11 July 2001: Owyhee Canyon and Jordan Craters

Dave Satterwhite had invited me to visit the archaeological site down in Owyhee Canyon where he was spending most of the summer. So, on the last day of a trip to my parents I decided to take him up on the invitation.

The Owyhee River starts in North Central Nevada before cutting through Southwest Idaho and into Southeast Oregon where it eventually flows back a little to the east and joins the Snake River on the Oregon-Idaho border. Much of its course is through scenic canyonlands cut into desert plateaus. A large stretch of the river has already been designated a wild and scenic river and there is a somewhat controversial proposal to create a National Monument out of the area. Currently the BLM adminsters much of the land in Southeast Oregon, including the canyon bottom where Dave and others from WSU were digging.

In order to get into the canyon, you take Birch Creek Road. At the top of the grade, there is a sign warning that when the road is wet, it becomes extremely slippery and two wheel drive vehicles are not recommended. It was an interesting drive in. There were some sections which were pretty steep, and a couple of small creek crossings, but these were no problem for me. I can definitely see how the road would become impassable when wet, however. Dave told me that for up to 5 months a year, a BLM caretaker and his wife who live at the bottom of the grade see no other people due to the impassability of the road. He also mentioned that everything is run on propane and about twice a year a big propane truck makes the drive down into the canyon. That has got to be an exciting experience, given the condition and narrowness of the road combined with the size of a propane truck.

I was able to find the BLM owned ranch house which served as the base of operations for the group from WSU. Apparently this had been a ranch which was originally built by Basque sheepherders. I do not know who all had owned it, but a few years back, the last owner sold or traded it to the BLM. There is a nice large lawn as well as some fruit trees, all of which are right alongside the river.

After talking with Dave for awhile, he offered to show me the actual excavation site. It was pretty interesting to see what they had done and what conclusions they were able to draw from what they had found. Dave said that it looked like there had been multiple occupations over the course of a few thousand years. They knew a rough upper bound on how old the materials were because they were all being found above a layer of Mazama ash. There is a fair amount of guess work involved in digging through someone's old trash and trying to understand them, but it seems like a fairly reliable picture of what people did can be ascertained, all the same. For example, an abundance of river mussel shells indicates that the people probably ate a fair amount of river mussels in their diet. After touring the digs and talking for awhile, I decided it was probably time to head back out since I was interested in taking a short side trip to Jordan Craters on the way back.

Jordan Craters is a large area of recent lava flows. Few plants have had the time to colonize the new rock so as you look out across it, all you see is an expanse of broken and twisted black rock. It was particularly hot on this day, and the heat radiating back off the rock did not help matters. Even so, Ce'Nedra and ventured out a short distance to see Coffee Pot Crater and another smaller crater which was a little further away from the parking lot. I was thinking that would be nice to have a better knowledge of geologic, especially as it relates to volcanic formations. That way I would have had a better idea about what I was seeing. Despite the heat and my lack of knowledge, it was an interesting little side trip. I would like to get out there again and wander a little further on the flows (preferably when it's not so hot, and perhaps armed with a field guide or two).