Now!

Listen.

It isn’t hard. You don’t have to plan. Don’t worry about going far. It won’t take long. Just go.

I was reminded how easy it is, how powerful, just last week. We decided to escape the summer heat on a nearby river with some friends. We didn’t leave town until after work. The put-in on the Madison River was 30some miles away, but we didn’t get on the water until 8 pm. Dark was coming, so we only floated a mile or so down, found a funky little unassuming island to camp on, and spent the night.

We made a fire, had a beer, caught up. The moon rose, nearly full, casting its silver path of light down the rippling current. A racoon messed around on a gravel bar upstream. The temperature cooled. The riverside cliffs loomed behind us. Everything else receded, the way they do in places like that. Work, family, tensions, deadlines, all the things that complicate life – they slipped away. We stayed up until nearly midnight under the moon and cliffs, with the water sliding past, whispering with mystery. There were fireflies, or something very like fireflies . . . in Montana?

No rush in the morning. We slept in, made coffee, ate some bagels while the day stirred with white pelicans, golden eagles, sandhill cranes, bank swallows, deer. The float is only half a day long. We lazed down it, taking it in, chatting – boat to boat. We discovered new channels, swapped boats, stopped to let the dog pee. The river bore us down toward the confluence at Three Forks.

We were off the river by mid-day, avoiding the inner tube crowd. Less than 24 hours, all in all. But it felt like we’d had the reprieve of a week on the river. The warm, magical night, comrades around the fire, sleeping to the sound of water coursing downhill over the smooth cobbles.

We returned, after this brief little pause, and picked up life again. Or was it life we had just left.

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Three Days . . . Three Rivers

Traditions are a good thing. They keep me up to speed, set a deadline, establish an expectation. With traditions, it’s hard to waffle. This one began with a fantasy. Actually, fantasy might be a little strong, because it might really happen one of these years. Call it a whim. Years ago, I thought about how sweet it would be to spend the entire month of May traveling around Montana, camping here and there, and running all those ephemeral spring rivers. Rivers like the Sun, the Dearborn, the Sheilds, the Clark’s Fk of the Yellowstone, the Boulder, the Belt . . . On any given year I pick off a couple of these, in addition to my favorite local spring runs, but what if I just stayed out all month, meandering from put-in to put-in, figuring out shuttles, checking off a couple dozen of those seasonal flows through little-visited chunks of Montana terrain?

Turns out it’s hard to take a month, or to get anyone else to take a month to do that. A couple of years ago I put out a call, suggesting a sampler of the fantasy – using the Memorial Day holiday weekend, picking three rivers to run, and camping out between. It seemed to strike a chord. Quite a slug of friends thought that sounded like a good idea and joined up. Now we’ve done the third annual and are up to as many as nine boats at a time on these river days. More people keep asking if they can join up. We’ve had people show up from as far off as Arizona. Kids latch on for a day or two if they’re around. People come for one day, the whole time. Some float every river, other’s pick and choose depending on weather and health and how the juju feels that day. Everyone is self-sufficient, everyone is competent. The unstated motto is something like – take care of your own shit, show up, have fun.

Now we have a string going, nine so far, a list that includes a number of firsts – the West Fk of the Bitterroot, for example, the St. Regis, and little Silver Bow Creek, all this year, all new, all unique and challenging and worth returning to. Runs have taken place in drenching downpours and hot sun. There have been log jams, dumps, unexpected diversion dams, adventures with barbed wire, a few bushwhacks, some shit-show scrambles for shore, a culvert or two. There has been comraderie, conversation around campfires, car caravans through downtown Missoula in search of tacos, some lovely campsites and a couple not so lovely.

The important thing is that every year the focus is on new water, fun paddling, unexpected beauty, goofy adventure, enough hairball challenge to keep everyone on their toes and that yearly escape on jumpy water when everything is lush and green and popping with spring. I’m left with the image of glancing back on a straight stretch of the St. Regis, over near Idaho, and seeing a long string of blue SOAR inflatables parading downstream. Or of the sudden, blinding downpour in the Sluice Boxes of Belt Creek. Or of the cow-pie riddled camp near Bean Lake on the upper Dearborn. Or of Lee t-boning the log at a railroad bridge 60 seconds into the St. Regis float, having to accomplish a hairy self-rescue, while the rest of us scrambled for shore to save ourselves. Or of the brilliant day on the upper Sun, with the rampart of mountains breaking over us like a huge, rock wave, and the river stepping down through the layers of sediment in that remarkable canyon. Or of that stellar camp along the upper Blackfoot, shaded by ponderosa pine and full of friends putting together a ‘stone soup’ dinner potluck.

And it’s only been three years. By the time I get a month free, I will have done all of them. But then, I could use the month to revisit the top 30. Yeah, tradition.

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Gauging Season!

This time of year, I check the USGS streamflow gauges every day. Actually, I peek at them all year long, mostly out of slightly compulsive habit and in search of the occasional surprise (like last year’s November bonus of floating the Smith River). But starting in March, even February, I look at Montana rivers almost daily. I also check Idaho, Utah, and a few other states where seasonal floats are always on the radar. I check the Rio Grande in Texas probably monthly. You never know.

How did we manage before real-time streamflow gauges? Word of mouth, notes in journals. Serendipity, faith. Much the way we used to assess avalanche danger before snowtel sites and avalanche reports. “I don’t hear anything whumping, do you? Let’s go!”

This year’s gauge-watch period began with the Dirty Devil, in Utah. Unfortunately, that gauge delivered FAKE NEWS and we were sandbagged by low water in early March, but managed a stellar trip nonetheless. Since then it’s been the Owyhee in Oregon, which has had a bumper spring this year, and which we floated with Sawyer and Bella and a group of Boise friends in early May. It was my third time down the stretch from Rome to Birch Cr., and it stands as one of my top ten floats in the west, maybe even top three. One day of slightly hypothermic conditions and steady rain, but otherwise really memorable.

Since then I’ve been concentrated on Montana rivers, which have had a really robust spring rise. We’ve gotten down all the stretches of the East Gallatin, from Bozeman to Manhattan over the course of a month, done the lower Madison, always a swooping spring charge full of cranes and eagles and heads-up braided channels. Managed to get in a blustery day on the Sun in April, a gauge-watch candidate if ever there was one! This past week we did another run (maybe our 10th time. . .) of Belt Cr., between Monarch and Sluice Boxes, which I think stands as arguably the best single day of floating in Montana – limestone canyons, constant read-and-run rapids, the odd log jam to avoid, no people, and the rollicking amusement park ride through the Sluice Boxes at the end. God what a great day, and we hit it with warm sunshine and terrific water levels.

Now we’re gearing up for the third annual 3 Rivers/3 Days trips over Memorial Day. Watching the gauges and assessing the best trio of floats has been an absolute moving target and a roller-coaster of river levels. We’ve finally settled on the West Fk. of the Bitterroot, the St. Regis, and Silver Bow Cr. – all new stretches for everyone, all seasonal floats – very much in keeping with my initial inspiration to spend a chunk of spring out in Montana doing little rivers and car camping in between.

Then there’s the Boulder, the Shields, the Yellowstone, the Dearborn, and all the rest that will bear watching, being ready, and when the gauge is right, heading out the door. All with a bow to that sweet, solar-powered, satellite-driven technology – maybe I’m not as much of a Luddite as I thought.

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Easter Sermon

Easter Sunday. Time to go to church. It is below freezing at dawn, clear and cold. 24 hours ago there was a couple inches of fresh snow on the ground. We wait for mid-morning warmth, and arrive at the bank of the East Gallatin, next to the golf course, and just upstream from Bozeman’s wastewater treatment plant, while temperatures inch into the 40s. Everything glistens green. The creek runs brown with snowmelt, coursing along at roughly 300 cfs, a pretty ideal level.

A sandhill crane, solitary, circles overhead, calling that unmistakable call, that characteristic quick uptake of wings. A benediction. Beans comes along, our three-legged company. He enjoys a comfortable foam bed just behind the bow seat. I’m in shorts and a flannel shirt, optimistic. MP wears long pants and a windshirt, realistic. Under the bridge, slinging around the first turn, the service begins. Immediately it is a sermon of rippling current, overhanging shrubs, goose call, chilly upriver breeze. Town is gone. Our lives there, on hold. Held in the immediacy of every bend and every new challenge charging toward us.

There’s a guy hiding eggs for a hunt along the bank. He stands up at the sight of us, startled. He waves. No one paddles here. I have never seen another boater, unless I was with them. I know it is occasionally done, but this upper stretch, full of unpredictability and seasonal change, is off the radar.

The strategy is pretty straightforward. Cling to the insides of bends, skirt the grasp of eddies and avoid being swung wide by the current into the inevitable overhanging shrubbery, log jams, old car carcasses, whatever may be on the far edge of channel where the current is strongest. Be ready to pull over and stop, savor the respite of quieter current, never assume.

The world is popping with spring. Pairs of red-tails circle above, geese sit on feather-lined nests, white pelicans rise in the sky until they are faint dazzling flakes in the blue depths. Deer bound away, mallard pairs rise out of the flow, a kingfisher calls from an overhanging branch. The trees are ready to burst forth. The grass is impossibly green, shiny with water. The river muscles us along, turning, channeling, pushing against banks, piling over obstacles. We get our dance going, this beat we have found together, barely talking.

Because I have done this river so many times, I have come to expect obstacles at certain spots. I know where the diversion structure is, one-third of the way along, with its tongue of water to dive down. In the mental map I keep, I catalog the downed trees, the problematic corners, the braided sections prone to new log jams. There are surprises, always.

This time, at the diversion structure the usual right-of-center tongue has new rocks in it. We bump over and see the new channel, just left-of-center. Good to know for next time. We go more than halfway without once having to get out of the boat and pull around anything. I start thinking that we might get lucky, that this might be one of those rare clean runs where the river has opened all the old jams, or is high enough to sneak past the blockages that would stop us at lower flows.

God it is beautiful – the spring-high ripple of heady current, the sharp breeze, the blue sky, the snowclad mountains, the birds rising everywhere, full of their urgency. Easter is the most stubbornly pagan of all the holidays Christianity has co-opted. Sure, we could go to some church, sit in hard wooden pews in darkened rows, be brow-beaten with our sins. Or be here. Which sounds more joyous?

We hurry past a horse paddock where a guy is bent over, picking rock. He sees us, gives us that, would-you-look-at-that look, guffaws when I ask him if this is the way to St. Louis. I can tell he wants nothing more, just then, to be doing what we are doing. He recedes, waving, upstream and we slip around the next bend.

Just when I think we might get away with an unmarred run, we hear a watery roar downstream, and see a seamless break in the river horizon. A beaver dam complex blocks the entire channel. Some overflow sluices off, river right. Maybe there, Marypat points with her paddle, and we push into some willows, hoping to get down a bypass, but get stopped. MP stands, looks around. There’s a better channel just downstream, she says, craning to find the opening. We back out, inch down toward the brink, find a sliver of river breaking right, head into it. It takes us, a serpentine, fast ride over a couple of minor dams, around a corner, back into the current. That was fun! Marypat crows.

And there is more ‘fun’ to come in this Sunday service. A tree we have to pull around on a sharp corner. Channels strewn with logs, narrow slots to line up, uncertain channels to probe. Then, on a sharp right, the worst sort of downfall – a full cottonwood sprawls across the river where the current is fast, with no eddy, and we have no choice but to spin upstream, angle hard into shore, where Marypat makes an awkward leap for land, grabbing the boat, nearly capsizing us. While I bail, MP nurses a bruised thigh. Beans hobbles out over the gunwale. We scout a route around, drag the boat below the deadfall, peer downstream for the next problem.

It is heads-up, challenging, nerve-wracking the rest of the way. Channels to choose on the fly, logs to miss, overhanging debris to avoid. We watch for the treachery of fences, which can crop up unexpectedly. There are a final set of turns, more dancing through tight channels, and just upstream of the take-out, a log stretching 2/3s across the river.

For this day, in the hot focus of river channel, the moments of bliss and danger, the teamwork, the explosion of season, this church, whatever else burdens us is chased off. We hug each other next to the car, swing the heavy, faithful canoe onto the rooftop, strap it down, load Beans up, and look downstream into the next stretch of beautiful, fraught, unappreciated wild. Next week’s sermon?

Amen.

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Ambushed

Every so often I get a nudge from the universe, a bump of ripple effect that is so unexpected, so startling, so overwhelming that I don’t know what to do with it except to hold it as tight as I would a life-saving talisman. You see, you throw these nets of words into the vortex of human civilization, that chaotic mass of stuff, that truly immense whirlpool jostling with both the profound and the mundane, and for the most part you never hear anything back. There it goes, swallowed in the maelstrom, frail and insubstantial as a dream or a spider’s web. That’s that, I think, and move on.

Then one day in May, at a permitted river launch along the Green River in Utah, a river ranger approaches. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he says, smiling. I assume I’ve broached some bureaucratic rule on my permit, but instead, he goes on. “Your book changed my life,” he tells me. “I’ve been waiting a long time to shake your hand. I was so inspired by your first book, the one about paddling across Canada, that I ended a terrible marriage, quit a job I hated, and left a city I despised. I’ve been a happy river ranger ever since, and I was hoping I’d get to meet you one day. About time your name came up on a permit!”

Or once when the phone rang. It was an airline pilot calling from the local airport. He was reading one of my books, realized I lived in a town he regularly flew to. He looked me up in the phone book and called to say how much he enjoyed the story. Or the character in one of my books whose name and life details I purposely changed to avoid any conflict, only to have him figure it out, call me up, and order a dozen signed copies for his family. That kind of thing. Doesn’t happen all the time. But then, out of nowhere, I’ll be ambushed.

Some time back I got a long letter from a stranger. He wrote me after the tragic, too-early death of his brother. “My brother read everything you wrote,” he told me. “He talked about your books. After he died, I was cleaning out his garage and came across one of your earlier books. I’ve read it now, and it makes me feel like I know my brother in a new and deeper way. And, oddly, that I know you, too.”

These are not things for my resume. And yet, what Pulitzer could compare?

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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 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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