A Little Urban Combat Boating

When we moved to Butte, one of my goals was to paddle Silver Bow Creek, the little stream that runs right through town and that has handled more than its share of the mining legacy Butte is so famous for. I had paddled a lower stretch a few years back, but among our first friends in town was Joe Griffin and his partner Sherry Vogel. Joe is a retired hydrologist with deep knowledge of the Superfund issues in town, especially those involving waterways. Months ago I mentioned to Joe that I hoped to paddle Silver Bow, and he was enthusiastically on board.

“I want to start right in town,” he said.

And so, a week or two back, we did just that. We actually began on Blacktail Creek just above the confluence with Silver Bow, and a stone’s throw away from the visitor center off of Montana St. The paddle began by ducking through a large culvert. Then Silver Bow came in from the right, and off we went. Just past the Montana St. bridge, we navigated “Slag Canyon” a narrow channel carved through mine waste. From there the ‘restored’ creek snaked through a tight alley bound by willows. Machetes would have been helpful, and there were some significant body blows as we crashed through the overhanging shrubbery.

Descending 'Slag Canyon'

Descending ‘Slag Canyon’

Mind you, we’re talking a whopping 25-30 cfs ripping along through the streambed here. Still, surprisingly challenging as we fought through the shrubbery, rammed over beaver dams, found narrow slots through barriers. Joe knows every stream monitoring site and is an encyclopedic authority on the minutia of restoration, down to whose post and gauge is on every river bend, and what vegetation got planted where and in what year. He was a constant tour guide, pointing out wastewater ponds, settling ponds, fortified banks, monitoring wells, and rattling off historical tidbits and geological nuggets.

Beaver are clearly relishing the restored creek full of willows.

Beaver are clearly relishing the restored creek full of willows.

Part way along we stopped for lunch near the paved walkway that is one of the side benefits of Superfund money. Locals walked by, all of whom Joe and Sherry knew by name. They were polite, but who knows what they thought of our paddling jaunt.

“I’m guessing this stretch doesn’t get many boaters,” I said, at one point.

“We may be the first!” said Joe, with relish.

Several hours and seven and a half winding miles later, we hauled the boats out just past a railroad trestle. One bend upstream, someone’s trampoline had blown into the creek and nearly dammed the flow.

“Checked that box,” I said, as we loaded the car.

“Let me know when you want to do the rest,” said Joe.

Stay tuned.

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Watershed: A Paddler’s Retirement Plan in the Year of the Plague

Chapter 3: JULY – MORE SALMON

Wimberg photo

Wimberg photo

The Salmon River and my family go back decades. Before Ruby was in school we started taking yearly trips down the lower section of the river, from Hammer Bar near White Bird, Idaho to Heller Bar, on the Snake. The same Heller Bar that was our June take-out on the Grande Ronde. A group of families were in on it, and on a given July or August, the crew ranged from 15 to 25 people. The kids were more or less the same age and from the get go, the trip had everything kids love. It has big sand beaches. It has rollicking rapids. It has cliffs to jump from into deep pools. It has rapids to swim through. The weather was warm and dry, sometimes too warm. The food, catered through combined parental efforts, was plentiful and tasty. The chores and duties and discomforts were minimal. Everything about it clicked. Parents liked it too, despite the work of putting it together, getting there, managing the herd of short people. We liked it for the same reasons the kids did, even if putting the shindig on bordered on the heroic.

Various traditions and legendary stories came of those trips. Picking blackberries oblivious to thickets of poison ivy, or finding a grove of apricot trees heavy with ripe fruit in one of the camps. The dead tree sticking out over the river, twenty feet up, lodged there in some monstrous flood year, that we took turns walking the plank on and leaping into the deep water below. The kids spreading a tarp under the stars every night for slumber parties. The growing competence of the younger set as paddlers, to the point that some became world class kayakers, and all of them grew almost flippant about their abilities in the familiar, yet still daunting, water. The abandoned yellow raft we came upon one year, stuck fast at the top of Snow Hole Rapid, a Class IV maelstrom of water. The time we camped at the confluence with the Snake, and the dam release upriver washed a bunch of our gear downstream. The summer of wild fires when we went around camp with bandanas pulled over our faces and the air was snowing gray flakes of ash. The lunch stop that was so hot one of the inflatable ‘duckies’ exploded.

Wimberg photo

Wimberg photo

And then there’s the tradition of full contact keep-away that we played on certain shallows along the river. In knee-deep water, using beanie baby toys as balls, it was always kids against adults in lengthy, free-for-all bouts that sometimes resulted in injuries, but were always no-holds-barred fun. For years, of course, the parents had the better of it. We could outrun, out maneuver, out wrestle all of them. We also understood that our time would come, which it inevitably did. The kids grew up and became athletes while we kept getting older and slower. Soon enough they could out run, out maneuver and out wrestle us. After a few years of that, which we understood was our due, the enthusiasm strangely withered.

Wimberg photo

Wimberg photo

One year I included my parents, then in their early 80s, along. It was the summer I had surgery to address a cancerous tumor in my left eye. The day we launched the raft that my parents would be passengers in, and that I’d be responsible for rowing safely down the river, I lost sight in that eye. I managed. It was an adventure in depth perception, as in, ‘Wow, I had no idea that hole was that big!’. I’d done the river enough that I pulled it off. For them, it was a trip for the ages, and it included one of the final spirited keep-away matches, which they watched with incredulous awe from under the shade of an umbrella stand. Two weeks after they returned home, my dad fell over on a walk, had to get a life flight to the hospital in Casper, Wyoming and ended up with a pace maker. Who says timing isn’t everything?

When it comes to family-friendly river adventures, the lower Salmon has it all. And it is reliably accessible because you don’t need a permit, yet. Show up, pay for a vehicle shuttle, and go. Most of the rest of the watercourse, equally magnificent and adventurous, requires a permit that you apply for in a very competitive lottery process. Every year, while we kept doing the lower river, probably fifteen of us would apply for permits on the Main Salmon and the Middle Fork. We almost never succeeded. Year after year we were skunked. Every so often, though, maybe once every six years, one of us would get lucky and pull a permit for another section. When that happened, everyone glommed on. Winning that lottery was rare enough that people would go to herculean lengths to make it happen – reschedule vacations, miss weddings, finagle work. You get an invitation from the lucky winner, you go.

Wimberg photo - short people earning their whitewater chops

Wimberg photo – short people earning their whitewater chops

Even now, when the kids are grown and running their own trips on the lower Salmon, when somebody in the clan pulls a permit and you get invited, you tend to fall prey to that same urgency to join. When Martin and Billie pulled a Main permit in July, and invited us along, we didn’t really hesitate. We didn’t ask who was going or how long we’d be or how the logistics would go. We just said yes, and then inquired about the dates.

Wimberg photo - Eli prepares to walk the plank

Wimberg photo – Eli prepares to walk the plank

As these trips go, the group is pretty manageable – just 10 of us. Two rafts and four inflatable canoes. It isn’t the first rodeo for anyone, and most of us have been on numerous trips together, including this stretch of river. But every group comes together with its unique chemistry and challenges. Scott and Randy are soloing their inflatable canoes for the first time ever on big water. They are a little nervous, talk a fair amount about strategy and agree that if things don’t go well, they can always roll up one of the boats and team up. Martin, as the permit holder, is feeling responsible and a little uptight about all the camping and river decisions. He roams around the campsites at the Corn Creek launch talking to people about cooler size, room for gear in the two rafts, camps we should lobby for, strategy for departure time. Everyone, including us, is a little preoccupied and distracted by the whole business.

There are aspects of these bureaucratically managed, popular rivers that I find crazy making. I get the need to manage the onslaught, to assign camps, to make sure everyone is prepared and aware and blah, blah, blah. Still.

In the morning, we join the shit show at the ramp, along with several other launching parties with their dogs and rigs and pirate flags flying, everyone jockeying for spots, competing for the best camps, jovial and friendly, but with that competitive edge. Then we troop up to the ranger station and get the briefing, do the paperwork, check the boxes, settle up our fees. How to have fires, how to brush teeth, how to poop, what to do with garbage, whether to worry about snakes or bears, how to treat petroglyphs and artifacts, and all the rest of the minutia and protocol. Kind of drives me nuts. Part of me wants to boycott all the regulated rivers like the Salmon and the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, despite their beauty and compelling adventure, and instead, make do with maybe less stunning water without all the hoopla and regulation. Sometimes the hype is so over the top that it takes the shine off.

It is nearly mid-day by the time we push off and feel the first tug of current under the hulls. The tension dissipates a notch, just to see the ramp disappear around the bend, to anticipate the first rapids, to lose sight of cars and other raft parties and break through to that other dimension dominated by current and canyon, bird and bighorn, weather and rapid, shade and sun. The first day is just 10 miles, and it goes by quickly, with only a few minor rapids, spots of cloud and sun, maybe some building potential for rain.

So. When Marypat asked me what I was going to do about my drinking, I honestly didn’t know, except to acknowledge the need to do something. As it happened, I stopped that day, on our way back from the family reunion. I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to. Honestly, when would be a better time? As I had previously, when I made the decision to quit, I went cold turkey. No weaning myself a bit at a time, no going to AA meetings, no sneaking around or rationalizations. Just stop. And I didn’t talk about it. Not a matter of dignity or anything. I just didn’t want to discuss it or get into any backstory. And, if it didn’t stick, I didn’t want to raise expectations by making it a big deal.

My strategy, when offered a beer, was to say, “I’m taking a break from alcohol.” Leave it at that. People understand. I mean, who doesn’t need to take a break from alcohol from time to time? It doesn’t mean I’ll never drink again, although that may well be the outcome. It isn’t some noble campaign. It doesn’t cast aspersions on them for their drinking habits. Just taking a break. People get it.

It’s what I say to Scott the first night on the Main Salmon when he offers me a cold beer out of the cooler. I’ve known Scott for a long time. Long enough that he’s well aware of my issues with drinking. The truth is that everyone knows, despite the fact that I carried on as if nothing was wrong and I had everything well in hand, everyone who knew me well also knew that alcohol was a struggle for me. So Scott just nods and closes the cooler while I go grab one of my cold, sweaty, ersatz beers from mine. No biggie, yet it feels like a hurdle to get over.

The Salmon is a magnificent watershed. It starts in the Idaho high country near Galena Pass, gathers itself into a significant river by the time it passes Stanley, Idaho, where people start to put boats on it. From there all the way down to the Snake, the river lopes through dark canyons, drops through frothing whitewater, offers blue-ribbon fishing, carves its way down past Challis and Salmon and turns west into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, one of the most impenetrable wild blocks of country in North America and the main reason the driving shuttle is so god-awful long! Small price to pay.

The Yellowstone River in Montana is lauded as the longest free-flowing, undammed river in the Lower 48, despite the fact that it includes a half dozen diversion structures along the way that could be mistaken for dams, even if they don’t fully stop the flow. The Salmon is nearly as long and doesn’t have that asterisk on its undammed qualifications. Along the way, several of the major forks, like the Middle Fork and the South Fork, are substantial, magnificent rivers to run in their own right. The Middle Fork may be the single most prized whitewater trip in the west, and the permit competition to get on it is fierce.

Top to bottom, the Salmon is full of heart-stopping rapids, hot springs, lovely beaches, sweet groves of shade trees, and mile after mile of green, fast, heady current that gives boaters a ride for their money.

One of the topics of conversation in our first camp centers on the possibility of doing an end-to-end Salmon trip, either from Stanley all the way down, or from the put-in on the Middle Fork down to the Snake. It would take almost a month to pull off, and some fancy scheduling to line up permits, but it would be a helluva trip. The main permit season ends in early September, and our thought is to go right after that and spend September on the Salmon. Has a certain ring to it. People could do the whole thing or join up for a chunk. Now that many of us are either in or approaching retirement, why not?

Conversation is interrupted by a rain squall and the scramble to set up a tarp. Dinner is interrupted by a short but intense hail storm. After dinner it gets chilly and everyone heads for the tents and books. Officially on the trip.

From his tent, Randy announces the time of sunrise, to the minute. He has an app for that. And he has the excuse of being a professional cameraman for whom sunlight matters a great deal. Still, it takes all the fun out of guessing.

“Criminy,” I call back, “what isn’t there an app for?”

The overhanging preoccupation on the Salmon, whatever section you do, is whitewater. It isn’t all white knuckle, world-class stuff, but it is pushy enough to merit attention and just when that attention wanders, or you don’t take a drop seriously, bad things will happen. We’ve all experienced that lapse, and the spank of consequence. No one wants to swim.

On Day 2 the big event is Black Creek Rapid, a ‘new’ bit of whitewater that cropped up after a side creek flooded and reconfigured the river in 2011. Black Creek is preceded by Salmon Falls, which used to be a notable drop worth scouting. I remember that rapid, and the importance of hitting the ‘tongue’ of smooth water just right. If you did, it was a fun, rollicking ride. If not, well, then it was survival. Salmon Falls, however, has disappeared. A testament to the dynamic life of a river, the same flood that created Black Creek completely blew out Salmon Falls. This day it is barely a ripple in the current. A bit downstream, however, all that flood-borne debris, and the stuff that used to make up Salmon Falls, came to rest in a massive jam that first dammed up the river entirely, and eventually created the brand new whitewater challenge. As we approach, the river horizon drops away.

Even the scout is daunting. Lifejackets are called for, because the scramble to have a look crosses steep, slick rock faces and if you slide into the river on the way, you will be swimming the rapid. Three rafts have pulled in ahead of us. As we approach the best vantage to scout from, the raft crew is coming back to their boats.

“We’re running left,” the leader announces, “but with those little boats of yours, you might want to go right.”

The only other time I’ve run this drop I ran left. It was years ago, at a different water level. I remember it as being a solid drop, but very doable. Looking at it today, the run is chaotic with choppy, conflicted waves and big hydraulics.

“Left, you say?” questions Scott, looking it over. “Doesn’t look so great to me.”

“Yeah,” I say. “This is much different than I remember.”

On the far right a big tongue of river leads into a whopping wave train. Looks like a wild ride, but a straightforward one. Scott and Randy are particularly nervous. This is their first real test in solo mode.

As we contemplate and discuss, the first raft with the leader at the oars pulls into the river. We watch. He heads for the left side, pulls away from a rock, drops over the edge. The next second he is tossed like a rag doll out of the raft. His passenger stays aboard and scrambles to grab the oars while the captain washes downstream. The next raft is right behind and the same thing happens. Over the brink, the oarsman tossed unceremoniously into the drink. Then the third. This time the man on the oars is well aware it’s going to be a rough ride and braces for the assault. He gets thrashed around, his body whiplashing back and forth, but just manages to stay on board.

“I’m thinking we should go right,” we all chorus, and start back to the boats.

One after another we pull away, into the current, line our boats up above the broad, fast tongue of water and the waves below. One after another we gather speed, keep our boats straight, paddle hard over the crests, get thoroughly doused wave after wave. Only remember to whoop once we’re through, because the rest of the time we were holding our breath.

Randy watches the raft come through the Black Creek wave train.

Randy watches the raft come through the Black Creek wave train.

On we go, past the bedraggled trio of rafts who have collected themselves in a small eddy across the flow, but are a pretty quiet bunch. That’s the humbling power of this river. Just when you get cocky, it slaps you down.

Day 3 is an even bigger whitewater stretch. Marypat and I have a tradition of switching bow and stern positions each day. It’s a habit we established years ago, and it changes things up, gives you perspective, helps you appreciate the challenges and viewpoint of each position in the boat. It’s Marypat’s day in the stern and there is a steady parade of big rapids like Bailey’s and Split Rock and Big Mallard coming up.

Teamwork in a boat is a tricky, elusive matter, and it keeps evolving. It’s not like you achieve a level of competence and then stay there. Like all the other aspects of a relationship, things keep shifting.

The summer we first met we went on a month-long expedition in northern Manitoba, down the Seal River and along Hudson Bay. Marypat had essentially never paddled before. I was the experienced one, the teacher. Luckily Marypat was a quick learner. A couple of days in the stern, with me monotonously calling out the correction stroke she needed to keep the boat straight, and a few days in the bow with me pointing her at obstacles and forcing her to react was enough. She had all the other backcountry qualities in spades and took to paddling the way she took to most sports all her life. If anything, early on, she was naively cocky about whitewater. These days she’s more nervous than cocky when we come to a rapid.

Over the decades since that first northern summer we have paddled boats together over thousands of miles, across continents, down lakes and rivers, past portages and falls, from the Far North to Mexico. We often go hours without a word, paddling in synch, reacting to each other’s body language, making the boat go as unconsciously as walking a trail. For most of that time, we’ve prided ourselves on not capsizing. We didn’t go over in a canoe for decades. Of course, that distinction inevitably came to an end, but we have been a team in a boat as much as we have been partners in life. Being in a boat together is as good a test of a relationship’s worth as anything. Maybe we could halve the divorce rate in this country if we had couples hitch up in a canoe for a week before they took the leap.

Even so, there have been rough patches for us, days when we aren’t in synch, when words are indeed spoken, and at some volume. Rapids that, if they had been a dance, we would have been stepping all over each other. One person decides on a route while the other horses the canoe towards their preference, with consequences, for example. Failures of communication. There are days on the water when that line between love and loathing becomes thin indeed.

Marypat, for example, tends to think I let up paddling too soon at the end of a rapid. Sometimes she’s right, and we get surprised by an upwelling or boil, but it seems to me that she’s made the point enough and that it isn’t strictly necessary to say “Keep paddling!” every single time we finish a bit of whitewater. On my part, I tend to think Marypat doesn’t value or employ a stout brace in the stern when we rollick our way through a wave train. Like that.

So there is always that tension about what sort of day it’s going to be on the river when rapids are coming up. Will it be a triumphant display of flawless teamwork or a humiliating descent into mediocrity and bad choices? Usually it’s a mixed bag, some stellar runs and a few flawed moments to keep egos in check.

The Salmon is a classic, pool-and-drop river. Big rapids separated by calm stretches of current. In other words, time to regroup and recover and relish between bouts of excitement. After a brief rain shower at dawn that gets everyone up and scurrying to gather gear, we are on the river early and stop to scout the first rapid just downstream.

“Let’s keep talking,” Marypat stresses like a coach in the locker room at halftime. “Let me know what you’re doing and I’ll do the same.”

We stand by the river, talk through the run, listen to everyone else strategize, pick out our markers to read off of. Then we clamber back to the boats over boulders, kneel, tighten up thigh straps, settle in. One last meaningful look between us and we peel out into the current and let it play out, sometimes just as planned, sometimes making it up as we go.

That’s how this day goes. The buildup of a rapid. The discussion. The heat of watery action. The calm after. And the debrief.

At Big Mallard, Scott and Randy, by now feeling pretty comfortable in solo mode, decide to try a new run on river right. It looks doable if they make the right moves. Scott goes down first, gets momentarily caught in a watery hole that almost takes him over, but manages to pull out of it. Randy goes in to the same hole more sideways than he should and his boat goes over in a flash. The rest of us stay on river left and navigate a narrow chute between a rock and a massive pour over. It feels skinny as hell, but we pop through unscathed and head down to help Randy collect himself.

For Marypat and me the day goes well. We make our runs pretty much the way we plan. We talk to each other. I keep paddling at the end. Marypat braces in the waves. We stay upright and bump lifevest chests in triumph when we get to camp.

 

The days start to meld, as they should. Rapids and weather and camps and a gathering comfort with each other’s company. We decide that the trip bird is the Lewis’ woodpecker, which undulates across the river multiple times a day, or scrabbles up the sides of dead snags, stopping to hammer away for insects. That or the canyon wren that serenades at dawn and dusk.

It gets hot.

“The sun is always welcome when it arrives in the morning, and nice to see go every evening,” I remark.

Some nights we sleep out under the stars. Marypat and I are trying out a double sleeping bag with the name, Dream Island. Scott asks us each morning how our night on Dream Island went. Dreamy, I say. Most afternoons we arrive in camp well before the sun goes down – and we know the precise moment it will drop over the horizon, thanks to Randy’s app. For hours we dip in the river, hang out in the shade, sip cold drinks, read and chat. It is a veteran crew. Camp chores get done without fuss. Dinner prep and clean up is rotated around. By the third or fourth day, the rhythm settles in. I love that sense of having forgotten about the trip launch and not yet considering the take-out. Unfortunately, I know we’re more than halfway, and that we’ll be collecting into cars again before I’m ready. I warm to the idea of that September on the Salmon fantasy trip. You could get used to this, week after week.

Wimberg photo - waiting for the shade to cross the river.

Wimberg photo – waiting for the shade to cross the river.

Even on this wild section of the Salmon, there are a few isolated human residents, and the history those who came earlier. We pull in at Yellow Bar Ranch, below Big Mallard Rapid, and walk up a long sloping trail to the house. It is set in a lush green lawn, irrigated with river water, with islands of trees and garden plots. Greg and Sue Metz care-take the place and give us a tour. They have lived along the Salmon, care-taking several places, for more than 30 years. They hadn’t been out since October, some 9 months, but it’s not as if they don’t see people.

“There are busy days when we probably give the tour to 100 people,” Sue says, more cheerfully than you’d expect. She takes us around as if we’re the first, open to questions, sharing their space, pointing out ripening vegetables and the wood-fired hot tub.

“There are eight full-time residents along the river corridor,” Sue tells us. “We get our mail by airplane, or sometimes by jetboat. And our biggest fear is fire.”

Greg keeps himself busy with a hobby/business of knife-making, using a foot-operated metal hammer and primitive forge. He takes us through his shop and shows off his wares. Their lives are simple, even backwards by mainstream standards, but it’s hard to find them lacking in life’s riches. No they don’t have a Costco nearby, or a movie theater, or traffic, noise, pollution, job hassles, advertising distraction and the rest of it.

Do they sometimes feel isolated, a little lonely? Probably. Are they a little exposed when it comes to rescue from calamity? Yeah. Would they trade? Emphatically not. Walking around their place, glimpsing their routine, appreciating the landscape, imagining the space and quiet and mental clarity that would come from their lifestyle, putting myself in their shoes, I wouldn’t either.

Not everyone is cut out for the isolation and self-reliance a life in the depths of the Salmon River wilderness imposes. But a few notable people have thrived on that existence.

The next morning we drift in to Five-Mile Bar to check out the spot occupied for half a century by ‘Buckskin Bill’. The homestead is now a combination museum, store and tourist stop. Born Sylvan Ambrose Hart in 1906 in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, Buckskin Bill earned a reputation as one of the last true mountain men. College educated, with a work background in the oil fields of Oklahoma, Hart left that life behind when he bought 50 acres of land at Five-Mile Bar for $1. He lived there for more than half a century, until he died in 1980.

Buckskin Bill was a colorful character who dressed in homemade clothes, sported an untamed bush of a beard, constructed stone buildings by hand, and made many of his own tools, armor and weapons. He hunted and fished and grew vegetables to sustain himself, sprinkled in stints of trail-maintenance work for the Forest Service along this stretch of the Salmon, and ended up with a fortified homestead featuring a 2-story house, a blacksmith forge, a turret reminiscent of the Crusades, and an underground bomb shelter.

Hart can be forgiven a measure of paranoia. He watched while wilderness designation of the Frank Church Wilderness and Wild and Scenic status granted to the Salmon River threatened his right to live on the land. He was ready to go to battle defending that right. After his death, Hart was memorialized in nearby Grangeville, Idaho and is buried on his unique piece of wild country.

Bumping downstream after a warm night sleeping out on a sand beach, we pull in at the inaccessible Bemis homestead, a site on the National Historic Register. Polly Bemis is the star character. Born in China in the mid-19th Century, enduring the tradition of bound feet, and sold off by her father for a few bags of seed at the age of 18 during a drought, Bemis’ story is shrouded in mystery, but even the bare bones of her life are incredible.

As a young woman, the diminutive Bemis was smuggled into the US where she was sold as a slave for $2,500 to a wealthy Chinese man. She landed in Idaho where she worked at the saloon run by her owner. How she gained her freedom is the subject of speculation, but whether she was won in a card game or granted freedom by her owner, she eventually teamed up with Charlie Bemis who protected her from further peril. Polly and Charlie later married and they staked a mining claim up the Salmon River where they lived together.

Polly was known for her sense of humor, her love of children, and her skill as an angler. She spent years fighting for her American citizenship, finally granted in 1896. At the homestead they survived a fire in 1922 that burned their home to the ground. Polly is credited with pulling Charlie’s body out of the fire and saving his life. With the help of neighboring ranchers, Bemis slowly rebuilt on the same site. Charlie died later in 1922, but Polly lived on the homestead for another decade before she died in 1933.

Today the grounds are spacious and well-cared for, with sprinklers irrigating green lawns, flourishing gardens and shaded buildings. Polly is buried here along the peaceful river where she lived out her otherwise fraught, hardscrabble existence.

Before dawn on our final day, we cluster around the camp table and warm our hands with mugs of coffee. It isn’t rushed, but we have the boats packed and shove off by 8 am. It is a schizophrenic day, half on the river navigating several notable rapids, and half on the road, driving the long slog back home. Given the whitewater challenges highlighting the morning, it isn’t worth getting ahead of ourselves. One rapid at a time.

I tick them off. The first, Dried Meat, is a Class III drop with a clear tongue of water at this level. We run it clean without stopping to scout. Chittham Rapid is more complex. We bunch in along shore well above and stumble down the rocky bank to have a better look. After the obligatory discussion, we hang right through the conflicted waves and bigger holes into the eddy below. Scott gets a surprise slap by a side wave at the end of his run, doesn’t brace in time, and goes over. He comes up with that universal expression of shock and chagrin.

“Where did that come from?” He dog-paddles in and regroups. No one laughs, at least not right away.

Finally, Vinegar, another Class III with daunting potential for pushy waves. I remember a run here in the boat with Sawyer where we got shoved sideways by a diagonal wave and Sawyer saved us from capsizing with a well timed draw. We stop, have a look, discuss and point and huddle up with partners. All of us sneak the right bank, staying clear of the impressive waves mid-river. No problem.

The final miles are a lazy float to the boat ramp with a few drops to keep us cool and alert. Then the mad scene on the concrete skirt angling up from the river with other parties coming and going, rigs backing down to the water, people finding keys, washing boats, wrapping things up, reorganizing, donning travel clothes, reclaiming wallets from the bottoms of clothes duffels. The mandatory final group photos, the promises of future trips, the gritty hugs.

Before we break for vehicles and air conditioning and the marathon drive home, I say, “Don’t forget, next September on the Salmon!”

Wimberg photo

Wimberg photo

 

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Watershed: A Paddler’s Retirement Plan in the Year of the Plague

CHAPTER 2 – JUNE: REUNION

Dan White photo. The Grande Ronde crew

Dan White photo. The Grande Ronde crew

There are families who schedule annual get-togethers where everyone routinely shows up and has a rip-roaring time brimming with good food, plenty of libation, spirited games and catching up. Mine is not such a family. We go decades between what you’d call a reunion with anything like a quorum. We’re lucky if we can collect a few cousins together who happen to be in the same part of the country. I remember maybe three times in the past 50 years when we’ve gathered a representative portion of my extended family in one spot for a weekend. It’s not that family feuds keep us at arms length, or problematic relatives. Nothing more than logistics, distance, competing agendas – life.

So, when a June reunion was put together in Pt. Townsend, Washington and most everyone signed up, some coming from across the continent, it felt mandatory. There had been an attempt made the previous year, which fell apart under the weight of conflicting details. Next year, we all said. Now it’s next year and we’re going.

It turns out that there are a handful of inspiring rivers between Bozeman, Montana and Pt. Townsend, Washington. River trips on the way somewhere are a common target in my life. Maybe we should pick one off . . .

I suggest the Grande Ronde River, in northeastern Oregon, which flows out of the Blue Mountains not far from the town of La Grande, and on into the Snake River about 200 miles later near Heller Bar. I’d floated it before with the ‘Boy’s Trips’, but never in June, and never with Marypat. She had wanted to experience the river ever since she’d heard of it, and ever since I’d done it. Marypat’s propensity to fall prey to FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), that longing to do things she hears about others doing without her, is legendary. Besides, who can resist a river with such an evocative, big-hearted name? Grande Ronde – sounds vast, sounds exotic, sounds French . . . never mind that it translates to Big Circle. By the time I got the translation, I’d already been hooked.

These journeys, and the details surrounding them, have a way of evolving, taking on a life. We mentioned the trip to our friends, Jeff and Molly, when we did some mid-winter paddling in Arizona together. They had tried to do the Grande Ronde more than thirty years earlier, but had gotten to the put-in during a raging flood and decided to back off. For them it was unfinished business, and after consulting their calendar, they were in. As the date approached, and I was considering travel details, I thought of my friend, Dan, who lives in La Grande, quite conveniently near to the put-in. Maybe we could stay with him, leave a car in his driveway, camp in his yard . . . come to think of it, maybe he’d want to join us.

Dan was fine with us using his place as a landing spot, and he wanted to check with his partner, Susan, about joining us. He’d taken her on an earlier raft trip on another river, a trip that featured hypothermic weather and less-than-ideal group dynamics, which had put her off river trips in general. Perhaps this would be a chance to reset her view. They talked. She agreed, with covenants. Dan was in, with an escape hatch if the weather looked like it would reproduce the conditions of his earlier misadventure. Fine. We could all be independent and flexible. In any case, we had a launch pad.

In mid-June we pull into Dan’s driveway after a long day on the highway. La Grande is a quiet, smallish town with a state university campus, the obligatory slate of brew pubs, coffee joints, yoga studios that make it attractive to people like us, but still sleepy enough to stroll down the middle of residential streets of an evening. Close to some rugged mountain ranges, surrounded by big swatches of ponderosa pine forested public land, seamed with interesting rivers, and blessed with a real estate market that hasn’t gone nuts: Slightly off the radar, but with amenities.

Marypat and I are looking at places like La Grande. Bozeman has gone crazy in the nearly 40 years we’ve lived there. While we were lucky enough to buy a home when people like us could pull it off, ever since it has been featured in every ‘Top 10 Towns’ magazine column. Traffic and parking has become an irritant, our part of downtown is full of cranes putting up buildings, trailhead parking lots are packed to overflowing, I no longer know anyone in line at the post office. To our way of looking at it, the quality of life everyone keeps extolling Bozeman for left town 15 years ago. In addition to attending a reunion, and pulling off a river trip, we are also prospecting for places to move if we decide Bozeman has gotten unlivable.

Jeff and Molly have beaten us here, and Dan has a crock-pot dinner on the go. We circle a backyard picnic table to enjoy food and a bottle of Dan’s homemade wine. Group chemistry begins to simmer in the summer air.

Like people, every river has its unique character, a personality. Unpredictable, even treacherous, like the East Gallatin every spring in my home town. Sedate and ponderous, headlong and dangerous, chuckling, thin, boisterous, spooky, entertaining, seductive, surprising, joyful, brooding. There are rivers I’ve felt like I had to survive, and others I’ve fallen in love with. The same river, one time, can feel like an enemy, the next it is my ally. Every trip is a reckoning that begins with an introduction, that opening turn into the fibers of current, like a first handshake, and then steeps over the miles into a relationship. Along the way, a few hours or weeks at a time, a constant communication between the sinews of current, the contours of boat hull, the dipping of my paddle and the information passed through hands, forearms, shoulders, torso. At the end I might say I know a river. Perhaps, in a limited sense, I do, but if I’m honest, what I really know better is myself . . . my tendencies, my bad habits, my strengths, the pitfalls that seduce me, the notes that resonate. If I pay attention I come home richer and wiser in more than a geographical sense.

The Grande Ronde is a river with multiple personality syndrome on full display. The put-in is actually on the Wallowa River, some ten miles above the confluence, where we set up the logistics of our vehicle shuttle arrangement with a local outfitter. It’s a busy spot, this time of year. My memory of May trips is of a deserted parking lot and quiet launch. In June it is crowded with parties renting rafts, jockeying vehicles, filling out forms, handing over credit cards. It is mid-day by the time we rig and tie up all the details. The Wallowa is the prelude to the main act, but not to be discounted. It chatters downhill from the mountainous high country it’s named for and by the time we join the flow, it has gathered into a respectable volume with some bouncy waves and consequential moments in rapids with names like Blind Falls and Minam Roller.

Where we pull in to stop for lunch, a few miles and rapids downstream, Dan is coping with the steep learning curve of rowing a raft for the first time in years, and muttering about readjusting his oars. We lounge on a dark bench of bedrock, let the sun warm us and the hectic morning fade. Other parties float past. Wild roses bloom along the bank. A bald eagle perches in a snag. I’d call the lower section of the Wallowa heads-up, more fun than pushy. What’s not to like?

Given the downhill cant of current, it only lasts an hour or two. Shortly after lunch our boats drift onto the larger volume of the Grande Ronde, and the introduction to river personality number two. At this point the river has already made its way more than 100 miles from the mountain source, tumbling from the high peaks, wandering through agricultural bottomlands. It was named by the French fur trappers who were early on the scene here, and later became a landmark along the Oregon Trail. It makes a slow curve out of the mountains before turning steadily north, which may account for its Big Circle designation.

Where we join the flow, with 80 miles to go, the current whisks us along at five-eight miles an hour, so we don’t have to paddle hard. This section of the river has been designated Wild and Scenic, a status that I see as both an honor and a curse. Honor because it is, indeed, a spectacular and worthy candidate for preservation and praise. Curse because the designation draws crowds, which clutter the flow with bright boats, the hubbub of humanity, and an edge of competition for nice campsites.

Even dawdling along, and despite our mid-day start, we’re making camp by four with nearly 20 miles behind us. Spacious ponderosa pine groves line the valley floor, sun dappled and warm, plenty of tent sites, with the massive valley sloping steeply away in a series of tiered volcanic steps that represent the repeated cycles of lava flows that spread over the Columbia plateau in recent geologic time. Higher up the trees give way to grasses and shrubs, layered against dark outcrops of basalt. I watch the slopes for elk, black bear, bighorn sheep. Camp is organized around patches of shade, our chairs set along the thick lines of ponderosa shadows.

We have known Jeff and Molly for 30 years, but for most of that time, we’ve operated in overlapping social circles without spending much direct time together. Over the years we’ve run into them at parties or events, chatted amiably, recognized each other as kindred spirits, but somehow never got over the threshold between acquaintanceship and friendship. As much as anything, we were busy raising kids, and tended to spend time with other families with kids, while they were involved in careers. Only lately have we started sharing trip time together.

They joined up on our Memorial Day Three Rivers tradition a couple of years earlier and cemented their place in the mix with competence and social compatibility. Trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and Middle Fork of the Flathead furthered our companionship. The winter before Jeff had suggested that we come down to the lower Colorado River and paddle the Black Canyon below Hoover Dam over spring break. Why not?

Jeff has been retired for several years already, and he and Molly have an intriguing lifestyle worked out. Molly is still committed to some of her work outlets, so feels more tied to Bozeman and her contacts there. She also likes to ski and enjoys Montana winters. Jeff feels less and less committed to winter sports and would rather spend time in warmer climes. They own a camper van outfitted with everything they need to live on the road, including a kayak strapped on top and a bicycle stowed inside. Much of every winter Jeff spends roaming around the southwest, joining up with friends and family for various recreational jaunts, visiting people, and exploring a span of country from west Texas to Washington. He has it down to a fine art. Ask him about a route and he can tell you which campgrounds to consider and which specific site to pick for the best view, which bike trails to ride and the best water to paddle.

He’ll return to Bozeman for holidays or to reunite with Molly, leaving the van in storage in Las Vegas or Phoenix, finding a cheap airline ticket. Or Molly will fly down to join him, as she did for our Black Canyon trip on the Colorado. The vagabond lifestyle, and the flexibility with which they accommodate each other’s needs, is inspiring. When Jeff pulls out his yearly appointment book, it is littered with trips shared with friends or family, visits to the people he values, and sprinkled with solo time. He and Molly are comfortable in their choices, their activity levels, the things they relish sharing as well as the solo endeavors that feed them. As a retirement model, you could do worse.

Jeff has also quit drinking for the time being. In an earlier conversation he explained how he came to his decision. It came to a head for him on a river trip he joined in the Grand Canyon. “People started drinking after breakfast,” he said. “And they drank most of the day. I was kind of doing it too. It was just part of the scene. But then I started noticing how stupid people were getting, how they acted, and realized that I was probably acting the same way. I didn’t like it, so I stopped. I don’t know if it’s a permanent thing, but I haven’t been drinking ever since.”

On several trips with Jeff since that conversation, I’ve made a point of bringing non-alcohol beer to share with him and go without drinking in solidarity. I can certainly use a break from the habit, and it feels good to pull out a sweaty, cold crappy ersatz beer and share an ironic ‘cocktail hour’ together. In this first warm camp, we set up our chairs, raise a toast, snack on some mixed nuts, watch the river course past, fast and murky.

Marypat and Molly share themes too. They have both dealt with debilitating auto-immune illnesses. They are both artists. Both of them are avid readers and members of long-standing book discussion groups. Their conversation is regularly punctuated by, “Yes, I LOVE that book!” As we’ve spent more time together, they have settled into an easy, trusting friendship.

Dan is also a long-standing acquaintance. He went to college in Idaho with several of our other friends, and has stayed in contact ever since. We’ve been along on quite a few trips with that crowd through the years. They share no end of stories featuring young, hairball escapades and inside jokes, nicknames, and a penchant for practical jokes. On one trip Dan got into a power squirt gun battle that lasted for days, even after the river trip was over. When Dan got married, years back, the roasting got a little out of hand. I don’t think that had anything to do with his eventual divorce, but it was brutal.

This is our first trip with Dan without the ribald college crew. It feels like a chance to know him free of that history, and the histrionics that tend to go with it. He is a talented woodworker who has his house tricked out with beautiful burled bedsteads, immaculate wood furniture, and nifty touches in every drawer handle and toilet paper dispenser. I made the mistake of setting my coffee cup on the wooden arm of one of his chairs at home and Dan almost leapt across the room with a coaster. “I’m a little bit of a wood Nazi,” he explained. He has an engineer’s appetite for addressing problems – from making a rollout bed in the back of his pickup truck to coming up with a cunning pulley system for hanging food in the backcountry. Couple that with an artist’s eye for design. He’s also a tad finicky about how he likes things done.

I watch Dan and Susan collaborate on setting up their spacious tent and multi-faceted camp kitchen. Susan is a little out of her element. Dan is determined to make this a comfortable and fun trip for her, complete with glass wine goblets and plenty of his prized home made reds.

“No wonder you needed the raft,” I joke, watching the set-up unfold.

“Only took me two weeks to figure out how it would fit,” he says.

The river keeps zooming us down the miles. The current is headlong, splashy, steady. The scenery canters past. We only paddle to avoid waves or obstacles, and still fly along at six or seven miles an hour. By the end of the second day, another camp in ponderosa pine, we’ve piled up enough miles to consider a rest day. I tend to resist staying put. You never know when a windstorm will come up or the weather turn sour. I like getting in at least a few miles. But Jeff suggests a layover, argues that we’ll be getting out of the Wild and Scenic stretch of water the next day, and into the lower reaches with more private land and less opportunity to explore. It doesn’t take much convincing. Marypat never turns down a chance for a hike and everyone is fine with a day’s pause.

Dan White photo. Chillin' at six miles an hour . . .

Dan White photo. Chillin’ at six miles an hour . . .

There is nothing like a rest day to nudge the transition into River Time. After a lazy morning in camp, three cups of coffee, letting the day come on, people gird up for a hike up the steep side of the valley, exploring a tributary. Molly and I stay put. Both of us are nursing foot ailments. Molly is wearing one of those Frankenstein-like surgical boots in camp to baby hers, and I have surgery scheduled to remove painful arthritic lumps on both feet at the end of the summer. Jeff is battling a lingering case of Planter Fascitis, which he calls ‘Planter Fascists’, but he is pushing through it.

After the crew disappears, the quiet descends. Both of us have books to read. The river courses by, occasional groups parade past in rafts and inflatable ‘duckies’. We sit close together but don’t talk much. Other than the books we dive into, there are no distractions save the odd bird flying past, a cloud covering the sun, the day turning slowly. Distraction is the new normal, ever since we crossed the divide from life without internet. Gone are the days spent sitting and reading a good book or lazy, uninterrupted conversations, or the hours of quiet between knocks on the door, the ringing of an old-fashioned telephone or the mail coming. It feels like luxury to lounge in the pool of doing nothing, to simply let time come and go, effortless as the current coursing by. Strange how it doesn’t feel the least bit boring. I think of animals who sit still much of the time, biding their time, staying safe, vigilant and at rest. I don’t know how vigilant I am, but the peace settles around us, hour after hour, and the life out there, manic with news and interruption, fades into another dimension.

More and more, popular river trips have become laden with restrictions and protocol. Firepans to reduce scarring of the ground. Hyper focus on bits of micro-trash. And the need to contain and carry out poop. It’s understandable and completely reasonable, given the alternative, especially when you see camps riddled with fire rings, adorned with flags of used toilet paper, and littered with garbage, but it can be a hassle. As it is the next morning when we confront the fact that the metal ‘ammo can’ container we’ve brought along to store our daily quota of bagged poop is not going to be big enough. Halfway through the trip and the box is brimful. Amazing what a group of six adults can put out in a couple of days. Heavier than you’d think, too.

This unfortunate reality hangs like a distant storm forecast while we continue down river. Half a dozen miles along, we come to the popular take-out boat ramp for people who only float the Wild and Scenic portion. Almost everyone gets off the river here. There is a large parking area and some outhouses. Molly pipes up.

“I have a pair of rubber gloves in my first aid stuff,” she announces. “What if I empty the poop bags and we can start fresh?”

“Really?” we chorus. “You’d do that?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Not a big deal.”

“If you say so.”

We pull in to shore, unpack the toxic box while Molly slips on gloves like a doc getting ready for a procedure. But no colonoscopy measures up to this level of hands-on heroism. Marypat goes with her and holds the door open. Molly fastens a bandana across her face, bandit-style, and goes in. Probably five minutes go by before Molly emerges, stripping off the gloves, removing the bandana and taking a deep breath. The rest of us break into spontaneous applause. She takes a bow. “Ready for more,” she says, holding open the empty container.

“Wow,” I say. “You deserve a nomination for river trip sainthood!”

“Funny,” she says, “I don’t get grossed out by that kind of thing.”

“You’re invited on every trip from now on,” I say, “as long as you remember the gloves.”

Right here the Grande Ronde morphs into personality number three. For one thing, we lose humanity. We don’t see another boat for the rest of the trip, some 50 miles. For another, the texture of ponderosa forest, shade and green, shifts to desert tones. Ponderosa only occur in rare pockets. Juniper scrub takes over, the land opens, becomes arid and austere.

Also, northern or Bullock’s oriole proliferate on the lower half of the river. Again and again they flash orange and black in the shrubby shoreline vegetation, brilliant jets of color in the warm air.

What doesn’t change is the cantering current. Steady and headlong it cruises over gravel bars, barrels around cliffy corners, full of noise and speed. Riding the ribbon of current feels like skiing down a long apron of fresh snow, or cruising down an undulating trail on a bike, full of turns and constant revelations. Riding on water to the tune of gravity beats any high I can think of. Thirty miles a day is very doable. Campsites are less numerous and private land dominates, but we manage to find nice spots in small groves of trees. Western flycatchers entertain us in one camp, a pair of colorful males chattering away and performing acrobatics in the branches overhead for hours. In one camp Jeff pulls off a satirical version of freestyle paddling, wearing a jaunty scarf he borrowed from Molly and attempting the ballet-like spins and heeled-over turns typical of such performances, hampered comically by his lumbering, inflated canoe.

A day and a half from the end, we stop at a bridge and small store. It is famous for milkshakes and homemade pies. I get one of each. I also fall prey to temptation and pick up a couple of expensive cans of mediocre beer. I feel a little like I’m betraying Jeff, but I do it anyway, and stash them in the cooler for the last camp.

That camp might be our best one, perhaps because it is so unexpected. Upstream of it we engage in a stuttering mile or two of campsite roulette, stopping at every conceivable site because our options are so few. One after another is dismal or unworkable, until we come around a corner and find a spot with several massive ponderosa shade trees and some lovely tent sites hidden in bowers of scrub oak. Marypat falls in love with our shaded nomadic home. She spends all the late afternoon sequestered under the rustling oak trees reading a book, with orioles winging through the branches and the warm day waning. Back at our kitchen site, I pop one of my cold beers and sever the non-alcohol camaraderie.

The biggest set of rapids on the entire river sits five miles from the end. The prospect has been looming larger, the way rapids of repute do, as we’ve gotten closer. It didn’t help that the café we stopped at the day before had several impressive pictures on the walls of the The Narrows at flood stage, wild with massive waves and holes. I’m the only one who has done them before, and my memory is that there is only one crux move at a dogleg in the river where a big hole lurks if you don’t stay hard inside. I remember flirting past the edge of that hole, looking down into it, and then pulling free. Dan is pretty quiet about it. It’s the spot he’s been privately dreading the entire trip.

We shove off early, only ten miles from the take-out, with whitewater on our minds. It’s a quiet morning, pregnant with anticipation. I remember the eddy to scout from and pull in there, well above the rapid. Any further and we’d get into the wave train that precedes the bad corner. It’s a long walk down a polished ledge of basalt. We watch for snakes on the warm dark rock. The waves look avoidable if we stay river left. We can sneak along almost to the sharp corner and stop in another eddy. Then we come to the dogleg. A ledge of rock gives a view right down on the bad water.

We discuss, inevitably and at length, the way all boaters discuss these things. People go off to pee, more an anxiety urge than a bladder one. The hole snarls just the way I remembered. An alley of current races past it on the inside, through a couple of big waves, but if you get lined up wrong, or can’t resist the pull of current, the hole will be a ride. I see Jeff and Dan in consultation. Marypat and I stand side-by-side, looking, discussing, hands stuffed into our lifevests. It is a pose we have repeated at the edge of rapids across the waterways of North America for decades. Then we start back.

“I think I’m going to sub this one out,” Dan says. “I can sneak down to the eddy, but Jeff has agreed to row the corner, eddy out just below, and come back for his boat.”

We amble our way back up the long scout, rehashing our moves, talking it through, visualizing the markers we pointed out along the way, and talking through Plan B if things don’t go well.

“If we get pulled into the hole,” Marypat says, “just point it straight and paddle like hell.”

“And be ready to throw in a brace,” I add.

The sneak is a piece of cake. We all avoid the waves, coast down to the eddy, and regroup. The two inflatable canoes wait, bobbing in the restless water, while Jeff climbs into the raft and Dan moves up next to Susan as a passenger.

“Jesus, this thing weighs a ton,” Jeff says, heaving on the oars to get out of the eddy and into the main current. “How many bottles of wine did you bring?”

They disappear around the corner. Looked like they were more or less lined up, but we hear nothing for a few minutes, and then Jeff strides back over the rocks, ready to go.

“No problem,” he says.

Jeff and Molly go first. We give them space, then edge out into the main flow, swing the bow downstream, hug as close to shore as we can without catching on rocks. Then, accelerating into the corner, the swoop of current yanks us toward the center, we fight to stay left, and then the snarling flash of hole just off our right tube, flying over waves, catching air, whooping past the rapid.

Dan White photo. Flying past the big hole at The Narrows.

Dan White photo. Airborne past the big hole at The Narrows.

The last miles are an anticlimactic stroll into the confluence with the Snake, and just around the corner from joining that bigger flow, to our take out at Heller Bar. The trip ends like most, with gear shuffling and reorganizing, changing clothes, drying boats, stuffing the backs of rigs. With a group hug and promises to do more. Jeff and Molly head for home while we hop in with Dan and Susan for the long ride back to La Grande before driving on to the family reunion that started this whole shindig.

 

#

 

Another strategy we’ve been considering if we get sick of Bozeman is the option of becoming gypsies for a time. It is more and more a thing – people selling a house and striking off, free of bills and upkeep, gallivanting here and there, following impulses, sometimes quite happily homeless for years on end. The highways are crammed with RVs, campers, trailers and the vagabond road life has become a thriving sub culture complete with how-to videos, famous personalities, annual gatherings, publications, and a mobile retirement lifestyle full of folks angling for free overnight parking, reliable road food and a network of favorite sunbelt towns. The problem, for us, and it feels like a formidable one, is losing our home base, the anchor and familiar respite to return to. That, and the community of friends we’ve built up over more than 30 years. Still, it has its appeal.

When we leave Dan’s we give that lifestyle a shot. For so much of our lives travel has been a Point A to Point B proposition, and the quicker the better. We have plenty of time to get to Pt. Townsend, so we force ourselves to lollygag. A sign coaxes us off the highway and into the Pendleton Woolen Mills outlet store. Later, we pull off near the Columbia River at the Ginko Petrified Forest State Park, a place we’ve zoomed past on our way west who knows how many times. It’s an amazing geologic revelation, and only a couple of miles off of the interstate. Lured by the Methow Valley and rave reviews we’ve heard over the years, we meander up that river and stop for breakfast at the bakery in Twisp, because who wouldn’t stop in a town named Twisp. We top over the North Cascades, a gorgeous, craggy drive, stopping at view points. And, at the weathered edge of continent, we saunter our way down Whidbey Island, pausing for a walk on the beach at Deception Pass, where the ocean tides rip through the narrows like a gargantuan, boiling river. And finally, a ferry ride across to Pt. Townsend, and the drive to Ft. Worden, where some 27 of our clan have reservations in the row of old military houses.

We could have done it in a long day, but instead, took the better part of three. Not bad. Could it be a lifestyle? Not sure about that, but not bad. At the end, we unbend from the car and step into the embrace of family.

The embrace lasts most of a week. Nieces and nephews I last saw as toddlers are completely unrecognizable, grown up and heading for college. People have died. Only one member of the oldest generation is in attendance, Aunt Noey, in her 90s. My generation has become the graying lead edge, like it or not. Relationships have come and gone, or evolved into something different. There is a measure of dysfunction here and there, like any family, but overall, the energy is upbeat, warm, full of the need to catch up. There are outings to hike the beaches, cookouts, excursions to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Range, jaunts on bikes into town, bird-watching walks. There are games with rackets and beanbags, raucous nightly rounds of dominoes, time on porches with coffee cups or bottles of beer to find out who everyone is these days and what drives their lives. There is no shortage of beer and wine, of which I partake with gusto.

Sawyer has made the effort to come west for the event, on his way to visit friends in the area. On his last morning he asks me to go for a walk with him.

“How did you sleep last night, Dad?” he asks.

“Pretty well,” I say, “how about you?”

“I didn’t sleep well at all,” he says. “I spent a lot of the night awake, thinking about you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Dad, I’m worried about your drinking.”

Silence. We walk for a while through the dappled morning shade. It sinks in that this is my son, calling me out. Not a comfortable thing for either of us.

“I think you’re deluding yourself,” he breaks the silence. “When you drink your personality shifts. I don’t think it’s good for your health, for your relationships, for your work. When you quit drinking a few years ago, you changed for the better. Now it seems like you’ve slipped back into that old way. I’m worried about you.”

His words sink in. I know that he has a point and I resist the urge of my initial defensive rebuttal. It’s something I’ve been worried about too, but to be confronted by my son about my shortcomings, my problems. It hits me hard. I don’t defend myself. I don’t deny or rationalize or get angry. I don’t say much of anything because the fact that my son is motivated enough by what he sees to overcome the awkwardness of confronting me stuns me to silence.

Two days later, driving back home, somewhere near Spokane, Marypat asks if I’m thinking about doing anything about my drinking. I don’t know if she’s talked to Sawyer, and it doesn’t matter.

“Yeah, I have been,” I say. “I’ve been thinking I need to stop. Not sure how or when, exactly, but yeah.”

 

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Watershed: A Paddler’s Retirement Plan in the Year of the Plague

CHAPTER ONE – MAY: TRADITIONS

Thomas Lee photo

Thomas Lee photo

This year it is a week into May before I cajole Marypat into joining me in a canoe on the upper stretch of the East Gallatin River. I’ve checked the gauge and it’s running about 200 cubic feet per second (cfs), nothing like peak runoff, when it could barrel along with 1,000 cfs or more, but enough to get us down. I’ve run this river for some 35 years, and this uppermost bit I’ve probably been down a hundred times. I used to think nothing of taking it on solo, but as I’ve aged, and gotten less nimble, I prefer to go tandem to cope with the inevitable, repeated moments when a downed tree or beaver dam or fence suddenly appears around a bend and it’s a mad scramble to cope. The knees just don’t unbend the way they used to.

It isn’t that MP is unwilling. She’s game, but with life getting in the way as it does, we don’t always line our schedules up. We load the 16’ red boat on the rig, drive a mile north to the edge of town, and park. It isn’t a sanctioned launch and never has been. We pull off the edge of the side street, unload the boat, and lower it down the bank under a spreading willow tree with roots thicker than my thigh. I have stepped into the boat here in downpours, at bankful flood stage, on sunny spring days, at dawn and dusk, with feelings of joy and relief and anger and worry.

It was the first thing I did after I was cleared of cancer from my eye tumor, a decade ago. We got the all clear from the doctor, I went to each of the kid’s schools and got them out of class to share the news, and then I put the canoe in this water at this spot with my partner of so many years, so many shared bends of current, and for the next couple of hours full of sluicing river, hairball adventure, circling hawks, looming mountains, we celebrated.

The first time we paddled this section we had been invited by fellow paddlers who were volunteering on a river cleanup day. Why not? Although we’d lived in Bozeman a few years, knew the small river as a local feature, running right through town, we’d never considered paddling it. That day in the early 1980s there were six or eight of us in canoes and we put into the flow at precisely the same spot. Back then the local animal shelter was across the street, a nondescript industrial district sat across the way, and a dilapidated trailer park bumped up against the stream bank. Nobody noticed our launch. A mournful howl drifted across from the animal shelter.

In the decades since, some things have changed. The shelter has moved to another location. The business park has been built up. The trailer park is the same, but there are trails, foot bridges, a nearby public park, groomed ski trails during the winter. Back then it was the nondescript, somewhat decrepit municipal border that no one much noticed.

The East Gallatin gathers itself from the Bridger Mountains, the Hyalite Peaks, Bear Canyon. Rocky Creek, Bear Creek, Cottonwood Creek, Bozeman Creek, Bridger Creek and a handful of other mountain streams join together to create the flow that meanders for 35 or 40 miles across the Gallatin Valley until it joins the West Gallatin and proceeds down to the headwaters of the Missouri. The precise headwaters are vague. Some maps put it at the confluence with Bridger Creek, a few turns down. Others have it at the confluence of Rocky and Bear Creeks, a few bends up.

It is a storied piece of water, in its way. William Clark made his way up the East Gallatin riding horses on his way to the Yellowstone River and his rendezvous with Lewis near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri the summer of 1806. Clark remarked on the plentiful beaver, which made travel boggy and difficult, and noted the ferocity of mosquito life. The Indian peoples of the region called the Gallatin Valley ‘Fat Valley’ for its bounty of game and edible plants. I’ve heard that indigenous people set aside the valley as a safe zone of peace and plenty.

In the time since the Shoshoni and Blackfeet and Crow, since Lewis and Clark and the fur-trade era the region is so famous for, the East Gallatin has been, from all evidence, a garbage dump. That became clear within the first bend. We started picking up the detritus of generations of people who operated on the out-of-sight-out-of-mind theory of waste disposal. Our canoe hulls filled up with rubber boots, old tires, Styrofoam coolers, lawn furniture, soccer balls, fishing bobbers, scraps of metal, hoses. Never mind the stuff we couldn’t fit into our hulls – stoves and refrigerators, old cars imbedded in the banks as riprap, tractor tires. Our canoes transformed into garbage scows, precarious with muddy trash.

It was appalling. These creeks and rivers make the valley the lush and verdant place it is. Without them Bozeman, the Gallatin Valley, local agriculture, towns and settlements, none of it would be tenable. The bends full of beaver William Clark complained about are what make the soil fertile, the vegetation thick, the habitat rich. And here’s how we expressed our appreciation, by dumping our cars, our kitchen sinks, our junk over the banks, not to mention trapping the beaver to near extinction.

Towns everywhere have located along streams like this. Without the water flowing past, these communities couldn’t function. Creeks and rivers like the East Gallatin bequeath the water that runs out of taps, flushes away wastes, waters lawns, irrigates crops, lubricates industry. They provide the everyday lifeblood that makes settlement possible. And yet, time and again, these life-giving flows are polluted, littered, exhausted, ignored and taken for granted. They deserve reverence, gratitude, respect, and yet, they are universally abused.

To my surprise, a few bends in, the small river began asserting its magic. Sullied, yes, but also fun, heads up, full of life. Warblers flashing in the willows, sandhill cranes calling from the banks, white-tail deer in the brush, red-tailed hawks screaming overhead. At stops to gather more garbage, raccoon prints stippled the mud. Every bend held a surprise. More than once a log jam or beaver dam or wall of vegetation blocked the way, forcing us to drag around or over or through. The current ran headlong into corners, through overhanging brush. In spite of the accumulating heap of garbage weighing down the boats, despite the insulted river, we were giggling with the goofy challenge like kids on a joyride.

The next week, that spring, I went back. I kept gathering garbage, but more than that, I started using the East Gallatin like a gym workout. A gym work out and, in a way, my church; the place I went to for solace. I could bike the shuttle and be self-sufficient. Again and again, that spring, and the next, and the one after that, I kept returning, sometimes several times a week, until I knew that little flow on the outskirts of town as well as the dog walk I took every morning. And it was mine alone. I never saw anyone else on the water.

Marypat hasn’t paddled the East Gallatin nearly as often as I have. She has her own, different, adventurous compulsions. But she knows it well, and appreciates the elements of surprise that are inevitable, especially on the first run of spring. Some surprises are gifts, like the log jam I expect two bends down that has been swept away in the year since I paddled it. Other surprises, not so pleasant. Around a corner with little chance to react we come upon a log across the channel. Marypat draws the bow into shore, I swing the stern around and paddle hard upstream, into the bank, where MP grabs a fistful of willow and hangs on. I grip a branch while she climbs out and scouts a way around through the thick vegetation. There are old patches of snow still in the dry cattails. We shove the canoe through the brush, over a log or two, and back to the river below the obstruction.

The river is dynamic. I know this conceptually, but also viscerally, by virtue of all the years I’ve watched it change, and by reacting to those changes. A log jam of thick-hulled cottonwood trees seems absolutely permanent, lasts for years, gathers bulk, and then, one spring, is miraculously gone. But a new one appears two bends down. Beavers come and go with their matrix of dams. Oxbow bends become more and more pronounced, until, one spring, a new channel cuts the ‘bow’ and straightens the channel. A river bend erodes under a barbed wire fence that drapes dangerously over the channel. I admit to carrying fencing pliers and cutting a few strands of wire. Every year and every water level has its mix of beneficence and hazard.

This year with Marypat is no exception. We sweep around corners, hugging the inside of the bends, craning for the next surprise. Passages are hemmed in by overhanging willows. We duck under branches that brush our backs. A homeless camp slides past, old tarps, a flannel sleeping bag draped in the underbrush, a cable spool for a table. A Canada goose flushes from its nest. Rambler station wagons jut out of river banks. We whip around a corner next to a golf course fairway and another log blocks the channel. Again, Marypat plants a strong draw, the canoe swings into shore, we both scramble for a hold before the canoe is swept into the tree.

“Hey, is that Al and Marypat?” I hear from across the river. “What the hell are you guys doing?”

“Oh, hey Bob. Hi Susie,” I recognize friends from town out playing a round of golf. “Just out for a little float.”

“Of course you are,” Susie laughs, watching us heave our boat across the log.

A large measure of what makes this run sweet is the through-the-looking-glass feel of it. It goes past subdivision back yards, by several golf courses, within view of the old town dump, under roads. It is delicious to sneak up on someone lining up a putt, or out on their patio, or tending horses in a corral and surprise them. “Is this the way to St. Louis?” is my stock greeting. This is not one of those popular floats full of yellow inner tubes towing six-packs of beer. Good thing, because if you don’t know what you’re doing with a paddle, you’ll get hurt.

Thomas Lee photo

Thomas Lee photo

By the time we go under the side road that marks the halfway point, we’ve had to hop out and pull around something four times. I have never had a clean run down this section, but it is particularly gnarly this year.

“I’m glad I’m not solo,” I say to my partner. “Thanks for coming.”

For years I stuck to this upper piece of the river, over and over again. I’m nothing if not a damn creature of habit. Then, one May, my friend Scott said that he had Mondays off. “What if we did it all, section by section, every Monday in May?” he asked. Why didn’t I think of that? I chided myself.

We did just as Scott suggested. The river is sectioned off by bridge crossings at convenient intervals so that we could bump down the watercourse a couple hours at a time, once a week. I introduced him to my well-worn section the first Monday. Then, week by week, we entered the unknown, past more golf courses, through housing developments, across agricultural land. The next two sections were as prone to hazard as the first one, pocked with downed trees, low bridges, sudden choices on the fly. We felt our way around bends, navigated log jams, found gaps in beaver dams, avoided fences, had more than a few close calls. Over the course of that month we did it all, down to the confluence with the West Gallatin.

Since then, I’ve been repeating all the sections, finding my favorite bits, becoming as familiar with the lower river as I was with the upper. The winding section with different views on every bend, fed by spring creeks that keep the channel open even in mid-winter. The last piece that remains runnable all summer long and is especially beautiful in the fall, when it feels wrapped in gold. Each section has a reasonable bike shuttle, so I can do them solo.

Emboldened by Scott’s out-of-the-box perspective, I decided one year to do the entire river in one go. The first time I went solo, up at five a.m., coffee mug stuffed down the front of my life jacket, pushing down through the tangled upper half, then stroking on through ag land, with views opening, cranes calling in the fields, herds of deer flashing away. It took me a solid 12 hours of constant paddling and I was hit by a wall of thunderstorm within minutes of pulling the boat out of the water. A year or two later, I did headwaters to confluence again, this time with my son, Sawyer.

Thomas Lee photo

Thomas Lee photo

Anymore, it’s enough to complete a top to bottom run every year, bit by bit. I no longer hit the river as often as I used to, but I get it in, starting with the original fraught piece of water on the edge of town, and bumping my way on down, with friends, on my own, in any season. It’s a treat to introduce friends who know how to handle a boat to my favorite sections. “This isn’t the kind of thing you bring your Uncle Frank from Dayton down,” one friend said. “You could get in trouble on this.”

Near the end of this year’s run with Marypat, there is a choice. The river splits and one channel speeds down an ‘S’ curve obscured by willows, where obstacles often hang up. The other leads into an irrigation canal for a golf course, goes through a culvert, and returns to the main channel below the curve. At the right water level, and with the right amount of gumption, it’s possible to slide through the culvert on a fast tongue of river. It is barely wide enough for our canoe. You have to lie down flat, holding the paddles along side, and then pop up quickly to brace against the main current where the culvert spills out. It’s a dicey, amusement-park, thrill. The kids love it. I considered it for years, every time I went by, before I finally tried it.

We choose the diversion, and also elect not to go through the culvert. We have been in and out of the canoe seven times in a run that takes two hours, tops. A couple of spots were more sporting than comfortable. One more thrill seems unnecessary. We drag the canoe past the edge of a close-cropped golf green and slide back into the river.

Where we pull out, several bends farther along at another bridge, people, some of them neighbors, drive past, looking over at us strapping the canoe on the roof rack. No doubt they are wondering what the hell we’re doing, but that’s our secret.

 

#

 

Traditions come and go, at least in my life, and paddling traditions are no exception. My yearly start-to-finish run of the East Gallatin will, one spring, not happen, but while it is still going, the power of my 30-plus-year commitment keeps me honest. Without that expectation, I could easily let it slide, or skip a segment or two. I feel some obligation to the task, to the river, to that magic made up of boat and paddler and current.

With my same friend Scott I maintained a series of May “boy’s trips” that emerged out of an off-handed suggestion to paddle the Dirty Devil River in central Utah. We noticed how it ran through some isolated slickrock canyon country when we were driving past one time. Turned out we didn’t do it that year, because the water never came up. Nor did we get to our second choice, the Owyhee River in Oregon, because the water there came up too much. That first May we ended up doing a week on the Little Missouri River through the badlands of North Dakota. Every year after, in May, we took on another river. We ended up with four or five companions, and the tradition lasted five or six years, until, for one reason or another, we didn’t pull it off one year. Good while it lasted.

More recently, I’ve been caught up in another budding series I call Three Rivers. The impulse rose out of a long-standing fantasy I’ve nurtured to spend the better part of May bumping around Montana and running ephemeral rivers in the state, rivers that only have enough water in them to paddle for a month or two every year. I had this cozy image of myself, camping in riverside sites, figuring out my shuttles, and wandering here and there around the state, led by the scent of the next tantalizing bit of spring flow.

At some point I realized that the fantasy was unlikely to materialize anytime soon. As a stopgap, I sent out a whimsical email to a bunch of paddling friends suggesting a Memorial Day outing during which we’d paddle three different rivers, one on each of the long weekend days, and camp out between – sort of a miniaturized version of my month-long dream. I was shocked when most of the people I’d contacted jumped at the idea. Once I realized what I’d unleashed, I established some protocol. First, I would choose the itinerary. Second, there would be no micro-managing endless email chains discussing who would bring hamburger buns. Third, the expectation was that people would show up, be self-contained, take part in whatever portion of the weekend they wanted to, and have fun.

Damned if it didn’t work. The first year I sent out a general itinerary for three bits of water, the camps we would travel to between rivers, and set a time for everyone to show up Saturday morning at a wide spot on a rural state highway in central Montana next to Belt Creek. Sure enough, at 10 a.m. in a drizzle, a respectable crowd wheeled in, ready for the weekend. The tradition is now six years on. If anything, the event has gathered steam. We’ve had as many as eleven inflatable canoes strung out in parade formation snaking down little creeks and rivers all over Montana. Members show up from as far away as Arizona. We’ve had to limit participation.

Rivers and conditions have run the gamut from gorgeous and sedate to unlikely and hilarious. So far, no one has gotten seriously hurt. There have been hot moments of escape to river banks to avoid downed trees, a few capsizes, some boat punctures due to lethal hawthorn thickets, borderline cases of hypothermia, bridges so low we had to turn our heads sideways as we slid under to save our noses, sudden downpours so pelting that we’ve literally been blinded. Some stretches are nice to have done, but not worth repeating, ever. Others are ones to mark for a return. Some of the best have been the ones we’ve known the least about, or that seem the least likely – places like Silverbow Creek, downstream from the Superfund site in Butte, Montana, or Big Spring Creek, from the gushing headwaters above the town of Lewistown.

Part way down Big Spring Creek, after spending several hours stuttering through the first two miles, miles full of fences, downed trees, low bridges, portages around obstacles, thickets of thorny brush, Marypat turned to me. “This is the kind of thing I would have killed to do when I was a kid!” Luckily, everyone in that group remains a kid.

Three Rivers crew along the lower Dearborn River

Three Rivers crew along the lower Dearborn River

What has made the series satisfying is the overall competence of the crew, and the willingness to take what comes in stride. People have, in fact, shown up ready to go, self-contained, more or less on time, with their poop in a group. They take part in the rivers that appeal to them, pass on the ones that don’t. We caravan from spot to spot, take over campgrounds. There is no pressure, but once we get on the water, everyone is all in.

It’s gone on long enough now that finding suitable prospects has become more challenging. The last two years have required some scouting to ferret out the trio of rivers to target. In April I took a road trip to the deep southwestern corner of Montana, and across the divide into Idaho, checking out candidates.

I began with Grasshopper Creek. It had been suggested by my brother-in-law, Andrew, who lives in Dillon. We were on a ski outing with him in mid-winter. I’d been talking about finding good rivers for this year’s outing, and as we drove over this small, snow-bound creek, he said, “What about Grasshopper Creek?”

It had some of the qualities I’d come to seek – off the radar, no route descriptions, quirky, scenic. What about it? When I came back in April I drove to Bannack State Park to have a look. The flow was adequate, if not plentiful. All I could see were the first few bends through the gold-mining ghost town. Then it disappeared toward a low canyon. I talked to a maintenance guy working nearby. “Could be a fun float,” he said. “I’ve been partway down the dirt road along it in a Jeep. There are a couple of canyon sections. Pretty quiet country – ranches and a mine. Never heard of anyone doing it, but who knows?”

I drove around to the take out, a fishing access on the Beaverhead River near the confluence with Grasshopper Creek. Again, not much visible. I could see a bend or two upstream into ranchland, low hills, a distant canyon. Still seemed like enough water to float a boat. We’d have to slog upstream on the Beaverhead to get to the access point, but doable. Problem was, the entire flow between glimpses was a mystery. Edgy. Problematic. Maybe perfect.

I covered a lot of ground that day. I scoped out such mainstream paddling destinations as Big Sheep Creek, the upper reaches of Red Rock Creek, a section of Horse Prairie Creek, along with some of the Lemhi River over in Idaho. All of them thin, boney, crammed with problems. I came home discouraged. But I couldn’t get the seductive glimpses of Grasshopper Creek out of my mind. I really wanted to get a boat on that little mystery.

A month later, shortly after breakfast on Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, people gather on the riverbank adjacent to a campground in Bannack State Park. I have been repeatedly amazed that this crew of smart, old-enough-to-know-better folks keeps following me to these unlikely spots. The day before we ran a new section of the Big Hole River. It was a nice warm up. Sunny, pleasant, easy water, no surprises. Today, in contrast, everyone understands that this is the marquee event, the void. Thunderstorms are predicted. The sky is gray, temperatures cool.

Several people have downloaded our route onto their phones. “It’s between 10 and 11 miles as the crow flies,” says one of them. “But this river doesn’t fly like a crow!” He holds up the screen to show a tortured, twisting blue squiggle.

“Okay,” I say, “here’s the orientation talk. I have no idea what the fuck we’re getting into. That’s the whole of it. I’ve seen the top three bends and the bottom two bends. I know where we start and end, but nothing between. Let’s keep each other in sight and take our time.”

It is a moment when a reasonable voice could interject, bring up some doubts, start the whole house of cards shaking. I half expect it, but it doesn’t come. This group of college professors, physician assistants, art teachers, lawyers, photographers, nurses start milling around, topping off inflatable boats, shrugging into life vests, and then we are on the river. The line of blue canoes snakes around the first few bends past the ghost town buildings, under a footbridge. Tourists watch us go past.

Bannack was founded in 1862, when gold was discovered along Grasshopper Creek, and it served as the Montana territorial capitol for two years, before it was relocated to Virginia City, another mining boomtown. At its height, Bannack had some 10,000 residents who supported three hotels, three bakeries, three blacksmiths, two meat markets, a grocery, restaurant, brewery and four saloons. It was a violent town, famous for its vigilante justice and spontaneous, no-trial hangings. In the first year more than a ton of nearly pure gold was pulled out of the area, but the easy pickings quickly dwindled and interest shifted to other strikes elsewhere in Montana, places like Alder Gulch and Last Chance Gulch. Still, Bannack boasted a few permanent residents into the mid-twentieth century. In 1954, the town’s last resident, C. W. Stallings, sold the whole enchilada for $1,000 to citizen groups interested in maintaining the historic character of the area.

Not long after the weathered buildings and wooden boardwalks maintained by the state park are out of sight, the first canyon swallows us. Valley sides steepen, the creek picks up speed, runs through rock-choked channels. A boat hangs up on a rock and in short order three or four more boats pile in. People hop out, horse the rubbery craft past overhanging brush, through minefields of boulders. Subdued chaos ensues. Several of the younger members are doubled over laughing at the sight of gimpy elders hot-footing around in knee-deep water. This goes on for a mile or two. Eventually we figure out the spacing better, get more proficient at navigating the obstacles, but it remains a circus.

Then the valley flattens out. The creek loops in tortured bends back and forth. On the outside of every corner prickery brush hangs over the flow. Boats drag past or through the branches, depending on teamwork. There is no time to lay back and enjoy the float. I can’t even find time to clean my glasses. Several hats are lost to overhanging branches. The bends go on and on. A low, funky bridge made out of what looks like flattened car bodies requires a portage around.

Marypat and I find ourselves in the lead, just in time to see a cow moose and calf cross the river, flounder up the steep bank, and crash off into the willows. Out of nowhere, a cowboy on horseback appears, watches us go past, and spurs his horse away. It starts to rain. Everyone pulls on weather gear. It comes down hard and cold for a while, long enough to get tiresome. Then it quits and we decide to pull off and have some lunch in a spot of sun. Those with maps on phones report that we’re maybe a third of the way down. We’re a motley crew, munching sandwiches, taking pees in the sagebrush, drying gear. Someone has a shirt that is ripped to shreds by the vegetation. He looks like a victim of self-flagellation. More hats are reported lost.

Right after lunch we enter the second canyon. Immediately one of the boats gets hung up in some shrubbery on a tight bend, the next boat runs into them and capsizes. We regroup. The canyon, it turns out, is a lovely couple of miles past overhung walls, rockbound corners, largely free of obstacles. Magical and unexpected. But then, immediately following, the stream cants downhill through rock-strewn stretches that call for strenuous maneuvering and evoke even more strenuous conversations between bow and stern paddlers. More hilarity among the younger set. Another portage around a crude ranch bridge and over a fence. Suddenly, a mining operation with a sign requesting that visitors have appointments. No one around. We coast past.

It goes on. Another slow and winding stretch, followed by an absolute hairball section of fast water with several thick cables strung inexplicably over the channel, with logs across the pushy current, with fast tunnels of water through face-slapping willows. An occasional eddy or small gravel bar provides momentary respite where we can gather up and make sure everyone is accounted for. We are more than halfway, but it’s late afternoon and no telling what challenges lie ahead.

People are tired. Clothes are tattered. Hats are in short supply. We continue. The day wanes. Every outcrop of rock worries me – another canyon, a waterfall . . . The creek winds past some pasture. This ten-mile postage stamp of Montana backcountry, with a state park on one end and an interstate highway on the other, where nobody goes, reveals itself in a slow motion scroll. Several times I think about all the similar spots in this state. This isn’t federal land, a park, any kind of designated wilderness, just a patch of country with some ranches, some off the radar enterprises, difficult access, also full of lovely canyons, a thriving population of moose, all of it sitting quietly in the middle of things.

The parade of blue boats bobs around the bends like a gaggle of ducks. Another moose and calf heave out of the river and trot away. Rain showers come and go. We have headlamps, I think. Someone said they brought matches. I measure the sun against the horizon.

Then, unexpectedly, I see a semi-trailer going past on the interstate that I know runs alongside the Beaverhead River. Another couple of bends and the Grasshopper joins the Beaverhead. We turn up against the larger river, paddle hard, then step out of the boats and slosh on foot, towing boats upstream along the bank the final hundred yards to our take-out. Everyone straggles in, beat, disheveled, grinning like fools.

Someone with a phone announces the total distance and time – 22.5 miles in nine and a half hours. In the gloaming, thunderheads going pink with sunset, a bottle of rum gets passed around. The hot, burning liquid goes down like sweet fire. People are pounding each other’s backs, recounting mishaps, showing off bruises. Relief rises from the group like steam.

Three Rivers parade down the upper Sun River

Three Rivers parade down the upper Sun River

 

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Watershed: A Paddler’s Retirement Plan in the Year of the Plague

WATERSHED – INTRODUCTION

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            I was ambushed by how agonizing it felt to hit ‘send’ when I finished the email. I let it linger there on the screen, pulsing faintly. I read through the short thread of correspondence leading up to my response. I got up, went to the kitchen and made a cup of coffee while it sat there, waiting.

The email was an answer to a simple, breezy, routine request from the coordinator of the college department I taught for. How many classes did I want in the fall? Every semester, about halfway through, I’d gotten a similar request. For fifteen years roughly half of my professional time had been taken up with teaching freshmen seminar classes at Montana State University. It was a gig I’d happened on to augment my erratic and unpredictable freelance writing career.

I was a lowly adjunct professor, that class of teacher colleges have gravitated to in order to save money, reduce benefit costs, and escape saddling tenured professors with teaching lower level courses. It offered few benefits, no long-term security, and pitiful pay. Every semester, especially early on, felt like a crapshoot – whether I’d be asked back, how many sections I’d be offered – all up to the whim of an administrator or department head who might decide new blood was needed, or my evaluations weren’t up to par, or that I didn’t match the seniority of someone else on the roster. Adjunct faculty are both the institutional grist that keep colleges and universities running, and about as institutionally valued as grist.

And yet, that email remained on the screen until I finished the cup of coffee, all the while pondering what felt like a monumental step. You’d think it would have been easy. I had expected, contemplating my plans, that it would be easy, liberating even. I’d made up my mind, hadn’t I? My finger hovered. I punched ‘send’, stood up, and took a nervous, pacing lap around the room, swinging my arms.

The fact was, inching into retirement at 66 was a decision fraught with ambivalence and worry, tangled up in a messy nest of self-worth, self-doubt, ambition, notions of legacy, concern about making ends meet all the way to whatever the end is, health concerns and that overworked quality-of-life calculation.

To begin with, I knew I’d miss teaching. The department was nice enough to say that if I regretted my decision, I’d be welcomed back, but I’d shut a door. Despite the unglamorous and underappreciated nature of adjunct status, I liked the work.

The weekly faculty meetings, intended to keep us a week or two ahead of the class syllabus, were part of the job I’d initially dreaded as bureaucratic blah-blah-blah. In fact, those weekly discussions about Socrates, or Martin Luther King’s letter from jail, or any number of readings on the environment or social justice or indigenous people were stimulating as hell. They modeled the very style and energy we all strove to foster in our classrooms.

Around the table sat fellow teachers who had all arrived at the same adjunct ingredient in their recipe for economic survival as I had. There were newspaper editors, musicians, vegetable farmers, philosophers. Many had taught for decades in a variety of settings. No one was shy. They were smart and articulate, with real life experiences, and they were worth listening to. The fifteenth time we discussed MLK or Socrates, I was still gaining insights into what was meant by an “examined life” or by “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That hour around a conference table was always lit by a burst of intellectual fire.

I liked the students too. College freshmen are at a cusp of life. They are, for the most part, navigating independent living for the first time. They come, mostly, believing what their parents believe. They wear the narrow blinders of their parochial lives. They are floundering toward what they believe in, who they love, what they might do in life, what, if any, god they accept, how to handle money and responsibility and friendship and ambition and the inevitable episodes of failure and fuck up. They reminded me of my own three children, all busy living their own versions of the above. It’s fun and excruciating to watch, by turns.

We sat in a circle. We put phones away. We had books open on desks in front of us. And we talked about justice, about climate, about wisdom, about war, about politics. We strayed off on a great many tangents along the way. We looked at each other. We used first names. Inevitably, we learned a lot about each other as the weeks passed. At least for some the blindered view of the world opened noticeably wider.

At the beginning of each semester I asked for a show of hands of all the people who signed up out of a burning desire to be in the class. No one ever raised a hand. Not one in fifteen years. This was one of those ‘core’ classes that everyone was obligated to take. Then I told them that it would end up being the favorite class for at least a few of them. I also said that it was a rare luxury, to be in a circle of strangers who get the chance to talk and share ideas in a direct, respectful, exploratory way, especially these days, when everyone texts instead of talking face to face. I said that this class was a gift, if they chose to open it.

Students ran the gamut. It wasn’t always pretty or comfortable. The student who showed up to an 8 a.m. class still very drunk from the frat party the night before. The young Chinese exchange student who could barely speak, much less write, in English, but who never missed class and who struggled heroically to stay afloat in foreign academic seas. The Iraq War veteran who never spoke, but instead, shouted. Worst of all, the students who refused to speak.

Each of them, even the unexceptional, seemingly run-of-the-mill students, had their dramas and their brilliance. The young woman from a tiny Montana community who rarely spoke in class, but who, near the end of the semester, ripped out an unbelievable tap dance performance on the linoleum classroom floor that left everyone’s jaw hanging. The young man who lived out of his car, who could never be counted on to show up on a powder ski day, but who seemed to have his life perspective on remarkably firm ground. The young woman who revealed that her sister had recently been shot and killed by a police officer at a traffic stop.

Every semester was a new concoction of chemistry, a fresh experiment in social dynamics. A gaggle of young people who shambled together with their triumphs and tragedies, their challenges and gifts, their naiveté and wisdom, their curiosity and resistance, and for thirteen weeks we’d look at each other and try to talk about stuff that meant something.

As years went by I got incrementally better at teaching. I assembled the arrows of technique in my teacherly quiver. I got more comfortable. And I genuinely liked my students. That effort, and that mutual regard, went deep with me.

That I had the luxury to agonize over my decision to quit teaching, to even have that decision to consider, is a mark of my privilege. Call it a first-world problem. Anything could happen, but it doesn’t look like I’ll have to sling hash in a fast-food joint to make ends meet when I’m 75.

I own my house outright, by dint of having bought at a propitious moment when a person like me could afford a house in what has become a hot real estate market, and by dint of having parents capable of acting as my lending institution for a down payment. I’ve put money aside over the decades. I received a share of the sale of my parents’ home after they died.

More to the point, I was born white and middle class in an affluent country and have benefitted from the safety net perks that come with that status – from a college degree to good health care. Pure luck, nothing more or less, the hand of cards laid out when I popped into the world. How I’ve played that hand is another thing, but luck has put a heavy thumb on the scale of my fate. No small matter.

Still, ambivalence and hesitation loomed over the next phase of my life like a cloudbank. Losing the structure and satisfactions of teaching was some of it, but only part, and not the existential part. Conventional hype casts retirement years in a halo of sunset decades devoted to travel, relaxation, comfort, open horizons to explore, enjoyment and indulgence. Believe the ads and it’s all about learning new languages, cruising the rivers of Europe, playing pickleball and yucking it up with friends over a glass of cabernet. That’s not how I felt. I wasn’t at all confident that I’d live up to the promise, or the challenge, of that freedom.

There are things about me I don’t trust.

For one thing, that cozy image of sipping a glass of wine and chumming it up with fellow retirees spells trouble, in my case, and the potential vacuum of retirement is fertile ground for that trouble to flourish.

Drinking has played a prominent role in my social life and identity since I was a teenager. I was the one who could hold his liquor at high school beach parties on Lake Michigan. I drove everyone home with a bullshit display of control. Drinking beer was what loosened me up at parties, what got me on the dance floor, what lubricated interactions from dinner parties to work happy hours.

I never succumbed to the barfly syndrome. I drank with friends or at home. But I drank steadily, habitually, and, over time, compulsively. It became an issue. It made me irritable, moody, manic depending on the day.

I played mental games with myself, reasoning that it made sense to buy a bigger, cheaper bottle of wine because it would be more economical, but still drinking it all in two nights. I tried going to hard liquor, thinking it was all about beer. I tried limiting my drinking to weekends. None of it worked for long. We’d go out to parties and the first thing I’d locate was the cooler with drinks. The last thing I’d make sure of was grabbing a final beer for the ride home. That habit drove Marypat crazy, but it persisted.

Then, in 2007 I had a revelation. I had been asked to attend a conference on Haida Gwaii, off the coast of British Columbia. I was invited as a writer to report on the event, hosted by the Haida people and run by indigenous elders from Greenland to New Mexico. It was an invitation for non-Indians to be exposed to Indian reality and traditions. I was honored to go, to experience the ocean-infused geography and to witness the event.

For four or five days the group of Indian and non-Indian people met, talked, drummed, sang, shared their visions and experiences. Slowly I found myself less and less an objective outsider observing the phenomenon, and more and more a participant pulled into the subtle, powerful spell of place and culture. Also, there was no alcohol.

There was humor. There was a great deal of hugging. There were tears and confessions and sorrow. There were stories and wisdom and a window onto another way of being human in the world. We ate food from the ocean and the forest. In a nearby workshop a Haida craftsman was fashioning a traditional ocean-going cedar canoe out of a single tree.

Each day began with a ceremonial fire on the beach at dawn. A designated Haida was the keeper of the fire. A prayer was said. Offerings were made. We stood in a circle. People spoke, deeply. A simple thing, standing together around flames. Simple, but intense and sacred. In the silences the Pacific rolled in, ravens landed on totem poles, bald eagles coasted over the cove.

Some days these dawn fires would last hours. Other days were brief. On the final morning there was a long stint of heart-felt sharing of emotions and intentions. All the while a young Haida man stood quietly outside the circle. When the talk ended, he was introduced. He was a man who had brought back, through visions, many ancient Haida songs and stories that had faded with time, with genocide, with cultural change.

When he stepped into the circle he began to cry. He said how much it meant to witness the sharing and openness at the fire, how important that authentic interaction was, and how rare. He went on to talk about how difficult it was to stay on a true path. He talked about the many distractions and pitfalls that pull us off course – drugs, addiction, alcohol, abuse, material baubles, electronics, all of it seducing us away from our true trail.

As he spoke, through tears, I understood, in a vivid way, that he was not only speaking about his experience as an Indian, or about a phenomenon impacting Indian culture generally. He was speaking about all of us, each on our difficult and elusive personal pathway through life. He was speaking to me.

I stopped drinking as a direct result of that epiphany at the dawn fire. I had no idea that might happen, but I came home and I didn’t drink anymore. Ironically, it turned out that my sister had also made the decision to be sober that same week, across the continent and unbeknownst to me. After we put that coincidence together we made an annual September phone call to commemorate our shared resolve.

I didn’t drink for the next six or seven years. Long enough that I came to think of myself as permanently sober. Long enough that my social community considered me a non-drinker. Every September my sister and I reinforced our solidarity. She used AA meetings to stay on top of it, found real support in those groups. I attended a few, but didn’t find them compelling.

My social life changed. It was almost certainly my own reading of things, but going to parties, even meeting friends for dinner, wasn’t the same. I lacked that social lubrication, the slightly manic energy that a little buzz produces. I found most social scenes boring, especially watching other friends enjoying a drink, revving things up, getting silly. From my perspective, I wasn’t part of the fun.

A little voice started up in me. Why can’t I be a social drinker? I’d proven I could stop. For years I’d controlled my impulses. Why couldn’t I take part from time to time?

I resisted that voice for a long time, but one summer night, out for dinner with friends on the patio of a local restaurant, I ordered a Scotch ale. It tasted just as good as I remembered. And it produced that familiar flush of energy I’d been missing at these moments. Especially after years of abstinence, that flush was exhilarating, dangerous but exhilarating. Marypat gave me a long, assessing look, but I ignored her.

The story of my slide back into the clutches of alcohol is as predictable as it is boring. Within a few months I was back to the old habits, back to hiding evidence, back to daily beer runs and zeroing in on the drink cooler at parties. I sometimes paused, considering my behavior, that I was back doing the same old things I thought I’d never do again, but only a pause.

I remained functional in terms of maintaining my life, keeping up with work, meeting deadlines, but I knew very well that I was back under the hold of that dulling, compromising spell. Also, I was sheepish with my sister, despite her reassurances and understanding.

So there’s that. The open horizons of retirement could be filled with that specter of addiction and blunted potential.

 

Overlaid like a layer of sediment on top is the business of how I spend my time. What gives life purpose? What holds meaning? How do I serve as more than a placeholder in the march of time? And is it pretentious to entertain such existential pap? I can’t imagine elder elephants or aged ravens waste much angst over their purpose in life. Why should I presume any more elevated status?

But it squats there like a boulder in the trail of life. And I don’t think I’m the only one struggling with these questions. Seems to me, based on a very unscientific, intuitive reading of things, that a lack of purpose, coupled with thwarted ambitions, unfulfilled dreams, explains a lot of cultural dysfunction. How else to explain well-off young people signing on to Isis or the Taliban? Or entire communities falling prey to the scourge of opioids? Or the burgeoning number of suicides? Or the mundane daily acts of popping open another beer, lighting up another joint, or sitting, anesthetized for hours in front of a droning television or computer screen?

The day after Donald Trump was elected I showed up in front of a very split group of young college students in class. “Half of you,” I said. “can’t believe your good luck. That the crazy dude who nobody gave a chance has just won the election. The other half of you are thinking – holy shit, what just happened?”

“I’m not going to weigh in politically,” I went on. “but here’s the thing. All of us, no matter what side we’re on, need to pay attention.”

I haven’t heard what those students have been doing with my professorial tidbit of advice, but in the years since, I’ve been following it like a damn zealot. I’d always kept up with the news, but after that election, it ratcheted up to ridiculous levels – podcasts, streaming news shows, checking media posts multiple times a day.

The fact that Trump’s grotesque administration fed that obsession with daily, sometimes hourly, new outrages only encouraged it. I know I am not alone. I’m amazed when I admit my obsession to friends to find that many of them are doing exactly the same thing. Over the months it got to the point that I’d spend hours a day surfing news sites, reading articles, streaming late-night comedy shows. Ostensibly I’m following my own edict to be a good, informed citizen and witnessing the sad drama of our crumbling democracy. In fact, I’m squandering big hunks of life to the relentless treadmill of political crap that resulted from that questionable election.

I worry about myself.

More available time in retirement could easily be vacuumed up surfing news and indulging my outrage, when I could better serve myself and, arguably, my country, doing almost anything else. Maybe paying attention is a duty of citizenship in whatever remains of American democracy, but it is also a trap. And I am deep in its grasp.

I’ve watched, with self-serving interest, more than a few friends and acquaintances forge their way into retirement. Strategies range from picking up shifts at Costco to stave off boredom to self-absorbed navel-gazing; from peripatetic travel and activities to spending time with grandkids; from turning hobbies into full-time occupations to diving into volunteerism.

Some of it seems appealing, some seems vacuous, some outrageously expensive, some heroic or pleasant or boring. It’s anyone’s guess what blend of opportunity, necessity and attraction will emerge as my path into the coming frontier.

Tragic turns of circumstance also punctuate my world, like hazards on a golf course or maybe more accurately, like hidden land mines. Friends who have been paralyzed by tragic falls, or struck by an obscure cancer, hit by memory loss, burdened with unexpected family obligations, laid low by a stroke. This is that phase of life when hospital visits and memorial services have taken over for weddings and graduation ceremonies. I’ve had my own brushes with mortality – an ocular tumor that left me blind in one eye, a childhood accident that led to deafness on one side, and the usual run of aging complaints, from back pain to arthritis. Life’s aperture is tightening down, the sands in the hourglass running low. People I know appear in the local obits with disheartening regularity. Time and the ability to do something with it is, more and more, an urgent, precious matter.

What I do know is that at these turning points in life, moments of uncertainty and decision, what has sustained and directed me, again and again, is time in nature. The summer before my junior year in college, I spent nearly a month in the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah. At that point I’d already declared and then dropped several academic majors. Geology, which I found fascinating, but which got into more math in the upper level classes than I could handle. American history, which was also interesting, but what would I do with that?

Over the weeks I hiked the alpine meadows, climbed the serrated peaks, camped on the shores of mirrored lakes, and a slow dawning of purpose crept up on me. What I was passionately involved in at that time was wilderness adventure and outdoor education. As a sideline of my academic experience I had been pulled into outdoor programs, building ropes courses, taking part in outdoor group challenges. Why not make that my major?

I returned to campus, wrote up my own major, and two years later, graduated with a degree in Outdoor and Environmental Education with a much higher GPA than I’d maintained as a floundering underclassman. Unlike most of my classmates, I went on to work in my field for the next decade.

Years later, married and living in Montana, where we had become fledgling home owners and where my freelance writing career was just gaining some traction, Marypat and I were struggling with starting a family. For more than four years we rode the monthly emotional roller-coaster trying to get pregnant. We both endured medical tests, tried various and sometimes ludicrous fertility techniques, and suffered through repeated miscarriages. It seemed like every time we grew hopeful enough to start a list of baby names, within days Marypat would find telltale blood, followed by crushing disappointment. Our failure to succeed at this basic natural function, a function we’d both zealously guarded against ever since becoming sexual beings, took a toll. It sapped our resilience, cast our future in shadow, strained our ability to console and encourage each other. Something had to give.

What we came up with as a means to spur us on to the next phase in our lives was to take a really long wilderness expedition. We decided to paddle a canoe across Canada, spend the winter in an inaccessible cabin on the shores of Lake Athabasca, and return, more than a year later, with what we hoped would be renewed purpose and a vision of our future together.

Months later, months full of dehydrating food, gathering equipment, planning logistics, saving money, we set our red canoe in the roiling current of the Smoky River in Alberta and set off, alone together on a quest to save our partnership and find a direction forward.

Fast-forward to January of that journey, at the dark depths of a northern winter along the frozen shores of Otherside Bay in northern Saskatchewan, some 300 miles from the nearest paved road, when Marypat missed her period. By that point we were so spooked by our history of failure that neither of us mentioned it. We both knew, but we weren’t about to jinx our chances. Every time Marypat came back from the outhouse, I studied her face for clues, but never said a word.

Weeks passed. Weeks of -40 and -50 degree cold. Weeks of indescribable northern lights. Weeks of wolf howls and lynx tracks and pure white willow ptarmigan bursting out of snow burrows. Not until nearly four months had gone by did we bring it up. Even then, we never talked names, never dared confidence. We slid past the dangerous topics the way we snuck past the edges of whitewater in our canoe. At night, I held my partner, my hand resting on her rounding belly, and said nothing.

That expedition began our family. We completed our journey across the tundra barrens of northeastern Canada. Marypat returned home seven months large. We found a midwife and in late October, our son Eli, our child of the North, was born in our bedroom.

Two more children followed in the coming years, disputing the medical wisdom that we’d have little luck following our initial success. No telling what matrix of factors contributed to that isolated, boreal triumph, but in our minds and hearts, there is no doubt that immersing ourselves in wild space, months on end, had absolutely everything to do with it.

It isn’t that wandering around in nature is always a revelatory panacea. Nor do I anticipate any Siddhartha-like levels of enlightenment. The fact is that things come clear when I strip away the distractions of life. Dreams become more vivid. Insights emerge. Confusion subsides. The clamor of news and deadlines and conflicting information and life’s details – from forgetting my login for my bank account to signing up for Medicare – recede. In the relative mental calm that ensues, priorities shuffle into place, my perspective comes into focus, the things that seem so all consuming in the thick of urban life look minor and a little pathetic from afar. Life on the trail isn’t always easy or comfortable. There are times when I long for creature comforts like a warm bed, good pizza, or a door to close against the storm. But, time and again in the arc of my life, the sharpened view that resolves in wild places has helped me find my way.

Interestingly, the longer the wilderness immersion, the clearer and calmer my state of mind becomes. After a three-day weekend out on the trail I feel refreshed and reinvigorated. But on our trip lasting 14 months, paddling a boat across the continent and hunkering down in a remote cabin for ten months of winter, that calm center kept deepening. There was a plateau a few weeks in, that point when I became aware of having achieved ‘river time’, but on Day 400, the clarity and mental peace were still growing more profound.

 

My teaching duties ended in early May. Over the next week or two I wrapped up grading final papers, submitting course grades online, finishing evaluations. Summer stretched ahead, as usual, but at the end of that hiatus, this time around, there would be no resumption of classes, no bike commutes up to campus, no staff meetings, no class prep. Instead, the next phase of life opening on the horizon, with its special mix of anticipation and angst. What would I do with it?

I did have some plans. A family reunion, some writing projects I’d been waiting to get to, people I’d like to visit. I realized, too, that every month of summer I had a river trip on the calendar. It just developed that way – invitations, opportunities, traditions – from May through August, river trips were already booked. What if, I thought, I continued that theme? What if I tried to schedule some sort of river trip every month of the year, from May to May? For one thing, it would give me a framework on which to start cobbling together my retirement. More important, that time on the water, time away from distraction, might clarify some more coherent intent and direction. Along the way, I might find some level of contentment. It might also help me cope with the tendencies that might otherwise create my personal mine field.

On the one hand, the idea seemed frivolous – a first-world solution to a first-world problem. Then again, what more meaningful exercise might I take on than to immerse myself in the environments I’d always found so profound and life-affirming.

I know well that wild journeys never go according to plan. That is part of the plan, to be surprised and challenged, delighted and daunted, entangled and set free. It isn’t called a frontier for nothing.

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Anticipation!

I know, it’s too early. I can’t help it. Still February, still shoveling snow, still out skiing, still thinking about pipes freezing. Nevermind. I’m starting to feel that pulse. The sun is inching back. Warm, bright days punctuate the winter gray. Despite everything, despite knowing better, despite falling prey to this trap every winter, I feel the faint pulse of flowing water start to beat. Inside of me, that pulse is ticking quietly away, even as I ski the snowbound trails under the white peaks burdened with snow.

Every winter, when this feeling surges up, I am transported north, back in time to our winters spent on the austere, hushed shore of Lake Athabasca. There, after the dark burial of brutal cold and unrelenting darkness, month after month, the sun began to boom back into the sky. Still cold, still buried, but the light came back in great bounds, expanding our days. By early March the eaves dripped on warm days. The nearby river began to beat back against the armored vise of ice. The sounds of current whispered faintly in the distance.

Then, as soon as the narrowest lane of water opened in the bay, birds came back. Bald eagles, loons, ducks, song birds. After the muffled silence of winter, the air was full of sound, that spring symphony. When the bay opened, birds came in flocks. Geese, ducks, tundra swans. I remember a sun-drenched morning full of what sounded like flapping canvas in a wind, and looked out to see 60 tundra swans lifting off of the bay. God, what a rush!

There, still trapped by the season, with months to go before the ice on the big lake would finally disappear, the beat of running current, the urgency to participate, the ache to feel the pull of paddle, the dance of whitewater, the hushed peace of a mirrored lake at dawn, became almost unendurable.

And now, decades later, farther south, less in touch with my surroundings, I am still prone to that flush of restlessness in the blood, that urgency to be in on the burgeoning flow, to see what comes around the bend. The promise is there, the light is returning, soon the snow will melt off the eaves, run off the hillsides, fill the green valleys, and I will be there in a boat, dancing down the miles.

Yes, too early, I know, but how sweet the anticipation.47a4d622b3127cce98548ae29dbf0000003510wEatHLNy2aM2rg

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Patterns

Think of it like a river. (I know, it’s my go-to metaphor, but bear with me.) Like life, the currents in a river are constant and steady and timeless, made up of simple forces of nature. In a river it is an act combining coalescing water molecules, gravity, and topography, acting together in a dynamic choreography. At the same time, the formula is ever-changing, responding to obstacles, weather, season, the ponderous interplay of natural forces punctuated by occasional dramatic events like a flash flood. Constant, yet dynamic, like life.

Our move to Butte a few months ago was akin to a flash flood washing debris down a side canyon, depositing boulders in the main stem of river and creating a new rapid. The flow of water adapts, feels its way through the new obstacles, finding paths, damming, momentarily checked, moving things, making noise, and setting off ripple effects, new fluvial dynamics, felt up and downstream.

As with our move, the river persists, largely unchanged, and yet, in subtle ways, in new patterns, in tremors felt throughout the watershed, it is fundamentally altered. That constancy, with variations, is what makes moving current so mesmerizing, so fascinating, so engaging and surprising and refreshing, and also so tricky and deceptive. It has a way of keeping you awake.

Ever since August, when the flash flood event of our recent lives roared down the side canyon, we’ve been adapting and establishing those new patterns. Many of the old ways remain unchanged – our family connections, our partnership, our shared ambitions, all the things we brought with us. But the ripple effects of that move keep playing out, emerging to surprise and challenge and confront us. Like new boulders to work around, we feel our way into the contours of this new life.

Each morning, in the winter pre-dawn darkness, we settle into the sunroom facing south, hot mugs of coffee warming our hands, and greet the day as the sun rises over the East Ridge. Every day at breakfast I randomly pick a poem to read – Mary Oliver reminds me to pay attention, or Billy Collins chides me not to take things too seriously, or W.S. Merwin offers something both inscrutable and insistent, or Robert Frost chimes in with a time-tested nugget of wisdom. We mold ourselves into the contours of our new home, letting it dictate its terms while we assert ours, finding favorite spots, the warm pocket by the heater on the landing, the sun-washed afternoon napping chair, the view over town, the way winds flap the exhaust fan in the upstairs bathroom. We reach out toward trailheads, ski hills, new rivers, find our resources and friendships. The neighbor we buy a car from. The guy across the street I just met, both of us leaning on our snow shovels in a welcome respite from the labor of 6″ of overnight snow. The couple with matching appetites for outdoor adventure who take us to their secret spots. The new slate of radio programs, the budding community food co-op, yoga classes, the favorite bakery and coffee shop, the neighborhood birds coming to our feeders – resident flicker and downy woodpecker, bright chickadees, throngs of house sparrows.

All of it so familiar. All the same forces at work on our lives, and yet, so altered. And, like the new rapid on a river, we approach with trepidation and excitement in equal measure. What will we find? How will it challenge us? Will we stay upright and dry, or learn our lessons the hard way?

The river, and life, rolls on, carrying us, waking us up, bringing us joy and challenge and the simple daily interactions that are inevitable, predictable, surprising, all of it worth facing each day to see where the new flow will bring us around the next bend.

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Little Bubble . . . Big Bubble

“In my personal bubble, I’m doing fine. Pretty good, actually. But when I think outside of my space, when I think about the wider world out there, it gets really depressing. I can hardly go there.”

I’ve been hearing this sentiment a lot. And I’ve been feeling it myself.

In my world, my little personal reality bubble, life is good. As good as ever, really. I have my health (knock wood). I’m not struggling financially. I have my partner and my family for support and company. I have projects and outdoor activities and a sweet daily routine. I have nice neighbors and a solid house and food in the fridge and money in the bank and good books to read and Montana to play in. No complaints. More than that, plenty of reason to be grateful and content. In fact, I said as much to Marypat not long ago. “I think the word that best sums up my state of mind right now is contentment.”

And yet.

Widen the view, pan out, even just a little, and it goes to hell pretty quickly. Obituaries cite Covid-19 as the cause of death for someone local almost every day. Our regional climate is dry and warm and often slightly alarming. Elsewhere it is truly alarming, like, apocalypse alarming. Politics are so far beyond appalling that we have to create new terminology to account for the antics. A few years ago, who would have thought it could get this bad, this crude, this cynically mendacious, this untethered from anything approaching normal? Millions of our brethren are falling through cracks into desperation every day – financial, emotional, nutritional, psychological, physical. And they are left to flounder.

In this existential context, what normally would rise to the level of tragedy gets lost in the immediacy of general emergency. A friend in Bozeman dies suddenly, unexpectedly, too young, and it is quickly obscured by the shitshow in front of us. What might normally constitute a crisis – heart surgery, a cancer diagnosis, jobs lost, a failed marriage, cancelled careers – all of it, no doubt, as personally fraught as ever, is subsumed by the ongoing hurricane of horror.

So I am left with this split-screen duality. I head out for an afternoon ski on sparkling snow, with views of mountain peaks and lovely lodgepole forest glades to glide through. I come home to my partner. We share dinner together. We read books and talk, maybe watch a show. While all around me, as wide as the view can get, things fall apart, lives end every few seconds, politicians play with the survival of masses while they profit corruptly, and another storm/fire/flood hits another part of the world.

I suppose this is a universal tension. Everywhere and in every moment, while one person feels content another faces peril. It has always been so.

As Mary Oliver wrote:

“So many notions fill the day! I give them
gowns of words, sometimes I give them
little shoes that rhyme.

What an elite life!

While somewhere someone is kissing a face that is crying.
While somewhere women are walking out, at two in the morning –
many miles to find water.
While somewhere a bomb is getting ready to explode.”

Yes, only now, that conflict is so heightened, so crushing, so pervasive, that it feels as if those of us who have been spared, the elite, are really just hanging on to the driftwood after a shipwreck, hoping that some, as yet unidentified, rescue will arrive.

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Unplugged!

The morning after Donald Trump got elected in 2016, I faced an 8 am college seminar class. Roughly half the class was giddy with the fact that their crazy candidate had somehow gotten himself elected. The other half of the students were saying, “What the hell just happened?”

I suspect they all knew how I felt, but what I said that morning was more or less this. “It doesn’t matter which side you come down on. What matters, going forward, is that you pay attention. That’s your responsibility as a citizen.”

I have no idea how many of those college kids followed my advice. But there is no doubt that I took it to heart. I have spent these past four years obsessively following the news. I didn’t know how bad it would get. I began by just selecting a news outlet and checking in several times a day. Before long, though, as events kept piling up and appalling bits of news emerged, I added talk shows, podcasts, and a medley of news outlets that I’d click through many times a day to see what was happening. The demoralizing thing, and the thing that kept me going, was that I was sadly gratified by my efforts because more and more unbelievable things kept happening almost daily. It was like watching a slow moving train wreck, absolute morbid fascination and horror.

The Trump presidency, and the descent of the country into a tribal, angry, fractious dissolution, has been a terrible, and also addicting, ride. By turns demoralizing, unbelievable, shocking, sickening and unfathomable. How can this be who we are? I found myself asking.

In 2020, when the election was finally called for Joe Biden, the national sense of relief was palpable. That a candidate who spoke complete sentences, had a plan beyond self-interest, cared about other people, spoke about unity and understanding as opposed to division and discord, and who operated within the bounds of norms we have come to expect, was like spring arriving after a brutal winter.

To hear an acceptance speech that was coherent, upbeat, predictable, understandable, even a bit mundane, was a dose of sunshine and laughter. What will come is daunting. It will be contentious. The forces Trump has unleashed are real and threatening. But maybe, at long last, I can let go of the daily need to dive into the ugly vortex of our country going down the drain. It will be a challenge, especially during the transition, but maybe I can return to the days before politics became a reality horror show.

Fingers crossed!

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Team SOAR! Team SOAR!

For 23 days we got more and more deeply into the groove of River Time. Starting on September 7th, seven of us paddling SOAR inflatable canoes launched on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, near its source at Boundary Creek. On September 29th, 5 of us completed the through journey, down the Middle Fork to the Main Salmon, and on down the river to its confluence with the Snake, where we took out at Heller Bar, just upstream of Lewiston, Idaho. All in all, more than three continuous weeks on the river, traveling some 330 miles, down one of the classic waterways in the West.

By the end, the core group of five paddlers had lost the clamor of the outside world, the political insanity, the daily stresses we all face, the distractions and confusions of the current state of the world. Instead we noticed fledgling great-horned owls on a sandbar as evening fell, we scouted and ran intimidating whitewater, we stayed put during rainstorms and held court under a rain fly, we watched a month of moons wax and wane, we watched a black bear on a slope above camp, we talked about our lives and passions, we played cribbage, we remembered times on the same river with our families. We lost the frenzy of life and instead, embedded ourselves in the flow of a great western river that runs free of dams, prone to floods, full of unexpected surprises, as it gathered itself over the miles into the formidable natural force it is.

It was surprisingly easy to pull off. Sure, we had to secure a permit for the Middle Fork a year ahead of time. We had to navigate the permit process virtually due to the virus, we had to figure out the vagaries of a complicated shuttle regime and some food resupply options. We had to figure out how to get rid of poop now and then. All of that went smoothly, aided by a few companions coming and going as we went down the sections of the river.

What stands out is the gathering filaments of water coursing under the hulls of our boats, from a bony shallow flow at the start, to a powerful force by the end. What stands out is the simple and profound satisfaction of running a river from top to bottom without a break. What stands out is the simple pleasure of sharing that sort of adventure with companions who are competent, spirited, flexible, humorous, careful, honest, upbeat, and true.

The most common refrain we heard from people we saw along the way was, “Wow, that’s epic! I’ve always wanted to do that.” Our response . . . well, then, get going. It’s not that hard. And it’s totally worth it.

As with all worthy river journeys, ideas for future major trips were hatched along the way, so stay tuned. At the take-out at Heller Bar, the 5 of us joined in a messy group hug. “It’s been a while since I got to the end of a really long trip and felt like it was still ending too soon,” I said.

The only down side was that Marypat and I picked up the first presidential debate on our way home. We lasted about 10 minutes before we had to turn off that abomination. And we very nearly turned the car around and headed back for more river time!

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