May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside's Annual Travel Guide, 1999/2000
When the five freshets here hit meltdown mode, you're in for a wild ride
Into the Rhyolite on the Owyhee

Lochsa River, Idaho

Remember that robotic B-52's tune that goes, "You're living in your own private Idaho"? Find yourself on the Lochsa River, on the edge of Idaho and Montana's Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, during peak runoff, and these cryptic lyrics will suddenly make sense. Green, glassy tongues lead to explosive house-high waves. Souse holes the size of Greyhound buses lurk, awaiting off-line paddlers. Accelerating into the vortex, you'll rise up a ten-foot face, only to launch into the trough of the next still-larger wave. Convoluted currents and bubbling eddies yank rafters and kayakers around like a schoolmarm who's got 'em by the ear.

Lochsa (pronounced lock-saw) is a Salish Indian word meaning "rough water," and apparently the Salish had a penchant for understatement. Between the Montana border and Lowell, Idaho, lies one of the country's quintessential whitewater runs. It all begins at the Lochsa's Bitterroot Mountains headwaters near Lolo Pass, where the snow piles up deep. By late April or early May, this block of frozen fun starts to thaw and head for the Pacific. Numerous tributaries pour into the Lochsa, swelling the river's volume. By the time it zips past Killer Fang Falls, peak flows can exceed 20,000 cubic feet per second.

With a season that can run into mid-July, the Lochsa draws an eclectic bunch of whitewater folk. Kayakers come from all over to experience more than 40 relentless yet perfectly spaced Class III–V rapids. Rafters come for the syncopated wave trains and the verdant cedar-grove canyons.

The Lochsa comprises two primary sections: the Upper and Lower Runs. The Upper is the more technical and continuous challenge and requires precise maneuvering to avoid finding yourself staring out of a giant hole. Standout rapids Lost Creek and Castle Creek will school you if you're not careful. The Upper Run put-in is at White Pine (mile marker 138); depending on the level and your staying power, take-out options include Nine Mile (mile 130), Wilderness Gateway (mile 122.5), or Fish Creek (mile 120).

The Lower Run couldn't be more fun if Walt Disney had designed it himself. Glassy waves make this section Surf City, and rapids like Grim Reaper and Lochsa Falls trigger surges of adrenaline. Put in at Fish Creek and take out at Split Creek, roughly ten miles downstream.

Superlative camping exists throughout the canyon. Forest Service campgrounds like Powell, Jerry Johnson, and Wilderness Gateway have restrooms and picnic tables. The more adventurous can find casual campsites on the fire roads and obscure roadside pullouts. Cabins and motels are available upriver at the Lochsa Lodge (two-person motel rooms to four-person cabins, $30–$65 per night; 208-942-3405) or downriver at Lowell and Three Rivers Resort (two-person motel rooms to six-person cabins, $49–$97 per night; 888-926-4430).

You likely won't just happen upon the Lochsa, located as it is about 120 miles southwest of Missoula and roughly 100 miles east of Lewiston, Idaho. Nevertheless, each year more and more whitewater devotees make the pilgrimage—looking for their own private Idaho.

Lewis & Clark Trail Adventures offers one-day trips ($90–$120 per person; 800-366-6246; River Odysseys West (ROW) leads one- to three-day trips ($90–$455 per person; 800-451-6034; Three Rivers Rafting has trips for $92–$103 per person per day (888-926-4430; Holiday Expeditions runs one- and two-day trips ($110–$320 per person (800-624-6323;—Mike Harrelson

The Forks of the Kern, California
Class IV–V+

Considering the river's unrelenting Class V swells and massive volume of water, rafters usually expect to take an involuntary swim at some point during a springtime run down California's North Fork of the Kern. Surprisingly, that's not the case. According to Don Moomaw, California operations manager for Outdoor Adventures, it's because the guides are among the world's finest. "Only the best run the North Fork," he states. "Come springtime, whether they're in Nepal, South America, or Africa, they all head back to California for the Kern."

For good reason. The 22-mile stretch of Class V Forks that starts in the Sierra's Golden Trout Wilderness and ends just north of Kernville, within Sequoia National Forest, is fed by the icy snowmelt off 14,494-foot Mount Whitney. Rafters have to hike 2.5 miles just to get to the put-in. The hike allows time to enjoy the area's 150-year-old sequoias and naked granite monoliths, but once rafts hit the river, the only scenery is foamy face shots. The serious heart-in-throat moments come midrun at the back-to-back Class V Vortex/Gauntlet doubleheader: a ten-foot slide followed by unscoutable drops that roil on for a seeming eternity.

The best time to run the Forks of the Kern is from early May to late June. Outdoor Adventures (800-323-4234) offers three-day trips for $658 per person. Rafters must pass a mandatory swim test, and private boaters must apply for a permit through the Sequoia National Forest's Cannell Meadow Ranger District (760-376-3781). The application fee costs $2 and is due April 15. —Stephanie Gregory

Rio Chama, New Mexico
Class II–III

Ask Libby O'Shea, marketing director of Far Flung Adventures, what's so special about rafting the Wild and Scenic Chama River, and you'll get an abbreviated lesson in New Mexican geologic history. "Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic," she ticks off, "you're rafting through five or six different layers of rock ranging from 144 to 245 million years old." More impressive, however, are the rock's Crayola hues—ranging from bloodred to bruised purple to burnt orange. Georgia O'Keeffe couldn't tear herself away.

The 31-mile raftable section of the Chama River begins 65 miles northwest of Santa Fe as a lazy float on Class II riffles. The terrain is classic alpine, featuring Douglas fir trees, with the 3,000-foot Brazos Cliffs looming to the north. A few miles downriver, the wide-open space narrows between 1,000-foot sandstone cliffs until all that's left is rock and royal-blue sky. Springtime on the Chama is well-suited to first-timers, families, or mellow souls; you can take advantage of less-than-blistering days and cool nights to scan for wild turkeys or baby geese along the shoreline, enjoy the fresh blossoms of Apache plume at river's edge, or take the 30-minute hike up Navajo Peak. The last ten miles between Christ in the Desert Monastery and the takeout above Abiquiú Reservoir get lively, with the class III Gauging Station and Skull Bridge rapids.

May 1 to June 5 is prime Chama season. Far Flung Adventures (800-359-2627) offers one- to three-day trips for $95 to $345 per person. Private boaters must request a permit application from the Taos BLM Field Office (505-758-8851) and return it with a $6 fee by January 31 to be considered for the February lottery. Lottery winners must pay an additional $5 per person fee as well as the $3 per night parking fee at privately owned El Vado Ranch (505-588-7354). —S. G.

Chama river outfitters
Dvorak Expeditions— 800-824-3795
Kokopelli Rafting Adventures— 800-879-9035
Los Rios River Runners— 800-544-1181

Cheat River, West Virginia
Class III–V

Unlike most rivers, north-central West Virginia's Cheat doesn't require a lasting commitment once you're underway. At the first Class IV rapid, Decision, those who feel overwhelmed can bail before the river gets really gnarly. And it does, especially in spring, when Appalachian snowmelt pumps up the largest free-flowing watershed east of the Mississippi.

Though the Cheat trip is just 13 miles, easily managed in one day, rafters roll through more than 40 bouldery, technical rapids that rage through the steep walls of Cheat River Canyon between the put-in near Albright and the takeout at Jenkinsburg, an uninhabited logging settlement. Big Nasty, a particularly horrifying Class V four miles into the trip, flips half the boats that attempt it. The molar-jarring ride lasts to the bitter end, a three-tiered Class V rapid filled with hydraulics, chutes, and a handful of VW Bug–sized bouldersfor good measure.

Cheat River flows tend to be unpredictable. To hedge your bets, plan a trip during mid-April to mid-May. Cheat River Outfitters (call 888-997-4837) in Albright offers one-day trips for $62–$80 per person. Permits are not required for private boaters. For more information call 800-225-5982. —S. G.

Cheat river outfitters
Laurel Highlands River Tours— 800-4RAFTIN Owyhee, OR
Hughes River Expeditions— 800-262-1882

Owyhee River, Oregon
Class II–IV

Spreading from the southwest corner of Idaho into portions of Nevada and Oregon, the Owyhee Canyonlands are twice the size of Yellowstoneand just as appealing in a high-desert, Big West sort of way. Conservationists have been trying for years to garner the area official recognition, but with no luck.

The Lower Owyhee yields an approachable run down southeast Oregon's 63-mile stretch, which is characterized by straightforward pool-and-drop rapids and big sagebrush flats perfect for camping. Located on the Pacific Flyway, the Owyhee attracts endless varieties of avian wildlife—golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, teals, warblers, and ibises, to name a few. And in spring, the river's banks are likely to be bursting with desert primroses, mariposa lilies, Indian paintbrush, and juniper and hackberry trees.

The five- to six-day trip starts outside the town of Rome in a broad valley with wide views of the Steens Mountains to the west and passes through Lambert Rock, a volcanic-ash formation that stretches four miles along the river. Rafters can spend a layover day near here hiking to the mysterious petroglyphs and scrambling up to Bogus Falls. Eventually the canyon closes in on the river, leaving you alone with the shadowy echoes off the 1,000-foot rhyolite walls.

The best time to raft the Owyhee is the third week of April through the beginning of June. ROW (800-451-6034) offers five- and six-day trips for $1,070 to $1,280 per person. Private boaters can self-register at the put-in. Call the BLM office in Vale, Oregon (541-473-3144), or check out —S. G.

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