July 15, 2004 11:00 pm
At home on the river: After 13 years on the river, guide Larry Davis is relaxed at his work. In the background, Jerry Hustafa paddles a kayak. (Observer photos by Gary Fletcher).
At home on the river: After 13 years on the river, guide Larry Davis is relaxed at his work. In the background, Jerry Hustafa paddles a kayak. (Observer photos by Gary Fletcher).

By Gary Fletcher

Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE — What do you get your mother for her 79th birthday?

Jerry Hustafa of Joseph recently decided that a float trip down the Grande Ronde River would be just the thing.

His sister, Marie Hustafa, in Durango, Colo., agreed. They decided also to introduce their 16-year-old nephew, Noah Hustafa, to river rafting. Noah lives in the same town as his grandmother, June Hustafa — Gobles, Mich.

Jerry and Marie grew up in Gobles. Now Marie is a dental hygienist and Jerry is a botanist. He works out of the Forest Service center in Enterprise.

Hustafa picked Cooley River Expeditions of Joseph to carry out the three-day floating birthday party.

At the oars were the company's owners, Nicole Bellows and Larry Davis.

They've been running the Grande Ronde, Owyhee and Lower Salmon rivers for 13 years. Three years ago, they moved their operation from Corvallis to Joseph.

The Bellows and Davis trips are said to be unique. They begin with instructions on the basics of boat handling, maneuvering and river safety.

Everyone wears life preservers. If you go swimming unexpectedly, float on your back with your feet pointed downstream, Bellows instructed. Don't try to stand up, because the force of the river could trap a foot in the rocks, with deadly results, she said.

Rafters are also cautioned to keep an eye out for the occasional rattlesnake, but none was seen on this cruise.

Davis is certified as a wilderness first-responder, and Bellows is an EMT. They carry a satellite phone with which they can summon an Air Life helicopter if needed.

Davis and Bellows are not only river guides, but instructors. They teach people how to row a raft and how to paddle a kayak. Their clients can participate as little or as much as they want.

Jerry, Marie and Noah Hustafa took turns learning to maneuver two kayaks through the rapids. The Grande Ronde is a good place to learn. There are lots of small rapids. The largest encountered on this trip were about two feet, Davis said.

The Grande Ronde is also a good river for families, Davis said. Most of the trips booked with Cooley River Expeditions are family reunions, he explained. Children as young as 4 have come along.

They also do company retreats and educational trips of up to 24 people.

The following weekend they took a dozen teachers down the Grande Ronde for an educational trip.

Davis and Bellows adhere to the required no-trace camping on this wild and scenic river. They carry a portable toilet and a firepan. State and county police also drift the river, checking campsites.

The Hustafas' trip began at the popular Minam access, which is actually on the Wallowa River at its confluence with the Minam River.

The boat ramp by the Minam store was crowded that weekend with rafts and rafters.

About 10 miles below, the Wallowa River converges with the Grande Ronde River at Rondowa. Below that is the section designated as a wild river. No motor boats are allowed there.

Also at the Rondowa railroad bridge is a plaque memorializing Haldane "Buzz" Holmstrom, May 10, 1909-May 18, 1946, "Expert Boatman."

On Thanksgiving Day 1937 Holstrom, of Coquille, nudged his home-made cedar boat against Boulder Dam, the plaque explains.

It took Holstrom 52 days to travel the 1,100 mile and become the first person successfully to run alone the entire length of Green and Colorado rivers.

The plaque marks the end of Holstrom's final journey, where he mysteriously died of a gunshot wound.

Before Hustafa's group got to Rondowa, they pulled ashore to have a leisurely lunch. They waved to the Union and Wallowa county train hauling logs to the Wallowa Mill. The friendly engineer blew the whistle in response.

The railroad follows the Grande Ronde downstream from Elgin. At Rondowa, it turns upstream along the Wallowa River. Below Rondowa, for the 22-mile remainder of the Hustafas' float, the only access is by boat.

The trip was sheer relaxation. In that quiet solitude a fresh breeze blew in the faces of the rafters, and only the sounds of nature could be heard — the lapping of the water and various bird songs. Merganser ducks, as if on low-level bombing runs, rocketed by, just above the water's surface.

By the number of fish

seen jumping, it appeared there was enough of a catch for fishermen and fishing ducks alike. Occasionally a Mom merganser was seen with a whole troop of little ones paddling behind her.

Each evening nighthawks put on a show, darting above the river, feeding on insects. Butterflies were as abundant as the colorful wildflowers.

This river trip is remarkable because of its scenery. It is bordered by basalt lava rimrock and dikes of igneous rocks that sometimes end abruptly in cliffs at the river.

Other rivers have scenic rock outcroppings in a high desert setting, but what sets the Grande Ronde apart is its forested banks, its greenery and wildflowers like the syringa — the mock orange with its lemon-flower fragrance.

And, unlike rivers that are dammed, the Grande Ronde still sports spacious sandy beaches, so there are numerous spots for camping or picnicking along the way.

Those were some of the sights that June Hustafa took in on her birthday cruise.

A good sport, and a trooper, she refused to be pampered. She lent a hand with all the chores. The one exception was when she consented to let Bellows bake her a birthday cake in a dutch oven.