Owyhee Canyonlands: The wildest part of Idaho

Photos by Brad TalbuttNovember 22, 2006 

Little Jacks Creek winds through deep canyons and across the sagebrush steppe of Owyhee County.

BRAD TALBUTT — The Idaho Statesman

Rancher Frank Bachman patiently coaxed his truck over the rocky wisp of a road winding through an unbroken sea of sagebrush.

Locals call this high plateau southwest of Bruneau "between the creeks," referring to the area bounded by Big and Little Jacks and their canyons.

Bachman and his wife, Cindy, call it home.

The Bruneau couple are among the small cadre of Idahoans who live, work and play in the Owyhee Canyonlands, 4,500 square miles of America's most remote terrain outside Alaska. Drive Idaho 51 and 78 through Owyhee County and you don't see much that's different from the deserts that surround southern Idaho's irrigated Eden.

"It's hot, hot, hot in the summer. It's dry. It's dusty. It's not green," said Cindy Bachman. "People who like trees and forests see nothing of beauty here."

But look again, into the largest intact shrub-steppe ecosystem remaining in western North America.

Hidden away are mysterious wonders that make the Owyhee country unique in Idaho and the nation. Deep verdant canyons, dark and cool — carved into spires, benches and colorful chasms.

"In the bottom of those canyons are different worlds," Frank Bachman said.

Few people visit these worlds. Only Bruneau's sheer-walled canyon is relatively accessible to sightseers, hikers or anglers. To get into the rest of the canyonlands, visitors must navigate ungraded roads that alternate between sharp-spiked rocks and mud wallows.

Bachman's one-ton crew-cab four-wheel-drive truck is the kind of rig Owyhee veterans depend on. They carry extra spare tires and hope they're heading out when they put on the last one.

A 40-mile round-trip last week took more than five hours.

In April and May, whitewater rafters, kayakers and canoeists brave bone-chilling nights and frequent rainstorms to exploit the short runoff season for a spectacular float trip through what feels like another time and terrain. In the fall, hunters come for bighorn sheep, mule deer, antelope, sage grouse and chukar. A few hikers and campers venture off Mud Flat Road into the mountain mahogany-covered uplands that look like the savannahs of Africa.

But for most of the last century, Owyhee County has been left to ranchers like Bachman.

Cowboy ballad land

Born in Bruneau, Bachman spent his youth hunting for deer and chukar, fishing for native redband trout. He worked in cow camps in the heart of the Canyonlands, exploring every side canyon and spring hole on horseback.

After graduating from the University of Idaho, he returned to the canyonlands as a range conservationist for the Bureau of Land Management. Later he managed J.R. Simplot's rangelands across the West, including Owyhee County, and bought cattle for the billionaire.

Bachman has covered the canyonlands like few people alive.

As a young man, he rediscovered Arch Canyon on a tributary of the Jarbidge River south of Twin Falls, where the middle of a natural arch had broken and fallen into the creek. Carved into the rock were the names of homesteaders who pioneered the country at the turn of the 19th century. Curley Fletcher, author of the poem and cowboy classic ballad, "Strawberry Roan," left his name, too.

"The first time I saw it, there weren't 20 people left who knew about it," Bachman said.

Crawling through a side canyon of Deep Creek southwest of Little Jacks Creek on a hunting trip a few years ago, Bachman discovered a spring shooting out of the rocks like a fountain.

"I wondered if I was the first white man to see it," he said.

Frank and Cindy have taken few vacations during their years of ranching but were willing to drop everything to take a Statesman reporter and photographer "between the creeks." That included a stop at their favorite overlook on Little Jacks Canyon, reached after 2› hours of slow-going in Frank's truck.

"This is our vacation," Cindy said.

The panorama was dominated by a huge sky filled with dark clouds. Bachman watched a distant rain squall slowly move east toward him.

"When you live here, you know six hours from now, it's going to rain," Bachman said.

Earlier, a hunter on an all-terrain-vehicle had chased a herd of mule deer. Chukar partridge ran across the road and flushed all along the route. A large buck antelope led a herd through 3-foot-high native blue bunchgrass growing among the sagebrush.

A special place

Every year, more and more people discover the Owyhees. The Bachmans worry that the special places and experiences they've enjoyed are threatened.

"That's what makes us so passionate about protecting these areas," Cindy Bachman said.

For more than five years, she has spent her own time sitting across the table from environmentalists, motorized recreation advocates, other ranchers and representatives of outfitters and the Air Force to forge an agreement they hope will protect the Owyhees and the ranching lifestyle. Cindy hasn't been paid for her hundreds of hours of work and thousands of miles of traveling.

The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing in September on the bill she and the group drafted, and which was sponsored by Sen. Mike Crapo. The bill would protect more than 500,000 acres of the canyons and uplands as wilderness, where motorized use and future mining and energy development would be prohibited.

The Bachmans have brought many of Cindy's negotiating partners to the same Little Jacks overlook. From its eastern edge, the canyon opens up into a labyrinth of side canyons, rocky towers and stair-like benches that drop into narrows.

The sound of the rushing river below is punctuated by echoing yelps of coyotes upstream and down. Rain comes on a cold wind that carries with it the fresh smell of sage.

Standing on the rim brings Frank memories of a trip he took as a young cowhand riding into the Rattlesnake Creek side canyon below. Eventually he and another cowhand rode the length of Jacks Creek and home to Bruneau, a 30-mile trip.

They had to ride up almost on the canyon walls around beaver dams and through thick brush. But they caught redband trout one after the other from the backs of their horses. It was dark when they got home, and Bachman has never been in the bottom since.

The brush has grown even thicker today, and there aren't as many redband after years of drought. Like any trip into the "Heart of Nowhere," as National Geographic Adventure called the Canyonlands, Bachman's trip was hard but worth the effort.

"It was an amazing trip, but I only wanted to do it once," he said. "I don't think you could do that now."

Contact reporter Rocky Barker at rbarker@idahostatesman.com or 377-6484.

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