That Dirty Devil

It’s always a crap shoot, heading for Utah in March, hoping for enough water in the Dirty Devil to float a boat. Seems like for the past decade we’ve had it on the radar, sometimes even set out with intentions to paddle it, and yet we’ve only gotten down that lovely, lonely, elusive bit of seasonal river twice. Once with the kids some years back, and then, finally, again this year. Every other time we’ve gotten cold feet and pulled the plug, or substituted a float on the San Juan, or gone hiking instead.

This year, though, it happened. As usual, the decision-making process was as up and down as the river gauge – planning on it, calling it off, putting it back on. Even at the end, packing up, we made sure to include the Plan B kit of hiking gear in case. To complicate matters, we were victimized by FAKE NEWS!!! Looking at the river gauge at Poison Springs, the week before departure, the reading went crazy. Spiking up to 700 cfs, then plummeting to 90 in a matter of hours. I’d look mid morning and it would read 500. By afternoon it was down to 100. What the hell? Who knows, even now, what was going on, but somehow we looked at the information, looked at what was predicted to be an awesome week of nice weather, coupled with full-moon nights and made that leap of faith. Leaps of faith are what make life, well, worth it.

At the put-in, outside of Hanksville, the Dirty Devil looked less than reassuring. Sheets of braided water flowing thinly over loose sandbars. Just as dirty as advertised. A couple of dead cow carcasses adorning in the channel. But hey, there we were. Nothing to do but put on. Three of us – three solo hardshell canoes (a brilliant choice, by the way – we were much more comfortable, roomy, and less prone to running aground than the inflatable folks we saw along the way).

The last time we did the DD, with the kids, we started out with 150 cfs and had a rain/sleet storm on Day 2 that pumped things up to 2-300 for the rest of the time. We were hardly ever out of the boats and had only minor turbulence to contend with. This time, things were different. Looking back at the gauge, which finally started reading accurately, our levels vacillated between 80 – 120 cfs. Pretty marginal, it turns out, but surprisingly doable.

Yes, we were out of the canoes A LOT that first day and a half. We soon decided that the best footwear was no footwear. The bottom was deep sand and it made for much cleaner feet getting in and out all the time. There were some comical moments (of which I had more than my share), some spooky, quicksand moments. Luckily the days were warm, the winds were calm and as we went along, we got better at the Zen of reading river channel. Somewhere on Day 2, below Angel’s Cove, the river channel started to narrow more, and we were less and less out of the boats, more and more reassured, and open to sidehikes up sweet little side canyons, some with pouroffs, some with springs, some nothing more than nice excursions.

So, for five days we drifted along, read water for that narrow slot of deeper river (all it took was a 1″ difference to make or break us). Camped under the loom of sandstone walls, bathed in pale moonlight all night, sat around the campfires talking about near-death escapades and embarrassing episodes in life, and all day long beetled down the tortured and sweet course of that ephemeral, dicey flow. Our trip involved a full layover at Happy Canyon to explore up that amazing slot, all the while watching the DD inch lower.

Five days on, passing Poison Springs road, we were startled to find Doug’s truck parked above the river. We had planned another 2 days, down to Lake Powell, but our shuttle driver misunderstood and delivered the rig early. Good thing we spotted it, or we’d have been in for some serious confusion a couple of days on.

So, unfortunately, the DD came to an early end. We drove the long, rough road back to Hanksville, where our chagrined shuttle guy refunded our fee and put us up in a motel for the night. Stand-up dude. Not to be short-changed on our desert time, we made up for the lost river days with a day scrambling around the Shamrock Slots south of Hanksville, and exploring a new section of the San Rafael Swell, where, not surprisingly, we found plenty of fodder for the life-trip list. That checklist never does get shorter, does it? And yeah, that’s a good thing.

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It’s On!!!

Okay, I’m calling it. Paddling season, 2017 has begun. Yes, it’s still winter. Yes, there are days of skiing still to be had. We want more snowpack, we really want more snowpack. If we don’t get more snowpack, come August, it’s going to be bleak. But listen, last weekend, it was time.

On Saturday I post-holed through the snowdrift to free the Mad River solo from the rack, slid it up on top of the venerable Honda Odyssey with 357K on it, loaded my road bike in the back, and headed for a stretch of the E. Gallatin that tends to stay ice free much of the winter. It was in the 50s. Roads were clear. I left the canoe chained to a fencepost at the put-in and drove to the next bridge down, stripped down to a tee-shirt, and rode the shuttle. No wind, plenty warm, some winter grit on the road and snow in the fields, but otherwise it could have been May.

I switched the chain and lock from boat to bike, slid the canoe over the icy bank, took up the favorite paddle, and felt the sweet impulse of current under hull for the first time in months. God, I love that dance, swinging away around the first bend, quick stepping down a dark tongue of water, watching the rocky bottom slide under me. I love the wooden shaft in my hands, the resistance of blade and water, the side-slip away from brushy bank, the tranquil stretches with sun in my face, the Bridger Mountains looming behind me, farm fields stretching away under the mantle of snow. Water dripped off the banks in steady curtains. Geese flocked and wheeled, loud overhead, restless with season. Red-tails screamed from trees, harriers tilted over fields, kingfishers flashed in and out of vegetation, flocks of ducks, wings whistling, hurried away.

It’s a winding, tortuous stretch. Spring creeks join in, the channel bends and twists on itself like the looping coils of snake. It takes some Zen to not anticipate landmarks. I lost hold of clock time, lunch time, the ties to that other life out there. For three hours the river had me again, mid-February in Montana, all alone on the water, me and the restive birds, anticipating spring.

And now, it has me scheming, checking river gauges, conjuring trips. In a couple of weeks we’re hoping to get down the Dirty Devil in Utah. Then, come May, the season begins in earnest. The Owyhee, in early May, water permitting. Our Memorial Day, 3 rivers, tradition. A new stretch of Silver Bow Creek I’ve heard about. Old favorites, new unknowns, every outing with a different personality.

Sure, I love winter, love the austere, white season with ski tracks through it, but there is nothing like that opening channel and the irresistible pull it has on my heart; to inhabit the hull of a favorite boat, to hold a paddle again, to dance. Nothing.

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3,000 Mile Epic Christmas

After my dad died in mid-October (worth it’s own post, but not now) and it became clear that the kids had their own plans for the holidays – Ruby on the Colorado R. in the Grand Canyon, Sawyer with Bella in Idaho, and Eli heading for Minnesota with Sam – it was time for Plan B. The ‘we’re-out-of-here’ plan. Yeah, that’s right, leave town, have an adventure, don’t sit at home gazing at the Christmas tree and pining away over the empty nest. And not just a low-key, out-of-here, kind of holiday. Something big, something with some heart, some danger, some exhilaration, some weight.

Cut to the chase – early morning of Dec. 15 in a Billings, Montana snowstorm, when we head south out of town, fleeing weather and heading for the Mexican border in Big Bend, Texas. Several hours south, somewhere around central Wyoming, we escaped the snow, but the temperature zoomed up 20 degrees in about 10 minutes and the wind started howling out of the west. The canoe strapped on top of our Prius started wobbling and bouncing. The roof rack was making abnormal and alarming noises. We ratcheted back the speed, stopped to tie bow and stern lines to the chassis, the wonderful gas mileage plummeted, and time after time we wondered if the lid of the car would rip right off, sailing away to the east under the parachute of our 25-year-old Dagger Legend canoe. Those damn winds hounded us all the way to Las Cruces, NM, more than 1,000 miles south. Out of the west, 60 mile gusts, clouds of dirt and sand, tractor trailers tipped helter-skelter in the freeway (once we had to 4-wheel around a wrecked semi in the median strip in southern Colorado). Unbelievable, sustained, battering air just hammering away mile after mile after mile.

At the end of each day our heads still rang with the beating, our bodies felt strained like we’d been to the gym. The good news, we had friends and family to stay with along the way – Mp’s sister, Sally, in Denver, my old friend Kris Carrillo in Albuquerque. Havens in the onslaught, islands of calm. Until the next morning when we’d do battle again. Finally we wheeled east onto Highway 10 towards El Paso and zoomed along with hurricane-force tailwinds, hurtling us toward our put-in on the Rio Grande River at La Linda, just downstream of Big Bend NP.

It didn’t begin well. At the put-in, on the morning of the 18th, it was 39 degrees and windy. What happened to those southern warm breezes??? That first day was brutally cold. By the time we stopped for the night, we were both teeth-chattering hypothermia victims. The good news is that it kept getting better. For 6 days we slid through the deep walls of the lower canyons on the Wild and Scenic river. Cliffs rose 1,500 feet overhead. Springs, hot and cold, refreshed us and our water jug. The days kept getting warmer and more comfortable. We ran rapids, portaged, lined, camped under the unbelievable density of stars in one of the darkest quadrants of North America, took hikes up side canyons full of canyon wrens, sat by the fire drinking coffee every morning, shared daily stocking-stuffer gifts. For a week we saw no one. No one on the Mexican side. No one on the US side. No one on the water. Just us and the wide, magical borderland desert full of evocations and mystery. God it was deep and lovely. And that’s where we need a wall??? Really? (Side note – I asked everyone we met what they through of Trump’s wall. To a person, no matter which way they voted, the consensus was, it is a really stupid idea. Hear that, Donald??)

From the river we refreshed for a night near Terlingua, enjoyed one of the top ten sunsets either of us had ever seen, ate at the very fun Starlight Theater restaurant in the old ghost town, and then headed north toward the Guadelupe Mountains near the New Mexico border, just south of Carlsbad.

Christmas Eve, in a very sweet campground at Guadelupe Mountains NP, the winds returned. Tent-hammering, pole-bending, fabric-flapping winds. All night we battled a collapsing tent, rigged up guy lines, added rocks to the stakes, cowered under the lash. The idea was to hike to the high point in Texas, Guadelupe Peak (8,700′ plus) on Christmas Day. Good idea, but if anything, the winds rose in the morning. We huddled in the tent to cook breakfast, but then decided, what the hell, let’s give it a go.

It’s a good hike, nice trail, 8-9 mile round trip. There were calm moments, a couple, but for the most part, the winds just blew like stink. On certain corners the gusts pushed us bodily backwards. At the summit, with west Texas spilling away to the horizon, we hunkered in the wind-shade of some boulders, made a few static-fraught holiday phone calls, and shivered through lunch before pounding back down. Worth it? Sure, pretty exhilarating, actually, but sheesh!

For another day we enjoyed the Guadelupes, had some sweet bird watching, walked up scenic canyons, and the wind finally died in time for us to head on to Carlsbad Caverns, another pretty amazing spot in the middle of nowhere. A bit of a culture shock at the caverns, which were slammed with cell-phone toting, selfie-taking humanity. Still, the tour, even the self-guided one, is worth it.

For another three days, we headed back north, dodging the winds this time. We visited Mp’s childhood friend, Lia, in Santa Fe, stayed with my aunt and uncle in Denver, and on the Friday before New Years, in time for the neighborhood Polar Bear Plunge, we beetled back home through another Montana snow storm. Back home, where we greeted our old dog, Beans, turned up the heat, and plugged in the Christmas tree. Good to be home. Good to go, but good to be back, too.

Happy, epic holidays, right? May they all be adventures.

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Rabbit Hole

It’s complicated, right?

There’s the election, which has made me a little catatonic. There’s the fact that my father died, in mid-October, an event both difficult and lovely, if you know what I mean. He was ready, so ready. He was resolved and calm. In fact, during his final week, he crossed a threshold back to his sweet, gentle self, a transformation that made me understand just how difficult these years since mom died have been for him; how much he struggled, and how that struggle surfaced in his irascibility and selfishness. Suddenly he smiled, he reached out, he gave and accepted warmth. And we were lucky enough to surround him with family that final week together in a comfortable, loving setting. No hospital room, no tubes and interventions, just an 89-year-old body accepting the inevitable, and the will to go.

Of course, too, the usual clamor of life – making ends meet, paying property tax, teaching classes, finding and writing stories, feeling our way into our empty-nest (at least sporadically) phase of life, making plans, being social, being political, being sane. The juggling act that sometimes feels like it is taking place on a tightrope.

But then, it isn’t complicated in the least. As when, the first weekend of November, just after my 64th birthday, I noticed that the gauge on the Smith River was high enough to float, and that the weather for the weekend looked good, and that my Thurs. classes weren’t meeting, and we loaded up the boat, drove to the put in and slipped away, or back into, for four days on a stream where the float season usually ends sometime in July. Jesus what a window of beauty. Long, cold nights set off by deep-blue days in the grip of limestone canyon walls and chuckling current; four days of reset button, where the order of things shuffled back into place and the timeless, seamless power of the world, the seasons, the night skies, the unfurling water, the soaring birds, the sharp, fall light – all of it came back into focus.

There is so much more, so many events, from the summer that remain unrecorded, except for the memories, the marks on maps, a few photos, the images that come stabbing back at unexpected moments – how suddenly I’ll find myself in a snow squall on top of a pass in the mountains of Utah with the world rolling off into the foggy distance when I’m walking down Main Street on my way to a coffee shop, provoked by, something – a smell, a sharp sound, a movement at the edge of vision.

But here, a fragment from the summer, at the end of our week-long hike across the Highline Trail in northern Utah. It was a journey back in time for me, to a mountain range I spent months at a time in during my early twenties. This piece takes place on our final day, when we fell down another rabbit hole and only re-emerged near dark when we finally fumbled our way out again.

“DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE”

Should have paid attention. Should have known better.

At dawn, for instance, sitting in camp waiting for light to strike, when I notice how far north the sun is rising. Odd, I think. Must be my orientation. Or, on the previous afternoon, when we noticed a couple of horse riders crossing the same ridge farther up the basin. But then, from the ridgeline, looking down at the lake I expected to be there, I discounted it. Must have been herding up some stray sheep. Or, last evening, watching a band of elk graze uphill toward the ridge, feeling a strange need to follow their line. Weird.

But we know where we are. Lake Wilde, 3 or 4 miles from the trailhead at the base of Leidy Peak, a week in and nearly 80 miles from our start at the western end of the Highline Trail. Seven days spent along the spine of the Uintas, at or above tree-line between 10,000’ and 12,000’. A handful of peaks. 9 passes. Feeling pretty good for a couple of Social Security types.

Of course we study the map, as we have studied maps along dozens and dozens of trails over 40 years of backcountry travel. My eyes rove over the terrain – neighboring drainages, peaks, isolated lakes, places to go next time. No GPS crap for us. Seems like everyone we’ve seen along the trail has been riveted to their device, spitting out mileage, time moving, time sitting, waypoints, elevation. No thanks. I don’t even like wearing a watch.

Since passing the wilderness boundary, a couple of days back, the trail has become more sketchy. We’ve had to stay focused, match landmarks, search for cairns, discount the ‘helpful’ rock piles people leave, thinking they are on-route when they are not. A little challenging, but not bad. Last night I wandered past the end of the lake, along the slope we would follow toward the trailhead, looking for sign. Didn’t find much – a vague tread here and there, some cairns.

After breakfast we set out, aiming for the rounded mass of peaks, working our way gently up the ridgeline toward it. “We’ll be out before noon,” Marypat says, securing her poles.

Fateful words. Because now, 10 hours and maybe 10 miles later, it’s evening and we’re back within a mile of that same lake, having spent the day tromping around with our packs on, growing increasingly frustrated and confused. Damn!

In that disquieting trip down the rabbit hole, we persisted in trying to make a not-quite-right landscape line up with the map, like forcing the wrong pieces into a puzzle. We climbed the peak, walked around the peak, found cairns – some quite substantial – and tried to figure out where they led. We circumnavigated a mass of peaks, staying above treeline, looking for roads, parking areas, lakes, drainages. We stumbled across boulder fields, retraced our steps, looked from different vantage points. All the while we kept assuming that we were within a maddening mile of our car, and that somehow we just weren’t seeing things right.

Mid-day came and went, and anxiety loomed at the edges of thought like an eclipse, threatening to overwhelm basic safety protocol and common sense. When we glimpsed a snippet of distant dirt road, Marypat argued for bushwhacking our way to it and figuring things out from there. I felt the same seduction, something tangible, that ribbon of dirt that had to lead somewhere, that might have vehicles, but then, I couldn’t bring myself to plunge further into the unknown, down into the forest, where we would likely lose the thread back to the last spot we had the trail. The knowledge that, no mater how turned around we were, we could still find our way back to a solid reference point, was my life raft.

More than once, I was reminded of Geraldine Largay, who wandered off of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, got turned around, and slowly starved to death over the next month. Her remains and a journal were found 2 years later less than 2 miles from the trail. Or of earlier explorers who lived in a constant state of geographic unease, and of the mental fortitude it took to stave off panic. I also thought of moments of geographic confusion in my life – searching for the outlet of an Arctic lake on a remote canoe expedition, or setting up an orienteering course in dense Wisconsin woods when I suddenly realized that I was completely turned around myself. I knew I was less than half a mile from a dirt road, but in those dense, trackless woods, I had no idea in what direction. Those were moments of barely contained anxiety, when I was prone to fantastic suggestion, not to mention stupidity.

It is as if, in those confused, unmoored situations, everything is questionable, nothing makes sense. If I don’t know where I am, what else is certain?

Here in the Uintas, it was compounded by the appearance of substantial cairns that must lead somewhere. We even found ourselves building a few rock towers at moments when we thought we were on the right track. At one point I had the absurd notion to take out the key fob and try to unlock the car doors, hoping to hear the car beep back at me.

“Where the hell are we?” we each said, at various points and with increasing vehemence.

Around mid-afternoon, I suggested my Plan B. “Look, we know how to get back to the trail. Rather than getting more lost, if we really can’t find the car, we should retrace our steps to the last trailhead, 10 miles back, and hitch a ride out. It would be a total pain, but it beats getting good and truly lost with no food.”

“No way,” Marypat said, at first, but as the day wore on, and our confusion deepened, she began to relent.

All of this confusion stemmed from our absolute conviction that we camped at Lake Wilde the night before. Every time we looked at the map, we began with that premise. I couldn’t get past that certainty. From there, nothing quite fit. Close, but not right.

Which brings us back to evening, back on the ridgeline above our previous camp, the ridge I’d watched the elk graze over, feeling the odd urge to follow. Too stubborn to admit defeat, we climb to the crest and look over. Marypat hikes to a nearby prominence to get a better vantage. I get out the map again.

Below me, another lake glimmers at the base of another ridgeline. Like mist dissolving in the day’s warmth, an idea emerges. What if, I think, that lake is actually Lake Wilde, and the lake we camped at was Blue Lake, one ridge over. A very similar topography, but not the right one. I orient the map, line things up, look in front of me, behind me. I still resist, but it starts to make sense.

When I show Marypat, she studies it for a long time, then nods slowly, ruefully. We are still so untrusting of terrain, of ourselves, of the map, that even as we start, we vow not to get pulled off into another goose chase. If it doesn’t really look right when we get there, we’ll still default to my Plan B.

We trudge toward the new lake. I lie on my belly to drink melt from a snow bank. We haven’t eaten since the half-cup of granola at breakfast. We are beat. But a quarter mile up the faint trail past the lake, lying on the ground next to a rock cairn, is an old wood sign with an arrow pointing east – Leidy Peak – 2. I prop it back up, make sure the arrow points in the right direction.

We set about getting food out, lighting a stove. Then Marypat makes her suggestion. “What if we eat some dinner and book out? Even if we don’t make it all the way, we can camp wherever.”

Twenty minutes later, daylight waning, we are hiking again under our packs. This time, finally, the landmarks align with the map. Lakes are where they are supposed to be. Still, every time something looks off, that eclipse of panic starts rising again.

More than a mile along, we come across a couple camped above the trail. We share stories. It turns out that they endured a similar day, following an errant trail sign, walking an extra 8 miles, questioning everything, before finally realizing that they had to bushwhack more than a mile up a steep slope to regain the trail. And they have GPS.

Twilight deepens. Cairns emerge out of the dusk, contouring around the correct peak. An occasional sign appears. A few times we lose the thread of trail, talk about camping, but then find another cairn, keep walking into the shadows. And ten minutes to full dark, when I push the key fob, our little Toyota chirps back through the gloaming, a cheerful and reassuring connection to the known, mapped world, and a reminder to pay attention to the damn clues next time I’m so wedded to the topo sheet.

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Church

“It’s like everything is wrapped in gold,” Marypat said, when we set our two solo canoes into the lower reaches of the East Gallatin on Sunday morning. It was supposed to rain later. The winds out of the west were going to pick up, so we got to the water early, around the time church-going people cinch their ties and shine the scuffs from their shoes.

For the first hour it was all serenity, beauty and awe. The valley glowed with fall. Three sandhill cranes climbed up the bank and soared off over the fields, calling. White-tailed deer watched us swing past. An owl lifted from a pile of logs on the outside of a bend. A beaver swam under my hull. The river tugged us along, sweet and clear and low.

Then, the sermon of the wind kicked in. Fitful gusts built into full-on headwinds. The river pushed forward, waves kicked up, whitecaps. We both reverted to kayak paddles to keep up momentum, leaned into the weather, found wind eddies to rest in. Near the end, on a long westward reach, the wind became a wall. Marypat, in her light canoe, was finally driven to shore and had to line her boat along. I paddled back up to her, hitched on, and we managed the last mile or two in tow, shoulders aching, trees flailing against the sky.

Off the river by noon, out of church. A dose of beauty, a little fire and brimstone, the pew of canoe seat, a hymnal of air and leaves and bird call. Amen.

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Rambling, as in Homeless

I just finished a book featuring a cast of gypsy characters in the British Isles. There is something romantically appealing about gypsies. The stubborn pride in their homeless status, for one. Their lack of interest in being rooted or having a bricks and mortar home, the roaming culture – insular, invisible, on the edges. And there is also something tragic and dark about gypsies – their history, how they are treated, the things they are driven to, why they live as they do.

Because, essentially, they are not tied to any kind of home place, nationality, country, state. They have carved out a way to survive, a way to maintain pride and identity, in a fraught world. And it got me thinking about all the homeless in the world. Millions and millions of people, awash on the seas of war and politics and strife, surviving to the next day. Or, like the gypsies, people who have staked their identity on the very condition of homelessness.

There are others, like the gypsies, who for different reasons find themselves with a culture but no nation. Many Armenians, for example. Kurds, Hmong, the hundreds of tribes within the African continent, thrown into nations at the whim of colonizers.

Always there are the homeless who have been exiled or terrorized by war, by genocide, by religious campaigns . . . never more than now. The hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking places, streaming from Somalia, from Syria, from Libya, from Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine the heartbreak, the angst, the tortured discussions – to leave home, to head, carrying what you can, into the unknown. To clamber onto uncertain boats, to walk through the night, to leave children and spouses behind, to endure crowded camps, because home had become untenable.

And I think of the homeless I see, and that I know exist, all around me. Families living in cars because rent has become too dear. People camped along a creek on the edge of town, or sheltering under a highway overpass, or making camp in a thicket of woods where no one goes. I see them. Not long ago, walking our dog, I came across a man sleeping under the skirts of a conifer tree in the park across the street. Good spot, I thought. Outside, under a tree, but absolutely protected from the weather by the canopy of branches. I noticed that he had an electric skillet and had found an outlet near what is a skating rink in the winter. Smart, I thought. And I imagined myself, occupied with the urgency to find a place each night – a place with privacy, with protection, warm enough, away enough. An electrical outlet would be an unexpected gift, a treasure to hoard and enjoy, because, somehow, you also know it wouldn’t last.

I see the homeless at the public library, where they find warmth, reading material, shelter from the weather, a bathroom. There was an unshaven man I saw for a time on my walks around town. Every time I saw him he was buried in a paperback book. Always reading. Once I asked what he was reading. He could barely find his voice. He was so used to being invisible. “Just a mystery,” he finally whispered. And there’s the guy who rides a bicycle around town and watches birds. He has even found occasional work with some local environmental outfits, documenting species and habitat. When I see him, we invariably get into a conversation about sandhill crane hatchlings, or the nest of a Cooper’s hawk behind the library, or the sharp-shinned hawk he’s been watching in some conifers across from the bench he likes to sit on. Where he sleeps, I have no idea. And all of them, eventually, disappear, move on, find other places, get sick, die, or, perhaps, find a home.

Sometimes it seems like freedom, being homeless. And it is. As well as lonely hardship, exposure, illness, early death. Whatever it is, it is a common state, now. A state worth pondering.

 

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East Gallatin Renewal

Well, this year it took a while. I watched the gauge rise, saw the muddy water hurrying under bridges, itched to re-ignite my yearly spring affair with my favorite local creek, the East Gallatin. Things got in the way. April seems to have been the month of visitors this year – cousin Drake from Friday Harbor, friends from Kenya, sister Noel from Massachusetts. The weather has been unpredictable, unruly – typically springlike, in other words – so that the few times a window presented itself, it happened to be snowing or blowing like stink. And there’s work, and sloth, and whatever else keeps me from getting out the door.

But yesterday afternoon, after my last class of the semester, Sawyer showed up. It had been sleety and cold earlier in the day, and was still windy and chilly, but improving. We loaded up, drove to the edge of town and dropped in the silty, cold, rising flow. That current I have adopted over the years, that mix of hidden ambush and hairball maneuver, lovely bends, white-tail, golfers, homeless camps, scraps of old cars, beaver dams, sandhills, geese. That chance to reawaken the paddling moves, see what’s happened over the winter, when I glided past some of these same bends on cross-country skis.

For an hour or two we dissolved through the portal, left the world full of Facebook checking, SnapChatting, Instagramming, Netflix bingeing, emailing, texting, device-charging bullshit. Never mind the escape from the more existentially disturbing world of hospital bombings, kidnapped children suicide bombers, banking mischief, earthquake rubble, mass shootings, and Trump rallies. Never mind. Never mind.

No, for two hours we let our arms and paddles remember. We met and communicated through the hull of that old Dagger Legend canoe. Swinging around tight corners. Ducking underbrush. Hearing the complaints of geese, the scream of red-tail, the splash of mallard. The wind held off. Three or four times we had to scramble to shore, pull out, haul over a log jam or past an overhanging bush. We diverted down a golf course irrigation canal but decided against the culvert move – how embarrassing to endure an obituary featuring culvert decapitation.

We talked all the way. About the end of Sawyer’s college era, the angst over what’s next. About his brother and sister. About summer plans, life plans, friends, his hopes, my memories. Then there was the not-talking, just swooping around bends, skirting logs, pointing at nests, shooting through new gaps, listening to the talk of river and bank, bird and wind. Feeling the teamwork, the dance that tastes so good. Once we got out the saw and cut some overhanging branches, an inch of freeboard on our rubber boots.

What a simple thing, right? Settle into a boat on a river where no one goes and disappear into what is so real and profound and always right there at our fingertips, but that we so easily forget in the noise of life. And now, memory still brimming with it, a mile away, the East Gallatin rushes under roads, through subdivisions, past golf greens, impartial to our ‘improvements’, and my old red boat sits next to the garage, ready, always ready, whenever I am.

 

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That Old Kingfisher Rattle!

DSCN0532

Okay, I’m calling it. The paddling season is on. Sure, we’ve been out before this, even in January and Febuary, dodging ice floes, and then over spring break on the San Juan in Utah, but this, today, felt like the real start.

Marypat went for a ski this morning, and invited me along. I was nice about declining, but are you kidding? 65 degrees, the water coming up, bluebird spring day – you want to go ski?

She went, had fun, but I ran out to the lower Gallatin R. with a solo canoe and a bike, rode the shuttle between the Missouri Headwaters Park and Manhattan, MT, even had a bit of a tailwind, and was on the water before noon.

From there it was that sweet, rising current, some nice dancing down narrow side channels. It was kingfishers rattling over the water, geese calling, a fat marmot dodging into a burrow on the bank, all the mergansers and mallards and goldeneye paired up. It was new logs in the river, bald eagles in the cottonwoods, fresh buds on willows.

I stopped for lunch on a gravel bar, just me and the sliding river, and thought about how nice, and how rare, to be quiet – no cell phones, no earbuds, no conversation – only the wind gusting through the still bare branches across the way, and the river rippling past, and the ringing call of a flicker in the cottonwood grove.

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Farflung

This past weekend was one of those interludes where I thought of my family scattered in a crazy constellation. Marypat and I were driving to Hayward, Wisconsin so MP could take part in the annual 50K Birkie ski race with 10,000 of her closest friends. Eli was the only one holding down the Montana fort, slogging away with school and work in Billings. Sawyer was nordic racing on the college circuit in Red River, NM. Ruby was in Toronto giving a speech at a wilderness canoe symposium.

Nearly to Hayward, our phone rings. It’s Ruby in the Toronto airport. She had borrowed a phone from a stranger because her phone refused to function in Canada. Her debit card wouldn’t work. She had to make her way to an unfamiliar address in downtown Toronto and had no cash. We gave her the bank number to see if she could get her card working. She hung up and we didn’t hear from her again for 3 days. No news is good news, right? Right. My 20-year-0ld daughter in a strange city with no money and no communication and human trafficking rings lurking around every corner.

The Birkie absolutely overwhelms the small town of Hayward. A sea of lycra folk jostling through registration lines at the high school, every motel and bar and ski shop overflowing. All to ski a 30-mile course through the woods with waves of competitors, in conditions that, 3 out of 5 years, are crappy. We pay good money to participate, take on a 30-hour round trip drive, lose sleep to race anxiety, navigate the maze of traffic and bus drop-offs. Call me a dud, but I’m not feeling it. Marypat, on the other hand, is all over being 60 and joining a new age class, and damned if she doesn’t come in 4th in her category with a time of 3:32, despite drizzle, slush, and a few, butt-bruising mishaps.

Me, what I’m feeling is seeing old friends and colleagues from that northern Wisconsin era in my life. Staying with Hayward friends who once took my writing workshop, and who know the reservation cafe with light, fluffy pancakes and only four people at tables, who are full of canoe stories and know just when and where to intersect the race on a back road and cheer for our favorite skiers.

And I’m feeling the Sunday breakfast in Ashland with two of my best and oldest friends, catching up on life’s poignant and resonant roll toward old age over scrambled eggs and english muffins with classical music in the background and Lake Superior out there, down the street, rolling off against the winter sky. Yeah, I’m feeling that.

Somewhere in the middle of that plate of breakfast, we get an email from Ruby, relating the “shit-show” of getting into Toronto, giving her talk to a “bunch of old people who I made cry” and threading her way back through thin air to Arizona.

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That Moment

IMG_0649A couple of weekends ago we needed to get out and test a boat. Almost November, our chances were dwindling. We put the word out, but everyone was hunting, or recovering from knee surgery, or on to another season. So we went, the two of us and Beans. Nothing heroic, just popped over the pass to the Yellowstone, put in on the edge of Livingston, paddled 40-some miles down to Big Timber.

You know the scene. Driftwood fires, hot drinks held close, geese overhead through the nights, deer taking refuge on the islands, ice in the jug at dawn, the cottonwoods browning and brittle. Not dawdling, really, but not pushing either. The pace of the river, the short days, the lining up of our strokes. Strolling around on gravel bars, heads down, looking for agate. That.

But then, on the second night, camped on the inside of a gravel bar along a narrow side channel, evening coming on, Marypat stoking the fire, I wandered down to the edge of the flow with a pot to fill. I stood there in the wet sand. The current swung into the narrows at the tip of the island, funneled down to a deep, green ribbon. On the far side water chattered over a shallow gravel bar, joining the flow. And how the river was, there, with the small roar of water dropping into the main flow, and the line of current curving and bending, the sense of joining and going on, and how I pictured our boat being carried along by that thin power, the small joy of it. Jesus, it made me salivate. That sliver of beauty with me standing nearby.

And now, weeks later, that’s what stays clear. That one moment, on the way for water, when the slick of river ran pure and heedless in front of me, and knowing that it is still running there, while the ice starts to form and the days shorten toward winter and the eagles shift in the snags, thinking of food.

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