Swan Falls Dam to Wilson Creek via Murphy

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February 8, 2015
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Michael and I take advantage of unseasonably warm February weather to explore roads and histories south of the Snake River. [ Addendum: I’ve added images at the end showing some motorized restrictions we overlooked during the ride. Plan accordingly. ]

Garage launch
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Garage launch
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Temperatures in the sixties stirred the KTM from hibernation. I have it on the stand for fresh oil, a new air filter, some electrical fixes remaining from my brother ride¹ and the usual spit and shine. It can’t be more than a six-pack effort because that’s all the beer I have. Assuming the weather holds, Michael and I are planning to meet at Swan Falls Dam to loop around the desert south of there.

  1. Trail Image, “Brother Ride 2014: Pinyon Peak”: trailimage.com/…/pinyon-peak
Snake River Canyon
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Snake River Canyon
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Sunshine has prevailed. I pin the throttle from Pleasant Valley to Moore Road across barren miles of the National Guard’s Orchard Combat Training Center. The GPS software said it would take an hour-and-a-half to reach Swan Falls Dam this way but Michael is expecting me in about half-an-hour.

Flying across stretches marked by ruts and puddles is like playing a classic vertical scroller, jamming left and right as enemies comes faster and faster. It’s a hoot!

Rendezvous
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Rendezvous
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/15912047823
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“Do you happen to have a ten millimeter nut?” I ask Michael after we’ve exchanged greetings at our rendezvous point. In the previous day’s reassemblies, I forgot to tighten the bottom of the front fairing and the desert didn’t let me pass without taking a small toll.

Michael, of course, has everything. While I’m getting that sorted, he plays with the straps on the OBR ADV saddle bags¹ I’m trying today and gets them cinched down better than I had. Which is great — they were already riding better than the much-more-expensive Kriega Overlanders I’d tried.

  1. OBR ADV Gear: obradvgear.com/…/products
Swan Falls Dam
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Swan Falls Dam
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/15909664194
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I planned to follow trails along the Northeast side of the river past Halverson Lake to Celebration Park but we find the trailhead marked with signs precluding motorized traffic.

“Plan B already,” I remark.

Walking across
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Walking across
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Instead of Halverson Lake to Celebration Park, we’ll reverse the day’s loop and get over the river by crossing the dam. I just hope we don’t have the issues I ran into last year, a chain-link fence¹ and then “non-motorized use only” signs when Hunter I crossed just a few months ago.²

  1. Trail Image, “Oreana and Little Jacks Creek”: trailimage.com/oreana-and-little-jacks-creek
  2. Trail Image, “Across Swan Falls Dam”: trailimage.com/across-swan-falls-dam
Blue water
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Blue water
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We encounter no fence and no signs.¹ Yea. I’d heard the signs were a mistake. Michael and I push across the dam and follow the dirt track downriver. We couldn’t ask for a more idyllic February day.

  1. But other riders later pointed out some obscured signs we missed. See below: trailimage.com/swan-falls-dam-to-wilson-creek-via-murphy
Path narrows
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Path narrows
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Petroglyph parking
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Petroglyph parking
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Petroglyphs marking ninety¹ of the basalt boulders deposited by the Bonneville Flood some 14,500 years ago make Wees Bar the largest petroglyph field in Idaho — out here in what seems the middle of nowhere. That the native people chose to mark these boulders, known as melon gravel, rather than the flat-surfaced and more abundant slide rock along the canyon walls, implies these rounded monoliths held some significance.

  1. Max Pavesic, “The Bonneville Flood Debris Field as Sacred Landscape,” p. 19: escholarship.org/…/4z80r4md
Nearby archeological sites*
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Nearby archeological sites*
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“The rock art included in the district is among the most elaborate and spectacular prehistoric art in Idaho … Over one-hundred-and-fourteen prehistoric and historic archaeological sites have been located in this short stretch of river. Seventy-seven of these are open campsites and villages. Many of the villages have shallow depressions indicating prehistoric houses. Thick middens and huge quantities of artifacts characterize both the open sites and the thirty-three sites located in rock overhangs.”¹

  1. starIbid., figure 3: escholarship.org/…/4z80r4md
  2. Idaho State Historical Society, “Guffey Butte - Black Butte National Registry of Historic Places Nomination”: history.idaho.gov/…/Guffey_Butte-Black_Butte_Archaeological_District_78001038
Hexagon
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Hexagon
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Wees Bar is one of thirty-two petroglyph sites along the Snake River Plain stretch of the river.¹ Celebration Park, five miles downriver, has twenty-three marked boulders.

  1. Max Pavesic, “The Bonneville Flood Debris Field as Sacred Landscape,” pp. 17, 20: escholarship.org/…/4z80r4md
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Michael and I park and wander among the melon gravel, contemplating millennium-old motifs. Snakes? Deer? Doodles? I like to think it was an ancient comedy troupe — “Let’s make random marks on these rocks so future people go crazy trying to figure them out.” I know that’s what I would do.

Wees Bar petroglyph map*
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Wees Bar petroglyph map*
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/16346350367
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Michael and I are poking around what I think Nelle Tobias labeled rock 15 in his study of the area thirty years ago.

  1. starNelle Tobias, “The Wees Bar Petroglyph Field,” figure 1
Magnum opus
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Magnum opus
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We know we could easily spend a day here looking at ancient graffiti but we’re pleased to let one especially adorned rock mark the end of our inquiry.

Up and away
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Up and away
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We find our way around a tumbleweed filled ravine — probably higher than my head — to climb a rocky switch-back out of the canyon.

Trails toward Oregon
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Trails toward Oregon
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Last look
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Last look
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Fruited plain
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Fruited plain
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From the canyon we ride rapidly between fields vast and empty but for occasional cattle and irrigation equipment.

Find the fence
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Find the fence
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Oregon Trail road-cut
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Oregon Trail road-cut
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A dot on the map drew my attention a year ago: “Utter Massacre.” What I discovered trying to get there were seven difficult and time-consuming dead-ends¹ — utter failure. Nightfall forced me to give up seeing the site but today, coming at it from the opposite direction, we’ve made it onto the old Oregon Trail (southern alternate). The massacre site should be just up the hill.

  1. Trail Image, “Oreana and Little Jacks Creek”: trailimage.com/oreana-and-little-jacks-creek
Nothing left
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Nothing left
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The massacre that occurred here a century-and-a-half ago has been called “one of the most atrocious and heart-rending of the innumerable tragedies associated with the famous Oregon trail.”¹

The encounter of the Elijah Utter Party of forty-four emigrants with hostile Indians on September 9, 1860, has evolved into the major documented tragedy inflicted by Indians upon Overland Trail travelers. This incident is also one of the rare occasions when Indians not only attempted but sustained a prolonged assault on encircled emigrant wagons.²

  1. Idaho Statesman, “Sinker Creek Tragedy of Early Pioneer Days Becomes Real History” (July 17, 1921)
  2. Idaho State Historical Society, “Site of the Utter Party Massacre”: history.idaho.gov/…/0233
Wagon tracks?
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Wagon tracks?
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“I heard there are wagon tracks left in the hardpan here,” I tell Michael. Indeed, we see the ruts in the concrete-like ground but also what look like bulldozer tracks on top of them, which don’t do much for historicity.

Miles Cannon researched the event for the Idaho Statesman in 1921. The fated wagon train, he explains, “appears to have been organized in the vicinity of Geneva, Wisconsin, and consisted of eight wagons … accompanied by about fifty head of loose stock.”¹ Here, three-hundred miles from the nearest town, the party of forty-four men, women and children were beset by native marauders, descendents, I suppose, of those who left marks on the rocks below.

  1. Idaho Statesman, “Desert Tragedy is Recounted by Idaho Historian” (July 24, 1921)
Here or there
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Here or there
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“In my interview with the survivors,” writes Miles Cannon, “not one remembered the Snake River or the name of the stream on which the camp of death was located.”¹ And so there remains uncertainty about whether the attack commenced here above Sinker Creek, as most maps indicate, or eight miles earlier along Castle Creek.

“When the Joyce family settled on Sinker creek a few miles above the scene of the tragedy in the 1860’s,” notes Cannon, “they found several skulls and other human bones scattered about in the sagebrush.”²

On the other hand, the 1862 diary of one Henry Judson reports finding massacre remains near Castle rather than Sinker Creek: “About 12 o’clock we reach Castle Creek … It is said the Indians two years ago besieged a party of thirty or thirty-five men on the very spot on which we were corralled … Some report seeing a whole skeleton on the ground. I myself saw a skull and probably could have found more by searching.”³

  1. Idaho Statesman, “Desert Tragedy is Recounted by Idaho Historian” (July 24, 1921)
  2. Idaho Statesman, “Cannon Recounts all Known Facts of Awful Crimes” (August 21, 1921)
  3. Idaho State Historical Society, “Site of the Utter Party Massacre”: history.idaho.gov/…/0233
Cannibalism
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Cannibalism
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Whether here or a few miles off, Michael and I can’t help but stand in stiffening wind, trying to imagine the experience of those helpless travelers. Many dreams ended here.

The siege itself lasted ten days as wagons were moved and circled in fits and starts until the few people still living had to abandon them altogether. Survivor Joseph Myers describes their experience enduring another month without help in the Owyhees.

The living were compelled to eat the dead to preserve their own lives. It was a subject of much and anxious consultation and even the prayer before the eating of the dead was finally determined upon. This determination was unanimous. The flesh of the dead was carefully husbanded and sparingly eaten to make it go as far as possible. Thus the bodies of four children were disposed of. The body of Mr. Chase was exhumed and the first meal from it cooked and about to be eaten when relief came.¹

Fifteen of the original forty-four managed to survive this way. “To portray the agony of a cultured mother,” opines Cannon, “stranded in the depth of a trackless desert, holding her emaciated child in her arms as she implores a merciful God to look with compassion as she feeds it upon the flesh of the dead rather than to see it perish, even the imagination fails us.”²

  1. Joseph Myers, Pioneer and Democrat article (November 23, 1860) quoted in Idaho State Historical Society, “Site of the Utter Party Massacre”: history.idaho.gov/…/0233
  2. Idaho Statesman, “Sinker Creek Tragedy of Early Pioneer Days Becomes Real History” (July 17, 1921)
Farrot Creek
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Farrot Creek
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/16530589791
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We backtrack a bit from the Utter Massacre site (or near to it) and down the highway to the miniscule town of Murphy where we stop at its only obvious business, the General Store, for lunch. I get an amazing burger, reminiscent of a Monte Cristo, with ham, jalapeños and jelly — sweet-hot and too messy to hold.

Satisfied, we take the Reynolds Creek Stage Road up Sand Canyon and over the hills to Reynolds, settled within a few years of the Utter Massacre, now a ghost town.¹ We then find our way across high meadows to Wilson Creek Road and its many water crossings. Such fun!

  1. Trail Image, “Owyhee Snow and Sand: Uplands”: trailimage.com/owyhee-snow-and-sand
Road 37154
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Road 37154
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We turn from Wilson Creek Road to a primitive track that should take us over Wilson Peak and down along Reynolds Creek Canyon.

From Wilson Peak
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From Wilson Peak
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Motorized travel not recommended
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Motorized travel not recommended
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“It’s probably good we weren’t here yesterday,” I think out loud. The trail is rutted and on the edge of being muddy. We’ve seen the slip-and-slide tracks of those who passed earlier.

Really red dirt
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Really red dirt
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Wild horses
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Wild horses
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I haven’t seen Owyhee wild horses for a few years,¹ making their appearance a bit special. We stop and watch each other a few minutes.

  1. Trail Image, “KLR Club in the Owyhees”: trailimage.com/klr-club-in-the-owyhees
Sentinel
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Sentinel
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Reynolds Creek Canyon
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Reynolds Creek Canyon
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No motors
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No motors
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“I think all the single track on the Wilson Creek side is closed to motor vehicles,” Michael had said. It turns out he’s right. I wanted to ride the short distance through Reynolds Creek Canyon but only foot traffic is permitted.

Laughlin Lane
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Laughlin Lane
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We continue back to Wilson Creek Road and down to Highway 78 (dual sportin’), then across the Snake River to Laughlin Lane, a dirt track along the Snake River to Guffy Bridge and Celebration Park. We stop at the park to look at a few of the petroglyphs there then continue back to the morning’s rendezvous spot.

Travel trailer
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Travel trailer
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I hurried by the shepherds’ trailer this morning but after Michael and I have said our goodbyes, I pause a moment to look at their abode as I’m on my way home back across the desert. I passed the two shepherds a mile back, walking down the road.

Once the province of Boise’s substantial Basque community, now the shepherds are typically flown in from Peru by the ranchers to live in these makeshift trailers for months on end, following the sheep as they migrate northward, following green grass.

Sheep in the way
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Sheep in the way
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I am stopped a short distance later by sheep in the road. I don’t want to send them running so I cut the engine, waiting for them to pass.

Smart dogs
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Smart dogs
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I wonder why the shepherds have left the sheep unattended until I notice the good work four dogs are doing. One of the dogs spots me, runs over and begins barking aggressively. I get it. Good job. Then another comes and gets on my other side, doing the same. When I see a third start running my way I realize I’m likely to end up more scared than the sheep so I take off.

I am back at top speeds along the straight roads when my music cuts out. That happens for a minute if I get a call so I think nothing of it until I get to an intersection and decide to check the phone inside my coat. It’s gone!

I can only guess that a hard lurch I took flying through mud patches bounced it out of my inside pocket until finally it slid out the bottom of my jacket. Darn. I slowly backtrack a few miles but can’t see it. I’m sure it’s destroyed anyway. Oh well.

Lost phone notwithstanding, it was as close to perfect as I could hope a ride to be. Little dust, no spills, good eats, good company and interesting sights.

Addendum
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Addendum
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After sharing this report, “TheAdmiral” on ADVrider¹ was gracious to point out some non-motorized signs I may have missed. I reviewed the video at spots he indicated and found these, geo-located so you can see exactly where they’re at. I would hesitate to motor onto Wees Bar until we get clarification.

  1. Adventure Rider, “Admiral’s Voyages”: advrider.com/…/showthread
Missed sign number two
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Missed sign number two
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