Floating the Wallowa

Jeff Northam - Thursday, March 10, 2016


With Monday off I took Whitman tennis alumni Colton and James Rivers (both graduated in 2015) for an afternoon kayak float down the upper stretch of the Wallowa River. When I say upper stretch I mean the 10-mile section from Lower Diamond Lane to the Minam Hotel.

This is a great way to spend the afternoon. Grant and Lottie at the Minam Hotel are incredible – friendly, helpful and they have a HUGE selection of gear for rental and purchase. We each rented an “I.K.” (inflatable kayak) for the float. For $40 we got a kayak and all the gear needed for the day (life vest, dry bag, paddle, & helmet). Honestly besides hiking I can’t imagine a better outdoor value.


Even with the chilly temperatures (still some snow along the river) we had an absolute blast. This section of the Wallowa (at least this time of the year) is mellow and makes for easy floating. Plus, the river has awesome scenery: we spotted a herd of deer swimming across the river, and many different types of riparian wildlife -- beaver sign, ducks, geese, hawks, and a few steelhead fishermen (thought I’m not sure if they are considered riparian).


Overall the float took about 3 hours. No real troubles on the float except when James “pushed” me into the river. OK he didn’t really push me in, I jumped out of my kayak to test out my dry suit. This is the suit I purchased for my winter rafting trip down the Colorado River (which unfortunately got cancelled).


For those looking for a great afternoon water adventure I highly recommend heading out to Minam for some time on the Wallowa River. I suggest calling the Minam Hotel and Raft Rental before heading out to make sure they have kayaks available (plus they will get them set up) 541-437-1111. Here are the directions from Walla Walla to Minam (about 90 minutes)



Jeff Northam - Wednesday, February 24, 2016


After a weekend of matches, the team had Monday off. With no practice I decided to take a quick camping trip to the Umatilla Wilderness for a short overnight backpacking trip. Joining me on this trip were two of my favorite “youngsters”: assistant tennis coaches Colton and Maddy. The three of us tend to make a good group. I love outdoor adventures but don’t like to go alone … they love outdoor adventures but need someone to take them.


The Walla Walla area is having a great snowpack year so much of the mountain areas are still covered in snow. Also a lot of roads into the mountains are closed until the middle of March. Basically not a lot of nearby options camping options, at least that don’t involve snow camping. Since I wanted to be near water I decided on the North Fork of the Umatilla trail. The trail heads into the Umatilla Wilderness area, is close to Walla Walla and is low enough elevation that while cold at least the bottom portion should be snow free.


Here is the official Forest Service description of the area:

Immediately upon arriving I knew we had issues. As we neared the trailhead the canyon was socked in and covered with angry clouds. In fact, once we got to the trailhead and started exploring it started to hail! That was message enough that a backpacking trip was not meant to be. I learned my lesson several years ago when I was caught in a hail storm in the Blue Mountains that literally left me bruised and battered. I had no desire to repeat that experience! Here are some pictures from the last Blue Mountain hail storm I experienced. 


Since we passed on a backpacking trip we decided to car camp along the S Fork of the Umatilla. Actually worked out great as we didn’t see another person the entire trip and I just happened to have a load of firewood in the truck.


After getting the sleeping arrangements ready for the night (in my trustee MSR Twin Brothers Shelter) we attended to the pressing needs of the evening --- getting dinner ready. In the original backpacking plan, we decided to live it up a bit and do better than bland freeze dried dinners. Also since one person would be packing the shelter (its only about 5 pounds) we should be able to pack in some cast iron and make a righteous backcountry meal. And hence the hashtag #maddypackstheiron was born. Leading up to the trip Colton and I had an enormous of fun with that hashtag. I also figured if #maddypackstheiron why not bring a long a light grill and cook up some flank steak. After all, both Colton and Maddy are young and strong and should be able to pack a few extra pounds. Plus, they are also young enough that I could convince them that I was too old to carry any extra weight. Again let me say they are perfect adventure partners!


For dinner I had brought alone a half dozen potatoes and some baby carrots. I also threw together some spices for the potatoes – some salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano, thyme and red pepper flakes – after all who doesn’t like a bit of hot spice in their food? Well it turns out Maddy doesn’t. Truthfully though it actually made the dinner all the more entertaining watching/listening to Maddy as she bit into a spicy potato. Back to the cooking – we tossed the potatoes and carrots into a ziplock bag with the spices and some oil. Took the seasoned potatoes wrapped them in several layers of aluminum foil and put around the campfire fire. I didn’t want to burn the potatoes so I figured with some indirect heat it would take about 40 minutes to cook. Well after an hour the potatoes weren’t done so we transferred them the cast iron to finish up. As the potatoes were finishing Colton threw the big flank steak onto the grill and he started working the main course. Colton is getting to be a real pro at doing flank steak so I knew we were in great hands. And he did a great job on the grilling – turned out awesome. In fact, the entire dinner was AMAZING!


After dinner we joked about the time and how early it actually was. With no lights, cell phone service, or internet bed time tends to come a bit early. Not that there is anything wrong with going to bed early. Also it was rapidly getting chilly so getting warm in sleeping bags sounded all the more appealing.


Gauging by the weather forecast I knew it was going to be a chilly night and I told Maddy and Colton to be prepared for a cold night. In fact, I told them several times to be prepared. The weather forecast was correct it did cold – cold enough to freeze our drinking water, cold enough to turn dish soap into slush. Not sure how cold it got during the middle of the night but when I checked the temp at 8am it was 26 degrees. I was plenty warm – only needed a medium base layer as my zero degree sleeping bag kept me plenty warm. Coupled with my Exped UL inflatable mattress I was downright cozy.

Side note – Exped is a GREAT company. Last year I was on a solo backpacking trip with my dog Wally. Unfortunately, one morning Wally ripped a big gash in my mattress – the gash was pretty big and ripped the mattress such that I couldn’t patch it. I contacted Exped and they said to send it in for repairs. Turns out the mattress so thrashed that they couldn’t patch it but they did send me a new mattress at no cost (not even shipping). How cool of a company is that? Needless to say they now have a customer for life.


Back to story – I was warm, comfy and still had several layers I could use if I got chilly. Colton was also fine. Maddy not so much. She ended up having a pretty miserable, cold night Probably the only time she got somewhat warm was when Wally stuck his head into her sleeping back to try to warm himself up!


Since it was cold in the morning and no one was in the mood to cook we packed up camp and headed to Weston for a breakfast at the famous Long Branch Cafe and Saloon. Neither Maddy nor Colton had heard of the Long Branch but after being treated to a HUGE home cooked breakfast I imagine they head back for another meal.


Fun overnight trip for all and I look forward to heading back to the Umatilla Wilderness area for a proper packing trip.