Owyhee River Country & More
May 26-June 2, 2003
Led by Marian and Neal Johns
Reported by Ann Fulton
Where the deer 'n the antelope 'n the Black Angus play.* You know you’re getting close to back country when the markets in the little towns carry all manner of products labeled Western Family. You know you’re in the back country, when your maps don’t show the roads you are traveling, there are infinite numbers of gates to open and close, cattleguards to cross, and there are no power lines, no signs at junctions, no structures, no bridges, no other vehicles, and no town names on the map. We may be more than one up on the 1800's emigrants, with our visible (if only occasionally-graded) roads, GPS’s, satellite phones, and cushy seats in our shock-absorbing Hupmobiles, but there are still a few elements of uncertainty and a sense of adventure beyond the normal realms of travel, as we were to discover.
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Marian and Neal Johns, with their intuitive powers and navigational skills, took us (John and Ann Fulton and Tim and Alice Cannon) through a swath of the West in some of the most wide-open spaces we have left.
Our first jumping off point was Cedarville in northeastern California. After that it’s the wild blue yonder and oceans of sagebrush to High Rock Canyon in northwestern Nevada. Much of our route followed the Applegate Trail/California Trail. There are successive markers designating points of interest along the old trails across several states; this project was accomplished by the Trails West group out of Reno. It is humbling to read these small plaques and know that some remarkably intrepid souls have been there before you under much more arduous and perilous conditions.
Next comfort station 500 miles. Since towns are scarcer than hen’s teeth in some parts of Nevada, the maps show the names of the far-flung ranches just to prove there is some form of habitation there after all (and maybe in case you need an oasis to which you may drag your weary bones if your GPS conks out or your gas tank runs dry). One of these intriguing spots was Soldier Meadows Ranch northeast of High Rock Canyon. Neal had heard about it from the OCTA group (Oregon-California Trails Association) and thought we might camp there or about. The ranch had a welcome sign out so we opened the gate, and in we went.
We weren’t in time to be included for dinner, but we had the run of their camping area (with running water and other practicalities), hot showers in one of the ranch houses, supply of ice, and good old western hospitality. This is a working ranch that accommodates guests, including us drop-ins. Electricity is provided 24/7 by Diesel generator. Old stone buildings are from the site’s army outpost days. The ranch even has hot springs. We enjoyed meeting Mac Hedges and his wife Candi and others on the ranch. A row of the biggest, most beautiful irises we’ve ever seen ran along a stone fence (we didn’t ask what they use for fertilizer); Candi told us the deer find them impressive too. Mac, a college-educated bronc buster, talked with us about the Owyhee where he spent some of his youth. He’s written a book, "Last Buckaroo", that was touted by the Autry Museum of Western History. The ranch itself is on the endangered list thanks to the roughshod efforts of the usual suspects to close up everything in the guise of protecting rare and endangered species; the ranch managers figure they may be able to stave off the inevitable only a couple more years and are negotiating with the Indians at the Summit Lake reservation on some alternatives .
Purtier than a heifer knee-deep in clover.* The Pine Forest Range in north central Nevada is off the beaten track, accessible just north of Knott Creek Ranch, with amazingly good roads throughout. We gave this area high marks for its thick stands of aspen, creeks and reservoirs, developed campground, picturesque cabin and corral, spectacular mining operation tiered up one mountainside, and virtual desertion (we met two other people). Our egress to the east was just as awesome down Alta Creek to Hwy. 140.
Considerable whiffy on the lee side.* After a run down to Winnemucca for the Johnses to get a broken spring replaced, and all of us to motel-it for a night and shower off the trail dust and anything we may have stomped around in, we wended our way north through the Santa Rosa Mountains and sagebrush expanses, up to the southeastern tip of Oregon and into southwestern Idaho.
Start a askin’ old Saint Pete for a passport.* One of our encounters with the vanishing breed was at isolated Star Valley Ranch tucked into a steep-walled declivity edging the Canyonlands of the Owyhee; the road we were on had no "go-arounds" to avoid trespassing on the posted property, so Marian made friendly, and the cowmen didn’t shoot us. They’d just reined in from a day in the saddle and probably felt some empathy with us, dusty as we were. We shot the breeze for awhile, and they pointed us on our way, through the small adjacent field where their handsome saddle horses were grazing and then up a cliffhanger road to the rolling sagebrush beyond.
Wet ’nough to bog a snipe.* There were some thrilling minutes crossing the rapidly flowing, apparently full-spate, South Fork of the Owyhee; we had a dauntingly wide expanse of open water, whitewater ripples, visible rocks, unknown depths, no viable alternatives. The Johnses forged ahead, strapped to the Cannons’ truck as a precaution, and made the crossing with the Cannons in their wake. Lady Luck was with us – the bottom was rocky, and the water not as deep as feared. The 45 Ranch, just around a curve in the road from the crossing, is a Nature Conservancy holding (uninhabited when we were there) and a put-in point for the few kayakers and canoeists daring to run the river – the last and only person’s entry in the register was November 2002.
Thicker’n fleas on a sheepdog.* We were in high sagebrush country and spectacular mountains most of the trip – gullies of snow still defining the higher peaks; green, green this time of year with amazing panoplies of wildflowers. Mule’s Ears were common, but there were arrow-leaf balsamroot, white-rayed wyethia, mountain irises galore, yellow monkeyflowers (especially at Bog Hot Springs near Denio, NV), lupine (dry-ground lupine, sulphur lupine, foothills lupine, prairie lupine), larkspur, wild onion, silver crazyweed, golden pea, orange globe mallow, paintbrush, locoweed, penstemon, orange sneezeweed, phlox, wild roses, wild flax, rampant Yampah (in lush meadows on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Idaho), paintbrush, camas, Death Camas, bitterbrush, golden currant, serviceberry, and much more we couldn’t identify (we needed Alan Romspert and Allan Schoenherr).
The bird of the trip was the red-winged blackbird; we saw them just about everywhere, but there were lots of sage grouse, chukars, quails, swallows, hawks, and much more we couldn’t identify. After our river crossing, we encountered a killdeer family skittering along in the two-track road in front of the lead vehicle – mother, father, and two or three babies; they didn’t want to deviate from their path so we followed in fits and starts. On the Snake River there were cormorants, egrets, Canada geese. In cattle country we saw a pair of common mergansers, not all that common, at a watering hole. The highlight, though, was spotted coming out of one of the mountain ranges, a red-tail hawk nest with vigilant mother in attendance and her three jostling, fluff-ball, potty-trained babies (ask Neal how we knew this).
We saw pronghorn antelope just about everywhere, usually one or two at time; we were told they "herd up" a little later in the year. We saw wild burros, wild horses, jackrabbits, rock chucks. We saw beaver dams and thousands of badger holes and anthills. Are there truly endangered species of any kind in these parts, other than the last few remnants of our fabled westerners?
Stately poplars are the native tree of choice for windbreaks. We saw them everywhere there were ranches – they served as beacons, drawing attention to each little enclave in an otherwise empty landscape. Almost any tree is appreciated here, but my favorite was the hardy, curlleafed mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius Nutt.). It seems to thrive on ridges in association with aged rock formations, creating silhouettes on the skyline of an almost medieval nature.
Has his good points... like a bob-wire fence.* You can’t see too many wildflowers, but slithery creatures are another matter. Neal, man of many talents (running to snake charming, as well as speaking with forked tongue), persuaded a rattler to vacate the road in front of us so we could roll on, and then he plucked up and moved two gopher snakes out of harm’s way (first from our campsite, before the dogs became interested, and second from our roadway later the next morning).
Fuller o’ information than a mail-order catalog.* Toward the end of the trip we hit several "touristy" sites of scenic and historic merit in south central Idaho, mostly via paved roads: Bruneau Dunes (has largest single structured sand dune in North America); Thousand Springs (basalt lava of Snake River Plain absorbs water and drains it many years later along a "weeping wall," some spots gushing out waterfalls); Shoshone Falls (dry this season when the water in the Snake is siphoned off for extensive irrigation of the vast farmlands in this part of the state); the Cannons’ old home outside Twin Falls (one of many places in Wyoming and Idaho they lived when Tim was with the BLM and USFS); Malad Gorge (250' deep, 2.5 miles long where the Malad River crashes down stairstep falls into Devil’s Washbowl and joins the Snake); Cauldron Linn (a 40' wide passage on the Snake where a waterfall swirls like a cauldron); City of Rocks (fantastically-shaped, towering granite rocks in the Albion Mountains, Sawtooth National Forest). Most of these points were along the California Trail and most posed significant challenges for the emigrants.
Follerin’ yore nose in a pogonip (fog).* From the City of Rocks, the Johnses thought we could make our homeward-bound way back to Nevada via a scenic route – only trouble was we didn’t have a map that covered just a teensy bit of the route – needed the Utah DeLorme. Ah, the thrill of the unknown. We turned out of Junction Valley onto the most tentative road we’d been on the whole trip, and through an open gate that had a hefty chain and serious-looking, open padlock on it. Were we going to find ourselves on the wrong side of a locked gate at the other end of this road? A few miles up, we hit Granite Pass (Trails West marker there) and shortly a cattleguard with a hand painted Utah boundary sign. Oka-a-ay... On we rolled in what seemed to be the wrong direction, but then we had a ray of optimism when we saw a large mine way below with a road headed the right way. Would our wrong-way road connect?
We came upon a lovely "T" junction above the mine and breathed a huge sigh of collective relief. But then, whoa, we found ourselves on the backside of the twin to that first gate-with-chain-&-padlock. A few fervent "oles" were in order when Neal found the padlock hanging open. Still needed our bearings, but we stopped for lunch and rumination on our fate before soldiering forth. Up came yet another cattleguard and another rustic boundary marker – Idaho, this time. Aha! we were back on the map. We may have been waffling back and forth over the borders of several states, but now we were on solid ground and felt confident we’d find Nevada again sometime soon. A few hours later we passed through the portals of Winecup Ranch onto pavement at Highway 93, and were able to celebrate our survival at dinner in Wells. Way to go, Marian and Neal! Your intuition was right on.
Harder to pin down than smoke in a bottle.* It’s difficult to break out just one segment of scenery as being the best of the best – maybe the Santa Rosa Range north of Winnemucca. We came along after a thunderstorm. The mists shrouding the monolithic spires and crenellated turrets rising out of the slopes lent a very atmospheric, Shangri-la quality to rock formations that would have been quite impressive in any weather. There is an open-top, arch-cave punctuating Hinkley Summit, but it was too muddy for us to get a closer look – another mysterious feature to whet the imagination.
No stall-fed tenderfeet.* This journey took on almost epic proportions for us, retracing as we did stretches of such richly historic trails and wildly beautiful country, but a contemporary milestone was established, as well – John Fulton made it for the whole eight days (with only three motel nights), his personal best!
*Adapted from "Cowboy Slang" by Edgar R. "Frosty" Potter. None of the cowboys we met talked the talk – guess the lingo is already just part of the history.