SE Oregon rafting: Wait 'til next year?

Low river sinks Owyhee spring trips for 2nd year

JORDAN RIVER, Ore. - River-rafters are a disappointed bunch if they counted on floating the Owyhee River in southeast Oregon this month. For a second year, there isn't enough water in the river.

The Owyhee is a desert river, so low water is typical in the summer -- but in April and May, it can be a good early-season adventure. It's also an economic boost for small towns in the area, such as Rome and Jordan Valley.

Brian Sykes, owner and guide at Ouzel Outfitters, canceled all five of his company's Owyhee float trips. He said he feels bad about not sending business to the cafes, motels and shuttle drivers with whom he's built relationships over the years.

"In a good year, thousands of people raft the river," Sykes said. "They're going to stay at local hotels, they're going to use restaurants, they're going to pay for local services So, when there's no water, they get no traffic."

Spring was full of promise in March, Sykes said, when the month began with 85 percent of average snowpack in the area.

"Then, very warm and dry conditions in March, plus a weird phenomenon that put a lot of dust up onto the snowpack, and that actually helped to accelerate snowmelt," Sykes said. "So by the end of March, we were down to 43 percent of average -- and then it just steadily got worse."

On the bright side, Sykes said, he already has customers booked for next year for the trip through what's known as "Oregon's Grand Canyon," in hopes of better luck with Mother Nature.

"It's just a spectacular, very isolated, wilderness-quality trip with dramatic scenery -- great birding, hot springs, great hiking, fun rapids," he said. "It's just got a mystique to it."

Sykes is steering people to raft trips on rivers with snowpacks based in the Cascades: the Rogue, North Umpqua, McKenzie and Deschutes. He said the snow wasn't great in the Cascades either, but there will at least be enough water to keep rafters floating through the summer.

Chris Thomas of Oregon News Service provided this story.

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