Antelope Canyon Breaks in the Owyhee Uplands, Oregon

Monday, 5/14/2018

We are camped at the end of a primitive road that has been paralleling a fence line for several miles. Both end at the rim of Twin Springs Gorge. We left the pavement at Rome, Oregon, heading due south along a series of unmarked, unmaintained back-country roads. We found our way to our planned destination as we usually do; Mike was driving while I studied every detail of our road map. I have him set the trip odometer to zero while I estimate the distance to each intersecting ranch or reservoir road, using the section markers on the map as mileposts. It’s not a contour map, so there are no relief lines to gauge the landscape. I pay particular attention to the small blue lines that denote drainages and I follow along the major corners in the road with my finger, noting buttes and any named landmark that makes sense.  Fence lines are often along section lines and I’m grateful for any point of reference that provides truth to our whereabouts.

“Three miles to the first branch in the road,” I told Mike.  And then, at the three mile point, the road wasn’t there, which happens often in the remote deserts of the West. “Well, it’s about another mile to the next intersection of roads, which form a triangle. We’ll have three choices, so let’s keep going.”

At 4.3 miles we came to the triangle, so I was off only three-tenths of a mile in four. Not bad. I had Mike set the trip odometer back to zero and we continued on in this manner for the next three and a half hours, for a total of 36 miles. The last nine miles over a very primitive road, ran in a straight line due south. By Owyhee standards, it wasn’t too bad, but Mike was tired of being bounced and jostled about in the cab of the truck. He was definitely ready for the drive to end.

To our south the sky was dark. A line of cumulus nimbus clouds ran the entire width of the horizon line from east to west. The breaks of Twin Springs Gorge were directly below camp and we found a level area for the tent near a fin of rock that jutted above ground about six feet and ran about 50 feet on a downward slope into the little canyon. Grasses were still green on the uplands, and cattle were grazing on the opposite side of the gorge. To our west Oregon Mountain was silhouetted against stormy skies, as was Bald Mountain, in Idaho, in the east. Dark sheets of rain in broad vertical strokes spanned the northern horizon.  We were in a bowl of sunshine with winds that were cool but not uncomfortable. Besides the sound of wind, a meadowlark staked out a perch on the fence post at the end of the road to sing a welcoming song. A horned lark claimed the rough-looking juniper that grows from a crack in the rock seam nearby, and a canyon wren creeped along the rocky edges of the seam in search of insects. A red-tailed hawk and two ravens rode the wind currents.

At sunset the wind died completely and a big quiet settled over the land. The human ear will strain to hear something in such stillness but will find only the hushed sigh of a breath or a beating heart to break the silence.

Tuesday, 5/15/2018

There are owls in the ledges and small caves that dot the canyon cliff walls. During the night their soft hooting ushers us back to sleep. A few times, when we awakened, the yips and howls of coyotes could be heard in the distance, bringing a subliminal smile to our faces. And suddenly, it was morning.

Ample light illuminated the camp at 4:45 AM. Not even a breath of wind disturbed the air, which meant we could safely have a warming fire. We dressed for the morning chill and while Mike tended the fire, I made a thermos of coffee.  No sooner had I poured our first cup than a delicate pink blush appeared on the bellies of morning clouds. The meadowlark took his place on the fencepost, raised his beak and sang his morning song.

By 7:30 we were dressed for hiking; faces slathered with sunscreen, hat with a stiff brim and chin strap to protect from sun and strong winds, one hiking pole each for assistance and balance, windbreaker and long sleeved shirt, leather fingerless gloves to protect the tops of our hands from sun and our palms from the sharp rough edges of rocks during descents and climbing. Long pants that dry quickly are tightly woven to resist small punctures and stickers. Sturdy boots, good socks and gaiters to keep the cheat-grass seeds and small rocks from entering our boots and clothing. Day-packs that hold two one-liter bottles of water each, lunch, binoculars, camera, first-aid kit, sun screen and toilet paper, along with an extra layer of clothing for weather changes.

We struck out along the ridge line that borders Twin springs Gorge, keeping the breaks of the gorge to our right, within sight. Our plan was to follow the gorge to it’s confluence with Antelope Creek Canyon, a major tributary of the midsection of the Owyhee River. We hoped to find a way down into Antelope Creek Canyon and hike it to the Owyhee. It’s a side canyon I had not seen before. Often, when we ran the river, we would see another float party, or hikers camped at the confluence, so we wouldn’t stop. I had always longed to see what was up the creek and I would soon find out.

The ridge was a gentle down hill slope covered predominately with bunch grasses. The area appeared to have burned a few years ago and reseeded. The grasses looked healthy, but the sage was still in its infancy. Many small sagebrush plants appeared near our camp and elsewhere, still too small to obstruct hiking. (1) Nosegays of pink phlox hugged the ground. We saw a few scarlet paint brush, yellow & purple lupine, yellow vetch, and rarely the royal blue larkspur. Phlox was the dominate flower and they seemed to appear in scattered colonies. Bitterroot poked out from cracks in the basalt tables where little else grew.

In an hour we had covered about two miles and could see the significant breaks of Antelope Canyon. To find our way down, we explored a gentle drainage that soon gave way to exposed rock and cut quickly and deeply down through the basalt and rhyolite on its way to Antelope Creek.  We walked along its rim, peering down to see if it were passable. A gigantic boulder blocked the narrow vertical walled channel, creating a drop over ten feet. We could see no way around it. Below the boulder, water pooled in a large, shoreless, circular basin. It was a beautiful and mysterious chasm to behold from the rim, with hidden passages, but would not be our portal to the canyon below.

We took a short break, enjoying the canyon views and contemplating our next move. We worked our way along the rim of the side fissure to the cliffs above Antelope Creek, continuing upstream to the next cleft leading down into the creek. Still, no success.  Turning east and hiking along a basalt cap jutting out into Antelope Canyon, we surveyed the downstream cliff walls. Rhyolite pinnacles rose straight up in both directions. Beyond them a scree slope leading to the creek bottom, but partially hidden, seemed like a possible route.

It was noon. To reach the scree slope would require another half mile, over a rise and down a few hundred feet to determine if the slope was passable. If it were, we wanted to hike the canyon. We had already lost half the day in our reconnaissance. We would try again tomorrow.

We hung out on our perch, taking our lunch break. Mike, reacquainting himself with his camera, took photos and experimented with some of the camera features new to him, while cliff swallows strafed the air around us and a red tail hawk, agitated by our presence out on our respective platforms, perhaps protecting a nearby nest, let out a piercing warning call as it circled below us.

Antelope Canyon is a narrow gorge, ranging between 20 to 200 feet across in some places. The small stream has been sculpting a path down through the basalt and rhyolite for over a million years, constructing a cathedral of natural beauty in clustered columns of stone and pointed spires rising the full depth of the ravine, from creek bottom to rim. It is a place that inspires inward reflection and a meditation no less spiritual than the grand gothic cathedrals of Europe. Time flies amidst such grandeur. An hour had passed in the flick of a cliff swallows wing. Deeply contented, we began the return hike.

On the trek out, while we kept the breaks of Twin Springs Gorge within sight, we were not walking it’s rim directly, as it would have taken us too far south and out of the way of our intended destination. We hiked up and over three small basins. I counted them to remember the return route, even though we might take a slightly different line. But on the way back, when we came to the third basin, there was a fence line that neither of us could remember crossing.

“What do you think?” Mike inquired.
“We didn’t cross that fence, Mike,” I replied.
“No, we didn’t,” he confirmed.
“I think we should stay to the ridge line on this side,” I suggested.  He agreed, and yet, I wasn’t fully confident of my own decision.

We began hiking the gentle upward sloping ridge, but I could sense Mike’s doubt. He lagged behind, as if something was pulling him back. Finally he came to a full stop and said, “That fence line may not have extended all the way to the canyon where we crossed this drainage on our way in this morning. Twin Springs Gorge is a substantial drainage, and we haven’t come to it yet. I think we should cross the fence line and continue southwest until we reach the gorge, then follow it back to camp.”

Fence or no fence, his suggestion made complete sense. We reversed course and within ten minutes the breaks of Twin Springs Gorge appeared.  What a relief it was to see it! That relief was expressed in the jokes we made about spending a nights bivouac in the Owyhee Desert. With thunderstorms carrying great sheets of rain and hail all around us, it was not a comforting thought. The sight of the pickup truck was, however, along with the camps halo of sunshine that continued to encircle us, keeping us dry, I was relieved to be home.

Hanging the warmed water bag of the solar shower off a stone knob of the rock fin that bordered camp, which also acted as a windbreak, I was able to take my sun shower in comfort, and while showering, reflected on how easy it would have been to become lost in the desert.

Refreshed and dressed, I poured myself a glass of wine.

“Your instincts were correct,” I said to Mike. “You brought us home safely. Thank you.”