The Post-Christmas Saga of the Sleeping Bags

Back in January, as the temperatures in Portland dropped below freezing and the Willamette River swelled and heaved an icy brown hue under a grey indifferent sky, I was seized by a post-holiday spasm of seasonal giving. It was not the first time the unpremeditated urge (that also defied seasonal boundaries) had struck me, but it was the first time in a long time. My good intentions were beyond doubt as was the impulsive nature of the act. There I was, Doer of A Good Deed, free of irony and self-consciousness! Welcome the Milkman of Human Kindness delivering the goods, the law of unintended consequences nipping at my heels.

It all began that frosty morning when I came out of my house to start my truck, warm-up the engine, and scrape the fine coat of ice off the windshield. My wife Helen was inside, gathering up our gear and groceries. We were making ready to drive west to the Oregon coast, an hour-and-a-half sprint over the Coast Range, elevation 1,500 feet. (Oregonians think going to the beach in winter is like going to the beach in southern California, only without the sun and warm water.) Out on the sidewalk, I crossed paths with one of the familiar neighborhood homeless guys. Normally these young men who look old avoid eye contact and conversation; most are harmless. They haunt the neighborhood, silent reminders that the stories in the newspaper are not about the homeless in some faraway city.

Bill was on his morning rounds, pushing his grocery cart piled high with his scavenged survival gear, an urban Sherpa collecting bottles and cans from the yellow recycling bins that line the neighborhood streets. He had mastered the drinking geography of the neighborhood, and knew exactly who the beer drinkers were and where he was likely to hit a payload of empties. He could then return (recycle) his booty at a nickel a piece to the local market and though it is a stereotype of the homeless, purchase his daily 48-ounce malt. The famous Oregon Bottle Bill of 1970 had spawned a not-so-underground industry.

Normally Bill would retrieve the bottles out of the bin without asking, but our near proximity forced him to acknowledge me. He mumbled something about bottles. He was asking if it was all right to collect my discards, which he had been doing for months. It was an unusual act of courtesy. I felt embarrassed. At a nickel a bottle (Guinness was my flavor of the week in a city some call Beervana), he might collect thirty or forty cents. A pint of Guinness can cost $2.89 or $3.27, depending on the store. (It tastes better in a pint glass at the local brew pub.) In the finger-numbing cold, Bill looked like he hadn’t slept well or was hungover or had gotten beaten-up, possibly all three.

And so my leap of faith, hope, and charity into the abyss began.

“No worries,” I replied and told him my name.

He paused as if he were trying to focus on a faraway object.

“I’m Bill.”

“Pretty cold out?”

“Yep.”

A long silence as we sized each other up.

“You sleeping rough?”

“Uhm … yep.”

Bill was one of perhaps a dozen or so homeless men who sleep along the Willamette River in an area called Oaks Bottom. They are transient campers who prefer the outdoors, even in winter, to the homeless shelters, which are often crowded and rule-bound. Their camps are set off the beaten and popular bike paths, carved pockets camouflaged by thick bushy walls of invasive English ivy, impenetrable Himalayan blackberry thickets and dogwood, as well as a variety of deciduous trees — Pacific willow, Oregon ash, Black cottonwood.  In summertime, these locations are prized spots. They offer privacy, a degree of safety, river access and pleasant views. Sometimes, the campers band together for company and protection. As any good river man or homeless dude knows, however, camping on the banks of a river in winter is nothing like a summer residency. It’s damn bone-cold. Moving inland a few hundred yards can make all the difference, but for guys like Bill, that can mean giving up ownership of a prime spot.

The next thing I know, Bill was showing-off his thick, coal-colored trench coat. Clearly, he was proud of his outdoor wear. The trench coat, however, looked like it had been soaked in crude oil and weighed a hundred pounds. You could die from exhaustion just trying to walk a few blocks wearing this garment. This was not lightweight, efficient colorful North Face mountaineering protection. Bill also had a role of eighth-inch tubular plastic spackled with leaves and streaks of dirt. He explained how he sleeps at night: he wears his jacket over his clothes and wraps himself in a tattered red blanket and crawls inside the plastic tube which sheds rain like a potting shed roof. I asked him how it works in this weather. He shrugged, “Not that great.”

Suddenly and without warning, I connect Bill’s tubular plastic “sleeping bag” with the North Face down sleeping bag in my basement. All the same, I am not sure I know yet what I am going to do. There is only this kind of rough imaginative association: rivers, wanderers, camps, outdoor gear, cold. When there is a severe power imbalance, the act of giving can bring out the worst in the receiver of the gift.

Actually there were two sleeping bags, mine and Helen’s, though I would be hard-pressed to tell which belonged to whom. The Kelly-green, all-purpose down mummy bags were purchased (in a pro-deal discount) one summer more than thirty years ago when I was working as a river guide in Grand Canyon. Two months earlier, Helen and I had married. I thought we would be camping or living out of my beat-up station wagon for many more years while I ran rivers.

Two significant details: the sleeping bags (and the North Face V-24 tent, only recently retired from use), had been a kind of wedding present that we had given ourselves; perhaps most important, the sleeping bags zipped together.

The basement door was a few steps away and, the next thing I knew, I am telling Bill to wait a second while I disappear into the basement and come out with one of the sleeping bags. I am in a state of charitable bliss as I hand the bag over to Bill, whose glassy-eyed stare reveals little. I cannot be sure if Bill realizes what a good person I am. After all, free stuff is free stuff. What goes around comes around, right? By this time, Helen has appeared and is watching, with arms folded and a calm gaze, the scene unfold. What I didn’t know was that I had just taken a blow-torch to our marriage vows.

And just whose sleeping bag had I given Bill?

Shit.

This tale of the sleeping bags cannot proceed without the knowledge that in the Universe of Takers and Givers, my wife, by nature and profession (she is a midwife), is a Giver of major proportions. If giving of yourself is a river, Helen is like Oregon’s Columbia. The virtue comes so naturally to her that it worries me (and her at times.) But that cold morning, all bets were off.

Bill stumbled off with my empty Guinness bottles and my (our?) sleeping bag. It will be a long ride over the Coast Range to the Pacific Ocean. Who was it that said no good deed goes unpunished? Irony had returned with the speed of a downhill racer.

All was silence as we twisted and turned our way out of Portland onto Interstate 26 through the creeping, but contained, urban sprawl that gives way to farmland and finally the foothills of the Coast Range.

“You gave away our sleeping bag?”

“It’s just a sleeping bag. And he was cold. It’s not a big deal.”

Silence.

“We’ve had those since we were married.”

“You’re always saying material things don’t matter.”

Deeper silence?

I am irked.

“I did something good without calculation and now I feel bad. How can that be? Besides, I gave him my sleeping bag.”

There.

“How do you know it was your sleeping bag?”

Double There.

“We’ve had those bags since we were married. We’ve used them on the river, slept in them with the kids when they were babies. What were you thinking?”

Good question.

“And what’s more, they zipped together.”

I am not over being annoyed, but I am clearly dead in the water and going nowhere. I cannot deny the validity of what she has said, and not said. The damn sleeping bags carry symbolic weight; they are objects, like my treasured wooden dory, that are infused with memory and emotion and a life together.

Silly Man.

The transformation from Good Deed Doer to Damage Control Operator, slow in coming, begins.

“How ’bout I give you ‘my’ bag and ‘we’ buy a new one … that zips together?

Silence.

“Or I buy you a new one and I keep ‘our’ old one?”

Sigh.

“Or you buy a new one (they have very cool colors these days) and treat yourself?”

My wife looks at me, a faint smile on her lips.

I backup and rephrase.

“How ’bout you give me your bag as a symbol of our long lasting marriage and a sort of apology for raining on my parade and we get you a new sleeping bag as a symbol that no matter what happens, we will always be zipped together?”

Damn Bill and Irony and the Cold and the Season of Giving.

Vince Welch is the author of the newly released “The Last Voyageur: Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West.” He lives in Portland OR.

The Same River Twice – Changes in River Running Over the Last Forty Years

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man.”

— Heraclitus, Greek philosopher   

“So you’ve done the Grand Canyon, now what?”

— Quote from a river company brochure

To speculate on the changes in river running over the past forty years is like rowing through Hance Rapid (in Grand Canyon) at very low water with the sun in your eyes, four large passengers in your boat and a hangover. You are going to hit a rock, but you can never be sure just how hard, whose rock it will be and how much damage you will incur. The continuum of change from river to river, from company to company and among individual boaters varies enough that making generalizations can be a hazardous business. Exceptions and anomalies abound. There are axes to grind and territory to defend. Intense personal
experience can trump facts. Language and terms become outdated. River runners are known to have a strong proprietary sense for the rivers they run regularly. Memories of the “good old days” fog the lens of perception. What can be said of commercial operations (who have been branded with the vaguely sinister appellation “comm ops” in one book) does not necessarily apply to private boaters (who prefer the more appealing democratic moniker “self-guided”). In fact, folks who run rivers, commercial or private, might well be labeled “elite” compared to the general population, so infinitesimally small are their numbers. Disagreement among river lovers is inevitable.

Nevertheless, I dare to speak from my own necessarily limited point of view as an ex-river guide (from a specific time in the forty-year span) and present-day boater who queried a handful of guides and ex-guides about their experience on the river over the last forty years. Although I try to keep up on the river scene and tend to be Grand Canyon-centric, I have not worked as a guide for decades. Thus, I rely on rumor, innuendo, promiscuous reading and second-hand information, which pretty well identifies and qualifies me as a regular contributor to Mountain Gazette. In the spirit of change, for better or worse, and MG’s 40th anniversary, I humbly offer a few brief, sweeping, oversimplified observations about the changes in river running that I hope can stand up to scrutiny.

Time to get in the boat and head down river.

The Numbers —  Call it an explosion! In 1949, twenty-five people floated the Middle Fork and/or Main Salmon; twelve-hundred in 1965; forty-five hundred in 1975; nearly nine thousand in 1990. In 1965, roughly five hundred people made trips on the Colorado through Grand Canyon; in 1972, over 16,000 people ran the river. Recreational river running had taken off. And there was no turning back. Today, roughly 20,000 to 24,000 run the Colorado annually. Other popular Western rivers have seen significant increases in river travel. Ladies and gentlemen boaters, welcome to waiting lists, jockeying for camp spots, more government oversight and the need for even more cooperation and courtesy among river voyagers.

Cost — In 1972, a nineteen-day trip with Grand Canyon Dories cost $450. Today the same (albeit three days shorter) trip costs anywhere from $4,900 to $5,500. Thus, a family of four could expect to spend $20,000, not including transportation, hotels, meals, personal gear. A five-night, six-day trip on the Middle Fork offered by Echo runs approximately $2,000. Casual internet research and anecdotal information suggests that costs per day for most companies run $250 to $300 per individual. Inflation, I guess.

Gear — More of it, better quality, more colors and way cooler than forty years ago. One only has to go on-line or receive a brochure in the mail to experience that “I gotta have that” surge rising to the surface. The “stuff” — state-of-the-art rafts to designer tents to thick sleeping pads to trendy, colorful outdoor wear to flip-flops to toilet-teepees — can even induce an ancient mariner like myself to get itchy fingers to place an order. Of course, it’s fun stuff, but is it all necessary? Forty years ago, river people (guides and passengers) had far fewer choices, kept things basic (out of necessity?), made things last, invented equipment, purchased second-hand and made do with what was available, not because they were morally superior. Mostly they were broke. The prevailing thought was that gear and equipment, though obviously essential, should not get between you and the experience. Sounds quaint today. Disclaimer: I really like my new life-jacket, as it floats my aging body in a way I could not have imagined when I was in my prime.

Regulations — In 1972, self-regulation was the norm; in 2012, bureaucratic oversight is the rule. Following the national trend that more is better, regulations (restrictions?) increased, allegedly — and sometimes justified — for the benefit of passengers and ecosystem protection. Once tasked with managing their trips and themselves, guides faced more scrutiny. In the 1980s, they became subject to drug-testing, despite operating in a risky environment for decades with an excellent safety record. River running evolved from ma-and-pa family businesses into an industry. As companies became aware of increasing vulnerability to possible lawsuits, their insurance companies took note and began to make policy suggestions for which on-river activities were safe. With river running’s higher profile and larger numbers of people on the rivers, increasing regulation became an unfortunate necessity.

Promotion — Simple. Forty years ago, there was no Internet. Marketing was primitive: word-of-mouth and an annual brochure. In 1972, most companies had a single seasonal brochure patched together by someone with an art degree who was offered a free river trip for their efforts.

Today’s electronic social-media-driven promotional efforts are more varied and sophisticated, and likely more effective at reaching a larger audience. Shiny brochures present guides as unique personalities (instead of the dirtbag, beer-drinking seasonal transients of rivers past) with attractive storylines — educational qualifications, winter travel destinations, number of rivers run, river anecdotes. Some companies have redefined themselves, offering a variety of river and “adventure-eco” trips around the world.

Poop — Forty years ago, you did your business up in the rocks away from camp. Except that everyone, over a season with numerous river trips, ended up in more or less the same spot. It wasn’t long before Park and Forest services ordered that all shit be carried out. Crude porta-potties (and the techniques to package and transport waste matter to the local dump) were born and continued to be modified and improved. Today’s equipment and transportation techniques are far superior and far kinder to the river environment.

Campfires — What are those? In 1972, they were standard fare; by 2012, mostly nyet because of environmental concerns and, yes, lack of firewood.

Passengers/Cliental/Participants/Guests Relation to River and River guides —Informal, likely biased consensus seems to be that expectation levels (in general with notable exceptions) of today’s river vacationers appears to be far greater than forty (twenty? ten?) years ago in terms of comfort and service. Dare I say downright demanding?  In 1972, passengers were prepared for a “down-to-basics” experience on the river. Mishaps, struggles and foul weather were more readily accepted as part of the “adventure.” With a changing clientele and increasing competition for “market share” by river companies, the “pamper factor” appeared and took hold to a greater or lesser degree among many river companies. $10,000 trip tips for crews in Grand Canyon are not uncommon. In 1972, tips were small and in some cases, discouraged by owners. One River Viejo voiced the opinion, “The passengers have evolved from experienced, self-sufficient outdoorsy types to ‘You mean I have to set up my OWN tent’ types. Latte machine? Who will be the first to set up an internet cafe below Lava?  Everest base camp has had one for several years now.” (Shameless self-promotion: read my Rivermouth blog at mountaingazette.com about the proposal to place a restaurant on the Little Colorado.)

Guides — Mostly young males in 1972, the community now includes increasing numbers of women, older guides (who have yet to give up their privileged access, but serve as mentors) and cross-generational families of guides. The transition from “river guide” to “professional river guide” was likely inevitable if guides were to become players in river politics, defend their common interests, bargain for fair wages and speak as a united voice on controversial issues. (In 1972, Georgie White, “Woman of the River,” used unpaid fireman as boatman to operate her terrifying triple rigs). The “pro” designation also lent status to what was once considered a summer job. The appeal of safe, reliable boatmen to a new generation of vacationers/passengers/clients/river lovers proved irresistible. Today’s river guides are more organized politically, have access to educational and health benefits and training in wilderness rescue and emergency procedures. Another ancient mariner has this to say, “In fact, the quality of guiding has improved a lot cuz of collective knowledge and the ethics of conserving and protecting the environment. Guides have more time to devote to guiding instead of freaking out about what’s around the corner or patching their boats.”

Shady characters, questionable behavior —  By 2012, these characters and behaviors seem to have been on the wane, if not eradicated all together: firework displays, grease bombs, lengthy detours to casinos in Las Vegas, loincloths, Fleet’s magic shows, naked boatmen circling eddies into the wee hours of the night, boatmen wearing dresses, operating a concession without a permit (the individual served time), sneak “speed” runs, night crawling and tent scratching. On a historical note, in the 1920s, Glenn Wooldridge routinely “improved” rapids (with the approval of the Forest Service) on Oregon’s Rogue River by blowing them to smithereens with dynamite. One fellow (who shall remain unnamed) who tried to blow up Quartzite Falls on the Salt River went on the lam to Ecuador for years only to be nabbed when he returned to the U.S.

River apparel and accompanying ailments — Ball-hugging, crotch-grabbing cut-off Levis (which caused server boatman’s butt) have been replaced by space-age, quick-drying, big-pocketed “river” trunks made of Supplex, etc. Dance-pants came and went. Foot rot, induced by wearing Converse tennis shoes, has been replaced by tolio, which colonizes the straps of Tevas. In the same vein, in the 1970s, there used to be one kind of cheap, one-trip flip-flops. Today’s “flip-flops” have enough straps and design patterns to recall the ancient practice of foot bondage. Somewhere along the time continuum, river garb morphed into a “style.”

River Politics — In 1972, the great river controversies, at least in Grand Canyon — motor use and fair access for private boaters — (and the sometimes acrimonious debates and name-calling) had yet to emerge. At the time, there were fewer private (self-guided, non-commercial?) boaters with the skill, time, and economic means to put together multi-day trips. That was about to change. By the middle of the 1980s, the growing population of private boaters began to organize and demand a bigger share of the river allocation pie. Ironically, the Park Service began for the first time to look seriously at its mandate to manage Grand Canyon for wilderness values.

Food/Cooking — In 1972, the idea was simple, tasty meals, enough for everyone. After all, you were camping along the river. As the small amount of ice melted, meals came out of #10 cans. Waste was frowned upon. One or two companies provided cooks, usually woman who had a degree of leeway in the food they prepared and offered. Today, “cooks” (and the art of running a kitchen with a sparkle in your eye and an iron fist) are passé. Companies vary greatly on the kind and amount of grub they serve. The spectrum runs from basic fare to many-course menus with more food than anyone can eat.

Zeitgeist — Perhaps the hardest of all categories to generalize about. Depending on who you talk to, how old they are, which river you are running and what measuring stick you employ, the changes in the river-running zeitgeist are: a) non-existent; b) very existent with a steady deterioration; c) who cares?; and d) what the hell is a zeitgeist, some kind of new raft? The development of bomb-proof kayaks and other durable watercraft coupled with talented kayakers made running once-impossible rivers possible, as well as led to the phenomenon of “stunt” runs over waterfalls, popular ad images that define, in part, river running to the general public. Some critics complain that the river “experience” has been shorn of its authenticity, packaged and commodified to fit the needs and demands of a new consumer group. Other people believe that overall the experience has been improved.

What hasn’t changed — The magic of rivers (especially Grand Canyon), and the camaraderie of a well-oiled crew; the visceral need of boatmen to tell “stories”; the opportunity for a vacation-voyager to experience joy, wonder, deep peace and child-like relaxation in a natural setting; and lastly and most importantly, riverside bathroom etiquette: women pee upriver, men pee downriver, or for those aging mariners with faulty memories, “Skirts go up, pants go down.”

Senior correspondent Vince Welch is the co-author of “The Doing of the Thing — The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom” and “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West,” scheduled to be released by The Mountaineers in October. His blog, Rivermouth, can be found at mountaingazette.com. Welch lives in Portland OR.

Swimming in Deep Holy Water – A Haitian Odyssey

Deep Holy Water

Sketches and excerpted emails by Jake Welch.

The joke I tell is that I thought my twenty-three-year-old son Jake, a river kid since he could crawl, said he was going to Tahiti. Six classes short of receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he quit school, much to the dismay of his parents. In fact, he was bound for Haiti — to serve a nobler cause and, in doing so, test himself against larger forces in the universe. Scramble the letters in Haiti, throw in a “t”, and you have the famed Polynesian paradisiacal dreamscape. If you are a father, it is easy to hear what you need to hear.

After the mandatory gnashing-of-teeth episode, I performed a random survey of male friends (of a familiar age span) who I consider successful (in both conventional and nonconventional ways) human beings. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that at one time or another they had all, for different reasons, “dropped out.” Jake glibly called his retreat a “stepping back.” Exercising a father’s prerogative, I failed to mention that I had abandoned my pursuit of an English Lit degree decades ago and headed to the mountains. Years later, I circled back to academia between river seasons and picked up the damn certificate.

When I suggested that perhaps it was easier and cheaper to “step back” four decades ago, hardly any of my peer group disagreed. One curmudgeon with a contrary soul even dared to question the social, educational and employment value of today’s increasingly overpriced climb up the wobbly ladder of college education. Heresy!

The last time I checked, Haiti was still recovering from a devastating earthquake, but overflowing with historical oppression, widespread poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, corruption and the reemergence of cholera. Haiti, I soon learned, is also swarming with Americans, evangelical and otherwise, looking to do good and, if possible, harvest a few Haitian souls. The Haitians, especially the young (a major portion of the population), hope to harvest a few greenbacks.

Who can blame them?

Haiti drawing

Jake has never been a churchgoer, unless you consider that, on one of our annual river reunion trips, I brought him and the dozen or so other helpless children and teens into the fold of “The Church of the Flowing Water.” Complete with magic words, a sacred wine-bottle brimming with holy river water and a wallet-sized-you-are-part-of-the-river-forever-club card, the baptism was a big hit. Outdoor secularism with a sprinkling of pagan-fairy dust at its worst. To this day these now-young adults refer to themselves as members, river brothers and sisters. Jake, I suspect, is an agnostic with a spiritual hunger appropriate for someone his age. In the land of plenty his moral compass has pointed him to the land of poverty.

Somehow he managed to convince the Haiti-bound leader of a local evangelical group (in the college town where he lives) that he was a “Christian at heart.” Likely as not, the evangelicals saw a sincere applicant, as well as a donor and a potential convert. Folks who join the two-week mission must pony up roughly $2,000 — a good chunk of change — which goes toward various endeavors: supporting the orphanages, medical clinics and other programs on the island. The caveat, as mentioned earlier, is that one must also be a Christian of the evangelical stripe to join the mission. The impulse to help the less fortunate is an honest one; the desire to spread an Old Testament faith to hungry, poor people whose condition places them in a vulnerable situation, sticks in my craw. Apologists would rightly argue that the two are inseparable, have been and always will be. Jake insisted that he could slip under the pagan-detecting radar.

In a sense, these well-intentioned churchgoers have become “adventure missionaries.” Modern-day skeptics have given brief trips to locations like Haiti another name: “medical tourism.”

Jake also made the bold claim that he intended to stay for a year. I asked how he would accomplish that goal in a poverty-stricken country with no slack in the economic rope and his tenuous connection with a religious organization. “No worries, Dad,” he assured me. At the bottom of his emails, he leaves a proclamation, as well as a message to himself:  “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up to much space.” Egad! When I first read it a few years ago, the maxim sounded so familiar to my youthful inner ear, I had to stop and catch a breath. Once, on our way home from a river trip, I set about to seek an alternative mantra, or at least balance the scales. We came up with another axiom: “If you’re not dancing around the mystery, you’re running in circles.”

Well, here I am. I talked with Amber about the needs of the facility a bit and asked (in a round about way) if I could be useful. She said that the man to ask would be E.P. Later, after the group brought out play-doe, jump ropes and tiny airplanes for the kids to play with (a scene which quickly dissolved into jubilant chaos despite the best efforts of our team leader), Amber brought me to talk to E.P. I told him my desire to stay in Haiti for an extended period of time, and what meager skills I possessed. Long story short, he said they can use me. I helped teach a pack of preschool aged kids about the six days of creation. We handed out colored pages, one for each day and colored pencils. This occurred in a village far up a rough cut dirt and clay road. School here is held for four hours a day as the children must have time help parents work. In rough concrete structures kids are packed in thickly along bench rows and teachers stroll around with a length of electrical cord to keep order (though I never saw them actually strike a child, only the desk in front of them). Teaching is done by rote memorization: the teacher says something and the students, as one, call out the answer or parrot back. Even the youngest children are taught in this manner, which is rather depressing but I can’t figure out how else I would do it given the large student-teacher ratio and the simple lack of teaching materials. Only the students who really hunger for knowledge will progress in this sort of classroom. I was grateful to be able to supply them with the rare experience of coloring.

When Jake was nearly five, skinny and bespectacled, I dropped him over the gunnel of my dory into the flat water of the Main Salmon. All morning he had been watching the older kids, laughing and shrieking, leap off their respective boats. He had danced around the deck, badly wanting to join the club of daredevils, but could not bring himself to conquer his fear of the unknown. My encouraging words had little effect. That’s when I did what any good father would do. I lifted the whelp up and pitched him feet first into the River of No Return.  He never had a chance to be frightened in that terrible way. Call it the Sink-or-Swim School of Experiential Learning.

Of course Jake had his lifejacket on and the river was deliciously summer warm. When he surfaced, he stared at me in euphoric astonishment. How could I do such a thing? How could I not? He had discovered The River, not from shore or a boat or story, but through total immersion in the holy water. For the first time he felt the River — its current, warmth, sound. It was as if, at last, we shared some long-lost secret.

The boy had been liberated; I, of course, was doomed. For the remainder of the trip, he pestered me relentlessly to leap off the boat into the now-familiar “great unknown.” Since he could not pull himself up, I became his personal hoist. Once the flatwater fear was conquered, he turned his attention to the rapids. He wanted to swim the fast water.

Haitian drawing

His mother would never have allowed me to dump him overboard when we floated Westwater Canyon two years earlier. He was only three, the water was colder and the motherly instinct not to be trifled with. Theory #1: After sons know they have the fundamental, unconditional love of their mothers in the bag, they begin to look toward the sperm donor, their father, for something different. What that is, they are not sure. Thus begins the dance/wrestling-match-as-embrace of father and son as the latter begins the voyage, more often meandering than not, to adolescence and perhaps, one day, to manhood. Except that there is always another father cutting in. Call him the ghost-dancer. Call him grandfather. The duo is really a trio and they must learn to move in harmony.

I am not a Christian, but I’m not against spreading the good word (others will be even more surprised to discover) provided there is no coercion involved. People need stories, a spiritual history which can guide them and help them relate to people very different from themselves. Don’t underestimate the power of a little common ground. As far as my own beliefs go I will say that I find the Christian condescending, self righteous attitude fairly unappealing but that I believe that the universe is a far more passionate, intelligent and loving arrangement then atheists are likely to give it credit for. If you need to put me in a box, tick ‘other’; meanwhile I’ll be off doing tai-chi on a slack line, singing silent prayers in mantra to the jesus-buddha cooperative fellowship. That being said I am surrounded by Christen folk who do credit to their religion. Despite my misgivings about how they handle their beliefs, they are sacrificing their money, time and energy to bring a little relief to people in need. Their gentleness of spirit, their unselfconscious brotherly love, their passion for helping and their complete acceptance of me, a stranger, will ever serve as an example for me.

Around the age of 10, Jake discovered that he no longer wanted to be a mere passenger in my boat. The dory, ponderous and inhabited by parents and an annoying sister, never struck his fancy. With the purchase of a cheap, six-foot-long inflatable raft, best used for floating on lakes, the fledgling departed the dory-nest. Although he remained willing to listen to basic instructions for brief periods, he preferred the time-tested method for extracting the most fun out of rapids: Follow your friends no matter what. Over time he navigated the Rogue, Lower Salmon and Grande Ronde.

Just as a son’s growth is incremental and all but invisible on a day-to-day basis, so the father’s role in relation to his son changes imperceptibly. One day the person you thought you knew has already gone around the river bend onto the next stage of development, and the father is left onshore, scratching his balls and wondering “Where did that kid go?” If he is to perform his role adequately, Daddy-O must catch up and get out in front, but out of the way, of the young boatman who must never know what the ancient mariner is up to. A father begins a period of calculation: when to intercede, when to step back. Timing is everything.

I’m staying pretty safe. The orphanage in Mirabalais has big walls and if I do leave them, it’s always with a guide of some sort. The people have that island time mentality which makes them very friendly and easy going, though of course I’m never sure how much of my presence (a potential source of wealth) affects that. I’m getting better at smelling it out though, picking up the “something is not quite right here” signals that don’t rely on language. There is a furtive hand signal they’ll make to me when they want to usher me away from a group to ask for something.

The first night I was here I got thoroughly involved in helping clean a well that had just been dug, no easy task considering the hole goes down 230 feet. It all happened rather spontaneously as I was standing around trying out my meager Creole, B.S.ing with some Haitian well diggers and an old man from Oregon who had brought all the equipment (on his own dime, no less). Evidently everyone decided that my Creole was good enough to translate for them so I suddenly found myself in the midst of a project. My god it was glorious. I translated instructions and plans, I carried gravel, I helped patch piping, I feed piping down the hole and I watched dials on the massive machine which served as kind of a well digger’s Swiss army knife. We solved small mechanical problems together and hauled gravel.

One fella told me about his life a bit: ten younger siblings, parents too old to work and his own family to support. He is not married because he can’t afford the traditional ring, so he wants to buy a motorcycle with which he can work shuttling people around (a young person’s job as common as street vending). I sympathized with his plight and the load he had to carry. Later, rather out of the blue, he said ‘I pray to god that he will help me, and after I will pray that you will help me buy my motorcycle.”

Haiti house drawing

The summer of 2006, we launched from Mineral Bottom on the Green River. Jake, just turned 17, was rowing his own raft, a used 13-foot Pioneer model fitted with a pirate flag and a rag-tag crew of two other adolescents, the sons of fellow boatmen. His rig looked like his bedroom: straps flying, gear lying about, empty soda cans floating on the floor, granny knots galore, cooler open to the 90-degree heat. It was a floating nightmare. At the put-in, he ignored my suggestion that his oar set-up might need some adjusting. Fair enough. The 40-mile run down to the confluence with the Colorado is mostly flatwater. At lunch on the second day, Jake ran afoul of one of his River Uncles who found his tie-up unworthy of a boatman. It is hard to tie a knot around sand. River Uncle nudged the raft off shore, watched it circle an eddy, and then called out, “Is that someone’s raft floating away?”

I owe him a beer.

When we reached the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, the head of infamous Cataract Canyon, the mood among the boatmen changed. Though we were running on relatively low water and the danger of a serious mishap, even disaster, was minimal, the reputation of the rapids in Cataract and the residue of communal high-water memories, combined with the soaring temperatures, left us rubber-legged. Over the decades, enough of us have participated in, seen or heard the horror stories that we approached the rapids — Mile Long and Big Drops, to name only two — with caution, even at low water. Under a merciless sun, we preferred to nap.

Jake picked up on the vibe, listening closely as the most-experienced boatman pointed out the pivotal moves through the rapid. Unlike the past, he did not hover close to me. As the sorting-out process of who will run in which group at one of the Big Drops began, he made it known he preferred to be included in the first group of three or four boats, to follow one of his Uncles through the maze. Usually the novices and first-timers watch the first runs to gain information and their visual bearings.

I would wait on shore and watch.

Following an experienced boatman on the approach to a rapid is not as simple as it sounds. Spacing between boats can shrink, but usually expands, and, before you know it, you have lost sight of your lucky charm. Soon enough, Jake was on his own.

Nevertheless, he executed a flawless entrance, never flailed at the oars, navigated the brown-water maze seemingly effortlessly, and at the bottom of the rapid, wore a grin that lasted the rest of the day.

There is no trash service in Haiti. Garbage is simply tossed on the ground or into big burn piles which go up in cloying, plastic smelling smoke when ignited. This is the practice here at the orphanage, much to the offense of my northwest eco/health friendly sensibilities. It’s hard to come up with an alternative, though I’ve been trying. The sight of this beautiful land, strewn with the flotsam of man’s livelihood has had a visceral effect on me, mostly because there is no reprieve: everywhere you go, there is garbage. An unsettling vision of the future which we never get in America because we pile all our junk out of sight.

So I decided to try and solve the trash problem, if only in the walls of this orphanage, to the best of my ability. The easiest materials to process are the soft ones, food and paper products. So I went online to learn about paper making and composting. Dead interesting and both these projects require very little in the way of start up materials or expert knowledge. This is essential, because none of these techniques for waste management would have any great impact unless I could pass them on to the children of the orphanage. That is the crux.

There is a little banana orchard on the property, which looks beautiful until you walk in and see all the discarded clothing, candy wrappers (again courtesy of the teams who stay here), old building materials, paint cans, razor blades, broken bottles, diapers, used maxi pads etc. The adults throw their junk away there and so the kids do the same.

I thought about how nice it would be to hang out in the banana orchard, were it more hospitable and how important it is for kids to have wild spaces to play in. I had a really strong hunger to make the orchard into a nice place but the enormity of the task and the seeming futility was holding me back. What would I do with the garbage anyway? So I go to my journal to work this out.

I should go collect trash, not with the notion of ‘solving’ anything, nor getting anywhere, for there is nothing to solve and nowhere to go. I should do it for its own sake… because at the bottom of it all I am the one who is thirsty for a beautiful world.

So I went to collect garbage.

Three years later, Jake and I ran the Rogue alone. The morning we launched, the fall weather was glorious, the river virtually empty of other boaters and the river corridor awash in fall color and birdsong. We had a muddled discussion about rowing; I assumed we would share the task. Jake, however, announced that he wanted to row the entire river. Like the intermittent flash of a lighthouse on a fog-bound coast, he had been sending me a signal: he will “guide” me down the river

Perhaps he sensed my 22-year-old secret? Over time fatherhood had imperceptibly nibbled away at what I would call my “edge” — that blend of boldness, measured risk-taking and quiet confidence that had informed my rowing as a guide. A greater degree of caution, and thus, hesitancy, had crept into my mind. An eight-year-old and a three-year-old will do that to you.

We floated on low water — sun-lit, sparkling green and rock-infested. Not unreluctantly, I made myself a comfortable spot in the front of the raft and settled in. All I had do was keep my mouth closed. Sooner or later Jake would ask for advice on where to enter rapids. It is one thing to follow a run, another to be in the lead.

The first day he spurned even the gentlest of suggestions. At the entrance to one particular rapid (which even had me confused), I asked, “You got it?” No reply.  He was lost. We washed helplessly over a pour-over, bumping and grinding on a series of ledges. It was a sloppy, potentially bottom-ripping run. I said the very thing I hoped not to. “What the hell are you doing?”

As we bore down on a similar rocky maze Jake broke his silence, “What do you think?” Our roles temporarily restored, I gave some quick instructions and he nailed the run. At less-confusing rapids downriver Jake asked specific questions of the “do-you-see-what-I-see?” variety and made his own calls. We camped early. For reading material he brought along Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” an apocalyptic tale of a father-and-son road trip unlike no other.

If there is such thing as harmonic convergence, we stumbled momentarily upon it over the next couple of days on the Rogue. The rapids came one after another, fast and with little interruption. Perched on the bow I called out the names, pointed out markers, obstacles, the sway of the current. Jake’s runs were clean, his rowing effortless. We seemed to be of one mind, an extension of one another for the time being.

My policy so far is no hand outs. Mostly because it simply is not sustainable for me to be buying candy and drinks and motorcycles, but also because I think there has been too much careless giving. In our desire to help it’s easy to react emotionally and go for the quick material fix. This is disempowering and enables dependency. It’s very much a ‘give a man a fish’ vs. ‘teach a man to fish’ sort of situation.

Not to say that material donations are not important or needed, after all, people must have food in their bellies and healthy bodies before they can think about developing their situation. But giving must occur out of genuine sensitivity to a person’s need, not simple a reaction to our own confused guilt. The trouble is that there are not many jobs available in Haiti, especially for young people. So the streets are filled with vendors, on the move or in little temporary stands, selling everything from blow dryers to painting reproductions to refilled soda bottles (buyer beware) to ethnic looking wooden bowls. They can get quite intense sometimes, especially in the tourist rich areas where there is a lot of competition. It’s difficult not to react defensively and forget compassion for those who want to make an honest living.

Right before Jake flipped for the first time in his rowing life (Chittam Rapid/Mile 78/Main Salmon) on our annual dory reunion trip in July 2011, I gave him the usual bit of finger-pointing, hand-waving, ex-river guide advice on how to make the run. He was suffering a case of poisonous butterflies that threatened to erupt into projectile Technicolor vomiting. I know the feeling.

Chittam looked big and gnarly, but manageable. In hindsight, I misread the rapid, underestimating its ferociousness. The crux move was a tight, stern-first left-to-right cut across the tongue of a fast-moving river through a sizable lateral wave and hopefully into the purgatory of slower, eddy-like water. At high water, Chittam has been known to cause problems. Indeed, the Salmon was running so fast and high (18,000 cfs) that the Forest Service had issued a cautionary warning to private boaters on its webpage.

To knowledgeable shoreline observers, Jake was probably doomed from the get-go. That afternoon there was no slow water above Chittam Rapid. Once you pulled out from shore, the current immediately carried you away. No time to gather yourself, no room to correct position, no margin of error and, thus, little forgiveness. Jake later voiced a sentiment that most first-time flippers would appreciate: Whatever the reason, he didn’t feel right above the rapid. A little voice whispered: You are going to flip. The longer he listened, the louder the voice grew. Perhaps his desire to run in the first group rather than watch a run had something to do with his flip. Perhaps following behind the Old Man had given him a sense of false confidence.

It all happened in an instant. He missed the cut, hit the diagonal, got pushed back out into the wall-hugging churlish wave set sideways, and, before he could straighten up his raft, he was over. He surfaced under the raft, worked his way out, but couldn’t figure out where he was. e crawled atop the raft, still stunned. I happened to be in the eddy below and tossed him a line and with the help of Eric, a 30-year Grand Canyon veteran guide, corralled him to shore.

The chips are down here at this orphanage in Mirabalais: they know I’m not a Christian and they don’t want me around. The trouble sprang from my decision to not attend church last Sunday. I didn’t make this choice without due consideration. When deciding to go against the herd, it’s important to spend some quality time shifting through the social and personal consequences. Actually that is a bit of a fudge; I knew soon as I woke up that I wasn’t going to church. Later I figured out why it was the right choice. I instead went to organize the attic, which was one of the projects I use to escape people for awhile.

Later Pastor Luke, who I had been working in the clinic with three days a week, asked me where I had been. Up to this point I had successfully maintained a philosophical smokescreen in casual conversations about belief, but direct questions like that are hard to get around honorably.

“At worship,” said I. (True enough, I try to make all my work with my hands an act of worship.)

“Where? There (indicating the church)?” he persisted.

I couldn’t lie, so I just tapped my heart. It is with my belief that church isn’t what happens in the building.

“… in your heart?” he said. “Why were you not at church?”

“I worship alone.”

“No” he said. “No, you cannot do that. Here we worship together.”

“I worship alone,” I said, walking away.

Determined to have to last word he said, “You cannot worship alone.”

So just yesterday, after rather an uncomfortable week where I sensed what was to come, I was summoned into Pastor Yves office. I was rather sick with dread, for reasons that are unclear to me, but on another level kinda digging all the drama. There with several other people present he laid it out for me: your beliefs don’t align with ours, we want you to leave. To their credit they were very respectful and non-judgmental but it was still a very tense, emotionally charged scene. The details of the conversation are fuzzy to me, and rather irrelevant; we went round and round for awhile, dancing in the thorny land of reason and religion but it came down to this:

My hard work didn’t matter to them, nor did my ideas for improvement that I was willing to spearhead, nor did the potential positive influence I could have on the children here. It didn’t matter that I came here to help people, nor that I came here to explore my relationship with the wild, unseen potential that works in the world (sometimes referred to as god) or that I am open some of the very relevant and valid teachings of Christianity. What mattered in the end is that I don’t think the bible is the end-all-be-all of religious discussion. What mattered is that I think there is not one path to God, but many. What mattered is that I am not so arrogant as to think that I and my people alone are keepers of the truth.

These people had been so welcoming to me, so loving and open and generous, I didn’t think that my own personal situation/preference would offend them so greatly (especially considering the value I might have). It’s a strangely delicious paradox, to be savored perhaps, that these same wonderful human beings are absolutely inflexible and closed minded with regard to the central tenants that rule their life.

A month after he left the U.S., Jake returned home far short of his stated time goal of a year. His principled stand about not attending church services could easily be viewed as a case of not knowing which hill to die on. He had gone to right the world, put his finger on the scale of justice and fairness. Would an hour in church have fatally compromised his stated fundamental principle and goal: to help people? Could he have not meditated or dreamed of rivers he had run or mountain he had climbed amidst the hallelujahs?

But he had also gone to Haiti to remove himself from the all-too-familiar, to scrape away some of the social and psychological barnacles. Perhaps he came to realize things about himself that he didn’t like or wasn’t aware of: Helping people is tedious, relentless work; they are not always grateful; historical victims can become today’s predators; a solitary retreat in a communal, overcrowded country is hard to find; empathy and capacity for helping had limits; a shower is nice; so is food and friends back home.

Jake had not been completely honest with the evangelicals. It is possible that his refusal to go to Church was something of an unconscious ruse, a way to force them to toss him out. Then he would not have to bear the burden of quitting so early in the game.

It is also unfortunate that no adult in the evangelical congregation failed to get past their rigid orthodoxy and into a young man’s hungry heart. About the time he arrived home, a YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus,” appeared. The video had been posted by Jefferson Bethke, a recently graduated student of Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon (outside of Portland). Pacific University is a small, independent, liberal arts college with long-time ties to the United Church of Christ. Bethke, who is Jake’s age, is certainly not a river-loving pagan. He evangelizes online. Within twenty-four hours, his video had scored a million hits. By April 2012 the number rose to 20 million.

That’s a lot of hungry young hearts in search of food for the soul in the 21st century.

Spirited atheist, long-time parent and MG senior correspondent Vince Welch co-authored “The Doing of the Thing — The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom” in 1998. His latest effort, “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and The Rivers of the West,” will be released by The Mountaineers on October 5, 2012. Welch’s blog, “Rivermouth,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. 

Read Wandering Sacred Shores, another feature from our July issue

What One of the Seven Natural Wonders in the World Needs Now: A Restaurant

Grand Canyon Drawing
Drawing by Ellen Tibbetts of Flagstaff, Arizona

Call it recreational democracy. The Hualapai Tribe have their horse-shoe-shaped glass viewing “platform” 4,000 feet above the Colorado River at the western end of Grand Canyon. The airplane and helicopter charter companies have their airspace and historically have continued to press for more flights at lower elevations, especially at sunset. Why should those pesky river runners be the only ones to enjoy such an awe-inspiring natural spectacle? Besides, they clog the river corridor to the tune of 24,000 bodies annually. (Disclaimer: I know. I used to be one of them.) The hikers (and speed runners) have their trails in the backcountry, and a rescue service at their disposal when the odd one forgets to take enough drinking water. But what else is Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World (including Victoria Falls, Great Barrier Reef, Mt. Everest, Particutin, Aurora Borealis and the Harbor of Rio de Janeiro), lacking in terms of a full-course recreational experience? Why, of course: a restaurant near the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers. How cool is that? Whoever came up with that idea is carrying grande cojones, right?

Let me explain.

Recently the President of the Navajo Nation signed a nonbinding agreement with the Fulcrum Group (aka Confluence Partners) LLC, a development company out of Scottsdale, Arizona, to build a resort (complete with hotel, shopping center, restaurant, spa and RV Park) on reservation land on the east rim adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park. Whether his decision reflects his people’s wishes remains debatable. Hearsay suggests that neither the N.N.P. nor the Confluence Partners bothered to have a word with the Hopi tribe about the resort they have named “Grand Canyon Escalade”.  (Personally, I thought “Grand Canyon Escalator” had the ring of authenticity.) The Sipapu, the place the Hopi believe their people emerged from the underworld, is located along the banks of the Little Colorado. The location of their creation myth is considered sacred ground by tribal members.

Whatever?

It gets better, much better.

This resort development odd couple would also like to build a tram from the East Rim down to and parallel with the Little Colorado, where hungry tourists would find, yes, a restaurant. Can you beat that? A restaurant! The tram riders would have the choice of eating immediately or taking a half-mile “river walk” (hopefully paved, with hand rails and viewing points) for a view of the confluence. The mile-long roundtrip jaunt, of course, would stimulate appetites for the exhausted hikers. Likely there would be a souvenir shop. And sooner or later, passengers on river trips would catch wind of this cool place to grab a burger and a brew and want to stop there.

George Bradley and Jack Sumner, members of the 1869 Powell Expedition, would not have located a restaurant on the banks of the Little Colorado. They wrote,

It is a lo[a]thesome little stream, so filthy and muddy that it fairly stinks. It is only 30 or 50 [yards] wide now and in many places a man can cross it on the rocks without going on to his knees … [The Little Colorado was] as disgusting a stream as there is on the continent … half of its volume and 2/3 of its weight is mud and silt. [It was little but] slime and salt … a miserably lonely place indeed, with no signs of life but lizards, bats and scorpions. It seemed like the first gates of hell. One almost expected to see Cerberus poke his ugly head out of some dismal hole and growl his disapproval of all who had not Charon’s pass.

What did those guys know?

Having had some restaurant experience in my youth and an irresistible urge to name things, I can’t help but offer these visionary entrepreneurs who want to bring tourists to Grand Canyon and also help the local economy with mostly minimum-wage jobs a few catchy appellations for their establishment: Navajo Bar and Grill? The Blue Water Café? The Confluence? Silt and Sand? The Current?

Likely, the restaurant would have a “theme,” because, well, folks who consider putting a restaurant in places like Grand Canyon think like that and they might want to expand (there are plenty of suitable side canyons in Grand Canyon), maybe have locations at Matcatameba, Hermit Rapid, Deer Creek, Lava Falls and Separation Canyon, to name just a few choice locations. Some models of above-the-rim chains that offer inspiration: Bubba Gumps, TGIF, Chili’s, Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville! But let’s not get carried away. It’s important to remember that “theme” concepts are not actually about eating out. They are business concepts; the food is kind of an afterthought.

To continue with the theme idea, waiters and waitresses could dress in traditional Navajo garb? Or as low-life river guides in lifejackets, flip-flop and shorts? Or historical canyon figures?

Let’s not forget the menu where restaurants located in stunning settings come up with the most imaginative names: Nancoweap Natchos, Lava Falls Fries, Crystal or Tamarisk Ice Tea, Havasu Half-Pounder, Chocolate Marble Canyon Fudge Milkshake, the Harvey Butchart Burrito, Martin Litton Key-Lime Pie. I’m sure you can come up with even better names.

The concept of a restaurant at the bottom of Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, literally takes my breath away. Should I laugh or cry? It makes me want to string together really bad words in a way that would make a potty-mouthed teenager cringe. It would be a welcome addition to the recreational industry, a salute to the democratic concept of recreation for all no matter what, and a towering example of an extraordinarily bad idea coupled with unfathomably bad taste.

Tell a friend, buy a T-shirt, write a letter to the editor, throw a buck in the jar of your favorite canyon environmental organization.

Just don’t call the bastards any bad names. Like them, we want to be reasonable about this.

More of the Rivermouth blog here!

 

River Medicine for Winter Doldrums

Recalling what we Oregonians giddily refers to as “The Flood of 1996,” I had to go for a look.The sun is out, the temperature a balmy 51 degrees, and brief bouts of birdsong percolate through the neighborhood, but don’t be fooled. It is February, the least-pronounceable and most-dreary-weather month in Oregon (not counting January, March and April). A week ago, cargo ships of rain unloaded into the creeks of the Coastal and Cascade ranges that feed the Willamette River, which runs through the heart of Portland. The river, three blocks west of my backyard porch, rose at an alarming rate. Another incoming storm, this time a “Pineapple Express” (because of its warm abundance of precipitation from the south), was forecast to reach the Oregon coast within a day or two. It seemed likely that there was a river catastrophe at my doorstep.

Recalling what we Oregonians giddily refers to as “The Flood of 1996,” I had to go for a look.

Indeed, the rising (low-40 degrees and brown) water had erased the familiar margins and markers of the river while picking up and forming small islands of shore debris. Anxiety ran high among houseboat owners anchored to wharfs and docks along the river. The Willamette had flooded the shoreline park along with some of its picnic tables and benches. A damp earthy smell permeated the air. The river made strange, barely audible noises — gallumps, swooshes, hisses.

The Willamette does not carry the romance of the Colorado or my personal history as a boatman, and yet, I lingered, mesmerized by the raw fluid expression of what has often been called “nature’s wrath.” In the 21st century, we are arguably “safer” then ever before. Perhaps this knowledge, along with 24-7 media exposure, accounts for our fascination with tsunamis, earthquakes, eruptions and rivers in flood. Today, the river’s indifference to man-made structures and its own riverbanks serve as a timely reminder that our outdoor-vacation-adventure-river trip-nature-as-benign-fun-loving-reliable-amigo remains potentially hostile.

Contrary to popular belief, however, it is not The Rain (which can range from eight inches annually in the desert plateau region to 200 inches at the higher elevations of the Coast Range) or its progeny, The Flood, that troubles we webfoots on the west side of the Cascades and astraddle the 46h Parallel, though newcomers would beg to differ. One only has to understand that Oregonians will pay for a beachfront house or hotel in February in order to “storm watch.” This recreation activity revolves around staring out a picture window as the foul weather from the Gulf of Alaska assaults the Pacific Ocean. Some of us venture out along the broad beaches in high winds and horizontal rain that would make anyone from warmer climes gasp.

When it snows at the beach, we are delighted.

The kind of weather that really haunts us and contributes mightily to our winter doldrums (even more than watching the Republican debates) is the interminable gloomy cold muck gravy grayness of our winter skies. Dull and soundless, it is the shark-fin in the sea of our collective unconscious. A string of dismal days can weigh heavily on even the sturdiest of us. It drives our above-average in-door habits of library use, book-buying, caffeine-swilling and bar-hopping. Fitness clubs show increased attendance in December, peaking in January, flattening in February and, by May, when the sun finally appears, look like abandoned airplane hangers.

Our dismal, northwestern grays fall into four general categories: achromatic, off-gray, cool and warm, each with five shades I won’t list. (To the color taxonomy I have, after many winters, added my own “gray” descriptives: rubber raft, pewter, dirty dishwater, paste, fireplace ash and sidewalk cement.)

With the possibility of depression lingering right around the corner, you’d think Oregonians would be sprinting to church of their choice for relief. Oregon, according to Wikipedia, ranks #1 in the U.S. with the highest percentage of religiously unaffiliated adults, roughly 25% of the population. A full 40% (including those belonging to a faith) rarely or never attend services.

In the 1980s, a relatively new, but less lethal, clinical diagnosis of the impact of the lack of sunshine on our moods appeared on the scene: seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.), formerly known as the blues and decades earlier, melancholia. Hence, bookings to Hawaii and Mexico increase as well as the sale of “light therapy” kits with catchy names like Winter Blues Combat Kit, Sunsation Combo, Feel Bright Light and the Rise and Shine Sunbox in Oregon.

To counter the overcast abyss, we Oregonians seek mental and physical relief wherever we can find it, indoors or out, cheap or expensive, idiosyncratic or run-of-the-mill strange.

My own first line of defense against the blues (er … the grays?) is physical movement. I resist the urge to call it “exercise,” which implies a daily routine and unseemly discipline. But I do manage to walk or bike along the Willamette River regularly and when the river is agreeable in winter, paddle my inflatable kayak. Throw in a few trips to Mt. Hood and Mt. Bachelor to cross-country ski, and the beast of blah is held in check.

In between these modest outdoor efforts and dreams of running rivers in summertime, I also find fleeting sanctuary from the winter doldrums in the salubrious-sounding names of Oregon’s rivers. The bible of Oregon geographic names is a deliciously fat tome by Lewis A. and Lewis L. McArthur named, of course, “Oregon Geographic Names.” It is the perfect companion for a wet, gray afternoon of browsing names, their source, history and of course, pronunciation.

Many of our present-day river names in Oregon have evolved from the corruption of the language of Native American by French trappers and later, early settlers. Time seems to have worn away the original native pronunciations, but not the essence of the sound. A kind of ongoing, unequal cultural tug of war: “you say tomato (toe-may-toe); I say tomato (tah-ma-toe)”

River medicine for winter doldrumsThe sound of the names of the larger, better known, Anglo-named Rivers — the Columbia, Snake, John Day, Mackenzie — enter and leave my ear without much auditory excitement. More history than poetry coursing over their streambeds.

The poetical sound of river names can be found in Southern Oregon’s one-syllable, guttural Rogue River whose evocative name (from the early French trappers who thought the local Indians scoundrels) indicates a river bathed in myth and misbehavior. Then there are the Pudding and the Row (rhymes with cow, not slow) rivers, playful-sounding names that suggest bit of whimsy but whose origins were rooted in far more harsh realties: the latter was named after a fatal fight between brothers-in-law and the former received its appellation during a dire weather situation and a sever lack of food.

The mellifluous-sounding river names that catch and delight my ear and sooth my winter doldrums are exactly those slippery, rolling, feel-good-coming-and-going-on-the- lips mispronunciations of native-named rivers: Alsea, Calapooia, Mollala, Deschutes, Suislaw and Santiam. Then there are the honey-and-tart bite of the Millicoma and Nestucca, and the reverse, the Clackamas. The Metolius dances a jig off your tongue; the Umpqua carries a deep back of the throat drum-beat-uhhmm sound, emerging with a round, wind-blown release of breath. The pleasant-sounding Owyhee (Ah-wha-he) River in the far southeastern corner of Oregon was at one time called the “Sandwich Island” River after two Hawaiians who were killed by Snake Indians in 1819. Somehow Owyhee (the name used for Hawaii at the time) overtook “Sandwich Island” in the stumble towards appellation immortality.

When the couch is beckoning more than my stroll along the Willamette and my winter-weary soul hungers for richer sustenance, I turn to my ragged shoebox of river poems that I have collected over the years. If names are the echoing ponds of sound on a bleak winter’s day, then poems are the rushing creeks, rivers and freshets of words and their sounds strung together by poets. Sound, image and rhyme to counter the shapelessness of an overcast sky whose color is weighed down with negative emotional connotations.

After years of avoidance and indifference, poets have, once again, become my fellow voyagers, deep swimmers to the parts of the river of my soul I cannot reach alone, surfers and skiers on the wave of my imagination, climbers stretching for the handhold just beyond reach, chairlift operators that make sure I get on (and off) the chairlift of everyday ordinary life and remain aware of the “extra” buried beneath habit, routine and convention.

River medicine for winter doldrumsI have borrowed a term from the science of (river) hydrology to describe the nature of poets’ work: hyporheic (hi-pour-he-ik). The hyporheic zone is defined as “the percolating flow of water through the sand, gravel, sediments and other permeable soils under and beside the open stream or river bed.”

Poets, then, are minders and guides of our underground rivers.

To anyone who wants to hide or run very fast in the other direction at the mention of POETRY, I don’t blame you. Who does not recall high school English classes where a handful of teachers braved the inmates who sat in the prison of their mother tongue smirking and giggling? So much of it appeared (and appears) impenetrable, and frankly, boring, to everyday readers. Never mind the embarrassment of not “getting what a poem means.”  (To this day I have kept poems that I still cannot understand what the poet is saying.) Combine ambivalent social attitudes and 24-7 entertainment venues with our short attention spans, and reading a poem today becomes, well, torturous, a serious “enhanced interrogation.”

Alas (how can you not like that word?), all is not lost.

Before you step in the deep end of the poetry pool, I suggest a couple of viable alternatives. For those of a more gregarious social nature, go to one of those “occupational” poetry fests where poems are read aloud. You’ll encounter plenty of ballads, light verse and rhyming couplets. There is a fisherman’s poetry festival in Astoria, Oregon, and a cowboy read somewhere in northern Nevada. Rumors of a boatmen poetry rendezvous in Flagstaff, Arizona, and mountain poetry readings (Telluride?) persist. At any of these events, there is bound to be beer-drinking and kindred outdoor spirits who know how to have a good time.

Think of it as a crowded eddy, where you can get your poetic bearings before rowing, if you choose, on to deeper, faster rivers with unfamiliar currents.

For those solipsistic, screen-hugging individuals who eschew crowds and noisy bars, the Internet offers easy, but solitary, relief. Try the webpage “River Quotes,” a treasure trove of verse.

Perhaps, however, you are ready to go it alone. I suggest the following: find one poem (maybe ask your smart-ass English-major friend or worse, a closet poet, for suggestions). Sit down, take a long breath, read slowly, pause at commas or line breaks, let the sounds and images arrive, let whatever sense or meaning, if there is any to be had since some poems travel light, come as it may. (Yes, stop snickering or trying too hard!) Read your poem again, at your leisure, maybe out loud. Hang with it for a time. If your poem has not grabbed you, set it aside, but within reach. Go in search of a rhyme that is more fun to the tongue: a childhood ditty or a campfire ballad a la Robert Service.

A good example of playful nonsense verse is “Jabberwocky,” by Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Twas bryllyg, and ye slithy toves/Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:/All mimsy were ye borogoves/And ye mome raths outgrabe/Beware the Jabberwock, my son!/The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!/Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun/The frumious Bandersnatch!

If you are brave and dare to tread where only fools rush in, memorize your poem and perhaps one evening at your local bar, recite.

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Never mind.

As far as my own favorite poets, I would test your patience if I listed their poems and the history of how and why I thought them worthy enough to warrant a place in my cardboard box. In no particular order of favorites, I offer a taste, or better yet, an earful. Here are a handful of names, slices of poems about rivers, or poems that use the rivers as image or metaphor to get you through a gray day in your part of the west.

Where better place to start than with William Stafford (1914-1993), Oregon poet who wrote a poem “Ask Me.” Here is a snippet: Some time when the river is ice ask me/mistakes I have made. Ask me whether/what I have done is my life/ …. I will listen to what you say/ You and I can turn and look/at the silent river and wait. We know/the current is there. Hidden; and there/ are comings and goings from miles away/that hold the stillness exactly before us/ What the river says, that is what I say.

And these few lines from “Being a Person”: Be a person here, Stand by the river, invoke/the owls. Invoke winter, then spring/Let any season that wants to come here make its own/call. After the sounds, wait….How you stand here is important. How you/listen for the next things to happen/. How you breathe.

Kim Stafford (1949- ), his son, wrote “Cascade Rapids with Fisherman.” It begins: A man stands by the river/All-that-was flows away/ A woman stands by the river/All that-will-be is coming….

When a boatmen/friend of mine recently ran life’s last rapid, another boatman sent me this poem by Billy Collins (American 1941- ), former U.S. Poet Laureate, titled “The Dead”: The dead are always looking down on us, they say/while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,/they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven/as they row themselves slowly through eternity./They watch the top of our heads moving below on earth,/and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,/drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,/they think we are looking back at them,/which makes them lift their oars and fall silent/and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

The image of my friend peering through the glass-bottom dory with his wicked smile seemed to match his “bad boy” character and my mood. Better than going to church.

E.A. Robinson (1869-1935) stated his preference for rivers plainly: I like rivers/Better than oceans for we see both sides/An ocean is forever asking questions/And writing them down along the shore.

“The River Voyageurs” by Wendell Berry (1934- ) hearkens to the early French-Canadian voyageurs who toiled, rather than played, on the rivers of North America. They are modern-day boatmen’s ancestors. No matter how many times I read Robert Frost’s (1874-1963) “West-Running Brook,” I seem to discover something new, or that I missed before. Maya Angelou (1928- ) used some river imagery in the inauguration poem she wrote for my favorite scoundrel, Bill Clinton. R.L Stevenson (1850-1894) wrote a fun light piece “Where Go the Boats.”

For anyone, especially river and mountain folk, who seek to pacify the winter blahs or cabin fever, give these bards a hearing, perhaps in small doses, one poem at a time: Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver, Theodore Roethke, Langston Hughes, Blake, W.B. Yeats, Louise Brogan, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickenson, David Wagoner, Richard Allen, Elizabeth Bishop, Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder and Michael Anania.

Or try a small collection of river-related poems called “Gathered Waters” (Backeddy Books, Cambridge, Idaho), selected by Cort Conley, veteran river guide and author. Come river season, it will fit nicely in your ammo can or the vest pocket of your lifejacket.

The forecast for Oregon promises more rain and more gloomy gray days. I’ll continue to gawk at rising rivers and take refuge in river poetry. I might also check out a Feel Bright Light or a Sunsation Combo, if only for the sound of their silly names.

Where the River Ends and the Stories Begin

Each year around Christmas time, my English-born wife Helen and I make the two-hour drive from Portland to Astoria, where the 1,243-mile Columbia River ends its run to the Pacific Ocean (P.O.). For a couple of days, we exchange the growing tsunami of holiday folly in Portland for the relatively mild shore break celebrations of Astoria. The seasonal weather is almost always suitably gloomy in a British kind of way — fog, grey skies, icy winds, rain squalls, rain showers, rain, rain, rain (roughly 70 or more inches annually) — but the sodden backdrop seems to only enhance the modest spectacle of Christmas lights and the warm golden glow flowing like honey out of shop (and yes, pub) windows. When we can drag ourselves out of the hotel room with river-level views of the Columbia and the freight ships that pass by so disarmingly close to your hotel window you can see the relieved expression of a mariner standing on deck taking a piss, we head for the mouth of the Columbia River, nine miles down river from Astoria.

Over the years, we have hiked and read our way along the beaches, coves and the two man-made jetties of the Great River of the West. The terminus of the Columbia and the landscape bordering it, we have come to learn, is soaked in a rich brew of history, story and myth, in voyages beginning and ending, some literally on the dreaded Columbia Bar, infamous “graveyard of the Pacific.”

Helen continues to accompany me as long as I refrain from mentioning that Oregon’s oldest city (Astoria) was once called Fort George, after the English monarch, until the Yanks took it over and that Captain George Vancouver of the Royal Navy, went right by the Columbia and missed it four years before home-grown Bostonian Robert Grey claimed discovery in 1792. In return, she promises to avoid digs about “empires in decline” and to stop the annoying English habit of ending a declarative or imperative sentence with a question, i.e. “You are not going to repeat the same story again, are you?” or “That anecdote sounds familiar, don’t you think?”

I try not to repeat myself.

Nevertheless …

One of the tap roots of my family tree weaving beneath the rain-soaked streets in Astoria is the story of James and Nancy (Dickerson) Welch, my great-great-grandparents. In late spring 1846, they loaded three sons and their possessions on either an open scow or bateaux and floated 140 miles down river from Oregon City to Fort George (Astoria), becoming the first white family to make a home at the then-disputed trading post. Family photographs and anecdotal accounts suggest that neither James nor Nancy were to be trifled with. The former faced down a British officer who forbade him to build a home (they later became friends); stern-faced Nancy refused to give up an Indian slave girl who sought refuge in her home after local tribes, following custom, wanted to bury her (alive preferably) with her dead master. Two years earlier, the Welches had come over the Oregon Trail and, upon reaching The Dalles, Oregon, in late October, voyaged down the Columbia River, a harrowing journey for the early pioneers. So much so that, when the Barlow Trail around Mt. Hood was opened, pioneer river traffic all but ceased. River-running genes, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Helen and I usually start our merry jaunts on the Oregon side of the Columbia. A visit to Fort Clatsop on the Lewis and Clark River, which enters Youngs Bay downstream of Astoria, was mandatory in our initial forays, not so much now. The historical tourist-trap, minus visitors on a miserable December afternoon, was not without attraction when we learned that the 33 members of the L&C Expedition spend the winter of 1805-06 in close quarters in weather-bound misery without much to eat. Construction of the “fort” began on December 10; they moved in on Christmas Eve. The Christmas supper, one diarist reported, was “just short of grim.” A year earlier, Sergeant Patrick Gass described a more festive scene on Christmas Day: “Captain Clark then presented to each man a glass of brandy, and we hoisted the American flag in the garrison, and its first waving in Fort Mandan was celebrated with another glass. The men cleared out one of the rooms and commenced dancing, which was continued in a jovial manner till 8 at night.”

Another historical location of passing interest on our merry perambulations is Fort Stevens, a military installation with underground gun batteries, bunkers and fine views of the Pacific situated a few miles and 14 decades down the road from Fort Clatsop and now a spacious Oregon State Park. Built during the Civil War, the fort was decommissioned at the end of WW2, but not before being shelled by a Japanese submarine in June 1942. It is a spooky place well-suited for ghost stories, games of creep and hide-and-seek with your children, or, if you are love-sick teenager, a tryst.

Not far away is the South Jetty viewing platform on the Clatsop Spit, a spot to watch local surfers, winter storm waves crash on the jetty and, in fairer weather, cargo ships crossing the Columbia Bar. Rumors, very short stories with one main character and ever-changing plot lines, abound of sightings of Great White Sharks, aka Whitey, Chewy, The Landlord, The Warden — raw material for a short novel.

Sooner or later, and after a holiday refreshment stop back in Astoria, Helen and I cross over the Columbia River on the 14-mile Astoria-Metzger Bridge into Washington. Fourteen miles? At the highest point on the bridge, I slow down, a brazen act of stupidity, given the holiday traffic, to catch a fleeting glimpse of the river mouth in the distance. It is difficult to resist drawing analogies, making song or poetry out of the geographical end of a river, but I do. Stick to the facts and they will stick to you, for a while anyway. To understand the unique features of this particular river mouth, I offer my patient wife a sled full of general Columbia River trivia: largest river flowing into the Pacific on the west coast; fourth-largest (by volume) in the U.S.; drains a 260,000-square-mile basin consisting of seven states, 13 recognized Indian reservations and one Canadian province; tributaries include the Kootenay, Kicking Horse, Canoe, Wood, Kettle, Pende Oreille, Spokane, Okanogan, Yakima, Walla Walla, Umatilla, John Day, Deschutes, Sandy, Willamette, Cowlitz, Kalama, Lewis, to name a few; 14 dams on its main stem, whose hydroelectric power aided the development of the atomic bomb at Hanford, Washington during WW2; nearly 2,000 shipwrecks (and 1,500 lives lost) on the Columbia Bar; in prehistoric times, estimated number of annual migration of spawning salmon and steelhead: 10 to 16 million.

Helen has been known to catnap on the long journey to Washington.

What makes the river mouth of the Columbia so treacherous and interesting from a hydrologic, as well as a story-telling, point-of-view, however, is a combination of factors specific to the immediate geography: a river current that varies from four to seven knots (five to eight MPH); prevailing west winds and Pacific ocean swells; and perhaps most importantly, the lack of a river delta, which usually serves to dissipate the energy of any river debouching (one of a few French words I like to pronounce) into the ocean. The river then behaves like a fire hose. When conditions are right, say a storm at sea combined with an incoming tide and ferocious winds that meet a river with nowhere to go but marches straight over the shallow, ever-shifting sand bars, well … you get the picture. From this unforgiving body of water that sinks vessels of all sizes have sprung tales of ghost ships and sea monsters with names like Colossal Claude and Marvin.

On the Washington side of the river, Helen and I amble along the North Jetty, which runs like a ruler into the Pacific for two-and-a-half-miles. The path atop the jetty is remarkably flat and the illusion of walking out to sea — pelicans, gulls and grey clouds overhead and the Columbia River a dozen vertical feet below — is both strange and compelling. On January 7, 1925, Amos Burg rowed his canoe Song o’ the Winds along the rocky barrier in an attempt to reach the Pacific and claim bagging rights as the first individual to complete a continuous transit of the Columbia, source to mouth. He had started his voyage in October and spent 73 days on the river. Upon reaching the end of the jetty, Burg capsized and had to be pulled from the surf by a rescue boat. One reporter claimed that running rapids [for Burg] was nothing compared to crossing the bar in a canoe.

A short drive from North Jetty lands us at Lewis and Clark National Historic Park. It is always a pleasure to escort Helen to the scene of another historical English misstep. I don’t have to remind her (but I do) that in 1788, after missing the entrance to the Columbia, English explorer John Meares dubbed the prominent headland on the Washington side of the river Cape Disappointment. It is also the location where the Lewis and Clark Expedition first sighted the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps the most enticing storyline/place we encounter at Cape Disappointment and the mouth of the Columbia River on our hikes is one, although rooted in the past that looks to the future. The first “art installation,” of The Confluence Project, a collaborative effort of Pacific Northwest tribes, civic groups from Washington and Oregon, artists, architects and landscape designers, including Maya Lin, creator of the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in May 2006. It is one of seven sites (some still under construction) stretching 300 river miles from the Pacific Ocean to Clarkston, Washington, which weave the stories of the Chinook people with those of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with few words and an abundance of narrative space, where point-of-view is complimented by views with many points; where land, river and ocean are not only backdrop and setting, but active shaper of character and action; where parallel plot lines bend and weave; where fact and imagination meet to form myth and story.

It is at times like this that I am fortunate to have Helen at my side. All these stories, written on page and in space, pulse through the river landscape into my sensory imagination and send me round the mystical bend, bound for my own private oceanic consciousness. The good Englishwoman, however, always rows me back to shore, to the lights of Astoria and a pint of Christmas cheer.

(Needless to say, Rivermouth readers should go-a-googling The Confluence Project and make plans to visit the mouth of the Columbia, preferably in the warmer seasons along the Oregon coast.)

It Must Be the Water

There must be something in the drinking water here in Oregon, and specifically in Portland, my hometown. The unfiltered H2o from Bull Run Watershed 26 miles east of Mt. Hood is some of the best, sweet-tasting in the country in terms of raw quality of surface water. That’s rainwater, mis amigos, 130 inches of unadulterated northwest nectar. No second-hand French-sounding liquid in the form of snowmelt or glacial runoff. We not only drink the stuff, we bath in it, swim in it and flush it. Religious folks like it for ceremonial use. Because we have so much water that is so good, we can afford to sanctimoniously spout off about conservation and green-this and green-that. God bless us. This quiet moral superiority irritates the thirsty Californians to no end. (I know. Although born in Oregon, I grew up in the Bay Area). Even though we don’t drink from the Columbia, our neighbors to the south have been eyeing the Great River for decades, harping that we have more than we need and grimacing that we “waste” more than we use. Just look at where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean. Enough to make you cry.

Of course, we Oregonians are no better. While the Californians covet our agua, some of us harbor wet dreams about taking out four dams on the Lower Snake between Lewiston, Idaho, and the confluence with the Columbia. These dams — Ice Harbor, Lower Monument, Little Goose, Lower Granite — are multi-use dams providing navigation, hydropower, irrigation and recreation. At 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Lewiston is the farthest inland seaport on the West Coast, not exactly your typical beach town. The urge to spread our green vibes into the arid landscape beyond The Dalles is, ironically, a historically Western impulse. Our shade of green, however, freaks out more than a few of our Idaho cousins.

It is my contention that the purity of our drinking water accounts for Portland  residents’ abundance of imagination, quirky, half-bubble-off intelligence, genetic contrariness, book-reading habits, absence from church and active sex life since the winters seem to last for eternity. Why else would such polite drivers patch a “Keep Portland Weird” bumper sticker on the cars?  But I digress. What I fear is that the water we Oregonian (and Washingtonians) imbibe has led us to overstep, to engage in peculiar behavior (even by Oregon standards) beyond the pale: we are pulling down dams left and right. OK. Not Glen Canyon-size dams, but dams nonetheless. Some claim it’s simply Left-Coast liberal progressive politics run amok. Need I point out that all these people, many since childhood, drink the water here?

In a recent New York Times article, Matthew Preusch claimed that, during the 1950s and 1960s, somewhere in the U.S. a dam went up every six minutes. EVERY SIX MINUTES? It’s an exciting, sexy factoid, hard to fathom, that makes your heart race or your blood pressure soar. According to American Rivers, a non-profit conservancy, about 40 dams a year around the country are removed. That’s one every nine days, or for you mathematicians, one every 216 minutes. Not so sexy. At this moment there is something like 75,000 aging dams of varying sizes whose value is being questioned. Someone else can do the calculations.

So I wonder, of those 40 dams a year, how many go kerplunk in the Northwest? Anyone who follows the dam down-sizing movement knows that the Elwha Dam on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula has seen its last days. (Read Ana Maria Spagna’s blog “When the Walls Come Tumbling Down”) The estimated destruction date is set for sometime in 2012. Although this is reason for celebration, there is a dearth of scientific study on the results of dam removal. How many fish return and how long it takes them to get home remains an unknown.

In the last five years, Oregon is averaging about one downed dam a year, with more, if you pardon the pun, under the horizon.

In southern Oregon, four dams on the Rogue River came tumbling down piece by piece  in recent years: Elk Creek and Gold Hill Division Dams in 2008; Savage Rapids Dam in 2009; and Gold Ray Dam in 2010. Again, swim home little fishes.

Here’s an historical example of more peculiar behavior in Oregon. In 1902, the Golden Drift Mining Company constructed the Ament Dam upriver from Grants Pass. Built primarily to provide water for their mining operation, the owners failed to keep their promises to provide irrigation and electrical power to the residents. The dam was also a “massive fish killer.” People were furious. Local lore suggests that vigilantes dynamited part of the dam in 1912. Ed Abbey wasn’t even born yet, so we can de-canonize him and let him rest in peace. The owners rebuilt, but the dam was removed once and for all in 1921, the same year the Savage Rapids Dam was completed in roughly the same vicinity as the Ament Dam. Funny thing: the Savage Rapid Dam was soon to be considered a “massive fish killer.”  Go figure.

Equally astounding is what has happened among the contending interest groups over water issues on the Klamath River. (The 260-mile Klamath rises in the southeast portion of Oregon and flows roughly 260 miles southwest through California, cuts through the Cascade Range before debouching into the Pacific Ocean). Farmers, fishermen, Indian tribes, government agencies and environmental organizations, after two years of closed-door negotiations, have arrived at (key word: conditional) agreement on water use. If all parties sign the agreement, removal of four dams (Iron Gate, Copco # 1 and #2 and John C. Boyle) would begin in 2020.

Closer to my home in Portland, the Sandy River flowed freely for the first time since 1912 when the Marmot Dam was decommissioned and removal was completed in October 2007. In 2008 PGE (Pacific Gas Electric) removed the Little Sandy Dam on the river of the same name. Hooray!

What irks me about these dam removals, I must confess, is my voyeuristic impulse. I have missed the action, the grinding sound of water winning, moving rock and cement debris downstream. This unseemly compulsion is probably the result of laziness as well as my years of working as a guide in Grand Canyon, where I often had the opportunity to stand beside certain rapids at certain water levels and hear the river rumbling and growling as boulders and rocks are dragged downstream. It’s an eerie, unfamiliar sound, guttural and from the bowels of the river bed, an invisible landslide under water that tends to untether one’s imagination just as the idea of a hidden river beneath or adjacent to the one in front of your eyes (hydrologists call it hyporheic flow) makes mischief with our creative faculties.

All, however, is not lost. On the morning of October 26, 2011, de-construction workers are going to blast out the remaining 25-foot plug at the 90-foot base of the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River near Hood River in the Columbia Gorge, an hour or more drive from my home. I suspect the decision is not activist or drinking-water induced, but really a cost-saving measure for the company involved. No matter. It is a potent symbolic gesture. It will not be high drama, a ka-boom moment. The dam will not fall, but the 92-acre reservoir behind it will drain like a badly leaking faucet carrying a silt load of major proportions. How the river will run afterwards is anyone’s guess. Fish and boaters are happy. Actual demolition of the dam will begin next April or May. My plan is make my way to the White Salmon and bear witness to the spectacle. Maybe there is a party somewhere afterwards.

You would think, for all my river romanticism palaver, that I am anti-dam. I’m not. During three decades of running rivers and beyond, I have often gazed begrudgingly at the beauty of the monoliths and admired the ingenuity of the engineers and honest labor of the construction workers, all the while knowing that some of these dams were slowly doing greater or lesser harm to the environment. I have failed to come up with an adequate explanation for these contending impulses.

After visiting Grand Canyon in the 1930s, English travel writer J.B. Priestly wrote (in “Midnight in the Desert”) that he did not miss the scenic wonder too badly, that “it was enough to know that it was there.” In 2011, it is enough for me to know that a few more dams are not there. I don’t suppose the people who stand to lose by these dams coming down feel that way, just as the fishermen on the Rogue at the turn of the 19th century and the Indian tribes along the Klamath for hundreds of years were not too pleased when they lost their homes, livelihood or way of life.

In the West it’s the water, always the water.

The Family That Flips Together …

Right before my son Jake flipped for the first time in his rowing life (Chittam Rapid/Mile 78/Main Salmon) on our annual dory reunion trip in July, I gave him the usual bit of fatherly, finger-pointing, hand-waving, ex-river-guide advice on how to make the run. Never are the traditional roles of father and son so clearly defined as when the latter is suffering a case of poisonous butterflies that threaten to erupt into projectile Technicolor vomiting. I know the feeling. He listened with unusual attention to my spiel there on the rocky shoreline. Chittam looked big and gnarly, but manageable. In hindsight, I underestimated its ferociousness. The crux move was a tight, stern-first left-to-right cut across the tongue of a fast-moving river through a sizable lateral wave and hopefully into the purgatory of slower, eddy-like water. (Anyone who has rowed Crystal Rapids in Grand Canyon is familiar with the difficulty of this maneuver). At high water, Chittam has been known to cause problems. Indeed, the Salmon was running so fast and high (18,000 cfs) that the Forest Service had issued a cautionary warning to private boaters on its webpage. Normally eight trips (four commercial, four private) launch from Corn Creek each day. When we put-in on Sunday July 10, the ramp was empty. Throughout the trip, we saw only one small private (briefly) and no commercial outfitters. We were amused, then elated. We had been waiting a decade for a permit. At the start of the high season, the Main Salmon was ours alone.

There were three things, however, I neglected to tell Jake before and after his flip: Firstly, 34 years earlier, I flipped for the first time in 5-Mile Rapid (Mile 34) on the same river. My post-flip response was uncannily similar to his. I remember the event the way a teenager remembers his or her first driving collision or near miss. As I plunged into the second hole at the bottom of the rapid (I did not even know was there), I was as divinely confident as I was thoroughly clueless. In fact, I had rowed right into the cavernous dent in the river like a happy Christian about to be baptized or fed martyr-like to the lions. The lumbering raft carrying mountains of gear and shit cans overturned so quickly and smoothly I thought I was in a dream. My second omission was that I nearly flipped in Chittam with my wife and daughter aboard the same afternoon Jake went for a swim, an annoying case of history nearly repeating itself. And lastly, and most importantly, I was both thrilled and relieved to not be in Jake’s boat (or rowing his boat) when he turned over. As I mentioned before, I have a history of flips.

Family Flip #1

One sunny afternoon in June 1985, I missed the celebrated dory “slot run” in Lava Falls in Grand Canyon by a boat width. (It was only the second and last time in more than 40 trips). Somehow, I located the equally famous, decidedly more mystical, “bubble line” above the rapid (to the right of the Famous Ledge) that was to feed me through the tumult past the dreaded Pour-Over, the dory-eating V-wave, the Black Rock and the Corner Pocket Eddy (that had recently caught and kept one dory, mangling it to pieces) to the Promised Land of A Lower Lava Beach Party. Roughly six feet of beam, however, made all the difference. We were doomed. Of the four passengers riding in the Ticaboo that afternoon, the most important person (to me) by far was Helen, my wife. We had married two months earlier and were on our honeymoon trip. It should be noted that my new bride, though she liked lakes, rivers and oceans, was not a born swimmer and didn’t particularly enjoy closed-in spaces or involuntarily putting her head underwater. Her notion of a wild river once included the mighty Thames. Being English, however, Helen was game, and trusting. Her husband, after all, was a Professional Guide. Missing the slot at an iffy water level, however, meant that a flip was a done deal, ordained by the gods. Forget hubris, confession, a sacrificial lamb. We were it. It was only a matter of how things will play out, for better or worse. Call it pilot error. So began my history of temporarily losing the women I love most overboard.

The consequences of my error are immediate, breathtaking, and from a boatman’s point of view, beautiful in the way all slow-motion transportation wrecks are. Time, of course, expands or contracts. I’m not sure which. The Ticaboo, my wooden boat, slides down the face of a large (OK, gigantic), steep wave bound for the center of the earth. I swear the 17-foot dory shrinks as it races like a downhill skier toward the dark storm trough where sound and fury rule. The bow of the boat digs into the green-black darkness. The sunlight disappears. The roar of the rapid enters, not through your ears, but through every pour of your epidermis. It is sensory overload of major league proportions.

Often dories (and rafts) flip by sliding sideways into a hole or wave in a rapid, one gunnel descending into the forbidden, point-of-no return current-dominated zone while the other gunnel reaches for blue sky. The boat then rolls and twists over. “Flip,” the river nomenclature for a boat that overturns, hardly conveys the dramatic motion of the boat or the sensation experienced by those about to go for a swim.

The Ticaboo on the Salmon.That afternoon, the Ticaboo seems to take forever to begin the long climb out of the gaping liquid hole and up the ridiculously large crashing wave. During the ascent, the dory stutters, slips back toward the trough, tries to climb out three or four or 20 times, and finally, without choice, begins surfing the wave, wallowing back and forth. Helen, who is riding in the stern and acting English, calmly asks if I know the back foot well is filling up with water. I turn to my English Rose to thank her for the valuable information. Indeed, the stern is full to the gunnels, hopelessly under water, buried by mad river water that no boatman should gaze at for too long. I don’t have the heart or time to tell my bride we are all going for a swim in the Colorado. In the next instant, she is gone, swept overboard (along with what’s-his-name, the other passenger). My tongue-tied panic enters another time zone, where the clock is set by eternity. I think I began climbing for the high side (where the two temporarily nameless passengers in front are holding on,), but I have not left my rower’s seat. It is the penultimate, Sisyphean gesture. The Ticaboo is vertical (see photo), the bow pointing to high noon when the boat comes crashing over. Hello Cold Darkness, my old friend. The unnerving, cart-wheeling motion is what deepwater sailors call pitch poling. Think of one of those Olympic high divers who perform back flips with somersaults. Makes you sick to your stomach to watch.

Fortunately, I act like a Professional River Guide. As we wash through the rapid, I pop up beside the overturned boat and climb atop the overturned dory. Immediately, I search for the future mother of children I have yet to imagine. She is hanging on to the lifeline on the upstream side of the boat. I grab her lifejacket and propel her upwards to safety, hero that I am. Then, and only then, do I hoist my three other passengers aboard. We right the boat and make the beach at Lower Lava.

All ended well. One passenger suffers a minor flesh wound on his cheek, a weekend warrior’s badge of courage he delighted in. Another has a bump on his head. In terms of the Lower Lava Celebration, a flip in Lava Falls is far better then no flip. It is re-creation, the festival of survivors who lived to tell the tale. They tell their story again and again to a giddy audience. Laughter fills the night air. The river narrative peaks. Helen doesn’t leave me and may have even thought better of me, though her grandmother can not fathom living in a tent and out of the back of a road-weary, 1965 Ford station wagon. She fashions me one of those WW2 G.I.’s — over-paid, over-sexed and over-here. And, although I know there was little real danger, even in a flip in Lava Falls, it is an episode I hope to never repeat again. I have learned my lesson.

Family Flip #2

Seventeen years later, in the summer of 2002, I am floating down the Lower Salmon in a borrowed wooden dory on another reunion trip with my six-year-old daughter, Gwen, perched on the bow and Jane, former manager of Martin Litton’s Grand Canyon Dories, in the stern seat. Jane has a cup of coffee in one hand and a day pack on her lap with the trip participants’ car keys, wallets, etc. She is fiddling with her Sacred Lists, without which the trip will disintegrate into chaos. Gwen is thrilled to be riding point, where the motion of the dory is more pronounced, the sky bluer, the water greener. She had asked me if it is safe and I have assured her that I will tell her when it is not, when she must sit down. She is pleased with herself, her flirtation with danger. (At 18 months, Gwen started running rivers in a portable crib in the foot well of my dory for a trip on the Green River). It is a warm, sunny, blue-sky morning with a slight breeze. The river is friendly, sparkling green, story-book-like. I have my hatches open for unknown reasons. I am in the middle of the merry procession — rafts, kayaks and dories dancing downriver ahead of me. We are bound for Whitehouse Bar, a large sandy beach camp. And being near noon, I have cracked a beer. As we were traveling to New Zealand in the fall, Helen had been unable to make the reunion trip. The children have fallen under my charge.

Downriver, plain as day, a string of toy boats bob up and down through Lorna’s Lulu, a longish, but inconsequential rapid. No one is making the slightest effort to maneuver or avoid the whitewater, which I vaguely recall as Class II, and so I drift, drift, drift without so much as an oar stroke. Gwen giggles when I tell her the name of the rapid. Lorna’s Lulu, Lorna’s Lulu! To call the stretch of river whitewater, however, seems a misnomer. And so three-quarters of the way through the rapid, I glide carefree and bow first into a un-Lava-like hole (I never saw from upriver) with nary a stroke of the oar, hatches open, mewling spawn on the bow, beer in hand. The dory stops, shudders and slides back into the trough. Our fate is sealed.

It is important to remember that wooden dories run 17-foot in length with roughly a six-foot beam. They weigh 400-450 pounds without passengers and gear. Minimum rocker, high bow, plenty of freeboard and a flat bottom make for a very stable craft. It is, then, simply amazing to sit helpless in a boat that size while it surfs a wave it cannot escape. Gwen is about to become an unwitting participant in a river story she still tells to this day, how her daddy flipped her in Lorna’s Lulu. She is, of course, a master of embellishment, a drama queen storyteller.

The last thing I remember before the dory twisted and turned over was the look on Gwen’s face, eyes wide and mouth agape, as she clung to the bow with one hand and reached for her dad with the other. “No worries, right Dad” coupled with “How can you do this to me?” The image frozen in my memory kills me to this day. It is locked in my hard drive, a nightmare reminder of what it is like to feel helpless as a father. (Gwen says the last thing she remembers was a look of panic on my face.)

Post flip mourning.When I surface on the downstream side of the dory, I shout for Gwen. No answer. I search around the boat as we drift downstream, then work my way toward the front of the boat and reach into the footwell. Nada. A thousand blurred images pile up on one another. It feels like minutes go by. In fact, it is seconds. By now, the fleet is circling the overturned dory. I hear a voice on the other side of the boat, but cannot identify it for certain. Though I know fatalities from flips are extremely rare, I am terrified. I reach under the gunnel into the stern footwell and feel an arm. I want the arm attached to my baby girl. I yank and out comes a sputtering, bewildered six-year-old. She looks at me for an eternity, then locks her arms under my neck and starts crying. How can I feel so happy and miserable at the same instant? For the second time, I have put one of the vital females in my family into the river.

With a crew of ex-river guides, the rescue and retrieval is effortlessly efficient. Gwen is handed off to Kenly, Lori and Terri for some mommy-like TLC and sugar pills. Stray gear is picked up by the kayakers, while the over-turned dory is herded toward shore by two rafts and turned over. The flip, of course, becomes dinner-time fodder, setting off a chronic retelling of other dory flips over the last three decades. Someone forces a shot of Black Bushmills on me. I relent. Gwen walks around Snow Hole Rapid, but gradually regains her bruised confidence. Once she susses out the fact that she has a hell of a story to tell (of which she is a main character), she regales her young cohorts with nightly retellings and lengthy explanations of what it like to be tossed out of the boat like a rocket and held under water for hours. Weren’t you scared? Oh, maybe a little. Near the confluence of the Salmon and Snake rivers, we hold a ceremony to commemorate The Flip. Rudi, the knot-guy, weaves an artful piece of twine work around a smooth river stone that will become a pendant and badge of honor and courage. Gwen keeps the talisman in her treasure box in her room to this day.

By the time we get back to the hotel in Lewiston, Idaho, I have schooled Gwen on how we will handle the delicate issue of telling her mother about the flip. I will tell Helen in my own way in my own time. Sure. Once on the phone, Gwen is brimming with the excitement of a secret untold. She cannot resist telling her mother that “Daddy flipped me in Lorna’s Lulu!” So begins a lengthy, detail-littered account of her near-death experience with her Daddy at the oars.

“Let me talk to your father … now,” replies Helen.

Family Flip #3

Needless to say, I was relieved to not be anywhere near Jake’s raft that afternoon. He has been rowing his own rig for five years, and like most novice rowers, suffers the occasional moment of hubris. I could safely retreat under the shade tarp of outside observer, omniscient narrator of another family flip. It is of tangential importance that I did not know Jake turned over until his mother coolly informed me from our downriver eddy, “Your son just flipped!” The latest generation of guides has an economical acronym for what it takes to successfully complete a difficult maneuver in a rapid: ATM (Angle, Timing and Momentum).

To shoreline observers, Jake had lost his PIN from the get-go. There is no slow water above Chittam Rapid at the water level we were running. Once you pull out from shore, you are on your way. There is no time to mentally prepare, to gather yourself, to maybe even correct position. In short, no forgiveness. Jake later voiced a sentiment that most first-time flippers would appreciate: Whatever the reason (or non-reason), he didn’t feel right above the rapid. A little voice whispered he was going to flip and the longer he listened, the louder the voice grew. Perhaps his desire to run in the first group rather than watch a run had something to do with his lapse of confidence. Perhaps following behind the Old Man had given him a sense of false confidence. Perhaps it was simply Jake’s time.

Resurrecting Jake's boat below Chittam.Jake misses the left-to-right cut, hits the diagonal, gets pushed back out into the wall-hugging churlish wave set sideways, and before he can straighten up his raft or know exactly what is happening, he is over. He surfaces under the raft, works his way out, but can’t just yet figure out where he is. In hindsight, like most first-timers, he admitted to being stunned, disoriented and yes, scared. Soon enough, he crawls atop the raft. Now what? I happened to be in the eddy below and am able to toss him a line and with the help of Eric, a 30-year Grand Canyon veteran guide, corral him to shore. Jake is grateful, but mostly humbled. Some ancient father-son drama has been played out on the river this afternoon. Jake has joined the club of those who have flipped and those who will flip. He has gone from apprentice to journeyman oarsman. I, fortunately, have avoided flipping another boat and sending another member of my family for a swim.

All is well until Helen later reminds me that our son had been following his Dad through Chittam Rapid.

Damn it.

Owyhee River and Drug Use

So here’s the deal. I had a choice to spend time thinking about what to put in my first blog or go down the Owyhee River in the southeastern corner of Oregon, the back of beyond and then some. Really, there was no choice. I chose the latter, mostly because I had not run Oregon’s “Grand Canyon” in 30 years and it is a lonely, beautiful desert river, but also because I don’t know squat about writing a blog. I hoped to avoid what shouldn’t be a big deal. Just words, right? New medium — another no big deal. (My cluelessness even led me to believe that my blog name was somehow unique, until I found a couple of dozen blogs with the same name. For now I’ll stick with RiverMouth and learn to live with my diminished sense of cleverness).

I have been told by MG’s blog-gurus that a blog can be anything I want it to be and essentially I can just go for it … whatever “it” is. So in terms of identity and content, think of RiverMouth for the time being as a braided river finding its way to the ocean by many different routes. One can expect detours, being blown upstream or getting stuck on a sandbar or in an eddy.

Being the shirker I am, I have decided to foist my initial burden on the shoulders of any potential audience. So I start with a subject that used to be (and still might be) a controversial river issue: drug-testing for guides. Coming from an earlier generation of boatmen, I missed the opportunity to piss in a bottle. But here’s a wee, serendipitous anecdote: While on the Owyhee, I learned that a river guide friend (who is still guiding) that I started out with in the 1970s, landed a short-term gig at a lab that tests for drug use at local businesses. (I suspect he was anything but pleased when drug-testing river guides became the norm). Nevertheless, his job (I kid you not): to stop any cheating by watching guys do the bottle thing. Since I smell a story, I need to speak with my friend as soon as possible. In the meantime, RiverMouth is soliciting personal experiences, points-of-view, anecdotes, company policies, “avoidance” techniques, history and jokes about, well, you know … going #1. Aliases are fine; they protect the innocent as well as the guilty and there is no sense in rocking the boat unless you have to.

Dory Cooks

Once upon a time on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, before the evolutionary ingredients of post-industrial-strength river tourism — hairnets, gourmet menus, the Norwalk virus, food handlers’ licenses, coolers the size of refrigerators, rigorous spot kitchen inspections, a river food ethos of “plenty” rather than of “enough,” the potential of routine waste — and before crew members were counted as part of trip allocation, thereby making crew who served only one function (cooking) expendable (one more crew member equaled one less paying passenger), there were dory cooks. Iron men and wooden boats? Harrumph! Golden women and wooden boats, guardians of the movable feast, unsung heroines of the river hearth.

Ah … dory cooks — the queens of riparian cuisine, the mistresses of mastication and the arbiters of river etiquette. Like the boats, they could do it all. They were fun and fun to watch, sturdy but graceful under pressure or in repose, practical when the going got rough, beautiful without effort or insistence. Outdoor women who were able to orchestrate riverside banquets, leap tall kitchen tables in a skirt in a single bound, stay up late to sing and dance and rise early to boil a pot of cowboy coffee, break and mend hearts, corral unruly boatman, tend to passengers, pull an oar when necessary, lend an ear. Amazonian in spirit, women who practiced the art of river cooking for large numbers of people, at times under difficult conditions, more often than not with a smile (there are many kinds) and steely determination to get the job done. Women who, after the culinary course had been set, might wander off for a smoke, a drink or a river bath and then reappear, as if by magic, carrying an apple cobbler baked in a Dutch oven.  The able princess-guardians of the Kitchen — the heart and soul of any dory river trip — made things look far easier than they were. Their work always began long before the put-in.

To feed roughly 32 people (including crew) over 18 days on a limited budget required deliberate planning and healthy imagination. It was customary for dory cooks to begin trip preparations in the drafty, cob-webbed, desert-smelling cathedral-like warehouse in Hurricane, Utah, days before put-in, most often without pay. Personal pride and esprit de corps took the sting out of the paltry economics of the dories’ shoe-sting operation. After reviewing the passenger list, the ladies of the ladle performed the mystical calculus of figuring food quantities for 54 river meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner with dessert) based on number of passengers, gender, size, child, adolescent or adult, special needs and even time of year. A river cook’s job included finding any usable food in jars and cans from the previous trip, in accord with the prevailing ethic of non-waste. Make-do, make-it-up, but make-it-work. There were standard menus to tweak and numerous runs to the local market to pick up last-minute items. Dory cooks often drove to the wholesale warehouse in St. George to hand-pick the fruits and vegetables. There were #10 cans to peel the labels off and mark accordingly. An equally time-consuming task was to pack and label ammo cans and black bags and assign an equal load to each dory. The cook picked a “kitchen” boat to carry the kitchen gear as well as a “produce” boat to husband the trip’s supply of perishable vegetables and fruits. The amount of ice (oh, wondrous ice!) in coolers the boats could carry was limited and lasted only a few days, at most. All the dory cook’s efforts were borne with three goals in mind: to create varied and tasty meals for a large group of generally hungry people over a two-week period, to avoid the cook’s nightmare (a food scare) by having enough food and finally, to limit waste. After food prepping and packing, they turned their attention to tackling another vital task — assembling a complete kitchen outfit that would not set them howling at the moon for lack of a Dutch, a sharp knife or a favorite coffee cup. These were the pre-historic days before eye-catching outdoor catalogues carried an endless variety of quality kitchen accoutrements and other cool river stuff.

On the river, dory cooks routinely performed the impossible. They managed the food supply, the order of meals, special requests and where the ingredients for the day’s meals were located in each dory through the use of Sacred Notebooks, not to be touched by mere mortals, the unwashed boatmen. Each cook kept her own idiosyncratic, undecipherable code to the mysterious workings of the Kitchen in her holy grail. It was rarely out of her sight. She communicated her wishes (demands?) to boatmen through the medium of “pull lists.” Boatmen dared not argue with a dory cook who said that, indeed, the #10 can of peaches was in their boat. After six or seven days, with meat and vegetables gone or dwindling in quantity, the new challenge was to make tasty, satisfying meals from canned foods and long-lasting vegetables. Again, dory cooks made Julie Childs look like a fast-food burger slinger. It was also a matter of economy, both financial and ethical. Rather than create a sense of endless plenty, dory cooks operated on the premise of doing more with less — open-faced sandwiches, GORP containers on each boat, peanut butter boards before lunch, pre-dinner appetizers — all to take the edge of growing appetites. Serve enough, and a bit more, and know that everything tastes better when you are in the outdoors. The spice-box ammo can was the dory cook’s best friend. Out of reasonably priced food stuffs, they delivered quality meals.

On the River, dory cooks chose the location of the Kitchen, referencing weather conditions, shade and sunlight, sunrise and sunset, access to water, distance from boats and, most importantly, the scenic view. In the early days, they cooked on fire pans and wood-burning iron stoves and delegated firewood, fresh water and garbage duties to boatmen. Each woman had her own unique style, special meals, unspoken kitchen rules and a bag of culinary tricks to avert disaster and make more out of less.

Despite sublime scenery, roaring rapids, pretty boats and charming boatmen, what happened in the River Kitchen could make a good trip great or a not-so-good trip worse. The value of the role the dory cook played in river trip dynamics could not be underestimated. A welcoming invitation to “help” in the kitchen gave female (as well as male) passengers an opportunity to participate and socialize on a more intimate, democratic level than in those pretty wooden dories. Small talk, laughter and a cocktail lubricated the social machinery and made for genuine group cohesion. A dory cook was likely to hear passenger concerns early on, and relay information and firm opinions to the trip leader to meet an unanticipated need or head trouble off at the pass. Given the number of female passengers, dory cooks offered a viable alternate sensibility to that of the sun-baked, well-intentioned boatmen, no matter how alert or “sensitive” to the female vibe they were.  Most boatmen would have agreed that a female presence in the crew (whether in the kitchen or at the oars) was not only desirable, but essential, to any good river trip. And when one of the boatmen went down with an illness or injury, dory cooks stepped into the breach to row the boats. With changing times, some dory cooks went on to become boatmen, just as covetous of their craft as their fellow rowers. In “The Hidden Canyon,” Ed Abbey described the dory cooks at the start of his trip, “Our cooks are two able and handsome young woman named Jane and Kenly. Both are competent oarswomen as well, and can substitute for the boatmen if necessary.” Indeed.

Dory cooks shepherded rookie boatmen through stomach-churning rapids with generous, sound advice, led passengers around difficult rapids, bartered with other river trips for coffee, restored kitchens washed away by flash floods, cooked in raging rainstorms, nursed hung-over boatmen back to life, treated raging cases of toliosis (foot fungus), smoothed the ruffled feathers of picky passengers, hiked side canyons, carried every medicine, trifle and good-luck charm in their decorated iron-purse-like ammo cans, added the ineffable quality of femaleness to the Canyon, decorating themselves with an array of scarves, dresses, bandanas, bathing suits, caps, hats, bonnets, shawls and jewelry that brought color, light, music and dance to the stone cathedral, the river corridor of sand castles and cloud creatures. Professional in their work, the dory cooks of decades past were fun-loving, light-hearted practitioners of the river maxim “function in disaster and finish in style.”

Ah, dory cooks!

Senior correspondent Vince Welch’s last piece for the Gazette was “Terror and Wonder,” which appeared in MG #177. He lives in Portland, Ore.