An Owyhee upbringing

Karl Findling lives in Bend and is the regional volunteer representative for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a group dedicated to protecting wild places. Here, he shares his family history and fond memories of growing up near the Owyhee Canyonlands and why he hopes it will gain protection. 

The Owyhee runs deep in my psyche. I grew up nearby in a family that goes back there for generations. It has provided me the opportunity to harvest my first buck. I worked two summers for the federal government, protecting range land as a “wildland firefighter” and range aid-technician. I’ve explored its many treasures since I was a young man, on nearly every river mile and upland rim and plateau that hold mule deer and my favorite upland bird, the chukar. Today, it remains one of my favorite places in the state.

Most Oregonians don’t know the name, history or proper pronunciation of the Owyhee region, let alone where to find the vast river and canyon lands. Just say, “Hawaii” with a silent “H” and you’re on your way.

The greater Owyhee region makes up a large portion of the second largest county in our state. The Owyhee River gives “lifeblood” to rural/agricultural economy there. History abounds in the region, from the numerous native peoples and the resulting conflicts that surfaced upon the white man’s entry into the area, to a Basque population from a faraway land that shaped the culture of much of the northern Great Basin. The existence of Mexican vaqueros, as well as the cattle and sheep wars at the turn of the century, also lend a perspective not found anywhere else in the West.

I was raised in the eastern Oregon town of Ontario, near the Owyhee’s merging with the larger Snake River. The tributaries that crisscross the region in the upper reaches form one of largest sub-basins in the Columbia River Basin, draining an estimated 11,000 square miles of vast desert landscape from the states of Idaho, Nevada  and Oregon — AKA the ION country.

On my mother’s side of the family, my grandfather invented the “overhead sheep shears.” As a sheep-shearing family, they lived in the high desert south of Juntura until their home was burned down during the sheep-cattle wars. And my second oldest uncle upon graduation in 1931 from the School of Civil Engineering at Oregon State University helped complete the Owyhee Dam in 1932 — the Owyhee Dam was the world’s tallest for years. It holds back over 52 miles of runoff and creates more than 110 miles of shoreline, forming our state’s longest reservoir — a jewel in a parched landscape. Its creation contributes to a vast network of agricultural and financial opportunities for the western Treasure Valley.

The Bureau of Reclamation created a recreational oasis with the reservoir and a large supply of precious water to feed the crops that would grow in the fertile soils deposited there thousands of years ago.

An aunt and uncle from my father’s side of the family lived on a section of the river below the dam where they raised a family and farmed the fertile grounds. I grew up hunting upland birds and waterfowl on their reach as well as the public lands below the dam. I began deer hunting the upper canyon lands in the mid-1970s and fished all parts of the lengthy reservoir in boats that my father built for a living. We fished for the famed large and smallmouth bass, crappie by the coolers full and other species including anadromous fish that became “landlocked” by the massive dam.

I have dozens of black and white photos of my family members from as far back as the 1930s holding a brace of pheasants or large salmon and steelhead caught just below the confluence of the Owyhee and Snake rivers, outside of Ontario. The Snake River gravel bars provided fertile spawning beds as well as a prolific food source for the Native Americans as far away as northern Nevada. Today those important, vital facets for a wild river are snuffed by the many lower Snake River dams.

In 1984, 120 of the river’s 346 miles were designated as Wild and Scenic under the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  But I’m perplexed by one major oversight.  Just over the border on the Idaho side of our state line, more than 300,000 acres of wilderness exists in a strange north-south line that abuts Oregon and protects the vast upper highlands—but no similar protections exist for what many call the Grand Canyon of Oregon.

Over the years I have witnessed one of my other favorite high desert streams — the Malheur — become so polluted, shallow and warm due to loss of habitat, that it’s increasingly rare to catch a native trout on the lower (Main) fork, as I had during my childhood.

Today, fly fishing fanatics flock to the lower Owyhee River searching for the large brown trout found below the dam. A unique fishery created by deep pools in a notoriously shallow river resists freezing due to the outflow mechanisms from the dam.

These days, I can slip down to the Safeway near my home and grab a sprig of sagebrush to scent my home and tide me over until my next adventure to the Owyhee. The greater Owyhee region provides me with my desert fix that I need several times a year to recharge my batteries.

These are just a few of the reasons I believe we should work to protect this region in its entirety — to create a like-body of desert environs to join with the protected lands in neighboring Idaho. To keep it wild and to hopefully protect its many facets, in hope that in the future it may be closer to what it once was,  more so than it is today.

— Karl J. Findling