Check That Box

On our fridge is a list of stuff we have on our adventure/outing to-do list. Some of it is pretty aspirational (travel to Ireland), but most is quite attainable (local trails, bike rides, paddling). One of them is to finish our top-to-bottom float of the Clark Fork River drainage. It’s a quest years in the making.

Decades ago we paddled Alberton Gorge, downstream of Missoula, a section notable for it’s whitewater quality, but until we moved to Butte our attention had been on other destinations. Then, a couple of years back we got skunked by low water on a Yampa River permit, and ended up paddling nearly 100 miles of the lower Clark Fork from Alberton, through the Alberton Gorge, and all the way down to the confluence with the Flathead River near Paradise, Montana. That, combined with our move to Butte, at the head of the drainage, got us thinking about putting it all together.

A parade of friends in boats in the robust beauty of Alberton Gorge.

A parade of friends in boats in the robust beauty of Alberton Gorge.

Since then we have been nibbling away at it. Over the past couple of summers we’ve been strapping boats on the rig, loading a shuttle bike, and taking on small chunks of the upper drainage – Warm Springs to Racetrack, for example . . . Garrison to Phosphate . . . Gold Creek to Drummond. Day outings with a frontage road or ranch road biking option for our shuttles. We got as far as Drummond, 60 miles downstream of home, where it got more and more difficult to pull off day outings and put together doable bike shuttles.

This past week we committed to the final 100-mile leg, taking the tandem canoe loaded with food and camping gear, and gave ourselves 5 days to pull it off.

Every river has its character – boisterous, sedate, waltzing, full-throated, lethargic – I’d call the Clark Fork a river in recovery (from us!). It runs alongside the interstate and railroad track. It courses through ranches, towns, industry, and rural lands. Most egregiously, it endured the onslaught of mining in upstream Butte, which was punctuated by whopping floods in 1908 that sluiced down unguessable quantities of mine waste and tailings in deposits as much as 10-feet deep, all the way to the Milltown Dam just upstream of Missoula. It was industrial pollution of gobsmacking proportions.

Mining ended in the 1980s and the entire drainage has been recovering (with some remedial help from us) ever since. And yet, paddling it, we often lost that sense of industrial shitshow in the cadence of the flow, in the spreading cottonwoood groves, in the riffles and channels, in the sounds of birds and chattering current. There are, to be sure, moments of confrontation with what we have done. ‘Slickens’, or dead zones, left behind by toxic mine wastes that still persist. Excavations and diversions and riprap and jetties constructed to manage and contain and deflect the river.

This past week we rode down the slide of gravity, heading for the confluence with the Columbia River far downstream in Idaho, past ranches, through Missoula, under highway bridges, camping next to the highway one night, and then serenaded by boisterous coyotes the next. Much like the Yellowstone River, that other Montana great watershed that runs the gauntlet of humanity going east, the Clark Fork perseveres, reasserts itself, finds a way through and around and despite us.

Marypat in Tumbleweed Rapid in Alberton Gorge.

Marypat in Tumbleweed Rapid in Alberton Gorge.

And we rode that watery rail of juxtaposition – wild and untamable, hemmed in and subdued, gritty and pure, frail and robust. Moments of danger, lovely moonrises, the cacophany of humanity, the serenity of purling river, hours of steady paddling, drifting along at the pace of current, under the gaze of bald eagle and osprey, in the company of fox and white-tail and coyote. Whispering past civilization, camping under the noses of motorists, passing college coeds on the riverbank, waving to trains, or ghosting through dawn mists.

From Montana Street in Butte, at the start of Silver Bow Creek, all the way to Paradise, we checked that box. (And yes, I know, the Clark Fork continues on into Idaho and beyond, but below the confluence with the Flathead, it turns into a massive flow, punctuated by dams and reservoirs. No thanks.)

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Far North

Well, if you run a blog, I guess it’s on you to keep it current, which I haven’t been doing lately. It’s not that nothing has happened since spring, it’s just that I haven’t gotten around to posting about it. My fault, but hey, it’s my blog.

I’m just back from a two-week river expedition in the Northwest Territories of Canada on the Elk River, a tributary of the Thelon in the central barrenlands. It was a return to that evocative landscape so reminiscent of our early trips on the Kazan and Dubawnt drainages, that rolling, endless tundra terrain full of whispers of native peoples, wildlife, and horizon after horizon of people-less landscape. It is not as panoramic or stunning as the western Arctic, but there is something stirring and compelling about it that I can’t fully explain.

First, some take-aways:

  • it was my first return to the barrens since 2004, when we pulled off an epic family expedition in honor of Eli’s coming-of-age transition on the Kazan River;
  • it was my first all-male journey in a long time (mostly I’ve gone with family, or just Marypat, or with a group of couples). This trip there were six of us from Colorado, Montana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, ranging from 40-something to 70, some with long histories together, others who had never met;
  • the trip was yet another saga of travel snafus – canceled flights, road closures due to forest fires, epic drives;
  • timing was everything – we were lucky to arrive on time because of road closures on the single highway into Yellowknife. Then, after the trip, we made a hasty escape on that same highway, with flames on the side of the road. The other trip members had to contend with another canceled flight, rescheduled itinerary, lost baggage. Then, just days after our escape, the entire city of Yellowknife was under an evacuation order and several communities we had just driven through were burnt to the ground;
  • we indulged a chill pace on the journey – 14 days for an itinerary you could pretty easily paddle in 7. Consequently we enjoyed multiple layover days with lovely hiking along glacial esker ridges, time for contemplation, card games and no hard-and-fast schedule. It was a sweet contrast to earlier trips with a more unbending timeline and the stress of falling behind.

Rather than try to recount a blow-by-blow trip narrative, I’m going to let a few of my journal excerpts speak for the journey. (I’ll try to insert a few photos later, when I get that organized).

Aug. 4 – Day 5: We are in a singularly beautiful spot. A crescent of sand beach, open park-like tundra on a bench above, punctuated with scraggly stands of spruce. The water is mirror calm, the sky faintly cloudy, like gauze. Loons yodel in the distance. I’m inside the tundra tarp unaffected by bugs. Washed out a pair of underwear and a tee shirt. Enjoying another cup of coffee . . .

Had a nice late morning stroll up behind camp on a broad esker plateau. Sweeping views back up river, the lake, other more distant esker systems. On top the glacial litter of boulders and gravel, old musk ox tracks and scat, a few desiccated trees. A whaleback of land from which to glass a vast quadrant of tundra, marsh, lakes, willow. Nothing moving. A quiet tapestry of land under the pale summer northern sky.

Aug. 7 – Day 8: It’s late evening. The setting sun sends its lambent glow across the tundra, under the clouds, flaming this austere scene. Full of quiet water, calling loons, ancient boulders. We put in a solid day of paddling into a light head and cross-wind. Stopped to look for wolf dens without finding any. Stopped again to fish for grayling in a riffle. Spent a long afternoon slogging across wide, lakey miles. Our hoped-for destination turned out to ba a rocky shoreline, but we found an alternative tundra site that has grown on everyone. Reminiscent of many tundra camps along the Kazan and other rivers.

I cooked dinner tonight – African stew with appetizers and a dessert. We listened to the final life story, from Mark. Each one unique and vivid and ultimately personal, shared with emotion and heart, humor and tears. We now have a foundation of meaningful personal history to build from.

Loons flying overhead in the late day sky, a harrier, some willow ptarmigan. Still looking for big mammals – a musk ox, a caribou, a wolf, a bear, some life in the empty space.

Aug. 9 – Day 10: We are officially in base camp mode. We have four days before pick up, and about three miles to paddle. Today is on our own to walk and explore, do chores, take baths, cook bannack, relax. It’s a unique feeling for me, contrasting with so many past trips where we had to keep up a daily mileage average and where weather or wind delays were cause for concern, fretful interludes waiting for a break. These days are more in my friend Lee’s style, taking a month to do a river that you could easily paddle in two weeks. Where you settle into a landscape, let it enfold you, sit and observe it, be fucking quiet for once.

Not that we are necessarily quiet, at least as a group. We also have pretty vociferous discussions and a general hubbub of conversation. That is part of the scene here as a group, and a good part. The morning two-cups-of-coffee debates over climate and population and economy and social ills. The raucous evening rounds of card games. The giving-each-other-shit banter that is a fairly constant undertone, good-natured stuff with a whiff of an edge that comes with personal history, inside jokes, and general comfort with each other. That part is valuable too, and also often absent on a more driven journey, on which everyone is watching to see if they’re lagging on packing up for the day or getting a meal done, or staying up with the other boats.

It is a relief not to feel that daily push. Perhaps a mark of age too, because there is a youthful energy and allure attached to the more goal-oriented style, the heroic days, the epic stories. Call it the retirement pace, or the Lee pace, but I must say that it’s growing on me. It makes me feel more available to northern trips to come in this style. . . .

Something about stripping down naked along the river, washing a few clothes, soaping up armpits and crotch, washing hair while the arctic terns cry in the distance, a sandpiper peeps up the shore, the constant hum of insects becomes a kind of white noise. Then sitting there, pale and clean in the sun, drying out, a slight breeze against the skin. The slowly inching river slides by on its way to the Thelon, over Granite Falls, picking up the pace, an inexorable coalescing of molecules jostling toward the sea. Water molecules our boats have been borne along by, through the miles and storms and winds, corners and pools and riffles and falls – stillness and noise. This symphony of place where time stalls out in the vast ebb and flow that encompasses the coming and going of glaciers, the slow erosion of landscape, the movements of life, including us, all choreographed by chance and fate and change. Here before us, here after we are gone, when we are rendered just another sedimentary layer, remarkable only for its strangeness.

Aug. 11 – Day 12: A passing cumulus dropping rain glanced our camp with gusts of wind. I had to hang on to the tundra tarp for probably twenty minutes as the cloud slowly passed. It lathered up the lake with whitecaps, buffeted the tents, blew my chair around. I guyed out things, put rocks on tent corners, zipped doors shut. Probably would have been okay had I been gone, but maybe not.

These trips as I age have a nostalgic flavor to them. Partly it has to do with the memories sparked as I go, past trips, the energy of youth, former partners, camps and currents and landscapes that I am reminded of. The shards of personal history evoked by whatever.

Also, the question, each journey, of whether it might be my last one to the Far North. I remember paddling the final miles of the Kazan in my fifties, with the boys in the canoe, that river so potent with power and momentum, and thinking with a surge of real grief that it would, in all likelihood, be my last trip there. How I felt so buoyed and exhilarated, and also so stricken, in that last urgent flush of current.

In a quieter way, it is the same here in this rustling camp with the lake sparkling and the clouds in slow parade and the land spreading away so vast. That this might be it. Anything could happen. Cancer. Civil war. Financial ruin. The creep of age finally closing the door. This could be it, today, the final chapter in the minor personal saga that is my dabble in adventure.


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Goldilocks Pick

This Plan B world asserted itself once again on our March getaway to the desert southwest.

To begin, on our departure morning, March 15, 6 am, we crept out of town on icy roads, made it about 5 miles, and confronted a sign on I-15 south informing us that the highway was closed to the Idaho border.  In the few miles before the next exit, we explored alternate routes to get around the closure, all of which seemed ridiculous and riddled with their own fraught possibilities. Turn around, creep back home, spend the day shoveling snow and biding time.

Reboot on the 16th, with better results, arriving at friend’s in St. George, Utah in time for a stroll and dinner. The day delay allowed us to drive the 2-lane across northern Arizona to Lee’s Ferry, (closed the day before due to snow) on the way to Prescott, sighting a couple of condors along the way. All good.

The overarching reason for our journey south was the possibility of floating the Salt River in southern Arizona. It’s a tough permit to get, and even if you score one, the likelihood of having enough water to float is iffy. Our friend, Lee, got the permit, and this year, with all the ‘atmospheric river’ activity going on, looked promising.

Indeed, as we closed in on Prescott, the signs of whopping moisture, snow-capped peaks, and recent flooding were everywhere. Flagstaff was blanketed in snow, Oak Creek canyon was full of flood debris, the Verde River, normally a creek with a couple hundred cfs flowing through it, had boomed to 50,000 cfs in recent days. The Salt got up to 12,000 cfs, and our upper limit for tolerating whitewater anxiety was 5,000.

For the next few days, enjoying Lee and Truly’s good company, going for mountain bike rides and hikes, we kept checking river gauges. There was hope. The Verde dropped back down, the Salt kept moderating. As our launch date approached, it looked promising. Only, another pulse of wet weather was looming on the close horizon, predicted to arrive right around our launch day. The river ranger predicted another spike, possibly even higher than the last one, during our float. “It could go to 20,000,” he said.

We huddled, we pondered, we alternately accused each other of being wimps and cowered at the prospect to raging water and long, scary swims in the event of capsizes. In the end we went to Plan B, picking the Gila River in New Mexico. It has also been on our trip radar for decades. It, too, is a flow often too low to run. And the wet weather was tending to miss that watershed. Longer drive, new shuttle arrangements, different maps, some changes in gear.

We drove out of Prescott in a pounding rain storm. Flagstaff was predicted to get 6 inches of snow, followed by rain, followed by another 10 inches of snow. Another big glut of water looked inevitable. Phoenix, Tucson, and finally Silver City, NM in time for an early dinner in a brew pub. Then a tortuously winding road up and over the continental divide, and steeply down into the valley of the Gila.

We camped at a closed campground near the Grapevine launch site and put in the following morning, along with a slug of other boaters (many of whom had made the same Plan B choice we had – we called ourselves “Salt River Refugees”). After a tour of the Gila cliff dwellings and a recon with the shuttle service, we launched around mid-day on roughly 600 cfs of muddy river sluicing through the intensely beautiful Gila Wilderness.

For the next six days we were held in the spell of that valley and the surrounding landscape – volcanic layers in cliffs and peaks and ridges, stunning sycamore trees shining white in the sun, tributary valleys with ancient graneries and petroglyphs, occasional hot springs, signs of recent flooding. The paddling was engaging. The river is a heads up series of challenges. Every bend is a potential minefield of downed trees or braiding channels. Paddling requires constant vigilance and quick choices. At the same time, it isn’t terrifying or pushy. For hours at a time we paddled along in a challenging, fun rhythm through the winding miles, entertained by the topography, sighting new birds, dealing with obstacles, threading the needle through rock gardens or deadfall.

We had enough time to award ourselves with half-days and a layover day with opportunities for hiking, rock hounding, and letting the landscape sink in. It was cold enough that we had thick ice on the water bucket every morning, and headed to the warmth of sleeping bags before 9 at night. The group chemistry geled. The river entertained. The country seduced. All the way to the end the river challenged and engaged us – walking shallow rapids, hitting narrow slots through deadfall, missing walls on sharp bends.

On Day 6, the warmest day of the journey, we coasted up to Mogollon Creek and the line up of our shuttled vehicles. A Plan B worthy of Plan A status. No one regretted choosing the Gila.

Two days later, back in Prescott, we looked back on the wisdom of our choice. As it turned out, the Salt had indeed peaked at almost 17,000 cfs during our window. That would have been daunting indeed. And the Verde, it had zoomed up to nearly 100,000 cfs, an unprecedented flood level that had us all envisioning the fear and loathing of being caught in such an onslaught of river charging through a broad floodplain without high ground. I’d say that the Gila was just right.

Back in Butte now, regrouping, drying out, shoveling. Winter still has us in its grip here. The snow in our front yard is several feet deep, ski areas are buried, the snowpack is upwards of 100% everywhere, and we aren’t changing out snow tires any time soon. Paddling season in Montana is looking good, but it isn’t happening for a while.


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The Era of Plan Bs . . .

Of course that fickle finger of fate has caused mischief with best-laid plans forever. Just when things are all dialed in, something comes up – a death in the family, a freak blizzard, an economic crash, a vehicle break down, a sudden illness. It has always been so.

Also, it’s true that people of my generation in America have had the incredible good luck to live during a period of comfort, health, economic stability and a general lack of mayhem and tragedy. We’ve had our shaky moments, to be sure, but it’s hard to imagine a better span, or a better location, to have been born into. Pure luck.

That said, it has become clear in recent years that, to an unnerving degree, we have entered more uncertain times, and that being able to count on much of anything to work out as planned is a crapshoot – from taking a trip to counting on retirement, from buying a house to finding half-and-half at the store.

The biggest single culprit in this phenomenon lately has been the advent of Covid. For years now, since early 2020, Covid has laid waste to millions of lives, and impacted the health of millions more who have survived its scourge. For most of us, the round of plague has meant putting life on a prolonged Plan B course correction – stay home, lose jobs, work remotely, miss graduations/weddings/reunions/birthdays, skip school, don’t travel, deal with solitude, deal with scarcity, deal with grief, deal with masks, deal with boredom. Deal. From missed concerts to missed deaths, Covid made us all cope with profound uncertainty. It required us to make judgement calls on behavior. It made us miss out on things both profound and trivial.

But something more insidious and wide-ranging seems also to be going on here. In addition to the wallop of Covid on life, there appears to be a rising confluence of issues weighing in on those best-laid plans and creating havoc of our intentions. The tributary streams creating this river of unpredictability include the myriad effects of climate change, the alarming and global phenomenon of political unrest, the intrusion of health issues, and what seems to be a frail infrastructure struggling to hold everything together and failing with distressing frequency.

In my small and privileged sphere I’ve had to reschedule the last three months of canoe expeditions in my year of monthly journeys due to Covid; had to call off a Yampa River trip due to a lack of water; missed a Hamilton performance because I tested positive for Covid; had to call off a solstice cabin outing because of -40 winter temperatures; dealt with two cancelled flights on one trip; called off a family reunion because of Covid and travel logistics; and I’m forgetting/repressing a good deal. Many of my friends have had similar problems – wilderness trip permits canceled due to fires or floods or drought, trips thrown into chaos due to illness or political unrest, important transitions unmarked; careers derailed, school put on hold, deaths unattended. Others have had far more trying ordeals. Consider the millions of travelers this past Christmas season dealing with a week of horrific weather and airline failures. Consider all the people who lost jobs and still haven’t recovered. Consider those with lingering and debilitating symptoms of Covid. Consider travelers caught up in the post-election riots in Peru recently, never mind those rotting in foreign jails for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and becoming political pawns.

All that doesn’t even touch the true misery of crises gripping so much of humanity. My experience is superficial and trivial compared to war and famine and political tyranny and societal dysfunction. I speak from a privileged vantage, enjoying the comfort and security so many crave. I have no business complaining, and yet, my inconveniences speak to a wider phenomenon. What manifests in my life as a need to be nimble and flexible, open to change, resourceful with options, the challenge to make lemonade of lemons, is a much more profound and ominous trend in the wider world. The confluence of political turmoil, health threats, environmental upheaval, and our fraying ability to juggle it all may lead to a reality in which Plan Bs will be a necessary survival tool, and the stakes won’t be as benign as an altered trip itinerary, but life and health and happiness itself.

More than anything, I hope I’m wrong.




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Affirmation Journey

Less than a month after we returned from our Alaskan adventure, we left home again, this time for Peru. I’m not much of a world traveler, but our family friend Liz has been working in Peru this past year on a Fulbright Scholarship. Sawyer spent a morning with us on the computer and was able to finagle three round trip tickets to Lima for something like a total of $200 using credit card miles and the like. Liz’s time in Peru is winding up in a couple of months, and her invitation to come and see the country was compelling.

So, in mid-October, off we went. It was a little complicated. Ruby decided to join us, and was traveling separately. The deal we were able to work out through Sawyer was a tad convoluted – our tickets involved us driving to Seattle, flying to Washington DC where we would endure a 7 hour layover, then flying to Bogota and on to Lima. Then, after a day in Lima, another flight on to see Liz in the northern highland city of Chachapoyas.

We talked ourselves into this gambit because Sawyer had friends in Seattle he wanted to visit before we left. We decided we could use the DC layover to take public transport and visit the Washington Mall. Blah, blah, blah. Anyway, from afar it all seemed plausible, if a bit challenging.

Now we’re back and everything has settled back down to its normal routine. And I’ve had a chance to ruminate on our journey and reach some conclusions. Two of them, in fact, that affirm attitudinal leanings I’ve harbored for a while now. They are no longer ‘leanings’. They are now firm beliefs.

First, that modern air travel is an absolute shitshow. This is particularly true, if you, like me, have a long enough arc to remember how chill and pleasant air travel once was. Back when you could stroll with your companion to the gate and see them off, and come to the gate and wave a welcome when they returned. Back when invasive, humiliating searches weren’t the status quo. Back when you actually conferred with humans to negotiate travel plans rather then computer screens demanding login information.Back when you actually got meals on flights rather than tiny packets of dry pretzels.

Everything, these days, is complicated, onerous, uncomfortable, and stressful. Even when things go according to plan, we are subjected to snaking long lines while the clock ticks down toward our departure time, obnoxious searches of our luggage and person, demanding computer kiosks, crowded and uncomfortable seating from waiting areas to plane seats . . . you get the picture. We’ve all been there. And that’s when things go well.

When things don’t go well. . . In our case the layover in DC went more or less according to plan. We figured out public transport and spent a drizzly half-day wandering the national mall, touring the Botanical Gardens and the Art Museum, reflecting on the Reflecting Pool, gazing at the Monument. A bit bleary, and a little damp, but definitely worth it. We got to Lima late at night, 24 hours after leaving Seattle, and booked an AirBnB, slept in, toured Lima on foot the next day, enjoyed local food, reckoned with travel lag. The next morning our flight to Chachapoyas was inexplicably delayed and we hung out with fellow travelers at the gate for hours, waiting for explanations, which finally came via a bus that pulled up, loaded us up, took us back to reclaim our bags, and explained that due to weather, the flight had been cancelled.

Marypat and Sawyer sleeping off airport frustration

Marypat and Sawyer sleeping off airport frustration

Another day in Lima, another night in an AirBnB, another Uber ride or two, more exploring of a city we’d really rather not be in. None of it compensated for or assisted in by the tiny airline that serviced our destination. Only the next day did we manage to fly out and make it to see Liz, and Ruby, who had actually managed to match her itinerary.

Ten days later, when we returned, our flight back from Chachapoyas to Lima was inexplicably delayed by several hours, but did eventually fly. Another afternoon in Lima with the kids, spent nicely enough, and then back to the airport for flights out. Through baggage claim, through TSA, through Customs, off to our gates. We said goodbye to Ruby and boarded our plane, which then sat at the gate for an extra hour before explaining that a dashboard switch had to be repaired. Fine, we eventually pushed off, only to sit, unmoving on the tarmac for another unexplained hour, before the pilot came on the say that one engine wasn’t firing. We sat for another couple of hours in our uncomfortable seats while they tried to fix the plane, before finally declaring that the flight was cancelled. Off the plane, onto a bus, back to baggage to reclaim our luggage, back through customs, and then into a long, glacial line of disgruntled passengers who proceeded to go up to the desk and plead their particular travel distress to the agent and try to work things out. Several hours later we finally got our hotel and meal vouchers, went to a waiting bus, before taking an interminable route to the hotel where we would have to spend yet another day in Lima before taking the replacement flight back home. All in all, that debacle at the airport lasted from 8:30 at night until 5 am the following morning.

Having fun while anticipating another flight cancellation.

Having fun while anticipating another flight cancellation.

Thankfully, 24-hours later we finally boarded a plane that managed to successfully get airborne and deliver us back to Seattle, where we immediately got into our car and drove back to Montana. Sorry for the long-winded delivery, but you have to admit, that was a shitshow of gigantic proportions.

Air travel is no longer anything but an ordeal to hopefully survive. And hopefully the travel travail is made worth it by the quality of the time in the destination.

Which brings me to conclusion number two (a much more pleasant one!). When traveling to a foreign place, and especially one in which you don’t speak the language, it is an incalculable advantage to have an ambassador in place who can help facilitate your visit. Either that, or book a tour that will take all the logistical challenges off your shoulders. (The tour is a poor second choice to having an ambassador – more money, less freedom, less authentic . . .).

In our case, once we got to Chachapoyas, we were in Lizzie’s hands and our visit proceeded in very rewarding style. Liz speaks the language fluently. She has been in place for the better part of a year and has developed friends, knows out of the way restaurants, has established relationships with vendors at the market, and has explored the region. As such, she was able to put together a string of wonderful days with us, packed with sights and experiences that delivered a true sense of Peru – the people, the customs, the food, the geography.

Ruby and Sawyer p\overlooking Chachapoyas

Ruby and Sawyer p\overlooking Chachapoyas

Before our trip, we juggled the decision of whether to try and fabricate our own top ten things to do in Peru – backpacking to Machu Picchu, going to hummingbird hotspots, visiting the Amazon headwaters, traveling to the high peaks of the Andes . . . It was that, or concentrate on the part of Peru where Liz lives and dive more deeply. I’m relieved to say we chose the latter option, and are very grateful to have done so.

Typical Peruvian valley in the highlands.

Typical Peruvian valley in the highlands.

With her guidance and in her company, we stayed at sweet, off-the-radar places with home-cooked meals for less than $20/night. We walked trails through jungle vegetation to a stunning series of waterfalls. We sat at a little coffee shop and watched hummingbirds. We walked back roads up panoramic, cliff-walled valleys with flocks of green parrots flying by. We toured local ruins from pre-Inca civilizations. We had a zany day of rafting on a local river, all to ourselves. We got invited to a friend’s house who provided a memorable Peruvian lunch. And we became comfortable in a town, through Liz, where we conversed with local shop owners, wandered the streets, took in local events, watched funeral processions, bird-watched, petted dogs, and enjoyed meals via Liz’s connections and facility with the language.

Marypat embraced by a tree on a jungley, waterfall-studded hike.

Marypat embraced by a tree on a jungley, waterfall-studded hike.

Our ten days in country, with Liz as our guide and translator, more than made up for the agony of the air travel. Still, I think I’d consider driving all the damn way to Peru next time, just to avoid that shitshow!!!

Not on the tourist circuit!

Not on the tourist circuit!

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Alaska’s Noatak River: A Month of Near Misses

To begin with, that all ten of us, and our literal ton of gear, made it to Kotzebue, Alaska at the same time and in good shape is a small miracle. Arriving from Montana, Washington, Arizona, Texas, each coping with long drives, airport snafus, elderly parents at death’s door, monstrous and unwieldy baggage, everyone coalesced at the correct gate in the Anchorage airport to board the final leg to the edge of wilderness near the Arctic Circle. It is also a statement of the times that not one of us came down with Covid on the eve of departure, an eventuality that seemed entirely likely, and that would have thrown plans into a state of turmoil.

On the ground the next morning, ready to fly in to the gravel bar on the high reaches of the Noatak, inside the Gates of the Arctic National Park, weather looked decidedly iffy. Rain in town, clouds down to the deck. But the bush pilots bustled around getting us ready, weighing everything, arranging planes. I was skeptical enough that I didn’t change into my trip clothes until they started loading gear into planes. Sure enough, off we flew into the gray skies, flying low enough to look for wildlife up the Kobuk River, up the Ambler drainage, over high mountain passes so close to the ground it seemed like we could have handed an energy bar off to a hiker. Finally, into the broad valley of the Noatak, bounded by rugged peaks, and bouncing down a rough gravel bar where the weather was actually pretty sweet.

“It’s a different world up here,” the pilot said. He got that right.

That sweet window of weather lasted for an afternoon. Long enough for us to fabricate our folding canoes, get camp set up, and enjoy the surroundings. Organizing our gear on the gravel bar, we discovered the careless treatment of our baggage by airport TSA – bags of dried food opened and not properly reclosed, an essential piece of one of the folding canoes misplaced, baggage that we had carefully sealed up left undone . . . another dodged bullet.

That night it started to rain. It rained, off and on, for the next 15 days. We hoped to linger in the most accessible high mountains for the first part of the trip, and we did, but wet weather limited our views of the jagged peaks to fleeting glimpses. Our gravel bar dwindled to the point that we had to abandon camp. On our second morning Lee Lantzen’s tent was surrounded by a moat of rising river and the teepee tent had a stream running through the middle of it. If our flight in had been delayed by a day, who knows when we would have gotten in, or where they would have found a place to land, because our landing zone was under water.

It didn’t rain constantly. We were usually able to find windows in the weather to break camp and set up camp. Everyone was adequately equipped and competent enough to stay dry and warm, but hikes were rubber boot and rain gear affairs, hopping through miles of tussocks to reach low, cloud-shrouded ridges and slopes, sweating from the inside and leaking from the outside. Once or twice we got hammered by pelting storms in the boats, or mistimed breaking camp so that everything got packed away soaked and gritty. Layers of long underwear and bulky puff coats were the standard ensemble. Mega-mids and the teepee tent were essential shelters for cook groups. Zippers kept getting more and more gritty. Most days, tents went up wet and came down wet.

No one wanted to be the weak link when it came to attitude, so while we each had our internal dialog that want something like, “Holy shit, is this the weather we’re going to have for a month?!”, nobody said it out loud. Everyone bucked up, made the best of it, kept the humor going. During breaks in the rain we walked to high points to take in the vast tapestry of arctic land going into a mosaic of fall color. Paddling the long bends of river, ridges and valleys, high peaks and side canyons spread to the horizon, truly immense country on a scale that allows wildlife to live as they are meant to live. Mile after mile of wild terrain, each view full of hidden gems – lakes, canyons, pingos, rocky cliffs, broad tundra expanses, side streams full of evocative promises of what’s around the bend.

Days slid by like the bends of river, then weeks. Every boat had at least one set of binoculars and we ticked off a satisfying list of wildlife sightings – a handful of musk ox, dozens of Dall sheep, regular sightings of wolves, small herds of caribou, and more grizzly than anyone wanted to see. Every shoreline we stopped at, whether for lunch, a hike, or to camp, was adorned with fresh tracks of the big bears. We saw maybe a dozen of them, beautiful and scary, and several were more pushy than was comfortable about being near camp. More than once we woke to find fresh tracks within a few yards of our tents. Both Marypat and I adopted a form of bear-fear denial based on the assumption that no bear was going to mess with a group of ten people. Seemed to work, whether or not the theory holds water.

The Noatak kept rising with all the rain during the first half of the trip. For several days the river was the consistency  and color of wet clay, whispering against the boat bottoms as we paddled. It is a remarkable river. It flows more than 400 miles from the high peaks to the ocean, and has not a single portage, essentially no rapids of consequence, but maintains a steady current that allowed us to knock off 25-30 miles in an easy day. Along the way it covers a span of geography from jagged high peaks to broad tundra plains to boreal forest. Salmon jumped up river much of the month. Anglers in the group pulled out Dolly Varden, grayling, and salmon to add to our diet. On one of the few clear nights we all got to witness a stunning display of northern lights – green and pink and white sheets roiling through the cold sky.

As we left the high peaks in our wakes, the weather settled into a more reasonable pattern, still often gray, but not as consistently wet. On several days we enjoyed brilliant sun that brought out the true beauty of boreal fall (“All the colors of New England, only six inches tall,” noted Lee James). We settled into the rhythm as a group as well. Days off to hike and fish and enjoy camp. Making rounds of bannack bread over fires. Playing cards after dinner in the teepee tent. An occasional round of yoga-stretches before getting into the boats. Bend after bend of country unfurling as the river grew, braiding through miles of gravel bar.

Gyrfalcon and peregrine calling from cliffs. The slap of jumping salmon punctuating the long nights. A hike to a high bank above the Grand Canyon of the Noatak into a rustling grove of poplar, a sanctuary grove if ever there was one. The night, after weeks of gray, when a cold front swooped in, sweeping the sky clean and bathing the valley in tawny, lambent light. The feel of untethered river bearing our boats along. Fragments that stick fast in my memory.

As much as 150 miles upstream of the village of Noatak we started seeing native people in motor boats, coming upriver to hunt caribou and be on the land. At first it seemed like an intrusion, but they are part of this landscape, and they were out getting food for the winter. It is part of the scene. We had several nice conversations with people who stopped to share stories, give us smoked salmon or beluga, or share “Eskimo ice cream” made from caribou fat and berries (surprisingly delicious).

On the morning of Day 33, in mid-September, we pulled into shore near the airstrip in Noatak, hoping our bush flight would show up to take us out to ‘Kotz’. Locals immediately came around to help us ferry gear from the river to the edge of the strip. Our flight kept being delayed, or being put in doubt, by bad weather conditions where the pilots were coming from, so we had an entire day to spend in town or waiting along the gravel strip. “Welcome to Noatak!” residents kept saying. Regular visitors swung by on four-wheelers to visit, tell stories, show us carvings. One woman brought us fresh-baked scones.

Finally, as evening approached, our pilots were able to get in, and we flew over the final miles of winding river and coastal plane, and then across the short ocean stretch between the mouth of the Noatak and the town of Kotzebue. The next evening, after a day touring the tiny northern outpost, we caught our scheduled flight back to Anchorage and on to points south.

Good thing, because the morning after our escape, a Pacific typhoon hit that section of Alaskan coastline with 100 mile winds and a ten-foot storm surge. If we hadn’t made our flight, who knows when we would have gotten out?


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Springtide . . . And More

I sit down to write my predictable yearly ode to the start of the paddling season. But I realize that, this year, it is layered with so much other meaning.

Never fear, the tribute to rivers and springtime and the first outings of the paddling season is as robust and irrepressible as ever. Skiing is all well and good. A nice walk is restorative. I like a long bike ride as well as the next person. But there is nothing, and I mean nothing, so soothing, so exhilarating, so seductive, so compelling, so evocative, so church-like, as riding the back of current; feeling the pulse of water responding to gravity under the hull of a boat and following its cues. Nothing.

And so, some weeks back, at the end of March, we joined our friends Molly and Jeff, Lee and David at Sand Island on the San Juan River in southern Utah. For 10 days we rode the silty flow through gooseneck canyons, past petroglyphs, stopping to explore side canyons and trails. We navigated rapids and played cards by headlamp and studied ancient rock art and wandered around. It was a leisurely jaunt with lots of time for diversions and contemplation and indulging good company.

Soon after our return to Butte, Ruby got in touch and asked if I wanted to go on a dad/daughter trip on the Owyhee River in Oregon. “Of course,” I said. In the end I also invited my friend Grant, who has been a paddling companion for more than 40 years, who was my best man 35 years ago, and who Ruby agreed would be a great addition. The three of us spent the better part of a week descending a low-flow current through the deserts of eastern Oregon, complete with volcanic canyons, fun water, side hikes, and sweet camps.

So, the paddling season has officially begun, with plenty more to come.

What’s more significant is that my recovery from prostate surgery is on track. Three-plus months out now, and bladder control is close to normal – I can go on a rigorous hike and not pee myself (mostly) and I’m back to full activity – gym workouts, bike rides, walks, river trips. The box of pads gathers dust in the bedroom and I hardly need to think about that any more.

Prostate surgery was my second encounter with an ailment that would have killed me a generation earlier. My first confrontation with mortality was my cancerous eye tumor a dozen years ago. Now it’s prostate cancer, which would have done me in if I’d been born fifty years earlier. Twice now I’ve skated past the edge of the abyss. In both cases I was lucky to find the problem in time, and to live in an era of treatment where it could be dealt with. For me, it means life goes on, more rivers will be paddled, more friendships will develop, more time with family will unfurl. I am very cognizant of how precious and frail a thing life is, especially as we age. That I have the good fortune to go on adventures and embrace exhilaration is a daily benediction.

The other thing that has been impressed on me is the value of companions. Family, friends, new acquaintances. More and more every year, I find that what matters is my company, my pod of humanity, the people who I hold in regard and who might hold me in regard. The interaction doesn’t need to be momentous or meaningful. What matters is simple time together and the sense of solidarity that comes from that network of humanity. I like being solitary, too. I often go on walks or rides alone. I enjoy that mental space, the lack of chatter, the focus on contemplation. But it would be a lonely life indeed without friends to chat with, a partner to share life with, children to marvel at, and a farflung web of human connections I feel embraced by.

And so, spring is pushing in all around, rivers are rising, the sun booms up in the mornings, birds flood north, boats are always drying out in the yard, and life is as delicious as ever. Maybe more delicious than ever.




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


Hunkering. That’s what it feels like. Hunkered in, staying solitary, watching the human world flounder. And it isn’t pretty.

No socializing, no going out to eat, no movies, no gym workouts, no school, no yoga. Everything is virtual. The world runs on Zoom meetings. Marypat does virtual workouts in the driveway with the kids, all distanced from each other on their yoga mats, following coaches on a computer screen. We sit with family and close friends only outside and at a distance. If we plan a hike with friends, everyone drives their own car to the trailhead, keeps well spaced on the walk.

We mask up to go in stores, step back if someone gets too close, give each other a wide berth on the sidewalk. Hand sanitizer is suddenly everywhere, every office, every store, every car, every bathroom. When you sign a receipt there’s a bin for clean pens and one for used. The world has a new measurement – six feet, reinforced by marks on the floors, arrows, signs. Mostly we all cloister with our immediate family, or alone.

Stimulus checks arrive. A temporary lifeline for those millions who can’t make rent or haven’t received unemployment checks. Bike stores can’t keep bicycles in stock. RVs are in high demand. Trailheads and fishing access sites are suddenly clogged with people with no job to go to, no travel possible, uncertain finances, nothing to do but get outside. Weddings and funerals and graduations are called off, postponed, or done through computer screens.

Protocol judgment calls confront us many times every day. Go to the grocery store or not. Hug the kids? Even see the kids? Touch the handle of the shopping cart? Leave the store where people aren’t wearing masks? Refuse to see the friend who doesn’t take Covid seriously? Plan ahead?

For me, it’s impossible to be rigidly consistent. How can you not hug your kid? What do you do when one of the little kids at a family gathering runs up to you and throws themselves into your arms? If you start thinking about all the vectors of possible contacts, you drive yourself crazy. Ruby’s roommate who is in a band, the friend who recently traveled, Sawyer’s roommate’s girlfriend who recently tested positive and is quarantined at her parent’s house, all the people you brush past in the grocery aisle, that person who coughed in the post office line . . . endless. I start envisioning viral clouds emanating everywhere, like fogs of breath on a winter day, potential evil vapors steaming from all of us. Total crapshoot.

Inevitably, I am sucked back into the obsessive news habit. What else is there to do? Hours a day trolling through talking heads, podcasts, late night comedy shows, editorial pages. Ironically, some of the most on-target coverage is delivered by comics. And it is morbidly rewarding, sickeningly entertaining. Here’s our president suggesting that we might ingest bleach, or shoot up with ultra-violet sunlight. “It’s worth a try, right?” he asks his medical team at a press conference. “I mean, it seems like something to look into, doesn’t it?” And these professionals have to sit there and nod like he’s sane. Yeah sure, Mr. President, why don’t you go first?

Meantime, people die by the tens of thousands. Not one word of consolation from the administration. Only more denial and fantasy and blame and claims of being the best. More people die than died in the Vietnam War, then double that a few weeks later, the curve spiking up like a hockey stick. It is no longer just New York and Seattle. It’s everywhere. And disinformation mingles with real information like sewage spilling into a river, where it becomes indistinguishable. Young people are immune . . . It’s only as bad as the flu . . . The side effects are horrific and last for months or years . . . You are immune once you get it . . . No, there are cases of people being re-infected . . . Masks are good . . . No, masks are worthless . . . Masks actually make you sicker . . . If you wear a mask you’re a commie elitist . . . If you don’t wear a mask you’re a patriot.

The president targets democratic politicians, tweets “Liberate Michigan!” Right on cue a bunch of self-appointed vigilante ‘keepers of the peace’ show up at the statehouse with automatic weaponry and glower over legislators at work. Meantime black men and women are killed routinely by police every couple of days, while a 17-year-old ‘patriot’ with a big gun kills protestors in Wisconsin and the president says it was self defense. Black Lives Matter protests sprout up across the country. Right wing agitators wave Trump flags and brandish lethal weaponry in response. Somehow election campaigns trudge on, almost off stage, and tribal polarization reaches such a fever pitch that talk of civil war is taken seriously.

Our house sale is on pause. Our realtor understands, although she thinks there are buyers bunching up on the border just waiting to gobble up property. “We have had people get in their car, drive here and demand to see houses,” she tells us. “It’s crazy. We are selling houses, sight unseen, via virtual tours.” Maybe so, but becoming homeless is daunting. Travel is out of the question. We haven’t found a new spot to land. The chance to put it off is seductive. Days pass. Things get crazier and crazier. I fall deeper and deeper into the well.

It is Jeff King who hauls me out.

“I just got back from rescuing my rig!” he tells me over the phone.

“You did what?”

“Yeah, I had my van in storage down in Las Vegas and I was getting a little desperate to bring it back home. I decided to rent a car and go down there. It was incredibly reasonable. I told them I wanted a car that hadn’t been used in at least three days. I packed food in a cooler, wore gloves when I pumped gas, never went in a store. I even got so I calculated wind direction when I pulled in for gas and always went to a pump upwind. I stopped on the side of the road to pee, never went inside a rest area, ate food out of the cooler, took naps in the car. Then I got the van and was on my own, self contained. No one is out there on the highways. Definitely a twilight zone, but pretty easy.”

Huh, I think. Sort of brilliant.

Not a week later, Marypat and I do the same thing.

We rent a car, wipe it down, stock up on food and gloves and sanitizer, drive out of town as it starts to snow. South of Billings the snow quits. The highway is eerily empty. I get flashes of apocalyptic movies – deserted, wind-swept relics of civilization with a few humans staggering through the wasteland. Semi trucks and the occasional car, long gaps between. We speed along at 80, develop a system for gloving up and sanitizing every time we pump gas, snack on our food, scan the radio dial, drive right through the night and into Denver in the wee hours. Yes, it’s late, but the streets are devoid of traffic like we’ve never seen them. Where we differ from Jeff’s plan is in our decision to stay with Marypat’s sister, Sally, who we have recently been around at Pat’s bedside, and who has tested negative for Covid. Not a sure thing, but as close as we’re going to get.

After the marathon all-nighter we pause for a day, enjoy each other’s company, get the dogs out for walks, watch some of Sally’s favorite Netflix shows. The next morning we are on the deserted roadways well before dawn, heading south for New Mexico. Along the way we synchronize watches with Kris and Rolf, who have agreed to bring our car to the airport rental drop off. I half expect a checkpoint at the border, but we rise over Raton Pass without incident. We meet around mid-day, wave at each other, follow them to their house, and hitch up the trailer. They leave a bag of their favorite breakfast burritos on the seat to fuel our return, and we wave at them from twenty feet as we pull away, heading back north at the trailer-hauling pace.

The weather deteriorates south of Colorado Springs, and the final two hours back to Sally’s are a white-knuckle nerve test with the trailer fishtailing behind, but we finally regain our refuge just at dark, and regroup for another rest day before heading home. By then the snow has melted off and we relax, driving north through Wyoming, buying gas at less than $1.50 a gallon, back to Montana, back to our driveway where we park the T@B in its assigned spot and breathe deep with satisfaction. One box checked. More important, a dose of normalcy, even a rejuvenating bit of outlaw escape from the clutches of this strange and demoralizing plague.

April’s river remains. Weeks pass. Out of old habit, I start checking the river gauges around the state to monitor spring runoff. It is strangely transporting, even thrilling, to watch the virtual records of flows. Along dozens of waterways in every state, the USGS has set up riverside gauging stations, each run by a small solar panel, which monitor the flow, upload information via satellite, and make available a real-time system of read-outs for anyone to study. I study them daily, especially in the spring.

Through this techie virtual portal I glimpse the magic of seasons turning, of ice melting, snow-pack dwindling, spring storms dumping moisture, and what that does to rivers around the state and around the country. I watch the Salmon and the Snake in Idaho, the Owyhee and Grande Ronde in Oregon, the Rio Grande in Texas. Close to home, I have on my daily radar the Yellowstone, the Missouri, the East Gallatin, the Boulder, the Shields, the Jefferson, the St. Regis, the Clarks Fork – all of them responding to warmth, to rain, to melting snows, to drought.

I have my favorites that I check every time, sometimes several times a day. I notice the lag between high country snowmelt on a warm day and the rise downstream of a river like the Boulder or East Gallatin hours later, when the graph peaks in the middle of the night. After a spring rain, and the resulting rise, I imagine the muddy flows, the moving log jams, the breaking ice floes, the flooding torrents filling banks, and beyond the banks, spreading over flood plains in events both life-giving and destructive. I imagine dangerous battering rams of dead trees cruising down a river that, most of the year, you can walk across without getting your pants wet. I imagine the sound of roiling water, the spring winds, the rustling new leaves on aspen and cottonwood trees, the smell of dirt in the air, and it stirs the paddler in me who wants to participate in the exuberant spring rise, the schussing ride, the mad descent out of the high country, driven by nothing more than volume and gravity and slope. I am like a skier waiting for that powder day on the hill, imagining ‘face shots’ and gullies brimming with drifts and sparkling aprons of new snow.

It is April, so rivers are coming up. The small tributary streams like the East Gallatin rise first and most dramatically. The main stem rivers, the Yellowstone, the Missouri, the Clark Fork, are more ponderous, slower to respond, less dramatic. Their time comes later, in May and June and July, when the wild roses bloom and rivers build to their behemoth, exhilarating, terrifying peaks.

I notice the Big Hole.

The Big Hole flows out of the high country of the Bitterroot Range, into a broad valley that was once home to the Nez Perce, and now to ranchers and small communities like Wisdom and Jackson and Wise River. It meanders quickly through pasture and ranch country, down into forested slopes and canyons, watering one of the most popular fishing destinations in a state famous for fishing locations, where Arctic grayling still eke out an existence in spite of us and where, on a summer day, drift boats punctuate the flow like outsized water bugs with monofilament flailing the air like mobile antennae.

The Big Hole is coming up dramatically.

I remember a solo trip I took many years earlier, when the kids were tiny, paddling the entire Jefferson River from the town of Twin Bridges to the headwaters of the Missouri, known as Three Forks, where the Gallatin, Madison and Jefferson rivers coalesce and make the Mighty Mo. I did it at flood stage and I had to hold myself back to spend two nights on the water. It flushed me down almost 90 miles like my canoe was another piece of flotsam, at a spooky, exhilarating speed that felt like a carnival ride. One of those rides on which you have to remember to breathe.

The Big Hole joins the Beaverhead River near Twin Bridges to form the source of the Jefferson. Down below, summer irrigation dewaters the Jefferson after spring runoff, making it a less than desirable float. Later in the season, the Jefferson ebbs to an anemic, turgid flow susceptible to brutal headwinds. But at high water, early in the year, when birds are flooding north and the current is booming, then it can be a sweet ride indeed. So I watch the Big Hole boosting up, pushing the gauges on the Jefferson. I imagine that river, what it would feel like under my boat hull, and I talk to my partner.

“What do you think of a top-to-bottom float of the Jefferson?” I ask her. I know there’s a chance I can seduce her onto the trip. Her duties as an art teacher at the nearby elementary school are mostly on hold and fluid, given the school shut-down situation. Marypat is nothing if not competitive, and she’s had the Jefferson on her list ever since I did my solo rampage down it and left her behind with the kids.

It is hardly an effort. She signs on with only a whiff of hesitation. “Let’s take Beans,” she says. “Why not?”

There are layers of attraction to the Jefferson. Given the state of the world, it is a safe outing. Just the two of us in one boat, our faithful tandem canoe of 30 years. The logistics are dead easy. Sawyer agrees to drop us off and then leave our vehicle at the take-out. It is close to home, less than two hours from our driveway to the put-in. It grants the delicious satisfaction of running a flow from its source to its mouth, a lure that I have always found irresistible. This time of year, with the water high and muddy, we should have it to ourselves.

“Let’s take our time,” I suggest. “Last time I could have done it in two days, easy. The water is up, but it’s not flood-stage.”

“Okay, how about five days?” Marypat says. “The car will be waiting for us. We could take an extra day or come out a day early and it wouldn’t matter. And we’ll have cell service off and on if we need to let the kids know.”

The chance to leave everything behind – the virus, the insane, tribal politics, the family grieving, the house sale, the uncertain horizon, is undeniable. We mine the freezer for old packets of dehydrated meals, make a shopping list, engage the same old packing routine we’ve repeated over 40 years of gearing up for trips together. It doesn’t take long. This is an easy one.

The day before we leave I chat with an old friend, Jake. He was the one who recommended the realtor we signed up with, and has sold a few houses in his day. I tell him that our plans are on hold for selling the house, that with the uncertainties of the world, we just aren’t sure how we should play things. “We’re thinking of putting it off until fall,” I tell him.

“Boy, I don’t know,” he says. “Who knows what’s going to be going on in the fall. The way they are talking, the virus could be much worse by then. What with the election, the economy, the virus, I think it’s pretty sketchy. If I were you, and things look good for selling this spring, I’d go for it.”

“Hey, you can always park your trailer in my driveway if you’re homeless,” he laughs.

His advice has the ring of truth. Who knows what could be going on by fall? The forecasts are ominous. We’ve come this far down the trail to prepare the house. It does seem like the demand is high. How much of our reluctance is simply resisting the final, arduous push to get it over the finish line? And my guiding principle in life has always been to embrace these leaps of faith that, more often than not, lead to good things. Haven’t I always seen the unknown as an opening to adventure, even if things don’t go according to plan? If nothing else, they make for good stories.

When I mention it to Marypat, she nods, takes a deep breath. “Yeah, we’ve come this far. Maybe he’s right.”

That night we call our realtor to chat. “Listen,” I say. “I think we’re ready. We can pick the exact time, and we’re going on a river trip this week, but I wanted to give you a heads up. We think it’s a go.”

Late morning, April 24th, Sawyer follows us out of our driveway, our boat perched on the rack, supplies filling the back, Beans on his bed, happy to be going wherever we’re going. We drive to Headwaters State Park and leave Sawyer’s car at the take-out on the Missouri, just downstream of the confluence of the three rivers.

It is a powerful geography. Indigenous people understood its significance. Lewis and Clark spent days here, gathering themselves late in the summer of 1805. They faced yet another fork in the road, a decision about which waterway would lead most efficiently to the west coast. They had faced the same choices at the forks of the Missouri and Yellowstone, at the confluence with the Marias. At each, they wandered the countryside in search of clues, talked to natives, studied the landforms. Agonized.

Here, Sacajawea was home. Still a teenager, she had been captured very near this spot by raiding tribes as a young girl, enslaved, brought far down the Missouri to Mandan country, where she had been traded as a bride to a fur-trader, and where, by twist of fate, she had met and been engaged by this foreign troop of strangers who aspired to travel across the continent and who saw her as a potential asset – both as a guide and as a translator. Never mind that she happened to be pregnant, and that she was saddled with her fur-trading lout of a husband. This great coming together of watersheds was her home ground, the landscape where she spent much of her childhood.

I have always thought of the Three Forks as a gigantic palm of geography, with the rivers as the strong lifelines etching the landscape. Named, of course, by Lewis and Clark for politicians. The Madison flowing out of the high plateau of what would eventually become Yellowstone National Park. The Gallatin, named for the Secretary of the Treasury in Jefferson’s administration, unfurling from the high peaks of the Gallatin Range and the fringes of Yellowstone. And the Jefferson, the farthest west of the three, coiling its path down from the continental divide. They paused at this coalescing of waters, the summer season already waning, after having navigated up the entire Missouri River, passing the Yellowstone, spending precious weeks portaging around the Great Falls, past the Marias and the Gates of the Mountains, on and on against the ponderous flow, until they came to this confluence and considered their options.

Should they continue on up the dwindling waterways by boat, or trade with the Indians for horses? Which fork should they follow? What lay further to the west?

I wonder if Sacajawea ever found wry humor in the Corps of Discovery’s penchant for naming things. Of course she would have known the names of the things these men were busy ‘discovering’. The new animals and bird species, the tributary streams, the prominent landforms. All of them already had names. Names given to them and passed on, generation to generation, by people with a deep, visceral relationship with the landscape. I wonder if she was ever tempted to tell them the actual, centuries-old names of places and creatures they pretentiously named after girlfriends, distant politicians, members of the expedition, or themselves.

It is mid-afternoon by the time Sawyer has us unloaded at the rest area on the outskirts of Twin Bridges, along the banks of the Beaverhead River. He waves us off, heads back to drop our car and take his home. It doesn’t take long to load up. Beans gets settled on his bed, nestled in among the cooler and dry bags and camp chairs. He is 18 years old, hard of hearing, his sight dimming, down to three legs. He hobbles around enough to do his business, but the spry and rambunctious days of his youth are long gone. The kids cajoled and harassed us into getting the cute Australian shepherd/malamute pup they named Beans from the local animal shelter back when Ruby was still in elementary school. Now the kids are all grown and gone, but Beans keeps waking up every morning to greet the day with us. In his youth he was an incorrigible boat dog, always leaping out after deer, refusing to stay put. Now he curls up and naps, or rests his muzzle on the gunwale of the canoe and blearily watches the scenery go by.

Not half an hour down the brimming flow of the Beaverhead, our red canoe teeters in the boisterous currents where the Big Hole comes in and the Jefferson officially begins. It feels, suddenly, like we’ve hopped onto the high-speed escalator. The water is brown with silt, loud with volume, ripping along at a good seven miles an hour. We barely need to paddle except to hold our course and avoid obstacles.

Lewis and Clark were a bit confused at this confluence, as they had been at many such forks in their trail. Clark and the main party were still hauling boats laboriously upstream while Lewis and others roamed the surrounding country in search of the best route while, at the same time, hunting for wild game and hoping to run into local Indians with whom they might trade for horses. The crew was often separated for extended periods and were in the habit of leaving notes on sticks for each other to update their whereabouts. In this stuttering fashion, the Corps toiled on up the Beaverhead, grinding over shallows, man-hauling their craft, wetting and drying supplies, making slow progress.

Upstream of present-day Dillon, they hooked westward along what we now call Horse Prairie Creek, and eventually up to Lemhi Pass. Sacajawea proved her worth when they encountered a group of Indians, several of whom knew Sacajawea from her childhood, and they successfully bartered for horses. Just downhill from the crest of Lemhi Pass, a small, pure, clear spring issues out of the ground. To this day it is a beautiful, quiet, unadorned bubble of liquid oozing out of a hillside, much as it did more than 200 years ago. Lewis and Clark dubbed it the ultimate source of the Missouri River, the great flow they had labored up for two full summer seasons of travel, and wintered along with the Mandans. Above the spring, they encountered what must have been heartbreak. The view to the west is a vast jumble of ridges and peaks and snow-covered slopes spreading to the far horizon.

The specter they took in was a far cry from the easy crossing they had seen depicted on fanciful maps hypothesizing the layout of the divide at the crest of the continent. Far from the quarter-mile saunter of a portage they had been told to expect, they confronted the full scope of the Bitterroot Mountains, the rugged Salmon River country, and rank after rank of mountain ranges still separating them from the waters leading to the Pacific. It was already the middle of August. Nights were getting uncomfortably cold. Snow was coming. Winter. And the view ahead was more daunting than anything they had faced in the year of travel they had already accomplished.

I love the fact that the expedition was in the habit of leaving notes for each other on sticks fluttering in the breeze, some of which blew off in the wind or were cut down by gnawing beaver, and resulted in a few consequential lapses of communication. These days we carry our cell phones in a dry box. Even on remote expeditions we have the option of ‘spot’ devices with which we can update the world on our location and status whenever we want, or satellite phones we can call home on from anywhere on earth.

When Marypat and I took our first trans-Canadian canoe expedition in the mid-1980s, none of that was readily available. My parents prevailed on us to carry along an EPIRB device, an emergency beacon carried by bush pilots that could send out an SOS in the event of a crash or other mishap. Even that we resisted. The reason we go to the wilderness is to escape that very technology, that very safety net, we argued. I still stubbornly question the level of ‘progress’ all the technology has afforded us. I still choose to leave the claptrap of computers and blogs and location devices behind whenever I can. I still prefer paper maps with their wide, evocative lens on country. I still go to quiet, wild places to escape the clutches of all that crap, to let the artificial busyness and distraction fall away, replaced by rippling current, the call of geese, the feel of sun and wind on my face, where solace at least has a chance to creep in.

Our canoe glides past gravel bars, snags, cottonwood groves. Birds everywhere. Mergansers, bald eagles, kingfishers, pelicans, red-winged blackbirds, Canada geese, red-tailed hawks. We adjust to the personality of this river, at this level and season. It is an ongoing, ever-changing negotiation, this relationship, one that revs up on every river trip. It is absolutely a relationship – paddlers, boat hull, river, weather – working it out together. Here, a sense of urgency bears us along, the burgeoning river, the press of birds, the warming days. To the east the Tobacco Root Mountains are clad in white.

Well before dark, plenty of miles already in our wake, we pull in on a low gravel bar downstream of the small town of Silver Star. The two-lane highway is faintly audible in the distance, a ranch house sits a ways off, across some fields, but here the river dominates. The rest fades into irrelevance, background noise. Here the birds are busy, the river is hurrying, the winds push clouds over the high peaks. We set up a low table, make hot drinks over a driftwood fire, erect the tent, carry Beans to his bed.

Light bleeds from the sky. We make a quick dinner, play a round of cribbage, scribble notes in our journals, pull close to the fire and shrug into jackets as night comes on. I work hard to think of a place I’d rather be, come up empty.

River Time (Utah)

River Time (Utah)

“I try not to think about losing all our friends in Bozeman,” Marypat says. “It’s going to be really hard.”

“I know,” I agree. “And it’s going to be harder for you than me. I’ll miss our community, but I don’t thrive on my partners the way you do. I’m pretty capable of being a loner.”

Marypat sips her tea, sighs, looks off at the distant ranch lights, the dark wall of mountains behind. The river murmurs past.

“It’s a really weird time right now. But I’m trying hard to see it as an adventure, not a setback. And who knows, maybe we won’t really lose our community. Lots of our friends are retiring or cutting back, being more flexible about meeting for an outing. Most of them are making their own plans. Who knows where they’ll end up.”

“I know,” she says. “I’ll just miss calling someone up and spontaneously going for a hike. Or having people drop by.”

“That’s going to be tough,” I acknowledge. “But that will come with time, wherever we end up. And I’m not giving up on the Three Rivers tradition. Come Memorial Day, it’s going to happen again.”

The dangers presented along the Jefferson River are largely manmade. Natural hazards on moving water fall into predictable categories. Snags and logjams, which to my mind are the most treacherous features confronting paddlers. Ninety degree bends where the current runs smack into rock walls, known in the paddling vernacular as ‘wall shots’. And a variety of whitewater, most commonly caused by one of three conditions. Namely, a tight constriction of the river channel, water cascading over bedrock ledges, or rapids formed by tributaries carrying in loads of rocks during floods that clog the main channel with debris.

The Jefferson is free of most of those naturally occurring issues. Other than the odd snag or overhanging log, some tight corners, the river flows smoothly downhill at a heady rate but without much excitement.

Early the next morning, we edge up to the first major diversion dam along our route, just past a bridge on a ranch road. The river has been dammed by a wall of boulders set in place to check the flow enough to divert irrigation water into a ditch. Nothing natural about the rapid it creates. Normally I’d be looking for the ‘V’ to run down, or the eddies to pause in, or the route to ‘sneak’ along shore. Here there is a jagged barrier of boulders in a wall, with the river cascading through however it can. There is a hint of a ‘V’, or tongue of water, on river left. I remember the same slot when I ran it at flood stage. The dam was largely submerged at that water level, the passage more defined. I remember contemplating it, then running it, shipping a little water on the way through. This time the run isn’t as clean.

“No way, especially with Beans,” Marypat says, after a cursory look.

I’m more tempted than she is, but not enough to push back. It isn’t much of a carry, and we set about it. Beans limps across, we schlep the gear and the boat, set it in below the turbulence, repack, nest Beans in his spot. Maybe a twenty-minute chore.

The obstacles and hazards that present themselves here are bridge abutments, irrigation canals, diversion dams, sections of rough rip-rap channelizing the river, barbed wire draping in over undercut banks. I know how rivers respond to the environment. It isn’t always easy or predictable, to be sure, but the manmade challenges don’t conform to nature, they obstruct nature. They work to plug the flow, direct the flow, clutter or alter the way water wants to move. Farmers and ranchers don’t like the way a river channel erodes, meandering here and there, eating into property. Residents like riverside views, but don’t like floods, despite the natural functions floods perform. Road builders see a river blocking their path as a problem. As usual, we throw technology at the ‘problem’, try to assert our will over the natural force of moving water. In the long run, it’s a losing proposition, but we don’t think long-term. In the human worldview, a long time is a lifetime. In the world of rivers, a human life span is a grain of sand making its way to the sea.

But for those obstructions, the river is a joy. We cruise along, ticking off bends, miles, landmarks. I barely check the map. This is home ground. There are enough bridges, fishing access sites, or tributaries to keep track of our progress. Birds keep us entertained. A flock of natty, black-necked stilts pepper a gravel bar, looking like they are attired in tuxedos. They fly up in coordinated flocks, flashing in the sun, red legs trailing behind. Such simple, breath-taking beauty. Avocets bob and probe in the shallows. Yellow-headed blackbirds adorn a shrub like ornaments. Killdeer feign broken wings to distract us from their ground nests as we float past. Swallows scythe through the air. Bald eagles perch on cottonwood branches, waiting their chance to swoop on a trout. Marsh hawks tilt over the fields. We paddle past heron rookeries, messy nests of sticks congregated in cottonwood groves. Cinnamon teal, bluebirds, cormorants, sandhill cranes, bufflehead, pheasants, meadowlark. Our binoculars are in constant use. We keep pointing at new species.

Mid-afternoon, after a languid lunch stop and a siesta on a grassy bank, the second diversion dam of the day confronts us. We end up on the wrong side of the river. At flood stage I ran right through the turbulence before I even knew the diversion structure was there. At this level, more rocks protrude and the paths through are limited and littered with boulders. The best shot is along the far bank. Marypat is nervous about the whole thing. A portage would be arduous, up a steep dirt bank, around a concrete buttress, steeply down again through tangled brush. I lobby for a strategy that involves stroking back upstream along the bank, ‘ferrying’ the boat across above the dam, and then running the smoother option.

“I don’t know,” Marypat says. “The current is pretty strong. We don’t want to get swept into the dam.”

“I think we can do it,” I push.

In the end, it’s even easier than I thought. We stroke hard in the slow current along the near bank to get well above the rapid, angle the boat and paddle into the flow to make our way across, and then have an easy run down the left side.

“Yeah, baby!” I crow, in the fast water below.

“I don’t know why I get so nervous these days,” Marypat says. “I didn’t used to be that way.”

“You have a better knowledge of what can go wrong than you did in your bold and brave 30s,” I say. “And you weren’t part of the Social Security crowd back then either.”

Along these rivers, where civilization hovers over the banks, finding camps is akin to the daily challenge of the homeless, who seek temporary shelter where they can rest easy and avoid being hassled. After a few potential spots don’t pan out, we find refuge on a small island nestled under the river bank. There are some houses above and behind us, but we are out of sight below the high dirt bank. Across the river, in the distance, a grain elevator outside of the town of Whitehall and the mountain-top-removing scar of Golden Sunlight Mine. But here it is tucked away, intimate, sheltered. Our tent goes up. We collect firewood. The boat is turned over and secured to a bush. The only downside is that Beans finds a thicket of burrs that he gets coated with to the point that we have to cut them out of his fur with the wholly inadequate scissors on a Swiss Army knife.

Sunset casts the sky pink. A flock of white pelicans coast in and land on the river, their white breasts plowing softly into the current. They drift downstream in some shallows, then gather in a tight circle, begin agitating the water, corralling fish, gobbling them up with their pouched bills. The feeding frenzy lasts maybe a minute, then suddenly stops. The white birds float together downstream, like a serene fleet of dazzling ships in the last light of day.

This travel style is so reminiscent of our long trips across Canada. It feels more like lifestyle than recreation. We have our miles to make each day, the weather to adapt to, conditions to assess and navigate. It is stripped down and simple, while also profound and occupying. The chores of making camp, reading maps, cooking food, staying dry, traveling safely are both mundane and fundamental. The rest of life fades away. What comes into focus, then, is the immediate, the now, the essential. The world that we hold at arms length so much of the time comes flooding in, as real as the sharp stars and the ceaseless ripple of water.

I wake early in the morning to the sounds of a rousing world. Pale light. The liquid music of sluicing river. Some sandhill cranes call, close by. Robins are active. Canada geese honk and bark, like they have urgent business to attend to. I guess migration, mating, raising young is as urgent as it gets. I leave Marypat sleeping, start a fire on the fire pan, put water on to boil, feed in sticks. The thin plume of smoke trails downriver in the breeze. Maybe a tailwind today, I think. No rush.

Spring sun bathes the valley. I’m on my second cup of coffee when Marypat joins me, and it feels like mid-morning by the time we pack up and settle in the boat. Marypat is in the stern today. We switch positions each day to change things up, a habit we established powering a boat across the continent. It helps to appreciate the other paddler’s perspective and to change the view. In the bow you concentrate on close up adjustments, put in corrective strokes, have the world opening up before you. In the stern you take the longer view, establish the general line, and play off the body language of the bow paddler, who occupies the immediate horizon.

The wind gusts along, mostly behind us, so we scud downriver at as much as ten miles an hour, clipping past landmarks. A highway bridge abutment near the town of Cardwell sets up some squirrely eddy currents, strong enough to tip a boat if you aren’t ready for them. The Boulder River comes in, river left, then the South Boulder on the opposite bank. We enter the limestone canyon near Lewis and Clark Caverns, a spectacular rocky cleft full of pockets and caves and underground passages. It is scenic, but the river channels through in a straight, monotonous shot. I prefer the meanders, gravel bars, islands, every bend a surprise. This feels more like a slog. Not long after lunch we pull in and decide to camp on a flat bench. A quiet, two-lane highway ribbons next to the river across the way, but Marypat is keen to walk the abandoned electric railroad bed. We set up camp behind a berm that offers some privacy and protection from the wind, leave Beans on his bed, and strike off downstream on the old railroad grade, Marypat hunting for the porcelain insulators that once adorned the electric poles.

“Remember, we’re getting rid of stuff, not collecting more,” I caution, our burgeoning storage unit fresh in mind.

“Yeah, yeah,” she says, not the least swayed.

It is gray, spitting rain, the next morning when we load up. We wriggle into rain gear. The air is hushed and cool, the sky lidded. We don’t talk. Even the birds are quiet, huddled. Just paddle, eating miles, until the canyon releases us, we slide under a highway bridge, and approach the final diversion dam of the trip.

Fifty feet above the unnatural break in the river horizon we land and pull the boat up. A herd of cattle stand nearby, watching us. The river slides over the dam with an obvious tongue of water on river right. We stand above it, appraising.

“Portage?” Marypat says, hopefully.

“Nah,” I say. “Piece of cake.”

While we’re assessing the river, the cattle are assessing Beans, who is teetering in front of the aggressive bovine challengers.

“Hey!” I shout, jogging back, waving my arms. One steer is particularly confrontational, only reluctantly moves off as I run at him. No doubt these cattle have had their fill of herding dogs and see this as a chance for payback. The steer eyes us belligerently from twenty feet while we scoop Beans up and return him to the safety of the boat. The red canoe slides down the smooth ramp of silty water. The day clears. The river regains its meandering, island-dotted course. We stop for lunch, and to strip off layers, across from a limestone cliff with swallows arcing and gliding through the pushy currents of air.

The clearing day ushers in wind. Perhaps winds are what pushed the cloudy front off stage. They gather ferocity as we paddle on. Depending on the curve of river, we battle forward, or are shoved downstream, or skid sideways across the liquid surface. Willows bend before the gale. Spume lifts off of wave tops. We start looking for camp above the towns of Willow Creek and Three Forks.

As usual, there are a couple of dead ends that look promising from a distance, but won’t work, before we stumble on a brilliant beach on the lee side of an island, with a screen of aspen acting as a stunningly effective windbreak. All around us wind batters the vegetation, but on our beach it is completely protected. Protected enough to build a safe fire. It feels like the eye of a hurricane, unnatural stillness in the midst of maelstrom.

Not long after camp is set, the phone rings. “Guess we have service,” I say, overcoming my reluctance and looking at the phone. “Hey, it’s Grant Herman.”

“I’m about two hours west of Bozeman,” he says, when I answer. “Heading for Wisconsin and I thought I might stop in and bump elbows or something.”

“Dude!” I say. “We’re on the river. It’s my last month. You’ll be driving over the Jefferson on the interstate. We’re camped about a dozen river miles above the highway.”

“Windy as all hell,” he says.

“Tell me about it,” I agree. “Any chance you can lay over a day? We could be off the river by midday tomorrow.”

“Not this time,” he says. “Gotta tie up the last business in Wisconsin and get back home. It doesn’t seem like a great time to visit anyway. But I thought I’d at least check in.”

The intrusion of our outside lives interrupts the spell of river time. We both start thinking about the impending sale of our house, the resulting homelessness, the chores still to accomplish, the unpredictable news of the world. I make a fire, brew up hot drinks. A bald eagle parries the wind across the river, manages to land on a cottonwood branch. Sun pours over us like something we can wear. Slowly we return to our pocket of serenity in the windswept world.

And we resist the end the next morning. Marypat loves nothing better than to loll in bed until the sun hits with its delicious warmth. She luxuriates in that pool of light, snuggled in down, listening to the world outside. By the time she emerges, looking the way she looks after a gentle yoga class, I’m on my second or third cup of coffee, stirring the campfire, making notes in my journal, contemplating the day. My own version of campsite meditation. Not a bad duet.

Breakfast is relaxed. The winds have died down. Packing up is bittersweet. As are the final miles of river, sliding past the town of Three Forks, under a bridge or two, meandering briskly through the cottonwood bottomlands, avoiding a few snags, noticing herons and pelicans and hawks. The river is talking to us through the hull of boat, through the blades of our paddles, up our arms, into our torsos, into our subconscious.

The reel of all the rivers of this year scrolls across my mental stage. All those fluid relationships, from Grasshopper Creek to the Mountain River, from the ‘rises’ along the Suwannee in Florida to the hot springs dotting the lower Rio Grande. Friendships and brotherhood. Solo meanderings and good company. Strolling gravel bars for agates. Enduring the onslaught of thunderstorms. Watching a grizzly amble through camp. Riding the seasons of a yearly cycle like the currents of the rivers I chose. Rambling around the continent on this quixotic, lazy quest while most everything else on the larger stage is fraught with discord, tension, desperation, sickness, death.

We drift under the cool shadow of interstate highway, thinking of Grant, my November, San Juan River partner, who drove over the bridge less than a day earlier, glancing upstream toward our final camp. The Jefferson sweeps us along on her back, fast and implacable. We are together in this – the swirling currents, this trusted boat, my partner in life, our aging dog, my favorite paddle, this spring, bird-loud day.

The Madison River joins in from river right. The two waters, slightly different hues, mix and eddy together, blending personalities. A mile or two down, the Gallatin swings in from the east, dances its way onto the stage. The Missouri is born, suddenly burly with volume, rich with sediment, the first mile of its legendary journey across the span of continent. A pair of nesting peregrines call from the cliffs across the river, busy at the work of life.





For much of this year I felt the sharp contrast between my reality and that experienced by the majority of life on earth, human and otherwise. Never more than the last few months, with the heightened conflicts of unrest, death, disagreement. I inhabited my small, personal bubble, in which life was pretty fine, while, in the larger bubble all hell broke loose. This contrast was one I heard many people describe.

“I’m doing fine. Really well, as a matter of fact,” people would tell me. “But when I think about the big picture, it’s like an oppressive storm looming over me.”

In my bubble I’ve enjoyed good health, with fingers crossed. I have enough money in the bank. I have my family, my friends, and my community for support. I have good books to read, a partner to share my life with, and Montana to spend time in.

Yet, when I pan out, even just a bit, it all goes pretty quickly to hell. Our weather has been warmer and drier than usual, punctuated with some alarming episodes. In much of the world the weather is truly alarming, apocalyptic alarming, evacuate-now-alarming. Our politics have devolved to such an appalling level that we have to invent new terminology to describe it. Who would have thought, even after we elected Trump, that things would have gotten this crude, this cynically mendacious, this untethered from anything remotely normal. If this were a script being proposed to Hollywood editors, it would be laughed out of the boardroom as too far-fetched.

Millions of our brethren are falling through the cracks into desperation each day – financial ruin, emotional distress, life-threatening illness, food insecurity. In this existential state, events that would normally rise to the level of personal crises get overshadowed by the general emergency. A friend dies suddenly, unexpectedly, too young, but that event is overwhelmed by the larger context. A cancer diagnosis, a career lost, a marriage failed, all of it as fraught as ever for the individual, but lost in the cacophony we are mired in.

So I am left with this split-screen duality. I head out for an afternoon paddle on a local stream, or a hike on a mountain trail. I glide past groves of cottonwood on sparkling current, or walk through sun-dappled glades of aspen. I return home to my partner. We share dinner together, read books, maybe watch a show. While all around me, as wide as the view can get, things fall apart, someone dies of Covid every few seconds, politicians play games with people’s lives while they profit corruptly in plain view, and another storm/fire/flood hits somewhere in the world.

This contrast has always been so. Playing the comparison game is as old as humanity, and as unhelpful as ever. And yet, now, the juxtaposition is so staggering it makes me wonder if even those of us on the lucky end of the spectrum are just clinging to the driftwood of a shipwreck, relatively unscathed, but still adrift.

The only certainty is that time rolls on like the currents of the rivers I plied over the course of the year, tireless and immutable as ever.

In that march of time we did manage to sell our home in Bozeman two months after our final trip on the Jefferson River. We followed our realtor’s instructions, down to installing brighter light bulbs in some rooms. Suddenly the house was ready. A photo shoot happened, the For Sale sign went up in the yard, and we were told to leave town for a few days.

“When you get back we’ll look at offers,” the realtor said.

“Yeah right,” I thought.

Well, she was right. We had five offers in the first day, all above our asking price. We had to come home early from our camping weekend to begin processing. Within five days we were under contract, and before the end of the month, we were homeless, living out of our camper and availing ourselves of friends with flat driveways.

In that what-have-we-done fog, a realtor from Butte called in early July. “That house you were interested in that I told you was under contract just came back on the market,” she told us. “If you can be here tomorrow morning, you can look at it.”

We had planned to head for the Pryor Mountains in eastern Montana over the 4th of July. Instead we headed west, towing the trailer, planning to camp along the Skalkaho Highway in the Sapphire Mountains, and stopping in uptown Butte to get a house tour.

We toured. We made an offer. We left town.

Going camping seems to do the trick. By the time we regained cell service on Sunday, we had a text from our realtor. “You’re under contract,” she said. “Closing date is August 4th.”

For the month of July we parked in Marypat’s sister, Nancy’s, back yard. We made plans for projects in the new house – sheet rocking, floor finishing, stair building. We hiked in the Mission Mountains with friends. We drove south to Colorado to climb some 14,000’ peaks with family. Then, in early August, we closed the deal and officially moved to Butte America, Superfund capitol of the world, and also, a friendly, relaxed, unpretentious community full of stories and surrounded by new terrain to explore. The trade-off was the loss, or at least the attenuation, of the community we’d built for almost 40 years. A frontier. New eras. Another leap of faith in a pretty long string of leaps we’ve made together.

In that flow of time river trips have not stopped. We almost hit pause on the Three Rivers Memorial Day tradition in May of 2020. How could we keep safe and distanced within our camping and gathering tradition? Our friend Scott suggested that maybe we could do day trip outings on rivers close to home, and forgo the camping part. Someone else suggested doing bike shuttles to avoid being in cars together. So the tradition continued – three more quirky, seasonal Montana flows in the books. As much as it cemented our commitment to tradition, it was a chance to be with friends we dearly missed over the months of pandemic isolation. The enchantment of new water was overwhelmed by the joy of relaxed lunches shared on grassy river banks or sunny gravel bars, catching up with comrades.

Marypat survives a big one!

Marypat survives a big one!

Then, only partially moved in to our new home, with the wreckage of house improvements everywhere, we abandoned the projects and launched on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River on September 7th. Five of us, including Lee, Jeff and Molly, made good on our pledge to take on the entire through float from the headwaters of the Middle Fork, all the way down the Main Salmon, and into the Snake River, where we took out 23 days and 330 river miles later. We were joined by several friends for sections of the journey, which facilitated food resupplies and off-loading of poop buckets. For nearly a month we roared down one of the most iconic and inspiring drainages in North America, rollicking through the many boisterous rapids, camping on sand and gravel bars, taking whatever weather came our way, soaking in hot springs, singing around the fire, seeing birds, tolerating oppressive days filled with forest fire smoke, playing cribbage, telling our stories, settling deeply into River Time. 23 days and it ended too soon.

Marypat chillin' on the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

Marypat chillin’ on the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

I continue to be sober, ever since the family reunion after our Grande Ronde trip. Other than sampling some Christmas eggnog I have managed to resist those temptations, that pesky inner voice, those moments of weakness, and find the clarity that comes free of that numbing, ubiquitous influence. Of course, there are those moments, and those old impulses to give in. But honestly, it isn’t that hard, especially now, well over a year in.

Running Tappan Falls on the Middle Fork.

Running Tappan Falls on the Middle Fork.

I can’t say the same for my news compulsion. I was lulled a bit when Joe Biden won the election. I naively expected the noise to turn down, the craziness to abate, the political fever that had sickened our country to subside. There was a week or two in there where that seemed possible, and I tuned out the news. It was a relief to return to the boring, normal parade of reporting without the infusion of insanity. I started to have open books on my lap instead of the computer.

It didn’t last. Trump and his minions ratcheted up their false claims. Millions of Americans were watching a different movie, one full of fraud, outrageous lies, bizarre conspiracies and denial of the virus. And, not surprisingly, when stoked to a bonfire of outrage, those flames nearly consumed the country. I don’t know if any of those students I taught during the 2016 election, the kids I admonished to ‘pay attention’ were watching, but I was.

What comes next is anyone’s guess. Marypat and I in Montana are embarking on a new chapter in our lives. We still hunger to vagabond around the countryside. Next Memorial Day the Three Rivers will feature water in our new neighborhood. The vaccine is coming our way. Some version of safety and normalcy is dimly in sight. But we have no idea what normal will be anymore. Our country is also forging a path through the wilderness of truth and fiction, loyalty, resolve, danger. I have been a little embarrassed by what seems like hyperbole, but over this year I have come to see the drama playing out as a titanic battle of good vs. evil. Right now, it seems less hyperbole and more apt description.

So we are paused, all of us, as if above a heart-pounding rapid on a river. We have parked the boats upstream and are walking down to scout the passage through the turmoil. We stand together, sober and focused, discussing the line. Several of us wander off to pee out of anxiety. We point out options, voice opinions, weigh dangers, come to some semblance of agreement, and start back to our boats, earnestly talking with our partners about what needs to happen, what to watch for, and how to react if things go badly wrong.

Some of our cherished river pals in Alberton Gorge on the Clark Fork River in Montana.

Some of our cherished river pals in Alberton Gorge on the Clark Fork River in Montana.

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


Covid-19 snuck up on me. It snuck up on everyone.

I had the excuse of wilderness immersion for much of January and February, but even when I was home, the news of the virus was background noise, far away and unthreatening. I read about an outbreak in China, then throughout Asia, eventually in Europe. For months it had loitered on the back pages of the newspaper. Even when it reached America, it was here and there, single cases, outbreaks in retirement homes, distant cities.

And it was leavened by our Denier-in-Chief at the White House, who kept degrading information, downplaying fears, calling it a hoax, a seasonal interlude, a ploy by Democrats, and his message was amplified by his spineless enabling Republicans and by the right wing media. Nothing to worry about, folks. Go on about your business. Pay no attention to the “Wuhan Flu”.

There were no precautions in place when I boarded the plane for home in Albuquerque, well into February. Back home, there were those who were starting to take it seriously. Schools were making contingency plans to go online, You Tube videos sprouted up – people giving lessons on how to wipe down groceries. I went to the grocery store one afternoon late in the month and it was nuts. The place was jammed with people hoarding supplies. Inexplicably, there was no toilet paper. Really people, toilet paper, that’s your driving fear??

When I took the car in for some maintenance work, our mechanic shook his head. “This country has gone completely insane,” he said.

My brother-in-law, himself elderly and handicapped, pooh-poohed the fear, kept on hugging people, ranted about masks and hand sanitizer. “Yeah, you better hope you’re right, because if you’re wrong, you’re the one with the biggest target around here,” I said.

To be honest, none of us wanted to take it seriously, change our habits, lock down the economy, stop going to school and work, stay home. But weeks passed. The news out of New York and Seattle was otherworldly, unbelievable. Hospitals with no beds. Morgues overwhelmed. Refrigerator trucks to cope with corpses piling up. Mass graves. Cases began to crop up closer to home. A man in nearby Livingston died of the virus – a vigorous man of my age. Our kids took it more seriously than we did. Ruby insisted on going grocery shopping for us. We started carrying hand sanitizer in the car, washing hands like busy doctors, keeping our distance, wearing masks. Bumping elbows was a thing. Accounts of overcrowded hospitals, people struggling to breathe, families unable to attend their dying relatives haunted the airwaves.

Still, plans for the Gila remained on the calendar. What safer place than on the river, outdoors, with a small group of friends who have been playing it safe? In early March we exchanged emails, kept planning, reassuring each other. The most dangerous step would be our flight back to Albuquerque, dealing with crowds and packed airplanes, but we talked about masks, doing laundry once we arrived, taking all the precautions. But concerns kept flaring. Lee’s partner has compromising health issues. Kris was in touch with medical friends who warned her of the dangers. Businesses everywhere shut down. Our county in Montana had the highest Covid-19 stats in the state. My kids lost jobs, went on unemployment, struggled with rent payments.

Right up to the day of our flight, we were committed. That day, Marypat went for an early morning walk with Ruby, who argued against the plan. “It’s not something you have to do, Mom,” she stressed. “Think about other options.” When they came back, they confronted me with their worries. When your kid is reprimanding you for being foolish, maybe it’s worth listening.

Suddenly, we pulled the plug. I drove to the airport and personally cancelled the flight. I was not alone. Everyone was in flux. The airport seemed eerily empty. The clerk at the desk took care of the cancellations routinely and gave us a voucher for a future flight.

Plan B occurred to me as I returned home. Why not drive? That way we could stay safe, self-contained, on our own schedule. Dates no longer really mattered. No one was working or going to school. Who cared if it took a few days longer? I felt liberated by it, actually. We could drive down and then caravan back home with both rigs at the end of it.

I called Kris, talked to Lee. They were still marginally on, but leery. I kept pushing the plan, but then New Mexico ordered a quarantine for out-of-state visitors. “I don’t know how they would enforce that,” said Kris, “but it’s something to think about.” I imagined checkpoints at the borders. I imagined staying in a motel room for two weeks. I clung to the option, but felt it slipping away.

Early the next morning, still packing up as if we might drive south, the phone rang. Marypat’s 93-year-old mother was being rushed by ambulance from her retirement home to the emergency room. She’d perhaps suffered a stroke. Nothing was clear, but what was clear was that fate had spoken. The trip was off.

Marypat sped to the hospital to meet the ambulance and I called Kris and Lee. “Even if we had started to drive, we would be turning around right now,” I said. Both of them sounded relieved. No Gila trip. Better to cloister at home, stay safe in the face of this dire and mysterious plague. My March water destination suddenly became a minor consideration in the face of all this. Everything felt very much in the wind, everything from the most mundane (toilet paper) to the most existential (the closing of a life).

By the time Marypat arrived at the hospital, Pat had been admitted. In the new frontier of protocols the hospital was limiting visitors to one per patient. Marypat’s sister, Nancy, and brother, Matthew were there. Nancy, who had been the most constant care-giver for years, walked right in and went to Pat’s room. Marypat and Matthew were literally left out in the cold in the parking lot. Pat appeared to be dying. It could come any minute. The initial diagnosis of a stroke morphed into something more systemic. Sepsis, the doctor thought. Her body was shutting down.

Eventually Marypat and Matthew talked their way in. Protocols weren’t set in stone at that point and the doc was sympathetic. They bent over their barely conscious mother, tried to figure out what to do.

“We need to get her out of the hospital,” they agreed.

Our house was closest, but Nancy insisted that she be brought to her place. Whether she would survive transport was dubious. By force of their combined persuasion, they talked the doctor into releasing her and called for an ambulance. Nancy contacted Hospice, got a hospital bed delivery scheduled, arranged for a nurse. Pat made her escape.

She shocked everyone by surviving transport. Nancy arranged her in the living room on an adjustable bed. People kept arriving. Andrew and Sara from Dillon. Matthew’s family, Paul and Laura, Tom. Grandkids showed up. Sally made reservations to fly in from Denver. Janet was coming from Chicago.

Coronavirus protocols were very nominally practiced at the start, and then utterly abandoned. People hugged, shook hands, hovered together over Pat, played board games in the kitchen, drank coffee and beer and held forth at some volume and without masks. The virus be damned, for the moment. This took precedence. At the same time, we all heard reports of people dying in hospitals without family around, or visiting a relative in a retirement home by standing outside at a window and pressing hands together on either side of a pane of glass. In this Pat was fortunate. We all were fortunate.

It was clear to everyone that Pat was dying. Amazing, in fact, that she had lived through several ambulance trips, a stint at the hospital, and transfer into the house. But she was only nominally conscious. She was lucid one moment, delirious the next, in and out of awareness, often anxious and afraid. Nancy was the only one who held out hope for her recovery. She kept pushing food on her, casting about for medical remedies, talked about getting through this to something like a return to normal.

A routine settled in. Pat’s bedding got changed on a schedule. She was given morphine and antibiotics. One or two family members stayed by her side, held her hand, reassured her. On the edges food got made, people did crosswords, played cards. Stories got told – who flushed all the pot down the toilet at Nancy’s wedding, a near-death childhood experience on a train track in Toledo, other deaths people had attended.

Pat with her brood of 9 at her 90th birthday party.

Pat with her brood of 9 at her 90th birthday party.

In the background, the coronavirus shit-show played on, a surreal atmosphere hovering over everything. Eli was self-quarantined at home, assuming he had been exposed at his work. Ruby was visiting her boyfriend, Everette, stranded in Idaho, filling out unemployment forms like millions of others. Sawyer had become part of the care-giving team hovering over his grandma. For everyone, everywhere, all bets were off in terms of plans, travel, work, school, the future.

Pat hung in there. Days passed in an otherworldly state of transition. The routine took on a strange normality. Shifts were established. People came and went. Nancy’s drive to get Pat to recover faded away. Care became palliative, comfort, pain relief, constant attendance. A rhythm, calm and vigilant and steady. Pat surfaced and went away again, her anxiety abated, now mostly peaceful. Mostly in another place, that dream state between. Another night passed, dawn came up, as steady and constant as the human world was crazed and upended.

The need to get on the water became urgent for me. Not just because I needed to notch another month into the year’s belt, but because I needed it, period. Marypat came home before dawn on Day 3 of the vigil, after an all-night shift, ate a piece of toast, went to lie down.

“I think I’m going to get out today,” I said as she closed her eyes.

“Wait for me,” she said. “I want to go too. Just let me rest a little.”

We set the red, tandem canoe on the dark, winter flow of the East Gallatin River before noon. The same canoe we had paddled together all the way across Canada nearly thirty years earlier. A boat we wore together like a favorite set of clothes. Today’s clothes were long underwear, winter boots, paddling gloves. We settled Beans, our three-legged, eighteen-year-old mutt on a bed in front of Marypat.

Not really winter, but not yet really spring either. The river, here, is fed by spring creeks that keep the flow steady and increase the water temperature enough that it almost never freezes. Snow in the fields. Snow deep in the mountains that cut into the skyline in every direction. Warm enough, but when the wind gusted, it still wielded the knife of winter.

Birds everywhere. More birds than I had seen on any other river of the year. Their noise a spring cacophony, their wings flashing in the pale sky, flocks wheeling overhead, cranes in the fields, golden-eye, pintail, mallard, Canada geese, snow geese, marsh hawk, red-winged blackbird, eagle. Life. Urgent, season-infused, thronging life. All of it pushing against the slowly opening door of summer. Beans lay his muzzle on the rim of the canoe, dimly watched the scene go past.

We guided the canoe down dark, smooth tongues, around sharp corners, over shallows, picking side channels if they had enough water, reading off of each other’s body language to adjust course. Montana slid past – the Bridger Mountains, the Tobacco Roots, the Spanish Peaks, the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon, the broad basin of farmland held in the palm of the three great rivers that make the Missouri, a fertile and potent place. A land the natives called Fat Valley back when there were milling herds of bison, packs of wolves, lumbering grizzly, elk and moose, beaver by the score. This is a pathetic shadow of what once was, but still stirring, still uplifting, still solace.

We talked about death, how much a part of the cycle of life it is, and how, so often, we hide from it. There was something hallowed going on at Nancy’s house, waiting for the end, sitting with it, being family around it, putting up with each other, embracing each other, showing up in honor of a long life full of its drama and mundanity and quirks. Pat was drifting away. The rest of us would be left. And it was strangely peaceful, rich, simple, resigned but also noble. Soon Pat would take her last breath. Perhaps she was dying right now as we slid along at the pace of water, releasing herself, releasing her family. We talked about the state of the world under the curse of coronavirus, how it put everything on hold, cast doubt on all assumptions, made us all feel like soldiers heading out on a mission we knew some would not return from.

Meantime the river courses around the bends, the willows push out their nubile buds, the birds surge north, the seasons turn. Through it all, through the afternoon, we simply paddled, as we always have. No need to speak – seeing things, thinking things, feeling the breeze, reacting, moving under the wide sky.

Partnership. Thomas Lee photo.

Partnership. Thomas Lee photo.

Back home, Pat still alive, we shared an early dinner before Marypat went out for her bedside shift.

The river had me now. After the hiatus of uncertainty, weeks of shifting plans, looming death, the spell of currents had reeled me back in. The next morning I went again, this time solo. I unearthed my bike from winter storage, loaded up a solo canoe and picked up on the East Gallatin River where Marypat and I had left off, the next bead in the necklace of current rippling downhill. I dropped the boat and gear at the bridge crossing and drove down to the takeout, at the confluence of the East and West Gallatin. The takeout looked tricky at this level. I would have to navigate the swirling currents at the confluence, cross some strong flows as I went through the bridge pilings, and land in a narrow eddy where a vague path pushed through the willows. Then I’d have to haul the boat through a barbed wire fence and some construction clutter to reach the car. I checked it out, then hopped on my bike for the nine-mile ride.

Passing through the small town of Manhattan, I noticed people out walking, riding, families strolling along pathways. If nothing else, the virus was provoking people outside, spending time together, for better or worse. Maybe the pause in the workaday reality would hit a reset button for folks, shift the perspective. Or not.

Back at the put-in I locked the bike to a guardrail, took off my helmet, nudged the hull into the murky river, stepped in. Three strokes and I’d crossed the small river, lined up for the first deep ‘v’ of current, gone around the bend. A door closed behind me, the river took hold. The previous day had been raucous with life. Today was hushed and still. I had a thermos of hot tea in a pack, poured myself a steaming mug, sat back and let the river have me. I paddled when I needed to, drifted the rest of the time. On one bend I snuck up on a dark-furred mink nosing around on the river bank. A bald eagle perched in a snag, watched me go by. A pair of white-tail deer looked up, ears cupped forward like radar dishes. Two sandhills, pale gray and watchful, eyes as red as rubies, lifted off at my approach, made their guttural call as they floated over the fields.

Time stalled. I poured more tea. Bend after bend dropped in the skirts of my wake. I never checked my watch. Never saw anyone. The river murmured downhill, carrying me on her back. I watched a cold front approach from the west. Clouds built up over the Tobacco Roots, swooped in closer. The winds rose, cold and gusty, so that I needed to paddle to make headway. I pulled on a warm coat, hunched against the blow. By the time I entered the bare-branched cottonwood grove near the confluence the winds were burring the river. Winter had returned.

The take-out was as dicey as I thought it might be. Carefully, I turned the canoe upstream, found a ferry angle, slowed myself past the bridge pilings, nosed the bow into the small pocket of calm water. Stiff with cold, the boat rocking beneath me, I clambered clumsily out of the hull, got a boot on shore, hauled the boat onto the path.

The next day, Pat still alive, I did it again. The next bead in the watery necklace. March, this day, was a lion.

I should have had a clue when my bike shuttle felt so easy. I cruised back from the take-out in record time, pushed by a steady tailwind, locked up the bike and re-rigged. I launched in a quiet eddy and paused there, the boat rocking gently, while I poured a cup of tea, set it down between my legs, and entered the main current.

The full flow of the Gallatin River gathers itself for this last stretch before it joins the Madison and Jefferson Rivers at Three Forks, forming the headwaters of the Missouri. I have paddled the entire East Gallatin many times, and almost the entire Main Gallatin, some sections many times. The Gallatin begins at Bighorn Lake, nearly 100 miles south, well inside Yellowstone National Park, high in a mountain basin.

From there it courses through the foothills gathering pace and volume, chattering through country rich with moose and wolf and grizzly, before leaving the park. Downstream, it picks up the West Gallatin, coming in from Lone Peak and the resort country around Big Sky, and cascades through a long stretch of Class III-IV whitewater, through rapids like Screaming Left, House Rock and Portal, a kayaking mecca through the summer months. After it leaves the canyon, upstream of Gallatin Gateway, it continues to drop through farmland, the bends mined with frequent snags and deadfall, which, to my mind, are more dangerous than any of the rapids upstream.

Not long after I moved to Montana I vowed to one day paddle the upper reaches of the river, through Yellowstone National Park. Paddling is not legal in the park, but it is a gorgeous, fast-paced piece of river, bending through the willows and sage, past rocky cliffs, through meadows. They allow anglers to flail the waters, what’s wrong with a few paddlers during the high water window?

Many years later I finally made good. One full moon night Marypat and I cajoled our neighbor into driving the get-away car for us. “Hell, why not?” he said. “I haven’t pulled an all-nighter since college.” We inflated the self-bailing canoe, strapped it to the roof rack, and Geoff followed us down to the park boundary around midnight. We dropped his car there and drove ours to the Fawn Pass Trailhead parking lot. It was pitch dark. No cars. We had come prepared for ultimate stealth – wearing black, headlights off, hot-footing with the boat down a slope to a small bridge where the budding river courses past, barely a hop across. None of that proved necessary. We chatted our way down to the small bridge. The night was still.

The rising moon wasn’t much help, and headlamps didn’t really blunt the darkness either, but off we went. Right off the bat we heard the sound of a small waterfall.

“Shit!” Marypat said. “Beaver dam.”

We were blind, but we lined up and bashed over the small dam, giggling nervously. Soon the waters of Fan Creek joined in and the volume ramped up. We slid along at a great rate. Lucky for us, the river was high enough to cover all but a few rocks in the channel. The moon cast a pale, insufficient glow over the scene. In no time we sluiced under the first highway bridge. Geoff was there, waiting for us, but we never saw him.

“You guys are flying!!” he called, as we whipped past below.

“Can’t see a damn thing!” I yelled back.

Then the moon slipped behind a mountain ridge and it was truly pitch black. On we went, hanging on around corners, making last-second calls where the river split around small islands.

“Left!” Marypat shouted, “No right!”

Before we went, my biggest worry was deadfall across the river. Most of the segment has no trees along it, but a few spots have nearby lodgepole pine that could conceivably fall across the current. I’d scoped it out pretty thoroughly, and was confident, but you never know. Marypat’s biggest fear was that we’d happen on a moose or grizzly standing in the river. Not all that far-fetched, when you think about it, but I chose not to think about it.

The moon never reemerged. The night was dark as a cave, cold, with stars glittering overhead. I began to get a sense for what it would be like to paddle blind. I could hear the variation in the river as it sluiced over shallows, or when it pillowed off of a bank, or tumbled over a submerged boulder with a tiny roar. It was a watery symphony full of subtle notes and we were getting the crash course in river braille at maybe 10 miles an hour.

It was so dark that we almost missed our car where Geoff had left it, parked in a wide spot above the river. I looked up at one point and just made out the blocky shadow of our van.

“There’s the car!” I said. “Eddy out!”

The whole run, roughly a dozen miles, barely took us an hour. One heady, exhilarating, risky, blind hour. Now I’d like to return and run it again by daylight, maybe starting at 4:30 some summer morning, before the park cops are about.

But here, in the final miles of the river, it was the wind I confronted, not darkness. From the get-go a stout upriver breeze kept me busy. I barely had time to sip tea. Only occasionally did I earn a respite on a calm corner where I could drift, lay the paddle down, take in the rough hills, the belted kingfisher on a branch, the wispy clouds flying past. Not bad work, though, paddling steadily, holding a course, avoiding a tree sticking out from the bank, finding the best filaments of helpful current. Satisfying as breaking trail through deep snow on skis.

High water and low bridges on the East Gallatin. Thomas Lee photo.

High water and low bridges on the East Gallatin. Thomas Lee photo.

In the distance, semi trucks battled the same wind on the interstate, cars motored past on the frontage road. A farm house stood out above the river valley. A train pushed upstream. That other dimension, through the looking glass. Here the hull rocked in the current, my paddle bit the water, branches clattered overhead.

Satisfying, but still, I was glad I hadn’t decided to go farther when I got to my take-out bridge below the town of Logan. I eddied in against the gravel shore, got out of the boat stiffly, regained solid ground. Satisfying, but cold enough to be thinking about a hot shower when I got home.

A young couple and their dog were hanging out nearby. I asked if they’d mind helping me tote the canoe to the car.

“Sure,” the guy said. In short order we had the canoe on top of the van. He reached out his hand. Without thinking, I took it, said thanks.

As he walked away I realized that I’d just broken that new taboo on hand-shaking. It was just reflex, ingrained courtesy, habit. But all the way back home I avoided touching my face with that hand and as soon as I pulled into the driveway I went inside and scrubbed up like a surgeon. A few weeks earlier, in Albuquerque, I’d ridiculed the couple wanting to elbow-bump. Now look at me.

Pat died on the evening of March 25th. She had hung on for six improbable days in the company of her family, lingering on the fringes of reality, before making her final leap. Crossing that last threshold is rarely dignified. As often as someone dies peacefully in their sleep, others go out with hours of alarming death rattle or in some form of agony. In Pat’s case, she slipped away in the middle of having her diaper changed, and while her family was in the throes of a hotly-contested game of dominoes. Life ended. Spirit gone. Eyes empty. Her family, surrounding her, accompanying her, held onto each other in that sudden, irretrievable void. Relief, mourning, reckoning, fear, all the emotions we aren’t ready for.

Life doesn’t prepare us for the loss of parents any more than it prepares us for childbirth and parenthood. That lifelong legacy of influence – how to make a bed, how to greet strangers, how to organize a home, how to eat, how to entertain, how to spend time, how to win and lose, how to joke and cry and compete and be alone. All of it, the noble and the fraught, the uplifting and the dysfunctional, from the way we laugh to the way we walk to what we believe in, all of it subtly passed on, generation to generation, and then, at the end, severed. We are abruptly orphaned, left in that existential vacuum without anyone out in front of us. Never mind that in the final years, our elders become our children, forgetful, helpless, needy, comical, maddening. Never mind that, in a case like Pat’s, death is a relief.

Late that night Marypat came home, crawled into bed, backed up against me for warmth. I held her snug.

Life picked up again in the morning. Pat was taken to a funeral home, where Marypat and her sisters dressed her, cleaned her, smudged her with sage, perched her Sunday hat on her head, put red lipstick on, laid her to rest. People came in the afternoon for an informal viewing before she was cremated, but everything else was up in the air.

I helped write the obituary, but any sort of memorial service was on hold until further notice. All of life was on hold until further notice.

Marypat and I had been preparing our home for sale come spring. We had rented a storage unit, moved loads of stuff out of the house, followed the realtor’s advice for touching things up, fixing the railing on the front porch that had been wobbly for 30 years, buying a new garage door. Now, all of that seemed in doubt. Maybe we should wait for fall to sell, when the pandemic might be more contained, when the future was more knowable. Our idea of becoming long-term vagabonds seemed perilous, given circumstances, the prospect of selling problematic, and if we weren’t going to vagabond, then what? Our rig was still stranded far to the south in Kris and Rolf’s driveway. How were we going to deal with that detail?

And April was in the offing, my final month of journeys. My plan had been to head to eastern Oregon and float some stretch of the Owyhee River system. I had done the commonly-run section from Rome down to the reservoir a number of times – a stunning, fun, top-10 trip, but I was thinking about something higher up, perhaps one of the forks of the river, something new for the last outing. All of that was clearly out of the question.

By late March coronavirus had subsumed everything. Businesses shuttered, unemployment skyrocketed, the stock market tanked, lives ended, hospitals were overwhelmed, a world-wide disruption of supply chains, the election season paused, no one sure how to be with each other.

Time swept on, steady as the river currents I’d plied for eleven months, inexorable and unimpressed. An April canoe trip seemed trivial. Then again, an April canoe trip might be precisely what was needed.


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


Big Bend will cast its spell.


New Age types talk about power centers where mystical happenings transpire in spots like Sedona, Arizona, a town with crystal shops and psychics on every street corner. I don’t know about all that, but if there is such a thing as a landscape that emanates a mystical aura, an almost audible hum of power, that west Texas country where the Rio Grande River goosenecks south along the border with Mexico is one.

I first came in the mid-1970s. I was an instructor on a semester-long college field studies course that spanned the southwest from the Grand Canyon to Big Bend. We spent more than a month knocking around that west Texas terrain, counting peregrine falcons, canyoneering off of Mesa de Anguila, floating canyons, hiking the Chisos Mountains, looking at exotic birds – from acorn woodpeckers to Mexican chickadees, camping at oases full of quail, enduring harsh stretches of desert that could take your life if you weren’t prepared.

Something about that land grabs hold of you. The oceanic space, the sheer limestone cliffs, the unexpected pockets of verdant life, the ragged volcanic eruptions of rock, the magical side canyons dripping with maidenhair fern, the endless blackness of night skies, the heart-stopping pastel sunsets. Mourning doves calling at dusk. Javalina slamming through creosote. Herds of tarantula migrating across pavement. A place not on the way to anywhere. A place that requires effort, that demands attention, that doesn’t tolerate carelessness.

It took hold of me back then, and I have been pulled back many times since. I came back with deserving friends, on trips notable for repeated outbursts of ‘Can you believe this place?’, overlooking the sea of desert spreading away into Mexico from the South Rim of the Chisos, or marveling at the bird life at dawn at Mule Ears Spring. I came back as an instructor for a program working with juvenile delinquents and adult criminals, trips where the magic of the landscape gave way to sessions of guerrilla counseling with century plants for office furniture.

And I came back with my family.

In what Marypat still characterizes as one of the craziest parenting decisions of our lives, we drove down from Montana with two toddlers and Marypat seven months pregnant with Ruby, to canoe the entire border of Big Bend National Park on the Rio Grande River. Simply getting there involved a four-day marathon drive in a stuffed Subaru wagon, a red canoe strapped on top, and a two- and three-year-old inside. By the time we got to our put-in near Lajitas, where our outfit looked like an explosion had hit the car, scattering toys, water jugs, dry bags, and tiny life jackets along the banks of the anemic mid-winter flow, we were exhausted.

For 12 days we piloted the 17’ canoe through canyons and deserts, with marginally potty-trained boys and Marypat dramatically huge. I joked that she gave ‘Big Bend’ new meaning every time she stooped over to tie her shoes. That humor didn’t get me very far. Still, the spell cast its net over us for those couple of weeks in the limestone grip of canyons, navigating rapids through boulder fields, paddling the “Great Unknown”, as locals call the open desert sections between canyons. We had it to ourselves, and we enjoyed the relaxed border relations of the pre-9/11 era, during which people didn’t care much which side of the river you camped on and informal back and forth between countries took place routinely.

That relaxed attitude is no more. Some time in December, when my San Diego cousin heard about my plans, she sent me an email cautioning that tensions were running high along the border, and that Mexicans weren’t exactly feeling warm and fuzzy toward Americans. Not surprising, given the ‘children in cages’ policy of the Trump administration and all the loose talk about Mexican ‘rapists and criminals’. I’d be a tad hostile if I were on that side of the line, too.

In January I reassessed options. Four of us were committed to the trip, and several of us were familiar with the terrain. Because the border in that part of Texas is so remote and unvisited, we felt pretty comfortable about our safety, but the river levels were alarmingly low, less than 200 cfs along the park border. For a week we discussed alternatives via email, and ended up deciding to shift our itinerary downstream, to the Lower Canyons between Big Bend Park and Dryden, Texas, a stretch of river with consistent springs that maintain a minimal water level even in times of severe drought. Everyone was on board. We arranged the shuttle, set dates.

It is a stretch of river that Marypat and I had paddled several years earlier at Christmas time. We took six days to complete the journey, but several of my companions argued for a more relaxed pace. We have the time, they pointed out, and it’s a helluva jaunt to get there, so why not dawdle? Hard to argue that. We settled on twelve days, twice the time it had taken Marypat and me on what felt like a pretty leisurely trip. Since retirement, I’ve been striving for that more relaxed style, whether it’s driving 65 on the highway or taking a side trip to check out a point of interest. It hasn’t been easy to shake the old Point A to Point B syndrome that held sway most of my adult life, but it’s a cause worth pursuing.

“Why not,” my partners argued, “What’s the rush? You’re retired, right?”

Indeed. The entire February endeavor is the most lengthy and potentially wandering month on the year of rivers.

On a snowy Montana day I fly down to San Diego to reclaim my rig from my cousin’s driveway, where it had been parked in the shade of orange and lemon trees for the weeks since my January hop down the Colorado. Everything is in order, and after a day of visiting in their cozy home, I point east, with more than 1,000 miles between me and Terlingua, Texas, where, presumably, the four of us will triangulate our way to each other from our far-flung locations.

Through San Diego traffic, following the advice of my cousin’s husband, John, who said he always got in the second lane, drove the speed limit, and didn’t try to pass anyone. “I got to work the same time as the guy who was swerving from lane to lane trying to get ahead,” he said.

Over the coastal ranges of mountains, down the other side to the dry, rain-shadow country stretching east toward Tucson. It is desolate land, a stretch of border I can’t imagine trying to cross on foot without maps, without water, without support, in hostile territory, with your kid’s hand in yours. Dry, open, featureless, an expanse of hot sand without relief or hope.

I peg the speedometer at 65 and hold steady. I have a vague goal of reaching Tucson, but I got a late start and lose an hour in time zones. About 150 miles shy I go past a BLM sign for Painted Rocks. For the next couple of miles I calculate distances, gas in the tank, prospects for finding a camp after dark, and decide to make a U-turn. Why not? This is the laid-back tour, remember?

The non-descript access road doesn’t promise much, but a couple of small signs eventually lead me to a sweet camp. With my ‘geezer’ park pass I claim a site for $5 and set myself up for the night. I stroll over to the petroglyph site, a low lump of broken rock rising like a wart out of the flat expanse, with volcanic rock plastered with petroglyph graffiti. Most petroglyphs I’ve seen have been on dramatic sandstone cliffs, or under overhangs of rock. This is a heap of jumbled boulders in the middle of nowhere, but it must have been some significant crossroads for ancient inhabitants who were communicating here like crazy.

In the twilight a neighbor comes sauntering by and initiates a typical campsite conversation. “Saw the Montana plates,” he says. “You from Bozeman?” Turns out he used to be a cop along the Hi-Line in Montana. He’s been vagabonding for much of the past 20 years, putting in stints as a campground host now and then, using his brother’s address for mail, staying for a week or more in a place like this. He is lean, weather-worn, with long, silvery hair in a pony-tail, calm and friendly in that laconic, desert rat way.

His rig is a homemade trailer with wood stove and solar power. “I’ve driven enough of these things to know exactly what I want,” he says. “And the only way to get what I want is to build it myself.”

I end up being proud of myself for turning around spontaneously and scoring this site, for avoiding staying in some spendy, overcrowded urban KOA in Tucson, for taking a chance and happening on this quiet, cheap, unadorned gem in the midst of oceanic desert. Not sure I’d want to spend a week here, but as overnights go, it’s a keeper.

I’m coffeed up and off before daylight, catching jackrabbits in my headlights, bumping up the speed to 70. Got some ground to cover and another time zone biting a chunk out of the day. Through Tucson, Las Cruces, El Paso, ticking off the arid miles. In one of those, too-smart-for-my-own-good moves at a gas stop I take an extra loop around the hitch with the power cord to the trailer, intending to keep it off the ground. What I don’t calculate is the slack I need to take sharp corners. Sure enough, the next sharp corner pulls the plug out and I end up dragging the cord for who knows how long, wearing a good bit off the plug in the process. Always something, just when you start feeling smug about how competent and self-contained you are. I redo the length, duct tape the frayed end, and keep a humbled eye on the running lights as I head across west Texas.

Near El Paso I cross what’s left of the Rio Grande River. Here it is mostly sand with a tiny trickle running through it. Looking at it, it’s hard not to mentally wander upstream, ticking off the onslaught.

I have hiked to the headwaters of the river, high in the flower-studded alpine meadows of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, seen the first clear tendrils of snowmelt snake down the tundra slopes. I have bird-watched in the wildlife preserves of the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, a marshy landscape full of waterfowl and hawks. I have rafted through the Taos Box in northern New Mexico, daunting whitewater in the depths of dark canyons. I have hiked and paddled along the river at Bandelier National Monument, with volcanic side canyons full of cliff dwellings and rock art. I have been to the Bosque del Apache, south of Socorro, New Mexico at dawn and dusk to watch the swelling thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes come and go in thundering flights to and from the nearby grain fields.

It’s the same old story I witnessed along the lower Colorado. All along its 1,900-mile length, much of it through parched lands, the Rio Grande is siphoned off into irrigation ditches, used to supply towns and cities with drinking water – Albuquerque, Las Cruces, El Paso – powering industry, watering crops, filling water tanks, evaporating behind dams. It is the 5th longest river in North America, with a watershed of 336,000 square miles, much of which drains into the soil before reaching the main stem of the river. Like the lower Colorado, steamboats once plied the river.

Geologically speaking, the Rio Grande has only made it to the sea in recent times. Only in the last 10 million years has the drainage managed to ‘capture’ basins and accumulate enough volume to push all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Even now, a recurring sandbar at the river’s mouth that first formed in 2001 periodically bars the depleted river from actually emptying into the Gulf.

Again like the Colorado, the watershed is managed to the cubic foot through a variety of impenetrable interstate and international compacts and treaties constantly fought over and chronically over-apportioned. The fight is critical because the river waters more than two million acres of crops in the United States and Mexico, where it is known as the Rio Bravo del Norte. Along the international border, where we will be paddling, what water exists is almost totally supplied by Mexico’s Rio Conchos. Without that foreign river, the borderland canyons would be hiking destinations, not paddling ones. Even with the contribution of the Rio Conchos, river trips can be more adventures in dragging than actual floats. Witness our decision to slip downstream to where spring fed volume builds the river up again.

Twilight dims the sky by the time I pull into Marfa, Texas, a town with a decidedly international aura. The stately, if worn, courthouse sits behind a central plaza, scanning the radio dial there are as many Spanish stations as English, adobe is the dominant building material. It is west Texas dusty, with as many storefronts boarded up as open, the sky pastel with sunset. The funky RV park I find at the edge of town features mariachi music and laughter. A young Hispanic woman comes out of a small house and directs me to a slot near the bathroom without hookup, points out a water spigot, and tells me I can settle up with her mom in the morning. Definitely not a KOA, which is a selling point in my book. The nearly-full moon looms in the sky and a great-horned owl keeps me company through the warm, rustling night.

While I wait for the kettle to boil in the morning my phone pings. It is Lee, wondering if I want to meet for breakfast in Alpine. He is coming my way so I give him my location and tell him to stop in. By the time my coffee is brewed, he pulls up, canoe strapped on his pickup truck. He had slept in his truck on a ranch road between Van Horn and Marfa. We poke around town in search of a café, find nothing, settle on a yogurt and banana in the local grocery for breakfast, and follow each other south on two-lane toward Presidio after I rouse the abuela in the main house to pay up.

“How about $10?” she says, peeking around the door at me from the cool shadows of her house. I hand her a $20 and say “Esta bien”.

Presidio sits across the river from Ojinaga. Like El Paso and Juarez, Brownsville and Matamoros, McAllen and Reynosa, twin cities that feed off of each other along the river-scribed borderlands, a relationship both parasitic and cooperative, fraught by culture differences, political complications, historic tensions and friendships. Smuggling is a traditional way of life. Workers cross back and forth. Drug cartels do their business. People mix, fight, fall in love, eat and dance and do business despite whatever political umbrella casts its shadow across the border. Just now that shadow is dark and ominous, portentous with wall building, lands being taken through eminent domain, children in cages, and a lot of political smack talk.

I notice a t-shirt in a gas station with the slogan “Make Mexico Great Again” and a historic map of the country encompassing much of the southwestern U.S. and California.

Ojinaga seems sleepy and peaceful from a distance, but, like other border towns, local politics and businesses are controlled by drug cartels and overlords like the notorious, Pablo Acosta Villarreal, known as ‘El Zorro Ojinaga’. Gangland-style murders, payoffs, bribes, shady dealings in cahoots with federal authorities are the way things are done in these northern Mexican outposts. Acosta was responsible for running 60 tons of cocaine every year from Columbia, along with huge quantities of marijuana and heroin. Even tiny hamlets along the Mexican side of the border fall under the sway of the drug trade. Santa Elena, a hole-in-the-wall village at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, downstream of Ojinaga, was the scene of the final horrendous shoot-out between Mexican authorities, the FBI, and Acosta’s men in the 1987 raid that ended Acosta’s life at the ripe age of 50. El Zorro may be gone, but the drug traffic pulses on, handed on to the next kingpin, fueled by voracious demand north of the border and by the seduction of unimaginable profits south of it. These days, throughout much of Mexico, authority is wielded by drug lords, ‘justice’ meted out by their private armies, and elected officials play along, or else.

Before all this turmoil, before the Spanish, the Americans, before border wars and drug running, this meeting of the waters was a significant settlement and cultural center for indigenous people. Known as the La Junta de los Rios (confluence of rivers), the combined watersheds of the Rio Grande and the Rio Conchos, complimented by many natural springs, has been an attractive site for much of the last 1,000 years, and probably much longer, as evidenced by pottery shards and the remains of pit houses.

Spanish castaway Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, one of the few survivors of the ill-fated Narvaez expedition, wandered this desolate country for eight years after he was shipwrecked in 1527 on Galveston Island, before reconnecting with his countrymen. Around 1535 he made contact with native tribes in the Big Bend area. He survived largely by adopting local customs and techniques, and has garnered something of a reputation as a proto-anthropologist for his notes and observations. As part of his survival strategy, he fostered a reputation as a faith healer among tribes and was both feared and sought after by locals.

History books in the U.S. tend to start with Columbus ‘discovering’ the New World. News to the natives who had been busy establishing cultural networks, trading routes, and settling territory for millennia, even in this harsh landscape. For the local inhabitants at this great confluence, the combined scourges of contact with invading cultures – smallpox and slavery – combined with raids by the neighboring Apache and Comanche, essentially exterminated the original inhabitants.

Lee and I wind along the gullied river course, stopping a few times to get a glimpse of the shallow ribbon of water, flushing road runners, grinding over the “steepest hill” in Texas, slipping past the scattered settlements of Redford and Lajitas, to our rendezvous camp on the outskirts of Terlingua. Doug and Jeff show up in the late afternoon. It is always slightly amazing that everything lines up, people overcome all the potential pitfalls and problems, and find the same dot on the map, more or less on time, from thousands of miles away.


And then, abruptly, we are on the river. All the niggling details attended to. The T@B is parked in the dusty lot at the outfitters, our pick-up arrangements made, gear and food organized, water jugs filled, permit acquired at the Visitor’s Center. Regulations are light. The usual list of river etiquette, a few dollars for a permit. We are admonished to camp on the U.S. side unless it is an emergency. The put-in is a quiet gravel bar across from the abandoned mining town of La Linda – decaying buildings, corrugated tin peeling away, a lonely, skeletal basketball hoop. The river is green and shallow. It doesn’t take us long to organize, strap everything in, step into the boats.

We are all solo – Jeff and Doug in inflatable canoes, Lee and me in 14’ hardshell boats. Around the first bend the umbilical cord tying us to all the complications in our wake separates, freeing us, riding the arbitrary watery rail between lands. Different flags, different histories, different skins, different realities. We balance along the seam separating those worlds. So much in common, and so little. All the drama surrounding that line on the map evaporates here, this warm winter day in quiet space burbling with river.

Hardshells and inflatables sauntering down the borderlands.

Hardshells and inflatables sauntering down the borderlands.

What I forget between visits is the stirring quality of light down here. Maybe it’s nothing more than clarity, removed from smog and lights and dust and smoke by hundreds of miles in every direction. Perhaps it is some combination of the sun’s angle, the austere nature of the landscape, the dramatic rock. Whatever, it is undeniable. On the drive down to our put-in, morning mist hung in the rocky canyons, beards of moisture draped from the clouds, the early light was pink and ephemeral. Years earlier, at the end of our expedition with the kids, I walked to a high point and spotted a whitewashed adobe church on the Mexican side, upstream of La Linda, stabbed in a searing beam of sunlight. Behind that, the glowing, rampant summit of El Pico, on the Mexican side. Sunsets regularly stop you in your tracks, pastel clouds that seem impossible. The nights are deeply black, unpolluted. And the skies are largely empty of air traffic. Our four canoes are specks of color in that clarity.

A chemistry gels on every trip, made up of common ingredients – the nature of the river, the pace of the journey, the undulations of weather, the personalities and relationships, the patterns and rituals that start to develop, quirks and inside jokes and odd events that take hold. All of it a formula unique and fleeting for the duration of that interlude on a piece of water.

The river, here, is both fatigued and persistent. That is my sense of it, but also fact. The Rio Grande has run the gauntlet to get here. At this point, nearing the end of its journey to the sea, it has been reduced to an anemic, green, heavily abused trickle, a far cry from its clear mountain source and its booming crescendo in northern New Mexico. The rapids we encounter in the first days are riffles through rocky shallows. The challenge is to navigate a narrow thread of deepest water through the minefield of rocks. Mostly we slide down these uneventfully, but there is the occasional hang up and humbling need to step out and pull the boat to deeper water. The more dangerous dynamic is the sharp corners, where the deepest, and often only, channel of navigable water runs smack into a rock wall or a thicket of overhanging cane. The trick is to ride the edge of deep water and avoid getting sucked in against rock or vegetation. I lose my prized hat to an overhanging slap of river cane on one of them. Often as not, it’s best to get out, line the boats along the inside of the bend, and get back in. Not as sporting, but safe.

Navigating some rapid filled shallows.

Navigating some rapid filled shallows.

The river may be fatigued, but the landscape it has carved is stupendous. Limestone walls rise into the winter sky, sheer and forbidding. Buttes, side canyons, volcanic necks and dykes, miles of undulating desert spiked with cactus and lethal vegetation. The river slices downhill, picking away in the constant process of erosion. Every bend there is another compelling feature, an outstanding landform, something to exclaim over.

About half of our camps are declared ‘emergencies’ on the Mexican side of the river. We see no one. Signs of livestock, a couple of dead and bloated cows, dried horse dung, trails to the river’s edge, old ruins here and there, but no humanity. We set our tents on grassy benches, on limestone ledges, in flat patches of fine sand. We get soft drizzle one evening, and play partner cribbage under a rain fly. Late that night a band of thunderstorms move through, soaking camp, but the dawn comes up clear and washed, mist lingering against the cliffs, morning sunlight pink on the rock walls. The nights are deep and dark, stuffed with stars. Jeff points out constellations and planets before we head for the tents.

Another 'emergency' camp.

Another ’emergency’ camp.

This is an exotic land, both in terms of its character, and also in terms of its population. In addition to the native species of turtle, javelina, tarantula, bighorn sheep, rare birds, there are the invaders who have landed here, mostly by human dispersion, and mostly to the environment’s detriment. River cane and tamarisk choke the banks in thickets that would require heroic machete hacking to get through. As we paddle on, we start seeing the exotic aoudad. Aoudads are a north African sheep with impressive horns brought to the southwest as a game animal. Inevitably, some of them escaped from game farms and have thrived in the arid deserts of west Texas, where upwards of 25,000 roam the wilds and compete for forage with bighorn sheep and other residents.

On our first afternoon a band of javelina, dark and muscular, bash off into the underbrush at our approach. On warm afternoons Big Bend turtles sun on logs and rocks along river banks. Canyon wrens sing their cascading, fluted song. Cardinals, white-winged doves, flycatchers, towhees, scaled quail, a long-billed dowitcher. We see far more aoudads than bighorns on the ledges and slopes as the days pass.

We paddle together, but alone. Paddling with a partner requires communication, understanding, cooperation, teamwork. When it goes well, it is a satisfying dance. When it doesn’t go well, it can be grounds for divorce. Paddling solo is fundamentally different. Miles go by without conversation, deep in our thoughts, solely responsible for our route finding and paddling decisions, for good or ill. There are ways that being alone in a boat is nice. Simpler, more contemplative, without the tension of decision-making. We take turns probing ahead in the lead, or paddling alongside one another and chatting.

The four of us make our way in a loose parade strung out down a quarter mile of river. We watch each other’s route, make our own judgment calls, only rarely discuss tactics unless it’s a particularly gnarly spot. Winds come and go, sometimes an enemy, some days a friend. The river volume grows as springs feed in. Rapids build more volume and push as the days pass.

Everyone is competent. Jeff is a skilled kayaker, a former river ranger, and veteran river runner. Lee is the only one of us who insists on solo paddling with a canoe paddle. The rest of us go with kayak paddles. Lee has done a good deal more solo paddling than tandem, by dint of circumstance and preference. He soloed the entire Back River, in the Canadian Arctic, has been down the Noatak River in Alaska many times, and is a pleasure to watch handling a boat. Doug is smart and analytical in his decisions, and he is a solid athlete and boatman in a raft or canoe. Lee and I have the luxury of dry boats and suffer less against a headwind, but Doug and Jeff are less vulnerable in rapids. It all works.

Meditative solo paddling.

Meditative solo paddling.

We are independent in camp as well. Each of us has a separate tent. This time of year, with long nights, we tend to head for the tents not long after dinner as the cold seeps in. I’m reading a Tony Hillerman novel by headlamp, scribbling in my journal, waking up off and on through the long darkness. I’ve adopted Jeff’s tactic of no drinks after 6 pm in an effort to reduce midnight pee trips, but I’m still out of the tent at least once a night, taking in the fading moon, the cavernous sky, the eternal silence.

Each of us manages his own kitchen. We bring our individual styles and diets along and throughout we are comparing and taking note. Lee pours his food duffle out each night on a square of tarp that serves as his counter top. He kneels before this ‘food altar’, the same posture he adopts much of each day in his canoe, and sorts through the bags. He cycles through a four-entrée dinner selection, including burrito-in-a-bowl, curry and pasta. He cooks on an efficient stove and insulated pot that requires a quick boil up and soak before consumption. His lunches alternate between slabs of cheese on bread or tuna in a pouch. He cleans his morning oatmeal pot by pouring in a half cup of coffee, swirling it around, and drinking it.

Jeff is on a protein/fat diet that includes adding dollops of brie cheese in cups of hot tea. Doug is pretty mainstream backcountry, omnivorous and not too picky. I have dried my own food for backcountry trips for decades, so most of my entrees were picked from leftover bags in our freezer back home from previous trips – risotto, spaghetti sauce, chili, lentil stew. I hydrate curry spreads and hummus from home-dried recipes for lunch, along with bags of dried fruit, trail mix, and cans of sardines. Food is key to backcountry satisfaction. You know things are going south when food fantasies start cropping up in conversation two days in. We each operate in the nightly ‘kitchen’, a flat ledge, the mouth of a side canyon, a grassy meadow, tidy up when we’re done, pack everything away snug from intruders.

Cribbage becomes a trip theme. At least once a day, sometimes more, we gather around a low metal camp table, set up the board, and partner up. Lee and I take a few early games, but Doug stages a remarkable run that lasts most of the trip, full of double-runs and relentless pegging. There is a lot of banter rich with Spanish cussing and “Appreciate ya!” commentary.

15 - 2, 15 - 4, and a run of three for 7!

15 – 2, 15 – 4, and a run of three for 7!

I was leery of the twelve-day trip itinerary at the start, but the pace takes hold and I settle into it. We can take rest days whenever we feel like it, and we feel like it fairly often. On one, just upstream of the beginning of deepest canyons, I saunter up an old jeep road behind camp at a rock-hounding pace for a couple of miles into a major side canyon while Lee and Doug clamber to the top of a nearby ridge. Jeff is suffering from a long-lasting bout of Planter Fasciitis and mostly stays in camp, stretching, reading, happily putzing around.

At another, across from Asa Jones’ waterworks, we all walk up Silber Canyon to an impassable pour-off where we sit and contemplate the waterworn limestone, the cool vise of rock, the unimaginable floods that carve that fluted beauty. Doug and Lee scramble up to the incredible, abandoned water infrastructure installed at heroic effort above the river to irrigate ranch land and lubricate a major candelilla wax factory, while Jeff and I meander downstream to a gushing warm spring where we soak in the bath-temperature flow while minnows nibble at our bare backsides. I even manage a shave in the hot water.

Sheer pour-offs abound in the tributary canyons.

Sheer pour-offs abound in the tributary canyons.

The days start coalescing and melding, the way they do on River Time. Circling red tail hawks, warblers in the shrubbery, herds of aoudads on the slopes, striking folds and pinnacles in the rock layers, ruins left by miners and hardscrabble entrepreneurs, ocotillo and century plant. The winds come and go, gray days and blue, impenetrable nights whispering with current. Our pace settles in, camp chores, cribbage games, explorations, discoveries, drifting along at the pace of current, surviving sharp corners, running rapids.

At Upper Madison Falls things go south for me. It is a shit-show piece of water, clogged with ledgy rock gardens, impossible lines. “Upper Madison is bad at any water level,” one of the guidebooks reads. I remember paddling it with Marypat, hanging close to the right bank, working our way through the rock-choked upper section, and portaging the lower drop. This time I attempt a more center run. We each make our way, with varying degrees of success, through the rocky clutter, but my slot turns messy. I am too far in to back out, and I end up having to get out of my boat where I jam in a tight gap and start bodily heaving the canoe through a boulder field. At some point a gunwale tips underwater and the boat fills, so that I end up half swimming the heavy canoe down to a rocky island where I spend the next twenty minutes bailing and regrouping before making it to the head of the short portage trail.

“God-dammit,” I explode, when I finally get out. “Hate it when that happens! I should have run the same line I did last time.”

We camp on the Mexican side at the mouth of a tributary just below the portage. I am more exhausted by the exertion than I want to admit, glad for the stop. And it is a spectacular camp on a broad shelf of smooth limestone. Just across the river is a hike to Burro Bluff, soaring 1,000’ feet above the river, which Lee and Doug and I take on the following morning. It is a vague, stony trail through thorny vegetation up a steep wall. We take it slow, work our way through the layers of rock, skirting a gully, contouring on ledges, to the top, where we spook a group of aoudads that clatter away over a ridge.

The view from the sheer edge of canyon is gobsmacking. We look straight down at the rocky clutter of rapid where I made my ignoble run. Our camp is a bright decoration in the drab desert tableaux. Jeff is down there stretching on the smooth shelf of rock. Off to the horizon the Chihuahuan desert spreads into the shimmering distance, mile after mile in every direction of broken, arid emptiness. Just at our feet, a dramatic, knife-edged ridge separates the Rio Grande from a dry arroyo. The river is a green ribbon of liquid winding away in the ocean of tans and grays.

The aerial view of the river from Burro Bluff.

The aerial view of the river from Burro Bluff.

The three of us sit apart from each other, taking it in. Time ticks on, the river slides past, clouds parade across the pale winter sky. It is a place where geology is a dimension, where the scale beggars the senses, where words don’t apply. Eventually we make our way back down through the rugged layers and thorny brush largely in silence.

Doug contemplates the abyss.

Doug contemplates the abyss.

That night we are victims of a raccoon raid. We’ve retired to the tents, all of us reading or jotting notes, when we hear a scritch-scritch dragging sound from the vicinity of Jeff’s tent. Jeff doesn’t respond, thinking that one of us is spoofing him. Then Doug calls out, “We’re under attack!!”

Headlamps wink on, zippers open, we all emerge in the dim light to find a raccoon making off with Jeff’s entire food bag which he’d set near his tent.

“Hey!” Jeff yells, taking off after the perpetrator in his boxer shorts, brandishing a walking stick. The raccoon drops the loot and scampers off into the thicket of river cane.

“I thought it was one of you guys,” Jeff says, ruefully. “I could have been begging for food the rest of the trip.”

“That explains it,” says Doug. “I couldn’t find my jar of mixed nuts today. No idea where it went. They must have made off with it.”

I pull the food bags I’d stashed outside my tent inside with me, go to sleep bumping my knees against my rations. In the morning Doug thrashes around in the cane for a good twenty minutes looking for his pilfered nut jar to no avail. We all scribble notes on our maps – Raccoons!! – before heading downstream.

I don’t think of this section of border country as a hotbed of immigrant activity. It is so rugged, so remote, so inhospitable. On either side of the river, the approach requires hours of bumping along four-wheel roads, across dry washes, with sketchy navigation even in a vehicle. On foot, without good gear, without water, hanging on to your kids, forbidding doesn’t begin to describe it. And even when you get to the pavement and some scattered, remote settlements on the American side, you still aren’t anywhere. And all the way you run the risks of discovery, of thirst and hunger, of drowning, of injury. Why would anyone pick this section of border?

And yet, at one point we duck under a yellow nylon hand-line stretched across the river. At several side canyons, we find the remains of camps, abandoned clothing, empty water jugs, black rubber inner tubes, fire scars. We all imagine that scene, what desperation would lead people to that journey, how harsh the reality would be, how slim the chances. There must be, I imagine, an informal network of intelligence about the crossings, an underground telegraph connecting groups with rides on the other side, some crude maps with water sources, river crossings, ranch roads penciled in. It simply can’t be that people just wander north without some information, fragmented and unreliable as it might be.

Never mind the statistics, or the punctuations of horrifying news. What runs through my mind are the mundane images. They keep coming to me as we tick off the empty, quiet miles. Crossing the river in tattered tennis shoes or sandals. Swimming with your infant’s arms clasped around your neck. Finishing the last sip of water in the plastic bottle, miles from anywhere. Seeing the dust cloud of an approaching vehicle in the distance, and scurrying for a place to hide in the featureless expanse. Knocking on a ranch door in the middle of the night, desperate, dying of thirst, risking everything on a stranger.

This border is an ephemeral thing, an arbitrary line drawn on a map, a region steeped in the evolving history of indigenous peoples, of Spanish explorers lusting for gold and missionaries intent on conversion, of smugglers, drug runners, bounty hunters, guerrilla warfare, cattle drives, bandits, remote wax factories, sprawling ranches. Geologically it is a relatively new event, this watery boundary. It weaves and shifts, as rivers do, cutting through bends, meandering sideways, establishing new channels, a living thing that no line on a map can pin down.

In relatively modern times, Mexico extended far to the north, west to the Pacific, encompassing California, Arizona, New Mexico. Even after the border wars and the assertion of American territory, this section of border was porous and flexible. Residents of small villages on the Mexican side routinely crossed the river to pick up groceries, or ferried U.S. tourists across to cantinas. People hawked their wares back and forth. Mexican cemeteries dot the Texas side of the border. Blended families are commonplace. Jurisdiction may be codified in law, but in practice, it has been informal and nuanced, worked out by the locals.

Even now, under the heightened tensions since 9/11, there are breaches. Every year since 2012 a musical event, Voices From Both Sides, takes place near Lajitas, upstream of the Big Bend National Park boundary. It begins with a massive ‘Circle of Friendship’ in mid-river, scores of people holding hands and offering a prayer, followed by dueling bands playing music back and forth. People wade out into the river, dance midstream, swap food, drink beer, meet and greet and party together while armed border guards keep their distance. It is a moment of sanity and grace in which people are people together.

The days slip past like the dogged river current. We are held in the embrace of landscape, free of news and distraction, centered on the wavering line of liquid green and what it brings us. Lower Madison Falls is a bouldery chaos we elect to line the boats down on the Texas side. We set up stations, toss bow and stern lines to each other, maneuver the boats, one after another between boulders and down the drop. Satisfying teamwork for a bunch of old farts. At another spot, an unmarked ‘pinch’ rapid none of us remember, we squeeze through a narrows with a surprise boulder just below it that we have to hot foot around through a tangle of overhanging cane, bent low and holding our paddles out in front of us like jousting lances.

Near the end, the canyon walls slope down. We coast along in the cool shade of low cliffs, tuck in beneath undercut overhangs. Major side canyons come in, scenes of occasional whopping flash flood, but dry otherwise. San Francisco Canyon, Panther Canyon, Sanderson Canyon; wide plains of outwash boulders, mud flats, polished bedrock with water-drilled holes bored into it, the debris left by mud-thick torrents of flood waters that lay waste to roads and towns far upstream and arrive here as hydraulic monsters, tearing out vegetation, eroding canyons, moving rapids, rolling boulders the size of cars, slamming into the main river channel like a battering ram.

All quiet now.


Then, as abruptly as it began, the trip ends. We haul boats out of the river a final time, make camp at the end of the long dirt road to Dryden Crossing, a nondescript muddy gap that would be easy to float right past. A couple more cribbage games with Doug continuing his winning streak, boat washing, gear drying, rolling things up.

Our shuttle driver, Jim, arrives before noon the next morning. It is an all-day round trip from his headquarters in Big Bend. He is a desert-worn, slightly disheveled transplant to Big Bend country who happened on the landscape, fell hard for it, gave up his former city life in Pittsburgh and moved down where, ever since, he scrabbles out a marginal but quite happy existence driving shuttles, fixing cars, odd jobs. He is a fount of local lore, from epic flash flood events to failed business schemes. It takes more than an hour to get to pavement from the river, through sweeping ranch country, unmarked side tracks, isolated trailers and water tanks, a few locked gates, scattered livestock. All the way I imagine immigrants plodding across the broken, arid, prickly, exposed terrain. And when we get to pavement, it is a lonely highway with widely spaced, tiny settlements and more desert void to the north.

It is late afternoon by the time we unload back in Terlingua, reclaim our vehicles, find a campground, take showers. We decide to go to dinner at a local joint, the Kiva, where we sit at a picnic table on a patio under strings of lights as night comes on. A dog roams from table to table, begging scraps. I am sorely tempted to have a beer. That dangerous internal voice starts up – what’s the big deal, one celebratory drink at the end of a river trip. No one would think anything of it. I tamp the voice down, order a non-alcohol substitute along with Jeff. We toast to the journey, to future journeys, to our fortunes. The ersatz beer doesn’t quite satisfy, but it is a tiny, personal victory no one else shares.

The crew departs early the next morning, and I am adrift in that vagabond state, free and unscheduled for a solid week before I drop off the rig and fly home from Albuquerque. It is a week punctuated by back roads, calls home, more electrical issues with the trailer, a couple of sweet coffee shops in Alpine, Texas and Socorro, New Mexico where I dive into the dreaded vortex of current events and delete hundreds of unnecessary emails.

A switch-backing road through the Davis Mountains. Campsites in unauthorized pulloffs where I park after dark and leave before dawn, or in overly-bureaucratic campgrounds where I get cited for not parking my rig squarely between painted white lines. Hikes in Big Bend Ranch State Park where the only people I meet knew my parents in Wyoming, or at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Sunday ‘Music on the Porch’ in Terlingua where locals gather with instruments and improvise a concert with dogs roaming the crowds, a woman languidly hoola-hooping like something out of the 1960s, everyone with turquoise and cowboy boots and that boozy, grizzled, sun-struck look. A bird-watching cruise through the Bosque del Apache near San Antonio, New Mexico, lit up by fields of snow geese, a few solitary sandhill cranes, pintails and blue-winged teal, road runners and marsh hawks. Miles and meandering miles between it all, jockeying through country full of stories and hardship and history.

Music on the Porch in Terlingua.

Music on the Porch in Terlingua.

It ends in Kris and Rolf’s driveway in Albuquerque where I back the trailer up to the garage, tidy things up, score a load of laundry, share a magnificent burrito dinner at their favorite local café. I joke that they could rent my T@B out as an Air BnB while I’m gone. Kris and I were former lovers, back in the Santa Fe era, and we’ve kept in touch through the decades as our lives have moved on, as we met partners and married, had families. We all plan to reunite in March to take on the Gila River, along with Lee, who will drive over from his home in Prescott, Arizona, and Marypat, who will fly back with me. The Gila trip and our drive back home to Montana will be the end of my long, complicated logistical trail that began back in early January.

The afternoon before my flight home, the three of us stroll along one of the local canals off of the Rio Grande in town. Cottonwoods thinking about spring, gusty breezes stirring old leaves, some sandhill cranes stalking a field. We run into a couple that they know and stand there in the warm day, chatting. When I’m introduced I reach out my hand, but they decline, offer to touch elbows instead.

“What the hell is that about?” I say, as we walk away.


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