West Little Owyhee, Circa 1978

ore than three decades ago, Joe Walicki made an eye-opening journey up the West Little Owyhee River Canyon. Here, with words and images, he shares the memory of how he discovered this special place.

Backpacking the West Little Owyhee … 1978 Style!

The Owyhee country is a vast area in southeastern Oregon that few people have visited. When Bob Wazeka, a Sierra Club volunteer, and yours truly, representing The Wilderness Society (TWS), visited the Vale District of the Bureau of Land Management in the mid-70s, the district manager, Georg Gurr, took us on a two-hour plane ride covering the entire district.

It was quite obvious to us that we were flying over a lot of wilderness. Looking at the Owyhee River flowing north, cutting deep canyons as it went, we vowed to get on the ground and see it firsthand.

Finally in the late ‘70s, I organized a Sierra Club/TWS trip in June with BLM personnel to explore the West Little Owyhee River Canyon from Anderson Crossing, where we established our base camp. Our goal was to see if this area qualifies for wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. (In our opinion, it did.) With our backpacks fully loaded to about 40 or so pounds, we headed north into Louse Canyon to follow the West Little Owyhee.

After two days of difficult hiking, climbing over boulders, wading shallow pools, and avoiding a few rattlesnakes, we took a day off. On that day, we explored one of the side canyons. We were able to climb out of the canyon and get a view of the plateau and river heading north, which at that time of year was more like a good-size stream.

On the fourth day the BLM guys decided to continue north, but we opted to head back to Anderson Crossing.

A few days later, the BLM guys returned quite exhausted on the trek north to where their vehicles were parked. They said it was one of the hardest hikes they had ever done. They also reported that many of the caves along the river used by Native Americans had been looted. This was quite sad.

As we began to pack up and head home, we all felt it was well worth the 12-hour drive to get to Anderson Crossing and to experience one of the wildest parts of Oregon. We vowed to work hard to protect this area for future generations.

— Joe Walicki