Our summer float trip on northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa River started off with Ken admitting that he had left a large bag of fresh-made cookies on the kitchen counter. “How many did you make?” Ted asked.
“Sixty. They’re chocolate chip,” Ken replied.
We were 15 minutes down the road. I did the math and turned my truck around. Losing out on 20 cookies apiece is not something to be taken lightly.
The four-day adventure was on me. “He who chooses, drives,” I was told at the brewpub where we first discussed menus and other logistics. Admittedly, I’d been mesmerized by a presentation that Grant Richey, owner/guide of the Minam Store, gave to our local fly caster club. Ted, Ken, and I had previously floated roadside sections of the Grande Ronde River and the Yakima River in pontoon boats. But those trips didn’t involve overnight camping. Spending three nights together in a streamside tent tends to create more drama than arm wrestling over who gets the top bunk in a rental cabin.
The Wallowa River joins up with the Minam River at the unincorporated town of Minam. The first 10 miles of float parallel the Wallowa-Union railroad track. After the Grande Ronde River combines its flow near Rondowa, canyon walls close in and deep bedrock-lined pools are more common than long riffle-runs. Talus slopes, basalt lava caves, and unique geologic features that include “rooster combs” and “devil’s post piles” intrigue. Dense stands of old-growth fir and ponderosa pine line a river corridor that opens up to expose wind-swept slopes and pioneer homesteads for the remaining 29 miles of Wild & Scenic River.
Recreational rafting is a major draw to this roadless area. Class I to II rapids are the norm, leading to few technical challenges for experienced boaters. Thrill-seeking rafters push off from the Minam Store in late spring when peak runoff from snowmelt occurs. More interested in fishing, we timed our late June float trip to coincide with a declining hydrograph and reduced competition for shoreline campsites. In anticipation of an early summer hatch of caddisflies and golden stones, our fly boxes were stuffed with dries.
Two hours of driving time put sagebrush country in the rear view mirror and we crested the Blue Mountains at Tollgate. A stop in Elgin for a burger and the purchase of a 12-pack of Rainier “pounders” put us in the Minam Store parking lot by early evening. Our homey two-bedroom suite afforded a peek at the river. Cooking and food storage involved an ancient General Chief combination stove/refrigerator with topside gas burners. Interior walls of tongue-and-groove knotty pine and a water-stained fiberboard ceiling reminded me of my circa 1910 boyhood home. One bedroom had a double bed and the other a pair of twins. Hand-knotted quilts with a western theme covered marshmallow-soft mattresses.
Rather than test the evening rise, we sat on the front stoop, sipped “Raineers” and watched long-eared bats circle silently overhead. Ted casually mentioned that he brought bear spray “just in case.“ He also shared looking on Google Earth to get an idea of what the river looked like. “How far should we float each day?” he asked.
According to the BLM river map, the distance from Minam to our take-out spanned 38 miles at a gradient of approximately 20 feet per mile. Based on a reported discharge of 2,000 cubic feet per second at Troy, we estimated an average float speed of three miles per hour. “Without doing the math and allowing for extra time to fish, we need to travel about 10 miles a day,” I said.
We retired to our beds with fat sassy native redband rainbow trout on our minds.
Following a restful night’s sleep and a continental breakfast of day-old scones and yogurt, we walked over to the river and made ourselves familiar with the 16-foot rental raft. Its 120-gallon Yeti cooler performed double duty as the rower’s seat. Non-perishable food items were packed in an aluminum “bear-proof” container and gear bags got strapped down in a convenient nylon mesh net. We held tight to fully-rigged fly rods, anticipating a cast or two during the day’s float.
I took position at the oars after Ted announced, “We want to see how it’s done.”
“Not much to it,” I replied, reaching back to my previous experience on the Deschutes River. “You watch for obstacles and row away from danger.”
Golden stones and caddisflies flitted over the water’s surface, followed by occasional surface action from feeding trout. We passed Minam State Park and floated safely through the first four miles of mellow river that included one Class II “roller wave” and a huge boulder that pinched flow in half at House Rock drop. Ted sat vigilant on the bow, instructing Ken where to cast and directing me where to row. Ken gained enough confidence to take the helm after a short stop to stretch our legs and make a few casts. According to my journal notes, he scraped seven large rocks in the next hour and a half with his best rowing at Blind Fall Rapids, Mile 5.5. Meanwhile, I hooked and released three nice rainbow trout casting a Royal Wulff from the bow.
“You sure tossed Ken to the wolves,” Ted confided, when we stopped for lunch.
“What do you mean?”
“That was the worse section of river.”
“I can’t help it if he tried to steer the raft like a pontoon boat,” I replied. “You row backward to control speed and direction, not forward.
Further downstream, near river mile 9, we found a camping spot on a wide gravel bar. The musty odor of busted sod and steer manure originating from a pasture on the opposite side of the river hung in the air. It took two failed attempts to erect Ted’s tent before we felt obligated to read the directions. Then we screwed it up again.
Ken fired up the gas grill and served up ½-lb sausage dogs accompanied by a healthy portion of pork-and-beans, after which chocolate chip cookies came out for the second time that day. When the sun dropped behind the hill, Ken and Ted strung up their rods and cast to a stretch of swift moving water that flowed evenly from back-to bank. “You’re wasting your time. There’s no holding water for trout,” I said.
I soon got bored of watching and stepped in several yards below to swing a No. 6 Royal Stimulator like I would for steelhead. As if by miracle, a large trout struck the fly to shake me from my revelry. A spirited tussle in fast current ensued after which I eased the slab-sided 18-incher to shore for release. “No trout in its right mind, huh?” they chided.
Ted popped out of his sleeping bag the next morning and announced. “I want to start off rowing.” He certainly looked like a river guide in his sea blue, long-sleeve, gingham shirt. I pondered my faded red “Coca Cola” T-shirt–hardly the look–and reminded, “Don’t row downstream.”
A half-mile downstream of camp, the Grande Ronde River met up to double the flow. Canyon walls pressed closer, sheltering us from the relentless sun. Ted mastered the oars in time to successfully “shoot” Sheep Creek rapids at Mile 12. We beached our raft on a wide sandy beach near Clear Creek in late afternoon. Ken stretched the two large trout we kept across a log and filleted them for dinner.
A light upstream breeze ruffled streamside alder. We sipped Bullet whiskey from tin cups and passed around a bowl of Smokehouse almonds and dark chocolate M&Ms. I whittled on a piece of driftwood while Ted and Ken speculated what part of my leg might get cut off. “You’ve got to put the torque to knots,” I said, in defense of my technique. Star gazing and poking at wood coals took over for the rest of the evening, which only suggests that intellectual conversation is over-rated on wilderness fishing trips.
With familiarity comes increased confidence. On the morning of day three, Ken handled the rubber raft like a pro when we “surfed” through Martin’s Misery, the last class II rapid of the float. Unfortunately, trout were either less abundant or harder to catch in the Grande Ronde section than we had been led to believe from the Internet. As the owner of the Minam Store later told us, “If you want to catch trout on dries, I suggest you fish the Wallowa.”
Operating like a well-trained team now, time taken to erect the tent was reduced down to an efficient 15 minutes. Lacking the ability to accept rote instruction from my companions, however, I was fired from the process. As further punishment, they relegated me to double-bagging daily bowel movements and dismantling the honey bucket.
It was here, on a camp near Green Canyon where an encounter with dangerous wildlife occurred. Forcing my way through scattered willow, I heard the warning rattle of a rattlesnake. I froze, mesmerized by its flickering tongue, until I remembered Ken’s sage words, “They can only strike a distance that equates to one-third of their body length.”
That gives me a two-foot margin of safety, I thought, moving two steps backwards. Lacking advice from someone having an advanced degree in Wildlife Science, visions of snakes that hurl poisonous fangs, quill-shooting porcupines and being mauled by a bear can populate your mind.
While putting down a plate-size T-bone steak and a half-pound of fried potatoes, Ted revisited his concern about bears. I kept my thoughts to myself while he read a list of safety measures carefully compiled from the Internet:
- Prepare meals 100 to 200 yards from where you sleep.
- The cook should change clothes after each meal.
- Use unscented garbage bags.
- Keep bear spray in your tent for when someone gets up in the night.
After reflecting that none of these cautionary measures were adhered to except for the can of bear spray Ted kept under his pillow, I was reminded that each trip with my two able companions reinforces our differences. Consider the type and relative amount of libation consumed, what constitutes a well-balanced meal, the need to share details of a bowel movement, and concern over wild animals in the night. In many ways, fishing buddies are like marriage partners, where a certain degree of tolerance and mutual respect is required to maintain a relationship. Not to mention time away from each other.
I climbed into the raft and took the oars because I like to row. Ted resumed an observer role because he believes in looking out for others. Ken spent the day casting from the bow because he wanted to catch another trout.
As the trip wound down, dense conifer side slopes gave way to open hillsides covered with bunchgrass and big sage. It was apparent that retirement has its advantages. Weekday boat traffic was sparse and competition for trout water was minimal. Our pleasant float ended at Powwatka Bridge where my dust-covered truck had been parked. Ignition keys were zip-tied where we had been told and the motor turned over on first try (always a concern).
Regarding Ken’s chocolate chip cookies, we killed the last of them off before he was delivered to his front door. Twenty apiece turned out to be a good round number.