Owyhee Rendezvous III

I've been in Idaho more than 25 years, now, and I'm still getting to know the big county in the southwest corner of the state - Owyhee. I've only seen a few of its points of interest, and then only in spring and summer. Each visit seems to take on an epic quality, whether it's a day hike or overnight along Little Jack's Creek, a midsummer's night in Silver City, or just passing through on the way home.

North fork of the Owyhee R.

This time, I drove south from Jordan Valley, Oregon, along Juniper Mountain Road (a.k.a. Mud Flat Road, from the handsomely-named locale midway between JV and Grand View in Idaho), down to the North Fork of the Owyhee river ("worth a stop," the instructions said, and I agreed), and up out of that compact but impressive canyon to the "first road on the left." I banked my low-clearance Windstar off a substantial rock at the turn for a multimedia reminder of the further suggestion supplied by the local Sierra Club representative, "go slowly over those few rocks."

Coming in mid-day Friday, I figured to beat most of the crowd, although the event had officially begun the day before. In a half-hour stroll around the North Fork campground, no other cars went by on the dusty gravel road. But up top, there were more than a dozen car campers already distributed through the sagebrush and juniper, having found their desired balance between solitude and proximity to the trailer holding the two Porta-potties. Solitude was winning, it seemed, with each sparse campsite discreetly spaced and oriented so as not confront any neighbor. A hogan needs to have its door facing east, while a Sierra Clubber's tent must face an interesting view and away from all other tents. These are people who get all the physical community they need during the week, apparently.

But the description is for your sake, not mine; I understood the arrangement perfectly, and sought my place in it as surely as a salmon swimming upstream. Like others before me, and some who would come later, I had to look past everyone else to see if "the last spot" was still available. I had the advantage of bringing my bike with me; I planned to ride between my campsite and the big meeting tent, figuring I could do it even in twilight.

The last spot was there for me, and for at least one more carload later that evening. My tent siting criteria (juniper shade, absence of immovable rocks, no other tent easily visible, eastern exposure for early sun, possibility of a view) met, I then calculated where I could drive my car off the road and still get it back on when it was time to leave, drove it there, and expected to leave it put until Sunday.

The unstructured afternoon had time for me to pack a lunch and see how well my Palo Alto commuting hybrid bicycle would like an unmaintained Owyhee County road — just fine, as it turned out. One track or the other was easy enough going, and the climbing modest. When the road started what looked like a steady descent, I parked the bike and climbed up the nearest bit of rocky ridge for a late lunch. Rejuvenated by the stop, I was ready to go on down, and found that it wasn't all that far after all; the meadow it came out to was just a bit lower than the camp, where I'd started. Trouble was, I wasn't first getting there: a dozen head of cows and calves were sprinkled through the grass and trees.

I wasn't sure how they'd greet my arrival, and I was interested in finding out if there was a bull among them. Our visit to Little Jack's Creek had involved some backpacking supervised by a bull, and it made for some nervous going. The uncertainty was such, in fact, that I decided "gee, maybe this is far enough down the road for today," but after turning around and starting back up the hill, it just seemed too early in the afternoon to be quitting. Back down to the meadow, and the cows were moving in a favorable direction. A couple of newcomers showed up at the next bend, though, and were taking tentative steps in my direction. Not good. I waved my arms and said something persuasive like "Hey cow!" and Blackie turned left, followed by her calf.

Things were moving my way, and more road was open to me. A bit further up the meadow, a repeat performance, and it occurs to me now that the cow brain just moves at a much slower pace. On seeing me, they think "what," "is," "happening," "now," and it's a minute or two before they can translate any subtle cues into action. Of course, if one mistranslates, others will follow, and a new message will have to be given, and so on. Do not attempt subtle forms of expression with cows, unless you wish to join them in a meditative state.

Cattle in the lake

Three miles in, the jeep trail ran into a small reservoir, and neither the more likely looking (i.e. bare) left side, nor the map-indicated right side had evidence of its continuation. I stopped to write in my journal at a shady spot along the dry outlet. Before I'd finished, heavy breathing caught my attention, and yet another gaggle had showed up along the trail, ready for a mid-afternoon drink, hoof up some mud, piss in the lake... you know, the usual bovine amusements. I confidently waved and shouted them to the right, finished my task at my own pace.

Afterwards, I did take another look on their side for the road, noted that someone had driven through the soft meadow quite recently, but without the benefit of a clear path. This seemed like as good a time as any to head back to camp. Stopping at the highest point along the route this time, I was surprised to have a vehicle come up the trail from behind me. Those tracks were quite recent, as it turns out. (Where the heck were they going in there, I wondered?) Didn't seem like our party, but I didn't check ID.

After heating a can of something on the Coleman, I rolled down to the evening's gathering, caught up on the gossip about the locals checking us out (visits from the sheriff, and "...said he was gonna bring 400 head through here tomorrow"), listened to a brief history of the politics and reality of Wilderness in this country during the last century, a few stories about the more immediate politics between ranchers, the BLM and conservationists, and a brief exposition on bats. Two groups wandered off into the twilight with ultrasonic detectors, hoping to "hear" some bat sonar, but alas, our slightly breezy ridge did not seem to have enough prey on the wing to justify the trip.

Not too early the next morning, we recongregated by the big top, and split into subgroups for activities that suited us: a hike around Leslie Gulch (variously billed as a "wildflower walk" and "a death march"), a hike to Juniper Craters, and four groups to do some road inventory in nearby BLM Wilderness Study Areas. I was surprised by the variety, actually, as the first Owyhee Rendezvous had a stronger emphasis on work.

I joined the mountain bike group, which reached 50% of capacity. We drove down the road toward Grand View while I followed the twists and turns on the BLM Triangle map, losing us for a little while, but finding us again, about Deep Creek. Our leader noted (dryly?) that at the right time of a high water year, people have been known to float Deep Creek. This day, it was big enough to float a frog on a water lily leaf, but not too much more than that.

At the intersection of Juniper Mtn. Rd. with the road we were interested in, we verified that it was gated and signed "No Trespassing," and continued with plan A: to hike the BLM land around the private land, and thereby get to the road as seen on the topo map, on public land. Just a mile or mile and a half, with a bit of (unmapped) jeep trail to get us started, up a gentle swale. Once the road was no longer going our way, it got "interesting." We negotiated a couple canyons with no particular trail, to get up "on top," and then headed cross-country over the plateau of rock and sagebrush. A long mile hike, alternating rolling, bouncing and carrying the bikes. A couple of GPS sightings, map reviews and fence alignments and we found the path of interest, happy to be able to ride, but a little guilty about feeling that way.

Inventorying a WSA road

Not to worry: for the purpose of the Wilderness Act, the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) and a House Committee Report that forms part of its legislative history specified that to be a "road," the vehicle track must be "improved and maintained by mechanical means to ensure relatively regular and continuous use." While this was cleared of vegetation (that was easy) and rocks (not so easy), and passable in most places by a low-clearance 2WD automobile, it does not preclude consideration or designation of the area as Wilderness.

After finding the fenced end of this public route and getting our (re)introduction to the inventory process, we lunched, and commenced the work of assessment, photographing and mapping the place, while enjoying a beautiful late spring day with sunshine and a light breeze keeping us around 80F. Before very long, one of the SUVs that's keeping the vegetation down and the clods from clumping came rambling our way. A foursome from Canyon County was riding high and comfortable, assured us that they did have permission to go through Chris Black's land, and by the way how did we get there? And where were we going? We didn't supply quite all the details ("we'll see how far we get" was the truth), but neither did we prevaricate. Mr. Black will hear the account, I'm sure.

Owyhee duck blind

A bit further on, an oddly-placed "white thing" became known as a duck blind, sitting on a pocket-sized reservoir. It was owned by Mr. So-and-so, who had obtained permission from "Rancher Chris Black, the Owyhee County Sheriff, and the BLM" according to its modest placard with a collection of signatures.

Further still, the route eased into the Camas Creek drainage, now containing Camas ponds, with no discernible movement beyond wind ripples in the brown and opaque fluid. In spite of the impoverished creek, it was a lovely spot, with deep grass and spring flowers, a couple of low basalt eyebrow ridges giving it a secluded feeling. More than one driver had "missed" the left turn to the ford and kept going toward the creek, turning right and into the secluded part. But rather than "perhaps bladed some long time ago," this was just a pair of tracks through the tall grass.

Camas Creek bluff and sky

One such vehicle (another SUV with Canyon County plates, surprise) was in fact parked in the meadow this afternoon, maybe a hundred yards from "the fork," two minute's stroll past the "Wilderness Study Area" sign and its various "no vehicle" symbology. Their further progress had been halted by a sizeable rock between the creek and small bluff. Was it a disappointment to have to get out and walk from there? They weren't around for us to ask.

On the other side of the ford through the creek (bed), we inspected the former site of "Johnston Cabin" (commemorated at this point by less than half a dozen boards, and the out of date topo map), rode on up to the top of the next rise, and called it a day, with "end of route not found" still marking the "purpose" column of every inventory entry.

On the way back, a pronghorn bounded across the plateau ahead of us, stopped to try to size us up, and then bounded on, the tops of its strides and its big white rump showing above the rise, the rest disappearing below it. I tracked it with binoculars for a bit, and watched it watching us, but looked away for a moment and then it had disappeared, motionless and blended with its surroundings.

Scrambling up the canyon

At the corner of the road nearest Black's land and nearest our cross country "shortcut" between fence corners, we headed off through the rock and sage again, down and through the two canyons, back to our car.

Given that the only easy way in is gated and signed, this amounts to a rather substantial expansion of Chris Black's backyard, available for the asking to his friends, and perhaps someone from the BLM to look around once in a while. Interesting apportionment of public lands.

Drilleronline provides the Sagebrush Rebellion sort of counter viewpoint, arguing that every double and single line put on the 1964 series of USGS maps are roads, damnit, and disqualify, disqualify, disqualify. Their estimate is that "for every mile of primary, secondary, and light duty roadway (everything we usually call roads, in other words) in the West, there are 50 to 100 miles of unimproved track (Class 4) roads," and Wilderness has no business over any of those. (As a side note, would you buy a $250 web reprint from somebody who can't render a quotation mark correctly?)

Shootin the breeze

Back at camp, I had just barely enough time to unload, hear that 400 head of cattle had not been run through our camp, dust off, hop under the shower (one of those "solar" jobs, but I hadn't bothered putting it out - the water sitting in my car was warm enough after the day's exertion), and hightail it back to the main tent for the barbecue, catered by Jordan Vally's Old Basque Inn. (The organizers requested that "something vegetarian" be included on the menu, and they asked, "you mean, like chicken?") As if that weren't attraction enough, rancher extraordinaire Mike Hanley showed up with his son (I'm guessing) to join us for dinner, both of them in their finest cowboy get-up.

As Stephen Lyon reported in his article in Range Magazine, "A Real Test of Charm", he makes for picturesque and pleasant company. I didn't have the pleasure of his conversation, but several others did, including the local Sierra Club staff shown here. Hanley's also been published, a work from the 1970s with Ellis Lucia, Owyhee Trails: The West's Forgotten Corner. I reckon our author had the beef. (I had the chicken.)

Bird talk

They didn't stay for the after-dinner talks, which was a little disappointing. Apparently Mike had held forth somewhat on Thursday night, but he missed the more specific information about local birds, the successful effort in Oregon to legislate Wilderness status for Steens Mountain (visible in the distance, still with snow on it), and Scott Silver speaking out against "fee demo." That's either a bold innovation to reinvent government, or a conspiracy to corporatize and "brand" outdoor recreation (maybe we could ask the cows how well they like that), by the American Recreation Coalition.

Here's a quote from the ARC website:

Although the recreation leaders praised a number of initiatives now underway, including the new Boating Infrastructure Grant program, the fee demonstration effort and Water Works Wonders, they noted that the emphasis on resource protection efforts over the past eight years had left many Americans feeling unwanted and unwelcome in the Great Outdoors.

These "leaders" were representatives of the American Recreation Coalition and the Recreation Roundtable (the president of the former is an executive vice president of the latter, he was there), from Westrec Marinas and the Marina Operators Association of America, America Outdoors, The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association and the Boat Owners Association of the U.S. The meeting was with Interior Secretary Gail Norton, who had been around in the Reagan administration when the ARC was just getting going.

The ARC site was rated "political site of the day" by Kessler Freedman, an organization that screams Astroturf.

I can't help but think it's the mechanization of the Great Outdoors that has left Americans feeling unwanted and unwelcome. Escaping from the daily routine of commuting, shopping and errands by and for motor cars, to enjoy motorboating, motorcycling, motorjet skiing... is that all there is? Surly and apparently unsatisfied, record numbers of Americans continue to log record numbers of road miles to have their Outdoor Adventures, in ever bigger recreational vehicles. Off-road mileage must be at an all-time high, too, as Sport Utility Vehicle owners have to justify their investment in traction and horsepower.

Sunday morning, I was up with the cows bawling in the canyon below us, out of the sack before any sunlight hit the junipers around me, struck my tent, had breakfast and eased down the road while most of the bleary campers were still stumbling around in sandals.

Mud Flat Road cows

I'd seen a remarkable side canyon on the map during our drive back to camp the day before, and the jammed-together contour lines confirmed that it was a sight worth seeing. Cattle were hanging out down on Mud Flat Road, perhaps that 400 head that needed to move up through the group's campsite, and pretty well occupied the left bank, so I parked on the other side, hopped up the bank and followed the web of their trails back into the throat of the canyon.

Not surprisingly, there was a barbed wire fence across the narrow entrance: nobody wants to chase cows out of a place like this, choked full of willow down in the bottom. It was a bit of a surprise that the fence had a gate in it, though, the absence of signage as close to a positive invitation as you'll get in these parts.

The cow side of the fence The no-cow side of the fence

The contrast at the fence line was remarkable: on cow-side, trampled brown dirt, willows denuded as high as a cow can reach. On the cow-free side, knee deep grass, lush willow and dogwood, wild roses, butterflies in the horse mint.

Quixotically, there was only a tiny bit of shrub-free trail before the basalt closed out right down to the creek. The only way ahead was wading, or crossing through the willow thicket, or perhaps up and over the rock obstacle. I tried up-and-over, found a delightful little perch maybe a third of the way from creek to rim, but up against fully vertical walls of the crumbly, lichen-covered rhyolitic (I think) basalt.

I sat a spell, listened to and watched a half dozen different kinds of birds working the canyon morning, and wished I'd paid better attention at that bird talk the night before. Oh what a beautiful morning.

Some time later, I resolved to explore further, and the only practical way was back to cow-side, where their trampling and denudation made the creek more crossable, and then up the other side, side-shoeing it on the 30 to 45 degree grassy talus fillet.

Sunday morning in the beautiful Owyhee Canyonlands

I spent the rest of the morning making my way up just a part of this wonderful place, crossing the creek, climbing over parts of the canyon walls, following a dry stretch of the creek bottom a bit, and finally coming to spot tightened with vertical closeouts almost matched across the tiny trickle. Maybe a mile up from the throat? By then it would have been easier to clamber up to the rim, traverse up top, and drop down past obstacles, but I was satiated.

And sneezing, thanks in large measure to Idaho's premier range grass, Agropyron spicatum (a.k.a. Bluebunch wheatgrass), lush in the late spring, with stamens dangling in the gentle breeze. But with fresh roses, wild onion, biscuitroot, columbine, larkspur, ocean-spray, and many other flowers I can't name, I took it in good humor.

Cow noses rubbed my car

Back at the road, I was a little curious to determine if my vehicle had been undisturbed. I'd heard some hollers at one point when I was up in the canyon, figured it to be cowboys rounding up their charges. The cattle were not around when I came out, close to noon, but they had been "around," specifically, around my car. There were no other tiretracks or footprints to speak of, but lots of hoofprints. And an odd smearing of dust on my side and back windows... I was trying to picture them checking out the neighborhood, nosing around - literally - to see if there was anything interesting inside. A passing car or two set the cow snot with road dust.

As the sign on the other side of Jordan Valley proclaims, "You're in Cattle Country, Pardner!"

19.June 2001

P.S., July 3rd

An unexpected and positive letter from Mike Hanley ("Michael F. Hanley IV") ran in the June 30th Idaho Statesman. Noting the occasion signaled a "cold day in Hades," he thanked the organizers "for the group they shepherded to my allotment... They were enthusiastic, friendly, and I may even have convinced some that we Owyhee ranchers are capable of wearing white hats."

Tom von Alten