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Owyhee Perspectives

Oregon

The Owyhee River Canyon in the southeast corner of Oregon is as remote as any place in the continental United States. Travel in the canyon today is limited to those lucky few who float this wild and scenic river during snow melt in May and early June of each year or who brave the desert roads to the canyon's rim. Historically, the Owyhee has been a place to visit, not to stay, as testaments over time suggest: petroglyphs left by Native American visitors hunting and fishing in the canyon, brief mentions in trappers' journals and diaries , abandoned, rough stone cabins left by 19th century miners and ranchers, and contemporary travelogues of brief journeys through the deep basalt red rock canyons of the Owyhee. Few stay.

The earliest European visitors to the Owyhee River Canyon were probably trappers from the Hudson Bay Company in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The earliest Americans in the Owyhee were members of Captain Nathaniel Wyeth's trapping party in the Fall of 1832. The first excerpt below, based on notes by John Ball, a member of Wyeth's company, describes the landscape of the Owyhee and the search for beaver, food, and water. It is followed by that of Lee Juillerat, a contemporary traveler in the canyon whose interest is also the landscape and the wildlife. The contrast in perspectives over nearly two centuries, though, is dramatic.

Our aim was to get back on to the Lewis [Snake] river and follow that to its junction with the Columbia. And I now presume we were on the headwaters of the Owyhee, the east boundary of Oregon. And the next day and for days we kept on the same or near. We pursued it till so shut in that we had to leave it by a side cut and get onto an extended plain above, a plain with little soil on the basaltic rock, and streams in the clefts or canyons. One day we traveled 30 miles and found water but once, and in the dry atmosphere our thirst became extreme. On approaching the canyon we could see the stream meandering along the narrow gorge 1,000 feet down, and on and on we traveled not knowing that we should survive even to reach it to quench our thirst. Finally before night we observed horse tracks and that they seemed to thicken at a certain point and lead down the precipitous bluff where it was partially broken down. So by a most difficult descent we reached the creek, dismounted and [went] down its banks to quench our thirst. And our horses did not wait for an invitation, but followed in quick time. The bluffs were of the burnt rock, some places looking like an oven burned brick kiln, and others porous. And laying over the next day and going a short distance down the creek, we found Indians who had our future food, dried salmon.

-- John Ball, 1832

Rivers are wet highways. The Owyhee, one of the West's least known liquid arterials, is a river traveled by rafts and rubberized inflatable or hard-shelled kayaks. Its roadside attractions don't include burger stands or malls. Instead you’ll find places of natural wonder: Weeping Walls, where freshwater springs seep down vertical walls; springs so hot that it's necessary to cool them with bucket loads of river water; petroglyphs chipped into flat-faced basalt blocks; caves that still harbor fractured remnants of long-ago Native Americans; petrified trees with stumps frozen into rock; and towering cliffs, some with tops rounded into domes, others frazzled with scarred walls and blobs that look like spilled paint.

We counted numerous birds, at least 45 species. Golden eagles, usually in pairs, routinely flew overhead. A nest-protecting kestrel dive-bombed a nonchalant raven. Killdeer and dippers cruised just above water level while terns plunged after fish, seemingly out of control. Flowers speckled the waterway, but created more prolific gardens on the upper ridges. One day we identified two dozen types of flowers, and puzzled over half that many others. A pinch of brilliantly blooming purple sage released a desert aroma. Four kinds of lizards variously appeared. The best was a banded lizard that sat statue-like within the bowl of a rock mortar. Another defied us with steely eyes as it slowly swallowed another smaller reptile.

-- Lee Juillerat, 2000


from John Ball, Autobiography of John Ball, Grand Rapids: The Dean-Hicks Company, 1925, as found at Candace Shock, Myrtle Shock, and Clinton Shock. Lower Owyhee Watershed Assessment IV. Historical Condition. Prepared for the Owyhee Watershed Council by Scientific Ecological Services, 2007.

from Lee Juillerat, "Oregon's Owyhee River: Rapids Not Taken Rapidly," 2000 as found at highonadventure.com.