By Kanako Iwata-Eng
The Jarbidge (a Shoshone word meaning “monster” or “devil”) is a privilege, primarily for self-supporting kayakers with solid paddling skills and willingness to portage fully loaded boats through the land of poison ivy and rattlesnakes. The stunning deep narrow canyon through the Southwestern Idaho desert, combined with the exciting whitewater, made the four-day Jarbidge/Bruneau trip priceless.
On May 10, 2019, seven of us – Jennie G, Mary K, Bob D, Bob M, John S, Walt G, and I – headed to the put-in near the Murphy’s Hot Springs, ID. The drive to remote rivers usually climbs through the woods on winding roads. This drive was straight and flat through a vast plateau. Only snowcapped Nevada mountains showing their peaks low beyond the horizon indicated we are at a high elevation. I was a little worried about our ambitious plan to drive to the put-in, get ready and paddle 20 miles on Day 1.
Despite the high and bright sun, it was not hot at the put-in, about 5000 feet elevation. As soon as we launched, we noticed paddling that the shallow and narrow riverbed was not as easy as it looked because of the speed of the water. You have to move quickly, or you end up where you didn’t intend. Eddies were few, and they were moving. What we found easy, on the other hand, was to cover 20 miles. By the lunch break in one hour, we had paddled five miles.
The first portage, the Landslide, was at River Mile 17. It was obvious with a massive pile of rocks on river right. All water was pushing to the left and piling up over rocks and vegetation. The portage was only 15 yards. Someone before our group had set up two small logs to push the boat on a rock to seal launch. We camped near River Mile 18.
On Day 2, the next potential portage, Wally’s Wallow came up in three miles. The pre-trip intel said we should take out on the right to scout or portage, but when I got there, Jennie, Bob D, and Walt were already down in the lower left eddy. Bob M, Mary, and I got out on the river right and scouted the rapid. John was nowhere to be seen.
The rapid had a small ledge and a big ledge with three channels – left looked like a trickle, center was the tallest with an ugly hump on the way down and the deep hole at the bottom, and right looked the safest. A group of three kayakers came and ran it without scouting, and we decided on the same line – boofing the first ledge toward right and taking the right channel, avoiding the hole next to the big boulder on the left and a submerged rock 10 feet downstream.
After scouting from the left shore, Walt went first, hit the submerged rock, flipped, and swam. He self-rescued in 30 yards but had no boat or paddle. We later learned his pee zipper was open, too. The rest of us ran it OK. Bob D chased Walt’s boat though it had long gone. I went down, too. Mary, Jennie, and Bob M stayed close to Walt hiking down.
In a couple of miles, the boat was found in an eddy upside down. John and Bob D had it drained. It turned out that John had run the sketchy center channel of Wally’s Wallow, completely submerged under the water in the deep hole but came up right-side up and went down to a quiet eddy where those three kayakers told him we were looking for him. John got on the shore so he could signal us, and that’s when Walt swam. One hour later, Walt reunited with his boat and met John’s spare paddle.
Another piece of pre-trip intel said we must catch a small eddy on the river left immediately above the Jarbidge Falls. Everyone got slightly nervous. My GPS said still 1.5 miles to the drop, and the river was sharply turning (the Jarbidge Falls is at a straight-away), but we were stopping and regrouping a lot. Bob D later said he wished we knew exactly where were the take-out for the portage. There were many fun Class 3 rapids before the Jarbidge Falls, but being too cautious, we couldn’t enjoy them.
When we got close to the Jarbidge Falls, we heard it before saw it. John and Bob D walked down to pick an eddy to get out. Bob D came back and said, “Go down the left shore until you see an enormous rock in the middle of the river. It is a big eddy, and John is waiting there to grab your boat.” We all took out safely in the big eddy at the enormous split rock which covered 80% of the river width.
Jarbidge Falls is not a waterfall but a Class 5 rapid. As most people walk, there is a trail, but you have to walk up and down rocks, and depending on where you put back in, it is over 50 to 100 yards of carrying fully loaded kayaks. Mainly because of this portage, rafters do not run the Jarbidge. With seven people going back and forth, rattlesnakes were scared away, but poison ivy was everywhere. At the next break, Mary and John, susceptible to poison ivy, washed themselves with special soap.
Soon we arrived at the Bruneau confluence and the Indian Hot Springs. The piping hot waterfall was astonishing. A few people got on the shore to examine it. The rest of us were in the boats paddling on the steaming hot water, too hot to put our hands in. We worried the plastic boats may deform, so we didn’t go too close to the hot waterfall. The Bruneau, meaning “brown water” in French, didn’t have brown water at this time. It is a bigger river but had the equally vertical canyon walls. We camped at the River Mile 33.
I wasn’t expecting much from Day 3 because the BLM map showed a handful of Class 3 rapids spread a mile apart. It was a GROSS neglect! There were fun Class 2+ rapids between many Class 3s, and some of which were back-to-back and enjoyably challenging. We camped at the River Mile 53. This was a great camp. A little cozy for a group of seven, but we still liked it a lot. Jennie and Bob D explored the trail going up.
Day 4 was supposed to be the most exciting whitewater day. Like the day before, no mark on the map didn’t mean flat water. At Mile 61, the “5-Mile” rapid starts. This was actually about three miles of read-and-run Class 4s. I flipped once in a big wave and another time in the swirly water, but the entire winter’s pool practice paid off. We were carefully keeping distance from one another, because the water was fast and eddies were small. In one rapid, probably the one called Nemesis, two people were in a small eddy on the left. I was heading that way, Mary came and banged my boat, Bob M who was sweeping and staying back suddenly passed us all and went into a hole sideways, i.e. CHAOS!
A few miles after the 5-Mile rapid, the Wild Burro was supposed to be the last major rapid, and may be harder than anything in the 5-Mile. According to the intel, it was flat water above the drop, we should stay in the center, and the long Class 3 rapid follows. Though three people in our group had done the river before, it was so many years ago that they didn’t remember. We determined one rapid with a flat water leading to the rapid and a few big waves was the Wild Burro. It was pretty easy. There was no long Class 3 after it, but maybe because of the different water levels. We had a nice relaxing break enjoying the sunshine and celebrating the completion of the Wild Burro.
As we were on the last stretch of the flat paddle out, it was weird when we heard very loud whitewater. The water was flat and quiet and we saw an island covered with tall grass. John said “Is there another rapid?” The moment I saw it, I knew that was the Wild Burro finally revealing its WILD self! It was too late to slow down at that point. At the right side of the island, all water was rushing into the right wall about 15 feet from the edge of the flat water. I tried to stay center left to avoid being pressed against the right wall and falling into the left hole. To confirm it was the Wild Burro, once through the scary white pile, it was a long delightful Class 3. At the take-out, a rafter behind our group showed us his oar completely broken in half as the result of going into the right wall.
This time, we were truly in the home stretch. The canyon walls ended. For the first time in four days, we started seeing signs of civilization and soon arrived at the take-out. We finished 71.5 miles of adventure, thanking one another with big smiles.