The Last Darkness
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Photos by Fred Marmsater
It was 4 in the morning, and we’d been on our feet for 21 hours. Just three miles from camp, Jesse and I trudged to the water’s edge and flipped our headlamps on high, looking for the lake-shore route that led to our camp. All we could see was sheer cliff walls separated by black, impassable water. In a voice that mirrored my fatigue, I moaned a drawn-out, “Ohh, nooo!”
Four days earlier, the plan had seemed so simple: Run the final 170 miles of the newly conceived Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) through the Owyhee Canyonlands in four days. I’d convinced ultrarunner Jesse Haynes to run with me, photographers Fred Marmsater and Jonathan Byers to document the adventure and another friend, Jereme Monteau, to help support our team.
Still more concept than trail, the ODT is an 800-mile string of GPS waypoints through eastern Oregon’s diverse and unforgiving high desert. We set our sights specifically on the Owyhee Canyonlands section—a deeply carved volcanic canyon featuring hot springs, lava beds, craters and cinder cones. It’s one of the last dark spots in the Lower 48, where an unobstructed view of the Milky Way is yours for the gazing.
My interest in the Owyhee began 15 years ago, when I backpacked the northern edge with an old-school map and compass. I always knew I’d return; I just didn’t anticipate the grand adventure it would be.
The Owyhee Canyonlands is a 2.5-million-acre undeveloped area that cuts a gigantic swath along southeast Oregon’s border with Idaho. It’s an untamed chunk of the American West larger than Yellowstone, and home to one of the biggest herds of California bighorn sheep in the nation. Countless other creatures, including the imperiled greater sage grouse, inhabit this vast place. It has hundreds of archeological sites, and more than two dozen plant species that exist nowhere else in the world.
Access is challenging. The upland rim hosts a network of primitive two-track roads winding through sweeping prairies riddled with lava rock. There’s only one paved highway, bisecting the Owyhee’s midsection.
The Owyhee lacks official protections; inaccessability has kept it wild for this long. Now, though, mining and energy development threatens to encroach. The Owyhee Coalition Conservation Proposal would make the Owyhee a national conservation area. But it requires an act of Congress.
That’s why I hatched a plan to run the Owyhee. I wanted to raise awareness of the wild area’s untapped potential for recreation and adventure before these development forces have a chance to take hold.
On a Monday afternoon in May, we turned onto a rough four-wheel-drive road to creep the final 36 miles to the edge of Louse Canyon. The area was named by cattle ranchers in the early 20th century whose camp had become infested with lice. While the lice are now gone, little else has changed. The West Little Owyhee River flows through Louse’s rock-walled canyon like a moat. We arrived just before sunset to establish our first night’s camp at the canyon’s edge.
Jereme, our navigation-and-logistics guru, set up basecamp and started cooking dinner. Jesse and I unloaded the remaining gear, while Fred shot photos in the perfect evening light. After dinner, Jonathan decided to descend to the canyon floor and set up a video time lapse at the creek’s edge. Itching to see what we were getting into, I tagged along. Jereme and I grabbed our headlamps and followed Jonathan down the steep, sage-covered slope.
As I tramped down the creek, I made note of the labyrinth of willows, braided streams and tight canyon walls. Oh, man, this is gonna be legit, I thought. We turned off our headlamps and stood in the invigorating darkness. Vibrant stars capped the silhouette of the rock formations, and the only sound was the babble of the water a few feet away. It was good to be back.
Dancing With Willows
We awoke before sunrise to the crisp chill that accompanies morning in the high desert. Jereme was already up brewing coffee under the glow of a headlamp. The day’s plan was to run 39 miles, following the West Little Owyhee to its confluence with the south fork of the main Owyhee River, then taking the river canyon to Three Forks.
Anxious to be on our way, Jesse and I dropped off into Louse Canyon. It was immediately clear that we’d be tackling a more rugged route than we’d anticipated. We crossed the frigid river too many times to count, and route-finding devoured precious hours.
Locating a passable route along the canyon floor required scrambling, hopping boulders, crashing through willow trees and crisscrossing the knee-deep river. Sometimes the canyon narrowed so tightly that we had to wade the river to a rock bar to continue. Other times, we were shut out by sheer rock walls and had to backtrack to find a feasible route.
There’s an abundance of wildlife in the Owyhee. Another bend brought the first of many Canada goose families, herding their fuzzy goslings into the protection of calm, turquoise pools. A rattlesnake’s polite warning reminded us to be on alert.
“Whoa, how many rattles?” Jesse asked.
Peering over the bunch grass that separated me from the snake, I answered, “Eight, I think.”
We began tapping the ground with our trekking poles with more vigor than before.
After running for three hours, it was painfully obvious that our original 40-mile plan was unrealistic—we’d covered six miles. Jesse and I rounded a bend to find Jereme basking in the sun. Like a well-stocked street peddler, he showed us an array of food options from his stuffed pack.
“Need anything?” he asked. Jesse and I each grabbed a handful of smoked salmon and shoved it into our mouths.
“Dude, I just don’t think we can pull off this next section,” I mumbled between bites. “We may have to bail out of the canyon and go overland on the rim to make up time.”
After some quick photos with Jonathan and Fred, we sat sunning ourselves on an immense red boulder, maps in hand. We could navigate 16 miles of canyon, or eight miles of doubletrack on the rim that would skip an especially narrow section with a couple of deep-water swims. We had to make up time, and so decided to gain the rim and run the old two-track overland. Reluctantly, we scrambled up the rim and got moving. Once on two-track, Jesse and I knocked out the eight miles in a little over an hour.
Beavers and Beyond
We arrived at the next access point as Fred and Jonathan were shouldering their packs to join us on the day’s final 12-mile section. Fred, a tough backcountry skier and trail runner, grabbed a few extra gels and tucked them into his camera pack. Jonathan, a slender, steely 6’ 4” climber, mountaineer and Leadville 100 finisher, shot video footage as we descended a primitive trail into a side drainage opposite the confluence with Little Spring Creek.
As we continued down Louse Canyon, we all settled into our respective running grooves on the technical canyon floor. We had grown accustomed to the willow bashing, and stopped in our tracks when we rounded a bend in the river.
“It looks like everything’s been cut down,” I exclaimed.
“It almost looks like a fire came through here,” said Jesse.
“Beavers,” was Fred’s laconic reply.
Fifteen to 20 years ago, before the current grazing-management plans were in place, cattle were overgrazing, and the canyon was thrashed and barren. With the willows back, the beavers have returned. It was incredible to see how quickly Mother Nature repairs herself when given the chance.
Running became a bit easier after we passed Toppin Canyon, one of Louse Canyon’s larger side drainages. Louse opened up more and we followed some faint cattle tracks, though there was no shortage of technical rock hopping and stream crossings. We danced through grassy rock fields the last few miles down the river to rendezvous with Jereme, who was running up canyon from a newly established basecamp on the rim.
“Five Bar’s campsite is amazing!” he proclaimed. “Only a few more bends and we’re there.”
After a quick river bath, we hiked up the rutted remnant of an ancient two-track to our camp on the rim above Five Bar, the confluence of the West Little Owyhee and the South Fork of the main Owyhee. We were surrounded by expansive, rolling desert meadows and perfectly perched above the jagged tuff formations where the two rivers merged.
We toasted the day’s beauty as night fell, and Jereme recounted the harrowing drive to Five Bar. He had had to hoof it a half mile to scout a gnarly crossing of a side drainage, where he used a pry bar to move a sizable boulder in the overgrown two-track. One 30-yard section had taken him 30 minutes to navigate.
Sitting beneath the brilliantly starlit sky, Jonathan asked, “Jereme, did you see anyone today?”
“Nope,” he replied with a wide-eyed grin. We had the wild Owyhee all to ourselves.
The second day began at dawn. The plan was to get to the town of Rome by nightfall—a 50-mile jaunt. But first came a highly anticipated swim across the main Owyhee. Recent snow and rainstorms contributed to a reported flow 10 times that of the average. We were concerned.
The morning was beautiful. Clouds dotted the sky, and temperatures were rising. Jesse and I decided to cross just above the confluence of the two rivers. Donning shorts and shoes, we secured the rest of our belongings in dry bags. I waded into the waist-high water, holding fast to the flooded willow trees. After several deep breaths, I hucked myself into the main channel. The rapids spun me around, and my feet bounced off the boulders below. I righted myself and came out of the muddy water whooping and hollering. Jesse learned from my performance and went farther upriver. He then waded as far out as possible before executing a more graceful swim.
The ODT route follows the river through the canyon, but we opted to take an overland variation on the plateau to avoid any more swimming in the swollen, muddy river. We found the overgrown, rutted track climbing to the north, and power hiked up to gain nice doubletrack with widespread views of the deep, narrow gorges of the North, Middle and South forks of the Owyhee as they converge at Three Forks. I even found a rusty horseshoe. The day was looking up.
Preoccupation with the morning swim had distracted us from hatching a detailed plan for the day’s route. After Three Forks, a lack of water made support a necessity. We veered off the ODT’s waypoints and headed a mile overland toward water spots a GPS search had turned up. Unfortunately, the water sources turned out to be nothing more than cattle ponds, complete with lounging animals and copious quantities of manure. We were thirsty, but not that thirsty.
I messaged Fred on his Delorme InReach, requesting the crew intersect our position. Jesse and I slowed to a tortuous walk on the dusty gravel road. We passed several sun-soaking rattlesnakes—our only company under the hot midday sun. At last, we heard the welcome rumbling of the crew’s truck tires.
“Man, are we glad to see you guys,” I said. “There’s no water up here.”
After some quick calories and plenty of water, we set off cross country to pick up the ODT waypoints along the rim. We ran across the high-desert prairie, weaving in and out of sagebrush, both lost in our own thoughts. A lone coyote darted over the rise and was swallowed by the sea of sage.
The route merged with doubletrack dirt road and our pace quickened. Side by side, we silently clipped off miles as the dirt road lazily descended into a wide desert basin. A few clouds lightly shrouded distant, snow-covered Steens Mountain as dusk set in. Under the beam of our headlamps, my GPS watch read 47.8 miles as we stepped into basecamp around 10 o’clock. Everyone was buzzing about how huge and remote this place was.
“It took six hours to drive out to the highway from Five Bar!” Jereme exclaimed. “Slow going on those gnarly roads.” After 14 hours on the move, Jesse and I could only nod in exhausted assent as we ate our steaming food.
Cats and Dogs
Morning brought a rough wake-up call. Jesse was battling tendonitis in his lower leg, and I sat like a lead weight in my camp chair, sipping coffee and stalling. Sensing my plot, Jereme finally shooed us out of camp under sunny skies at 8:45. After a slow warm-up, Jesse and I covered the remaining seven miles to the Rome boat launch. We stood overlooking the civilization of the small irrigated valley, then scrambled down off the rim’s steep rock band and topped off our water at a spigot by the boat launch.
After crossing the Highway 95 bridge—the only paved-road crossing of the trip—we continued on the ODT through flat farmland before climbing back up to the rim. We made good time on an old dirt road, averaging five miles an hour along the edge of the Owyhee’s deep, expansive gorge. We finalized the day’s plan at our first rendezvous: Continue on to Iron Point, 15 miles away, then press on another six miles to the top of Birch Creek to camp for the night. That would put us at 43 miles for the day.
Once on the move again, Jesse and I descended through yellow bunchgrass contrasted against a jumble of dark lava formations called Lambert Rocks. We filtered water from the fast-flowing Bogus Creek, then climbed a steep, cross-country route back up to the rim through technical lava-rock fields smothered in dry yellow grass. We tipped our hats to yet another rattlesnake before topping out to climb along a narrow, rocky ledge.
With dark clouds and lightning as our backdrop, we met up with the team around 5 o’clock. Before pushing the final miles to Birch Creek, we paused to take in the commanding view of Iron Point, 1,300 feet above the river directly across the canyon from our position. Then, it hit.
The sky unleashed a torrent of wind, rain, thunder, lightning and hail. We hunkered down against the truck. Fred frantically snapped photos until the pelting hail forced us all to pile into the truck.
Jonathan immediately stated, “If this keeps up, we need to get this truck out of here. We have a long drive to get to pavement.” Silence.
Jereme calmly said, “We can’t get to Birch Creek to camp now. It’s off the table. If we don’t get moving soon, we’ll be stranded.” Silence again while we pondered our situation.
The desert mud was thickening and we were all concerned about getting the truck out. With a rough four-hour drive to reach pavement and no sign of the storm clearing, I made a quick decision.
“OK,” I said. “Then we have to bail. Let’s go.” I stopped my satellite tracker. We started to drive.
The drumming of the windshield wipers provided the tempo, while the truck slid around on the rough, muddy two-track road, water now pooling in the tracks. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the rain ceased. Jonathan stopped the truck. We discussed our options.
“I don’t want to quit! Jereme, what are our options for the truck?” I asked.
After a glance at the map, he said, “The only option is to drive back to Rome, back through Jordan Valley on 95 and come in on the improved gravel road to Leslie Gulch Boat Launch.”
“How far from Iron Point to Leslie Gulch on the ODT?” I asked, hopefully.
“Then, I’m pushing on to Leslie Gulch tonight. Jesse, you in?”
“I’m in,” he declared without hesitation. Jonathan turned the rig around, and by 7 Jesse and I were on the move again.
As we ran into the night, we slogged through lava rock and sludge, picking up pounds of mud with each plodding step. We descended a steep section off the rim sometime after midnight. After refilling our water at a spring, our path merged with a two-track that descended the Willow Creek drainage, a narrow slot canyon with enormous lava rock towers reaching into the dark heavens. After a few miles, our GPS route left the rough jeep road and continued cross country down the narrow creek bed.
I came to a stop on the edge of the road and checked my GPS again. Looking back toward Jesse, I saw that he too was staring into the glow of his smartphone.
“We go down into that,” I said. “I guess they named it Willow Creek for a reason.”
Peering off into the wild, jumbled creek drainage, the way was choked with willows. Towering 70-degree embankments rose into the darkness on both sides.
Follow the Cows
Jesse and I spent a frustrating hour trying to traverse the steep lava rock and bunchgrass-ridden hillside above the creek. Wasted, we bailed and splashed into the narrow creek bed to battle the willows. Jesse nearly stepped on a rattlesnake, but thankfully it was moving slowly in the brisk night air. Meandering cattle tracks cut in and out of the creek, and we realized the cows knew the way. We coined a new mantra: “Just follow the cows; they know where they’re going.” The 2.5 miles of bushwhacking through Willow Creek Canyon took us a painstaking three hours.
And that’s when we encountered the dead end mentioned at the beginning of the story. The waypoints promised a three-mile hike to camp along the lakeshore, but the high water level made that impossible.
“Dude, we’re stuck!” I said. I didn’t want to believe it.
“Can we swim?” Jesse asked in his sleep-deprived state.
“No! We’ll go hypothermic,” I said. “It’s three miles and it’s the start of the lake—there’s no current.”
We scrambled up a short plateau and looked out into the vast darkness. We were exhausted. I came up with a ridiculous plan that involved bushwhacking 1,500 feet up to another rocky plateau, descending a side drainage, climbing an even higher plateau and finally descending to camp. Thankfully, Jesse retained some sense even in that senseless hour. Dawn was close, and the light would make things clearer.
We messaged our team: “We’re hunkered down till AM. Built fire. Need to look at overland route in daylight. We’re worked and need a small nap. If not, might need a boat.”
Fred immediately wrote back, “Copy.”
Jesse and I gathered some dry wood, lit a fire and fell asleep in the dirt.
New Day Dawning
Morning came quickly. Jesse and I dusted ourselves off and took inventory of our food—four gels between us. After filling our hydration bladders, we sent word to the team that we were en route to scout the traverse. Our crew confirmed they were heading our way.
Jesse was right. The daylight made a world of difference. Once again, we climbed the plateau.
“Whoa, dude. I think we can get through!” I exclaimed with renewed optimism.
Jesse even mustered some enthusiasm, “Let’s finish this thing!”
“The whole thing?”
“Yeah!” We high-fived.
And for a brief moment, we believed we could. But our belief was lost in reality just a mile down the rocky route. We were spent, and we had to be back in Bend that night. We couldn’t squeeze in another 30 miles.
As we traversed a steep, loose scree embankment above the lakeshore, we heard someone yelling. I craned my neck to see Fred standing atop a rock formation, camera in hand. He yelled down to us, telling us to backtrack a quarter mile to pick up an uncharted trail.
That’s when I lost it. I wasn’t backtracking. I wasn’t doing anything but clawing my way straight up the side of that face to Fred and the trail. And that’s what I did, with Jesse close behind.
Although we wanted to finish the full 170-mile route we’d set out to do, time was up. When we finally stumbled into camp at 9 a.m., we’d covered 142 miles in 72 hours. We weren’t prepared for the utter wildness of the Owyhee.
Jeff Browning lives in Bend, Oregon, with his wife and three children. A Patagonia Trail Ambassador, he juggles ultrarunning, freelance graphic design, endurance coaching, backyard chickens and an organic garden.
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.