River guide Sparky Easom yells out commands as the paddle raft with six passengers pinballs through Cave Rapid, one of the first Class IV (expert) rapids on Idaho’s remote Bruneau River.
“Left back. Right forward. All forward. ALL FORWARD!”
Easom coordinates the forward and back paddling of the passengers, and the raft zig-zags through a maze of boulders that need the expertise of a veteran river runner.
“Easy does it. Take a break.”
It’s late May and the Bruneau’s flows, after four years of low water and canceling trips, are perfect for the 40-mile wilderness whitewater run in a pristine, 1,200-foot canyon known for being hard to float, hard to reach and hard to predict.
That’s right. You have to catch the Bruneau River while you can, and for many, it’s a bucket list expedition they want to catch.
Desert roads that tend to be greasy wet have to be passable. River flows have to be just right where they can be run in kayaks and rafts — not too high and not too low. The running season can be months, a few weeks or mere days. The season can be anywhere from April to mid-June, depending on snowpack in the 10,500-foot Jarbidge Mountains on the Idaho-Nevada border, which feeds the river.
Contemplating all the variables, a time can come when all conditions are perfect, and then a desert downpour gums up roads and makes river flows too high to run.
Steve Lentz, who owns Far and Away Adventures out of Sun Valley with his wife, Annie, was watching the river, roads and weather all spring trying to bet on the best days to launch. “You basically roll the dice,” he said.
He picked the fourth week in May. Several of his guides scouted the river in the preceding weeks. Anticipating guests got emails that it was a go.
Still, just days before the trip, certain sections of the roughly 50 miles of desert roads leading to the launch site turned into axle-deep quicksand. Back roads going into the Bruneau Canyon can turn into a greasy frying pan of infamous Owyhee gumbo from one freak desert storm. Owyhee gumbo is an extremely sticky goo that results when rain hits the talcum powder dirt. Just add water and it’s like Elmer’s Glue on tires.
At the last minute, it was a definite go, but still with hesitations on what the rafting convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles loaded with rafts, raft frames, coolers, food and other gear would find.
In the end, the expedition gets to the launch site on the Bruneau downstream from the confluence of the Jarbidge and West Fork of the Bruneau rivers. The river “put-in” is a gateway into an ancient lava rock canyon of orange-brown, black, gray and seemingly blue colored walls, red cliffs and Christmas tree like junipers. Around each bend are spire-like hoodoos shooting hundreds of feet skyward, deep dark caves and pastel-gray volcanic columns.
The canyon is the home of a variety of wildlife, such as bighorn sheep, songbirds, hawks, redband trout and river otters. Western tanagers escort rafters downstream — yellow flashes flittering from juniper to juniper. The south-north canyon is a migration highway for them in spring as they head to Central Idaho’s high country.
All this is hidden from most people.
The Bruneau is a secret canyon in Southwest Idaho’s sagebrush plain, located between 90 and 120 miles southeast of Boise. Look across the sage flatlands as you leave the farming town of Bruneau and you don’t even know there’s a river canyon out there. Miles and miles of sage go by and still no canyon. Then, suddenly there is a gash in the earth and the river appears like a tiny mocha-colored ribbon in the distance.
The Bruneau gets its life-blood flows from fresh snowmelt in the Jarbidge Mountains of northern Nevada and drains north through an area called the Owyhee Uplands. It eventually ends up in the Snake River, one of Idaho’s major rivers.
Despite the struggles of putting together such an expedition on a remote river, Far and Away Adventures, a wilderness river outfitter, serves up a luxury trip. For the average person who is not an expert river runner, the best way to experience the Bruneau is on an outfitted trip.
On the river, wetsuits, lifejackets and helmets are provided along with the expertise of guides who have PhDs in whitewater.
Off the river and in camp, guides provide gourmet meals and fine wine; huge, spacious tents and cots with sleeping bags lined with flannel; and plenty of waterproof bags for personal gear. Guides set up camp tents as guests take a hike or relax in lawn chairs taking in the grandiose scenery.
After a day of paddling, it’s so relaxing to sit in a lawn chair and anticipate an exquisite dinner. How river guides can get all the fixings for a dinner is a wonder: caprese skewers with balsamic reduction drizzle; spring spinach salad with strawberries; candied nuts and feta cheese and citrus dressing; grilled Basque lamb lolipops in a cabernet, soy ginger garlic marinade; grilled lemon peppered asparagus spears; and sweet potato casserole with pecan crumble.
And, after a day of vigorous paddling, there’s still room for dessert — Dutch oven whole-baked cinnamon apples with handed whipped cream topping.
Relaxing after dinner with daylight fading and a fire burning in a fire pan, it’s easy to reminisce on the river, the road coming in and the canyon’s mystery. With all its inaccessibility and hard work to get to, the wonder of the Bruneau River never grows old. Just ask guides who know the river up close and personal.
“The Bruneau creates curiosity in me. It’s a place of wonder,” says river guide Jessie Jarvis, who rows one of the large gear rafts. She and fellow guide Sadie Grossbaum clean up after dinner and talk about how special the canyon is to them.
“The Bruneau Canyon is a different planet,” said Grossbaum, who never knew it was here while growing up in Idaho.
For many, the Bruneau River is on a bucket list. “I had one guy who had done 17 rivers. After doing the Bruneau, it was at the top of the list,” Lentz said.
It’s also an incredible trip for whitewater newcomers. Michael Scott of Sun Valley had only done day trips on whitewater rivers. The Bruneau was his first multi-day trip. “It is a fantastic journey, an amazing run. The Bruneau is definitely worth the wait,” he said after a day of whitewater and canyon scenery.
Luckily, the wonders of the Bruneau are preserved forever. Congress designated the 89,820-acre Bruneau-Jarbidge Rivers Wilderness in 2009 and the canyon as protected rim to rim. The area is so unique that visitors joke if it was in another state, say like Kansas, it would probably be a national park.
It’s the last morning on the Bruneau River and nature’s alarm clock goes off. It’s a symphony of birds greeting the first faint rays of daylight.
It’s an orchestra of chirps, squawks, chatters and tweets, much like the sounds of trumpets, flutes, clarinets and bassoons reverberating off the canyon walls. The background accompaniment is the percussion sounds of the river.
It’s also the final leg of the river with an infamous section called Five Mile Rapids. In the mix are Boneyard, Nemesis and Wild Burro thundering up ahead and raring to bounce, buck and douse paddlers.
Luckily, we have paddle guide Sparky Easom calling out commands.
Details on the Bruneau River
- Planning: Do it now for next spring. Trips are limited and booking right now.
- Outfitter: Far and Away Adventures, 401 Lewis St. / P.O. Box 54, Sun Valley, ID 83353; (208) 726-8888; far-away.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
- Prices: Bruneau trip, $1,950. Combination Jarbidge/Bruneau trips, $2,850.
- Information on Idaho’s other rivers and outfitters can be found at ioga.org.