A Broad View of the Owyhee

In May, roughly 40 people converged in the Owyhee Canyonlands, many for the first time. It was a gathering of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national organization conceived by older women who love wilderness that gives voice to the millions of older Americans who want to protect their public lands. Broad Susan Kearns was there, and here shares what became a magical long weekend.

After many hours of driving, our anticipation grew mile by mile — we were less than an hour away! Yet we were still surrounded by farmland. The unassuming dusty hills in the distance gave no promise of the wild place we’d heard so much about.

Not long after, the landscape began to change. The broad fields turned to deepening hills, and as we wound our way down into the canyon where Succor Creek makes its home, we were awestruck by gnarled and twisted rock formations. Patches of intense green grasses contrasted against ruddy, blackened slabs and spires of rock rimming the canyon. We set up camp, gazing upward at every opportunity, taking in the dramatic setting.

We were there representing Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting wilderness and wild lands. The organization was holding a “Broadwalk” event for about 40 attendees — many from Oregon who had never even heard of the Owyhee Canyonlands until this event. When word got out about our Broadwalk, people were intrigued. It wasn’t long before it was filled to capacity, with many hopefuls on the waiting list. I was thrilled to be there helping.

Broadwalks are outdoor events that combine education and activities (with a healthy dose of fun) to help create awareness about wild places that need protection. And this isolated treasure in eastern Oregon caught Broads’ attention as a truly unique landscape that cried out for protection from increasing threats of mines and oil and gas development.

The next few days were packed with inspiring speakers, breathtaking hikes and hot but rewarding stewardship projects, with plenty of time to explore and experience the diversity of the Owyhee.

And what an experience it was: the astonishing rhyolite cliffs, steep-walled canyons, and tranquil streams, the lush grassy hillsides ruffling in the wind, expansive sagebrush steppes, and swathes of wildflowers. We were enchanted. Surrounded by a constant serenade of canyon wrens, owls, and meadowlarks, we glimpsed pronghorn, bighorn sheep, marmots, and a few rattlesnakes too!

Partners and presenters included Oregon Natural Desert Association founder Alice Elshoff and the skilled and passionate Corie Harlan, who eloquently framed the Owyhee for us. BLM Vale District Manager Don Gonzales gave us a wealth of information and fielded a truckload of questions about the agency’s management of our public lands.

Ranchers Liz and Sean Cunningham braved a bevy of conservationists to discuss their view of ranching in today’s West. Katie Fite, passionate warrior for the Greater sage-grouse, conveyed her frustration with the status quo along with her deep knowledge of these imperiled birds. Tim Davis, a local citizen, shared his “backyard” by leading hikes and speaking about the launch of an Ontario-based group called Friends of the Owyhee.

There couldn’t have been a more perfect conclusion than Bonnie Olin, who spoke of adventures from her book, "The Owyhee River Journals." She opened our eyes to the vast wildness of the landscape and we came away knowing we had experienced just a small part of the canyonlands.

The last night, a storm moved in. It was magical. As we lay in our tents, searing flashes lit the sky, followed by sharp claps of thunder, the drawn out rumble echoing deeply along the length of the canyon. Then the spatter of rain began, lulling us to sleep.

Throughout the trip we shared book passages and poems; we sang and held early-morning yoga sessions; we took quiet walks and went bird watching. These activities stirred our hearts and bound us together around this place.

Monday morning, we reluctantly said our goodbyes to new friends, leaving with a heartfelt commitment to raise our voices to help protect the stunning and significant wild lands of the Owyhee, a place many will return to — and no one will forget.

-- Susan Kearns

About Great Old Broads for Wilderness:
Conceived by older women who love wilderness, Broads gives voice to the millions of older Americans who want to protect their public lands as wilderness for this and future generations. We bring knowledge, commitment, and humor to the movement to protect our last wild places on Earth. Greatoldbroads.org.