Bivouacking in wild Louse Canyon, a team of trailblazers meets the remotest part of Oregon, on the Upper West Little Owyhee River of Malheur County.
MALHEUR COUNTY, Ore. — On a chilly afternoon in late June, we stood contemplating our options in an icy Oregon rain that pricked our skin like needles. The canyon’s 300-foot-high walls of chocolate rhyolite had corralled the river into a pool too deep to wade, too cold to swim. Turning back would mean a grueling two-day retreat. If we pushed ahead we could be out in a day. The decision was painful but clear: time to strip and swim.
Brent Fenty, the 37-year-old executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a conservation group, ripped off his shirt and eased waist-deep into the water. Goose bumps rippled down his arms. His backpack bobbed before him.
“I’m not getting any braver,” he said.
Then he went for it, swimming for all he was worth toward a gravel bank 100 feet away. One by one, the five of us made it across.
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It was day three of a four-day, nearly 50-mile exploratory hike through Louse Canyon in the Upper West Little Owyhee Wilderness Study Area of southeastern Oregon, and there was no doubt we were getting spanked.
About 350 air miles southeast of Portland, the West Little Owyhee River, a rarely visited tributary of the better-known Owyhee River, has cut a squiggle of a gorge through sandy expanses of sage and rye. At its loneliest, the nearest human living under a proper roof is about 24 hours away by four-wheel drive, then horseback and foot.
ONDA, which works to protect some 6 million acres of the high desert east of Oregon’s Cascades, has proposed a 700-mile-long hiking trail, the Oregon Desert Trail, from Bend, Ore., to the Idaho state line. It would wander along more than a dozen proposed wilderness areas that highlight the desert’s often overlooked magnificence.
The plan is to have the route entirely surveyed this year, with maps and signage ready by spring 2014.
The section through Louse Canyon is the most rugged, complicated and largely unknown part of the proposal, so Fenty assembled a small team of ONDA workers to survey it themselves last summer. A friend and I tagged along for fun.
Wild horses, wild roses
The five of us were all avid backpackers with considerable experience in trail-less country, and we set off confidently into the canyon under crisp blue skies. A wild horse crested a ridge as we made our way through shin-deep water and along gravel bars lined with sweet peas and wild roses. I stopped to photograph pinnacles protruding like a pipe organ into the sky and noticed tiny fish flickering around my ankles.
“The dream is alive!” shouted Chris Hansen, ONDA’s 27-year-old Owyhee regional representative.
While such remote grandeur fueled our sense of discovery, this area of the Owyhee Plateau was actually first explored centuries ago by the Tagu, a band of Northern Paiute Indians who lived off wild onions, tubers and pronghorns that today still bound across the uplands.
We bashed through thick stands of willow. Within an hour of starting our hike a rubbery limb whipped my face so hard it left a bloody welt. Jeremy Fox, ONDA’s 31-year-old trail-mapping coordinator, slipped and toppled into the river. I was about to step on a rock but panicked when a rattlesnake buzzed from below.
“Just step back slowly,” Hansen said, using a long piece of willow — his trusty “snake stick” — to scoot the snake along.
On that first night, we made camp on a pleasant bend in the river with a white-gravel beach. I swam in the crisp black water as cliff sparrows darted around me, mating in midflight. It was magical, but the reality of the day was depressing: four hours of thrashing and we’d covered only four miles.
“We don’t want to get to a point of no return where we can’t get out in time,” Fenty said. “Tomorrow’s a big day. If it’s not going well, we’ll have to get out.”
But things went impressively well. The GPS on day two said we’d covered 19 miles.
Fighting the shivers
All hell broke loose that night as a hailstorm strafed our camp with marble-size missiles. Then we hiked only a few cold, damp miles the next morning before we came to the pool we had to swim across.
After a second, even colder pool, Fenty and Hansen were shivering uncontrollably, so we paused under a rocky overhang, did jumping jacks and boiled river water to drink.
Only after we stopped shivering did we realize how truly beautiful a spot we were in. Tiny white wildflowers clung to cracks in the weeping walls. A red-tailed hawk circling overhead fired a shrill salvo that ricocheted off the marbled rock.
“If this had been a hot July day you’d be psyched,” Fenty said.
He was right. The place was surreal, a narrow fissure so well hidden a wagon train could fall in before anyone noticed the ground was gone.
By noon the clouds had parted, the sun had come out, and our spirits soared along with our core temperatures.
The final day, we stopped to catch redband trout with wet flies that we flung into emerald-green pools.
On our last evening we laid in the fescue and mint along the main stem of the Owyhee. We hadn’t seen a soul, and Fenty conceded it would be tough to send hikers the way we had just come. Instead, ONDA will look at the data we’ve gathered and recommend a route that drops into the canyon for its best sections — the trout-choked holes, the pinnacles — while skirting the worst ones by moving high along the rim.
But mapping out a viable route is really just a means to an end.
“It’s hard to explain to people why the desert is worth protecting and what wilderness really means,” Fenty said. “But you drop somebody back in here and it all becomes immediately clear.”