Some time ago my brother David and I started talking about making a summer camp-as-you-go trip to Mountain Home, Idaho to see our 86 year old Grandmother. My wife, son and I flew down a few years ago but neither David nor I had driven down there since, as best as we can recall, 1979. While down there, we thought it would be nice to take a drive into the Owyhee Mountains and have a look at the sheep camp our mother and her family spent their summers at in the 40’s and 50’s. Her stepfather’s father, Papa Boni (Bonifacio Oyarzabal), came to Idaho in the early 1900s. As many other Basque emigrants did, Papa Boni found work in the hills grazing sheep. Well, one plan lead to another and the trip evolved into a 7 day trip with 2-3 nights in the mountains. We only hoped to find the cabins and snap a few pictures.
While my Aunt Anita was visiting from Virginia, we started looking at Google Earth and other maps hoping to find something that looked like sheep camp. Anita told me to look for “a spring with 3 buildings close by”. She could also remember Mud Flat Road and Nickel Creek. After finding hundreds of springs, none of them having any visible buildings close by we decided to give it a rest. A few months later while I was visiting with mom she mentioned Papa Boni and we talked about some of the stories. Later that day I was taking another look at Google Earth when I came across a Boni Table. After zooming in I saw Boni Spring off the NW end of the Table. Just east of the spring was Nickel Creek. This had to be it. I sent a link to Anita and showed Mom. The map showed several buildings, a few more than the 3 they both remembered. Mom thought it looked too green around the buildings and Anita echoed that thought when Mom talked to here the next day, but every thing else fit. Now we had a plan and a destination. We made some preliminary travel arrangements and invited mom to come along.
In the spring I stared rebuilding my off-road camp trailer. We decided this would be the perfect chance to really test it out. It is a simple design with a water tank, water heater, on board batteries, sink and cook stove. We never said anything about roughing it, we were going camping. This would be the base of our base camp.
David came down to Olympia Tuesday afternoon to do the final grocery shopping with me and to finish packing up the truck and getting the bikes on the trailer. We had planned on leaving early Wednesday to go pick Mom up in Moses Lake. After working on the trailer lights wiring and a few other items until late, we decided it would be better to sleep a little longer as we expected a long day driving.
After stopping for coffee and topping off the truck we finally hit I-5 at 9 am, first stop Moses Lake.
We had to pull off at the Indian John Hill rest area along I-90 for a few minutes. We made it to Moses Lake around 1 pm.
We had a bit of lunch then added Mom’s things to the load. With ourselves loaded as well we were on our way, to the first gas station of the trip.
This was the cheapest fill up of the trip. With my $.30 discount we filled up for $3.69 per gallon.
Now we were really on our way, south on SR-17 to the Tri Cities. Our first nights destination was Caldwell, Idaho and the Caldwell Camp Ground and RV Park.
We made it past the Tri Cities onto I-84, almost to Pendleton, before we needed a rest area stop. We were making decent time. It was a little tough to keep up with the speed limit on the hills but the Land Cruiser was performing very well.
We stopped in La Grande for fuel again and a chance to stretch. Our next stop was the Weatherby rest area just before Lime, site to an old concrete factory. We made our final phone calls for the day as we had been in and out of cell coverage since La Grande and didn’t know if we would have service again before nightfall. We thought we would make it to our campground by 8:30, they close at 9 pm. When Mom called and talked with Dad he reminded us that Caldwell would be in Mountain Time. The campground office would be closed and we would have to set up our tent, that we hadn’t even taken out of the package yet, in the dark. It would also be nearly 10 pm MDT before we would we ready to have dinner. We decided to look for the closest campground.
Mom remembered that Farewell Bend State Park wasn’t too far down the road. We pulled off hoping there would be a vacant camp site. We drove around and looked at all the empty sites and found on that would fit our needs. While David and I set up the tent, Farron and Mom registered our camp site and bought some firewood from the camp host. We were sure glad we didn’t try and keep going. It was after 10pm any way before we finished our hot dogs and roasted a few marshmallows.
We got up the next morning and had a light cereal breakfast, anticipating Grandma’s pot roast supper. After braking camp it was back to I-84.
once we passed Boise we decided to stop at Blacks Creek rest area for a little stretch before getting to Mountain Home.
We arrived and Grandma’s in the early afternoon. We had just enough time to visit a little and clean up before supper was ready.
After lunch, Grandma had asked an old friend of Mom’s late brother Geno to stop by. Jeff Day works for the Idaho Fish and Game Department and use to work the Owyhee area. He was intrigued by Grandma’s 1946 map of the Owyhee area. Jeff was very helpful in figuring out how to get to where we wanted to go to find Sheep Camp and gave us several names to contact if we had trouble accessing some areas. He also tracked down a place to get the large map copied.
Grandma was not about to let us take the 62 year old map with us on our expedition. Luckily a local truss company had a plans copier. A whopping $12 later we had 4 hi quality copies. Jeff then showed us some Fish and Game maps of the area for a current look at the roads. He also gave us a little local history and an idea of what we might encounter up there.
After Jeff left, David and I went to the Mountain Home KOA campground to check in and set up the tent. It is just down the road from grandma’s and Farron really wanted to ride back to the campground so we rode our bikes back for a little bit of leftovers for dinner then some apple pie and a slice of strawberry cake for Mom’s birthday. Mom and Grandma had found some of the old photos from Sheep Camp while we were gone so we looked at those as well. It was getting late so Farron, David and I rode back to the KOA and Mom stayed the night at Grandma’s house.
We met Mom and Grandma at AJ’s restaurant for breakfast the next morning before heading for Boise.
Once to Boise we went straight to our Cousin Andrea’s house. She took us in her Saab to The Basque Block in down town Boise.
First we visited the Basque Museum, featuring a whaling exhibit from a Basque museum in Nova Scotia. Farron had fun “sailing” a whaling ship.
Next we had a quick tour of down town. On the way we found a map store, so I had to go in and pick out a few maps that covered our expedition route.
Then we went to find the Oyarzabal bricks Grandma purchased to help fund the Basque Museum.
Our final stop was at Bar Gernika for a bit of Basque lunch (and a mighty fine lunch it was). After lunch it was time to hit the road if we hoped to make it the mountains and find a camping site before dark.
We headed back toward Mountain Home on I-84 and turned off at Simco road, heading for Grand View. Once to Grand View we decided to fuel one last time since we wouldn’t see another station for 3 days and didn’t know how much driving around we would do in the mountains. We also took the opportunity to stop by Grand View’s “big” grocery store and refill the coolers ice supply, get some cold drinks and a few other important items such as eggs and beer.
Heading out of town on Hwy 78 East we looked for Mud Flat road, the start of the Owyhee Uplands Back Country Scenic Byway. This is a very popular drive in southern Idaho.
Not very far down Mud Flat Road the pavement ended. We would not see pavement again for almost 100 miles and 2 days. Mud Flat Road took us through such interesting place as Shoofly Creek, Poison Creek, Juniper Creek, Summit Spring, Summit Flat, Thistle Spring, Mud Flat Spring, Current Creek, Hurry Back Creek, Bullhead Basin, Nickel Creek and finally our destination, Boni Spring.
We climbed from the sage brush and hay fields through the Mahogany to the Juniper forests that cover most of the high country. We kept looking for what we thought Sheep Camp would look like around every bend and rise of the road.
We had an idea of the location but didn’t have a waypoint in the GPS to know how far away we were. Mom was following along on the map as we passed Ranch Road, Antelope Ridge Road, and Deep Creek. I first saw it through the trees on a turn about a ½ mile away. It was a small collection of buildings just off of Mud Flat Road.
As we got closer we could start identifying the buildings as they were in the photos Grandma had shown us. There was a stock truck parked next to one of the buildings and the gates were up across the driveway. We pulled up to a flat spot just past the camp to park. We didn’t know if there would be anyone there or not. As we walked up to the gate we noticed a man hanging up laundry with no shirt on. We decided I should head down first to make sure it would be ok to take a look around.
We met Duane, the resident employee of the Cattle Ranch and a genuine, honest to goodness cowboy.