I expected the water level at Owyhee Reservoir to be low this time of year but I wasn't prepared for the reservoir to be non-existent! My paddling partner Steve, and I drove out to the Leslie Gulch/Slocum Creek campground (about 2 hours from Boise), near the upper boat ramp on Leslie Gulch in the desert of SE Oregon. The plan was to spend the weekend camping, hiking and paddling the Owyhee River where it backs up at the Owyhee Reservoir. The drive into the campground and boat ramp is through beautiful desert canyons reminiscent of Southern Utah's red rock canyons. The last 40 miles of road is gravel and washboard but not as bad as expected. The BLM's Vale District Office says road conditions are bad and calls the road "impassable" in wet weather, so I was pleasantly surprised. A mile or two from the campground we had to stop for a herd of Big Horn sheep on the road. Very cool!
The area is an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern", so primitive camping outside the campground is not allowed, which is unusual for BLM managed lands.
The campground is nothing fancy, basically a dirt parking lot with toilets, fire rings and picnic tables. We got settled into the campground and drove the quarter mile to the reservoir. I was shocked when the boat ramp stopped several hundred yards short of the water's edge. The "reservoir" was actually a flowing Owyhee River, but it wasn't moving so fast we wouldn't be able to paddle upstream.
We woke up on Saturday and got on the river about 11:00 am. We had hoped to paddle upstream three miles to Echo Rock hot springs but after seeing how low the water was we weren't sure that was going to work. We decided to paddle as far upstream as we could then we'd float back to the boat ramp.
The water was very murky and shallow. As we approached the water with the canoe I started to sink in thick black mud (the smelly stuff). We had to walk down the bank a ways to find a place firm enough that we could put-in.
Steve had his 4 year old daughter with him and my 4 year old son was along for the ride. We got the kids settled in the boat and launched upstream. Although there are no trees in this desert canyon, the scenery is spectacular. As we paddled we could hear Chukar (a small, desert partridge) and Gambel's quail calling from the steep cliffs. We moved upstream and in a few spots the current was very strong giving us quite a work out. We got stuck in the thick mud twice and had to maneuver and rock the boat to get free. I couldn't get out and push because the mud was too deep. After an hour of paddling with only a mile behind us, we decided to find spot for lunch. Steve fished with no luck, although we could see catfish rise to the surface occasionally. While eating lunch, my son spotted a Golden Eagle circling overhead. We watched him for a while before he went into a stoop and dove down into a side canyon. He popped up a few seconds later and perched on a rock to watch us.
We finished lunch, packed up and headed back downstream. After the workout to get upstream we decided just to float along with the current. Steve fished from the front of the boat while I made gentle corrections to keep us aimed downriver.
We made it back to the put-in about an hour after lunch. We loaded the canoe and kids and headed back to camp for a game of horseshoes.
The trip to Owyhee Reservoir is a great trip with other diversions besides paddling. With the exception of the extreme low water, this was a very good time of year for a desert trip. Nighttime temps were comfortable and there is plenty to do and see in the Owyhee desert.
Slocum Creek/Leslie Gulch Campground Managed by BLM Vale District Office
From US Highway 95 in Idaho, go west 8 miles on McBride Creek Road to Rockville, then 1 mile north to Leslie Gulch Road and 15 miles west. Or take Succor Creek Road from Oregon 201 or US Highway 95 to Leslie Gulch Road turnoff.