Last Wild Places: Exploring The Owyhee

Last Wild Places: Exploring The Owyhee

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Contributing editor Steve Graepel set out last spring to explore one of the most remote regions in the Lower 48s, the Owyhee River Canyon, via bike and pack-raft. This is his story.

“I f’d up…” These aren’t the words you want to share when you’re 80 miles from the car. But they’d just fumbled from my mouth, and I had screwed up. A decision needed to be made.

Dave and I were halfway into a four-day epic, dehydrated, hungry, and looking forward to trading bikes for boats and a leisurely pack-raft down the upper Owyhee River.

Covered in cow crap and sunburned to the core, we hunkered on the banks of the Owyhee to look at the map.

Broken earth, rotten with rattlesnakes, the inhospitable Owyhee Canyonlands — The Big Empty — is one the most desolate swaths of land in the Lower 48.

Pronounced like Hawaii without the ‘H,’ it draws its name from three Hawaiian trappers who disappeared here in the winter of 1819 while looking for riches in beaver pelts.

But its beautiful bounty can still be found by a stubborn few … including two foolhardy boys with bikes and pack-rafts looking for modern-day big wheel exploration.

The gist of our plan was to make a 150-mile grand tour of Idaho’s canyonlands, pedaling dust-choking ranch roads east through the Owyhees uplands to Garat Crossing, the remote put-in for the upper Owyhee River. We’d then drop into the chiseled canyon to paddle a stunning narrow cut of water and close the loop back to the truck by bike.

Fighting for shade, Dave and I wrestled our pared-down supplies into bike-frame bags. An hour tapping the sage for the correct vein into our route, testosterone bypassed patience and we made a route choice to take a direct line up and over the tallest point on the map.

day 1 Deep Owyhees

Four hours and 25 miles later, Dave and I rest our jello legs, chewing about the grandeur of the Owyhees… its wide-open space, its pastel palette … and the loud snort calling out from behind the desert scrub across the double-track. A bull.

For most of the year, the Owyhees hibernate in hues of golden brown. But during a narrow window between spring and summer’s inferno, it explodes in spring flowers. On our second day, we rolled through pastures painted brightly with desert bloom.

I coasted to a stop to take a photo. Dave pointed to a line of dust lifting from the valley floor. Pronghorn!

day 2 Deep Wilds

If you’ve never seen a pronghorn run, it’s an amazing sight … the fastest land animal in the western hemisphere seems to float over shattered ground at 35 mph. A product of its Pleistocene roots, the Pronghorn is believed to have honed its speed evading the now-extinct North American cheetah.

Alone, at the top of the food chain, the antelope leaned forward as if to step on the gas and disappeared into the distance. We righted our bikes and did the same.

Hours of backcountry riding followed. We were alone except for the antelopes and other rare creatures of this remote stretch.

Our enthusiasm broke down as the trail unraveled. One foot on the pedal, a finger on the map, and an eye on the GPS, we constantly triangulated our location until the trail withered into BLM land. We pushed our bikes and navigated mostly by a hunch.

The skies opened, winds swept in, and Mother Nature pulled the plug, releasing a storm. My head buried in a hood, I wondered if we’d make it to the river before the sun set behind a wall of clouds.

A jeep trail trickled out from under the scrub. Something to follow, but not easy — the makeshift road was pockmarked with cattle tracks and littered with stone. Dave shouted encouragement: “Go faster, not slower. The speed will carry you over the rocks!”

He pulled away in jubilation, but I slowed down. To keep my load light, I’d skimped on rations for the day and was feeling low as we rode out the roughest miles of the day.

day 3 End In Sight?

It took 60 miles by foot and by bike, but we finally rolled into Garat Crossing. Shattered and covered in cow crap, I dumped the bike, curled in the fetal position, and was asleep immediately on the ground.

In a blink it was morning, and my heart was in my throat. Looking at the map, I had indeed screwed up — the river was lower than expected, and our route was long. Floating the Owyhee is a commitment. Once you drop in, its rhyolite walls swallow you whole only to spit a paddler out after miles of continuous escarpment.

It was 11 miles to the first take-out. We inflated the boats, strapped bikes to the bow, and pushed off under the towering hoodoos flanking the Owyhee.

In stark contrast to the desert, the river was cool and lush, flowing in and out of verdant-willowed shoals. We split our time pulling boats over shallow water and paddling across the deep emerald green pools that punctuated the canyon floor.

Red-banded trout and pike minnows darted under the shadows. The canyon walls arched overhead. 11 miles of shade and drifting, cool waters instead of harsh desert sun.

But it had to end, and soon we were back on land. A take-out lead to a disintegrating desert road, and we pushed our bikes up an abandoned track, chasing the sun to the end of the road.

day 4 Final Leg

The Owyhees are a puzzle of private and public blocks of land. Roads dead end where Wilderness begins. We dismantled the bikes to carry them across the un-trailed canyon, then put them back together to ride out on private land.

The juniper corral and mudded willow barns were the first signs of civilization. As we opened a cattle gate, a giant man stepped off his tractor with a John Wayne swagger and extended his mitt-size hand out to mine.

“You must be Steve,” he said. We’d registered permission to cross the Stanford property earlier that week. “Welcome to Brace Ranch, I’m Pat Stanford”.

The family has been working this land for generations. We could tell Pat was struggling to continue this legacy, pushing his boys to pursue college when their heart, like his, was at home on the ranch.

Stanford and his wife, Pat, gave us a tour. We thanked the Stanfords for their hospitality, sharing that we needed to get back to the truck, jokingly saying we hoped it wasn’t on blocks.

“You never know … a nice set of tires, a good pair of wheels … we’re scavengers out here!” Pat called out as we pedaled away.

Our frames clattered over the cattle guard as we left Stanford’s ranch.

Four days in the field, our watches were synched to the Owyhees; we braced ourselves for the return to city time. But for now, we enjoyed the final 15 miles of crushed gravel, spinning past the riot of balsam root and wild sunflower and the occasional cow.

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