In 1819, Donald McKenzie was exploring the Snake River for the Northwest Fur Trading Company when he came to its confluence with another river. Unsure of its origin, he sent three members of his fur trapping expedition to further explore the river.
They never returned.
The lost explorers had been native Hawaiians, known at the time as Owyhees, and it was believed they had originally joined up with Northwest explorers through ship routes that used the Sandwich Islands as supply points.
The Hawaiian explorers were known to be very strong swimmers, but the question remains as to whether they volunteered or were conscripted for the expedition.
Either way, McKenzie named the newly-discovered river in their honor.
Pronounced “oh-WHY-eez,” few Oregonians can point to the Owyhee Canyonlands on a map or explain the origin of their unusual name. But their locale isn’t too far out of reach — 9 million acres cover an area conjoined by the three states of Oregon, Idaho and Nevada — and they are roughly the size of Maryland and Rhode Island. There are no roads through the canyonlands.
“I like to say that people won’t find themselves there on their way to anywhere else, essentially,” says Bonnie Olin, 67, of Junction City, who has thoroughly explored the Owyhees for nearly three decades with her husband Mike Quigley, 80.
In 2012, Olin published “The Owyhee River Journals,” using Quigley’s stunning photographs, and her own writing based on her journals from decades of traversing into this wilderness.
She now regularly gives presentations about the book, which includes the story of McKenzie and his expedition. Her efforts are increasing awareness of the need to protect this scenic and wild area.
Wild, remote and unprotected
The only place that a two-lane paved road crosses Owyhee River is at Rome, Oregon, an unincorporated area not far from the Idaho border. With the absence of development, travelers can quickly encounter “roads” that a regular car won’t be able to traverse. The best way to see this landscape, Olin says, is by using the rivers as a highway.
Greater sage grouse — a threatened species that depends on sagebrush for nesting, cover and food — calls the area home. It’s also a great habitat for bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, bobcat, cougar, antelope and pygmy rabbit.
The area is vast, with a variety of landscapes, but its dominant features are high-walled canyons, wild rivers and plateaus. It’s so remote and hard to get into that an out-of-control wildfire could be devastating. The Owyhee region is home to 28 plants that are only found there.
Olin and other Owyhee explorers believe this area is beautiful enough to qualify as a national park if only more people knew about it. There are petroglyphs, ancient hunting blinds, ruins of pioneer cabins and other relics of a long history that are currently unprotected.
Mining, oil and gas claims on the perimeter could potentially move into the area. “There are very few access points which has kept it fairly remote,” Olin says. “The offshoot of that is that when people don’t know about the Owyhees and they don’t know what’s there, they don’t really understand what we have and what we’re at risk of losing.”
The isolation of the Owyhees have kept them untainted, but some irresponsible users have endangered its purity.
“In my opinion the Oregon region is most at risk, because it lies close to the Idaho border where there are a quarter million people in the Boise area,” Olin says. “The Owyhee is their jumping point to go into Oregon to recreate.”
Beginning to explore
Quigley had been enjoying whitewater rafting and the Owyhees since the mid-1970s, although he had not explored the upper regions. He and Olin became friends, and he introduced her to the hiking and rafting opportunities of the Owyhees.
They married in 1994, and she was so taken with the area that they soon organized their personal lives and careers to allow them to head to the Owyhees whenever the rivers were high enough for kayaking.
They enjoyed numerous multi-day trips there and began exploring the upper regions through hikes and kayaks.
“It was so stunning,” Olin says. “I was so taken with the special beauty of the place. Mike had found a partner who loved being in the backcountry and we became a river party of two.”
The geography of the canyonlands places them in the same class as the national parks of Utah and Arizona, but the Owyhees are different.
“It’s a completely different chemistry formation that makes up the rock formations in the canyon,” Olin says.
Geographically speaking, the Owyhees are considered to have been created from an underlying layer of volcanic hotspots — the same ones that formed Yellowstone that drifted over time. The area is the ancestral home of the Shoshone and Paiute, and it has a rich history of sheltering American Indians involved in the Bannock War.
As explorers finding their own way, Olin and Quigley have come upon totally unexpected landscapes, like an oasis of water squirting out of the sides of a cliff wall.
“Becoming familiar with the Owyhees has been a life-changing experience for me,” Olin says. “I was no longer going to climb the corporate ladder. My life was out of balance and I needed more time to enjoy these kinds of natural places.”
As she enjoyed the natural beauty of the Owyhees, the idea of a book started to take shape. Her journals were originally written just for her family, but they shared her work with others and a wider audience found it.
“The book takes no position on the status or the future of the Owyhee,” Olin says. “It’s just stories and pictures. I wanted an abundance of pictures and I wanted to draw people to the Owyhee on their own terms. Not to tell them what to think, but just to give them information. I remember the first time I saw them thinking that this place should be a national park and wondering why it wasn’t,” Olin says. “But you have to have enough public support and knowledge and people just don’t know about this place.”
Learn more about “The Owyhee River Journals” at owyheemedia.com.
Friends of the Owyhee is a nonprofit that supports protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands by organizing trips and informing the public. Visit “Friends of the Owyhee” on Facebook.