A canoer's getaway in Oregon's high desert

JORDAN VALLEY — Our rig bounced over the rock-hard dirt roads of the high desert of Eastern Oregon, and the canoe shifted and rattled on our Subaru's roof racks.

Nothing looks stranger than a canoe in the middle of sagebrush country, but we were hunting for Cow Lakes and what we thought would be a great spring bird-watching and paddling adventure in the remote wildlands.

As we approached Lower Cow Lake about 19 miles from Oregon's Jordan Valley, our hopes of paddling sank. How about mud flats hiking?

The lower lake looked about one-third full, and there were a hundred yards of dried mud flats before you could even get to the water.

Canoeing? Maybe time to second guess this plan.

But we weren't ready to give up.

My wife, Julie, and I continued up the road to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's campground at the Cow Lakes Recreation Area and hoped for the best at Upper Cow Lake.

Water! Just what you need for paddling. Whew! There may be a canoeing story after all.

I saw the lakes about a decade ago during a good water year, but I put it off for years and decided to go for it a few weeks ago.

The upper lake was slightly low but still looked good for paddling.

We launched at the boat ramp, loaded the dog in the canoe and headed west.

Since the lake is a mile wide and about 2.5 miles long, we decided to keep close to the shoreline in case those nasty afternoon desert winds whipped up.

Our canoe moved slowly along the rocky, sagebrush shoreline, and in places, it looked like any old reservoir in Eastern Oregon or southwest Idaho, like a giant puddle in the desert.

The fascinating thing about Cow lakes is they were naturally formed by volcanic activity.

Evidence of that was readily apparent with the unique basalt formations jutting from the lake's shore and spiced with orange, rust and green lichen.

There were pieces of basalt pillars on the bank, and the geology of the area changed as we paddled along the shoreline.

A family of otters popped up like periscopes on the glassy surface and started swimming toward us.

Grunting sounds came from the critters, and we had to steady our retriever to keep from flipping the canoe and sinking right there.

It isn't every day you paddle along with a family of otters watching your every move.

It was a sign of surprises to come. A unique paddling adventure was unfolding.

This wasn't any ordinary desert reservoir. It was a rare glimpse at the world surrounding a lava lake.

Behind us, at the far eastern end of the lake, a huge flock of snow geese corkscrewed down and landed on the water.

Off to the side on the north side of the lake, mergansers flew a few feet off the water.

Nearby, Canada geese aggressively honked on their nesting sites even though we were a hundred yards away. Wildlife is skittish out here. Apparently they don't see that many people.

It was getting tricky switching from paddles to binoculars and back.

A yellow-bellied marmot jumped up on a rock on the rimrock to see what was going on.

It kept getting better. We continued to paddle toward the western tip of the lake, and we were soon surprised by remnants of ancient lava flows with their black and gray swirls, trenches and pinnacles at the edge of the water.

It looked like melted licorice frozen by time.

The black rock splashed with the colors of lichen extended out of the lake and continued over the horizon.

Little points resembling mountain lions, towers and bears could be seen on the rock formation's skyline.

We beached the canoe and stumbled upon the southeastern end of massive lava flows in the 46-square-mile Jordan Craters natural area.

Whoa! This was turning out to be some kind of adventure.

"It looks like Hawaii. Oh, I guess I mean Owyhee," I joked.

We've all heard how the name Owyhee originated for this region of Idaho and Oregon from an incident where three Hawaiians were lost in the area in early 1800s.

Hopefully, we weren't going to get lost. After we landed the canoe, we started another adventure — hiking across the lava flow.

This is when you appreciate wearing hiking boots while canoeing instead of paddling shoes.

It takes stout boots for walking across the sharp lava rock. The hike really makes you appreciate this land of fascinating sights and sounds.

We heard the croaking of sandhill cranes. The birds were grazing on vegetation at the edge of the lake.

You never know what you're going to see out there, and a lot depends on the season and migration patterns.

There can be thousands of waterfowl and hundreds of shorebirds in the area during good water years.

I talked with Richard White, assistant field manager with the Vale District of the BLM about the Cow Lakes Recreation Site, after our trip.

"We get the strangest migratory birds out there that you can imagine," he said. "It's a different world when you get out in those lava flows. It's amazing."

The high-desert lakes are amazing and strange, but in a beautiful way.

Although they have dams, the lakes are not reservoirs. They are playa lakes formed when the Jordan Craters lava flow blocked stream flows thousands of years ago.

The geology of this area is mind-boggling. Deep volcanic deposits of basalt and rhyolite cover the landscape.

Another fascinating feature of the lakes is that there is a 17-foot elevation difference between them, even though they're right next to each other. When the lakes are brim full, there is a connecting channel called The Narrows.

We continued paddling and poking around in the coves of the lake looking for other discoveries in desert canoeing.

As we approached the boat ramp, a huge flock of snow geese flew over, apparently joining the others already on the lake.

It was a perfect closing for a day of bird-watching, hiking and canoeing.

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