Southeast Oregon doesn’t really register anything memorable to the average person. Such a person would likely think “boring desert” if anything at all, but I ran a sweet river out there yesterday by the name of ‘Donner und Blitzen’ that stuck in my memory quite well. This river drains the Steens mountains and empties into the Malheur wildlife refuge and presumably evaporates. The drive through the refuge is packed with interesting water fowl. I go through this section of Oregon several times a year and have never seen it so green and with so many wildflowers…I thought it was spectacular, but I’m biased because I love eastern Oregon anyway.
The runnable section is about 18 miles, with road access. I reckon you could hike farther upstream from the bridge and maybe get more mileage if so inclined. Either way, I don’t think this beaut gets run very often. The closest town is 90 miles away, and the runnable season is highly correlated with the quick snowmelt. It was at 350cfs when I ran it; I’d say anything below 280 would be too rocky. There’s three distinct sections of the stream: the upper quarter, which is a bit constricted and brushy and requires a bit of maneuvering. The book said it was around 75fpm if I recall for this section. One notable rapid, seemed pretty smooth to me. A creek dumps in around this time, the river widens a bit, and you get 8 miles of mostly continuous class 3, quite fun…a few more good rapids, a bunch of rock gardens, etc. The last 4-5 miles or so is super cruisey with a small, fun dam you can run close to the end. I still consider myself a novice and this stream challenged me in a positive way – someone who’s done the crazy shit might find it too mild; a total beginner would be way overwhelmed. Took me about 6 hours. You could do it in 4 if you had compete tunnel vision about getting to the take out.
It’s pretty lonesome out there. Besides a couple ancient jeep trails, there’s really no roads that intersect the river, which is in the middle of nowhere to begin with anyway. Steep canyon walls reinforce the feeling. I went by myself and was never freaked out or anything, but it’s advisable to at least let someone know where you’re at. There’s heaps of awesome camp spots if you wanted to make a multi-dayer out of it. With a number of cool side hikes and supposedly excellent fly fishing, it’d be something to consider. Maybe I haven’t made it sound like much, but if you’re ever going through the area at the right time of year, you’d be crazy not to hit it. I hope to do it once a year at least from now on.
The mosquitoes out there were savage, especially farther down. The massive marshlands at the bottom pretty well assure that this will be the case, though it’s not bad higher up. In fact, I got run off last year by the mofos (and the fact that the river was flooding) when I made my first attempt. So carry some bug dope or a headnet if you value sanity.
To get there, take 205 south of Burns to Frenchglen, then 10 more miles to Steens Mtn Loop Rd. 16 or so miles to the river, can’t miss it. Take out at Page Springs campground. Watch the fence across the river there.