Updated: Jul 21, 2022
After a long dirt road—as per usual in the Owyhee—we arrived at an impressive rim that overlooked a sight of such grandeur, my mind skipped a beat. Unfolding before us were the remnants of a massive landslide, making this "hole-in-the-ground" through which the wild Owyhee River now meanders. The scene drove me into a dizzy state of geologic ecstasy, a familiar and sought-out feeling.
On the descent over the rim of basalt, we drove around a hill composed of older volcanic rhyolite rock, vaguely dome-shaped, bright red-orange, and fractured. Continuing topographically and stratigraphically down, my eyes fixated on the steep cliffs of a tuffaceous sandstone—weathered volcanic ash, some tinted green, cream, and beige—with characteristic badlands-style weathering. Around the last high cliff, we enter the landslide field of slump blocks, conical hills, and smooth-contoured closed basins, all composed of jumbled rock formations that fell from above. Driving further, we came to the flat floodplain with the raging Owyhee now in view.
The directions to get here were pretty simple: drive south through the thunderegg spot all the way past the Rooster Comb caldera. Take the Gap Road between Mahogany and Spring Mountain, then west toward the lava field. Skirt the west end of the splatter cones to the south, then back west toward where there ought to be a river. Drive straight till you can't, but not too fast cause the edge of the rim comes up quickly.
Simple enough. After all that, I stood within a hundred feet of the river, surrounded by a 1000-foot deep canyon, setting up my tent.
We were far upriver from the Owyhee Dam at Lower Canyon or Lake Owyhee State Park, a favorite day-hike destination of mine. Here, the river is still WILD! The flow below the dam is regulated by the Owyhee Irrigation District and is a pretty standard 150–300 cubic feet per second (though peaks occur during wet years). Great for the famous brown trout fly fishing, but it's not a raging, wild river. The vast watershed encompasses 7 million acres of three states: headwaters in Nevada, draining much of southwestern Idaho, and enters the Snake River in Oregon. A sagebrush steppe ecosystem with isolated higher small peaks covered in juniper, mahogany, and the occasional ponderosa pine stands. The three major forks converge over 100 miles southeast of here, carrying water from most of the basins acreage. In a wet spring with snowmelt, this canyon can run in the 10,000s of cubic feet per second one week, and be down in the 100s a few weeks later.
Here, at the Hole-in-the-Ground, the river still rages—no impediment, no regulation. Millions of acres of desert runoff and free-flowing desert springs culminate to form a bounding, leaping, bumpy, rolling, rushing, mighty river. It seems joyful and full of glee, behaving as if river water was born to freely flow. I can almost hear the water molecules cheering like children at a water slide park with the occasional thump of a rock of the river's bedload.
As I sat by the river, early dusk and a sharp chill in the air, I shuddered less at the cold and more at the feeling of guilt over something I know and this water does not: soon, it will be harnessed by the hand of man. No more bounding and rushing, but slowing and idle. After the 280-mile river journey, in a few short miles north from here these water molecules will all hit the local base level and slow into the slack water of Lake Owyhee. After some incalculable amount of residence time sitting and waiting, the water will once again rush out through a system of canals and onto a Treasure Valley farmer's field. Potentially absorbed into an onion (with over 1.2 billion pounds shipped annually from this part of the nation). Though industrial farming and food production are extremely important for my modern living, I still could not shake that pang of guilt knowing this water's fate. I felt like a wildlife photographer watching the leopard walking straight into the trap.
I turned my attention back to camp. We decided to keep our disturbance among the previous Euro-American settlement. This is not your typical Owyhee homestead with just a single dilapidated rock building or a dugout. No, sir— Hole-in-the-Ground housed a working ranch into the 1970s. Today, there are still four standing buildings after the fire of 1985 wiped out the original complex. The oldest, presumably, is an impressive sandstone-block building with a wood pole roof, complete with a nice built-in bookshelf. Probably younger, the wood-shingled, 3-room single-level was dwarfed by the 2-story 1950s ranch-house style home with a screen-enclosed porch on the north side. Lastly, a cinder block building with a pot-belly stove appears to be utilized as a sort of emergency cabin. This collection of buildings sits among a dozen small trees along the edge of the floodplain and is quite the unusual site down here in this harsh landscape. It is unclear how long these buildings will stand up to the desert, though my guess is not long, judging by their state of disarray.
Over smoldering juniper logs, a couple of cow chips glowing red, and a disintegrating cow hip bone in the rock fire ring, I tried to think of the tough characters that have been in and out of this place. In my teens in South Dakota, I rode horseback, moved cows, and attended brandings... but I cannot begin to fathom the ranch life here.
Who were these folks? Why here? When? Was it the same family throughout all these years? How many people lived here? How many hired hands? How could they feed a horse or over winter cattle? Human food? Why do this? For what? I ponder for a while longer, then the few creaks from the main house sent some shivers down my back as the last glowing juniper log crumbled. Time for the tent...
On those rocks, I slept like a baby. At a balmy 20 degrees and with the musical sounds of the river, I woke up to a touch of frost on the tent. It was time for some coffee, looking at maps, and packing up. On the way out, we headed to the northeast end of the landslide, after which the river again cuts through volcanic bedrock. That point in the river is auspicious, though I can't sufficiently describe why. From afar, the basaltic rim rocks that fell in the great landslide eons ago and litter the landscape look like ants on a sand pile, but are actually gigantic, rounded jeep-sized boulders. Those within 50 feet of the river show their previous contact with the river: rounded, sculpted, and bulbous with a heavy dark reddish brown desert varnish.
Geologic interests aside, we also found plenty of signs of pre-colonial human presence. This land has been home to indigenous peoples for over ten thousand years, and this place is in the ancestral territory of the Paiute-Shoshone cultural tribes.
As I walk around in my comfortable hiking boots with my bag of snacks in hand and fresh from Tim's Jeep, I again reflect on the ease of my modern life with respect to the homesteaders that arrive here in the late 1800s. I'm connected to this landscape spiritually and emotionally, but in a very different way than those cattle folk. Personally, I feel the spot I'm standing in—a natural, sculpted boulder garden field on the edge of a mighty river—is a natural place of power.
The homesteaders and I alike cannot begin to comprehend the life, the thoughts, the perceptions of the folks that lived here for millennia earlier. But somehow, this place of power at Hole-in-the-Ground has captivated us all. My mind slips deep into the thought of the hundreds of generations of indigenous people that once lived upon this landscape.
Was this ever a permanent home, a mid-way traveling camp, an annual grounds, an animistic shaman spiritual destination? All of these or none of these? How did this landscape change over these generations? How much food was there on this landscape? Why here? For what?
I'm no archaeologist or historian, but I know enough about the investigation of geologic history to understand these questions are unanswerable. Multiple working hypotheses are great, but without the geologic and archaeological data to reveal evidence, we are lost in questions and thought experiments. I feel the importance of this place: in my bones, my soul, my mind's eye. In my perspective, it is no wonder why someone would spend time here. But still, my Euro-American-centric perspective can only be a thought experiment and is not of any particular use when trying to understand these people and their remnants.
When explorers, trappers, miners, and ranchers began populating this landscape, the Indigenous human populations here were observed to have shared cultural and linguistic characteristics with the broader Western Shoshone and Paiute tribes. But by then, the ecology and Native American traditions had already been changed by hundreds of years of European influence from the east and south (e.g., the horse, the gun, iron tools). We have shreds of written records from folks during the white settlement of the Owyhee region, but we will never know the ecological or cultural state of the Native Owyhee.
By the late 19th century and certainly after the Bannock Uprising of 1895, the Indigenous populations were almost completely suppressed and occupying regional reservations. Since 1492, First Nations people have undergone major lifestyle transitions. In context, during which period did people live here? In the mid-1800s during western expansion? Shortly after the horse arrived? Or perhaps millennia earlier and were actually forgotten remnants of a previous cultural people that occupied this canyon? Maybe the local Shoshone-Paiute peoples of the 1800s were just as perplexed as to who left these signs and when. Maybe the site was occupied several times over the course of this lost time, with signs being added periodically.
We will never know, though scientific tools and inquiry are our best chance at knowing. Uncounted thousands of these residents were either forced from this land or exterminated. The ancestors of those forced away live among us, thankfully, but most often the elder stories from those lost times were lost by cultural genocide when Native customs were made illegal.
Friends of the Owyhee is a nonprofit organization promoting conservation, stewardship, and recreation in the Owyhee region. We love this land as past folks have, albeit from the comfort of our 21st-century vantage, and we are vested in its future. Aside from geologic activity out of our control, this landscape is firmly within the grips of Anthropocene hands. The decisions we make now will affect the future of how human eyes, ears, spirit, and belly will perceive this place. I leave you with a few book suggestions on this last topic.
Written by Sammy Castonguay, Programs Manager and resident geologist with Friends of the Owyhee. Tim, his son Jordan, and I adventured to Hole-in-the-Ground and several other areas while doing Wilderness Study Area monitoring, collecting qualitative data.
Please do not disturb cultural remnants. If you see an arrowhead or other artifact, note the location, leave it be, and report it to the land management agency. If you see petroglyphs or rock art, please do not disturb.
After the trip, I looked up Bill Crowell's blog, Owyhee Marginalia, to learn a bit more about this place.