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Finding Hidden Treasure on the Owyhee

In the contentious area in far southeast Oregon, riches of the mineral, agricultural and cultural persuasions abound

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Petroglyphs galore!
  • Petroglyphs galore!

Though we spent hours speculating as to the whereabouts of the rock art, in my wildest dreams I didn't hope to find it. The previous spring, my raft guide Topher Robertson had rowed the same 65-mile stretch of the Owyhee River, from Rome to Birch Creek, and hadn't found the cache. This time, we pored over maps, library books and Oregon Field Guide clips, accruing lists of potentially relevant landmarks that would lead us to the petroglyphs— like pirates in preparation for a treasure hunt.

The morning of our put-in, we ventured into Rome Station, the only diner in the sparsely populated "one-horse town." Sensibly located down the road from the boat ramp, the outpost offered more than just a hot meal and caffeine. Shelves sported a selection of gold pans, fishing tackle, milk, bread and convenience accoutrements, and outside, a mysteriously functional antique gas pump. With such a small customer base, the food and retail selection was impressive, although, word to the wise: Don't ask for decaf, you will only receive a confused look in return.  

Elusive petroglyphs reward those who make the journey to find them.
  • Elusive petroglyphs reward those who make the journey to find them.

Joel, the establishment owner, told us he'd been a local for many decades, since his retirement from the army. Chatting over breakfast, topics included the death of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau—son of Sacajawea, the secret to the cafe's success, locally sourced Basque-style chorizo sausage, news of how the winter's snow accumulation had driven the river flow up, and of course, its effects on the region's longtime cattle industry.

As outdoor enthusiasts, it didn't automatically occur to us that the high water flows rafters pray for on the seasonally-navigable Owyhee are also an indicator that ranchers had endured a rough winter.

The diversity of perspectives between recreationalist and rural locals became more clear at the float registry, when I noticed a pamphlet reading "Our Land Our Voice, No Owyhee Canyonlands Monument without a vote from Congress," a campaign created by The Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition.

Admittedly, by the time we launched and three days and nights slipped by, I surprised myself and altogether forgot about Joel, Rome Station and our treasure hunt. Floating through narrow passages with millions of years of interlaced lava flow and lakebed sediment, alternating river deposits and eruptions, distractions were aplenty.  

If the rocks weren't engrossing enough, tallying birds was. Calls bounced from canyon wall to wall, drawing our attention skyward, to Harris and Red-tailed Hawk, swallows, Sandhill cranes, chukars, owls, and perhaps the most charming, the Canyon wren.

Most ashamedly, I confess to being led astray by the cold, with the gasket in the neck of my dry suit torn all the way through. In retrospect, over the winter's perils, I am certain the farmers and cows had more to complain about, but alas, we are victims of our own reality. I was no longer looking for the artifacts, until the fourth day when Robinson reminded me that now was the time to keep an eye out.

We stopped twice for a binocular scout from the shoreline. On the third try, Robinson found the booty: drawing after drawing, cast upon a coat of rusty patina. Enormous basalt talus, angular boulders coaxed downhill from their rimrock terrace by a persuasive eroding river. These surfaces made for practical canvases when hunting parties paused for a drink and waited for prey to do the same.

Cool runnings on the Owyhee River.
  • Cool runnings on the Owyhee River.

Immersed in the Owyhee Canyonlands for five days, we saw just a small sampling of the riches the region has to offer. As Oregon State University natural resources graduate student Alex Scagliotti pointed out for us, the Owyhee region contains a vast assortment of valued resources for many different and often competing stakeholders, including those concerned with heritage, game, grazing, mineral extraction and petroleum.

As an ill-equipped stowaway on the rafting trip of a lifetime, I feel lucky we found the rock art while it was still there to be found.

Robinson, also a recreation resource management graduate, captured a potential bridge between divisions over the Canyon, saying, "All parties can agree the Owyhee contains many extraordinary resources and the region's many treasures deserve careful consideration regarding their future and sustainability."


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