Lost Time at Hole-in-the-Ground
Updated: May 7, 2020
After a long dirt road, as per usual in the Owyhee, we arrive at an impressive rim overlooking such a sight of grandeur my mind skips a beat. Unfolded before us are 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 basalt, we drive around a hill composed of older volcanic rhyolite rock: vaguely dome shaped bright red-orange and fractured. Continuing topographically and stratigraphically down, my eyes fixate 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 up rock formations that fell from above. Driving further we come arrive onto the flat floodplain of 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 quick.
Simple enough. Now I stand within a hundred feet of the river underneath 360 degrees of a 1000' deep canyon setting up my tent.
We are far upriver from the Owyhee Dam at Lower Canyon or Lake Owhee 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 on wet years). Great for the famous brown trout fly fishing, but is 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 sage brush steppes ecosystem with isolated higher small peaks covered in juniper, mahogany, and the occasional Ponderosa pine stands. The three major forks converge over a hundred miles southeast of here water from most of the basins acreage, so 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 the a few later. Here, at the Hole-in-the-Ground, the river still rages. No impediment. Not regulated. Millions of acres of desert runoff and free flowing desert springs culminate. Bounding. Leaping. Bumpy. Rolling. A rushing, mighty river. Anthropomorphically, it seems joyful and full of glee; seemingly behaving as river water was born to freely flow. I can almost hear the water molecules cheering like children at a water slide park: "chchshshshsh - chwoooshhsh - chchchshshshsh." With the occasional "thump" of a rock of the rivers bed load.
As I sit by the river, early dusk and a sharp chill in the air, I shudder 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 slack water of Lake Owyhee. After some incalculable amount of residence time sitting, waiting, the water will once again RUSH ... out through a tube, a system of canals, and finally onto a Treasure Valley farmers field. Potentially absorbed into an onion ("over 1.2 billion pounds are shipped annually"). Though industrial farming and food production is extremely important for my modern living, I still cannot shake that pang of guilt knowing this waters fate. Like a wildlife photographer watching the leopard walking straight into the trap.
I turn my attention back to camp. We decided to keep our anthropogenic 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" (Bill Crowell, owyheemarginalia.com). 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 two-story 1950s-looking 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 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 building will stand-up to the desert, not long judging by the 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 he 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...
I slept like a baby on rocks (slept well). A balmy 20 degrees, the liquid sounds of the musical river, waking up to a touch of frost on the tent. 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 that 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 sign 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, my bag of snacks, and having been driven around in Tim's Jeep, I again reflect on the ease of my modern life with respect to the homesteaders that arrive here in the late 1800's. 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 might river -- is a natural place of power.
The homesteaders and me 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 in the hole-in-the-ground has captivated us all. My mind slips deep into thought of the hundreds of generations of indigenous people that once lived upon this landscape.
Who were these folks? Why here? When? Was it he same family throughout all these years? How many people lived here? 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 all but unanswerable. Multiple working hypotheses are great, but without the geologic/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 minds eye. It is no big wonder to me why any human would spend time here, from my perspective. 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 peoples 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 much changed by hundreds of years of European influence coming in from the east and south (such as the horse, the gun, iron tools, etc.). 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 early and were actually forgotten remnants of a previous cultural people that occupied this canyon. Maybe the local Shoshone-Paiute peoples of the 1800's were just as perplexed to who and when these signs were left. Maybe the sight was re-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, because 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 the 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 effect 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 youngest 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 owyheemarginalia.com to learn a bit more about this place.