Running the Jarbidge: A rhapsody in hoo-doo

America's last stagecoach robbery and murder was perpetrated in 1916 in the tiny, remote mining camp of Jarbidge, Nevada. That sort of adventure has long since passed, but Jarbidge is home to another Western brand of excitement - and potential danger. Only 13 miles downstream from the old mining camp is the put-in for the Jarbidge River, a screaming whitewater dash of 29 miles suitable only for the expert river rat or the wary willing to carry a boat or two. Faced with the formidable challenges of running the Jarbidge, riding shotgun on a fated stagecoach might be considered rather tame.

[A map of the Jarbidge River route taken by Doug Freed and friends.]

The Jarbidge River drains northern Nevada's lonely Jarbidge Mountains. A designated wilderness area, the mountains soar more than 10,000 feet to create an alpine paradise not generally associated with the barren, arid basins and ranges of northern Nevada. Out of these lonely peaks flows the East Fork and Main Fork of the Jarbidge Rivers, each carving canyons more than 1,000-feet deep through the high sage plains of southern Idaho.

Like chess pieces of the gods, tall majestic spires stand sentry over the Jarbidge canyon. Called hoo-doos, the spires cast an eerie presence on a gloomy day. Webster's defines hoo-doo as "a person or thing that causes bad luck." Native Americans regarded the dark, narrow Jarbidge canyon as evil and named it appropriately. Unprepared river runners have come to understand the natives' sentiment.

[A look up the Jarbidge River.] Remote, entirely untamed by reservoirs and relatively unknown, the Jarbidge River runs 29 miles to its confluence with the Bruneau River, which runs another untamed 40 miles to its first low-head dam, where running the river ends. Eventually, it joins Idaho's Snake River.

Once on the Jarbidge, only two trails allow access out of the canyons above the Bruneau take-out. Trouble in the canyon means trouble you must contend with on your own. Hiking out can mean a walk of more than 20 miles through country where horses are more sensible than automobiles and a man on foot is reduced to nothing more than an insignificant speck in a vast and aloof landscape. Hoo-doos know how to protect their turf.

Into this forbidden territory stumbled a band of seven Colorado paddlers in early May. Two inches of snow greeted five of us in Jarbidge while another two wallowed in a day late after fighting deep mud on the area's dirt byways.

Heavy spring rain and snow had swelled the local creeks and rivers. Already racing down the canyon at a nail-biting gradient of 51 feet per mile, the Jarbidge had gained a daunting strength and momentum from the weeks of April rain.

By the second week of May, the rains continued, not necessarily bad news as the small river is essentially runnable by rafts only at peak flows. Kayakers and pilots of small wilderness rigs can negotiate the Jarbidge for much of the summer, but rafters must time the river flow carefully and hit the run at the river's peak flows.

Once on the river, a boater feels every bit as supersonic as the fighter jets booming over the nearby bombing test range. High water on the Jarbidge doesn't flow, it runs and runs quickly over, under, around and through a never-ending supply of rocks, fallen trees and log jams. To the oarsman of a 12- or 14-foot raft, it seems a slalom better suited to the likes of Alberto Tomba.

The maze of obstacles and the relative high speed of the boats leaves most moves up to simple reflexes and experience. An oarsman will soon discover that intricate and delicate moves frequently are required even through the Jarbidge's more passive stretches. Those who have not mastered the technical aspects of maneuvering a boat in tight quarters and fast water will find trouble in a hurry. Those with strong technical skills will earn sore shoulders, tired arms, an aching back and a dry mouth from executing nearly continuous evasive tactics through the river's rock gardens and boulder fields.

Even the calm sections of the Jarbidge are rife with sleepers and menacing rocks. The rapids are fast and tight, generally a series of chutes pouring between boulders or log jams. Between the rapids, the river maintains a relentless pace capable of broaching and wrapping the boat of an unwary or momentarily relaxed oarsman. One boat in the Colorado group did wrap following a routine scouting mission. In pulling back in to the middle of the river, the pilot misjudged the speed of the river. Approaching a rock, he casually executed a spin move that came too little and too late. The raft broached, then wrapped on the rock. It required a z-drag (wilderness version of a block and tackle) set-up to pull the boat off the rock. And this was in a calm stretch.

The pace of the river produces a low-pitch and constant tension for those unfamiliar with the Jarbidge. Sharp corners hide potentially dangerous stretches of the river from racing boaters. It never seems quite clear if the river will allow time to pull out should danger suddenly appear. Frequent stops to scout ahead are highly recommended for those who have not run the Jarbidge before.

[Scouting a treacherous section of the Jarbidge River.] Scouting takes time, however, as did the three linings (lining is a process of attaching a rope to the front and rear of a boat and guiding it through a tight spot from the bank) and three portages that we decided to make. Kayakers will experience much less delay since a good paddler will find chutes through and around log jams and rock falls that a raft is too large to negotiate. Portages for rafts of 12 feet or larger were virtually mandatory at Sevy Falls and a section of Wally's Wallow. More than a day's time on the water was spent in the strenuous exercise of making those two portages and three other linings of the boats through tight sections.

Jarbidge Falls, just above the confluence of the Jarbidge and Bruneau, is a mandatory, long and grueling quarter-mile portage any boater is pleased to undertake after one look at the water. With the three larger boats and associated gear, the Jarbidge Falls portage dominated the better part of another day. Poison ivy, an uneven and rough trail, and a variety of sticker bushes combined to make the portages an adventure in themselves.

Between portages, the fast water provides plenty of R-4 playgrounds. (The BLM rates the Jarbidge and Bruneau waters on a scale of R-1 through R-6, instead of using the more recognizable and international I-VI river rating system.) Be advised that the R-3 and easier waters demand attention, while the R-4 waters contain particular hazards demanding careful consideration and some planning before running. Some 10 runnable R-4 stretches will be encountered on the Jarbidge for rafts (kayaks will be able to run more); between is almost continuous R-2 and R-3 water. Stretches of unrated calm are rare and short.

Due to our late start and the extra time spent scouting, lining and portaging, time quickly ran short for us. By Thursday night, after four days on the water, we were faced with some tough decisions. The Jarbidge had been run. The Bruneau was waiting. We expected that the 40 miles of the Bruneau could be run much more quickly than the Jarbidge, but at least two days would be needed, more likely three, since we were more concerned with being careful than heroic. It became clear that if we were to return home to Colorado as planned, two of us should walk out of the canyon to retrieve our trucks. Here, at the confluence of the Jarbidge and Bruneau, was the only access point into the canyon available to four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Facing the hikers was a 1,500-foot climb out of the canyon and 22 miles of double-track road across the sagebrush plain to the nearest public phone. Leaving at 8 a.m., we tracked roughly 17 miles by 3 p.m. when a rancher rumbled down the road to offer a ride to the town of Bruneau in the back of a horse trailer. No Cadillac ever felt so luxurious.

The only remaining worry was mud. The nearly constant rains had not only swelled rivers, but soaked dirt roads, softening the gumbo mud into slick and impassable bogs. Only a fortuitous mild drying trend at the end of the week saved us from an extended camp and wait for a change in the weather.

The Jarbidge had been run successfully; the Bruneau had not. We were happy to have met our challenge and knew the Bruneau would be there for us when we returned. Still, the hoo-doos send a haunting message. In the moonlight we can see an ancient smirk spread across a stoic countenance. Upon a darkened breeze, we hear: "Checkmate."
Doug Freed
Photos by Shannon Freed

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