There were raptors, waterfowl and songbirds everywhere. We even saw several (yes, several!) owls over the course of the trip. Otters and an elk were sighted. We also noticed as we stopped along the river that there was a distinct absence of human footprints to be found.
The exploration continued as we moved downstream, and we enjoyed each others’ company - cooking simple meals, due to the decision to keep our raft as light as possible, and bring only two small backpacking stoves. The simplicity allowed us to keep the focus where we wanted - the beauty of the river canyon and sharing it with each other.
The final day of rafting on the Bruneau brought the most whitewater challenge, with a five mile section of rapids with some fun, moderate and some congested trickier rapids that challenged us to sharpen up our whitewater navigation skills after a winter season away from rafting. We scouted a couple tight spots, and rock-dodged our way down the narrow river.
As the rapids fell away, so did the canyon walls, signaling the end of the Bruneau River canyon, and its surrender to the wide open area of the Snake River plain. We had come with high hopes for an enjoyable early season float on a remote river. We got that and so much more out of our experience, reminding us again why we love floating rivers and exploring their canyons so much.