River tales: Heartfelt, Sad and Patently Absurd


I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

— Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

1) I’m not, she said

Richard Brautigan wrote the peculiar and brief “Trout Fishing in America” in the summer of 1961 while camping with his wife and baby daughter in the Stanley Basin. Piloting a beat-to-hell Plymouth wagon they bought with a $350 tax refund, they’d camp beside streams and the author would set up a card table and an old portable typewriter. He recorded the names of trout-bearing creeks and rivers in his notebook: Big Smokey Creek, Queens River, Big Pine Creek, Salmon River — you get the drift. In that time, some lasting sage entered the American literary scene. To wit:

“I remember mistaking an old woman for a trout stream in Vermont,
and I had to beg her pardon.”
“Excuse me,” I said. “I thought you were a trout stream.”
“I’m not,” she said.

2) Desperate measures

American Rivers’ annual top-10 list of the country’s most-endangered rivers is a more depressing read than, say, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. Completely guaranteed to put you in a crappy mood, the 2011 list is about rivers at their ecological tipping points, and is largely about dams and desperate extractive industries that have run out of safe places to do their bidding. Topping the nominees is the East Coast’s Susquehanna River, which has taken a major hit from natural gas fracking. Three Western rivers made the list, with California’s Yuba River in fifth place. Here we have two outdated federal dams blocking migration for the threatened steelhead and spring-run Chinook salmon. In Washington, threats from a Canadian mining company put the Green River at No. 6. Opponents are quick to point out that a big mine next to Mount St. Helens, in an active earthquake zone, is a prescription for water-quality disaster. In Wyoming, we have the possibility for natural gas drilling and a potential environmental blowout on the headwaters of the Hoback River, listed at No. 7.

3) Stay here

Take your choice of Mountain West rivers and thank your stars. Our point is, if you’re going to hang out in, on or next to rivers, you need to select them with the Limb-Severing (Or Worse) Monster Ratio in mind. You won’t need to worry about that in most of the Mountain West, but if you leave here and travel to, say, the murky, stump-riddled Trinity River that flows down through Dallas and around Houston, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Here you will encounter the alligator gar (probably a bunch of dead bodies as well — if the gars haven’t gotten to them). This fish gets up to 10 feet, has an alligator-like snout, a double row of dagger teeth, AND it can live outside the water for up to two hours. It could, like, come to your tent or motel room. Anyway, it gets a lot worse once you leave the States. There are tons of river monsters, but the absolute most loathsome is the tiny Candiru catfish — the Amazon’s most-feared fish. The Candiru is known for entering orifices and dining off the victim’s blood. There’s an apparently true story about a man urinating into the Amazon, and — you got it — a Candiru swimming up the urine stream and into his penis. A surgeon removed the fish after four days, after it got particularly problematic. Spiny gill flaps … Don’t leave home.

4) That damned fish is a lot scarier than this

While we always wax poetic about how nice Portland is, with its fine beers and environmental cheeriness, it appears we’ve got some weird crap going on with the Willamette River. While there have been no sightings of the justifiably maligned Candiru fish, there have been several reports in recent years of an unmanned, phantom rowboat making its way about the Willamette. When officials are called to the scene, the boat allegedly disappears right in front of them. Evidently, there is a creepy, unfinished mansion across the river, where the builder reportedly hanged himself in the elevator shaft. He probably heard the story about the Candiru.

5) Go ahead and jump

If gravity and water are on your agenda, consider the West’s finer swimming holes, some offering the ultimate vertical experience. Check out Aztec Falls in Deep Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest. The sissy ledge is a mere 30 feet, with the big ledge at 60. There’s also the well-attended Mushroom Hole in Tahoe National Forest above the Middle Yuba River. At roughly 30 feet, it’s one of the most popular leaps in the northern Sierra. Now, if open-river swimming is more to your taste, consider the June 23 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a scant 28.5 mile dip in the pristine waters surrounding New York City, starting and ending at Battery Park.

Way of the Mountain #188

Rivers are the lifeblood of the planet, and the sculptors of mountains. Where I live, on the cusp between the jagged peaks of the Southern Rockies and the mesa tops of the Colorado Plateau, winter is finally relinquishing its hold and mud season still in force. Soon we will have our brief warmth, after bouts of storms and possibly even late snows.

Sometimes it seems like we live in a world of two seasons in Colorado — winter and summer, and what’s between them is a no-person’s-land where anything can happen — hot sun, cold snow, driving rain. Here’s a selection of short poems for this season between seasons.

— Art Goodtimes
Maverick Draw


Early morning snow flurry melts
within an hour.

During which, Dream Queen,
what did you achieve?

I listened to a crow’s mazurka
on a pebble roof.

— Anne Valley-Fox
Santa Fe

Common Sense #14

People who hold themselves
with the grace of a cat
do not fear the jump
from one platform
to the other

— David Patton
St. Louis

Jail Bait

Legs forming a perfect four,
bare shoulder leaning
into the side of the shore’s
ramshackle tackle shop.

Hook, line…

Johnny rsvp’d twice
before lock up.

— Kierstin Bridger

Envy 2

I envy the dirty and alive,
the sleeping tired
Who rise to no care
but to get out there
And ride snow water dirt
Lungs pounding and tight,
cursing and vivid.

— Bryan Shuman


In spite of my
skinned knees

I pull myself up
square my shoulders

and keep on

— Nancy Davenport
Menlo Park

On The Road

The gray swirls of its coat
still startling in the daylight,
the wildcat’s
guts spill across the Sumatran highway
and confirm its determination
in this jungle
to survive.

— James Penha
New Verse News

The Raindrops

Play the aspen leaves
Like piano keys.
They do not recite; they write.
And they recall nothing.
Bathe me
In symphony.
I am shattered; I am mended.
And this is my religion.

— Erin Duggin



Forgetting in a landscape of memory

The Cabin

The Cabin

Upon our arrival in the canyon, with an evening chill following our footsteps down the steep grade, he confided that he might be suffering from Alzheimer’s. His eyes brimmed over, even as he laughed at the realization’s awkward profundity. I tried to comfort him, to hug him — as his trip leader and as a stranger. He pushed me away. He wanted to be alone with his mind and his fate. I had simply caught him at a weak moment.

We were in a remote reach of the canyon, miles from a road, a trailhead, a cell signal, a familiar voice or touch. Divorced from comfort and home. We were living on the canyon’s terms, with its flood-rushing river. And he, in turn, would also live by the terms of a mind — a self — rushing headlong into the unknown.

But he refused to leave.

Before embarrassment usurped candor, he told me how his wife had noted some strange behavior, but he hadn’t believed her. That his mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s, a dark misery for a once-sharp woman. That he never thought it would come on so fast. He pointed at his water bottles on the ground. He was sure he had filled them before the hike, and now they were empty. Had he actually forgotten to fill them? It didn’t occur to him that he had consumed the water on the walk in.

The plastic bottles, the mundane source of his realization, caused him to cry anew. And then the door into his heart abruptly closed. The remainder of the week found me wondering at the interior life of an inscrutable man. Which were the quirks that comprised his being in this world? And which were signs of its slow withdrawal? What could be chalked up to the man, and what was derived from his sudden absence? Unable to know, I simply observed: the strength of his work ethic, his disregard for group conventions, his occasional and brilliant wit, his confusion at meal times.

I once witnessed him standing alone, empty-handed, swaying, staring at the ground. There is no sight lonelier than that of a man again witnessing his own departure — and bearing its hollow emptiness.

Though the mind can be our worst enemy, it is at times our only comfort. Oblivion with a heartbeat seems a cruel existence. And perhaps crueler is the life of the loved one who bears a husband’s passing but continues to see his face, feel his touch, smell his scent, hear his voice — grief renewed and impermanence reaffirmed every day.

In contrast, our week together found us working in a landscape of memory, a place that has not yet forgotten. A long-ago cowboy chipped out our route of descent from the canyon wall. The man chiseled his name into the sandstone and constructed a small cabin overlooking the river. The building still stands, now holding only rusted bedsprings, mouse droppings and memories of ghosts.

Up-canyon from the cowboy cabin is a millennia-old wall of pictures, including bighorn sheep, turkey tracks, human figures and concentric circles. A wavy line — a seeming horizon — extends 50 yards across the rock face. Above it appears a celestial body with a tail, perhaps denoting the passage of Halley’s comet long ago.

The long-departed still tell a story in this place. The desert holds remembrances and present reality with equal grace.

However, cabins crumble and carvings fade, as do our bodies and minds. Succession, loss and the slow entropy of forgetting, while painfully poignant, make room for the next surge of stories and songs. And if we are fortunate, a heart or two will hold the spark of our memory long after the embers of our life are reduced to smoke. Remembrance becomes the greatest gift from — and for — the departing and the departed. Whether writ on a canyon wall, heralded by an empty water bottle, or carried silently in the depths of one’s soul.

Jen Jackson lives in Moab, Utah, where she writes to as an act of memory and presence in the midst of this all-too-fleeting existence.

Rivers of Cameroon

Editor’s note: My wife, Gay, and I just returned from a trip to Cameroon, during which we visited three different rivers. Herein, we share some of the photographs, along with appropriate annotation, from those tropical watercourses.


The Chari

1] We visited Kalamaloué National Park, in the far north of Cameroon, specifically in hopes of viewing elephants. We first spotted these two juvenile males on the other side of the Chari, which is in Chad. The elephants made their way across the Chari right to where we were standing with our guide, our driver and a park ranger. Once the ranger realized the elephants were coming in our direction, he ordered us to beeline post haste to the vehicle, which, with the elephants a few meters away, upped the adventure quotient by refusing to start.

2] People crossed the river between Cameroon and Chad all day long with absolute impunity.

3] The Chadian capital of N’Djamena as seen from the Cameroonian side. The main visible edifice in the presidential palace.

The Lobé

1] Barely visible, off toward center/left, is a small monkey that was coaxed out of hiding in the impenetrable foliage by our guide, who apparently spoke fluent simian-ese. The chances of Gay and I seeing that monkey on our own were nil.

2] My kingdom for a basketball court. We visited a pygmy village on the side of the Lobé, where we met with this dude, the local chief, whose spear, lore had it, had once dispatched a full-grown elephant. The chief reluctantly let me hold his spear, but once I started taking aim at a nearby tree, he asked for it back.

3] The word “pygmy” is, by all accounts, a pejorative. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to learn a different name by which these vertically challenged people could be less insultingly addressed, but failed. “We just call them ‘pygmies’,” said our guide.

4] Lobé Falls, about 20 meters high, is supposedly one of the few cascades in the world that empties directly into the ocean. When we arrived, we witnessed a local lad come within a whisker of drowning. We did not see how he arrived at the lamentable circumstance of being swept out to sea right before our very eyes, but it was only via the gallant efforts of several locals that the boy was saved by the skin of his teeth.

5] For a man who is repulsed by the idea of eating food with his hands, this was a tough feed — locally caught shrimp (heads still attached) and the ever-present French fries and fried plantains served up in a small restaurant near Lobé Falls.

6] Gay and the guide effortlessly paddling a hand-made wooden boat that can hold 10 people in a squeeze and, judging from the effort it took to haul it onto shore, probably weighed several hundred pounds.

7] It took some coaxing, but the guide eventually gave in and let me try my hand at paddling the boat. Though I have considerable experience paddling canoes on flatwater, my attempts to keep this vessel pointed in a straight line were not wholly successful. The guide was still laughing about my poor paddling several hours later over beers.

8] Canoe carved out of a single tree trunk.

The Ebogo

1] A short hike through the jungle from the Ebogo was this massive, 1,175-year-old tree. We never did get a grip on the name of the species, as the guide did not know the English name. We were constantly frustrated by our inability to understand French.

2] At 800 kilometers in length, the Ebogo is Cameroon’s second-longest river. At the time of our visit, it was less than a meter in depth. The rains were late. The flood-stage line, which was clearly visible in the proximate jungle, was about six meters high.

3] Modern African architecture (how to say this tactfully?) leaves a lot to be desired. These were the nicest new buildings we saw during our visit. They are tourist cabins that had never been opened because of some sort of bureaucratic snafu.

Mountain West News: Reporting on the Rockies

Shellie Nelson, sole editor and employee of Mountain West News, taking a second to pause from reading what's relevant. Photo, Jon Kovash.
Shellie Nelson, sole editor and employee of Mountain West News, taking a second to pause from reading what's relevant. Photo, Jon Kovash.

Where do you go for daily-breaking news from the mountains, besides our brain-dead local TV news outlets, with their vacuous cops/sports/weather formats and abhorrence for crossing state borders?

Mountain Gazette and the Paonia-based High Country News are among the small handful of print media that specifically address themselves to the American Rocky Mountain region. Both are largely literary and investigative efforts that require long lead times and long shelf life.

But there are a lot of people doing good reporting on the Rockies every single day that most people never become aware of. They write for the few city dailies in the region, for scores of small town weeklies and sometimes for prominent national publications.

On any given day there might be a great story in the Casper Star-Tribune about fracking, a story in the Santa Fe Reporter about living wage laws, maybe a story from the Salt Lake Tribune about water rights for nuclear power, a story from the Crested Butte News about High-Country global warming research, a story from the Silverton Standard on the current avalanche danger, a story in the New York Times about the “red snow” phenomenon in ski country and a report from the Aspen Times on a newly released forest plan.

Such a daily reading regimen would contribute greatly to one’s sense of neighborhood, and to, borrowing a Tom Wolfe phrase, the “shock of recognition” that comes from realizing that our little far-flung communities have much in common. But what a hassle that would be! Imagine the hours it would take to pore over 50 or 60 publications every day and winnow out what is important and interesting to Rockies dwellers.

In fact, Shellie Nelson, up in Missoula, is paid to do exactly that, and she says it’s “the best job I ever had.” For five years now, Nelson has been the sole editor and sole employee of Mountain West News (mountainwestnews.org), which has since 1999 been the only website that presents a daily aggregation of news from across the Rockies.

Nelson’s workday starts at 4 a.m. in her living room, where she begins scanning headlines, speed-reading stories from all over the Mountain West and finally deciding which ones will get a link on today’s Mountain West News edition. She also has to rewrite headlines, fashion story summaries and intros and somehow marshal it all into a coherent presentation. To that end, there are sections that offer both a guide and a tip-off to the Mountain West News editorial agenda: Community, Environment, Western Perspective (regional essays), Tribes, Public Lands and Opinion. The end result is obviously the work of a seasoned and thoughtful editor, and it illustrates how even a modest human staff can easily outperform the notorious algorithms that govern sites like Google News. Nelson has noticed that “When you Google ‘grizzlies’ or ‘wolverines,’ you get sports stories.”

Mountain West News gets about 200,000 hits a month and has a subscriber list of 4,000. These are small numbers by internet standards, but the subscribers include a lot of influential regional decision-makers, from both government and industry.

These days, this kind of journalistic effort rarely comes from the private sector. In this case, the enabling benefactor is the O’Connor Center For The Rocky Mountain West, a regional humanities/education think tank based at the University of Montana. The Center came to be in 1992, thanks to a large endowment from actor Carroll O’Connor (“Archie Bunker”) and his wife Nancy, both U. of M. alums. Most Mountain Gazette readers would resonate with language from the guiding principles that were declared: “ … this mountainous, trans-national region of North America is unique … and requires special attention and study.”  News is the Center’s longest-running continuous program because it addresses that notion squarely, simply and effectively, and on a daily deadline to boot. The website is friendly to occasional visitors, but a daily visit is considered mandatory by many who just want or need to know stuff: journalists, teachers, environmental and social activists, civil servants, local office holders, CEOs and small business owners.

Funding comes from the University, grants and individual contributors. Nelson says in response to “staff compression” at the region’s larger newspapers, she has had to depend more on the smaller weeklies. In the future, she hopes that grants will be found to pay freelancers and regional reporters for longer, investigative pieces.

Senior correspondent Jon Kovash once produced the award-winning syndicated radio show, “Thin Air,” which was produced at KOTO in Telluride. His blog, “Mountain Architecture,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. 

Jail Time In Cell 4 In The Coconino County Jail

Jail Time in the Coconino County JailThe jail cell door clangs shut. I am in a tiny concrete room with a concrete bench and a concrete wall that shields the stainless steel toilet from a viewer’s eyes. The only viewers that will peer in through the thick window for the next long hours will be the detention officers of the Coconino County Jail. I am here on purpose. I am here alone.

The first thing I do is scan the room for something, anything I can write with. The officers have taken my jewelry, wallet, pens and notebook. They have left me my hearing aids and partial dentures. I’m grateful for that. At 71, my hearing is fading. I need to hear every sound and word that echo outside. And I might be able to use my dentures to scratch a message into the wall. Protect the Sacred Mountains. Stop Spiritual Genocide.

But the walls are flecked with brown spots and I am squeamish. I take notes in my mind. The choked howls coming from the cell next door. The thud of a body slamming against a thick door. The carving in my cell door, an Indian in a feathered head-dress and the letters NDN. My friend in a cell across the hall, tracing the words Protect the Peaks on his window; and the fact that he and I are the only white people I see in the tiny windows or being taken into a cell. Those not-so-subtle demographics are the same as the last time I was arrested twenty-five years ago to protest a breccia pipe uranium mine being drilled into sacred Havasupai land thirteen miles south of the Grand Canyon.

I am in this barren room because I’ve committed civil disobedience to protest a local ski resort’s plan to make snow with inadequately treated wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks, a high-desert mountain sacred to thirteen tribes. Because I have friends from five of those tribes, I refused to step away from the huge excavator that was gouging a pipeline trench in the living rock. I stood fast also because I am forty years older than the next oldest of my companions. Look, I wanted my action to say, you do not have to be young to be filled with passion. You do not have to be young to act. 

The howls next door have faded. Hours stretch ahead. With no pen, no paper. There is nothing but the dirty walls and locked door — and the knowledge that outside this county jail, my friends are collecting bail. They know I am in here. I’ve never in my life felt less alone. In that, it is more than my white skin that makes me different from the others locked behind these heavy doors.

I trace words with a fingernail on my forearm. I am here. I will remember every detail. And I will write.

Sojourner is the author of “Bonelight: Ruin and Grace and the New Southwest,” “Delicate: Stories,” “Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire,” “Going Through Ghosts” and, most recently, “She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction.” She lives in Flagstaff. Her blog, “Hoodoo,” can be found at mountaingazette.com

Mountain Media: Books #187

“The Straight Course: Speed Skiing in the Sixties,” by Dick Dorworth

The Straight Course

Nowadays, the average person will have approximately five to seven careers. Less limited than previous generations, the choices for careers are endless and, with that, finding the “right path” can be daunting, overwhelming and demoralizing. Which is why long-time MG senior correspondent Dick Dorworth’s latest book, “The Straight Course: Speed Skiing in the Sixties,” is so relevant 50 years after the events he describes. The ’60s were unsettled and challenging for the country and the world of skiing. Despite pressure to ski within a certain style, politics that could make any patriot of ski dissent and challenges with injuries and his personal life, Dick held strong to what he knew skiing did for his life and how it filled it with more meaning than if he gave up when his path appeared blocked. “More important was the hard (and hard earned) knowledge of something not right.” By staying true to his heart and path, he accomplished incredible achievements in speed skiing. Dick’s honesty about looking within to find that truth and, once found, never letting go, offers new generations a way to find direction through the confusion. After all, “a company job is not necessarily the best thing a man can do with the time in his life.” Time might be better spent skiing over 100kph down a fast, unrelenting speed track. “The Straight Course” is a fascinating look into the history of a pivotal time in skiing, while offering wisdom for finding our own way through the world. $15.95, westerneyepress.com

 “Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs,” by Fred Beckey

Beckeys favorite climbs

Besides starring in the world’s most hideous climbing outfit (on p. 209), I spent two weeks with The Fred on three of these routes (Prodigal Son, Touchstone Wall and Crimson Chrysalis) while he was working on this book in 1996-98. His goal was to climb every route in this “guidebook,” a feat I’m pretty certain no climbing guidebook author has ever achieved; Fred didn’t quite either. But “guidebook” might not be the right term for this publication, which suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s the size of a small table (13.2 x 9.4 x 1.3 inches) and weighs 5.2 pounds. It looks and feels like a coffee-table book, but when you read it, it describes climbs, with topos and photos and other basic information — yet, you wouldn’t stuff it in your pack and head out. In short, it’s a guidebook inside and a coffee-table book outside. So, to appreciate this book, you have to look at what’s in it. “Beckey’s 100 Favorite Climbs” (there are actually more than 100 — 29 of which were Fred firsts) is a catalogue from the jam-stuffed brain of the most knowledgeable, experienced and well-traveled climber in American history. Fred introduces readers to peaks like Ironman in the Adamant Range, Oubliette in the Ramparts and Golden Klattasine in the Coast Range. These aren’t peaks on the tongues of your typical Western U.S. climber — hell, I had no clue something like Gimli Peak existed until I started reading this book. This book is a mind-opener. It’ll make you realize why you started climbing to begin with, and that there’s a whole lot more to see out there than what you originally thought. After waiting 16 years, I am not disappointed. $79.95, patagonia.com

“The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington,” edited by Rees Hughes, Corey Lewis

Pacific Crest Trailside Reader

This is not a guidebook, but rather a collection of writings about the Oregon and Washington stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (there’s a companion volume for California). This means that the book is short on maps and “just-the-facts” information about flora and fauna, but large on firsthand experiences of folks who’ve trod the iconic trail. There’s blissfully little poetic navel gazing and plenty in the way of good stories about any aspect of the PCT experience you can imagine. Jogging the entire 2,600 miles. Figuring out/being given your “trail name.” Journeying with goats, children or painful injuries. Getting lost and being rescued. Hiking at night, or alone, or through the ash fall of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Coming face-to-face with bears, lynx, huge toads, heart attacks and hypothermia. And always, through all three sections of the book — “Forests Forever” (Oregon), “Lava, Moss and Lichens” (Southern Washington) and “The Great White North” (The North Cascades) — folks suffer through chronic sogginess and all manner of precipitation, particularly toward the end, when hikers are racing Pacific storms and Old Man Winter to the Canadian border. The book itself might not change your life, but some of the essays within probably will, and, if nothing else, you’ll be inspired to shake off that dusty pack and seek out some adventure of your own. $19.95, mountaineersbooks.org