Roderick Nash: A Dory Down the Owyhee River

Dr. Roderick Frazier Nash, professor emeritus of history and environmental studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, is renown for his work on wilderness. His books, “Wilderness and the American Mind” and “The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics,” are considered conservation classics. Here, Dr. Nash shares a glimpse of a trip in Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands. 

Dory Time on the Owyhee River

Flows of dam-controlled rivers, like the Colorado in the Grand Canyon where I’ve guided whitewater trips for decades, can be predicted to within single-digit cubic feet per second. But this eastern Oregon river was truly self-willed (“wild”) and it ran big and fast this late April day under the bridge at the tiny community of Rome.

My friend and I had a small inflatable raft, which is usually the boat of choice during the short runoff season on the Owyhee, but we were also towing a vintage Grand Canyon dory back to its usual haunts on the Colorado watershed. And then — a light bulb moment as we watched the water — why not switch to the 18-foot hard boat and go with the flow? Adapting to the unpredictability of wild country, after all, was one of the hallmarks of the evolutionary success of our species.

Opportunity knocked, and four days later we floated out onto the Owyhee Reservoir, where a 1932 dam substituted human control for wild process and, as collateral damage, crushed the life out of one of the longest runs of migratory salmon, from the Pacific Ocean to the Nevada headwaters of the old Owyhee. It was sad to see the reservoir swallow the river, but for a moment we had caught the magic of the old rhythms and the big spaces.

— Roderick Nash