Usually obscured by layers of rock and recollection, there are places where the history of land and people unfolds to reveal our own small place in the twining and termless chains of causality.
A desolate basalt plateau between our home and Nevada contains such a place near the confluence of the Bruneau and Jarbidge Rivers.¹ I was introduced to it a couple years ago (almost exactly) on a local club ride² and have since wanted to share it with my family. Weather and circumstance finally permitting, my wife and two youngest gathered swimsuits and snacks to head southeast across the Snake River Plain stopping first at C.J. Strike Dam for a break in the monotony of a fairly long trek.
Although formed by the same subterranean engine that today powers Yellowstone, the Snake River Plain lacks the park’s splendor. The volcanism and cataclysmic floods of past eons is belied by barely undulating beige scrub. I find it a bit depressing to look at.
The kids’ interests were more immediate than geological: what to climb and when is the next snack. They aimed always to outdo the other as the two road trip parolees ran along the earthen dam looking for things to climb, places to insert themselves.
After a lunch of fried foods and fry sauce¹ at the Bruneau Café we followed a high desert road 36 usually-straight miles south, parallel to but never in sight of the Bruneau River, never in sight of anything at all, really, except two A-10s practicing maneuvers overhead, soaring, swooping, circling, more like lovebirds than warbirds.
In spite of the airborne entertainment, the theme of the gravel stretch was, “are we almost there?” The Bruneau River sign made it seem we almost were there — just sixteen more miles. It turned out the sixteen motorcycle miles I remembered, rapidly dodging or absorbing the bumps, are much different than sixteen Jeep miles.
Sixteen miles are not so trivial at a walking pace.¹ I tried to speed up a time or two but the crazy bouncing and suspension sounds were unpleasant.
Travel to the Bruneau River has always been this way. “I verily believe a more wretched country [no] Christian, Indian or brute ever travelled over or probably ever will,” said Peter Ogden when scouting the Bruneau area for the first time in 1826. “If we had cause to complain of bad roads yesterday we had still more so this day—continued hill and gully covered with stones and by the time we reached our encampment many were limping and others could scarcely crawl. We made several attempts to reach the river but could not succeed and it becoming late we encamped on the hills … as far as the eye can reach nothing is to be seen but cut rocks on both sides of the river.”
Based on photo times, our average speed was 11.3 MPH.
We paused for a promised jellybean break and road assessment before descending.
Looking at these images later, I noticed the lichen colors in the canyon were almost identical to the earlier paint colors at C.J. Strike Dam, sure evidence the universe and our lives are just a simulation in a finite alien computer.¹
Finding it difficult even to keep our footing on the slippery road and remembering the challenge of motorcycling up when it was merely wet,¹ I reluctantly decided it would be wise to enter the canyon on foot.
I was surprised at how unfazed Jessica and the kids were at the prospect of a hike. With little ado, we gathered up some things and began picking our way down the muddy, sometimes icy, road.
After about fifteen minutes of walking, I saw the first evidence of recent upward travelling truck tracks, tread no better than our own. Persuaded it was possible, I returned to the rim to retrieve the Jeep. I was still nervous about getting back out of the canyon, just as I’d felt on the motorcycle ride a couple years ago, but as before, we’d go for it!
Within the canyon we stopped first at what seemed to be the one-time center of jasper mining operations. The kids were excited by many rusted treasures littering the area.
The scene was easy to imagine: men on their lunch break or at the end of the day, dusty and disheveled, weary from moving rock, staring into the fire between them atop the mound near the old, now-abandoned truck, spooning a meal from cans and tins, the remains tossed indifferently down the hill.
These jasper mines were “in operation for the past 30 to 40 years and annually produced several thousand pounds of jasper”¹ and a concomitant volume of rusting food and drink containers.
On foot we followed a trail curving steeply below dinner mound, below our stop along the road, to a long trench cut perhaps fifteen feet into orange and black rock. Somewhere further below, the Bruneau River flows through a deeply incised gorge, as much as 1,200 feet deep,¹ between dramatic ryholite spires.
Before the decades of mining, before eons of Bruneau River downcutting, we would have found ourselves at the very center of a “supervolcano,” the Bruneau-Jarbidge caldera, which sent pyroclastic flows a hundred miles and ash a thousand miles across the Great Plains, notably to Nebraska where hundreds of large animals are preserved under two meters of Bruneau-Jarbidge ash at the Ashfall Fossil Beds.²
Today those histories culminate in two kids running enthusiastically from one red-faced rock to another.
Animal bones on a high promontory below are oddly understandable. Were I to find myself in my final moments I would also want to be there. Hunter asked to run down to investigate the sun-bleached skeleton and nearby tunnel but knowing too well how his “quick” translates to real time, we kept him focused instead on the wonders at hand.
We are a family of casual rockhounds, almost always retrieving a stone or two unique to the place we’ve visited. These would be our first bits of jasper, “the name of dense and opaque varieties of microcrystalline quartz … Multicolored jasper makes for an interesting ornamental stone, and red jasper is cut as a gemstone.”¹
Jasper was a favorite gemstone in ancient times and is referenced in Greek, Hebrew, Persian, Latin, and Assyrian literature … Bruneau Jasper is a highly-prized and sought-after Jasper variety. Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly rare, which will inevitably cause prices to rise. The sole source of Bruneau Jasper can be found in Bruneau Canyon in Owyhee county, south-central Idaho.²
Hunter hoped to make us rich but, though finding small bits of Bruneau Jasper is easy, we had no plans or hope of collecting a valuable volume (not to mention it would almost certainly be illegal to try). We were just after a few mementoes for the window sill.
As we began walking back up to the Jeep one of us said something loud enough to hear an echo back from the chasm below. Soon we were taking turns yelling and screeching (sad to say) at the unseen river. Brenna looked confused at first — I don’t think she’d ever been anywhere which such a clear echo — but that quickly gave way to her typically vigorous participation.
As a child, my parents taught me by their example to face uncertainty not by shrinking but by trying. At least try. You might end up, as we did, with an orange peel paint job, a quirky transmission or needing to call the fire department but also an enduring strength of mind and presence.
A sign near the river warns, “this is some of the most isolated country anywhere. Be safe and be smart. If you get into trouble on the river, you’re probably the one who will have to get yourself out of it.”¹
The bridge across the Bruneau to Indian Hot Springs from the east has long been in a state of partial collapse. You either walk across or drive through the water. I checked the water depth and knew it was a minor crossing but was glad to see the kids’ delight, in whoops and gestures, at facing the unknown.
We drove from the river up the steep bank and near the ruins of a stone-walled homestead, one of several in the Owyhees¹ representing families who faced uncertainty with their very lives. Then down the hill back to the riverbank across a creek of heated hot spring water, our final stop.
“With flows originating from snowmelt, seeps, and springs in the Jarbidge Mountains of northern Nevada at an elevation of about 10,500 feet,”¹ the river is about as cold as the hot springs are hot. The trick is to find a comfortable place within the confluence.
Being a city girl (from Forks, Washington, population 3,500, setting of the shameful Twilight series), Jessica doesn’t care to share her hot springs with algal mats. The kids on the other hand …
It seems to take a few seconds to distinguish the sharp sensation of freezing from that of burning. I hopped quickly a few times when I realized my feet were burning. There are only a few areas where the two mix well. Elsewhere they remain distinct layers and currents, quick to filibuster compromise.
The climb out of the canyon remaining an uncertainty, it seemed prudent to depart with remaining daylight. We didn’t have a chance to explore the river gorge like we wanted but realized the travel time really requires an overnight stay.
Peter Ogden, a veteran explorer of the early west,¹ reported that in his Bruneau expedition he “suffered privations to me greater than I ever endured before independent of anxiety of mind which all more or less keenly feel who visit this barren country … surrounded on all sides by danger and obstacles, many and some not easily overcome.”² The small family adventure brings a little perspective to our comfortable lives.
We crawled slowly out of the canyon over ice and rocks as day turned to dusk. Hunter pulled his hood over his face so he wouldn’t have to see the drop at the edge of the road on his side.
“You can look now,” I reassured him as we summited the final rock steps. I may have been as relieved as he was. Shortly after, both kids were asleep in spite of the bumps and bogs we crossed while making our slow way back across the basalt plateau.
Traveling so long through such a desolate dark it begins to feel like nothing else exists but opening and closing stretched wire gates with dim headlights and hopes. In the network of Jeep trails we get turned away from the route we followed in but decide to continue as long as the GPS says we’re pointed the right direction.
Climbing from what looked to be the last gully before reaching gravel again, we are suddenly confronted with two ottoman sized boulders in the road. I got out in the headlights and was able to roll them once but not far enough to pass.
We didn’t have to retreat far to an alternative, then gravel, highway, home and our fond memories.
The Owyhees are a vital part of America’s heritage and the history of southern Idaho. Unique arrays of fossils are found here, from Saber-toothed Salmon to Pleistocene Wolverines and Scimitar-toothed Cats. The unique geology of the region includes deep gorges carved by the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbidge Rivers, creating one of the largest concentrations of exposed rhyolite canyons in the world.
In this high, lonely desert, homesteaders scratched out a living or went bust while Native Americans clashed with the westward push of settlement along the Oregon Trail. Their stories are tied to this landscape. With nearly 3,000 cultural and historic sites, Owyhee County contains the richest concentration of archeological sites in Idaho.¹