The Owyhees: Get Lost Here

Tyson Fisher -- @wildearthland on Instagram -- has been photographing the Owyhee Canyonlands for more than 15 years. Here, he shares favorite images from a recent backpacking/rafting trip through the heart of the Owyhees and why he's passionate about preserving this landscape.

When the days grow longer and summer solstice nears, my thoughts tend to wander to our wild places. Where I'm from this list might include the rainforests of Olympic National Park; the glaciated peaks of North Cascades National Park; or the emerald waters of Opal Creek Wilderness.

Over the years the sculpted landscape of Oregon's Owyhee Canyonlands has joined this list. In fact, when I want to completely unplug from the noise of civilization, the Owyhees has become my go-to place to decompress and reconnect with nature. Its dark night skies and deep canyons - accessible year round - provide the ideal setting in which to experience the epic solitude that can still be found. The pulse of the Earth is strong here, and it's that pull that keeps me coming back year after year. My hope is that we can give this yet to be protected landscape the protections it deserves. It's truly world class. This is the largest unprotected, intact ecosystem left in the lower 48 and it's only a matter of time before foreign oil and gas companies begin exploiting it for short term gain. The time to act is now.

In late June of this year a good friend and I embarked on a hiking/packrafting trip I'd been eying for quite a while. The loop appeared to bring together some of the best of what the Owyhees has to offer, all in a manageable two-five-day time frame. We'd start by hiking up the Middle Fork Owyhee and then cross over to the main stem of the Owyhee via North Cross Canyon and South Cross Canyon. At this point we'd trade in our hiking shoes for a small raft, put our feet up and begin the 16-mile float back along the main Owyhee. It sounded like a classic to me.

We began our journey at Three Forks, a spectacular area where the North and Middle Fork Owyhee flow into the main Owyhee. After hiking for a few hours along the open flats of the Middle Fork, it eventually narrowed into spectacular slot canyon.

We encountered numerous pools of surprisingly cold water, but only one required taking our packs off. Chuck, being the taller of the two, was gracious enough to ferry both our packs across.

The canyon was full of life. Fish darted about through the pools; vibrant flowers grew in dense clusters around life-giving seeps and shaded crevices; and ferns glowed neon green under the intense afternoon sun. We were literally hiking through an oasis in the desert. After scrambling and wading all day we were still unsure as to how far we'd actually gone. With no trail, no horizon and only a slice of sky visible from the canyon depths, distance was difficult to gauge. Did we miss our exit route and cross over into Idaho? We had no idea ... but what a beautiful thing to feel slightly lost in these canyons even if I didn't feel that way initially. We came upon an inviting spot late in the evening that was lush with tall grass and overhanging trees. Feeling pretty worn out, we decided to make camp. We shared a few beers while the Middle Fork gurgled past and the evening winds whipped through the trees. Life was good!

For me, landscapes such as the Owyhee Canyonlands tap into a reservoir of wonder and curiosity that bring a lot a peace and clarity to my life. The best way for me to express and share this is through my photography. I would like for my son to experience this place someday as I have. This is a big reason why wilderness preservation is important to me. It's okay to let some places be, and in order for that to happen in today's world protections need to be put in place.

I like how Edward Abbey attempts to describe wilderness in his book “Desert Solitaire”:

                     "... the word suggests the past and the unknown, the
                     womb of earth from which we all emerged. It means
                     something lost and something still present, something
                     remote and at the same time intimate, something
                     buried in our blood and nerves, something beyond us
                     and without limit. Romance - but not to be dismissed
                     on that account. The romantic view, while not the
                     whole of truth, is a necessary part of the whole truth.
                     But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for
                     what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression
                     of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and
                     sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only
                     paradise we ever need."

Before night settled in I went for an evening climb out of the canyon to photograph sunset and, hopefully, gain some perspective on the landscape and our location. While on top I found a beautiful band of rimrock glowing under the late evening light - a nice contrast with the darker clouds gathering overhead.

In addition to the great light, I was able to see our exit route through North Cross Canyon. We were camped just short of it.

 he Middle Fork becomes very narrow upstream from where we hiked out via North Cross Canyon the next morning. Beyond here is the Idaho portion of the Owyhees - perhaps a future adventure. Together, Oregon, Idaho and Nevada share this 10-million-acre Owyhee desert ecosystem. The Oregon portion, at 2.5 million acres, represents the largest conservation opportunity left in the lower 48. Idaho protected their portion of the Owyhees in 2009. This place is big, vast and lonely. There is a lifetime of adventure out here. Nothing brings this home more than being high above these canyons and seeing not the slightest sign of human development anywhere.

After climbing out of North Cross Canyon the following day, we spent the next few hours crossing over a fairly unexciting stretch of grazing lands until we arrived at the start of South Cross Canyon. Rather than descend into the canyon we opted to stay high and follow it out to the rim of the main Owyhee. We were pretty keen on camping above the canyon at least one night. I'm glad we did because it provided some of the best views of the trip. The light ebbed and flowed through the canyon, mirroring the play of clouds and low angled sunlight to the west. Radiating out from the eastern horizon were faint anticrepuscular rays, a meteorological phenomenon that is similar to crepuscular rays but seen opposite the sun. As a landscape photographer, I live for photographing these spectacles.

Watching the full moon rise over the juniper dotted landscape on summer solstice was a treat.

The next morning we scrambled down to South Cross Canyon and followed it to the Owyhee. We found a couple different routes down from the rim, but the one we chose brought us very close to the South Cross/Owyhee confluence. Very little time was spent in South Cross Canyon, but it looked spectacular. Ropes appeared to be a necessity in at least one spot. From here we began the 16 mile float back to Three Forks. This was my first backpacking trip in which I used a packraft for more than just a river crossing. The flow rate was a little low, but good enough to get us downriver as long as we kept paddling through the slow sections.

We took our time and made camp on a large sandbar at the halfway point. It was exhilarating to camp deep within the canyon in an area inaccessible from the rim.

With each new adventure a seed is planted for the next one. It's comforting to know that there is unlimited potential here for adventure and exploration. I'm sure we'll return again soon to see what is around the next bend.

I would love for this ecosystem to remain intact. I would love for ranchers to continue grazing out here as they have for over a century. Industrial development and the pressures of a growing population would change this for everyone if we don't work together to establish some form of permanent protection. Future generations deserve it.

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