River Running

Kayaking the Burnt River | Unity, Oregon

We left Boise around 10:30 and headed West toward the Idaho border with Oregon near Ontario. We stopped in Ontario for some coffee.

We got all turned around in Ontario and ended up finding this old building. The trains were still running in the background and the building looked like it was still in use.

Union Pacific Train Depot | Ontario, Oregon
Union Pacific Train Depot | Ontario, Oregon

We drove on to Huntington and looked at the river section from Lime to Huntington. It looked like there was a lot of industrial material in the river along with diversion dams and barbed wire, so we decided to head further up the river. I had seen on the map an area called the “Burnt River Canyon” and the topo lines made it look like a more exciting run.

We figure that the only thing keeping us from running the canyon stretch would be if there was enough water in the river to get down it.

We were in luck and the river had enough water. It needs to be running over its banks to be successfully run in the canyon. It is very swift in many areas. I have no idea what the gradient is or what the flow was. The run looked too difficult for Karma to run as we scouted the river from the gravel road adjacent to the river. We decided that I would paddle the run alone and that Karma would drive the road back down to the takeout. I put in at a place just upstream from a “roadhouse” called Loma. Loma looked to be nothing more than a single building. There is still a lot of mining in the area and there are still working dredges in the area. We saw one of the dredges being used by some of the Loma locals.

Typical Rapid in the Burnt River Canyon | Spring Flow
Typical Rapid in the Burnt River Canyon | Spring Flow

The run I did was about four to five miles long. The first mile or so was very mellow but fast moving. I had to keep an eye out for half submerged rocks. The rocks are very difficult to see due to all the sediment in the river. The water has a horrible taste to it as well as the dark color. We later found out that the taste and color are probably due to ranching activities upstream of the canyon stretch.

It is said that settlers named the river for the burned trees flanking the sides of the river and the area was prone to large fires in the days the covered wagons were passing across the land. The fires burned the vegetation from the surrounding hillsides and allowed sediment to flow freely into the river turning it a chocolate brown color, thus the name “Burnt River”. The river color still runs in a color consistent with its name, but now from a different type of sediment.

After the mellow section next to the mining operations the river starts to steepen quite a bit. As the gradient increases the difficulty of the rapids increases. I found creek boating skills to be very important on this stretch of river. I chose the Godzilla as the boat to take down the river, but in the future might chose a boat with a bit more turned up nose to help prevent the possibility of pinning. There was really no way to pull over or stop by eddying out in the steeper sections of the river. The river is too narrow and too shallow to turn the boat sideways in the current. I was very nervous about turning sideways and risking a possible broach as well. Especially knowing I was running the river alone with no one to help if I did become broached. Every so often the river would ease gradient and pools would form for a quick rest.

At many points the river would split into two channels. These areas made it very difficult to maneuver through, given that you were only running on half the water of the main river. Downed trees were a concern in some of these narrower channels. The larger main channel usually allowed you room to skirt around a tree, but the smaller channels didn’t allow as much room and made for some tight squeezes.

Sluice Box Rapid | Class III
Sluice Box Rapid | Class III

As I didn’t find any guide books on the Burnt River I took it upon myself to name some of the rapids for my own reference and to take my best guess at their classification. There were three distinct parts of the river that presented particular challenge. The first was one that I called “Sluice Box” . I figured that was a good name given all the mining activity. Coupled with the fact that if you had gold fillings, the amount of bumping and jarring from bouncing from one rock to another would be likely to pop one of those gold fillings out.

The next rapid was probably the most difficult on this stretch. It is created by a beaver dam on river right that has forced the water to the left next to the road embankment. I scouted this rapid by pulling over on the right side of the river and looking at the rapid from the top of the beaver dam. there is a clean run down the left side. It was a bit of work to get lined up after scouting from the right. The current is swift and not much room for error on this one so I bump it up to a Class III+. It is close to the road if something was to happen, so others might call it a solid III.

Beaver Dam Rapid | Class III+
Beaver Dam Rapid | Class III+

There is one more distinct rapid that I would probably rate as a III just under a cable crossing. I instinctively called this rapid “Cable”. I was paranoid about running into some barbed wire or other man-made objects on the river, but didn’t see any signs of barbed wire on the canyon section of the river.

I was happy to see Karma and BoBeau at the takeout playing a game of catch with the frisbee. I wondered how much material I had left under the seat of my boat from bouncing off so many rocks and being my first run of the year I was beat. We packed up the gear and headed up the road towards Unity reservoir, where we would spend the night.

Bobeau | Playing Frisbee at the Takeout
Bobeau | Playing Frisbee at the Takeout
Bobeau
Bobeau

We drove up the road to Unity Reservoir and as we came around a corner we saw a Bighorn Sheep. There were two males traveling together. Karma got a good picture of one of the Sheep standing on a rock looking at us.

Bighorn Ram | Burnt River Canyon
Bighorn Ram | Burnt River Canyon

The end of the canyon is marked by the entrance of Clark’s Creek into the Burnt River from the South. The Creek is named for a man that accidentally shot himself at the site. We drove up the road only about 100 yards or so. My grandpa said that there is an old ghost town up the road about 20 miles or so.

There is a great fertile valley above the canyon where there are lots of ranches and farms. The springtime brought lots of baby calves. We took a few photos of the cows. We saw some real cowboys at a place called Hereford. It is said that the town of Hereford was named when an outside rancher paraded a prized hereford cow through the middle of town. Because the people that lived there were so enthralled in ranching and saw such a prized cow walking down the street they decided to name the town Hereford.

Cattle Near Bridgeport, Oregon
Cattle Near Bridgeport, Oregon

There is another town in the valley named “Bridge Port”. This town was supposedly named for a large bridge that was build across the river near the location of the town.

Our next stop was in Unity. We stopped previously at the State Park at the reservoir. We then decided we were too low on beer and needed to go to Unity (the closest town) to replenish our supply.

Unity Store | Unity, Oregon
Unity Store | Unity, Oregon
Mountains Outside Unity, Oregon
Mountains Outside Unity, Oregon

Unity was named after the decision to locate the post office in an area most accessible by all the local people in the area. There had traditionally been many disagreement and feuds in the area. When all parties involved agreed on the same location to receive mail the decided to name the location “Unity”.

Unity was a small town with an interesting town center. We stopped at a convenient store next to a hotel that had deer fenced in the front yard in a ploy to attract visitors. The convenient store was decorated with heads of deer and elk over the beer coolers. The girl that sold us the beer had a belt buckle larger than a silver platter and was as nice as any true cowgirl could be.

Sunset | Unity Lake
Sunset | Unity Lake
Sunset | Unity Lake
Sunset | Unity Lake

We headed back to the State park and found a campsite. It was $12 for a campsite. That included showers in the morning and fresh potable water in the campsite.

Karma and Bobeau | Unity Lake Campground
Karma and Bobeau | Unity Lake Campground

It seemed like the fishing was good at Unity lake since everyone else there has fishing boats and were up early in the morning to catch fish. On the drive back to the campsite we saw a few guys riding along out in a field in the back of a pick-up truck shooting ground squirrels.

A Very Large Ant Pile | Unity Lake
A Very Large Ant Pile | Unity Lake

At Unity campground there are teepees for rent and the campgrounds are well maintained. Just remember to lock up your food at night or the ground squirrels will get it.

Tee Pees | Unity Lake State Park
Tee Pees | Unity Lake State Park
Large Tree with Birdfeeder | Unity Lake
Large Tree with Birdfeeder | Unity Lake
Tad Jones | Unity Dam
Tad Jones | Unity Dam

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