Canyon Time. That’s what I call it. That feeling that you get while camping, on a trail, or just chilling under the cliffs—the feeling when time loses its modern relevance. On Canyon Time, I don’t have to rush. There are no deadlines. We eat when we are hungry, not at arbitrary, specified times. Human measurements of time become irrelevant because I become preoccupied with natural time. Watching an ant thatch of Formica obscuripes, feeling absorbed by only the thought of a microscopic world. The ant seems to move so fast and busily for its size. Then, with a glance to the adjacent boulder, I become enthralled by the mind-boggling thought of hot rhyolitic lava flows oozing across the landscape eons ago. How far had the boulder fallen, despite the appearance of recently coming to rest? Make no mistake—on Canyon Time, it's not that time falls away or becomes unimportant. Rather, every granular detail of the landscape paints a tapestry of deep material connections through deep time. Think of it as zooming out.
Dry Creek of the Owyhee is such a tapestry. It is an unassuming jewel of the watershed. Long and winding, a creek you can hop over easily for the entire length until the slack water of the reservoir. The length may not feature canyon walls and cliffs as steep as those on the main Owyhee River, but the meandering stream and rich riparian habitat make Dry Creek an extra special biological wonder of this desert landscape. Once, some fellow Friends and I backpacked a segment (many of the pictures are from that particular trip!) and I experienced more desert wildlife on that trip than in the previous few years. Okay, okay… I admit I am always looking at rocks or plants, and I'm notorious for not noticing animals. Luckily, the other Friends were more keen-eyed, seeing the contrast between animate life and inanimate rock.
In art, contrast is when two elements, like colors, differ strikingly. We have the same feeling of contrast when we see a new, illegal road across public lands, or a can carelessly thrown alongside the road. It doesn’t belong and is a contrast to the natural beauty. So, contrast can be beautiful or spoil beauty; it is very subjective and may depend on certain cultural norms.
Now think of a time contrast: objects juxtaposed of strikingly different ages. Consider a photograph of an elder holding a child, an abandoned house on the prairie, or young rocks unconformably overlying older rocks (of the pictures below, the right-hand photo shows a flat cap rock on top of an older jagged rock formation). There is an aesthetic beauty to this relationship, which can be observed, sure, but it also has to be understood. What is beautiful about a new, little human being held by an old, gray human? It is not the same beauty as green and red paired together, but it is a beauty that comes with an acknowledgment of contrast in time.
The wonderous Dry Creek, the “tapestry of deep material connections through deep time” is full of time contrast, both human and wild. For instance, the sparing evidence of Indigenous American occupation along the creek adds a cultural heritage beauty to the contrast of modern backpacking life. Similarly, evidence of more recent Euro-American occupation and homesteads yields yet another—but equally beautiful—contrast to modern city life. King Brown's Cabin is a beautifully constructed rock shelter composed mostly of the local river-rounded rhyolites. A neat visual contrast from the steep, angular rocky rhyolite cliffs of the canyon.
The wild animals here are living in their own time contrast. In fact, the whole stream just seems like an abandoned relic of a different geologic era, but instead of a bus, it is a small stream left behind by wetter times. High on the rim, you still stand in desert flora under the hot sun, but down in the canyon, the green vegetation, higher humidity, and slightly lower temperatures are a complete contrast. Here, Camassia quamash and stinging nettle (Urtica diotica), both water-loving species, thrive. Water snakes abound, as do ducks and geese, and you may even spy an owlet! Parts of the stream still house red-band trout. The abundant deep pools are home to a peculiar amphibian left as a relic of another time—literally!
The Columbia spotted frog thrives along Dry Creek, but not elsewhere, leading to its candidate listing as an endangered species in 1993 but now just a species of concern because of conservation efforts. This frog seems a bit out of place in the desert, because this has not always been a desert.
Not long ago—a mere 10,000 years ago, while glaciers covered Canada and great floods ripped across Washington—the Owyhee was much wetter. The cold glaciers to the north created a wind gap blowing in from the Pacific and carrying more moisture this far inland. But at the end of the Pleistocene or our most recent ice age, there has been a decreasing amount of moisture pushed to the inner western continental US. Over time, as the climate has dried and warmed, the water of Dry Creek has waned. But, lucky for the frogs, the complex hydrology of the region keeps a steady flow of spring water into the creek, so it has never fully dried. For more on these frogs, check out this episode of Oregon Field Guide.
Whether you're getting lost in the rocks, listening to the frogs, or puzzling at a bus, Canyon Time is the time contrast that enriches each of these experiences beyond aesthetics or science. While the benefits of mindfulness may be well known to you, it is the pleasure of timefulness you feel as you peer into the ancient eyes of a time-abandoned frog. The Owyhee Canyonlands of open skies, ancient volcanic rocks, and complex human history is a unique place to experience the full richness of living as a part of geologic time.
We hope you are planning a time to enjoy this magical place!
Sammy is our residential Geologist, timeful and always trying to educate folks about the Earth System Sciences. The Owyhee Canyonlands never cease to surprise!