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.

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.