Up a Hot Creek With a Paddle – Sea Kayaking in the Oregon Desert

by Nancy Soares on July 21, 2014

Looks an unlikely place to find a sea kayak, but there are opportunities...

Looks an unlikely place to find a sea kayak, but there are opportunities…

On a cloudy day in April we headed east. Clear sailing until five hours out and a pronghorn played chicken with the truck so I had to cross into the opposite lane and take my foot off the gas so it could pass on the right and run in front of the truck at 60 mph. I hate it when they do that but no one was coming in the opposite direction for miles so it was okay. This one was younger than last year’s buck and you could see his mouth open sucking wind. Still, he was keeping pace and even beating us.

There was all kinds of crap in the road this year

There was a lot of stuff in the road this year. I almost broke my foot on this item trying to kick it out of the way.

In the afternoon we arrived at Skull Camp and there was no one there. We set up camp and it was dusk when our friends arrived and we circled the wagons. That night we soaked in the hot spring and listened to the coyotes. It was cold.

Skull Camp

Skull Camp

A few days later when I got a chance (we get so busy in the desert) I took three hours and scouted the creek to see if it was doable. There were some iffy spots where beavers had created little pourovers, some of them cushioned by reeds and grass which would allow us to slide over. The beavers had culled the willow thickets along the creek making wide meadows of thick coarse grass where we could hop out and line the boats if necessary. There were only two or three places where we would have to portage ten or twenty feet. Startled waterfowl flushed with a clatter: a black-crowned night heron, mallards, canvasbacks, geese. It would be a bushwhack but it would be fun and there were long stretches of unobstructed current running through deep gullies and meadows. It was sunny and warm which boded well for the next day.

We found sun stones, a type of citrine

We found sun stones, a type of citrine

That night the rain blew in with gusto. The highs that week were in the fifties, lows in the twenties and the morning was dark, wet and cold. We spent the morning soaking in the hot spring discussing the weather. When you’re living out of doors weather is a big deal. We decided it was not a good day to go bushwhacking down a creek. Plus the road to the launch site could be compromised. Roads in the desert rain can turn slick and miry. So we went to Plan B. For me, that meant a hike up a sweeping mountainside to check out a field of yellow flowers.

Tumbleweed mustard

Tumbleweed mustard

I started out gingerly on the slick, muddy road. Off the road it was better: the desert pavement provides firm footing even in foul weather. I climbed up to the flowers and discovered they were tumbleweed mustard. Since I was well up on the ridge’s shoulder it seemed reasonable to continue up to the first big rock outcrop at the top of the rise. The higher up the more lush the flora: there were wildflowers everywhere, although few were actually blooming yet. The plants looked really healthy and in six weeks or so the display would be spectacular. There were many different grasses too and up here they were more luxuriant than lower down. There seems to be a critical point at which the steep grade prevents cattle from going there (no cow pies or hoofprints) and that’s where the plants really flourish.

Interesting little wildflower peeking out from under stones

Interesting little wildflower peeking out from under stones. Note the rubbery finger-like leaves and the desert pavement.

At the outcrop another long slope revealed itself and another rock formation further on. The bracing northwest wind spat rain and hail like grains of sand but it wasn’t cold. The whole vast desert and a multitude of mountain ranges were falling away beneath me and the views were spectacular so I decided to keep walking.

Sweeping vistas at around 6,000'

Sweeping vistas and rain curtains at around 6,000′

On the way I found small worked obsidian chips and a pronghorn antler, spongy with age. Guessing there was a story behind the antler and the chips I played desert detective and searched the ground till I found the arrowhead I suspected would be there.

Checking out another hot spring

Hot spring with a view

In the rocks there were lichens, wildflowers, a species of currant, and many burrows, some containing bones and some containing culled grasses still green. I’m sure the residents were nearby but they didn’t come out to greet me. So much desert life is underground. The views were amazing: far away mountains obscured by rain and mist and clouds rolling across the landscape. After looking around a bit I headed back to camp and a hot soak in the spring.

Aaaaah, more hot water!

Aaaaah, more hot water!

The weather wasn’t improving so we loaded up the truck, left Skull Camp and headed out on a quest for another hot spot. We found it in a creek flowing down into a large pond from a source up the slope.

Happy feet

Happy feet

The water temperature was 114F (we had our trusty swimming pool thermometer), and it was too hot for us but we hiked downstream until we found a place where the water was cooler, about 99F.

Up a hot creek with a sea kayak

Up a hot creek with a sea kayak

I grabbed the X-O and put in, paddling upstream toward the source. The shallow water steamed around me. There were yellow flowers that looked like a type of mimulus on the banks. I kayaked up till the water got too shallow.

The Source

The source

Almost to the source, I pulled over to the bank to check out the flowers and saw a dust devil whirling along the high bank. The swirling wind buffeted the kayak and I was concerned about tipping over into the scalding water but after biffing me around a bit the whirlwind passed and danced away.

Kemper's "wildflowers of Southern Oregon" identifies these as seep-spring monkeyflowers.

Kemper’s “Wildflowers of Southern Oregon” identifies these as seep-spring monkeyflowers.

That evening we soaked for hours watching the stars come out among piles of clouds. A squall slammed us with wind and rain in the night, rocking the truck, but the next morning the playa was dry as a bone.

Camping on the playa

Camping on the playa

Another hot soak before breakfast and we packed up and split. On the way home we had the usual assortment of spring desert weather: rain, snow, hail, sun, and wind, alternately and all together.

The road home

The road home

On this desert adventure we raced the annual pronghorn, found sun stones, hiked, soaked, met our friends, scouted a cold creek and paddled a hot creek. Mission accomplished! Maybe we’ll hit that cold creek next year…

What quests have you been on lately? Go ahead and share your adventure!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rainer Lang July 26, 2014 at 10:28 am

Hi Nancy, your trip sounded like a great adventure! I had to Google your Sun stones, they seem like a very interesting find. Can you see the shiller (adularescence) optical effect?

A few years ago, I was in a group of sea kayakers that went to paddle Mono Lake. It was like paddling on another planet; the water was caustic alkali and the tufa rock formations seemed alien. We made it out to explore Negit and Paoha islands. Everything that was in contact with the water got nice and crusty. My paddling gloves turned white from the bleaching effect of the alkali.

The weather in the Eastern Sierra desert was a treat. We had high wind that nearly launched an unsecured plastic sea kayak form it place on a roof rack. Blazing sun and heat. When a storm front rolled through; rain, snow, ice and a hard freeze. In the morning I was throwing pieces of ice out of my tent where the wind driven rain had leaked in. There was a nice 6″ accumulation of snow on the ground.

We also did an excursion to Hot Creek where we soaked in the geothermal pools. I had a dive mask and dove into one of the pools. I found it strange to see Anarcharis Elodea growing there. It was pretty spooky hearing the rumbling of the rocks and the bubbling of steam coming through the water. The pockets of my shorts were filled with Rice Krispy like pumice that was circulating in the current.. Hot water is nice; the temperature was fluctuating making it uncomfortable to be close to the vent. We kept moving away to stay comfortable. Another storm front approached while we were soaking. Someone in our group was in a hurry to get back to camp. I was up to my chin in nice hot water, and in no hurry to dry off. I was not looking forward to another cold night in camp. After this trip that I invested heavily in Polar fleece clothing.

“There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” ― Ranulph Fiennes


Nancy Soares July 27, 2014 at 7:38 am

Thank you so much for your comment, Rainer. I love your desert story. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to kayak on Mono Lake – it seems a harsh and intimidating environment. What time of year were you there?

I’ve heard there are hot springs on/near the lake. Is Hot Creek on one of the islands or on the shoreline? Yes, geothermal pools can be spooky. And the variable temps are why I started bringing a swimming pool thermometer. It’s really come in handy.

The Shiller effect isn’t present in any of the sunstones we found, but my friend Troy Shehorn goes to the town of Plush in Eastern Oregon for the specific purpose of finding that type of stone and he showed me his finds. There’s a lovely salmon colored hue to those stones, a little like an oil slick on the surface. At Plush you can pay a fee and sift for sunstones at an official site, but although my stones are of poorer quality my sites are practically unknown and you just pick the stones up off the ground where they weather out. One of the coolest things about hanging out in the desert is you meet people who’ve been coming to there forever and they pass on secrets that were passed on to them.

Thanks again for your comment. It’s good to hear from you 🙂


Rainer Lang July 27, 2014 at 2:28 pm

I think we were there in August, or early September. Hot Creek is bit of a drive down 395, somewhere like 45 minutes toward Bishop.

Taking along a pool thermometer is an excellent idea!


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