Owyhee… rowing in the canyon

The Owyhee Canyonland in southeastern Oregon is an area filled with spectacular natural wonders that very few people have seen. It is raw and rugged and remote. And while it’s not a National Park… yet, one day it might be.  I had a chance to run it between my “other” National Park adventures.


Canyon Walls so high…..

In a typical year, the Owyhee River that flows through the “Grand Canyon of Oregon” is only “runnable” for a couple of months each year when the river level is high enough. Thanks to above average snow in the Sierra’s this winter, that window opened briefly this spring creating an opportunity that only comes along every few years. Any chance to run my wooden boat in such a wild and beautiful place is worth a little “creative scheduling” and I dropped what I was doing to join my favorite crew of river rats for the trip of a lifetime.


Deeper in the Canyon

The Owyhee is named after three trappers in Donald MacKenzie’s North West fur company that were sent by him to explore the river in 1819 and were never seen again. They were natives of Hawaii which, at that time, was spelled Owyhee and the spelling and pronunciation stuck. No one knew for certain what happened to them.

Our first night on the river was several degree’s below freezing and a thick layer of frost covered everything when we woke. It warmed up each night we were in the canyon and night-time temps stayed mostly in the lower forty’s.


Room with a view…

As we rowed into the depths of the Owyhee, the light created shadow creatures on the walls of the canyons that appeared even during the middle of the day.  They seemed to be guardians of the gorge. Keepers of the secrets. Protectors of the wild and scenic river.


Here be dragons….

We ate well, and the food always tastes better in remote and beautiful settings.  Entree’s of fresh halibut, prime rib, and chicken were complimented by sides of baked potatoes, rice pilaf, fresh salad, and finished off with cheesecake and dutch oven cobbler.

Prime Rib in a Dutch Oven by Aaron Helfrich

Prime Rib in a Dutch Oven by Aaron Helfrich.


Fresh Halibut on a bed of coals

Halibut on a bed of coals… by Jeremy Starr

Chicken Linguini - colorful and tasty

Chicken Linguini – colorful and tasty

River running in the Owyhee was filled with challenges as the rocks and boulders formed several technical rapids that we ran with respect – always watching out for each other.  All told – we stuck two rafts on rocks that had to be roped off, flipped one raft completely over, and had one thrill ride in a wooden boat that got turned around in a Class IV and had to finish the rapid “backwards” (… which I prefer to remember as a “demonstration” for my team-mates of the “old school” style of river running when “backwards” was the preferred method of rowing).  ((No-one around the campfire bought that explanation either…. DOH))


Aaron running it right in his new wood boat.

There weren’t a lot of fishing opportunities, but we had an “angler” in the group and Aaron caught several nice smallmouth bass on the fly.

Casting in the Canyon

Casting in the Canyon… a fine fisherman.

While this trip was filled with great scenery, fantastic food, and thrilling rapids – I will remember the fellowship around the campfire as a particular highlight of this trip on the Owyhee.

Fellowship around the circle

Fellowship of the Fire


Evening Meal – friends around the fire.


Around the campfire… a look.

If you want to go there… I recommend the section of river from Rome down to Birch Creek at a river level above 1,000 CFS.  Make sure you are with an experienced crew of rowers that can handle technical rapids and river rescues.  If you want to hire professional guides to take you through this incredible canyon – contact the  helfrich group….they are quite simply the best and you will have an unforgettable experience.



Olympic National Park

Lake Quinault Lodge

Lake Quinault Lodge

Olympic National Park has one of the coziest Lodges you will ever see.  The Lake Quinault Lodge was built in 1926 at the Olympic National Park and sits on a slightly elevated perch overlooking a stately green lawn that runs down to the crystal water of Lake Quinault. If this was any other “woodenboat adventure”, I would pull in to the parking lot, walk the grounds, admire the view, take some pictures, maybe have a sandwich in the lodge, and then go find a spot by the river for my tent and cot. On this National Park adventure, however, I checked out the Lodge, and then I “checked in”…. that’s right – I signed my name, gave them my credit card, and got a key to a room with a roof, indoor plumbing, and a soft bed with clean sheets. It was elegant really and I felt very out-of-place… like they must have given me the key to the wrong room.


Since most of the camping area’s in Olympic are closed during the wet winter months, I decided early in the planning stages that it might be a good time to make an exception to my camping rule and stay at the Lodge… or maybe I was just “rationalizing”.  Staying indoors kinda violates our “code of the river rats” and I am prepared to suffer the campfire ribbing on our next big trip where I will surely be reminded “there is no such thing as bad weather….. just bad gear and bad planning”…  to which,  I will counter with “I had great gear, put together a great plan, and stayed at a historic and very dry Park Lodge”. I will be heckled with great enthusiasm.


Before I got to the lodge in the late afternoon, I had to drive the two lane highway in a wicked rainstorm and high winds which made for slow going in my Toyota FJ40. Pulling a wood drift boat didn’t make it any easier as it fish-tailed in the grooves of the road, swayed with every gust of wind and slowed me down that much more.  My fishing companions got tired of waiting for the rain to stop and for me to arrive so they went upriver from the Lodge for an afternoon float a few hours before I arrived. The parking lot was almost empty at the Quinault Lodge when I pulled in and the intensity of the rain picked up. Joining me on this National Park adventure were Rick and Rich LeBlanc from the Portland area – father-son.  Rick and I are old friends and long time fishing companions.  Our mutual obsession with chasing steelhead on flies led us to each other & many fine adventures.  I was looking forward to seeing if Rich had the same passion for fishing as his dad.


Rick & Rich LeBlanc

I caught up with them after their fishless afternoon and both were as soaked as two fishermen can be. We agreed to dry off and meet for dinner in half an hour. Just as they went to their rooms the entire Lodge went “dark”.  No power – anywhere. A huge tree was the victim of high winds and knocked out power lines on the way to the ground. I talked to the site manager who told me they once lost power for two weeks – “no telling how long it will take to repair the lines”. I made my way to my smartly appointed room in the “west wing” and opened the door. The only light in the room was coming from the gas fireplace, giving the room a warm glow. If you used your imagination and could look past the king bed, throw pillows, indoor toilet and carpet – it sort of resembled a campfire scene – which inspired me to set up my Therm-a-Rest cot and Pendleton bedroll next to the fire in case power wasn’t restored til morning. My friends will call it “glamping” and I will be heckled all the more.


Glamping in the Lodge

I walked from my dark outbuilding to the “lit up” lodge where the backup generator provided power and met the boys for dinner.


Night in the Lodge

Over dinner I heard details of their afternoon and it gave me “chills”.  The heavy rains of winter and the high winds of the past two days had caused many large and small trees to go crashing into the river creating a mine field of log jams and “strainers”. A strainer is a pile of downed trees that collects on river bends, bridge pilings, shallow places in the river & creates a treacherous obstacle for boaters. The river still flows “through” a strainer and drags everything in the current with it – popping rubber rafts, flipping drift boats, sinking kayaks, knocking fishermen from their boats. Late in the afternoon they had tangled with one and it almost brought their boat down.  The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I remembered again the river tragedy I can’t forget.



His name was Warren Moran and the first time I met him was on the Deschutes River in central Oregon. I was in the boat of my good friend Rick Allen who was rowing and in the late, mid, early afternoon, I popped the cork on a 12 year bottle of Macallan and took a deep, satisfying pull. Out of nowhere, Warren, with his big Texas grin came rowing up beside us and said he detected the presence of scotch on the river….  after complimenting his sense of smell and his ability to row half a mile in 45 seconds, I handed him the bottle and we became instant river friends – bound by fish, flies, and scotch. Just a few years later, Warren was out on the McKenzie River on a spring float with two friends in his drift boat. They were approaching a “strainer” at a sharp turn in the river, got a bit too close to danger and were pulled into the middle of the log jam. The branches stopped their forward progress but the river kept pushing the boat, forcing one side up while the other side dipped. Water came pouring over the compromised side and the boat flipped instantly. The river kept pushing and even though the boat wouldn’t fit through the tangled broken limbs, the river continued to push like a pile driver and took all three fishermen with it – trapping them under the trees and under the water. Warren never made it out.  The other two fishing friends washed out several hundred yards downriver – alive but not without serious injuries. Early the next morning a couple of us went upriver to retrieve the boat and Warren’s things. Strainers make me nervous, and anxious and wary.

Great Room - Lake Quinault Lodge

Great Room

After our meal in the rustic Roosevelt Dining Room, I made my way from the well-lit Great Room of the Lodge to the still darkened wing where I was staying. The fire in  my room burned warm and I was content in my Pendleton blanket and bedroll. Sometime during the night the electricity was restored but I slept through it.

Frosty Dawn

Lake Quinault Lodge


There was frost on the roof of the Lodge early the next morning and we drove upriver several miles higher than the LeBlancs had launched the day before.  When the rainless dawn finally exposed the river, I could see very well what my companions had faced the day before and a familiar ache retuned to my stomach.  There were downed trees everywhere in the river – many with their bows still green and “alive”.  For the first mile it was a gauntlet and I was more concerned about rowing than fishing. Finally, the river opened up a bit and the main channel became more defined. Even so – every time we approached a “strainer”, I was edgy and focused and all business.


When I could look past the treacherous obstacles of the river I saw such beauty on the Upper Quinault, I will never forget it.  Sharp steep dark green mountains with wispy clouds seemed more like smoke from a chimney than any clouds I had ever seen.  There were waterfalls around every turn – some were mere trickles and others “gushed” from the mountain sides. We saw elk and eagle and mink and river otters – all signs of a healthy vibrant river wilderness.  The forest ferns provided even more shades of green to the landscape and it was breathtaking.

Rich the son with Steelhead

Rich LeBlanc

Rich the son managed to catch two steelhead and Rick and I both missed a few chances – it was more activity than we expected considering the heavy rain and the condition of the river.  We had a great day, stayed relatively dry, enjoyed fishing together, and only had a few brushes with log jams on the river. Burgers and beer in the Roosevelt Room that night tasted good and we enjoyed some time by the walk-in fireplace after dinner. Before I went to my room, I looked closely at the vintage pictures around the Great Room.  Black and white photo’s of Native American Indians of the area,  lumber jacks, construction workers, and early park visitors told a visual story about the history. A lodge like Quinault, still so similar to what it was like on the day it opened, makes it possible to feel a very real connection to these people in the photographs without even knowing their names. In this rustic setting, it’s possible to feel their spirit… of adventure, of fishing, boating, hiking, and exploring this beautiful, unique rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula.

The next day we fished outside the park on the Wynoochie River – or the “Nootch” as the locals call it. Since it was Super Bowl Sunday there was a lot of activity on the river early but it thinned out by noon and we mostly had the river to ourselves.  Like the river conditions the day before, downed trees and log jams kept us on our toes and on our oars. After a slow morning we had an exciting couple of hours of steelhead activity.  Rick started it off when he was nymping an egg pattern right below a riffle.  Suddenly his indicator went down and didn’t come back.  He set the hook strong and could immediately tell it was a heavy fish.  With a solid hook-set, the fish bolted straight downriver taking most of the line and backing in Rick’s reel.


Rick LeBlanc

After 4 or 5 good strong runs, Rick was finally able to get him close enough to the boat and turn his head for Rich to slip the net under him.  It was in the neighborhood of twenty pounds – one of the largest steelhead we had ever taken out of these waters.

Big Steelhead

Big Steelhead

We continued to fish and while I had one on and lost it, Rich caught a couple more to add to a memorable day on the river.

Father Son



Olympic National Park had been on my list of parks to visit for a long time and it completely exceeded my expectations. Spending a couple of days on the river with  great friends was a bonus and before we went our separate ways we bounced a few ideas around for future trips.

Lake Quinault LodgeWhat I didn’t expect to find on this trip to Olympic was the memory of Warren Moran. Perhaps it was the high number of “strainers” we had to thread our way around or maybe it was the whiskey we had at night in the lodge. Whatever triggered it, I was glad and melancholy at the same time remembering his big Texas smile and warm greeting on the river and at Trout Unlimited meetings. His memory reminded me to be cautious and skillful when rowing around strainers and to really appreciate the friends I was with on the river… and  I’m pretty sure he would’ve had a good laugh at my expense on sleeping indoors.


I would highly recommend a visit to this park or any of our National Parks in the off-season. Lodging is a great option to camping – particularly in the weather of winter. Find Your ParkPatagoniaTherm-a-RestNational Park ServicePendleton

By Greg Hatten







Crater Lake National Park & the Rogue River



Azure Blue of Crater Lake

Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States, and its water is the darkest azure blue I have ever seen anywhere. It’s worth the trip to this National Park in south central Oregon just to see this shade of blue, but timing is everything. Crater Lake National Park averages over 500 inches of snow per year, and spends eight months out of twelve snowed in.

The backstory behind the lake is as dramatic as the color. Thousands of years ago, a huge volcano blew off its stack in a massive eruption forty times the size of the St. Helens blast. When the molten lava settled and cooled, it formed a perfectly sealed caldera that slowly filled with rain and snow, the only water source at this high altitude. Crater Lake’s water is some of the purest on the planet.

I arrived at the Ranger Station on the North side of the park and was immediately told that putting my little wooden boat in the waters of Crater Lake was strictly prohibited. There is no recreational boating allowed in this clean blue lake. No worries, I had other plans for the boat.

I grabbed a sandwich and spent the day driving around the rim of the lake mesmerized by the blue water from every angle. A few park rangers gave me and my boat a wary eye, except for the one who was blinded by the FJ.  As I drove by him with my window down he called, “Cool Cruiser, man!”


Crater Lake Viewpoint

I spent a cold night camping at 6,000 feet.  When morning came, I packed up the Cruiser and prepared for a river adventure that would be one of the biggest rowing challenges of my life.

Rogue River

The Rogue River gets it’s start in Crater Lake National Park.  It explodes out of Boundary Spring, then sprints down the valley in a race with the Umpqua River to reach the Pacific Ocean. I hiked the trail up the river toward the headwaters where it’s so narrow you can jump from one side to the other.


Rogue River

Even at this early stage in it’s life cycle, the Rogue shows signs of the rough & tumble personality that makes it famous. Cold water rushes around big boulders, tumbles over waterfalls, churns between canyon walls causing white water chaos that’s loud and breath-taking and exhilarating particularly if you have plans to put a boat on it somewhere downriver. The Rogue was one of the original eight rivers to be designated “Wild & Scenic” in 1968 and is one of the most treacherous rivers in the Pacific Northwest.


Blossom Bar on the Rogue River

It’s where you’ll find me and my trusted river companions every Fall, running technical rapids, fly fishing, cooking and camping in a “leave no trace” section that is 4 days and nights of the most intense kind of river experience possible in the west.

This year would be different.

Like every other river in the west, the Rogue has been affected by the drought. Low water put it on the verge of ‘un-runnable’ for our trip, planned to launch on October 4th. “At some level – it just becomes too rocky and dangerous” said our trip leader Scott Vollstedt. We watched the river charts and hoped that the level would magically rise from ‘uncomfortably low’ to ‘comfortably passable.’ We needed rain and there was none in the forecast. Hoping for relief, we talked to the BLM to see if they had plans for any kind of water release from the reservoir above the dam, but there was nothing on the books.

I talked to Debbie Thomason, the ‘Rogue River Queen’ who has owned the Galice Lodge for over thirty years. The Lodge serves as the launch pad and nerve center for most of the traffic on the wild and scenic section of the Rogue. The river was lower than she’d ever seen it. She’d stopped renting rafting equipment for the year because it was getting ‘torn up’ by the harsh conditions.

A few days before we were set to launch, a drift boat wrecked at the most narrow passage of the river in Mule Creek Canyon and the pictures that quickly circulated on social media were chilling. The river was closed by obstruction. All signs were pointing to a no-go…


Closed by Obstruction

…but not for long. It took the current less than a day to twist the frame and break the back of the metal boat, sending it to the bottom of the river. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would do to my little wooden boat in that spot if I made the slightest mistake. That was the bad news. The good news? The passage was clear.

It was time to go.


Graves Creek boat launch

At Graves ‘put-in’ (just down from Galice Lodge) we readied our craft, loaded our gear and joked nervously about the low river conditions and the high degree of difficulty. From the very first rapid we knew the river was sharper. Rocks we’d never seen before were everywhere. The river notes we all had in our playbooks and our heads were virtually useless at this level that none of us had ever experienced.

Lining our boats around the impassable Class VI Rainie Falls was problematic in the channel called “Fish Ladder”. With great difficulty we pushed, pulled, rocked and lowered our boats through the narrow, shallow, rocky chute one at a time. I held on tight to the 100′ rope and guided my unmanned wooden boat through the series of sharp drops. It ran the gauntlet unscathed until the last narrow passage where a jagged rock dug a 3′ groove in the side. No worries – mostly just a surface wound.


“Fish Ladder”

A few miles downriver, after the technical Class IV rapid called Tyee, we pulled into one of our favorite campsites on river right to rest our arms and our heads… and to cook up some amazing river food. The weather was warm enough that none of us set up a tent – preferring the open air, a bedroll and a Pendleton blanket under the stars.


On the beach below Tyee Rapid

From our campsite, we could hear the class III Wildcat Rapid roaring below us. I thought about the dangers of Alligator Rock in the middle of the rapid several times before falling asleep beside my boat. The next morning we ran Wildcat without incident. The rest of the day was filled with one technical rapid after another, most of them running more difficult than their rating because of the low water. Slim Pickins, a formation downriver only a couple of miles, caused problems for the group in front of us, stranding one raft on the rocks and flipping another upside down ejecting passengers and gear into the fast moving water.


Disaster in Slim Pickins

Based on the results of the runs before us on the left side of the Big Rock, everyone in our group chose the alternative route to the right which has an opening only a little wider than our boats. Imagine trying to thread a needle while riding a horse – that’s the right chute at Slim Pickins.


Threading the needle

Despite the high degree of difficulty, everyone in our group flew through the narrow opening on the right at Slim Pickins.

Another great spot to camp on the Rogue is “Battle Bar” – named for a brutal fight between the US Cavalry on one side of the river and the Takelma/Rogue Indians on the other in 1856. The fishing is usually good in this spot and the view is spectacular. We camp on the Rogue side of the river.


Under the stars at Battle Bar

I set up my Therm-a-rest cot on the bluff overlooking our camp. With most other difficult rapids on the Rogue, I rehearse the moves in my head a hundred times the night before we run them. Not Mule Creek. Of all the rapids on the Rogue, Mule Creek Canyon is the one I worry about the most. When it’s run right, it’s a fluid, improvised river dance in tight quarters requiring quick moves and steady nerves. The ‘line’ is constantly shifting, the walls of the canyon are steep and slick (a bad thing if you get separated from your boat), the water moves fast, and the eddies are powerful and pulsating. The passage is narrow, only 12 to 14 feet in some points. For much of the ride you can touch opposite walls by fully extending both oars (only total 18′ tip-to-tip). As the river drops, the canyon narrows and the slot gets even tighter. It feels like a bobsled chute.

I fell asleep thinking about the narrow spot where the metal drift boat sunk just a few days before. When I woke, the important clatter of pots and pans meant coffee was ready, breakfast was “on” and it was time to get up. I stretched tired muscles and enjoyed the view of our colorful fleet of boats and the bustle of early morning preparations as everyone started getting ready to move out. I was ready to get going, even though Mule Creek Canyon was on the agenda for this day.


Colorful boats at Battle Bar

I’m writing this, so you know I made it. Here’s a one minute clip of my run through Mule Creek. The sickening sound of wood-on-wall is actually my Sawyer oar keeping my boat off the rocks.

Immediately following Mule Creek is the more well-known Class IV called Blossom Bar. More river incidents occur in Blossom Bar than most any other rapid in the Pacific Northwest, many with life-changing consequences. As an oarsman, if you make a mistake in this rapid you will pay a price: a damaged boat, lost equipment, personal injury or worse. It’s reputation is well-deserved. At this low water level much of it is ‘blind’ – meaning the boulders and rocks are so exposed that they literally block your view of what’s around the next sharp corner.

Many years ago I ran this rapid for the first time and I felt physically sick to my stomach on the scout overlooking the rapid and my legs were so weak I took a knee. It has turned into one of my favorites, mostly because the wood boat I row is so nimble and responsive. It was built to run rapids like this. And while I know the choreography of this rapid by heart, I still have butterflies every time I run it.  There were a few ‘low water surprises’, but our entire group did great in Blossom Bar.


Blossom Bar

After successfully running the last of the Class IV’s we tend to be more easygoing, chatty, and pleasant. We also start to fish more. As a result we ate fish the next night and every meal thereafter: fish appetizers, fish taco’s, fish and eggs, fish kabobs……


Fresh steelhead appetizers

The stress of river running does not end after Mule Creek & Blossom – not at this level. Low water conditions had us at the top of our game all the way to the take-out. All told, we grounded a boat or two, got some scrapes, broke one oar and lost another one along with some fishing gear, but everyone made it to Foster Bar in one piece. All boats floating – nobody hurt!

That’s important to me, as my Rogue running mates are a fantastic crew and close friends. One night around the fire we tried to figure out exactly how it was that we all came together to be this group. It was an interesting series of connect-the-dots. One thing is certain, the Rogue River brought us together and keeps us together. I’ve never been with better oarsmen or better people than these guys.

Picture by Scott Vollstedt

Last night on the river.

I don’t know if we will ever see the Rogue this low again, but if it’s early October, I know I’ll be with this crew running this river regardless of the level. I can’t wait.

I urge you to experience the wildness of the Rogue for yourself. You won’t be disappointed. When you have a chance, visit Crater Lake National Park. You have to see that amazing blue at least once in your life.


Photo contributions by Scott Vollstedt – “thanks Scotty”.








Mount Rainier National Park


Sunrise Point – Highest point in the park to reach by vehicle.

Mount Rainier is a 14,400 foot active volcano with one of the most spectacular views you will ever see. It’s also the most glaciated peak in the lower 48 states of the U.S., which means a steady supply of melting ice that spawns six major rivers flowing cold and fast out of the park. It’s a towering landmark that stands as a sentinel overlooking the major cities of Seattle and Tacoma, an icon of the Pacific Northwest recognized by anyone familiar with the area.

Mount Rainier is the focal point of this National Park, established in 1899 as the 5th National Park in the system. I entered via the Stevens Canyon entrance on the southeast side through a haze of wild fires that were lighting up the forests in eastern Washington and smoking up the entire region.


Stevens Canyon entrance to Mount Rainier National Park

This park is special to me. I’ve admired it from a distance and experienced it up close.  I’ve hiked the trails, skied the slopes, climbed the mountain, slept up at cold Camp Muir, and enjoyed the cozy warmth of Paradise Lodge.  As familiar as I am with Rainier, I’ve never explored the waterways. Since it’s impossible to put a handcrafted wood drift boat into the trickling streams of the park in the early stages of their life cycles, I did my initial exploring by boot instead of by boat.


Under the stars next to White River in the Park.

I picked the Cowlitz for my river experience. It’s the largest river of the six and named for the Native American Indian tribe that still calls this area “home.” I hiked up the path to the glacier that gives it life and then, just outside the park boundary, I fished it – with a favorite fly-fishing friend on his favorite stretch of that river.


Early morning start on the Cowlitz River.

There was a time when Rick LeBlanc and I chased steelhead all over the Pacific Northwest – once even riding a historic old canyon train in the very Northeast corner of Oregon to catch wild winter steelhead as we struggled to keep the eyes of our fly rods from icing shut. Rick is a fisherman’s fisherman. Though it had been years since we were together on a river we wasted no time in picking up exactly where we left off – a brothers’ bond of rivers, fish, flimsy rods and fancy flies. It was great to reconnect.


Lining the fly rods for steelhead.

His signature cigars that marked our scent and announced our presence on the river. Our breath still hung in the early morning cool air when he hooked up with the first steelhead of the day in the second pool we fished.


“Fish on…”

He made it look easy but the fish we pursued are at the high end of the “elusive” scale. Known as the “fish of a thousand casts” to hardcore steelheaders, these fish are fussy phantoms of the Pacific Northwest and require devotion, attention to detail, and unbelievable patience from every fly fisherman that picks this fish to chase.


Great start to the day – fish-to-net in the second pool we fished.

I tied on one of my favorite summer steelhead flies to swing through the next pool.  It had a 15’ drop-off ledge and Rick advised caution as I left the boat to work the water. I wondered aloud whether my favorite steelhead fly from another river would entice a fish from a completely different fishery. I didn’t wait long for the answer.


It’s all about the details – the line, the leader, the knots, the flies, the presentation…..

On the very first cast, I put a downstream mend in the line. Before the D loop in the current could take effect, one of largest steelhead I’ve ever seen came charging out of the shadows of the ledge and grabbed my fly right off the surface in a swirling boil that gave me chills and bent my rod to the water.


“Fish on…..”

I regained my composure quickly, as my reel screamed and fly line shot through the eyes of my rod in the first of several down river runs. The drag finally slowed the steelhead enough for me to start recovering some backing in my line. We started a 20 minute tug of war that almost ended prematurely when I slipped on the ledge with a backward misstep sending my feet in the air and my butt to the hard bottom of the underwater ledge. Most of my body went under – only one arm and my head remained dry as I caught my fall with one hand while keeping my rod hand high above the surface still fighting the fish. I’d like to think it was a scene out of “A River Runs Through It” but Rick described it as more like America’s Funniest Home Videos. Once I got back to my feet and recovered my balance, I resumed the battle, grabbed the net and finally brought in the fish.


“Net full o fish…..”

Naps are common after early-morning steelheading. I tried out a new hammock from Therm-a-Rest back at Cowlitz Falls Campground before dinner.


Napping at Cowlitz Falls Camp.


River food…

My favorite meal on the river…steelhead on cedar planks, roasted potatoes, corn on the cob, and grilled asparagus.


Fire pits and close supervision were required for any campfires in the park.

Only had one campfire on the entire trip – burn bans on open fires were in effect for most of the entire Pacific Northwest.


Third cup.

Another early morning, another cup of coffee, and we were ready to roll.


Fancy Flies

Our second day of fishing for steelhead produced a couple of nice take-downs and a fish or two “on the line” – but we couldn’t get a fish to the net or to the boat despite my best attempts with a fluffy pink fly. Temps reached 90 by late morning on one of the hottest and sunnniest days of the year on the Cowlitz. So we fished til early afternoon, called it a day and parted ways.


Headed to “Sunrise”

At 4 the next morning I drove to the top of Sunrise Peak, the highest point in the park you can reach by vehicle, and watched the first light of the day reflect off the snowy peak of Mount Rainier.


Mount Rainier at Sunrise


Leaving Mount Rainier National Park

Photo contributions by fellow fly fisherman….   Seth Patterson.

Find your next park at…. findyourpark.com

Find Pendleton National Park Blankets and Coffee Mugs at… Pendleton Wool National Park Collection

Find Therm-a-rest Cots and Hammocks at…. Therm-a-rest

Find Patagonia Gear at…. Patagonia

Yellowstone National Park


Yellowstone Lake

On this WoodenBoat adventure… it was late May and the lakes in Yellowstone National Park were free of ice earlier this year than anyone could remember. Usually on Memorial Day weekend, this park is just waking up from its winter hibernation – the snow is patchy in places, the campgrounds are just starting to open, and the staff and crew coming from around the country to work for the summer are learning the answers to hundreds of questions they will be asked by the visiting tourists from around the world. The park was green, the wildlife was stirring and except for the sparse number of tourists, it seemed like it was midseason.

Lake Yellowstone Hotel was originally built in 1891 and named for the beautiful lake it overlooks. It has undergone a number of additions and renovations over the years, bringing the accommodations up-to-date while leaving a nostalgic feel to the rooms and cabins. The remake of the Sun Room off the Piano Lounge provides a stunning view of the Lake and is a hub of visitor activity at all hours.


What immediately caught my eye at the hotel was a vintage 1936 bus that is still in use and parked under the portico off the lobby. A total of twenty-seven Model 706 buses were used in Yellowstone – the largest number of National Park Buses operating anywhere. Buses of this style were also used in Yosemite and Glacier National Parks. This particular vehicle was used in the park until at least 1958 (the date of the Montana registration and “last service” stickers).


I set up camp on a bluff above the Madison River far away from tourist buses and RV’s.

Lewis Lake is just around the corner from Yellowstone Lake and is in the south park area just a few miles down from Shoshone Lake. I rowed my WoodenBoat around the lake and fished the edges for Lake Trout with a five weight fly rod and a variety of my most productive flies. The water was ice cold and so were the fish… too cold to take a fly evidently. When the afternoon wind picked up, the waves got choppy. White-caps drove me off the lake and to the rivers… (these lakes are not a good place for any boat without a motor when the wind picks up).


Driving the park roads to reach the Fire Hole River, I had a number of buffalo encounters – beside the road, crossing the road, just standing on the roads. There is a Park Rule that requires visitors to stay at least 25 yards away from the Bison – no problem. Evidently not everyone got the message as I spotted a number of tourists with camera phones and IPads as close as 10 feet away. There were two reported attacks on tourists while I was in the park – both were the result of the “proximity rule” being broken. Don’t blame the bison.


The fishing was good on the Fire Hole and I kept a nice Brown Trout for dinner, chopped up a potato & onion, dusted the morel mushrooms I’d found on the Snake River in flour and deep fried them in peanut oil, lightly seasoned the fish with fresh squeezed lemon and sealed it in foil …



IMG_0793After-dinner reading material was about the explorers and mountain men who first saw this Wyoming territory in the early 1800’s – well before it was a park. Men who’s names are remembered by the features in and around the park – John Colter, Jedidiah Smith, Jim Bridger, and Daniel Potts to name a few.


It rained almost every night I was in Yellowstone Park – including the last one. I was just glad it wasn’t snow. It was warm and dry in my canvas tent.

IMG_0801On my way out of Yellowstone National Park, I visited a number of the classic sites including Yellowstone Falls, Old Faithful Geyser, and the steaming hot springs that seem to be around every turn in the road.  Memorable woodenboat adventure for sure.


Upper Yellowstone Falls

If you go there… “Boating is allowed on most of Yellowstone Lake and on Lewis Lake. Only non-motorized boating is allowed on most other lakes. Only one river is open to non-motorized boating: the Lewis River channel between Lewis and Shoshone lakes. Permits are required for all boats and float tubes. Boaters must have a Coast Guard approved wearable flotation device for each person. All boat permits (motorized & non-motorized) can be purchased at the South Entrance, Grant Village Backcountry Office, and Bridge Bay Ranger Station. Float tube only permits are available at the Mammoth, Canyon and Old Faithful backcountry offices, Northeast Entrance, and Bechler Ranger Station.”

“All boats must be inspected by NPS rangers for Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) when obtaining a permit. As a precaution, any type watercraft suspected of harboring AIS will be subject to a non-chemical decontamination treatment. The use of jet skis, personal watercraft, airboats, submersibles, and similar vessels is prohibited in Yellowstone National Park.”

Yellowstone was our first National Park – signed into law by President Ulysses Grant in 1872 and is located in the Northwest corner of Wyoming.



Grand Teton National Park – Lakes


Nestled at the base of the Grand Tetons is Jenny Lake – one of the prettiest Glacial Lakes you’ll ever see. It’s fed by cold clear water from a little inlet called “String Lake” and if you hike around Jenny to the far side, you can see it. I rowed my woodenboat across the lake on a windless morning and stuck the nose of the boat so close to the falling water it splashed up on the boat and rolled down the fly deck. Towering above the lake are the tallest peaks in the Teton Range called the “Cathedral Group” of spires.


It was Memorial Day weekend,  and in the Jackson Hole area, that also means an annual celebration of wood drift boats. Every year, wood drift boats and owners from all over the Pacific Northwest gather in a tall stand of trees close to the Snake River near Wilson, WY to talk about the history, the performance, and the uniqueness of these wood boats that are such an icon of river running in this territory.



Beyond the love of the boats, we are brought together every year by A.J. DeRosa – who looks like he just walked out of the pages of an Ernest Hemingway novel. He is weathered, worn, and unshaven – always wearing an old Pendleton wool shirt and the rattiest hat in camp… he’s a throw-back and loves the old ways of the west. Every year after showing our boats in the stand of trees, we float a section of the Snake River down to AJ’s place for a cook-out. He provides these types of trips for Wyoming visitors that want to experience an authentic river trip in a wooden boat and eat a great meal beside the Snake with an awesome view of the Teton’s in the horizon.  It’s quite something, AJ’s camp… an incredible outdoor experience.


AJ’s Wooden Boat Adventures & Sleigh Rides operates just outside Grand Teton National Park on the Snake River.


If you go there… “Motorboats are allowed only on Jackson and Jenny Lakes. Jenny Lake has a 10-hp limit. Hand-propelled craft are allowed on most lakes within the park. Sailing, windsurfing, and water skiing allowed on Jackson Lake only. All craft require permits and yearly registration at park visitor centers. Jenny Lake has reasonable temperatures in July and August. There are no lifeguards. Swimming in the Snake River is not advised. Only experienced floaters should launch on the Snake river.”

Grand Teton National Park was established in 1929 and is located in the Northwest corner of Wyoming.



Grand Teton National Park – Rivers


In 1942 Ansel Adams took this picture of the Snake River and the Teton Mountains from an overlook in the Grand Teton National Park. It would become one of his most famous and best-loved images – which is saying A LOT considering his incredible body of work capturing thousands of images in our National Parks.


Floating this section of the Snake in my woodenboat would be kinda like floating through history and in my head I could visualize my little boat actually “in” the Ansel Adams image. I couldn’t wait to round this graceful turn in the river, hear the water drip from my oar blades between strokes and then suddenly see the peaks of the Grand Tetons looming straight ahead and across my bow as I made the gentle turn. Before I eased my boat into the Snake River at Deadman’s Launch less than a mile upriver from that beautiful bend in the river, I went through my safety checklist over and over and began to focus on the serious task of rowing unfamiliar water.This would be a solo trip and I while I did lots of research on this stretch of river, I had never personally been on it as a rower or a passenger.

IMG_0614   When boating alone I’m extra cautious – particularly on a stretch of moving water I don’t know and especially with a launch  site named “Deadman.” While I couldn’t find information on how it originally got it’s name, there have been a couple of river tragedies just downstream from that launch in the last ten years. Biggest culprit are big cottonwood trees that fall into the icy swift spring water and block the entire channel – changing river dynamics overnight and creating boat flipping obstacles that even experienced guides have trouble avoiding. I rowed cautiously all morning and picked the widest, most visible channels for my line. At lunch, I pulled the boat to shore on a particularly scenic bend in the river to take a break and stretch. I secured the boat, grabbed my camera and lunch and started walking toward the shade on shore when I looked down and was surprised to see..


a morel mushroom. How perfect is that?? The more I looked the more I found and pretty soon I had a Stetson hatful. It was hard to tear myself away from this stretch of the river and even harder to stay focused on rowing… the only thing that kept me from turning this into a mushroom hunting trip was daylight management on an unfamiliar river.



After lunch, I spent a little time fishing the Snake but the water was bit off-color because of the rain so I didn’t spend much time pursuing trout.


The afternoon was an incredible experience. Peaceful river with beautiful scenery and lots of wildlife. Truly one of the prettiest floats I’ve ever rowed in a woodenboat. I carefully rowed the boat into Moose landing with plenty of daylight left and then pulled it out of the Snake River with my FJ40 like I’d done thousands of times on hundreds of rivers in the Pacific Northwest. This day was particularly memorable.


With the Tetons as a backdrop, I headed for the shelter of my tent just downriver.


If you go there… “Floating the Snake River inside the park is allowed only in hand-propelled boats and rafts; innertubes are prohibited. Only experienced floaters should launch on the river. All craft require permits, inspections, and yearly registration at park visitor centers.”

Grand Teton National Park was established in 1929 and is located in the Northwest corner of Wyoming.


Find it…

We’re packing the Land Cruiser, hitching up the wood boat, and heading to the National Parks to celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. There are 59 National Parks in this country and another 348 National Monuments, Parkways, Military Parks, Roadways, Waterways etc that are protected and managed by the NPS. We’re going to take a deep dive “literally” into a few of our personal favorites and explore the heart of the parks through their waterways.


Wood boats are special and it’s what we’ll be rowing on these adventures. My boat is a McKenzie style open-hull “drift boat” or “dory” and I built it in 2006 out of African Mahogany and Alaskan Yellow Cedar. It’s carried me and my passengers safely though thousands and thousands of miles of beautiful and treacherous rivers and rapids all over the Pacific Northwest. Drift boats are most prevalent in “big-water” rivers where technical rowing is required to run rapids and navigate river obstacles – they are uniquely suited for the challenge.


I prefer rowing wood although there are several water craft options available these days (big bright rubber rafts, stable catarafts, swift kayaks, aluminum drift boats…) – some are more popular, others are more stable, most are lower maintenance, and all are designed to deliver you safely to your destination. With so many options – I row wood because I love the look, I love the feel, and mostly because I love the deep connection with the river I get when I’m rowing a craft I built with my own hands. After so many hours in the shop planing and sanding and shaping the wood to bring this boat to life, I have a close relationship with it and somehow, that transfers to the rivers I run.  It’s that “intimate connection” that I’m hoping to make with each of the National Parks we explore on these adventures in my woodenboat.


In the next 24 months, we’ll be exploring these National Parks – Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Acadia, Glacier, Rainier, Crater Lake, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Deschutes National Forest, John Day Wilderness and these waterways – Deschutes River, John Day River, Snake River, Jenny Lake, Yellowstone Lake, Lewis Lake, Cowlitz River, Rogue River, Colorado River and many many more.

Some of these adventures will involve camping, fly fishing, biking, river running, hiking, and off-roading with many of my favorite river rats running every variety of river craft you can imagine. Sometimes, however, I’ll be running “solo” – just me and the Cruiser and the Boat.  Please come along for the ride and Find Your Park… in a WoodenBoat.

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Deschutes River – Deschutes National Forest

On our way to the National Parks of Yellowstone and the Tetons in Wyoming, we took a little “warm-up” adventure on the Deschutes River in central Oregon. It comes to life below a high lake in the snowy Cascade Range of mountains in the Deschutes National forest in the middle of Oregon. It’s a river with a history – Lewis & Clark encountered it in 1805 and so did the overland “Astorians” that followed a few years later. It was a major obstacle for the travelers of the Oregon Trail in the late 1800’s but it signaled they were getting close to the mighty Columbia River and the end of their long and perilous journey.


The FJ is packed tight for this three week overland adventure – and all the essentials are bundled, rolled, folded, and crammed into the back of the Cruiser til there was just enough clearance to see through the back glass of the ambulance doors.

For this first adventure I am with some of my favorite river runners – a group of guys that came together over the years and are held together by our mutual love and respect for the rivers we run and the art of skillful rowing and competent camping. It’s a rotating group of about twelve and usually seven or eight can make each trip depending on available schedules. Our competition for “river time” used to be mostly work but more and more we are tugged away from river running by our grand-kid activities. We run the Deschutes River in the spring and the Rogue Wild and Scenic in the Fall – they are standing “dates”. In addition to the challenging rapids and incredible beauty of these rivers, it’s the big flies and aggressive trout that attract us to the Deschutes and it’s the steelhead and half-pounders that call us to the Rogue year after year.


As we wait for road workers on the final leg of our overland journey on gravel and dirt  –  I admire the narrow and rustic approach to Trout Creek that feeds into the Deschutes River. The road was such a wash-board in places it shook the frame of my Cruiser and rattled my teeth.

Camp cooking is a HUGE part of what we do on this four day trip. In cook-teams of 3 or 4 guys we each have a specialty and it shows itself on any given night. While we don’t try to “out-do” each other – we kinda do…  Steak night is traditionally our first night on the river and usually hosted by the steak-master – Jayson, followed by a fresh fish night which is always Rick – (the man knows how to cook salmon on a camp fire) and then a camp chili night or a taco night or a campfire pizza night..  so much to eat – so few days on the river.

Bacon Bomb appetizers… crescent roll paddy, piece of cheese, rolled in a ball, wrapped in naked bacon and fried in peanut oil.  Great start to fish night.


Rick is always in charge of the salmon…. no one does it better.


Our timing was perfect this year… the huge salmon flies were everywhere and they were driving the fish crazy!


At the Class IV White Horse Rapid – we saw the drift boat we’d been hearing about for two days… it was wrapped around “Oh Shit” rock in the crucial part of the rapid. The boat was lodged so solidly, it took three days  for Mark Angel, an expert in boat removal, to get it off the rock.


With such a visual reminder of the river danger involved in running these rapids, we were a little more tense than usual as we climbed into our boats and rehearsed the “line” in our heads. We pushed away from shore one by one and the current quickly took us to the top of White Horse where we had a little trouble seeing our exact line because of the steepness of the drop. One thing we had no trouble seeing was the Sawyer Oar in the pinned drift boat – still firmly attached to the brass oar lock and sticking up at an angle that looked as if the oarsman had just taken a little break and would be right back to row his boat around the rock.


Things happen so fast in the middle of that rapid it’s hard to think of anything other than the quick moves that will keep the boat on a path through the chaos. As much as we wanted to cast a glance over to the disabled boat, we had our hands full so we saluted the boat and the rapid when we all reached the bottom of White Horse safely. That night we camped just below the rapid and could hear it pounding away at the rocks and boulders all night long until we were in a deep and exhausted sleep.


The fishing below White Horse always seems to pick up – or maybe it’s just our “spirits” after safely running that gauntlet.  “Matching the hatch” is pretty basic… go BIG & Orange…really BIG


We enjoyed fishing out the rest of the trip with big orange flies and flimsy rods pursuing the beautiful plump and hungry redsides of the Deschutes River in Oregon.


Camping on the high desert beside the banks of the Deschutes River is always memorable.


After four days – we pulled out and parted ways. They headed west for home and I headed east for the National Parks of Yellowstone and Tetons. A great start to this National Park Pursuit.