Through the Owyhee on the Oregon Desert Trail

Roughly 200 miles of the nearly 800-mile Oregon Desert Trail stretch through the Owyhee Canyonlands. Joseph resident Nikki Beachy and her friend, Talia Galvin of Bend, backpacked 27 miles of the Oregon Desert Trail in the Owyhee Canyonlands this past spring, starting in Leslie Gulch and weaving north through stunning formations. Along the way, they appreciated the power and wonder of the high desert. Here, Nikki Beachy shares their adventure, along with Talia Galvin’s photos.

Hickory, Me, and the Owyhee

The night we arrived was a new moon. Hickory and I set up our camp under the still light of dusk, later talking about Aldebaran and the Pleiades. Hickory is the trail name for my friend Talia, and together we were hiking Section 25 of the Oregon Desert Trail through the Owyhee Canyonlands. Some hours later lightning illuminated the night sky, and we wondered if Hiram Leslie’s spirit still wandered the gulch and formations that now carry his name.

After consolidating our gear the next morning, we headed up Juniper Gulch. Warm morning light bounced off the honeycombs, the kind of colors you wish you could re-create. Taking a rest next to an old dead juniper on top of the ridge, I rechecked the maps that later became tokens of memory. It was already warm as we headed down through a narrow unnamed gulch with brightly colored rocks and small spiders darting in and out of the damp sand. Water rose up and down below the surface of the drainage, forming spring desert pools with bursts of grass and small flowers almost too small to see. At a particularly moist area, with rock wall faces that grooved and softened with the tell-tale signs of runoff, was an intact skeleton of a desert bighorn ram. Through our elation, we guessed at the story of his demise, feeling the weight of the bony skull and the row of flat teeth.

Hickory spotted a grassy campsite beneath a massive sheer rock at the confluence of two gulches. We relished our dehydrated delicacies, feeling the kind of hunger we often don’t meet. Later, I watched the light fade into sharp lines on the rock and heard the coos and small sounds of chukars or mountain quail I could not see.

The water from the cow tank filled our bottles and Platypus with a murky green concoction that quickly plugged Hickory’s gravity filter. We settled for Aquamira and arrived at Three Fingers Gulch soon after. I got us off course by a half of a mile, but the detour ushered us into a place that should be named Nature’s Shrine; a meadowy spot with soft green bunchgrass surrounded by massive canyon faces. Our voices echoed off the mahogany and sunset colored walls; we were tempted to remain indefinitely.

Luckily we found a delicious seasonal spring and made the switch, moving up to the top of the gulch where Hickory and I descended into the land of the giant sagebrush: Painted Canyon. We camped that night trying to guess the other’s songs, but we both knew too much of Marty Robbins and John Prine and not enough of anything else to stump each other. The next morning we rose early to navigate the aromatic labyrinth and later to take turns climbing over unforgiving boulders as the canyon narrowed at the top. The weather shifted as bitter winds met us at South Sheephead Spring. We could see pockets of sleet disguised as dark grey masses in the sky move their way across the landscape and begin their relentless whipping for the next two days.

Rookie Canyon Spring had guests; were they wild horses? They took off running down the mountain as we approached from a half mile away, their band healthy, with a new foal to boot. I took our bearings as we hiked up towards the Owyhee Ridge. The cold March wind and snow was our tradeoff for abundant water — we wore every article of clothing we brought that night as we hunkered in our shelter to the sound of freezing rain and spells of snow that weighted down the tent sides to our sleeping bags.

The last morning we startled three coyotes enjoying a carcass. The previous night’s cold moisture made the ground muddy on top and frozen below. Still, the buttercups and desert parsley persisted. We opted for the longer but less difficult way to descend to Lake Owyhee. Birch Creek showed itself far below as we felt the familiar elation mixed with the terrible sense of anguish at achieving our goal. Every backpacker knows that feeling.

The bighorn skeleton still lays in the unnamed gulch as a cairn, a reminder of the very small part of life we inhabit in the shadow of canyon walls. Life bursts at the seams in the desert, at once inviting and forbidding us to try to make our niche in the community of life that has adapted or perished. What would happen to us, I think, if we could not experience the power, beauty and difficulty of the desert?

–Nikki Beachy