Kicking (and Gliding) at The Home Ranch

Or how I  learned to channel my inner aerobic animal. By Nicholas O’Connell

It looks so easy. When experienced skate skiers glide along with grace and fluidity, it appears almost effortless. And yet when I’ve tried it on cross country skis, I found it exhausting. If I have the right gear and coaching can I ever make it look easy?

This is the question I ponder during a three-day visit to the Home Ranch, an upmarket ranch located in the Elk River Valley, 40 miles from Yampa Valley Regional Airport in northern Colorado. The all-inclusive ranch includes free gear and instruction and 30 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails.

Matson Tew, a tall, lanky, enthusiastic guide, serves as my instructor. He fits me with skate skis which are lighter, shorter and skinnier than traditional cross country skis.

“Try these poles,” he says, handing me poles that come up to my chin, much longer than cross country poles, but well-suited to the long strides and glides of a skate skier. He fits me for boots and then gives me a pep talk.

“It’s one of the most challenging aerobic sports out there,” he says. “And you’re coming from sea level, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it tires you out.”

Encouraged, I try the technique. The 3-kilometer loop outside the Home Ranch is relatively flat and groomed with a wide corduroy swath, making it an ideal place to practice.

“It’s 70 percent lower body, 30 percent upper body,” he says, demonstrating the technique. “Then it’s probably 50/50 on hills.”

I try to imitate his technique. “Look over the glide ski,” he says. “Spend as much time on the glide ski as possible. Keep your feet low. Assume a dynamic stance with a low center of gravity.”

I ski back and forth, trying to keep all of these things in mind. It’s a lot of effort, but I can feel improvement.

“Do the Wizard of Oz drill,” he says. “Click your heels to get more of a glide.”

I do this and it helps. Then he suggests completing the loop. I skate well around the first portion of the track until I hit a hill and struggle to maintain the technique.

“It’s okay to use Granny Gear on the hills,” he says. “You can put the poles behind you and step up if you need to.”

I follow his lead and pole uphill. By the time I finish the course, my heart is pounding, my lungs straining.

“Nice job,” he says. “You’re a natural.”

I can’t help grinning. This is such a great workout that I want to do it again. By the time I complete a second lap, I may not be making it look easy, but I’m hitting my stride and channeling my inner aerobic animal. Afterwards, I head back to the ranch, having earned the right to gorge on the restaurant’s delicious lunch of soup, salad, and skirt steak fajitas. For more: http://www.homeranch.com/

Nicholas O’Connell is the author of The Storms of Denali and teaches for www.thewritersworkshop.net.

Daddy, the War and the Webcam

A solider feels the costs of war. By Chris “Chez” Chesak

In the wasteland desert of Kuwait, I crammed my gear into duffle bags, preparing to fly into Iraq for a year-long deployment. At exactly the same time on the other side of the planet, my wife was giving birth to our first child. I packed ammo pouches, desert uniforms, and gas masks then I talked to my laboring wife on a satellite phone. I hurriedly packed trucks with more gear and made back to the phone center just in time to hear that labor had actually started. Then I hopped onto a bus and headed to the air base.

I was told there would be no phones where I was going. So, I kept taking photos, of formations of soldiers, of the vast Kuwait desert, of a camel, with my watch in the foreground so that I could mark the moment when my daughter might be being born. I wanted to have that photo around so that I could say, “See honey, this is where daddy was when you were born.”

Arriving at the air base, we were told there actually was another phone center available. My heart jumped and I started to sweat, wanting the briefing to be over immediately. The arduous speeches and warnings finally done, I absconded from assisting my Idaho National Guard comrades in their gear palletizing duties, and sprinted to the phones.

When I called, Sally’s contractions in the Boise hospital room were coming faster and stronger. I burned through my third prepaid phone card of the day and had a dinner of a breakfast bar and some Army peanut butter, which was the only food in my pockets. Finally, after many calls and through the cheers of friends who were with her through the delivery, I was able to hear my daughter’s first wails from 7,000 miles away.

Two hours later, we boarded a transport plane and flew into a war zone. As I sat in the near darkness, lit only by one blue light near the front of the aircraft fuselage, I thought flatly, I’m a daddy. The words rang hollow in my head, then they quickly slipped away as I focused instead on the long deployment ahead.

12219537_10153773098411155_1624015156019177905_nOver the next five months, I had to forget about home and focus on the missions at hand. I eased Humvees through rain-soaked palm groves and over slick mud roads, shivered in guard towers through freezing winter dawns, and once spent 22 hours guarding a polling place during Iraq’s elections. Throughout it all, I received plenty of photos of Lillian from Sally. But looking at them, I could only think, Okay, we have a baby. I am a father. I felt little more than apprehension. I couldn’t stop wondering what it meant to now be a father to a baby girl, or at least to a stack of photos of her.

On one hand, I had dreamt about having a child all my life—I ran over the scene in my mind so often that I long ago determined exactly what I would say to that newborn. I often envisioned picking her up and whispering three specific things into her ear.

But on the other hand, I had no idea what it meant to be a father, as I was brand new to babies. I had zero experience handling, caring for, or loving little ones. My only knowledge of babies was hearing them cry in airplanes and seeing them throw food in restaurants.

The few babies I knew—friends’ children and my own niece—were all born while I lived far away. I was training with my National Guard unit during Sally’s entire pregnancy so I missed the nine-month ramp-up that allows most people to attempt to mentally prepare for parenthood.

Sitting in Iraq with scattered photos of a newborn, I could recognize that I had a daughter, but I had no idea what that really meant. At last, I left Iraq, heading home for two weeks of leave.

After 69 hours of processing, paperwork, briefings, repeated customs drudgery, ten time zones, four countries, and travel in Humvees, buses, two cargo planes, and three commercial jets, I walked up the Boise airport jet way, still dressed in desert camouflage, embraced Sally, and saw a baby in a stroller behind her—my five-month old daughter, my first child, Lillian.

“Who’s this?” I shouted, both out of the exuberance of being home and unabashed pride in meeting my daughter. For me, this was the emotional equivalent of the day of her birth.

Through tears, Sally choked, “This is Lillian. Lillian, meet your daddy.”

I picked her up so carefully, gave her a gentle hug, and followed-up with a quick smooch on the cheek. We immediately found seats right in the terminal, passing a woman who, having overheard our exchange, was trying to hide her tears. A United ticket agent took our picture, our first family portrait.

That day was full of firsts: the first family meal, the first smooch on the nose, neck, etc., first daddy/daughter play time, and the first diaper change. We took photos of every bit of it. But laying awake that first night, joyful to be able to reach over and hug my wife, drink clean water from a tap, sit out in my yard to watch the sun set over the Idaho foothills without having to worry about roadside bombs, I still did not know what it meant to have Lillian in my life. The next morning, I began to find out.

Waking up far too early, still jet-lagged, I woke and went into our baby’s room. As I approached her crib, Lillian’s eyes locked onto mine. She smiled, issued a lilting little coo, and then yawned a tiny yawn, complete with a flailing stretch of her plump arms. I melted.

Over the next days, I became enraptured by her staccato laughs, and her very determined attempts to crawl. I slid into bed one night and told Sally bluntly, “I think I’m in love.”

With Sally as my guide, I learned critical modern parenting skills, like how to change diapers while cradling a cell phone between neck and shoulder and how to work on the computer with one arm. I held serious phone conversations about U.S. foreign policy while sticking my tongue out to entertain Lillian. I hummed Raffi songs while in the shower. I became fiercely proud of the “Dora the Explorer” sunscreen in our car, it broadcasts loudly, “Hey, we havefamily in here!”

A few nights later, Sally asked me, “So, what is it like to be a daddy?”

The words tumbled out. “It is absolutely amazing. It is incredible. It is literally awesome.”

2005-11-27 Homecoming 117I told Sally that I almost cheered when a determined Lilli Bean fumbled her way into finally getting her pacifier into her mouth the right way. I said that, every day, I became more and more enraptured just watching her grow and learn. I loved that each time I held her up on her feet I helped her develop equilibrium, and each time I made a funny noise I helped her learn about speech. I knew that I wanted to spend every possible moment of my time with her, teaching her, guiding her, fortifying her to someday unleash her own unique self upon the world.

But you’re never really, completely home while on leave, because you cannot stop thinking about the march of time that drags onward, pulling you closer to going back to war. You are like a condemned man, constantly aware of the passing of days, then hours, yet trying to forget it all and enjoy what moments you have left at home. Just as I was starting to learn what fatherhood was, my time was up.

The night before my return flight, I mechanically packed my bags, and slipped into bed around 4:00 a.m. for a few hours of trying to sleep, my stomach sick, a sodden ball of knots. Two hours later, I put on the uniform, laced up the boots, and, contrary to everything that my soul knew was true, contrary to the voices in my mind screaming to do otherwise, I stepped out of my home, stepped into the airport, stepped onto a plane. After 72 hours of travel on five different flights, reams of paperwork, and incessant waiting in line after line of similarly camouflage-clad soldiers, I was back in the Middle East. Returning to my base, I felt empty.

Seeing my friends and having them welcome me back helped but it still took a few days to get back into the groove of patrols, Quick Reaction Force response teams, knock-and-search raids, and guard duty. But the deeper emotional damage had been done. While it was easy to ignore Lillian before, not knowing who she was, it was impossible now. I heard the laughter and the coos behind the smiling photos pinned next to my bunk. I now knew a little bit of the tiny girl in those pictures and I missed her deeply.

Soon after my return, my squad drew an extra graveyard shift of guard duty at the summer palace of Chemical Ali, the Saddam henchman responsible for gassing thousands of Iraqi Kurds. Around 3:00 a.m. I stood alone atop an abandoned building in the tightly-packed urban compound. By chance, I looked down into the courtyard of one of the homes across the street. In the dim light of the few working streetlights, I saw a mother with her fussy newborn, rocking him on a porch swing.

I felt sick. I was disgusted that I was missing such moments with my baby. My mind raced, trying to calculate the time I had left here. It was still several months. I tried to stop thinking about it. I walked the rooftop’s perimeter, machine gun in hand, trying to calm down.

Finally, I tiptoed toward the edge, just close enough so I could see her over the rooftop wall. I tried looking nonchalant, like I didn’t even notice her, but I just kept staring, watching her rock and sing to her child. I was mesmerized, and aching inside. At last, she noticed me and, probably assuming that I was just another lust-filled, gawking soldier, went briskly inside. That empty night crept by in excruciating slowness like none before.

While simply difficult before leave, the days in Iraq now became interminable. Under the hot sun, I stood sweating in the gunner’s turret of an armored Humvee and worried if Lillian was sleeping well. I stood lonely vigil in concrete guard towers, wondering what she was learning that day. I roamed the empty nighttime streets of Kirkuk, wondering who she would be when I got home. I did what I could to make the days pass—lifting weights, running supply convoys, watching laptop movies, reading books, and always patrolling. But the days dripped past with an agonizing slowness.

Some relief came from a used webcam. Several weeks after leave, we had a wireless Internet network installed and soon we were all surfing the Web and emailing loved ones directly from our bunks (indeed, this was certainly not our fathers’ war).

Each night (Sally’s morning), I watched Lillian nurse, or nap angelically on the pillow in Sally’s lap. She would occasionally lunge, grab the camera and stick the whole thing in her mouth, allowing me a glimpse of her two brand new teeth.

When Lillian was fussing, Sally texted me about how she cheered up our daughter by holding her upside down. I would see (but not hear, since I didn’t have audio) her screaming wails of laugher on my laptop screen. Soon “Upside-Down Baby” became a hit with my whole squad, sometimes with grown men running into our squad bay once they heard that ‘Upside-Down Baby’ was on. Many night,s I had several soldiers, young and old, gathered around my computer for a chance to see my daughter’s bit-mapped, upside-down face, plastered with a huge, screaming smile.

The webcam was also a nightly reminder of my absence, however. Its images were both treasure and torture. Seeing Lilian’s digitized smile made me ache. One night I saw her stand for the first time, another night she drank water from my wife’s cup, yet another night brought my first glimpse of her eating solid food. I started to understand just how many miniature victories and tiny triumphs I was missing every day. I watched her grow and learn and thrive from ten time zones away, while concussions from car bombs rattled our barracks windows.

Lying in my bunk, I stared at the photos tacked to my plywood wall and was heartbroken every night. Not only had I forgotten to tell Lillian those three little sentences that I’d so long dreamed of telling my first child, I was missing so many more milestones as she started to grow into a little girl, all while I ran about in Humvees on the other side of the world, hoping each day that someone wouldn’t blow me up, or simply pop out of a doorway and shoot me dead in the face.

Harder still was hearing about the difficulties my wife faced every day. While even her good days were a chore, the bad days were horrid. For most of the deployment, she was taking care of both house and baby alone. The car needed repairs, the grass had to be cut, the floors needed vacuuming, and the bills needed to be paid, all while Sally, alone, maintained the constant eat/sleep/excrete cycle of an infant.

Since our families both live far away, we leaned heavily on good friends in Boise, one of whom had to come over in the middle of the night when Sally was stricken by a wicked bout of food poisoning. That woman stayed over to care for Lillian and my wife for two days.

When I heard about sickness or simply heard Sally blurt on the phone, sometimes through tears, “I just want to take a nap” (or take a bath, or read a book, or simply get away from here for a little while), I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I wanted to help, to do something, anything, to just be there for her, to simply take Lillian while Sally showered, or slept, or went out for a solitary hike. But, stranded as I was on the other side of the world, there was nothing I could do.

Slowly the countdown to our departure date ticked down from triple-digits, to double, and then, almost unbelievably, to single days. Our stoic, stone-faced replacements arrived and, soon, we cheered the takeoff of each flight toward home: the transport to Kuwait, the chartered jet through Ireland to Fort Lewis, Washington, and then one last, short flight back to Boise.

Amidst the signs and balloons of the small crowd of families gathered on the tarmac, I found my wife. We didn’t say a thing, just held each other and kissed and kissed and kissed and kissed. After loading my duffle bags into the back of our car, Sally offered Lillian to me and I held my daughter in my arms again, gazing into her big gray eyes. Wide-eyed, she stared back for a moment, then turned to her mother and pushed me away. She didn’t know who I was.

Lillian not knowing me is but one of the myriad intangible casualties of warfare and as old as warfare itself. Two other soldiers that I deployed with also missed births of their children. Sixteen years before I missed Lillian’s birth, a former Marine in my unit stood knee-deep in blowing snow in a rice paddy in Korea when another Marine handed him a telegram and said curtly, “Congratulations.” The telegram said he’d had a son born that day. He smiled, put the telegram in his pocket, and kept on training. (He still has the telegram.) While my father was missing his share of his children’s birthdays and a wedding anniversary during his year-long stint in the highlands of Vietnam, he had only letters and the occasional reel-to-reel tape recording with which to stay in touch with his family.

In Iraq, there were 4,000 other people in my Brigade, 150,000 soldiers deployed in Iraq that year alone, and that was just one war, one war of so many. While the terrible numbers of deaths by roadside bombs, vehicle rollovers, and helicopter crashes was (rightly) spread across the front page and technicians at Walter Reed Medical Center tracked the total number of limbs lost, there are no statistics for the even more numerous intangible costs of war. No one counts the number of nightmares veterans will have for the rest of their lives, forever plagued by incoming RPG rounds, burning Humvees, and charred pieces of children. No one keeps count of veterans’ total divorces and break-ups, the newfound paranoias, the discomfort around fireworks and automobile backfires, the flashbacks, the spousal abuses, or the alcoholic benders. And no one will count the days that all those military parents missed playing with children far, far away.

For me at least, I had made it home whole and I could start counting anew the days spent with Lillian. Iraq began to fade, ever so slowly, into memory as I jumped into a few weeks of accelerated ‘Daddy School’ where Sally taught me how to feed our daughter, play with her, get her into and out of her car seat and secure her while she slept.

One day, I was holding her as we danced in the middle of the living room to some blaring pop song. I rocked, dipped, and spun her around the room as she giggled and squealed, a sound I then knew was the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. I looked into her big eyes and it all hit me: I was, at last, a daddy. I hugged my 11-month old Lilli Bean close and finally said the words that I had for decades imagined saying to my firstborn on the day of their birth; “Hello Lillian Rose Chesak. I love you. Welcome to the world.”

Baptism by Whitewater: Running the Middle Fork of the Salmon

One man’s determination to run the Middle Fork of the Salmon in his kayak turns into a story of mermaids, fly fishing, punishment, and camaraderie. By Nicholas O’Connell

It’s a rock dodge. I point the red 9-foot kayak toward Orelano Rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The rapid is rated a III (on a scale of I – VI, from easy to hazardous), putting it at the limit of my abilities as a kayaker. Earlier rapids have boosted my confidence, but I hope they haven’t lulled me into a false sense of security. 

I enter the rapid on the right, weaving past one rock and then another, relishing the feeling of dashing through the whitewater. A boulder looms ahead. I glide past it, but overcompensate, turning my kayak to the side. The current smashes it against a large boulder, high-centering it on the top. I dig on the paddle, trying to free it.

As I try to shove off, the current catches the underside of the kayak, flipping me into the drink. The water is cold, fast, and powerful. I clutch the boat and pin the paddle between my knees. The river surges past me, threatening to knock me over.  I remember the guide’s advice about staying calm, facing down river and releasing the boat if necessary, but I keep fighting and drag it over to the bank. Taking a moment to catch my breath, I assess the situation.

For years, I’ve wanted to run the Middle Fork and experience every riffle and rapid of this wild and scenic river. Despite the spill, I’ve progressed with my paddling and hope to develop some decent chops during the trip. Easing myself back into to the kayak, I shove off and re-enter the current. I steer more decisively, avoiding the last boulders and gliding into the smooth water below.

“Nice job!” says Willi Cannell, owner of Solitude River Trips, as he pulls up next to me in the larger raft. “That’s what we call an unscheduled swim.”

The “unscheduled swim” serves as my baptism by whitewater on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, one of the premier multi-day whitewater trips in the world. It’s the first day of our 77-mile, six-day journey.  My friend, Chris Olsen, an avid river rat, and five others make up our group of seven. With its abundant whitewater, outstanding fishing, and fascinating native pictographs, the trip represents an intact fragment of the American West.

“It never gets old,” says Willi, 28, a calm, bearded guide who has run the river some 70 times. “I notice something new every time.”

0E4A8195_4791The river begins high in the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho, north of Boise, Idaho. It runs fast and hard for its length of some 100 miles, passing through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area which contains one of the deepest canyons in the continental United States. At 7,000 feet of relief, it’s almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. At 2.367 million acres, it’s the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48. Rafting the Middle Fork is the most spectacular way to explore it.

At the end of the first day, my arms ache, but I’m pleased with my progress.  I navigated a number of moderate rapids without taking another “unscheduled swim,” as Willi would put it. An enthusiastic teacher, he coached me through each of them, describing the easiest line and then leading the way with the raft.

Chris and I steer the kayaks into camp and pull them up onto the rocky shore. The guides have set up tents for us on a grassy ledge. All we have to do is assemble our cots and lay out our sleeping bags. I feel guilty about not doing more, but the guides are a cheerful, well-oiled machine, now busy preparing a fried chicken dinner. So I grab a cold beer, sit in a lounge chair and watch the river run by.

We chat with the others about the first day. Charles Gehr, an expert fly fisherman from Ashland, Oregon, swaps fish tales with Orville and Vince Talbert and Katie Peterson, vacationing from Maryland. We have no cell reception. No television. No contact with the outside world. We’re back to the pleasures of storytelling.

 

SWIMMING WITH MERMAIDS

0E4A7873_5390After breakfast the next morning, I shove off, eager to test my paddling skills.  Chris and I warm up on a couple easier rapids before hitting Jackass Rapid (Class III). Willi gives us advice about running it.

“Hug the side along the gravel bar and then go left,” he says, above the roar of the rapid.

He goes first. I watch him maneuver the raft through it and then follow. The current pushes me left and I go with it until I whip past the gravel bar. I dig hard on my right to avoid getting smashed into the ledges.  The kayak pivots left and bursts into the wave train below. Pleased with this accomplishment, I raise my paddle in celebration.

Turning around, I see Chris entering the rapid. He steers toward the gravel bar, but doesn’t paddle quickly enough to clear the rapid on his right. The wave engulfs his kayak, which disappears beneath him. The current spews him into the eddy below.

“The mermaids got me!” he says, grinning. “They pulled me under.”

The mermaids appear to be active today. With his unscheduled swim, Chris and I head downriver, gaining confidence with every rapid. The kayaks travel much faster than the larger rafts, so we wait in an eddy until the rest of the group catches up with us.

“Are you enjoying the kayak?” asks guide Adam Grogan.

“It’s great fun,” I say.

“Watch out for Killer Fang Falls,” he says ominously. “Only one man has survived it. May the force be with you!”

I easily navigate the rest of the rapids and Killer Fang Falls never materializes. The force appears to be with me today.

Later in the evening, I ask Willi for a lesson in fly casting. I have fly fished before, mostly in my teens, and would love to try it again.

Willi demonstrates how to cast. “Remember to take the line back as far as you throw it forward,” he says. “The line will send the fly out.”

He hands me the rod. My first few casts are messy and awkward, the line snaking around and hitting the water in back of me. Then I allow the line to go back far enough to launch it forward. After a few times, I fling the line forward into the current.

0E4A6854_5990I get a couple bites and then—Wham—something grabs the fly. The rod bends double as I madly try to bring in line and keep the rod tip high. The fish works back and forth across the river, trying to throw the barbless hook. I try to bring in line, but the fish keeps fighting. Slowly, I bring it closer.

“Willi, can you help me land it?” I excitedly move it toward the shallows. Willi comes over, takes the line, and guides the fish into the sand. It’s a beautiful 14-inch native cutthroat, a great omen for the trip ahead.

“Nice job!” Willi says as he removes the hook and releases the fish. With a flick of its tail, it disappears into the current. There’s nothing like a catching a large trout to stoke fishing fever.

 

READING THE RIVER

The next day, I trade places with Vince. He wants to try the kayak, while I’m psyched to fly fish, another way of reading and experiencing the river. I hope to avoid hooking Charles or guide Roger Goth and perhaps even catch a fish in the process.

Just watching Charles improves my own casting. His cast is fluid and stylish. Roger rows back and forth across the river to put us on the best fish habitat.

We cast into the banks, landing our flies in the seams alongside the main current where the fish congregate. The idea is to put the fly, a dry attractor pattern, right above the trout’s nose. I sometimes hit and sometimes miss the mark, but either way the trout don’t seem impressed.

 

Charles makes a cast, watches it drift, and then reels in his line. “That fish came up, looked at it, gave me the fin and then swam away,” he says, shaking his head.

We pass through prime fishing water, the river rushing past huge pink granite boulders. I’m expecting a strike but it doesn’t come. Fishing is about belief; you have to believe the fish will take your fly.

Fifteen minutes from camp, I cast again, sending the line out in a curving S-shape, the fly lightly landing on the surface. Bright and buoyant, it rides through the seam. A fish engulfs it. I pull back on the rod, hooking the fish.

“You’re going to have to net it yourself,” Roger says. “I need to steer.”

0E4A6841_5976A small rapid looms ahead. I keep reeling and hold up the rod as we head through the rapid. At the end of it, I reel in the line and feel the fish struggling to throw the hook.  I bring it toward the raft until Roger nets it, a beautiful 14-inch native cutthroat, wriggling and flapping. I take a long look at the fish: its green, black-spotted back, bright red slashes along its jaw, and fierce, surprised eye. Then Roger drops it back in the water.

Late in the afternoon, we pull into Grassy Flat, a wide open field above the river bordered by a grove of ponderosa pine trees. The guides have already set up the tents among the trees.  Like all the other campsites, this one looks as pristine as when Lewis and Clark passed through the region in 1805, avoiding the Salmon River as too tough to navigate. No garbage. No pop cans. Not even a fire ring. The guides bring a portable metal fire box for cooking. It feels like we’re the first ones to visit this place.

“I’m jealous of people who come down the river for the first time,” Willi says over a beer. “I love to hear people say, ‘It’s amazing this place exists in the lower 48.’”

The next day, we take out the kayaks again. The rapids will be challenging, but Willi is confident in our abilities. By this time, my paddling skills have improved, but the volume of water has increased. At the start of the trip it was low and “bony,” but now it’s broad, flat, and powerful, barreling around rocks, making the hydraulics more challenging.

After we run a couple riffles, Willi announces that Waterfall Creek Rapid (Class IV) is coming up. “It’s complicated and technical,” he adds. “You’ll start to the right, go left, and then back to the right.” 

The roar of the rapid is deep and powerful. Chris and I wait in our kayaks until Willi’s raft hits the rapid on the right. Willi skillfully pivots the raft to the left, churning through the whitewater. Then he brings it back to the right, the water surging around him.

Chris is right behind him, fighting his way through the rapid. I back paddle, waiting my turn. I don’t want to enter too soon and crash into Chris. He disappears into the rapid. I can’t wait any longer; I don’t want to lose sight of him. I head for the right side of the rapid, feeling it buffet the kayak. I spot Chris and stroke right, turning my kayak until—Whoa! —I plunge over a drop into the pool below. Cursing, I fight hard to follow him as he bobs and weaves through the waves. The current knocks me around like a bathtub toy, but I keep moving left, following a path through the tumult, the current shoving me toward a large granite boulder, threatening to high-center me like at Orelano Rapid, but I stroke madly, just missing it. I spot a chute amid the spray and go for it, shooting through it like a grapeseed through fingers. Waves smack me from both sides, trying to wrest the paddle from my grasp. I grit my teeth, clench my paddle and take my punishment.

The river releases me into the calm water below. I execute a wide pirouette, catching my breath and feeling the knot in my stomach release.

Chris raises his paddle in the air. I do the same. I let out a yell, jazzed by the jolt of adrenalin.

That evening we camp at Ouzel, a narrow strip of sand on the bank. It’s our last night and everyone’s in a celebratory mood. The guides serve London Broil steak and pop the corks on several bottles of wine. Sitting by the river, I take in the beauty of the surroundings: the broken line of cliffs on the opposite bank, the bright half moon rising in the distance, the chorus of crickets and frogs serenading us. Later that evening, guide Charles Baker takes out his guitar and sings “Old Crow Medicine Show” with the Milky Way overhead, his voice harmonizing with the river murmuring in the background.

 PAGES OF STONE

On the last day, Willi says the rapids are “consequential” and so we put away the kayaks and board the rafts for the final leg of the trip. I’m alternately disappointed and relieved not to be running these rapids in a kayak, but it’s a moot point. Willi has spoken.

0E4A8152_4748Right after breakfast, we pull in at the Stoddard Creek. After a short walk, we reach an extensive series of pictographs drawn by the Sheepeater Indians who lived in the Middle Fork canyon for centuries. The drawings depict deer, elk, and the stick figures of those who preceded us.

Getting back on the rafts, we barrel through some of the biggest rapids on the river­—Rubber, Devil’s Tooth, House of Rock. In between rapids, I stare up at the steep rock walls of the Impassable Canyon, awed by the intricate patterns and whorls of minerals. It’s the history of the Middle Fork written in pages of stone, a history unfathomably long, complex and mysterious, with human life just the last brief page.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that you never experience the same river twice. This has certainly been true of this trip. Every day has brought new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and experiences: the exhilaration of the rapids, the satisfaction of learning to run them, the camaraderie of the group, the graciousness of the guides, all wrapped up in the powerful and haunting rhythms of the river.

As we approach the confluence with the main Salmon, I marvel at how quickly the time has passed. Then I spot a dirt road, the first real sign of development in the last week. As we haul our gear up to the take out, a trio of ORVs roars by, welcoming us back to “civilization.”

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Nicholas O’Connell is the author of The Storms of Denali and teaches for www.thewritersworkshop.net

TOP PHOTO courtesy Solitude River Trips; ALL OTHER PHOTOS by Kat Smith.

Dog Gash, Big Bend National Park

Dog Gash, Big Bend National Park

Trails are constructed, maintained to control us, to protect the landscape from the impacts of our growing numbers. Routes are optional.

By Brooke Williams

Three camper-backed trucks are parked a the exhibit turn out off of north-running Highway 385 in Big Bend, National Park, which seems strange. We thought no one was here. It is late January. We’ve seen no blooming plants and very few birds in our two gentle days. The trucks are empty and no one is standing at the interpretive sign. The truck’s occupants must be out hiking as this pull out is, according to the guidebook, the parking area for the Dog Canyon Hike.

Dog Canyon can be seen on the horizon… a deep crack (a cut, a scar, a fissure, anything but a canyon!) as if the time-eaten rock forming the horizon had been bent too far—beyond its breaking point. Dog Lake will no longer be the name of this place. I will call it Dog Gash.

Three people, I’m sure belonging to those campers, appear in the distance. By the time we’ve pulled and filled our packs the hikers are near enough for us to see that they are older, fit, and—by the way they move and their hiking poles, lightweight long-sleeved shirts, and big-brimmed hats—comfortable with this desert, these distances.

We’ve been talking to everyone and everyone seems comfortable talking to us. It’s as if we all share three things: we’re not from here; this desert has lured us here; we’re not sure exactly why.

By hearing ourselves speak to one another we might hear clues coming out of us.

Five of us gather where their hike ends and ours begins. The two women are open and friendly, energetic with the glow from a six mile walk in perfect weather. The man is serious. We find out quickly that they are volunteers for the Park Service—living in their campers, they answer questions at information desks, pick up trash, sell guidebooks, maps, and tee-shirts, and issue permits at the Visitor Center’s that seem to have been carved into this desert.

The serious man is all business.

Do you have water?

Yes.

How much?

3 three quarts.

Food?

Yes. That too.

Although I pride myself in the comfort I feel wandering in the desert, I consider it bad luck to ignore another’s warning.

You know it’s four hours?

No, I lie. Thank you.

Of the packs, his is the largest and I wonder about a gun.

We all smile. Terry and I turn toward the gash in the horizon and begin.

A grey, hard-panned surface spreads in every direction. I’m wondering if we find our own way across the desert expanse to Dog Gash when a footpath appears through a small patch of dried plants, suggesting a trail. Or at least a route. I prefer routes to trails.  Trails are constructed, maintained to control us, to protect the landscape from the impacts of our growing numbers. Routes are optional. Routes are prompts for our own creative wanderings. Seductions. In some cases, routes provide security, comfort when needed. Routes are suggestions. The Dog Gash ‘trail’ is really a route.

Brooke on Trail (BEST)Some routes are marked by cairns, and cairns have been ‘built’ along the route to Dog Gash. I use the word, ‘built’ loosely, because these cairns are nothing more than piles of stones.

I like the art of stacking stones and where better to practice my art than here, where the cairns—whatever they might once have been—need significant work.

The stones are perfect, some long, all of them with angles surfaces, which with the right touch and patience, I’m able to turn random piles into statues.

I follow one to the next, stopping, kneeling on the hard desert, creating structure from chaos.

After reforming three cairns, I move along the route into a vast field of creosote. These plants define this desert. They can be shoulder-high or shorter than one’s knees, and evenly spaced or random as if dropped from high in the sky. All of which depends on the source of water from which they draw. Creosote roots exude a toxic substance which keeps other plants at bay, from competing for valuable moisture. It is these distances these brilliant plants have created between themselves through which I follow the route, cairn to cairn. Creosote exudes the “scent of the desert” which I breathe in knowing that I am much better having done so.

Terry has moved on out of sight. Looking down, I notice that my path is sidewalk smooth and I stop to shed my shoes and socks. In the months since I walked barefooted outdoors, I’ve missed it. My feet are white and tender and marked by creases left by my socks. I’ve read about the benefits of walking barefooted—the chemical exchange of important ions; the massaging of points on one’s feet which are connected to our various organs. I don’t need to believe any of that to know that walking barefooted makes me happy. I stuff my shoes and socks in my pack, take three glorious steps, calculating: If walking barefooted feels this good, walking naked will be that times ten. Or twenty. I look around to be sure I’m alone, as I would feel sorry for anyone accidently seeing what six decades of time and distance can do to a body.

Dressed in my floppy hat, I move like liquid across the desert. I stop to re-build six cairns. The February sun is perfect, its beams hitting my pale body at such a low angle they’re deflected rather than absorbed. Pinching my skin, I find no redness. The route, which has been straight and directly east, turns south and winds between creosote which grow closer together here, suggesting they share more abundant water. The trail roughens and the small stones and sharp sticks require more of my attention. It turns sharply west and becomes tube-like as it drops into the large wash through which water running over the eons has created Dog Gash. Terry is there, waiting.

She laughs briefly at my naked state and we walk toward the gash which becomes a portal between two worlds. There are many rocks, which although rounded from ten thousand floods, are too much for my just-born feet.

Now with shoes (no socks) I follow her toward the Gash. We stop in bank shade to eat and drink and glimpse a small bird on a dead branch.  A wren, its white eyebrow telling us it’s Bewick’s and not  Rock Wren or Canyon Wren. Two insects buzz around us and across the wash a brilliant orange butterfly surfs an invisible breeze. Terry makes notes in her journal and I get up and move.

As I enter the gash the air thickens, compressed by the rock walls rising high above the dry wash on both sides. The gash is filled with shade and the cool air charges my skin. I wander along in a trance, wondering how I would explain this place to someone from another planet or Omaha.

stone in handA million stones of different sizes and colors and shapes pave the creek bed. I pick up those with the most unique shapes and notice they are all the same color—a pink shade of white, not grey or beige. What could shape have to do with color? Two ravens croak high in the cliffs where a cloud casts a boat-like shadow.

Terry joins me where I’m sitting on a sandy bench looking out over it all. We don’t say much, but watch time pass slowly in front of us as if it has taken on form and color.

Chilled, we get up and move back through the gash, sensing that the end to this short day is closer than we think.

Terry’s shoes come off when the trail smoothes. We walk slowly, nowhere else to be, two miles to go. I work on three more cairns. Terry follows a small brown bird. A large beetle recently crossed our path, I can tell by its tracks.

The sun melts on the horizon, spreading bright color along it. I stop to put on my clothes, which feel like they belong to someone else.

Looking north, in the fading sunlight, I can see where a massive chunk of rock has fallen from a cliff, and smashed into white powder on the dark talus slope below. I swear that it happened today, while we were in Dog Gash. I’ll find out later the rock fell in 1987.

The shadows grow as we move through the creosote. Tomorrow, we’ll head south toward the Rio Grand. We’ll see Mexico across the river and the creosote will be starting to bloom there, as the spring will be further along. I’ll wonder if I’ll be older there—further along—and  long for Dog Gash where I can be young again.

Epic Luck

You take a lot of risks when you climb the biggest, deadliest terrain on Earth. So what, exactly, keeps you coming back?

By Pete Takeda

The soft crunch of breakable crust on a crisp bluebird day.

My tracks traverse the slope back for 100 feet of steep snow to a belay. A molded snow fin blocks easy passage into a couloir. A tinny mental alarm buzzes in my brain as I whack and stomp my way through the heavy congealed mass sitting at a 50 degree tilt. The flute protrudes from the slope like a fat tapered surfboard. I feel the tension in the flute as I bust through and finally straddle the thing.

I’m almost across, and I know the clock is ticking. I quickly plunge both my ice tools into the firm, creamy snow of the leeward slope. Then, just like that, a crack splits the snow right below my tools. The fracture is perfectly horizontal. It shoots out in both directions. Tons of snow start sucking me down.

As usual in these situations, time slows down and a million calculations race through my brain… a one-hundred foot runout… no intermediate gear… a 40-foot cliff lurking below. The rumble of debris builds below as the slide rips down the couloir. Once more, I’ve crossed that line where climbing becomes more than a game. This is gonna hurt.

Climbing’s beautiful modes of expression, levels of physical challenge and requisite mental gyrations are enough to calm the most obsessive. My climbing career, though organic, bears all the hallmarks of mania. I started out as a boulderer, moving through the various disciplines—top-roping, cragging, multi-pitch climbs. I got to play a tiny part in the advent of bolted rock in what later became known as sport climbing. The path widened—big walls, hard aid, ice, mixed climbing—the path ever driving me to the big mountains.

At first, the organizing principle for me was technical difficulty, but over time I felt like too much of a technician. Beauty, aestheitcs interested me more. The aspect of risk, a thing most people work to avoid, jumped from incidental to compulsory. But the bigger the undertaking, the greater the commitment, the objective hazards and the corresponding risk. The mountains hold no monopoly—a high ball or a mandatory 40-foot runout on desperate climb each present their own unique and deadly hazards.

The first time I nearly died was on El Cap. My partner, a veteran of countless epics, and I got stranded in a storm at the worst possible place imaginable. We had just two ropes—insufficient to escape the huge overhang below our bivy ledge. I sat for two days huddled, soaked in snow and freezing water. My bivy sack reeked of ammonia—I didn’t want to piss myself, and I later found out that that this was the smell of muscle breakdown in lieu of other fuel. A day into the ordeal, I asked my partner, Are we going to be okay? His reply, How the hell should I know.

Hemingway once famously stated that mountaineering was a sport and not a game. I consoled myself with that bit of wisdom and some intense prayers to an as-then-undefined deity.

Most climbers would prudently quit or at least learn enough to never get in the same predicament. Not me. And similar things kept happening. Epics—fated, pre-ordained, subconscious fulfillment… I figured that each instance was a rarefied set of events, that they would be transformative after the scare. Perhaps, the point. If you survive, the experience dwarfs the memory of the mere act of climbing.

The next episode happened so fast that there was little time for contemplation. I was struck by falling rock one morning on a new route on Half Dome. That accident predated the convention of wearing helmets. I only had time to watch as a tourist-trundled boulder mercifully exploded on the wall 20 feet above, while I huddled in aiders, head wrapped in my arms. A chunk of shrapnel cut my face and arm. I bear the scars to this day.

R1001374The difference between an epic and a near-death experience is that near-death requires the hand of fate or chance to save you. Epics tend to be inconveniences played out over time—more a test of will and patience than fate.

Years later, I was treated to a combination of both. I was stuck on a mountainside for hours bracketed by wet snowslides as a storm raged and my partner fought through a sparsely protected mixed pitch. He’d chosen to carry on despite my urging that we take shelter on a ledge below. I was afraid the belay would rip in a fall or that we’d be swept away at the whim of an avalanche. Better him than me was my thought. It’s hard to admit, but that’s the truth of it.

Looking back, I can see a progression, a sequential unfolding of events and an indisputable revelation. To the outsider it all looks foolhardy, a death wish, an addiction. Those definitions are merely attempts to describe something unfathomable and frightening—the conscious acceptance of mortality.

To accept is not to acquiesce. And it can promote compassion. A few years back, three climbers and I took shelter in a crevasse during a massive storm in the Himalayas. Our first night, we were struck by an avalanche. In the instant following the slide, I pulled my partner from the flood of debris. Blind luck allowed me to grab his hand before he was sucked under. He’d gotten snow in his trachea. Even bigger slides followed. One effectively sealed us—tomb-like—in the crevasse. I had to dig a 25-foot tunnel, only to emerge greeted by the sound of continual snow slides. This went on for three days, long enough to ponder mortality and be given up for dead by our basecamp team.

Though it was another one of those once-in-a-lifetime adventures. But the true takeaway was my impulse when, even as the avalanche was sucking me down I distinctly recall thinking of my partner as I groped in the darkness, “His life is more important than mine. Best be sure he makes it.”

The notion of heroism is another casualty of the near-death experience. Such monikers belong in press clippings and adolescent fantasy. They are eventually replaced by an objective acceptance of what might be. Alpine climbing is defined by its aesthetic and a good part of that is risk. To choose to continue is to choose mortal risk. One who does not acknowledge this brings a fool’s paradise to the mountains. The real tragedy in this business is the loss of those who didn’t accept what they were getting into.

I took a nasty fall in the Peruvian Andes in 2012 and upon return a friend said, “Now you’ve used up six of your nine lives.” She might have been right. Regardless, I take comfort in a strange certainty that I don’t need this type of experience to gain insight. Complete awareness might not play to my advantage. A wise character in Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram notes, “The fully mature man or woman has about two seconds to live.”

Back to my slide at the beginning of this story. My life doesn’t flash before my eyes. My heart rate barely lifts above the baseline exertion. There’s a clinical detachment, any fear lost in the savage joy of the moment. I’m not afraid of what’s going to happen. I’ve been here enough to accept that this is what I signed up for.

My feet are swept out from under me. My ice tools shift under my body weight. At the same time, the ropes come tight, cutting into the exposed snow below the crown. I lean into the slope as the slab slides by. I don’t even make a sound. The slide picks up speed, but, as the couloir opens up, it slows and hisses to a stop.

I call for slack and finish the pitch. Looking down now, the slide is small enough to discount as a true near-death incident. The event feels almost incidental—as if nothing important happened. I carry on—three of my nine lives intact and ready for what comes next.

Pete Takeda is a Colorado-based climber and screenwriter.

The Peaks of Otter

Peaks of Otter

Finding a little respite in a Blue Mountain Lodge

By Katie Souris

When I was a little girl, I had good parents. On family vacations, more often than not, we’d go camping in North Georgia or stay in a little one room cabin at a State Park and I would tromp around hunting for salamanders and playing on a freshwater sand bank.

One year we decided to take a big trip. We loaded up the Pontiac with hiking boots, maps, a camera, a basket and tarp for rugged picnics, and a cooler full of yoo-hoo’s and deli meats. We were headed on a Southeastern road trip up the Parkway from North Georgia into Virginia.

I still love the Blue Ridge Parkway and dream of the times we had back when I was seven years old. One place we stopped to rest was Mt. Pisgah, another was Doughton Park. Both of these hiking hubs are marked by iconic lodges (or were, in the case of sold Bluffs Lodge) where travelers could stay a night or two, get a gourmet meal, and have the chance to get lost in the scene of the Blue Ridge without pitching a tent.

We didn’t make it to Peaks of Otter on that trip, although my mother wanted to. She loved Doughton Park because of the herds of deer and the quite misty mornings. She loved Mt. Pisgah for the skunks that visited the grass in front of the rooms in the night (my mother loves atypical things, which is a blessing). So this year, on her 69th birthday, we made it up to Virginia once again via interstate for most of the way and then weaved back South on the Parkway 80 miles from Charlottesville to the lodge nestled between two peaks in the valley of Otter Creek.

The main building contains a dining room, gift-shop, and the ‘Bear Claw Lounge’, which sells coffee and confections. There are three units that house guests, each two-storied and every room with an uninterrupted view of the expansive Abbott Lake that captures Sharp Top Mountain’s reflection, this time in brilliant autumn golds. In the rooms there are water saving tips and socially conscious reminders, like the program Peaks of Otter participates in by collecting leftover soap to be recycled, made new, and sent to communities in need around the world. In the shower, a waterproof stop-watch challenges guests to use less than the average 12 gallons of water per shower. I hit 11 gallons before realizing I’d been clean for at least the last 4.

Although typically guests book rooms for two evenings, we called and were able to stay for just Saturday. The winding expanse of hiking trails that leave directly from the lodge and lead to old settlements like Johnson Farm and geographic wonders like Balance Rock, made us wish we had more time. We did a short 1.8 mile loop trail Sunday morning, passing under a stone bridge and climbing gently across a soft green meadow and into a golden forest of flaming Hickory, Tulip Poplar, and Maple trees. At Johnson Farm the trail was marked with a few wooden placards that explained the history of what was once a thriving community nestled into the rugged mountains, and had a view of the lake and peaks below that made me long to stay awhile.

At the dining room the night before we had watched out the window as the day turned to dusk and the sun played its sharp rays of light off the mountains. The colors dimmed into muted orange and purple while we feasted on pecan encrusted trout and prime rib. Ducks bobbed up and down in the chilly water, searching for dinner. Walking back to our room that evening, a streak of tan caught my eye as one deer led the charge, joined by six or seven others: grazing and watching, grazing and watching, on the other side of a wooden plank fence.

Many lodges and bed and breakfasts close during the off-season, but Peaks of Otter will stay open on weekends during the winter and will serve a Thanksgiving Day buffet. Whether you stop by for a night’s rest, a meal, or a reverent walk around Abbott Lake, Peaks of Otter is a place to, “Come to unplug,” as guests are encouraged to do, and enjoy the panoramic accommodations of planet Earth.

Check out what the Blue Ridge Parkway Association has to say about Peaks of Otter by clicking here or visit the website directly:  peaksofotter.com.

Enlightenment on the Edge

Enlightenment on the Edge

Stuck in the fear zone in the midst of a fall-and-die climb, a  free soloist learns how to truly practice yoga

By Mark-Francis Mullen 

Photos by John Lloyd

I learned yoga on the side of a cliff. Oh, I knew all about “yoga” before that. I’d gone to countless classes and read countless books. Yet I truly learned it, lived it, and became it when I was solo climbing.  Good thing, too, I think

There I was, halfway up a serious route on a canyon near Boulder. I was frozen. Above me, the route looked difficult, extending to the sky. Instead of the minimum three points of contact climbers normally like to have, I had only two. Beneath me, everything fell away into a sea of sandstone. It was hundreds of feet to the miniature-looking trees at the bottom. Above me, the rock face extended into the sky, the top unseen. The holds? I didn’t see them. Maybe that indentation there…is that a microscopic horn above it? Would any of it hold my weight?

Too scared to go up, too scared to go down, I clung like a fly on the wall. The two holds I was on were rapidly diminishing into just one, at which point I would surely, eventually peel off.

I could taste it. I was far above safety, in the zone where a fall would mean death. My rope? It sat safely in my pack, waiting for the rappel off the summit. All that was between me and this looming death was a rubber toe lodged tentatively in a small crack and the friction of my two palms against the smooth cliff face. I had to move—soon—or I was going to become another statistic in Accidents in North American Mountaineering.

On cue, the sun disappeared and the wind picked up, making the situation even more dire. I felt the strength going from my leg. Do or… die. My options were extremely limited; staying put was not one of them. I could feel the sick sweat of fear. I could almost see it all happening: Calling out “stuck” to my partner, who was ascending above me, I explained there were no holds. His soft, confident Southern accent carried down to me. “Aw, Mull, it’s riddled with holds up here… just go the left a bit, grab onto that horn, just above the bulge.”

Great. It was a hard move, across an outward-bulging wave of rock. It would be even more difficult thanks to the sketchy two-point stance in which I was stuck. It seemed… impossible. Still, I did not want to die, and I struggled to summon my strength and determination for the move. I’d have to dyne—put all my power into an explosive, vulnerable grab upwards. I would get just one try.

I took a deep, slow breath… and the the yoga began. I focused my concentration on the present moment, that square foot of rock above me. Breathe. Deep. Nothing else. Just me, the moment, the rock. All the rest simply fell away. I became focused and calm. B  reath swept through me like a broom, driving out fear and worries, and the rest of the universe.

That’s where my yoga began.

It wasn’t theoretical out here. It wasn’t in some studio with no real consequences. It was essential to my life.  Focus, breathe, let go. This wasn’t just the recipe for inner peace, it was the recipe for survival, for continued life. I gathered myself.

The rest of the climb was not without moments, but nothing close to that crux. After a few more scary and adrenaline-filled moments, we were on the summit, laughing about it, exhilarated to be alive, on top a pinnacle in the Colorado Rockies.

Still, as I looked down, I knew how close it had been. Without the practice of continually getting hold of myself in difficult or uncomfortable situations, I’d have never been able to pull off that move. Half-dehydrated, a couple hundred calories in the red, no longer a youthful, fearless climber in my prime, that move was almost impossible.

No, let me be clear; that move was impossible…for me, without yoga.

R_gtwzgoVfPoWRbuzW-gFLIdJiiGsugoHsPVAarAQNUSo there it is, yoga saved my life. No blue-colored, many-armed Hindu goddesses appeared above me and carried me to safety. No magic powers. I didn’t need to get my body in any special contortion for yoga to be there. In that one saving moment, I was yoga. I was the breath. I was the rock and the sky and the void below me. I was the wind blowing and the sun. Yoga helped me gather all these elements into one harvest. The harvest was not the dyno, the move itself. It was the letting go, the allowing the possibility for that move to exist and manifest in my life right in that moment.

Hand to Hand Combat with a Bear

It’s a game of mortal combat when a canoeist runs into one of nature’s most efficient killing machines in the wilds of the Churchill River.

By Jonathan Klein

August 3, 2012: I had a new experience today. I fought for my life.

I got to Portage Chute, shortly after noon.  It had been a splendid morning with plenty of current to speed me along.  This stretch of the Churchill is wide, shallow, fast and studded with gardens of large, dark, looming rock.  I maneuvered amidst these monoliths all morning, playing and dodging and showing off to myself, pretending I had nitroglycerin on board which would explode with the slightest jar, and seeing how close I could pass by or over an obstacle without hitting it.  I was enjoying myself.

Pewter SunMy GPS didn’t think I was quite to Portage Chute.  It’s still 1.11 miles downstream, it was telling me but I knew better.  This was Portage Chute, beyond all doubt.  Narrow defile?  Check.  Increased grade and velocity?  Check.  Check.  Flecks of foam popping up downstream?  Sure ‘nuff.  Deafening roar?  That’s a big 10-4.  I was there.

I took out on river left where the Churchill broadens into a small bight, beached the canoe and headed downriver to scout.  There were boulders scattered all over, like a toddler’s toys.  Portaging would be hell.  Two hundred yards in, I came to a major obstacle, a scarp, only eight feet high, but sheer.  Getting the canoe and gear up and over it would take some doing, the kind of doing I didn’t want to do.  I scaled the wall and emerged onto a broad bench, blanketed with low shrubs and clumped with slips of cottonwood.

I recognized some of the shrubs as buffalo berry, adorned with clusters of small red fruits.  Across the bench, fifty feet away, the Churchill pounded through Portage Chute and I headed over to check it out, hoping it wouldn’t look as bad as it sounded.  A rim of pale red rock stood twenty feet above the river and lined it up and down, giving me a great view of the rapid.

I had already pretty much made up my mind to run it, even before scouting, because the portage was going to be a Bitch (note capital ‘B’), but there wasn’t a great line.  Getting through without swimming would be iffy because of several large breaking waves strewn pell-mell across the river that could swamp or roll the boat.  There was no way to miss them alI.  And there were rocks aplenty too, which I’d have to miss, but I took comfort in seeing that the river below deepened and slowed, providing a reasonably good recovery area, so, in the event of a water landing, all the flotsam, including the canoe, any unsecured gear, and I could be reunited in calmer water and, after some sputtering, bailing and sponging, returned to a fully upright and undamaged state.  I studied the rapid a bit more, picked a line, ran it a couple of times in my mind’s eye, and started back.

I was crossing the bench through the buffalo berry and almost to the lip of the scarp when I noticed movement in my periphery.  The bear that almost ate meSomething big and black and blurry.  I turned to look and was incredulous to see a large black bear, only forty feet away, approaching with obvious ill intent. It was moving with deliberation, mouth open, head low, black eyes unwavering—locked on mine.

I had been dreaming of a true wilderness experience and here it was: Mother Nature, telling me, So you want real wilderness? Here you go, sonny. For what could be more real or more wild than an animal coming to eat you?  I was prey, calories, for a large omnivore that was sick and tired of grass and berries and roots. My shotgun and bear spray were in the canoe, 200 yards away.  I would have to stand and fight with the only weapons I had, my bare hands.

There was no time to be afraid.  The bear was closing in.  Only seconds remained.  Some long dormant survival instinct took over and I transformed from mild mannered Nature Boy into Conan the Barbarian in a nanosecond (ok, exaggeration). A klaxon blared in my brain. Every cell in my body scrambled to battle stations.  I was not aware of wind or cold.  The crash of water through the nearby rapid drew silent.  Every fiber of my being was focused on the bear.

It approached with a dispassionate malevolence, as if to say, Hey. This isn’t personal, just business. Some things are killed and eaten so that other things can live to kill and eat another day. But predators don’t always get their prey.  Sometimes, the prey gets away.  Sometimes the predator gets hurt.  We quarry are not completely helpless. We can kick, maybe break a jaw, butt, gouge and bite, put a hurtin on ya, even inflict mortal wounds, so the prudent predator will approach cautiously, especially with unfamiliar, larger prey, to assess the risks, prior to going in for the kill.

That’s exactly what my bear was doing, coming on slowly to take my measure, ponder the risks verses rewards, and then decide whether to attack or withdraw.  I doubt this animal had ever seen a human before. We were in the most remote portion of the Churchill, no roads or villages anywhere close, no trails, fish camps or cabins, and inaccessible to motorboats and float planes because of all the rocks and shallows. The bear could not know, what exactly was I, and just how dangerous might I be?

My only hope lay in exploiting this uncertainty, make the bear  think I was some psycho in search of a rug. I couldn’t run.  He’d shag me down in a heartbeat, swat me to the ground, rake and bite me while I screamed, shake me like a rag doll while I whimpered, and then begin to tug and tear off chunks of flesh while I quietly moaned.  If I played dead, I’d last only slightly longer than if I ran, and it wouldn’t be quality time.  My only play was to be aggressive, fool the bear into thinking that I was biggest badass this side of Fidler Lake.

“Get away you Mother Fucker!”,  I screamed, but there was no discernible reaction.  Nothing.  On it came, walking, watching, not making a sound.  Only twenty feet away now.  I charged it with arms held high, trying to look bigger, and snarling invective through barred teeth.  “COCKSUCKER!” I yelled.  “MOTHER FUCKER!”

No change in attitude.

The bear was right next to me now, close enough to touch. It began to circle, close in, from right to left.  I began to hit it, punching it in the head and face with neoprene gloved hands.  “Good God!” I thought, “I just hit a bear.  Is this really happening?”

It was.  I was really fighting a bear.  As it turned, I turned with it to keep its head to my front, constantly throwing punches.  My left jabs were weak, ineffectual, glancing blows, but I landed a couple of hard rights to the side of its enormous head which caused a momentary pause before the circling resumed.  Near the end of its circumnavigation, I hauled off and kicked it in the ribs just behind the left leg.  I was only wearing soft rubber boating booties, hardly more than slippers, but I kicked as hard as I could.

This seemed to surprise the bear and it stopped circling and rose up, apparently indignant over such boorish behavior.  I’m 6’4” and 185 pounds.  The bear was half a head taller, but on the lean side.  I doubt it weighed more than 250 pounds, but skinny meant hungry and hungry meant dangerous.  Its paws were held high, claws outstretched and I expected to be cuffed at any moment, but the bear just stood there, as if newly uncrated from the taxidermist.

We stood, facing each other like dancers, unsure, waiting for the music to start. Then it suddenly dawned on me.  I had a knife.  Holy shit!  It hung inverted from a sheath affixed to my life jacket.  I’d forgotten all about it. It was only a four inch blade and the only thing it had ever cut was cheese, but I drew it forth with a flourish and brandished it at the bear.

“I have a knife!” I bellowed, to myself in surprise, to the bear in warning. The tables had turned, whatever that means.  Still, the thought of stabbing this creature with the little blade was cold comfort. I did not want to hurt it, or aggravate it, and feared that once the stabbing started, this fight was going to get ugly for real.  So there we stood, two statues cast in enmity, knife out, claws up, a Mexican standoff if ever there was one. I ended it, taking several quick steps backwards to the lip of the ledge, then whirled and bounded down the wall with the speed of a mountain goat, but not the agility.

Halfway down I slipped and had to jump the final four feet to the basin below. I landed hard, tried to catch myself with lunging steps, but fell, sprawled out on hands and knees.  My right hand, still gripping the knife, lit almost directly upon a fist sized hunk of rock, smooth, near round, granite. A gift. I transferred the knife to my left hand, snatched up rock in my right, and sprang to my feet with improbable dexterity for someone of my age and decrepitude, then I spun around to see if the bear had given chase.

There it was, just ten feet away. The motherfucking thing had followed me down the wall.  It stopped when I turned, looked at me, not directly this time, but obliquely and with menace. I faced it, edgewise, like a fencer, knife extended, and the rock, locked and loaded behind.  This was it.  The moment of truth.

“Look bear” I implored, “I don’t want to stab you with this knife or hit you with this rock, but you have to leave right now.”  The words were barely out of my mouth when the bear made up his mind, and it wasn’t to leave.  The big head swung up and he came at me.  I let him have it, heaving the rock with all my might.

Funny. Ever since dislocating my right shoulder in a kayaking  mishap twenty years ago, I haven’t been able to put any umph into an overhand throw.  Before the injury I could hurl hard, be it baseball, football or rock, but, ever since, I throw like a girl, all arm and no shoulder.  Not this time.  Adrenaline is a miracle drug and with a surfeit of it coursing through my veins, I unloosed the rock.  It sailed, trailing flame, and smacked into the bear’s skull right between the ears. It landed with a loud crunch, rock scraping bone, an awful noise normally but sweet music under the circumstances.

The bear vanished in a blur, hunger pangs replaced by headache.  I ran in the opposite direction, hotfooting it to the canoe, where I quickly hoisted the shotgun in one hand and bear spray in the other.

“Hey asshole!” I bellowed.  “You want a piece of me?  Well come on you chicken shit and I’ll spray you right in the kisser.”  I heard nothing but the hiss of wind and water, and blood pounding in my ears.  Then I started laughing like a lunatic.

Once I returned to a semblance of normal, I decided not to tempt the fates further by running Portage Chute.  I figured all my lucky charms were cashed in for the day.  What if I dumped and ended up on the left side of the river?  The bear’s side.  I had no desire for round two with the bruin so I pushed off and clawed my way upstream a couple of hundred yards, far enough up so I wouldn’t be swept down into the rapid, and ferried to the right shore.  There was no channel on this side, just a jumble of huge rocks through which the river poured over, around or through.  I dragged  the canoe past the obstacles, abusing it in myriad ways, but I got down. Then I returned to the canoe for lunch, my favorite, peanut butter on rye crisp with turkey jerky.  As I smacked down these delectables, thinking about my  improbable victory and narrow escape from the literal jaws of death, I glanced across the river and saw a hairy hump moving through the vegetation opposite.

“Hey bear!” I shouted and the hump stopped, turned, and the bear emerged onto the rim where I had scouted the rapid a lifetime ago.  It peered across at me with a puzzled expression, then turned and walked out of sight. “Good luck to you bear” I called after it, and meant it.

Hanging in the wildsLater at camp, I poured myself a big 151 rum and sipped it thoughtfully.  I was in a contemplative mood, totally drained, and numbed, but euphoric.  I marveled at the days events.  I fought a bear and I won.  I knew it was mostly luck, that I was lucky to be alive.  I have always been lucky.  Lucky in my parents, my friends, health, choices.  Lucky in love.

I have learned to trust in luck, but this was more luck than anyone deserved.  I was lucky the bear wasn’t bigger.  Lucky he wasn’t more confident.  Lucky he didn’t swat or bite me.  Lucky, I walked away without a scratch save for a small scrape on my knee sustained when I crash-landed below the ledge. But that was lucky too, because if I hadn’t fallen I would not have found that rock. It was the rock that saved me.

Strange, but there are almost no loose rocks along this portion of the Churchill River.  I wasn’t even looking for a rock, it just materialized, found me.  Now, I am not in any way suggesting divine intervention.  As far as I’m concerned Jesus would have been more inclined to send the bear than provide the rock.  Luck gave me the rock and luck guided the throw that nailed the bear right where I needed to bean him.  A shot to the shoulder wouldn’t have done it.  And it was luck that the bear didn’t think, “Ouch, my head hurts, but fuck it, I’m going to eat him anyway.”

So I drank my rum and thought about the day, August 3, 2012, the day I had to fight a bear.  I kicked its ass and lived.  I love living.

–This is an excerpt from Jonathan Klein’s upcoming book on wilderness.  Klein worked as a wilderness ranger and manager in Montana’s Lee Metcalf Wilderness for 27 years before retiring in 2012.  Three days after leaving the Forest Service, he departed on a 700-mile solo canoe trip on Canada’s Churchill River, seeking a purer strain of wilderness than can be found in the lower 48—where the furthest one can get from a Micky D’s is 104 miles and the farthest from a road, a mere 30.  Klein lives in Ennis, Mont., where he spends his time pedaling, paddling, and planning his next adventure to wild places.  

This, the Great Mountain

By R. F. Grant

While we tread this ground, the coal trains bellow in the distance, rattling the bones of natives beneath the earth. We imagine their headdresses—tattered feathers cresting the brow, multitudinous in hue and number. Femurs of buffaloes, of petrified wood and bone, obsidian arrowheads and charred leather rest beneath our path, amalgamating with the land of our treading. The brisk scent of death and ash, of frost and flesh mold this mountain, the Presence within its chiseled peaks certain. We feel it quietly, like pewter clouds before thunder. Tremors to the housecat before an earthquake. A wordless omen, burgeoning. Spirits watch us, omniscient but unattached. Kneeling toward the earth, they draw the Ouroboros, eternally eating its own tail.

The mountain breathes in this place, the wind coursing through the trees. It speaks in tongues, a language lost to the ancestors. The trembling leaves mimic the shivering of dead rattlesnakes, of instruments once-played fireside, orchestrating the shamanic dance. Behind us spans the valley. Not an atom there is lost. Before us, the mountain, not an atom gained. The wind speaks such a promise, dust devils pirouetting down the cliffs. They diminish at bottom, cackling at the illusion of death.

When the snow falls, a distinct silence settles over the mountain. It is familiar to us, swallowing the forest, encrusting it in ice. Our own breath becomes visible, voluminous, swirling towards the white tempest above. Dissonant, sound clarifies. Surreal, a hollow crack in the woodland causes the blood of life to pump through startled prey. Carapaces of frost encase their feathers and coats. Nap blooms across antlers like moss upon Redwoods. And nearby, ever-present, the scent of gunpowder, a blaze-orange figure sidling through the snow in wait.

Hereupon the mountain, the senses may sharpen. Nature’s virginity befalls the naked eye, the smell of life and death intermingling. Into its unadulterated form the world rewinds. We return again to our sense of belonging, our place within the Cosmos. The great mystery rekindles, the crack in the Orphic Egg visible. Indeed, while we tread this ground, we must remember what the mountain teaches us. We must remember for our children, for it is incommunicable. Beneath the earth, the bones of natives proclaim our time here is precious. And though forward we may progress, we must not forget our roots, for we are fragments plucked from something greater. This, in the end, the mountain teaches us. This, in the end, the great mountain.

–R. F. Grant is a Denver-based freelance writer. View more of his work at rfgrant.com.

Of Yoga and Harley Davidson

Chanting in My Helmet

By Lisa Fierer

It turns out that you can use Vedic (Sanskrit) Chanting instead of taking two Valium, although its not marketed quite that way. Actually, I don’t know if there’s really a marketing campaign for chanting. Yet. 37217_455868106928_100369406928_5887650_2441254_n

I first got turned on to chanting while laying in corpse pose in one of my first yoga classes. My mind was absorbed with the absurdity of being alive and trying to play dead, which was how I interpreted the purpose of corpse pose (Savasana). This is so dumb, what’s the point? I wondered. I would later learn that such incessant thoughts are called “citta vriti,” often translated as “monkey mind”. And better yet, when I began studying the Yoga Sutras, I learned “Yogacitta vritti nirodhah (Ch. 1, Verse 2)”, which can be translated as “Yoga is that which stills the fluctuations of the mind.”

Laying there with my not-dead-yet monkey mind chattering away, a song began playing on the teacher’s iPod. It was the distinct sound of traditional eastern Indian chanting. Although I had no idea what the words meant, I suddenly felt relaxed and my mind quieted. It would be a number of years before I made the connection. After all, yoga is a practice of awareness. And I needed a lot of practice.

 

It was quite by accident that I began to chant while riding my motorcycle. It started out as innocently as practicing the pronunciation of vowels of the Sanskrit language. At the time, I was enrolled in an 18 month Sanskrit immersion course for Yoga Teachers. Although I had been teaching yoga for a couple of years, I still sucked at the study skills necessary to be a decent student. I loved how the sounds of the letters ‘tasted’ in my mouth and reverberated throughout my body, but I resisted doing my homework, which at the time was reciting the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet for at least 30 minutes a day.

It was an unseasonably warm November day, and I just had to hop on my motorcycle for a ride before my north facing parking space became iced up until March. I’d had my motorcycle license for at least 7 years, but had maintained a healthy fear of riding in the mountains.

Feeling brave, I decided to steer up one of the nearby canyons. I figured the roads would be clear of gravel and ice, and I could enjoy one last 70 degree day of riding. I was enjoying the roaring hum of my loud python pipes (I have a patch on my leather jacket that says “Loud Pipes Save Lives”) and remembered that I hadn’t done my Sanskrit homework yet that day.

“A, Aaa, I, Iii, U, Uuu…” I started with the vowels. They had quickly become my favorite once I learned that each one related to a phase of the moon. I know, I know, I too was aware that I was turning into a stereotypical Boulder hippie who looked to the moon and it’s various phases to govern their planting, harvesting of their home garden, and even the times to wake and go to sleep.

As I rode up the canyon, the large sweeping turns suddenly became hairpin turns as the mountain road tightened toward the top. And my contemplative vowel sounds turned into screams, “Holy #$*@! Mother $*&^%>!”

The thick plastic on my full face helmet filled with the heat of my words.

I was terrified and blinded by the condensation buildup in front of my eyes.

All of a sudden, my Sanskrit teacher’s voice came into my head, “Om namah sivayah, guravey, satchitananda murtaya…”

This mantra,  (a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of creating transformation) was one of the ones that appealed to me the most. It felt like a big mama hug, then a loving swat on the bottom launching me straight through, to a place beyond my fears.

And I realized the mantra was coming out of my mouth.Ustrasana-1

At the top of my lungs.

My motorcycle guided the next hairpin turn the way a salsa dancer maneuvers his partner through their spins, like one solid unit. As I approached the crest of the mountaintop, it dawned on me that maybe this ancient tradition isn’t just for ashrams.

These days mantras come to me in more places than just my motorcycle. As I wash the dishes, walk my dog, and do laundry. Even when I shop for groceries. They seem to course through my bloodstream. But rather than creating a separate little bubble of isolation, as a Valium loving acquaintance described, these mantras eliminate the need for such separation and instead create a sense of unity and connection with everyone and everything around me.

Lisa Fierer teaches yoga, SUP yoga and rides her motorcycle in Boulder, Colo. Read about her upcoming memoir, Thirst, and her classes at  www.lisafierer.com.