Oregon photographer Tyson Fisher began making forays into the Owyhee Canyonlands within the last few years. Here, he shares how it provides an endless artistic canvass. See more of this work on his blog, including this post, at tysonfisher.blogspot.com.
The Owyhee Canyonlands, Rim to Rim to Rim
Summer is in full swing here in Silverton hill country. Creeks are beginning to run low, the tiger lilies are waving in the breeze above purple lupine and the garden is finally starting to come in. It seems it was only a few weeks ago that I was wandering the forests of Silver Falls photographing the bright green buds emerging from their winter sleep.
Farther away on the eastern side of the Cascades, the high desert regions are heating up. In the driest areas, like the Owyhee Canyonlands in southeast Oregon, creeks have likely slowed to a trickle, leaving behind deep pools lined with lush vegetation. Though no less beautiful, it’s a very different world than the one I travelled through last February.
Until a few years ago I’d only heard of the Owyhee Canyonlands’ legendary network of canyons. Its remoteness and isolation was somewhat intimidating, but now that I have made a few visits, it’s become an unlimited source of inspiration from which to dream up the next big trip. From a photography standpoint, the Owyhee is more or less an open palette. On my first trip in the winter of 2013, I photographed the orange/yellow towers of Leslie Gulch shining like gold under midday light. A few days later I was standing on a basalt ledge dusted with snow, photographing the Owyhee River above Three Forks while coyote’s yipped into the morning air.
While it’s possible to drive to many scenic vistas throughout the Owyhee Canyonlands, I chose to travel by foot on this trip. My destination was Three Forks, the same place I’d driven to the previous winter. This time, however, I backpacked in along the rim of the Owyhee River.
While camped high above the Owyhee River I witnessed this display of golden sunset light (at right) along the upper reaches of the canyon rim.
I began my journey outside the small town of Rome, where Highway 95 crosses over the Owyhee. For 10 days and 80 miles I followed the meandering course of the rim as it dove in and out among open promontories and small, isolated side canyons. My route stayed close to where golden eagles perch among basalt rimrock and bobcats visit hidden springs in stealthy silence. Strong winds, snow, sleet and rain prevailed as I hiked along what felt like the shoreline of a sagebrush sea. I enjoyed some very nice weather as well.
While walking the rim, I quickly learned that views of the river itself are sometimes few and far between. Slopes of grass lined with rimrock ease downward and then suddenly plummet, hiding all but a small hint of the river off in the distance. Light and shadow drift across the steep slopes above the Owyhee River as it carves a deep and winding channel below.
But I could hear its low echo off the canyon walls as it flowed chocolate brown with snowmelt through lonesome shadows. Like walking the ocean shores, its melody was my companion while I trekked deeper into the wilderness. Then it would reveal itself, carving its way through the most amazing landscape imaginable.
I was delighted to find flowing water at the bottom of this narrow slot canyon – a rarity in these parched canyons. Alone and feeling the warmth of the February sun radiating off the canyon walls made me want to sit for days and soak in the remoteness and isolation of this spot. An orange hued rhyolite tower absorbed the afternoon sun as wispy clouds drift overhead.
I scrambled down to this creek one evening to scout for potential photos and was pleasantly surprised with what I found. I brought my camera, but unfortunately left my tripod back at camp. I improvised by balancing my camera on a low rock ledge and successfully made a series of long exposures. I then hustled back out of the canyon to my ridgetop camp.
On the fifth day, Three Forks came into view. It is here that the North and Middle Forks of the Owyhee emerge from their tight canyons and flow into the Owyhee River. As bright blue birds flitted about hillsides laced with springs sparkling in the afternoon sun, I began my descent to the river. Following an old military road, I switchbacked to the bottom and into a maze of red willows swaying in the breeze. After floating across the Owyhee by packraft, I began the 40-mile return trip along the opposite side of the river.
Strong winds and blowing snow powered through during the night, leaving a wintery scene in its wake. Nearing the end of my hike, I photographed these lenticular clouds over Little Grassy Mountain.
I’ve spent most of my adult life exploring and photographing our wilderness areas. The more time I spend in the Owyhee Canyonlands the more surprised I am that it does not yet have formal wilderness protection. Only 4 percent of Oregon is set aside as wilderness. Protecting the Owyhee’s would add another 2 percent. Oregon guidebook author William Sullivan recently wrote an excellent article in The Eugene Register-Guard about the Owyhee Canyonlands. If you get a chance, give it a read HERE!
— Tyson Fisher