Way down in the southeastern corner of Oregon lies a vast sagebrush sea. Driving through this endless high desert it is easy to assume there is nothing else to find. Outside of some hardy ranchers, truckers, sportsmen, desert rats and river runners, few people drive along southern Malheur County’s lone paved road, much less venture off of it. Highway 95 runs between Orovada, Nevada and Nampa, Idaho and passes through a single lonely town in Oregon; Jordan Valley, population 181. Thousands of square miles of the surrounding countryside are accessible only by four wheel drive vehicles, horses or on foot. Malheur County, Oregon’s largest, has a population density of just three people per square mile. However, at least 20,000 of the county’s 31,000 residents live in the northern reaches making the density of the lower 80 percent of the county almost devoid of people. That such a large area in Oregon is uninhabited and little known to the rest of the state is somewhat surprising. Learning that this same area houses a massive complex of deep river canyons, on par with canyons found in the US Southwest, is just plain amazing. The Owyhee River and its tributaries are responsible for creating the deep and winding system of canyons, some of which have headwaters in the Owyhee Range in Idaho while others come north from Nevada.
In 2011 I first visited the Owyhee Canyonlands and explored some of the better known areas to the north such as Succor Creek, Leslie Gulch, Jordan Craters, the Pillars of Rome and Birch Creek Ranch. Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to visit some of the more remote canyons, guided by members of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA). In four days I traveled over 200 miles of dirt roads, some little more than tracks through the sage, and hiked many more miles along canyon rims, and yet I still saw only a very small piece of all that is there.
ONDA’s mission is to protect, defend and restore Oregon’s high desert. The Owyhee Canyonlands are a priority. To quote from the ONDA website, “With over 1.9 million acres of wildlands and hundreds of miles of Wild & Scenic rivers, Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands represents the largest conservation opportunity remaining in the lower 48 states.
The Owyhee Canyonlands are home to the world’s largest herd of California bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, Rock Mountain elk, mule deer, 7 species of bats, sage-grouse and songbirds, redband trout, longnose snakes, and pygmy rabbits. Innumerable archaeological and historical sites are hidden in its canyons.”
In addition to the biological, geological and historical treasures found in the area, it “calls to those searching for solitude, self-reliance and unconfined space.” For someone in my line of work it offers the opportunity to explore and capture images of places rarely visited and seldom, if ever, photographed.
I hope that these images from the Owyhee will create new awareness and perhaps even inspire you to get involved. If you enjoy desert wilderness, are interested in visiting the Owyhee Canyonlands, would like to help protect Oregon’s high deserts or are interested to learn more about ONDA I encourage you to visit them on the web. The main ONDA site has information about the organization and all the regions in Oregon in which they work. They also maintain a website dedicated specifically to the Owyhee Canyonlands campaign.
In two trips to Owyhee country I have just barely become acquainted with it but it has made a big impression on me. A lifetime of exploring would still only reveal a fraction of what is there. The unique and rugged beauty is as captivating as just about any wilderness area or national park in the country. I hope to return many times to explore and photograph. I also hope that my images, along with the efforts of organizations like ONDA, will help to protect this area and keep it wild for future generations.