The Owyhee Plateau
The Owyhee River Wilderness Area
Photography: Chad Case
Serendipitous thrills and challenging turns define an under-explored plateau in Southwestern Idaho that encompasses a wild landscape of high desert plateaus and deep gorges carved by the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbridge Rivers over thousands of years of wind, water and flood.
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On the eve of day four on the Bruneau River, we’re camped above the much-respected Five-Mile Rapids, a set of continuous Class IV rapids that, once navigated, represent the crowning achievement of this spectacular wilderness white-water journey. Tonight, we deal with the stress of Five Mile by partying heartily while the poor souls on cook duty prepare spinach-salmon lasagna in the Dutch oven. The remainder of our 10-person river party kicks back in river chairs amid big sage and knee-high bluebunch wheatgrass, chatting about surf waves, the day’s Class II-III rapids and, oh my, the breathtaking vertical walls of the red-and-brown incised canyon.
For a moment, the chatter surrenders to the serene silence of a wilderness river. I look overhead, some 750 feet above this narrow chasm in the Owyhee Plateau, to the rocky rim adorned with vertical columns of basalt and below that, horizontal bands of bright pink rhyolite. Just above it, my eyes lock into a golden eagle gliding at the cliff’s edge, hunting for dinner against the cerulean sky. I take a deep breath and release it slowly. I know I’ve got only one more day to soak up the grandeur of this place, but for now, I feel a wonderful sense of peace permeating my soul, knowing that I am one with the spirit of the Bruneau Canyon.
“What’s up, Jim?” My friend Jim Acee wouldn’t wake me up unless he had a good reason. “The water’s up! The boats and the coolers almost floated away in the middle of the night. Looks like flood stage!”
“No way!” I mutter as I peek outside the tent. Acee was right. A torrential rainstorm high in the Jarbidge Mountains some 80 miles upstream caused the river to spike big-time. The unforeseen power surge of high water (we never felt a drop of rain) arrives at our campsite at about 4 a.m., when Acee—who, quite thankfully, has prostate issues—got up to pee. Checking the lines on the rafts, he notices that our coolers are afloat by the “kitchen” area, now completely underwater. Fortunately, our tent sites are on much higher ground.
I crawl out of the tent somewhat bleary-eyed, only to see Acee shooting 30 frames a minute of whole mature juniper trees, root-balls and woody debris flying down the swirling chocolate-brown river. Immediately, I feel a knot forming in my gut. I’d run Five-Mile Rapids many times in a raft, but today was going to be my first run in a hard-shell kayak. And now, the Bruneau had turned into a gnarly beast. Great.
Welcome to the Owyhee Plateau, a place that can be so sweet and beautiful and serene, and then, with little to no warning, sinks your loaded-down SUV to the axles in quicksand-like muck on the best gravel road 120 miles away from the closest glimmer of civilization, strands your family in Silver City (For more on Silver City, see pg. 76) during an October blizzard, or creates an epic surprise on the river—you just never know quite what may happen on an Owyhee Adventure. But, of course, this is a part of its charm.
The Owyhee Plateau, a land of breathtaking beauty and countless hidden jewels, is a sacred place. The Shoshone Paiute people knew and respected that for thousands of years. And now, long-time ranching families, environmentalists and whitewater enthusiasts suddenly have come together to show new-found respect for nature as well as the ranching way of life in the form of the Owyhee Initiative, an agreement to set aside 517,000 acres of new wilderness and 384 miles of wild and scenic rivers in southwest Idaho.
The Owyhee Initiative would protect the best canyons in the plateau—the Bruneau/Jarbidge river canyon, Big Jacks Creek and Little Jacks Creek, the East, South and North forks of the Owyhee, Deep Creek and Battle Creek. Wild and scenic protection means that these streams will never be dammed for hydropower, and new federally reserved water rights would be granted to them for fish and aquatic life. More than rim-to-rim wilderness protection will overlay the canyons, preserving valuable native plants and rare wildlife, such as California desert bighorn sheep.
“We have resolved decades of conflict,” says Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, one of 12 parties at the negotiating table. “We are going to preserve the best of the best resources in Owyhee County, and preserve the culture and way of life that’s very, very important to the people of Owyhee County. When this is all done, we’ll show all of the people of Idaho, and the nation, how effective people can be when they can set aside their differences and come together with solutions.”
A huge amount of credit must be given to the Owyhee County Commissioners for launching the negotiating process in 2001, and to U.S. Senator Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, for supporting the process and introducing legislation that is expected to pass Congress in 2007. And so, given the prospect that the Owhyee’s most special places will be set aside as a national treasure by Congress this year, it behooves all of us to learn more about them before they are advertised on national tourist web sites and guidebooks.
The Big Wide Open
Dead south of the broad agricultural valley of Grand View, Idaho, a 104-mile dirt road known to locals as “Mud Flat Road” makes a bead into the heart of the Owyhee Plateau. Nowadays, the road is called the Owyhee Uplands National Backcountry Byway, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Our mountain bikes are loaded into the back of my Toyota truck, along with our two springer spaniels and camping gear for the weekend. >>>