Owyhee Field Notes: Part Three


I try to put into words all the reasons why I am drawn to this landscape, drawn out into the spareness and rough-hewn humility of it, why I choose to live my outdoor life here and plant my home roots here.  The paragraphs I’ve written over the years seem inadequate, murky, unrefined.  So I’ll try again.


I was born skinny, scruffy and scrappy.  I came into this world like the mule deer does, bracing against a hard wind, slick and wide eyed on knobby legs.  I learned to walk.  I learned to run.  I’ve done my share of running.  I’ve blended in and I’ve stood out, defined against the burn of the sun, sharply sky-lined in fearsome definition where the volcanic table meets the sky.  I’ve been chased, I’ve had my hocks bitten but I’ve never been hamstringed.  I’ve never gone down on all four knees and surrendered.  I’ve fought.  I’ve lived.  I’ve had peaceful times too, effortless times on gentle days when the green-up is rich in my belly and warm in my blood stream.


When I look out at this land, I see a reflection of my interiors, of the topographies of my heart.  I see the steppe, the grand sweep of it that looks utterly without dimension until I put my boots down it in and begin to walk, rising and falling with the sagebrush, passing through the coulees, scrambling down the rumbling cliffs, teetering for balance on the sudden edges of the canyons.  I see this range relentlessly unfold into crumbling magnitude — where others see emptiness, a world without trees, a wasteland, I see thrumming life, a forest of oldgrowth sage, a complex and delicate ecosystem of critters with impossibly strong wills to survive.  It’s a tough place to do our living and dying but I’m bound to it now, as a caretaker, as a keeper of the herds and the coveys.  My food comes from here, this place feeds me and some day my bones will feed this place, too.


I see the hard line that falls between darkness and light, the canyon face cut in two as the dawn pierces the night.  I see the river and the springs eat through stone, the inconceivable green of the seeps where they warm the winter earth and melt the snow, the lifeblood of this land, the great gatherer: water.  I see all God’s creatures come and drink deeply and I drink, too.

There is a great horseshoe bend in the river, fenced on one side by walls of current-chewed stone.  I sit on a rock in the center of it all, the water prattles by, swirling in and out of itself yet carried strongly in the true direction that makes it whole.  Up high on the rim I see a gash in the cliff face where red mafic rock spills forth like blood that won’t clot.  I am sheltered from the wind here, I shed my coat like the rattlesnakes have shed their skins on the rock shelves.  I hear a canyon wren.

I put one hand in the current.  The water is frigid, the pulse is strong.

Owyhee Field Notes: Part Two

7i9a6387There’s a game we love to play when the dogs are sleeping.  We choose a dog, place an article of food or a dog treat on the ground directly in front of that dog’s nose and wait and see if the scent permeates the dog’s dreams.

Today, Tater Tot hunted his heart out. He is curled up and passed out cold in the dirt beside the stove, breathing slow and heavy under the hot weight of a sagebrush fire.  Robert reaches out and places a conglomerate lump of granola in front of Tater’s supernatural little nose and we sit in silence, watching and waiting, snickering to ourselves, smiling with squinty eyes at each other across the conical dark of our little home.  Nothing happens.  Robert grows impatient and begins to whisper at Tater.  He says his name in a sing-song tone, he whispers all kinds of silly things, trying to pull Tater’s subconscious forth from the thick sand of sleep.  Nothing rouses the pup.  Finally I lean forward and I whisper gently, “Tater Tot, dead bird, fetch!”

Tater opens one eye, looks right at me, resembling a dragon on a hoarded bed of gold, he shifts once, catches a whiff of the granola nugget, reaches out, lips it up, crunches it once, swallows, immediately tucks his head under his rear feet and plunges back into sleep.

I slip out to pee before bed.  The milky way spills forth over the canyons.  The sage shudders in the wind.


Shepp Ranch

I was at Shepp Ranch, up the Main Salmon River of Idaho, in the middle of May and I fell unrepentantly in love with the place.  How I was lucky enough to get connected with this place is no mystery.  Idaho is like a really big small town and it shrinks down even smaller if you’re part of fire culture and then, if you’re related to smokejumping, it’s about the tiniest little universe you could imagine.  Long story short, I have a friends who are friends with the managers of this ranch and suddenly, I found myself headed up river in a jet boat to meet those lovely managers and photograph the ranch.

Shepp is remote and currently operates as a guest ranch, fishing destination and hunting outfitter.  It can be reached by jet boat or bush plane; one could also hike in or ride in with a pack string.  It’s located 30 air-miles from Riggins on the banks of the Main Salmon River, up in the Gospel Hump Wilderness which is attached to the Frank Church Wilderness.  We all know how I feel about the Frank so I won’t blather on about it until I cry in this post but in short, this is the heart of Idaho.  This is the untamed, roadless, fathomless heart of Idaho.  Go look at a map of Idaho.  The massive green patch of space in the center of the state that remains undivided by highways, that’s what I’m talking about — wilderness area, public land.  It’s for the animals, the trees and us.  With that said, let’s talk for a moment about Idaho’s Salmon River.  This river is designated as wild and scenic.  This river canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon but slightly shallower than Hell’s Canyon.  The break country that rises up from the water is exquisitely rumpled, creek cut, steep and woolly with conifers.  This territory is owned by the elk, managed by the wolves, surveyed by the sheep and prowled by bobcats and lions.  It’s terrific.  You can feel it in your bones when you look up at the granitic towers that frame the waterway, a massive sense of paradise, the sharp edge of humility, true fairness — this wilderness treats everyone and everything the same.

Shepp Ranch is off the grid but isn’t self-sustained…but it’s pretty close and from what I understand the ranch owners are trying to switch the property over to solar power.  For the time being, all electricity pours forth from a generator which is turned on for a short while in the morning and again in the evening (and occasionally during the day).  It’s a quiet place.  Work begins before dawn and when the sun disappears, work winds down for the day.  There’s a lovely, natural life rhythm at Shepp, a rhythm I have always associated with living rurally, ranching and farming.

Christina keeps an enormous garden, various berry patches and an orchard.  She cans and preserves continuously throughout the summer.  They have a donkey stallion they are hoping to breed their own mules with as well as a couple horses (fabulous mountain horses) and a string of mules.  Hens free range and are regularly knocked up by the roosters so new born chicks free range too, whenever they happen to hatch and show up on the property.  Wes is always busy with something — preparing for the trapping season, cutting firewood, tinkering with whatever is broken, helping out neighbors.

One of my favorite things about the Main Salmon is the way ranches and farms are spread out over a big distance but there’s still an incredible sense of community.  People who live out don’t think twice about helping each other out.  The kind heart of humanity is very alive in this place and it’s beautiful to behold.

I think about Shepp all the time.  Shepp is basically my dream ranch.  It’s 104 acres and wilderness space rolls away in three directions giving the place a sense of infiniteness.  I’m headed in again, in a moment.  My summer season will be officially bookended with trips to this place and I’m completely delighted.  Tomorrow night, after journeying by truck, jet boat, horse and mule, I’ll find myself with my friends, sleeping in the wind and stars at their high hunting camp.  It’s going to be grand.

Until I return, I leave you with some of my favorite pictures from my last visit.


7i9a63587i9a6364 7i9a6419 7i9a6433 7i9a6437 7i9a64767i9a6556 7i9a6558 7i9a6574 7i9a6584 7i9a6587 7i9a65897i9a65927i9a66537i9a67127i9a67237i9a67407i9a67477i9a67867i9a67947i9a68027i9a68217i9a68297i9a68807i9a69067i9a69247i9a69527i9a70387i9a71147i9a71207i9a71297i9a71377i9a72197i9a72417i9a7253 7i9a72917i9a73067i9a73247i9a73277i9a7356


7i9a2118 7i9a2126 7i9a2129 7i9a2130 7i9a2137 7i9a2149These early autumn days when the sky sits upon the earth like a bluebird on the back of a buckskin horse.



Fall Squall

7I9A1800 7I9A1850 7I9A1871 7I9A1902 7I9A19127I9A19367I9A1930I’m of the opinion that one of the best times to go walking is when everyone else is at home watching the storm, baking cookies and snuggling a cat — but I’ve always enjoyed the terrors of the elements.