Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Owyhee Canyonlands, Rim to Rim to Rim

Summer is in full swing here in Silverton hill country. Creeks are beginning to run low, the tiger lilies are waving in the breeze above purple lupine and the garden is finally starting to come in. It seems it was only a few weeks ago that I was wandering the forests of Silver Falls photographing the bright green buds emerging from their winter sleep. Farther away on the eastern side of the Cascades, the high desert regions are heating up. In the driest areas, like the Owyhee Canyonlands in southeast Oregon, creeks have likely slowed to a trickle, leaving behind deep pools lined with lush vegetation. Though no less beautiful, it's a very different world than the one I travelled through last February. 

Until a few years ago I'd only heard of the Owyhee Canyonlands' legendary network of canyons. It's remoteness and isolation was somewhat intimidating, but now that I have made a few visits, it's become an unlimited source of inspiration from which to dream up the next big trip. From a photography standpoint, the Owyhee's is more or less an open palette. On my first trip in the winter of 2013, I photographed the orange/yellow towers of Leslie Gulch shining like gold under midday light. A few days later I was standing on a basalt ledge dusted with snow, photographing the Owyhee River above Three Forks while coyote's yipped into the morning air.

While it's possible to drive to many scenic vistas throughout the Owyhee Canyonlands, I chose to travel by foot on this trip. My destination was Three Forks, the same place I'd driven to the previous winter. This time, however, I backpacked in along the rim of the Owyhee River

River of Light, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
While camped high above the Owyhee River I witnessed this display of golden sunset light along the upper reaches of the canyon rim.
I began my journey outside the small town of Rome, where highway 95 crosses over the Owyhee.  For ten days and 80 miles I followed the meandering course of the rim as it dove in and out among open promontories and small isolated side canyons. My route stayed close to where Golden Eagles perch among basalt rimrock and Bobcats visit hidden springs in stealthy silence. Strong winds, snow, sleet and rain prevailed as I hiked along what felt like the shoreline of a sagebrush sea.  

  I enjoyed some very nice weather as well.


Camped among a red rock garden, high above the Owyhee River, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
While walking the rim, I quickly learned that views of the river itself are sometimes few and far between. Slopes of grass lined with rimrock ease downward and then suddenly plummet, hiding all but a small hint of the river off in the distance. 

Rim Light, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
Light and shadow drift across the steep slopes above the Owyhee River as it carves a deep and winding channel below.
But I could hear its low echo off the canyon walls as it flowed chocolate brown with snowmelt through lonesome shadows. Like walking the ocean shores, its melody was my companion while I trekked deeper into the wilderness. 

Then it would reveal itself, carving its way through the most amazing landscape imaginable. 


Light the Wind, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
Golden light breaks though a gap in an approaching storm front, lighting up the far rim above the Owyhee River. Increasing winds eventually brought in heavy rain and then snow during the night. I woke up the following morning to coyotes howling into a winter wonderland of freshly fallen snow.
Fractured, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
A high angled perspective showing the meandering path of the rim. 
I was delighted to find flowing water at the bottom of this narrow slot canyon - a rarity in these parched canyons. Alone and feeling the warmth of the February sun radiating off the canyon walls made me want to sit for days and soak in the remoteness and isolation of this spot.

Loveland, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
An orange hued rhyolite tower absorbs the afternoon sun as wispy clouds drift overhead.
I scrambled down to this creek one evening to scout for potential photos and was pleasantly surprised with what I found. I brought my camera, but unfortunately left my tripod back at camp. I improvised by balancing my camera on a low rock ledge and successfully made a series of long exposures.

Canyon Song, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
A small creek, full from recent snow and rain, flows through a steep and narrow canyon lined with vibrant mosses and lichen.
I then hustled back out of the canyon to my ridgetop camp and photographed this sunset over a beautiful bend in the Owyhee River.

Owyhee Bend, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
The Owyhee River carves a horshoe bend through the juniper studded landscape while sunset light paints a colorful sunset over Idaho's Owyhee Mountains
Downriver from Three Forks the following evening.

Crimson Perch, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon,
 Looking down on the Owhyee River from a high knoll as warm light highlights the sculpted rock formations along a rocky section of ridgeline.
On the fifth day, Three Forks came into view. It is here that the North and Middle Forks of the Owyhee emerge from their tight canyons and flow into the Owyhee River. As bright blue birds flitted about hillsides laced with springs sparkling in the afternoon sun, I began my descent to the river. Following an old military road, I switchbacked to the bottom and into a maze of red willows swaying in the breeze.

Owyhee Crossing, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
After floating across the Owyhee by packraft, I began the 40 mile return trip along the opposite side of the river.

Me and my shadow, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
Long shadows and late evening light.
I could see this juniper for miles and made it my goal for the evening. When I arrived I was delighted to find this healthy spring flowing though the grass and over the edge of the canyon.

Blue Dawn, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
Strong winds and blowing snow powered through during the night, leaving this wintery scene in its wake. I rendered this image before sunup as the moon set into the deep blue horizon and blustery winds raked the bows of this lone juniper.
Owyhee Morning, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
Juniper with a View, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
Light and shadow dance across the landscape under pillowy soft clouds.

Nearing the end of my hike, I photographed these lenticular clouds over Little Grassy Mountain.

Little Grassy Mountain, Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon
I've spent most of my adult life exploring and photographing our wilderness areas. The more time I spend in the Owyhee Canyonlands the more surprised I am that it does not yet have formal wilderness protection. Only 4 percent of Oregon is set aside as wilderness. Protecting the Owyhee's would add another 2 percent. 

Oregon guidebook author, William Sullivan, recently wrote an excellent article in The Register Guard about the Owyhee's. If you get a chance, give it a read!