Adventure July 31, 2008

The Owyhee Plateau

The Owyhee River Wilderness Area

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.

“Steve, wake up.” I check my watch and it’s 6:30 a.m.

“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. >>>


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.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.