Float Oregon’s Owyhee Rivers
Most people think of Oregon and imagine mossy forests, big coasts, and Portlandia. Here’s what they miss: the Owyhees, roughly 8 million acres of sagebrush desert and the least-tamed mountain range in the Lower 48. “It’s a forbidding landscape,” says Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, as we bump along in his pickup. “But that’s kept it primitive and wild.” That morning we’d driven 290 miles southeast from Bend to the confluence of three branches of the Owyhee. The plan: to trek upstream beside the Owyhee’s Middle Fork River, hike over a ridgeline, then float down its main stem on pack rafts, one-person inflatables we’d crammed in our packs. As we hike, the canyon walls cinch close around us. Dark rhyolite walls speckled with neon-green lichen soar hundreds of feet above us. In the shade of the canyon, the desert grows moist and kelly green. Ferns appear. The smell of wild mint replaces sage. “People think of deserts as tumbleweeds and blowing sand,” says Fenty. “They’re surprised by the diversity that’s out here.”
The next day we climb steeply out of the canyon, emerge on the sagebrush uplands, and walk until South Cross Canyon opens beside us. Then we descend. That night, camped next to the river, I land a 16-inch bass with a fly. In the morning, on day three, we inflate the rafts and drift among the Oldsmobile-size chunks of cliff that, over time, have plopped into the river. We stop at Warm Springs Canyon, where 80-degree springs gush from a canyon wall and into rock-pile tubs, like natural infinity pools perched high above the river. We strip down and sink to our necks in the water, rubbing off the desert grime.
In three days we’ve not seen another soul. As we drive away from the take-out that night, out of the canyon and onto the tabletop sagelands, I glance in the side-view mirror: There’s nothing. No canyon, no water, no green. It was as if our trip, and the Owyhees themselves, had never happened at all.
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