Bonnie Olin: Owyhee River 'belongs to all of us'
The first time Bonnie Olin beheld the stunning landscape of the Owyhee River area, she "felt both vulnerable and exhilarated at the same time."
On Wednesday, Oct. 4, Olin, author of "The Owyhee River Journals," will share her experiences on the waterway in a presentation at 3:30 p.m. at the Happy Valley Library, 13793 S.E. Sieben Park Way.
In her 75-minute talk, she will "cover a little history, the importance of the canyon to the Native Americans, a little about the wildlife and plant life [and] the age and creation of the canyon and its geology," Olin said.
In addition, she will present a 13-minute slideshow of the region from Nevada, through Idaho, to the Owyhee Reservoir in Oregon.
In 1993, the Junction City resident and her husband, Mike Quigley, launched their inflatable, two-person kayaks into the south fork of the Owyhee in Nevada for a 124-mile trip to their takeout, in Rome, Oregon.
"While I had experienced many different types of river and hiking trips by that time, the Owyhee was my first extended adventure on a uniquely remote desert river," she said.
"In addition, it required more research to plan, was more difficult to access, and required a great deal of caution to make our way down the river canyon, as detailed river maps were not available then," Olin said.
"The isolation was real — we didn't see another person the entire trip."
The Owyhee region conjoins parts of Idaho, Oregon and Nevada. It covers an area of about 9 million acres, roughly the size of Maryland and Rhode Island combined.
It is home to one of the largest remaining herds of bighorn sheep and many other animals and plants unique to the area, and is sacred land to the Native American community.
"This area has been the traditional home of Shoshone, Paiute and Bannock tribes for many centuries," Olin said.
"Ted Howard, cultural director for the Shoshone-Paiute tribes at the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, told me that in 1878 [the tribes] became involved in the Bannock War," she said. Vigilantes had placed bounties on the scalps of the Native Americans, and the tribes retreated into the Owyhee Canyonlands for protection.
"It became a sanctuary for their people. Many still hold to their Native beliefs and go to the canyons to seek guidance from the spirits that reside there," Olin said.
"The unique geological beauty of the canyon was the most striking feature on that first trip," Olin said.
The Owyhee River begins in Idaho "with beautiful rhyolite formations and walled-in canyons. As you continue on into Oregon, the river canyon becomes deeper, and all of these beautiful features are magnified in both size and scope," she said.
Rhyolite is a volcanic rock with a high percentage of silica, composed of quartz and feldspar, Olin said.
"The rhyolite in the Owyhee canyonlands has been eroded over time, and you will find it in all sorts of shapes, sizes and formations, from tall standalone towers called hoodoos, to cliff walls that look like many tall-standing rectangles welded together side by side, or honeycombed," she said. "I was emotionally overwhelmed by its magnificence and forever changed by the experience."
As she looks back on that first encounter with the Owyhee River, Olin remembers wondering why the area had not been designated as a national park.
"I had no experience with the various types of conservation efforts then. Considering what I know now, I believe the Owyhee would best be served by wilderness status," she said.
In fact, Idaho has designated its section of the canyonlands as protected wilderness, but Oregon has not.
"The Oregon region of the Owyhee has remained unprotected for the following reasons: It's an unknown region to most of the public, difficult to access, only a small percentage of the population has seen it, a small but vocal group of ranchers oppose it, and Congress has failed to act," Olin said.
Efforts to protect the Owyhee have been going on for decades, she noted, adding that the Oregon Natural Desert Association is leading an effort called the Owyhee Canyonlands Conservation Proposal which would protect 2.5 million acres of public land in Malheur County.
"This is not a new idea. Approximately 1.9 million acres in the Owyhee, 76 percent of the proposed conservation area, have already been designated as Wilderness Study Areas and have been managed to preserve their wilderness characteristics," Olin said.
But some of these study areas are 40 years old and await congressional action.
Protecting the Owyhee
The Owyhee Canyonlands Campaign, a statewide effort to permanently protect more than 2 million acres in Oregon's Owyhee Canyonlands, is currently mounting an effort to create interest in the area.
The campaign "envisions a future for the Owyhee where plant and animal communities flourish, wide-open spaces and recreational opportunities abound, and local communities thrive," the organization's website states.
The group wants the next generation to inherit the same beauty and solitude that is found in the Owyhee Canyonlands today.
Those interested in preserving this area are asked to sign an online petition at wildowyhee.or that "will let your state senators know you support the efforts to conserve this region," Olin said.
Because Oregonians and others are being asked to make a decision about the future of the Owyhee Canyonlands, which many have not ever seen or heard of, Olin will provide handouts during her Oct. 4 presentation that summarize the details in the wilderness proposal.
She also will include an abundance of photographs and a video of a river trip, to immerse the audience in the Owyhee.
"To truly understand a place, you need to experience it. If you can't go there yourself, then you really need to see it vicariously, and you need accurate information regarding what is in the conservation proposal, not hearsay," she said.
"That's the niche I try to fill, to marry images with accurate information. Then, the public can make up their own minds."
The first time she encountered the Owyhee, Olin had not yet seen many of the iconic desert-river canyons of the West such as the Grand Canyon and the canyons carved out by the Green River.
"Since then I have, and I can honestly say that as far as iconic Western landscapes go, the Owyhee remains unique and can stand on its own merits as one of our nation's most important natural wonders."
But people need to take a stand to help protect the Owyhee River area, Olin said.
"Inform yourself; know what is in the Owyhee Canyonlands Conservation Proposal," which can be found at wildowyhee.org/why-protect-it/ConservationProposal.
"You can take guided trips into the region by signing up for a rafting trip with any of several rafting outfitters, or join Tim Davis (Friends of the Owyhee on Facebook) for a guided field trip into the area," Olin said.
"Finally, when you are thinking about this issue, it's important to remember that this is public land — your land. It does not belong to any one group of people. It belongs to all of us."
Visit the Owyhee
What: Bonnie Olin, author of "The Owyhee River Journals," will present a talk about the area, along with a short reading, slideshow and more.
When: 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 4
Where: Happy Valley Library, 13793 S.E. Sieben Park Way
Next: Olin will present the same talk at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, at the Oak Lodge Library, 16201 S.E. McLoughlin Blvd., Oak Grove.
More: Learn more about Olin and other upcoming events at owyheemedia.com. Sign the petition to protect the Owyhee River in Oregon at wildowyhee.org. Send an email to Olin at