My Desert Adventure:
Bikepacking in the Owyhee

Ben Groenveld

Author: Ben Groeneveld & Kevin Briggs  |  Published: April 16, 2021  |  Category: Where-To; Profile 

“Where’s all your food?” the concerned sheriff asked, as he examined my packed bike near the North Fork. When you see a touring bike in the remote Owhyees, you will stop for a chat. A driver engaging a cyclist – literally in the middle of nowhere – asks, Where did you start? How far are you going? The sheriff’s question was a good one, for on most of our tours we had made it a habit to end the day where we could camp near the amenities of towns. With almost no services, the Owyhees seemed a suitable touring option during the pandemic. Social interactions would be rare. We’d have to be self-reliant. With no cell coverage, an emergency locator beacon was considered necessary equipment.

Devising a bikepacking route through the remote Owyhee territory where water is scarce is a challenge. It’s further complicated by the unimproved roads, for they become impassable cement when wet. One option would connect the Owyhee River to the Owyhee Mountains via Jordan Valley and Silver City, towns that offered some services. However, returning in such a loop means traversing the Owyhee Desert for three days at elevations between 5000’ and 6000’ with no resupply options. No potable water. Water sources, if not dry by the fall, would require treatment. Yet the potential reward reeled us in.

 

listen

Owyhee Canyon Swallows Sparrows and Rushing Water

Owyhee Canyon Swallows Sparrows and Rushing Water

watch

Time Lapse: a night at Canyon Camp in six seconds

Time Lapse: a night at Canyon Camp in six seconds

voices

John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

Restoration is hard slow work. It takes hold, or it doesn’t, in fits and starts. The immensity of the need can be discouraging, but we must carry on. I am so thankful ONDA carries on.

The terrain, plant, and wildlife diversity were much more than expected. And there was endless solitude. The terrain transitions amplified the euphoric feeling of freedom one experiences cycling days in a row. At first arid and devoid, the desert between the Pole Creek and North Fork Wildernesses turned into a savannah-like landscape where you’d expect to see a giraffe galloping from underneath the canopy. The canopy was formed by curl-leaf mountain mahogany, a favorite high desert tree related to the rose. It’s a deciduous and flowering native evergreen that I’ve planted by my last two homes, coincidentally in Idaho and Oregon.

Our plan to camp near treatable water at Deep Creek had no flaws, yet it was evident from the surprised gasps I heard waking up the next morning that something wasn’t right. Our water bottles had become blocks of ice overnight in a hard freeze. Even my shoes were frozen. The cold was in contrast to the triple digit heat that had delayed our tour. The tour was further postponed by thick smoke engulfing the West.

We heated up by a firepit and would not depart until noon that day.

At Three Forks we marveled at the faint line of an 1800s military road zig-zagging up the opposite steep canyon. As we eagerly ate our rehydrated freeze-dried meals, we contemplated how they got their wagons up there, when we had so much trouble on this side descending a 12% grade into the canyon with bikepacking bikes.

When Scott continuously motioned me with an unusual hand sign, I knew I needed more information. He was warning me that a sun-bathing rattler Genevieve and Kevin had passed was now coiled in the center of the road. A circular detour through the brush was a logical way to avoid this native, though my thoughts suddenly focussed on where there might be more of his kind as I shouldered my loaded bike through the brush. We succeeded in avoiding man, but our new engagement with nature seemed unnatural. Even cattle interactions were at times stressful!

Bikepacking is elevated by a great route and natural comradery. Yet any tour seems to have the chapter construction of a story. The last day is often the best as one realizes the escape from daily work-life is about to end. I pondered the preceding chapters and bathed with perfect weather in the enjoyment of the now with reflection all around. And, thoughts of the next story!

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About the authors

Ben Groeneveld and Kevin Briggs are both members of the Central Oregon Wheelers.

Ben Groeneveld started riding as a child in The Netherlands. He first toured with his brother as a young teen to visit the grandmas riding all day. Little did he know that was his first century. Ben has made Central Oregon home for both work and play since 2000, dabbling in summer and winter sports that offer adventure. Ben trades his engineering skills with Dassault Systèms to pay the bills.

A native of Florida, Kevin Briggs moved to Bend in 2010 after a handful of years in Portland. Over the years he has enjoyed a range of cycling, from racing triathlons to touring overseas. His cycling focus in Bend for several years has been a weekly ride that has evolved from a Meetup group, to an email list, and now to a Central Oregon Wheelers ride. His favorite cycling moment: the image of a seventy-something French cyclist passing him on a climb in New Zealand and the thought—I want to be like that one day.