After learning that Governor Little had signed the infamous SB1110, which effectively muzzles Idahoans from bringing legislation to the Statehouse through ballot initiative, I needed a reset. I could have taken advantage of the ski area’s bonus weekend, but I’m one of those anal types who is not about to haul out the freshy cleaned equipment for one last hurrah. I’ve been itching to spend a night under the stars anyway, so this was an excuse to throw the camp box into the car, download a few maps, grab the Stuebner/Lisk book, The Owyhee Canyonlands; an Outdoor Adventure Guide, and go.
A Long-billed Curlew flew across the road just in front of me–an uncommon sight. Another thing you don’t see everyday is The Flintstones. Sadly Fred and Barney are MIA for the second time since Ginny Wooley created and placed this unexpected tableau in 2019. After a stop for some roadside equine love, I stretched my legs with a stroll through the Ted Trueblood Wildlife Management Area. Several pairs of Northern Harrier Hawks entertained me with aerial pas de deux. Of course there were also tons of ducks of many sizes, shapes, and colors, as well as the ubiquitous and garrulous Canadian geese. No walk through a wetland would be complete without the melody of Black-winged, Yellow-headed, and Tri-colored Blackbirds. Small flocks of shy sparrows accompanied me from bush to bush.
Then onward to a backcountry road I’ve never been on before. The Bachman Grade heads into the Owyhees just south of the old mining town of Silver City. I enjoyed a lovely ridgeline walk at Toy Summit. A two-track road skirts private property holdings and would take me as far as Silver City, should I so desire. The ground was busy with baby Mormon crickets. I’m afraid it may be a banner year for these pests. The flashes of sky blue darting through juniper trees were Mountain Bluebirds.
By the time I returned to the car, it was time to think about a campsite. I’m picky about this, shunning improved campgrounds (of which there aren’t any in this region anyway). I seek locations where ignorant malcontents and curious ranchers will not be bothered by me nor I by them. I passed a few promising sites, but felt them too close to the pair of varmint hunters on motorbikes who’d been kibitzing at the summit when I got back to my car. I kept going with no specific destination in mind. The Bachman Grade Road intersected with the Antelope Ridge Road which travels southeast to Mud Flat Road which I’ve traveled before, but approached from the other end. At least that was how the maps identified the roads. I passed a road sign that identified things a little differently, which gave me pause. But off I went down what was supposed to be Antelope Ridge Road, which after a few miles ended at a serious gate, indicating private property on the other side. I retraced my tracks and turned onto a two-track road pointed northeast. Curiously the road sign listed Antelope Ridge and Mud Flat as destinations. This didn’t square with the map, and the road was decidedly more of a track than a road. I pondered retreating to the Bachman Grade, but the sun was lowering and I was getting tired of driving. What the heck, it looked like a lot of nothing stretching out before me. About a half-mile in, the two-track deteriorated. The terrain was flat, but hugely rutted from past muddy excursions of 4x4s and ATVs. A few rutted spots required rock hopping from one exposed boulder to the next to avoid bottoming out. Then came another inexplicable fork in the road, and then yet another. But there was a small bit of water, possible bubbling up from a spring that squared with the map. The downed remnants of what had been a dense juniper grove were not exactly inviting. A sharp line marked where juniper murderers must have gotten tired, and behind which an intact stand of trees stood in firm contrast. One or two intact junipers stood tall as if guarding their fallen comrades. Shade. Cover. Birds twittering. No sight of a human for miles. This is it.
The juniper madness had been dogging me all day. Near the top of the Bachman Grade a fancy BLM sign explained the reason for the felled trees, complete with photos of the landscape in the late 1960s and again in 2010. Sure enough, what had been a sagebrush steppe landscape had become a fairly thick forest of junipers. Western junipers have become a hot controversy. Some see beauty, shade, and medicinal qualities in a burgeoning juniper forest. Others see an ever expanding army of water hogs. A mature juniper can lap up 40 gallons of water in a day. In the high desert, the hardy juniper with it’s deep taproot will starve out all other thirsty plants, creating a monoculture that endangers sage, forbs, and the animals who thrive in a sage ecosystem. The endangered Sage grouse are particularly affected by juniper encroachment into their habitat. But on the other hand, habitat and grouse are also affected by livestock grazing and wildland fire. It’s hard to pick a winner in a situation like this. But seeing miles upon miles of trees, chain-sawed at their bases and either left to brown in the sun or spot burned onsite is startling and uncomfortable.
My spot at the edge of a juniper desecration zone was quiet but for bird chatter. Unfortunately the juniper grove smelled more like cat piss than like gin. An after-dinner stroll revealed the disadvantage of dispersed car camping. Other car campers tend to not share my leave-no-trace ethics. These sites are invariably cluttered with toilet paper fluttering off bushes, broken (or shot?) beer bottles, and the remnants of non-burnable plastic and foil in the campfire ring. I removed what I could before I left in the morning.
The birds settled down and the stars were as dazzling as I expected. The night got COLD! I woke up shivering, which doesn’t happen that often. In the morning, a thin glaze of ice covered infrequent mud puddles. After a stop in Jordan Valley for coffee, I was back in Boise in time for lunch on Monday. I’d made a full circle.