The Wild Owyhee

OwyheeRiver

Photo by Bob Wick, BLM

Far in the southeastern corner of the state, beyond the dry mountain shadows of the Cascade Range, past high-desert plateaus and cow-spotted ranchland, on the desolate fringe of the great basin, lies the Owyhee. Oregon is known for its forests, but its greatest wilderness is actually a desert. One of the last truly untouched places left in the continental United States, the Owyhee Canyonlands stretch for more than 2 million acres. And yet, the Owyhee is still not a federally protected Wilderness Area.

Deep within the Owyhee, there are no roads. This is one of the last places to encounter openness. Walk for days among the cliffs and the bunchgrass valleys, with both horizons stretched before you. The richness of desert rock shifts to sagebrush steppe and upland plains. In a place so enormous, it’s easy to believe that this is the entire world. Wade through fields of lupine and balsamroot in the evening air, and see, perhaps, a herd of pronghorn antelope shift by, tinted orange in the first few moments of sunset. All is quieted by distance and by wind. The stars filter in, and you see what ancient skies once looked like. The Milky Way, at first a ghost, rises higher. The vibrant end of it is neither matte nor hollow, somehow reminiscent of a reflection on water.

OwyheeCanyon

Photo by Bob Wick, BLM

This is how the world once was. Before light pollution. Before cars. Before cell-phones. The Owyhee provides a diversity of wild ecosystems. There are chiseled red cliffs that look like they belong in the southwest. There are blue-green shrublands that serve as home for sage grouse. There are grassy hills, and steep river canyons, and sandy soils where rare wildflowers bloom.

Opportunities for outdoor recreation have made the Owyhee an increasingly popular destination for adventurers. Hiking, camping, backpacking; hunting, fishing, rafting. The Owyhee offers something for everyone, including daredevils like stand-up paddle boarder Paul Clark.

The Owyhee River is just as wild as the rest of the Canyonlands. River-carved canyons form high walls around swift waters—including a class VI rapid in the upper stretches of the river. Until Paul Clark completed his expedition on March 31st, no one had ever ventured down the entire Owyhee on a stand-up paddleboard. Imagine that—balancing on a small, inflatable board, hauling a few extra pounds of gear down one of the wildest rivers in the country. The journey spanned 150 miles and took nine days. Along with his paddling partner Torrey Piatt, Paul braved narrow canyon walls, unpredictable water levels, and rapids with names like ‘Tombstone’, ‘Ledge’, and ‘Shark’s Tooth’. The two emerged from the lower river tired, victorious, and forever changed.

OwyheeSunset

Photo by BLM

We’re lucky that there are still wild places fit for such adventures. But, although the Owyhee is wild, not all of it is designated Wilderness. The Owyhee is so large that it spreads over into Idaho. Our neighbor has declared their piece of the Owyhee as a Wilderness Area, which means that it will never be mined or developed, and it will forever retain its wild nature. The Oregon side of the Owyhee is currently vulnerable to ATV use, development, or other degrading uses of the land. The Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club, in partnership with the Wild Owyhee campaign, is working to achieve greater protections for the Oregon expanses of the Owyhee Canyonlands, whether through Wilderness?National Conservation Area or National Monument designation.  You can help by signing the petition or volunteering with the Oregon Sierra Club.

The Owyhee is a spectacular, rare place. It’s far from all things we might call civilization. A place of open skies, of desolate cliffs tall enough to catch the sun, of elk herds, and big-horn sheep, and swallows, and eagles, of larkspur, and penstemons, wild rivers, and snow-cold waterfalls. Far off, on the other side of the mountains, beyond the ponderosa pine forests, in the southeastern corner of the state, you expect to find nothing at all, but you find just the opposite—everything.

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