I’m not sure which month is the hottest here in eastern Oregon, July or August. In any case, the stifling heat of the summer months makes it hard for us to get out into the desert—there’s a reason most of our field time is in the spring and the fall!
Still, there are commitments that we have that don’t pause just because it’s summer. One such responsibility is good old-fashioned stewardship: as part of our Adopt-A-Park agreement with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, we head out to Succor Creek once a week to clean up the bathroom and do a sweep of the campground for trash and anything out of the ordinary. Okay, admittedly, it’s mainly because we love finding every excuse to get out into the Owyhee, and caring for our public lands is at the core of what we do.
This past Wednesday, it was my turn to head out to Succor Creek, and I was more than happy to do it. Despite the heat, it was nice to get out on the road and head to the Owyhee for the morning. I stopped at Jolts & Juice (now Jack Henry Coffee Roasters, but sorry… as a born-and-bred Ontarian, it’ll always be Jolts & Juice to me!) for a caffeine boost, headed to grab the supplies from the OPRD shed out near the Ontario Recreation Site, then turned south on Highway 201.
The drive down 201 is pretty standard as you sail through Nyssa and Adrian, but what I’ve always loved about this drive is how the landscape starts to unfold before your eyes once you get past those little Treasure Valley towns. Somewhere along the curves of the highway, you start to see those familiar mauve silhouettes of the canyons—it never gets old for me. Seeing that you’re entering Owyhee territory feels like finding the light at the end of the tunnel or watching the sun pop its head over the horizon. It’s a promise that that wild, rugged landscape will soon be beneath your feet. It always makes me smile.
I eventually hit the turnoff to Succor Creek (aptly named Succor Creek Road, believe it or not), which is a well-maintained gravel road that slowly slopes down into the canyon. Those mauve silhouettes start coming into focus, and that’s when the joy really kicks in. Just before that first significant descent is a little stop-off point, and I always pull the car over since it’s one of my favorite Owyhee views of all time. Can’t tell you why—it just always begs for me to stop and snag a picture of it (though it’s much better in person).
The drive down to the Succor Creek State Natural Area is a short, easy jaunt. I’m always surprised when I put it into Google Maps (I promise I know my way to Succor Creek by now, but I’m a total worry wart, so I reassure myself with technology) and my phone tells me the park is only 47 miles from Ontario. The drive down is also just plain beautiful. I know you may think I’m biased, and maybe I am, but there’s something magnificent about having those broad canyon walls tower over you as the humble creek moseys on by beneath the shade of riparian foliage. (I know I’m waxing poetic a bit, but just let me have this, okay?)
I arrived, got out of the car, and took a moment to greet the park. I’ve been here enough times to feel like the park is an old friend, a familiar port in the vast Owyhee. I soon got to work sweeping the bathroom and adding toilet paper. It only took a few minutes, but I didn’t want to leave quite yet. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to wander around and look for trash. I came across a few folks that thanked me for cleaning up and promised they wouldn’t be like the other litterbugs before them. They even started picking up bits of trash that they found in the vicinity and depositing them in my trash bag (I obviously thanked them profusely). The older gentleman mentioned that they were there looking for juneberries (also known as shadbush or a bunch of other names, including Amelanchier spp.), but that they were probably a couple of weeks late.
After a bit of trash collecting, I was getting pretty hot, so I decided it was time to pack up and head back to Ontario. I felt a little pang of sadness as I drove up and out of the canyon—I wanted to stay longer and enjoy the Owyhee a bit more, but that heat is really unrelenting and I had a call to get back to. (Just between you and me, I also foolishly did not follow Owyhee protocol and only brought 1 liter of water with me… Never a good idea! It was gone just a few minutes into my drive back.)
Though I do enjoy my creature comforts (we all know I’m talking mainly about air conditioning, right?), it’s always a bummer to leave the wild parts of the eastern Oregon desert behind. It was far too short a trip this past Wednesday, but it reminded me why I love working at Friends of the Owyhee.
As a new friend said to me recently, the desert takes time to understand. Mountains and rainy forests are charismatic and capture your heart quickly, but places like the Owyhee need you to wait and listen. On my way home, it dawned on me that it took me leaving my home region for green Eugene and even temperate central Chile to realize how much the desert was part of me, too. Coming back here and exploring the Owyhee through the eyes of my colleagues Tim and Sammy has been an incredible gift, and I feel like I’m coming to understand the desert more and more each time I visit. This place deserves love and care, and it deserves people who are willing to be patient enough to see what makes it unique.
I know what you’re thinking. All that from a quick trip to clean a public restroom? You’d be surprised what teachings the desert has to share every time you visit. I’ve learned that my job is to just listen.