The Owyhee Plateau
The Owyhee River Wilderness Area
Photography: Chad Case
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As we crest an initial mountain summit about 20 miles south of Grand View, a huge wide-open landscape unfolds before our eyes—more than 10,000 square miles of rocks and sagebrush as far as we can see. The triangular shape of Jarbidge Mountain rises 100 miles in the distance, with snow still on its upper flanks. No power lines anywhere. No other signs of life. The grand scale of the place makes a person feel about an inch tall.
No matter if you like to hike, ride bikes, go river boating or just camp and hang out, the Owyhee Backcountry Byway is a great way to get familiar with the Owyhees. It provides a grand tour of many hidden gems in the Owyhees, from Grand View to Jordan Valley, Oregon. Pick up a BLM map for the area, and you’ll see not only a bright red line denoting the route of the Owyhee Byway, but also hundreds of other more minor roads cutting in all directions. Go explore!
We unload the bikes at our campsite near Deep Creek and pedal away to an unsigned two-track heading off into a sea of sagebrush. I stop after the first mile, and look back. My young springer chases rabbit scent in the big sage, occasionally leaping into the air as springers are wont to do, to get a bigger view. Right now, the two-track road rises and falls over the land, like riding a series of ocean swells in a boat. The vast shrub-steppe ecosystem we’re riding through—home to sage grouse, jack rabbits, golden eagles and other critters—is, according to experts, the most environmentally intact shrub-steppe ecosystem in the West. To protect these lands may save the sage grouse, a robust game bird that’s larger than a pheasant.
We reach a junction, and turn right onto a different two-track. Now the riding surface features pointy basalt rocks that threaten to blow holes in our tires. And then, we climb a hill on pancake-like sheets of rhyolite. Weird stuff! I spin an easy gear, but I know my tires won’t be able to grip on the funky mobile rocks on the steeps. Pretty quick, my tires spin out, and I crash in slow motion. My friends take a cue and hike their bikes up the hill. Next, we confront foot-deep eroded ruts in the two-track trail. Again, unrideable. An hour later, we finish the loop after clocking 15 miles. In my mind, the ride is not a keeper—too funky for this remote location. Oh, well.
The next day, we score. We try another two-track trail over by a BLM campground on the Owyhee’s North Fork. We follow the old ranch road as it winds through beautiful little hidden valleys, framed by chalky hoodoo-like rocks, islands of juniper and big sage. The trail leads to a small reservoir, used for watering livestock, and we spot a couple of antelope on the fringe of some juniper trees, 50 yards away. We ride over a small hill and break into another hidden valley, with a succulent meadow. I see a flash of blue, and notice a pair of mountain bluebirds flittering around by some fence posts, where some bluebird boxes had been left for the cavity nesters. “This is a cool ride,” my friend says. It’s a keeper.
Epic ride on the Bruneau
“Eat some sausage,” Acee pleads to our river crew, hoping to get rid of the breakfast grits. No one is hungry. Butterflies are flying around my stomach and I’ve got dry-mouth syndrome. Everyone else is pretty spooked by the high water, too.
We load the boats and paddle downriver in relative
silence. Less than a half-mile downriver, a bunch of rafts are pulled over in an eddy on river-right. Some people are hiking out on the Robertson Trail to the BLM Overlook. Others stay in camp, waiting for the water to come down. We decide to forge ahead. One of my buddies, Steve Jones, who used to own Cascade Raft and Kayak on the Payette River, ran in the lead in his kayak. He’s a rock-solid boater. He’ll rescue me if I need help. I stay right on his tail.
The first drop, named Boneyard, was big. No rocks in sight anywhere. Just white-frothing chocolate holes. At this flow, the rapid was actually easier—a series of waves leading into a big hydraulic at the bottom. We paddled hard and punched through. Whew!
Normally, it’s impossible to scout rapids in Five Mile because there are no eddies. But today, there were big eddies above every rapid. We scout all of the big ones. About three miles down, we pull over to look at the most violent rapid we’ve seen yet. A raft flips in a hole as we climb on top of some rocks. “That looks kind of like the North Fork of the Payette,” I say to Jonesy as we look down on a series of exploding holes and waves.
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” he says, giggling as usual.
But one woman, who is riding with Acee in my 14-foot yellow raft, hikes up next to me, hyperventilating in tears. “You’ve got to row this one,” she says, in between sobs. “Acee isn’t hitting the right lines.”
Acee confirms the conundrum. “My arms and legs are so tired, I’m going to walk this one regardless,” he declares. At the time, he didn’t have any big-water experience. He’d been fighting the current instead of working with it. “No problem,” I say. “I’ll tie my kayak on the back.”
I keep my eyes trained on a seam between the holes and nail it, and the rest of our group comes through clean. Jonesy pulls into a play hole at the bottom and surfs with a big grin on his face. I’m ready for a beer. Turns out we’re equal to the task of running Five Mile on an epic day. We’d have some river stories to tell. More than that, we’d tip our hat to the mighty Bruneau, the Owyhee Plateau and the River Gods. An extra shot of adrenaline puts an exclamation point on a trip that we’ll never forget. And now, it’s nice to know that the Bruneau Canyon may become a wilderness with a capital “W” before the year’s end so others have an equal chance to experience what we did.