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

CHAPTER 6: OCTOBER – FALL GLORY & LIFE STORIES

Following the tendrils back from a boat launch to the distant seeds of a trip’s genesis is a convoluted task, often encompassing thousands of miles, disparate starting points, a shifting cast of characters, complicated logistics, and a series of turning points at which the status of the journey, even its reality, teeter with doubt. This launch is at Sand Wash, Utah, on the banks of the Green River, above Desolation and Gray Canyons. We meet on a mid-October evening promising a near full moon, four of us arriving from Montana, and two more from Arizona, for a shared interlude of what we hope will be fall, not winter, on the water. But the twisting vines we have followed to get here snake back into the depths of January, when the seed was first planted.

It was Molly, she of gloved sainthood on the Grande Ronde, who mentioned in passing that she had been hankering for a ‘Deso-Gray’ fall float for years. We were coming up on river permit time, when scores of boating folk compete for the most coveted trips – the Rogue, the Smith, the Salmon, the Yampa, the San Juan, and various sections of the Green, among others. I had done the trip before, but always in the spring, and had heard about how nice it was in the fall. Marypat had never done it, and it ranked high on her trip to-do list. So we talked about dates in September that lined up with our other commitments, and applied. Weeks later we all got our river lottery responses, and we’d all been denied. Dang! Hate it when that happens, although it happens more often than not on these popular floats.

Things went quiet for a while after that. But then, by chance, I was talking to Lee, our paddling friend from Prescott, Arizona who had been introduced to the Montana boating crowd through my daughter, Ruby, and who had become the most far-flung member of our annual Three Rivers tradition.

“I’ve got a permit for October 16,” he said. “Not sure right now who’s coming. I talked to a former student who might be interested, and a couple of other people, but you’d be welcome.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “Let me get back to you on that.”

October was later than we preferred, but I talked to Marypat about getting time off from work at that time of year. I emailed Molly and Jeff. Everyone pondered the new target dates, other travel plans, family commitments, work duties. Calendars were out on kitchen tables, plans juggled, dates shifted. Weeks went past. No rush. The permit was secure, Lee was going, and we had time to consider.

A month or two later we talked again. “Could work,” said Jeff. “We’re coming back from another trip in September, but I think we could do it.”

Marypat was confident she could get the week off of work. I got back to Lee. “I think we’re coming,” I said. “I’ll keep you posted.”

Even then, details kept shifting, commitments wavered. There for a few weeks it looked like it might be quite a crowd, and Jeff balked at the idea of a parade of strangers, crowded camping and the inevitable clusterfuck of decision-making that comes with large groups.

“If it’s going to be eight tents at campsites I think we may back out,” he said.

But then the folks Lee had invited dropped out, one after another, until it was just two – Lee and his friend, David. Jeff and Molly were back in.

There was the nuts and bolts discussion about vehicles and gear. We decided to drive our rig. Jeff insisted that they pay for gas in exchange. We dealt with cook groups, boats, who brought the porta-potty and camp table and water jugs, how to arrange the vehicle shuttle. Who owed who for what. The usual.

At 6 a.m. on October 15th, still gray with dawn, we pull in to Jeff and Molly’s driveway. Our rig is loaded like an Oakie jalopy during the Dust Bowl, boats and paddles and coolers strapped to the roof, the back crammed with dry bags and duffels and food. All day we tool south, out of Montana, through Idaho, into Utah. Jeff entertains us with tidbits of arcane geologic history via a Roadside Geology book, such as the staggering discharge of a draining Lake Bonneville breaking out of a narrow pass and cascading over the arid section of Idaho we are driving across. Discussion ranges from gossip about friends to the app to find the cheapest gas along the way. Jeff brings up some suggestions for meaningful retirement endeavors. No one bites on his campaign to correct misplaced apostrophes in public spaces everywhere. Much more enthusiastic is our response to his idea of shooting down drones delivering resupplies to backcountry hikers.

“I’m in!” I say. “Then you could use their resupplies for your own trips!”

Finally we turn south onto dirt, near the town of Roosevelt, Utah and drive across oil and gas country nodding with pump jacks toward the river. It is dinner time when we arrive. Lee and David are there already, having made their own odyssey from Arizona, camping in Green River, Utah along the way.

Lee offers me a welcome-to-the-river IPA. “I’m taking a break from alcohol,” I give him my standard line.

“How much of a break?” he pushes me.

“Not sure,” I say. “It’s been since late June.”

“Yeah, I get it,” he says. “I stopped drinking for five years once.”

“Me too,” I said, “and I’ve decided it’s time to do it again.”

Before the sun goes down and the moon rises, we manage a quick dinner, erect tents, share some travel stories, and as dark falls we all head for sleeping bags. Then it gets cold. Really cold.

Marypat and I brought our double sleeping bag, and it isn’t up to the task. We sleep in our usual style, which is to say naked, and all night under a moon as bright as a streetlight, we cling to each other like barnacles to rock to share body warmth. Still we shiver through the hours and it is memorable enough that for the rest of the trip we wear socks, long underwear and wool caps to bed every night. When we rise to greet the sun the water jugs are frozen and everyone is hopping around waiting for coffee and wondering out loud whether they should have brought warmer sleeping bags.

Things at the launch are casual. At high season boating parties are rigorously checked out for proper gear, given the lecture on river protocol, told where to watch out for whitewater and other hazards. Throughout the spring and summer this access is teeming with groups jockeying for space. At this low pulse of the season, the ranger briefly checked in with David and Lee the night before. It was the last evening of his shift, and he planned to be gone before we got going in the morning. When he understood that we were all seasoned river trippers with several people who had done this section before, he waved them through. A few other groups are on the river this week, but rush hour on the Green is over.

Fortified with two cups of coffee and warmed by a couple hours of sun, we organize for river life. The pile moves from vehicles to boats, we all operate as human forklifts and take on the puzzle of fitting food and gear and water jugs and porta-potty and table and firepan into the hulls of boats, making sure everything is waterproofed and strapped securely.

Organizing for river time. David Lovejoy photo.

Organizing for river time. David Lovejoy photo.

“A little help for the blind guy?” David pipes up. “Can’t see to thread this strap.”

I lean over his rig and insert the strap into the tightening cam. “Kind of ironic, you asking for help from the half blind, half deaf guy!” I say.

David Lovejoy is compact and fit, a spry gnome of a man with a quiet sense of humor, a man who moves with an air of competence. He is also legally blind. He can no longer drive, so he depends on friends to get places and continue to take part in adventures. He is a nationally renowned climber and snow scientist, and is one of the founding visionaries of Prescott College in Arizona. He helped shape the college over a span of half a century and is still involved even in retirement. It is our first chance to share a trip with him.

The pace, once our boats are in the current, is lazy. “They allow us eight nights on the river,” Lee had said when we’d discussed the trip plans. “Might as well take them all.”

Marypat and I are soloing 14’ inflatable canoes using kayak paddles. Molly and Jeff share another in tandem style, and Lee paddles a 14’ hardshell solo canoe. David captains an inflatable kayak fitted with a narrow rowing frame. His boat is cunningly packed, with a cockpit space for him and bags strategically placed for foot braces. His oars are stubby things and his hull speed is slow, despite the fact that he rows constantly. He needs to keep a boat or two in close range, within his fuzzy field of vision, to know where to head. Our inflatable canoes are no greyhounds on the water, but we only need to lily-dip along to maintain his pace. It forces us to saunter, indulge in conversation, notice the surroundings, let the steady current carry us through the season. It’s an unfamiliar pace for Marypat and me. We’re used to a constant paddling rhythm, making a certain number of miles in a day, hewing to a schedule. This dawdling retirement pace takes getting used to, but as challenges go, I’ll take it.

The valley sides slope away in arid tiers, a golden eagle soars in the empty sky, temperatures edge into the 60s. On this river the unavoidable legacy of John Wesley Powell and his one-armed descent of the Green and Colorado in 1869 hovers over the scene. By the time Powell got here he’d already had some boat-devouring misadventures in the Canyon of Lodore, in rapids like Hell’s Half Mile and Disaster Falls. He and his men must have appreciated the sedate, unruffled pace of the river through here, although the rising canyon walls probably bumped up a few heart rates. Powell’s journals alternate between soaring descriptions of the sublime and brooding ruminations of foreboding.

Fall can be either hypothermic and squally, or lovely and pleasant. The year before, almost to the day, Lee and David launched with a group in rain and sleet. They had to camp early and get a fire built to huddle around. We get the warm version of the season on our first day, and the forecast looks good for the week. Eight miles down we unload up a steep sand bank and set the first camp in a rustling grove of cottonwoods. David and Lee each organize compact kitchens and hunker over their well-honed cook systems. We combine food space with Molly and Jeff around our camp table. Tents go up. The porta-potty sits behind some shrubbery downstream, angled for the view.

The Lovejoy kitchen. Molly King photo.

The Lovejoy kitchen. Molly King photo.

David and Lee have taken many trips together and they overlapped as teachers at Prescott College, so they have a familiar bantering tone with each other, spiced with rations of sarcasm in regular doses. Talk turns to future trips.

By this point in October we have already gotten plans underway for our top-to-bottom month on the Salmon River a year from now. The challenging crux in that plan was to nail down permits on the Middle Fork of the Salmon next September. The main lottery season ends September 3rd, but permits are still required to launch in the fall, and it’s competitive. The permit website opened at 8 am on October 1st to apply for the following year. Two weeks earlier we had a bevy of participants poised over computer keyboards when the clock struck eight. As fast as possible, we filled out the necessary group information, selected a date, and filed. Both Molly and I got a launch date, one on September 6th and the other on the 7th. No one else succeeded, and by 8:15 the entire month of September was booked – five launches a day, every day of the month, gobbled up in fifteen minutes. Getting permits for the main section of the Salmon a week into the descent is not competitive, so once we had a Middle Fork date secure, the trip became tangible.

Given the unpredictability of life a year out the trip is still on the aspirational side of the ledger, but September on the Salmon is firmly on the radar. The rest of the planning can wait. While we dip into wasabi snacks and drink our beverages, we bat around the challenges of the complicated shuttle, food resupplies, how many people will likely sign up for the entire month, and how many will pick a section. Jeff suggests a couple from New Zealand who he would like to invite.

The Green slides past. Our boats nod against their tethers. The sun goes over the canyon rim.

I have been a member of a local men’s group in Bozeman for many years. The group has been in existence for almost three decades; long enough that several members have died, people have moved away, marriages and relationships have waxed and waned, careers have morphed dramatically. Roughly a dozen of us meet on the evening of every second Wednesday during the school year. We open the meetings with a period of drumming, followed by a personal check in, and then embark on a topic presented by one of the members. There is a ‘talking stick’ and a certain protocol about how things go. We finish up before 10 pm and head home. The emphasis is on sharing emotions, generating ‘heat’, revealing difficult things. It is not about giving advice. It is most definitely not a book group. The membership is eclectic – medical practitioners, freelancers of different stripes, land brokers, bee-keepers, 9-5 laborers, contractors. Political leanings run from lefty liberals to gun-toting conservatives. Most of us don’t see each other outside of group meetings. The repeated act of sharing deeply over years, holding each other’s confidence tight, sitting together and listening to difficult revelations is profound. And rare.

One of the men’s group traditions is to share our life stories. Early on in the tenure of a new member we devote an entire evening, several hours, to listening to his biography, however he choses to present it. For that meeting, he holds the stick, he uncoils his history and the rest of us listen. That session, and the follow up questions, form the foundation for understanding context as years pass and new events come to bear. There is something primal about hearing a person’s backstory, like the ancient Greeks arriving on a foreign shore where they were anointed and feted and given the chance to share their tales. We don’t slather on the olive oil, but the significance of attending to the saga of a fellow human is the same. Where they come from. What they have endured. Who they love. What drives them. The turning points that have directed their lives.

Before this river trip it occurred to me that we had plenty of evenings for six of us to share our life stories with each other, and that it might be a meaningful way to pass time and get to know each other. It seemed a little awkward, but I thought this group might be open to it. Before we left I mentioned the idea to Marypat. Two nights into our trip she calls me on it.

“You’ve done this before,” she says. “Why don’t you start us off.”

“That’s what I get for opening my big mouth,” I say.

Night is coming on. We sit on a bench of firm sand a few feet above the river in a circle of camp chairs. Flames flicker in the fire pan. A pile of wood lies nearby. The first stars come out – Orion’s belt, Canis Major, Polaris. The tents are tucked under a twisted grove of scrub oak trees. Dinner dishes dry on the camp table. The air is calm and quiet. We each have a headlamp in a coat pocket, wear layers of long underwear and puff coats and wool caps. The rhythms of river life have started to take hold.

Yes I’ve done this before, but it is still daunting. Telling the story of my life requires stripping away the superficial veneer I present to the world, becoming vulnerable, trusting the people within earshot who will each interpret my words. Going deep, laying bare, opening up gives my listeners power to hurt me on some basic level. At the same time, I believe that becoming vulnerable puts me in an odd position of strength. If I reveal everything, what are they going to hurt me with? I do trust this circle of people. They are my friends. Besides, presumably they will grant me the same access to their quivering truths on subsequent nights around the campfire. At the end of the journey, we will all sit together in that same tippy boat of shared history.

I remind myself of one of the surprising lessons I’ve learned in my career as a writer. Much of what I’ve written is autobiographical in nature. As such, it is by definition revealing. I have recounted things I am not proud of, made admissions of weakness, exposed doubts and frailties. When a book or story comes out, I wait for the reaction to those personal quagmires. The reaction has never come. What I have come to realize is that my hidden flaws are much the same as everyone’s. My readers simply nod in acknowledgement when they read some tidbit of personal angst that I think is so singular and problematic. They have the same in their lives. They can relate.

The other thing I’ve learned in writing about my experiences is that being honest and self-critical and open is what makes it worthwhile. If it isn’t, the stories remain shallow and superficial. If I’m not drawing some blood and letting it flow onto the page, why bother? And, from a reader’s perspective, if it doesn’t go deep, why bother?

For an hour or more I plunge in. I talk about my parent’s habit of moving frequently from job to job. About the doctor’s mistake in Turkey that led to deafness in one ear. About my rebellious, callow adolescence. About the car accident that left a friend dead when I was at the wheel. About reinventing myself by going to college. About my passions and risks and failures and triumphs, my good fortune and bad. I talk about meeting Marypat, how certain of her I was. About our life together in wild places and what that has led to. About alcohol. About coming of age working on a ranch in eastern Colorado. About cancer. About leaps of faith and falling into the abyss.

Night deepens. Cold settles in. Someone keeps feeding the flames. We all scooch in close for warmth. The circle is still. I assume they are attentive and not asleep. When I stop talking it remains quiet. The river gurgles close by. Sparks arc into the night. The sound track of my voice fades away.

Out of the dark a few questions, some need for clarification, more details, what a turn in direction meant in the long haul. I talk some more. It makes me realize how much editing goes into telling a story, how the teller picks and chooses and shuffles to make sense. How much is still left out.

The woodpile has dwindled to a few twigs. We let the fire burn to red embers. An owl calls. It is chilly. The weather forecast calls for wind during the coming afternoon so we decide to get an earlier start. With the echoes of my story in our thoughts we all troop off to bed, headlamps stabbing through the snaking shadows of gnarled branches.

It is Day 4 before we encounter a rapid worth scouting. The upper reach of this trip is sedate and slow-moving. We have been coasting along at David’s pace, entertained by the heart-swelling brilliance of yellow cottonwoods, spiced with occasional flaming red pockets of maples. Almost daily we’ve explored petroglyph sites along the way, sometimes hiking a mile or more up a tributary to find an illustrated cliff. It makes me wonder how many more of these impenetrable communications litter the landscape that we paddle through.

Panels of sheltered rock speak to us from the ancients, and from an unfathomable cultural context. We ponder the blocky human figures, the outlines of sheep and deer, the spirals and lines of dots, snakes and lightning bolts. Some of it seems decipherable, but most of it is opaque. The people pecking out these symbols, telling their stories, illustrating their spirits, outlining their handprints, honoring their ceremonies came from a mental and spiritual place as foreign to us as Mars. We can only take it in, let it sift into our subconscious, imagine the authors standing where we stand, on a day much like this day, expressing themselves as we might in a trip journal. It is not a thing to make sense of, only to witness and appreciate.

Impenetrable messages from another reality. David Lovejoy photo.

Impenetrable messages from another reality. David Lovejoy photo.

Our camps are a string of beaches, cottonwood groves, subtle sunsets, the morning spots of welcome first light, kitchen nooks against sagebrush, nights flooded with moonlight. Molly tells her life story on the warmest night of the trip. No fire required. We sit in the dark and quiet listening to the twists her life has taken, the revelations, the challenges, the places she’s lived, her relationship with Jeff, the turns of her career, what it has meant not to have children. We all hold her life in our thoughts when we go to bed, how she has made her way, who she has become.

Above Steer Rapid, the morning of the fourth day, we pull in on river left to have a look. Tie off boats and troop down along the bank to the cliffy narrows cluttered with boulders. The river bounces through the rock field, slides toward the rock wall. We look for markers, find lines, consider options. Each of us weighs alternatives, then we group up, start pointing, discussing. People wander off to pee. It looks pretty straight-forward to me, but the group starts climbing up to a higher vantage point for the aerial view. I walk back up to the boats. Sometimes the whole rapid discussion sideshow gets a little out of hand.

When the gang dilly-dallies on the ridge overlooking the river, I get impatient, untie my boat, and launch. On a more challenging run I wouldn’t go solo, but this looks pretty easy. I find my line, run the deep channel along the cliff wall, dodge a rock or two, ride out the final ribbon of current into the calm pool below. The crew watches me go, then starts back to make their own runs while I hang out in an eddy.

Later in the afternoon winds rise to a pestering crescendo. We battle forward, struggling to keep boats on line, beating against headwinds that create sand storms and burr the river into a lather. Another group has taken the campsite we were aiming for, so we struggle on another mile or two to a beach backed up with cottonwoods in a protected hollow.

Lee shares his life in the dark after dinner. Tales of first ascents, solo river expeditions in the high Arctic, a mosaic of jobs and relationships and adventures, dark times and bright. These revelatory explorations, night after night, makes for an interaction that goes deeper than the usual river group chemistry. By shedding the facades we normally present we leapfrog over the mundane superficiality. There is something more resonant about the group, steeped as it is in the stew of personal truth that comes forth night after night. More and more, we cut to the chase with each other.

It stays blustery the following day. We have plenty of time, so we decide a rest day is in order. An abandoned ox-bow channel offers a possible day hike destination. After a lazy breakfast we file off through a flat valley coated with cheatgrass – a pretty, tawny groundcover from a distance, but a pain in the butt to walk through. There are cattle and game trails to follow, so the annoying stickers in our socks are kept to a dull roar.

A mile or two along, a band of eight or ten bighorn sheep appear in the cliffs bordering the shallow valley. They pick their way through near vertical layers, stopping to nibble on dry grass, in no hurry to be anywhere – rams, ewes, young. Some bluebirds flash through the sage. Farther along a burst of red blooms up a side canyon. Rocky Mountain maples at the peak of color sit in a hollow we can’t resist. As if drawn by a magnet, we all turn off of the cattle trail and make our way toward it. We clamber through a boulder field, uphill, into the spring fed alcove where the trees cluster. It is an exuberant outburst of color in the sere desert, a shout of beauty. We eat lunch there, with the red leaves stirring overhead, brushing against our hats, blessed by this gem of seasonal jewelry set against dry slopes, blocky rock cliffs, sagebrush flats.

I once interviewed a photographer who talked about fall as being the height of seasons, the yearly outburst of health. I had always thought of fall as a kind of death, when everything ebbs toward winter, when leaves die and streams dry up and life hunkers down against the coming season of darkness and cold. No, he said – just the opposite. Fall is the season of robust health, when everything is fat with summer bounty, when color fires up, when things are at the apex of power and lushness. This grove of maple, a tiny bright spot in an ocean of desert, reinforces his take on the season.

Pulled in by the magnetic beauty of fall color. David Lovejoy photo.

Pulled in by the magnetic beauty of fall color. David Lovejoy photo.

Before dinner, after we return from the hike, Lee relates the traumatic account of his experience with a polar bear in the Arctic. It is a piece he left out of his life story, and that still trembles with emotion for him. As he talks about the repeated confrontations with a white bear as he waited for a plane pickup on an island he couldn’t escape from, and his final conflicted decision to shoot and kill his tormentor as the bear once again nosed into his tent, emotions shake him visibly. We are a rapt audience. All of us imagine ourselves in such a predicament. Most of us have had our own reckonings with danger and death. Marypat and I had a similar confrontation with a black bear we had to kill in Alberta, and with persistent polar bears on Hudson Bay. For Lee, the encounter left him scarred and shaken. He has no interest in venturing to polar bear country ever again. Marypat and I have come to the same conclusion after several encounters near Churchill on Hudson Bay. There is something viscerally terrifying about polar bears.

Our rest day strategy pans out. The following morning is calm. The river picks up the pace, greets us with minor rapids that we read from the boats and run without stopping to scout. It is Marypat’s first trip soloing in an inflatable canoe, and her confidence builds with each challenge met. Fall brilliance unfolds, wide bend after wide bend. Canyon walls loom overhead. Birds are surprisingly scarce. Soaring eagles are as abundant as ducks, but neither is abundant. Artifacts of frontier life punctuate the riverbanks, crumbling rock structures, rusted metal, the faint echoes of early river runners and homesteaders, outlaws and rustlers. The river courses on, timeless, finding its tireless way to deal with our shenanigans. We proceed at the river’s pleasure, and it becomes our pleasure.

Molly, Marypat and Lee on a walkabout, with the Green winding past below. David Lovejoy photo.

Molly, Marypat and Lee on a walkabout, with the Green winding past below. David Lovejoy photo.

More rapids we stop to scout – Wire Fence, Coal Creek. Wave trains to ride through, narrow tongues of river dropping over a ledge, tricky dodging through rock gardens and logjams. David lines himself up behind one of our boats, feels his way through whitewater as much as he sees it. Marypat rides her cycle of anticipation, self-doubt, and then triumph as she piles up rapids in her wake. Between rapids we drift, chat, or just sit, enfolded by the season, soaking it in. And each night the stories come. Hidden musical talents, marriages that foundered or blossomed, career leaps, deep regrets, surprising achievements, the blessing of children.

When we finish with life stories, we keep mining for more. Embarrassing moments, more bear encounters, stunning expeditions, climbing exploits . . . now that we are used to going deep with each other, nothing less will do. The appetite for this simple entertainment grows. More than entertainment, there is something meaningful and universal and ancient happening in this crew of old farts thrown together on a river for a week.

At the skirt of concrete below a final rapid where the trip ends everyone takes care of business. Vehicles back down the ramp. Boats get washed. River life unpacks and repacks into road life. Phones get turned on. We circle in for the requisite group hug and drive away, completing the tangled route from trip idea to return home, that web strung back over the better part of a year. Only now we all hold the treasure of each other’s confidences, a wealth beyond measure, along with the memories of fall brilliance uncoiling through the sublime desert miles.

 

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

CHAPTER 5: SEPTEMBER – ALL ABOUT AGATES

When I drive out of town on September 18th, pulling our little trailer, solo canoe strapped to the roof rack, a bicycle hanging off the back of the rig, I am wearing bedroom slippers. I merge onto the interstate, head east, aiming for a put-in on the lower Yellowstone River, four hours across the state. It is my first solo jaunt.

Less than a week after our return from the Mountain River, I checked into an orthopedic surgery center and got both of my feet operated on. It was long overdue. For more than 35 years, ever since I was about 30 years old, I have suffered from periodic attacks of gouty arthritis. I was shocked at the diagnosis, way back then. I thought gout was a disease fat French kings got from drinking too much red wine. But no, I too was a lucky winner. When I first went to the doctor trying to explain the out-of-the-blue excruciating episodes of pain and inflammation, it took him about 15 seconds to pronounce me a gout victim. What I’d been rationalizing away as a rock I must have stepped on during one of my runs, or an ankle I’d turned on a hike, was, in fact, that disease of fat French kings who drank too much red wine.

Ever since I’ve variously tried to ignore it, medicate it, try ‘miracle’ cures like drinking cherry juice, and live with it. The only treatment that I’ve found consistently pretty effective has been acupuncture, but while it usually relieves symptoms it doesn’t take away the cause, which is an elevated level of uric acid in my blood. I don’t like lifelong regimens of drugs. And I wasn’t that interested in changing my diet, especially when it came to alcohol.

In a telling chapter of my life, when I quit drinking and also dabbled in a more vegan diet, my gout pretty much went away. I should have paid more attention to that, as it turns out. Western medicine generally says that gout is hereditary and no dietary restrictions really do much. Their solution? Take a pill, for the duration.

For me, the upshot of this scatter-shot approach and years of denial landed me with impressive bunion-like growths at the base of both of my big toes. Large ones. “Wow, those are some Pauls!” friends would say when I revealed my bare togs. They bulged out of the sides of my feet like egg-sized rocks. For the most part they didn’t limit me, and most of the time they didn’t hurt, but eventually it got to the point that I could hardly get my shoes on. I had to buy footwear a size too big and still wrangle my feet into them. I wore out hiking shoes in a matter of months. I was a regular at second hand sports stores buying cheap shoes.

“Shoes are cheaper than surgery,” I kept saying.

But then I finally achieved one of the few benefits of age (along with my national park senior pass) – Medicare! What a concept. I could actually go in and get these monstrous conversation pieces taken care of and not go bankrupt. And, since I’d quit drinking a few months earlier, I hadn’t had an attack.

I met with a foot doc. She was impressed, but confident she could dramatically improve the situation. She suggested doing one foot at a time, but agreed that I could do both at once if I wanted to. I wanted to. We scheduled the surgery with the Mountain River in mind.

Late in August, still fresh from the North, I lay in the recovery room, feet bandaged and mind groggy. I noticed how everyone from the surgical team was so impressed by my specimens. “Never seen anything like it,” they kept saying. “Took a lot longer than we thought. We had to chisel some of that stuff out of there. Wow, those were something!”

When I told my friend, Scott, who is a PA at an orthopedic urgent care in town, about that reaction, his response was, “Yeah, bummer. You really don’t want to be that guy.”

For several days I was pretty home bound, clumping around in Frankenstein-like surgical boots, using a walker. But before long I was getting around pretty well. Not well enough to hit the dance floor at Quinn’s wedding, unfortunately, but still, able to function. The stiches came out of the four-inch incisions after two weeks. For the first time I got to see the damage. The scars are impressive, the bumps largely gone. My big toes angle inward more than I’d like. The joints are still larger than normal due to residual arthritis. I should probably have acted earlier. But there you have it.

By the time I left for the Yellowstone River, I had graduated from the clod-hopper surgery boots into my comfortable slippers. Still hadn’t tried real shoes, but this trip would be the test.

The Yellowstone is my home river, 25 miles away, just over the pass from Bozeman. More than 600 miles long, beginning in the high country of the Washakie Wilderness in northern Wyoming and coursing all the way across southern and eastern Montana on its way to join the Missouri River just over the North Dakota border. My contention is that I have spent more days and nights floating and camping on that river than anyone in history. I have no idea whether that’s right, but I think it’s likely. Sure, there are fly-fishing guides who have floated the river many more days than I have, and William Clark spent weeks going downstream in 1806, but the fact is that very few people camp along the Yellowstone. People go out for the day to run whitewater or flail the current with monofilament, but damn few set up camp and stay. A state of affairs I like just fine.

Along the Yellowstone with our old dog, Beans.

Along the Yellowstone with our old dog, Beans.

Marypat and I floated the entire navigable river, some 550 miles, the year after Eli, our oldest, was born. We were in that, children-won’t-change-our-lives period of delusion. Our family and friends questioned our sanity. We were stubborn, and that summer, with 9-month-old Eli barely starting to walk, teething like mad, and chubby as the Michelin-tire-man, we put the boat in below Yellowstone National Park and went downstream for nearly a month.

Half an hour into my drive, I cross the Yellowstone River near Livingston. Here the flow turns east, parallel to the highway, and swings along the southern belly of the state for several hundred miles. By the time it gets here, it has already pooled in Yellowstone Lake, cascaded through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and coursed through the dramatic, mountain-bordered Paradise Valley.

I keep reminding myself that I am pulling a trailer. It’s a necessary mindset, especially being new to this. Every truck I pass, every parking lot I pull into, every turn I make, I am remembering that I have nearly twenty feet dangling behind me.

Seeing the cantering current below the bridge, I return to that summer with infant Eli on board. We may have boasted that life wouldn’t change just because we had a kid in tow, but of course it changed. Whichever one of us was in the bow of the boat was literally tethered to our baby. More often than not, given the demands of a nursing kid, that was Marypat. It meant that, for the most part, I was soloing the canoe, unless I needed help in a rapid. We were determined to use cloth diapers rather than plastic disposables. That meant that diapers that were just wet got repeatedly rinsed and hung to dry on the boat. Those that were soiled we emptied into a ‘cat hole’ just as we deposited our own poop, and collected the dirty diapers in a plastic bag in hopes of finding a riverside Laundromat in a town along the way.

Eli did what infants do. He wanted to nurse urgently and frequently. He slept much of the day. He held himself up by the gunwale, bouncing up and down on his bandy legs, and watched the world full of glinting current and honking geese go past. He gummed dried bananas in a frenzy of teething drool. At night he slept between us, fitfully as any infant. He wanted to put everything he touched in his mouth, from goose poop to sticks. In addition to nursing, he ate the food we ate, ground up in a hand-crank food mill. We soon found that a canoe has a second valuable purpose in camp as a 17’ playpen. The tent, too, lined with sleeping bags, was a handy place for him to play and stay safe. We protected him from camp fires and falls and sharp objects just as we would protect him at home from stairs and table corners and toxic cleansers. If anything, life on the river was less stressful and objectively dangerous than life at home.

Eli also opened our eyes. His experience of moving water, of sand, of smooth rocks or the raucous calls of ravens triggered that first-time wonder in us. We watched him let warm sand trickle between his fingers, or reach his arm through the curtain of a small waterfall, or bounce in time with the waves slapping beneath the canoe. I could think of no better introduction to the world than one filled with current and sky and wind and bird call. We spend a lot of time in our culture getting kids to do math or read their first books. What about feeling a river beneath them? What about lying under a star-stuffed night sky? What about the magic of a cook fire? What about waiting out a hailstorm under a tarp and feeling the icy balls left on the ground in the aftermath? He brought all of that back to us.

Eli in his 17' playpen.

Eli in his 17′ playpen.

So of course it was different to have an infant on board. Harder, slower, more anxious, more labor intensive. Also, full of the bounty and newfound joy that comes with sharing the world with your child. Our world, that one with water running through it.

What we didn’t know until near the end of our month with Eli is that son number two was also along for the ride. We’d been told not to expect success in future pregnancies. We’d endured such a struggle to get pregnant, and Marypat was nursing on top of that. Don’t even think about it, doctors said. But by the end of our time on the Yellowstone, Marypat was feeling uncharacteristically exhausted and she’d missed her period. For a while she didn’t focus on it, and she waited before she said anything, but by the time we got home, she suspected that the docs had been wrong and that she might be pregnant; that the fetal bud inside of her had shared remotely in the river journey, just as Eli had during our pregnant summer in the Far North before his birth.

My slippered drive across Montana parallels the Yellowstone most of the way. I keep glimpsing familiar bends, rapids we’ve played in, sandbars we’ve camped on, tributaries I’ve paddled past, current I remember through the hull of boats. The good news in this theme of monthly journeys is that I get to decide the ground rules for what constitutes a river trip. In August it was a strenuous northern expedition, while September is an easy saunter for a gimp with an eye to rock-hounding, during which I might not paddle 30 miles. A theme like this is full of unknowns like foot surgery and travel snafus. Flexibility is required.

I have long threatened to take a trip on the lower Yellowstone totally devoted to hunting for pretty rocks. I come from a family of fossil collectors, lapidary equipment, rocks on display in gardens and on bookcases. During our month floating with Eli I had plenty of time to stroll the gravel bars in that prayerful posture, picking up agates and petrified wood. We returned from that float quite a lot heavier than we left, thanks to sacks of ‘keepers’. Once back I revved up the industrial-sized rock tumbler and started churning out shiny specimens of moss agate, petrified wood, and ‘agatized’ wood. Friends started calling me Agate Al.

I recruited the kids into the search as they grew up and we continued to take family canoe trips on stretches of the Yellowstone. They developed keen eyes for the translucent sheen of agates and the grain of petrified wood. By the time they were teenagers I hardly had to look anymore. I’d just wait for them to come back, tee-shirts sagging with rocks. The Yellowstone is very satisfying rock hounding territory. This isn’t one of those hunts that requires days and days of patient scouring to unearth a specimen. Downstream of the Bighorn River, along the Yellowstone, the gravel is pocked with agates and wood. It’s rare to get skunked. Our challenge was to cull the more common varieties and only hang on to the really special specimens. Otherwise, we’d sink.

My other quest in life is to find an agate the size of my head. That is still unfulfilled, although we’ve unearthed a couple that come close.

Agates are made of chalcedony, a microscopic-grained form of quartz similar to chert or jasper. They form in pockets of bedrock, most frequently in ancient lava flows and volcanic deposits, where water infiltrates the country rock and leaves behind the chalcedony crystals to fill the empty spaces. The pocket slowly fills, often in visible layers or bands, and in the case of moss agates, the rock is ‘contaminated’ with dark mineral which shows up in feathery, moss-like patterns. The nuggets and nodes of agate eventually are exposed through erosion, freed of their bedrock prison, and they begin to migrate downhill, moved by gravity and water. Once in the flow of the Yellowstone, agates bump along the channel, wash downstream in floods, and wind up on gravel bars where my sharp-eyed children find them. Traveling by canoe, with frequent opportunities to stop and look, is a pretty successful strategy.

My thought, this time, is to make rock hounding the trip’s purpose, rather than a side show to the business of getting downstream. Given the state of my tender feet, this is a perfect opportunity to make good on my promise. It is also a chance to try out the used camper trailer we bought the previous fall with an eye toward a vagabond era of retirement life.

Late afternoon, I pull into the riverside camping area next to the Yellowstone, on the outskirts of Forsyth. My ‘geezer’ Golden Age park pass gets me a campsite for a few bucks. The campground is nearly empty, so no one gets to witness my trailer backing technique. The river slides past 50 yards away, going over a diversion dam with a dull roar. I walk over to the boat ramp. A couple sits on a picnic bench looking over the flow. An aluminum powerboat comes upstream, full of young men and bristling with fishing poles. They angle in to the eddy, slide against the concrete ramp, hop out. The river is low. Gravel bars are exposed. I could start hunting agates immediately, but I want to scout the next day’s outing.

The next fishing access is a dozen or more miles downstream, near the tiny town of Rosebud. Leaving the trailer in camp, I drive the frontage road next to the interstate to look it over. Bike shuttles are an ideal way to paddle solo. They incorporate aerobic exercise into the outing and make for an uncomplicated, inexpensive alternative to hiring a shuttle driver. Problem is, in a place like Montana, finding the right kind of biking roads can be iffy. This one works out. The frontage road is paved and quiet, winding along between interstate and river, dipping into a few drainages like Rosebud Creek, and only turning to dirt for the final half mile leading to the boat access ramp. I note the fact that there is another campsite near the fishing access, also unoccupied, and free.

I detour through the main drag of Rosebud. It doesn’t take long – a public school, a block-long downtown with a post office, bar, and some boarded up buildings. A few blocks of back streets with scattered houses, one or two people out doing yard work or talking. A backwater town abandoned by the highway and railroad and steamboats, a place with a faint pulse and a pace of life both sane and crazy-making, I imagine.

I may own an RV trailer, but I remain a minimalist. Partly it’s due to my incompetence as a handyman. When things go wrong, I’m generally out of luck, so I prefer to keep it simple. Rather than use the water pump and sink, I set a water jug on the counter. Rather than fire up the refrigerator, I pull in the cooler from the vehicle and set it next to the bed. When I stop for gas I fill up a plastic jug with ice at the drink machine and keep the food cold. Rather than deplete the battery running the lights, I set solar lanterns out to charge during the day and hang them from Velcro tabs on the fabric ceiling when it gets dark. The only camper technology I rely on is the propane cook stove, on which I heat a can of soup. That and a salad kit constitute my meal. I rinse dishes outside, set them on the counter to dry, and switch on the solar lamp to write in my trip journal, study river maps and read a short story before I transform the table into a bed and crawl in for the night.

Through the bright full-moon hours I listen to a stereo contrast out the open windows of the trailer. Stereo left, the crescendo of river cascading through the rock diversion dam. Stereo right, the distant hum of traffic going past on the interstate and the occasional moan of train whistle passing through town with a load of coal or new cars or airplane bodies. Nature and civilization, the balancing act I’ve performed most of my life, one that sustains, the other that demands. Not quite that simple, but lying there, listening to both, I know very well which channel resonates and soothes, and which burdens me with challenges and details.

By 8:30 the next morning, fueled up with scrambled eggs and hash browns and a cup of coffee, having left the canoe and paddle gear with the trailer, I’m at the take-out boat ramp ready to saddle up and ride. For the first time in three weeks I ease loose-fitting running shoes on and tentatively walk around. My feet are still tender, but the shoes slide on better than they have in a decade. Satisfied, I leave the rig and start the ride back.

In the hour it takes to return, only a few cars pass me, and they are polite about it. Only one dog gives chase from a ranch yard, but I’m on a downhill stretch and outpedal my attacker. My feet feel pretty good. A second cup of coffee seems in order, once back in camp. I set out a solar shower to warm in the sun, lay the solar light on the picnic table, and drag the 14’ solo canoe through the cottonwoods to the boat ramp, where a man and his two young boys are busy skipping rocks.

Then I am in the canoe, pushing into the current, letting the river take hold down a side channel and on into the main flow. Damn it feels good, like coming home. I let the boat drift. Some geese rise off of the bank and fly overhead. A slight breeze rustles through the cottonwoods. The panorama of eastern Montana spreads in an undulating tawny quilt under fall sky. The river dazzles with shards of light. Town recedes. Everything recedes. The cadence of river takes over. Never mind that I can still see trucks passing on the highway. They exist through the looking glass.

IMG_5850

I remember why I am here. The tip of a gravel bar island offers good landing. I turn the bow of the canoe upstream, angle in against shore, carefully climb out, haul the canoe well up, and start my search, head down, finding the cleanest line of river- and rain-washed rock. I lose myself in that slow, meditative cadence, hunting methodically for the dull gleam of agate or the swirling grain of wood turned to rock. I bend down to pick some up, study them, put them in a pocket or drop them back on the ground. Slowly my pockets start to bulge. My thoughts freewheel.

This river brims with memories, familiar as a relative. So many days and nights spent riding its currents and sleeping on its beaches. October weekends when the cottonwoods flared yellow and frost rimmed the water bucket at dawn. May vacations with the kids who swam in the waves, wallowed in mud, built forts out of driftwood. Summer journeys with my aging parents, overnights with friends. Hailstorms and thunder bursts, windstorms and stunning heat, flocks of geese, snow squalls, wild rides through waves, scary moments crossing eddy lines, train whistles through the nights, tranquil dawns by the fire with Ruby coming back with a load of agates to sort for ‘keepers’.

I remember our second descent of the entire river, in honor of Sawyer’s coming of age as a thirteen-year-old. His ‘birth’ river. We coupled another float from Gardiner, Montana to the confluence with the Missouri with a weeklong hike to reach the headwaters of the river in the wilderness of northern Wyoming. On that family hike we backpacked up the South Fork of the Shoshone River, turned uphill to Marston Pass, and climbed the steep flanks of Younts Peak, where the two forks of the Yellowstone make a necklace around that dramatic summit. Just below the peak, we all lay on our bellies to drink from the dripping snowfield that is the literal source of the river. Each of us physically incorporated the frigid, unfiltered water molecules of the new river. The same river we had floated and swam and camped along to its confluence with the Missouri. At the end of the Yellowstone, just across the line into North Dakota, Sawyer had stood up in the bow of the canoe, stripped out of his clothes, and jumped into the final currents. All of us followed his example. All five of us, naked and trip-worn, bobbing in the last flow of the Yellowstone next to our boats as it merged with the storied Missouri.

Sawyer's coming-of-age ceremony on a Yellowstone gravel bar.

Sawyer’s coming-of-age ceremony on a Yellowstone gravel bar.

My day continues like this. Drifting along the familiar bends of river, stopping frequently on gravel bars, along cobble banks, on islands, to amble through the beds of rock deposited by floods, washed by rains, heated by summer sun, covered by ice, laying there season after season for me to discover. I set up a camp chair and enjoy lunch under the pale sun. I have the river to myself. Bald eagles perch in snags, the wind pushes me along, rustling through the cottonwood leaves. The season turns, the narrow sliver of my boat cleaves the clay-colored river. My rock collection builds up in the bow of the canoe. Memories flood in, unbidden, welcome, a celebration.

The same sauntering pace infuses my time on the road and in the trailer. After another night in Forsyth, I bump down to Rosebud and camp at the Far West campground I’d noticed when I scouted my first shuttle ride. It is named after one of the wood-fired steamboats that plied the lower Yellowstone River in the 1800s, delivering goods as far upstream as Billings. This is not backcountry camping. I am insulated from the weather, provided with the luxury of warmth and light and cookstove. Yet I feel an early morning thunderstorm rock the trailer, listen to the wind outside and the geese winging upriver while I lie snug and protected in my bed.

For the better part of a day I paddle both upstream and down nearby, exploring more gravel, finding more rock, probably paddling a total of four miles. In the afternoon I follow a paved road up Rosebud Creek through ranch country notable for its military history from the Indian Wars. Here in this sparsely settled prairie with a small ribbon of creek running through it, Custer and the 7th Cavalry had made their way toward their fateful demise at the Little Bighorn. Plaques and highway dioramas mark the grave of an unidentified soldier with a bouquet of plastic flowers maintained by the local 7th Regiment Society. Markers discuss the strategic decisions made by Custer and the uncertainty within his regiment over just how many Indians they would be facing. Apparently, Custer wasn’t listening to their concerns. Many of the towns along the lower reach of the Yellowstone are named for the military men of that era – Miles City, Sidney, Terry, Forsyth, Custer. In this country it’s either the Indian Wars or Lewis and Clark that get top billing.

It rains for a solid day. I spend it probing the river for access sites and likely rock-hounding country. In Miles City I settle into the public library for a couple of hours to catch up on emails and indulge my addiction to political news. Libraries are sanctuaries for the vagabond set, the somewhat homeless. Quiet, bathrooms available, internet connection, no end of reading material, and free from the hubbub and piped in music of coffee shops. In the continuing dreary weather I locate the KOA campground near the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers. The camp host sports a bright yellow company shirt with a nametag telling me he is from Georgia. He can’t find me in his contacts.

“Off the grid, eh?” he observes.

“Not any more,” I say.

Campground life provides an interesting study. I park my small, cute teardrop in its lane, plug in for electricity, sign onto the wifi, brew up some tea, spread my maps out on the table to study. Around me loom house-sized RVs with generators and ‘bump out’ bedrooms and satellite dishes, into which people disappear. I view them with some disdain. Out the window I observe a couple in their sleeping pod of a trailer. It has a cunning design with a galley hatch for stove, kitchen gear and so on, but they have to stand around in the drizzle, wearing wool hats and rain gear, to cook and eat. I’m pretty smug about my digs by comparison.

When the weather clears the next morning, I head east for Glendive and another camp. Makoshika State Park sits on the edge of town, featuring badland terrain, fossil beds, colorful coulees and prairie plateaus. For $7 a night I score a sweet campsite with minimal infrastructure. It is a relief not to have internet. I’ve come to covet the lack of contact with news and politics when I’m on river trips. With internet, I fall prey, listen to news, binge on Netflix. Without it I spend my time reading, writing, being still, looking around me.

For the next couple of days, while I base at the park, I search gravel bars up and down river. Near the tiny ranch community of Fallon, I back down the boat ramp, unload, and paddle upstream, underneath the interstate bridge, river pushing through massive pilings, and on up to a likely-looking stretch of rocky bank.

There is an art to picking agates. It takes some scouting to find the right layer of rock that has been washed clean by rain. Once on a likely terrace I take a slow sauntering line, up and down the river bank, scanning left and right for the gleam of translucent agate, or the swirl of wood grain. I’m not as sharp as I used to be, when I had two good eyes, but I take my time, don’t miss much. The rocks run the gamut from nearly clear to almost black with impurities. Some are banded, highlighted with red and black. Of course, it’s often the impurities that make the most interesting specimens. I flick them over with my foot, stoop to pick one up, hold it up to the sun to see if it has the characteristic look of chalcedony. Some I have to wash in the river before I can assess. There are tiny gems the size of an earring, pieces the size of my fist. Some of the wood can be as big as logs, which, in fact, they are, or once were.

I mosey up and down, my boat resting patiently downriver, scanning, gathering, discarding, until my pockets are so full they threaten to de-pants me. An hour later, I drift back downstream, past the boat ramp to a teardrop island I remember from Sawyer’s trip. I’m sure we had lunch here and that the kids made a good haul of rock during the break. I am not mistaken. I load up my pants again to a dangerous sag, dump the treasure in the bow of the canoe, go back for more. The canoe only travels a couple of miles, but I spend the day on the river, in slow meditation, listening to the ripple of water sliding past, feeling the fall sun on my shoulders, letting my thoughts roam and stall while I amass my loot.

In the evenings the campground fills with a few more late-season rigs. A pair of young women sleeping in their van, a retired couple with a tent, another couple from Canada with an RV. I savor the last hours of sun, sit outside in a lawn chair next to a juniper tree, nursing a non-alcohol beer, nibbling snacks. In these camps conversations are predictable. People talk about their rigs, their road adventures, their bike racks, their dogs (almost everyone has a dog), the time the hitch broke, and where they are heading next. It’s a fine line between being neighborly, meeting interesting folks, making connections and being a pest.

“We’re heading back for Ontario,” the Canadian couple tells me when I stop to chat on my way to the bathroom. “After October 1st most of the campgrounds close, unless you go pretty far south.” I tell them what I’ve been up to, give them a smooth piece of petrified wood as a gesture of neighborliness.

Before dark I spread out my growing rock collection on the picnic table. I think about the journeys they have made, the epochs they have weathered, and their new destiny, heading for my tumbler in the garage back home, and from there, ornamenting the garden, filling bowls, making house gifts, sitting on the car dashboard, massaged by hands, comforting as rosary beads, glimmering with smooth, warm, luminous beauty.

By the final day, hopping downstream between Glendive and Sidney, my appetite for rock hounding has waned. I have more than enough rock to keep my tumbler rolling for months. Each batch of rock takes four weeks. Every week the grit gets changed out, finer each time, until the final polish grit is as powdery as talcum. Then the rocks emerge, poured out onto a towel on the kitchen table to be admired for a day or two before they get dispersed around the house and yard, sent off to friends, given to neighbors. There are always surprises – the rocks I was sure would be spectacular, but which end up disappointing, counter-balanced against the drab-looking knobs that polish up to astonishing beauty and color.

I put the canoe on the water here and there, paddle over to islands, wander through the fields of river cobble, only stooping for the most promising gems. The back roads leading to access ramps wind through austere farm country. A man and his teenage daughter standing next to a tractor tire taller than they are, looking at the turned up furrows. Something about their postures makes me sure they are family. And later, a ramshackle collection of buildings decaying along a lonely stretch of dirt, rusting cars, a dilapidated camper, a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag flying.

“Not knocking on that door,” I think, driving past.

At the final stop, gravel spreads away as far as I can see, acre after acre of it. “Jesus, you could walk for weeks and never repeat,” I say out loud.

Out of habit, I wander through the beds of rocks for a while but don’t really hunt. I have enough. “Another time,” I think. “This would be the place to come.”

For a while I linger, smacked by the sweep of it, before I head back, climb the steep bank under the cottonwoods tinged with fall color. I turn and stand above the water-worked deposits. There, dwarfed at this time of year by the sheets of rock it has brought down in floods, the distant glint of ebbing river, out of earshot, quietly urging its way to the sea.

Family cottonwood pose on one of many Yellowstone outings.

Family cottonwood pose on one of many Yellowstone outings.

 

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

CHAPTER 4: AUGUST – FINALLY

This one was a long time coming.

For decades the Far North was our calling card. Our relationship adventures began in 1982 on the Seal River and Hudson Bay in Manitoba. The first summer together as a couple, and a northern river wound through it. From there, almost every year, we paddled rivers in the Yukon, Alaska, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Ontario, Labrador and northern Quebec. Year after year we were enticed back north by the vastness, the water, the tundra, the peaks, the solitude and breadth of terrain that harkens back to a time when expeditions weren’t such managed, high-tech, hyped-up affairs. Back to a time when you could get a train engineer to stop alongside a lake, unload your outfit, and wave you off for weeks or months before you’d pop back up at another train trestle, flag down the next freight, and find your way out.

Our love for that northern country came to a head during two trans-Canadian journeys, five years apart, that included winters spent on the shore of Lake Athabasca, just south of the border with Nunavut. Those years amputated from the mainstream, embedded in silence, hardly ever separated from each other by more than a dozen feet were profound the way war or poverty or the Peace Corps are profound. They changed us, centered us, realigned our perspective permanently, even if that perspective gets blurry sometimes in the cultural onslaught.

It has been a sweet honor to share that land with our kids, taking them on extended trips through the Barrenlands, or down the Yukon River, or summers in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where they transformed from dependent children to full partners who know how to make fires, cook food, set up shelter, portage loads, and who fell in love with the power of that unique place.

But it had been years since we’d gone north. Summers went by full of other distractions, other journeys or responsibilities. We’d talk about it, look at maps spread on the living room floor, scan the trips still on the checklist to get to one of these days. And the days kept passing. Northern expeditions are demanding in every way – physically, financially, logistically, mentally. It helps to be young. No telling how long that window of possibility would stay open. An urgency grew in both of us.

We almost pulled it off the summer before. We talked Sawyer and Ruby and their friends into joining us on another expedition. We had a route picked out, some travel logistics in place, dates bracketed on the calendar. All of us were drying food, thinking through the gear, putting money aside. It would have been another month-long immersion concentrating on the tundra country that carries such weight with us, that land north of trees, but full of wolves and musk ox and caribou and Inuit artifacts.

Sometime that February Marypat and I were sitting in the living room in the pre-dawn dark the way we do on winter mornings. We hold coffee mugs, silently greet the day, don’t talk, let the peaceful gray hour settle around us before the day takes off.

“Something’s wrong with me,” Marypat said from the darkness across the room. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m not right.”

She had been complaining off and on about full-body achiness. It was taking her longer to recover from ski outings than usual. She would go out on a tour that normally wouldn’t phase her, but have to recover for a day before doing something again. She is a bit on the driven side when it comes to exercise, so I didn’t make that much of it at first. We are getting older. No wonder we can’t pull off the stuff we did when we were 30 and bounce right back the next day.

We’ve reached an age where aches and pains are the normal state of affairs, when a long drive in a car requires a few minutes before we can stand up straight, and where unexpected symptoms strike out of the blue. I had noticed that Marypat wasn’t her usual self, but her usual self is pretty off the charts, so I was tempted to chalk it up to higher expectations than were reasonable and the unfortunate fact of aging. I didn’t say that. I listened as she described the all-over stiffness, the instability, the pain and fatigue. I wanted to deny, to sympathize but also assume it would pass. But there was something unavoidably real and fearful in Marypat’s voice.

It didn’t pass. Instead it progressed. Over the weeks she moved more and more like an elderly woman. When she got out of bed she had to stand to get her strength and balance before she took a step. She was in such pain that it was excruciating for her to roll over in bed.

The road to a diagnosis and a treatment regime was exasperating. Over the months Marypat changed up diet, saw her doctor, got tests, took it easy because she had no choice. Her inflammation numbers were off the charts. Some days she could barely move. Just standing up was torture. It seemed that she was probably suffering from one of the many autoimmune syndromes that seem to be proliferating, but what? She called every rheumatologist in Montana and couldn’t get an appointment for months. She even tried Idaho offices with no better results. One local doc came highly recommended. Marypat got on her waiting list and called every morning to see if there was an opening. She got to know the receptionist really well.

We were talking to a friend who works at the hospital about her situation and she was stunned that we couldn’t get an appointment. “I’ll see what I can do.”

A week later we got in. Don’t know if it was Marypat’s daily calls or our friend’s advocacy, but we finally could get some help.

We both went to the appointment so we could each hear and interpret the findings. The doc listened to Marypat’s description of her symptoms, looked over her blood work, ordered some more tests, but by the end of the session, was pretty confident that what she had was Polymyalgia Rheumatica, an autoimmune disorder shrouded in mystery, but, according to her, with a pretty solid treatment regimen. She wanted to do more tests to confirm her guess, but she outlined the plan, which, simply put, was a years-long course of cortisone drugs, on a tapering schedule. Her hope, which Marypat settled on as a certainty, was that one year of taking the drug would do the trick.

“We don’t know exactly what triggers this,” she said, “but if you follow protocol and stick with the plan, I expect you to be cured for good at the end.”

By this point it was spring. Our trip was a few months away. I couldn’t imagine how Marypat could expect to paddle all day every day, shoulder portage loads, and participate in all the camp chores on a month-long expedition, but she wasn’t ready to pull the plug.

“Let’s see how it goes,” she said.

Cortisone is one of those miracle drugs. It makes you feel like you can do anything. Still, for Marypat, it took a while. We went out for a short stint on the East Gallatin in early May, just a couple of hours of the usual paddling gnarliness. Marypat couldn’t open her hands for the next three days. At the end of May, when we took on our annual Three Rivers challenge, Marypat participated, but on the last morning, she announced that she didn’t think she could do the summer expedition. That admission was huge for her, to give in to a physical limitation. For the rest of us, it was a pretty obvious conclusion, but for her, it was an admission of failure.

“I still want to do it,” she said, eyes blazing. “I just don’t think I can handle it this summer.”

Over the summer and on into the following school year, Marypat came back. She came back remarkably. She got on her mountain bike, rode in races, hiked and paddled and skied. Cortisone combined with her indomitable will healed her in amazing fashion. It was a long haul, but something to watch, as her dose kept tapering and her strength kept returning. At some point we had to start planning for the summer.

The kids requested a trip of three weeks, more or less. They all had jobs, school, financial issues. Anything longer would be tough. The problem was that three weeks wouldn’t cut it for the trip we had planned the year before. The perennial challenge, putting together a trip to match our desires, our budgets, our abilities. The Far North is seamed with rivers that spider-web across the vast wilds, pocked with lakes, some of them huge. In some quadrants there seems to be more water than land, but conjuring the route that is remote and spectacular, yet accessible and doable, can be torture.

I put out some feelers to friends in that small circle of humanity who have fallen prey to the same obsession for paddling through that boreal and arctic landscape as we have, people with dozens of canoe expeditions on their life lists. Some interesting candidates came back.

It didn’t take that long to narrow the list to half a dozen, and then to two or three. I found route descriptions and trip accounts and we had a group meeting to hone in on preferences. It came down to two rivers – the Noatak in Alaska or the Mountain in the Northwest Territories. Both flow through vast, stellar country, both offer ample opportunities for hiking, both are mountainous and full of wildlife. In the end it came down to dates. To do the Noatak justice would require the better part of a month, and several days of travel there and back. The Mountain could fit into that three-week frame and allow for plenty of time to dawdle along, stopping for hikes and enjoying the immersion.

Once the decision was made, the vortex of logistical decisions exerted its gravitational pull. We researched different travel modes, different access points, renting from outfitters or bringing our own boats, finding bush pilots, ordering maps, crunching the numbers, dehydrating food. Phone calls, internet research, conversations with outfitters and pilots, budgeting money and time, nailing down dates. Over a period of weeks it came into focus, we found helpful contacts, settled on an outfitter and a flight service, pored over the map quads and scattered trip reports, figured out a travel plan. Dehydrators hummed away in every household. Gear was assessed, repaired, borrowed, ordered.

For a while the trip loomed on the distant horizon, months and months away. Preparations felt leisurely, comfortable. But suddenly, before we felt truly ready, our departure date was a week away. It always happens that way, no matter how far in advance you start. It’s simply the way these journeys unfurl. People and gear collect, details get tucked into bed, the little emergencies that can’t wait get dealt with, the last minute list is finally checked off before piling everything into two cars, all of us climbing aboard, and caravanning north toward Edmonton, a long day’s drive away.

What should have been a seamless travel plan was anything but. As long as we had our hands on the wheel, in control, we were fine. Into Edmonton, long-term parking arranged, a marginal dinner out, a shuttle to the airport at 5 am . . . From there everything unraveled. At the airport we loaded on the plane and sat there an inordinate amount of time, until finally the pilot announced that he had good news and bad news. The bad news – something was wrong with the ventilation system and we couldn’t fly. The good news – another plane was available so we’d be delayed, but we’d get out.

Several hours later we hummed north over the rivers and forests and lakes of Alberta, some of it familiar, and on into the Northwest Territories, across Great Slave Lake, landing in Yellowknife. After reshuffling at the airport there, we were on our way to Norman Wells, along the Mackenzie River, where our outfitter and bush pilot waited. Fifteen minutes from landing a man sitting in front of me started complaining of discomfort. Turned out he was a diabetic with heart issues. A nurse was called to attend. He didn’t seem particularly distressed, but the plane turned around, heading back to Yellowknife and medical services. Frustrating, but understandable. Drone all the way back to Yellowknife, deplane, mill around in the airport waiting for a plan to emerge.

Waiting, waiting, until finally a barely audible announcement was made that the plane couldn’t fly because the seal of the first aid kit had been broken. Rules, you know. Everyone was encouraged to get in line and negotiate their arrangements with the two harried ticket agents available. As the line of maybe 100 people inched painfully forward rumors flew, Plan B’s flew, questions arose, like, “Are you telling me they can’t find another first aid kit and put it on the damn plane?” There was talk of booking a charter flight at significant extra cost for those who really had to make their destination. When we finally got to the front of the line, Sawyer and I told our tale to the ticket agent, whose only option for us was to fly back to Edmonton, where we’d have to wait three days for the next flight north with room, by which time our bush pilot would not be available and our trip might well be impossible.

“That’s our option?” Sawyer asked, incredulously. The agent nodded. “No other plane available? No refund of our tickets? Go back to Edmonton and wait three days?”

“Best I can do,” she said. “I’m happy to give you the number for our Customer Service Department.”

Meantime, the rest of the crew had been talking to the charter faction who were drumming up people to fill a plane like hucksters at the county fair – the more bodies they could get, the cheaper it would be. We called the outfitter to see how much flexibility we had. Not much, it turned out. The bush plane was booked for days. If we couldn’t make it, we might have to cancel our expedition.

In the end I handed over my credit card, cringing, and we climbed aboard a jam-packed prop plane that flew into the lingering twilit northern sky, heading for Norman Wells again. And it was well after midnight by the time we got to the outfitter base where we had a cabin lined up and our rental boats waiting. And it was just after breakfast, the next morning, still numb from the travel epic, when our bush pilot showed up, bright and energetic, wondering if we’d have the first load ready to go in an hour. Sure, we said, we can probably manage that. At least someone was finally being efficient.

Oh, and somewhere in the two-day travel trauma, I’d lost both my Medicare and Social Security cards. No idea how or where, but they were gone.

There are portals we go through, passages between dimensions, worm holes, time warps, whatever you want to call them. The flight from the float base near Norman Wells to Dusty Lake, the tiny speck of water near the headwaters of the Mountain River, was one such portal. Through it we flew – away from something, closing behind us as palpably as a swinging door, and into something altogether different.

Sawyer and Quinn went with the first load, which included the bulk of our trip gear. The small, powerful Porter idled down the lake, turned, and roared back into the breeze, then banked away in the distance. Sudden as that, they were gone. How quickly we would follow was unknown. The bush pilot had other trips to juggle. The two of them would start portaging loads the half mile or so from the lake to the small ribbon of river near the divide between the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories, about a degree shy of the Arctic Circle, high in the Mackenzie Mountains, a serrated range running like a ragged zipper between the two Canadian territories and the watersheds that flow away, east and west. If we didn’t get there later in the day, given variables from weather to shuttle schedules, they had what they needed to spend the night and wait for us.

The four of us left at the base checked through gear, winnowed out the things to leave behind – money, passports, travel clothes – then waited for the drone of approaching plane. By lunchtime the pilot was back, jaunty as ever, stepping down onto the float from the cockpit, pulling out his phone.

“We’d really like to get up there today,” I said.

“I thought you’d want to give them plenty of time to carry all the gear,” he joked.

“Tempting,” I said, “but if you’re able to do another run, that would be great.”

He called his dispatch, had a short conversation, put his phone back away.

“Alright then,” he started pulling the hose from the 55-gallon drum to refuel. “Let’s go. I’ll get lunch when I get back.”

In we piled, with the remaining gear and two canoes strapped firmly onto the floats, one on each side. Slowly back down the lake, turning, roaring back up, breaking free, banking sharply around. Into the blue void of sky. Away from all the clutter of life, like cutting the umbilicus.

Ruby’s boyfriend, Everett, grinning like a ten-year old with a new bike, got the co-pilot seat. From the air the country we’d gazed at on topo sheets spread out below. The massive ribbon of the Mackenzie, a river almost oceanic in scope, measured in the millions of cubic feet per second, miles wide in spots. And across it, over the flats of the valley, and quickly, into the foothills and rising mountains. A pair of moose high-stepped out of a marshy lake at the noise of the plane.

The pilot said something about seeing a herd of caribou on the first trip and did we want to zoom down to look at them. Might make the flight a little bumpy, he added. Ruby and Marypat are notorious for motion sickness, but Ruby gave the thumbs up and Marypat nodded gamely. The plane banked hard over a broad plateau of high country. Sure enough, the caribou were there, a scattered herd grazing in the tundra stubble on the mountain slopes. Caribou and some Dall sheep to boot. Everett took pictures, pointed to things. About then, as predicted, the flight got bumpy. Marypat and Ruby, as predicted, reached for the puke bags, started simultaneously retching, hunched over in their seats. The pilot did his best to avoid clouds and turbulence, but that glimpse of wildlife was the end of the fun for them.

I did my best to be sympathetic, while also trying my best not to focus on the gagging. And I couldn’t stop gawking. Clefts of river valleys roping through the range, cliff-guarded canyons, high plateaus, craggy peaks and long rock ridges, occasional glaciers. In every direction more of it. More mountains, more valleys, more stupendous peaks. The plane thrummed just above the highest peaks and ridges. It went on out of sight in every direction. More of the same. We would be dropped in to one wrinkle in a land full of similar wrinkles.

One valley in an expanse full of dramatic landforms.

One valley in an expanse full of dramatic landforms.

This quadrant of wild country is one of the most extensive, intact ecosystems on earth. It is veined with massive rivers. We would paddle down one ribbon in a section of the Far North full of similar watery ribbons – the Wind, the Bonnetplume, the Snake, the Arctic Red, the Nahanni, the Keele – every one magnificent, extensive, draining watersheds the size of states. Any one of those rivers would be a major paddling mecca if it were located in the lower 48, probably only accessible by lottery to keep numbers down. It will seem vast and all-encompassing, once we are swallowed up in it, but the Mountain is only one valley in a vast horizon full of other valleys equally all-encompassing, equally full of mystery and grizzly bear and quiet drama. The plane was a tiny dot in the vast sky, and we would be tiny dots of color in a tapestry of mountainous land sprawled around us, horizon after horizon of it.

And then we were in it. Through the portal. Dusty Lake, tiny looking, shallow and dingy and too small, lined up below. The Porter angled steeply toward the watery dot. I took another 360-degree look, then the plane hit the water and pulled up hard, just shy of the far bank. Sawyer and Quinn sat, small colored figures, next to a canoe on the shore. We taxied slowly toward them. In minutes we unloaded, apologized for the puke bags, waved goodbye, and the plane roared off again, waggled wings at us, and was swallowed in the sky. Silence swooped in around us, a universe of it.

#

At the end of the only known portage of the trip, less than half a mile from Dusty Lake, the Mountain River churns past, muddy and small, shallow, with humps of rocks breaking up the flow. Here, only a few miles from the divide that separates the Mackenzie drainage and that of the Peel River, both behemoth watersheds, the flow is about like the East Gallatin back home, a channel a single tree could block.

The only portage of the journey, from Dusty Lake to the headwaters.

The only portage of the journey, from Dusty Lake to the headwaters.

We had heard there was a waterfall upstream and Marypat lobbies to go looking for it. She and Ruby could use the walk to settle their stomachs. I tamp down my tendency to move on, see what’s around the bend, take the measure of the new river, find a camp. This is not that kind of trip. We’ve granted ourselves 18 days to do a trip that some people do in 10 or 12. We have consciously allowed for exploration, for layover days, for hikes and relaxed time in camp.

We grab bear spray, secure the boats and scramble out of the shallow valley. Mountain tundra sweeps away to steep rock slopes, which sweep up to peaks and saw-toothed ridges. The ground is hummocky, a bed of sphagnum moss and grassy tussocks, dense thickets of willow, all of it furrowed with game trails. Caribou tracks in the soft ground, sparrows flitting through the underbrush, silence. We make our way through the labyrinth of vegetation, following and losing game trails. It is warm. No bugs cloud our heads.

We had been told that the Mackenzie Mountains were free of the dense insect populations the north is so famous for, but we didn’t believe it. We had all brought our bug shirts, headnets and plenty of repellant. We walk through the landscape we know should be humming with mosquitoes and black flies. No one jinxes the magic by saying anything.

Half an hour in, Quinn says she is going to lie down in the inviting beds of sphagnum and take a nap. She is getting married in September. The last months have been a whirlwind of work, school, and wedding preparations. Her parents were not pleased that she’d signed up for this, but she’s been determined that she wouldn’t be left out. She has been part of our family adventures since childhood – hikes, mountaineering, ski trips, rivers. She can’t imagine being left out. But she is exhausted.

We walk on. Another half hour and the river canyons up through a rocky cleft. We hear the small roar of a waterfall, then stand at the lip of the bedrock ravine with muddy water cascading over it. We look around at the high bowl of country leading to the mountain divide, with the cup of valley just beginning, bubbling up magically out of springs and melting permafrost and ice fields, the first gathering of a river we will ride all the way down to the Mackenzie.

Near the headwaters of the Mountain the channel squeezes through a rock cleft.

Near the headwaters of the Mountain the channel squeezes through a rock cleft.

Luckily, Quinn hears us talking as we tromp back and she appears out of the low willow thickets. If we’d been silent, or if she’d been sound asleep, we could have easily walked right past her.

For days the place engulfs us. The sense of entering something rare and untamed and overwhelming is inescapable and exhilarating. Everett, especially, is blown away by the dimensions of it. He’s never been anywhere like it. Our kids have crossed the Barrenlands of northeastern Canada several times. Cousin Quinn joined Sawyer and Ruby on a 1,000-mile canoe journey from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake across the subarctic of Canada. They know this kind of space, the immensity that swallows you. But these mountains, this valley, the lack of boundaries, hits us all.

So much of what we label wild, now, is hemmed in, bordered by roads, within earshot of traffic and airplanes and machinery, flanked by towns and lights and fenced farms and private property. There is always the sense of being held within a preserve, with close boundaries just out of sight. Contrived, arbitrary, held aside as tokens of what once was everywhere. You can still get lost, still get in trouble, still experience awe and danger and thrill, but nothing like this.

We wind through it on the gathering current. It feels like a living, breathing, full-throated wilderness. Here wildlife goes about its business as it is meant to, migrating, feeding, mating, hunting, hibernating, giving birth. There are no constraints. Sure the effects of global pollution, changing weather patterns, shifting jet streams have their impacts, but from the ground, none of that is manifest.

Wildlife as it should be.

Wildlife as it should be.

Coming around one bend, a grizzly is startled from the river’s edge, whirls and runs into the brush. “Did you see that?” Everett says. “Yeah, good bear,” I answer. At another a bull caribou crosses the river, his antlers a four-foot spread, his coat a rich chocolate brown, exuding health. Moose raise their massive heads, stand quivering with vigilance as we coast toward them. Dall sheep graze on the high slopes above camp. Porcupine waddle along shore. In camp the mud is a welter of wolf, bear, caribou tracks. We stop often, wander away from the river into the maze of willows and stunted spruce, gaining elevation, looking over the long valley, finding bird’s nests, porcupine-chewed trees, bear scat. We are the transients, the guests. If anyone is out of place, it is us. We whisper down the miles, infinitesimal flecks of color and movement, current building, tributaries joining, glaciers and peaks rising away.

Making miles is not a problem. The river whisks us along. A couple of hours and we’ve taken care of the day’s distance. There is plenty of time to explore. The kids are robust mountaineers. A few thousand feet of steep elevation gain, miles of bushwhacking through willows and across wobbly tundra tussocks, not a big deal. Marypat is game as well, and not about to be left behind. From a gravel bar campsite, a ridge looms, leading to a rocky summit. They pull on day packs and go.

For the more challenging outings, I appoint myself to the ‘camp tender’ role. I anticipated this before the trip began. I no longer have that burning, goal-oriented urge to reach the peak, to scramble for the highest view. I know I would be the weak link the rest of the group would have to wait for. They would certainly accommodate me, but I have no interest in being the anchor holding everyone back. To be honest, I’m happy to be still, to explore around camp, to tend the fire, write in my journal, greet the day, watch what happens around me, have another cup of coffee. My experience is that, often as not, you see more sitting still than you do thrashing through the underbrush. I relish that Siddhartha-mode, the quiet of it, the mental rambling, the place taking over and stilling the monkey-mind chatter we take for normal so much of our lives.

The crew takes on a nearby peak while I tend camp.

The crew takes on a nearby peak while I tend camp.

This reckoning with age and waning ability is real. Much as I rationalize my comfort level, my new reality, it weighs on me. I have never been a driven athlete, but I have always been active, adventurous, up for challenges. To see the crew take off, bounding up slopes, navigating technical terrain, triumphant on a peak, gives me pause. I’m not doing that anymore, I think. Am I okay with that, or am I making excuses? Should I be pushing myself harder? I’m thrilled to be here, to take on an expedition, but I’m not doing what I once did. The business of aging is a tightrope act, pushing for the edge, but accepting limits and staying safe.

One morning early in the trip I am sitting by the fire enjoying another cup of hot drink, finishing a journal entry, relishing the day, while the team labors up a ridge to a nearby peak. I can see them with binoculars. The river ripples past, the flames flicker under the pot, the long-day sun rides high in the pale blue sky. They have been gone a while when I glance upstream and notice a dark stump floating in the current, coming around the bend. Then the ‘stump’ nears the bank and heaves itself out of the water, transforming into a grizzly. The bear is tawny brown with red highlights, beautiful, graceful, large, a little heart-stopping. It shakes a spray of river water into the air and ambles into the spruce forest above the river. The breeze is blowing downstream. I don’t think the bear knows I’m here, but I am suddenly less imbued with Siddhartha contentment and feeling a good deal more lonely.

I turn to face the forest, bring the canister of bear spray close, regularly check the horizon for movement, stoke the fire for deterrent effect. Time passes. I relax. The bear doesn’t reappear, but then I catch another movement upstream on the edge of vision, a flash of brown. I am suddenly on my feet, bear spray in hand. A caribou trots along the gravel bar, gives me a nervous, wide berth, clatters downriver while my heart gallops along.

Thousands of us die in traffic every year. Thousands more succumb to pollution, plane and train wrecks, deadly diets, lead-poisoning, living near nuclear waste dumps, second-hand cigarette smoke, road rage. None of that is newsworthy. It is the mundane risk of living in a ‘civilized’ world, one we all take each day without comment or much consideration. A camper gets dragged from their tent and is killed by a bear, it makes international headlines. 30,000 people die of opioid overdose every year in our country, business as usual.

It is far more dangerous to drive to the put-in of a river trip than it is to run rapids and camp under the stars and shit in the woods. We think nothing of whizzing along at 70 miles an hour in a lethal metal container in the company of hundreds of other lethal metal containers also going 70, but when a grizzly emerges a quarter mile upriver, shakes off, and disappears into the forest, minding its business, sirens go off internally.

Yeah, all well and good, but I’m suddenly really ready for everyone to get back from the hike.

Sawyer silhouetted against vastness.

Sawyer silhouetted against vastness.

The Mountain River is known for spectacular canyons, a half dozen of them. In the first couple of days the river runs through several unnamed, warm-up canyons, low walls and only a mile or two long, but still dramatic enough. The first real one opens with a snarling wave we manage to avoid, one boat at a time. The rock tilts almost straight up, tortured layers cut through by water, a clamp of bedrock rising sheer out of the riverbed. Water churns through, uneasy, blistering, jostling our boats, but nothing serious. We drift, milking the spot, taking pictures. Heady stuff.

Five days in we camp at a spot called Grizzly Meadows. The outfitters noted it as a good site, with some hiking nearby. We plan a layover day. It is an outwash plain full of braided, boulder-choked channels deposited by spring flooding. Only a trickle of water comes through at this time of year, but spring runoff must be a thing to behold. It is only after we’ve set tents up in the few available spots that Ruby notices a large pile of bear scat. Right in the middle of the berry-filled poop, a yellow whistle exactly like the ones on our life jackets.

“I’d kind of like to hear the story of how that whistle got there,” muses Sawyer. “Or maybe not.”

In the morning the weather turns gray and drizzly. We string up the green tarp that is quickly becoming the most valuable item of gear in the outfit, gather wood, cluster together around the grill. The kids have dubbed this trip, the Tour de Hot Drink. Most mornings we linger under the tarp, keep a pot of water boiling, down round after round of hot cocoa, coffee, tea.

Despite the misting drizzle, we stroll up the broad, rock-strewn valley. About a mile up we notice a tarp set on a low ridge overlooking the valley. Two guys in camo gear sit under the protecting eave, guns propped nearby. They wave us over.

It is a young guide from Calgary, probably 25 years old, and a client from Ft. Bridger, Wyoming. They flew in to a hunting lodge on a lake up a tributary, and then flew to a dirt strip nearby in a plane with ‘tundra tires’. They are staying at a cabin and hunting caribou, staking out the valley.

“I’d never camp where you are,” the guide says. “A lot of bear activity down there.”

The hunting party takes a bit of the edge off of our sense of wild seclusion. It starts to rain harder and we head back to camp, but after lunch the day clears and the kids decide to take on a hike to a ridge and several peaks up the valley. I am in camp-tender mode again.

They have only left camp a few minutes when I hear the sound of a rock rolling behind me. I have my back turned to the sound, busy disassembling a fishing rod. I turn. There, walking past less than 30 feet away, another grizzly bear. It moves fluidly over the ground, head swinging, shoulders working under a thick coat of long fur, paying no attention to me. Beyond the bear, I see my group up the valley, out of earshot but plainly in sight. The bear crosses the small tributary stream, keeps going. Strangely, I feel the need to announce myself, although I’m sure the bear knows I’m there.

“Hey bear!” I say.

The grizzly swings its head around, gives me a glance over its shoulder, but never pauses. I get the impression that it picks up the pace just a bit, but maybe I imagine that. There is no hurry in the bear’s movement, certainly no fear. It flows across space, liquid power, covering the ground it knows beyond any intimacy I might approach, following a path through home territory. When it gets to the far side of the outwash channel, maybe 100 yards away, it noses in the willows for a few seconds, then heaves up the dirt bank and vanishes into the underbrush. I see the bushes waving, and then nothing.

Only then do I look down and see that I’ve broken the fishing pole in my hands.

It is the fourth grizzly we’ve seen in five days. The attitude I adopt is that I am here, established in my spot, not bothering anyone. The bear is wandering through its territory, following its trails, not bothering me either. If the griz had wanted me, I’d have been an easy mark, probably never would have heard it come. We are each going about our business.

Okay, fine, but I turn my back to the river, scan the perimeter, build the fire, keep my weapons close. I probably read five pages an hour in my book, with how frequently I interrupt to check the valley. I have all afternoon to endure before I get some company.

It is a long vigil. Blessedly quiet and uninterrupted, but tense all the same. I spot the hikers now and then, on a steep scree slope, silhouetted on the ridge, coming back down. They take even longer than I expect, partly because they stop to pick blueberries on the return and troop back to camp all grins with a big bag of berries, blue-stained lips and plans for Dutch oven cobbler. They sober up some when I share my story, look around them, but the cobbler when it is dished up, hot and bubbly, is still delicious and the reassurance of company around the fire is profound, as primal as our species.

Days gather in our wake, we enter more canyons, skirt intimidating whitewater, run miles of fast current that require constant attention, take walks, sit under the tarp, heat pot after pot of water. The weather stays cool and changeable, more wintery than expected. More than once there is snow in the hills just above camp in the morning. Some of the tributary canyons we pass are stupendous in their own right. We walk up into them. In scale, they remind me of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park. Steep craggy walls, jagged cliffs, high perches for birds of prey. Caribou skitter away from us. Porcupine wander ponderously through the boulders. Wolf scat litters the game trails. Bear sightings drop off and we are grateful.

A rare sunny interlude enjoying the bug-free warmth.

A rare sunny interlude enjoying the bug-free warmth.

At roughly the halfway point of the expedition, the Stone Knife River pours in, a tributary equal in size to the Mountain. It is milky green with glacial rock flour. The two flows are ribbons of contrast for miles, green and brown side by side, but eventually the green takes over and the current clears. More to the point, the river goes rampant with the doubling of volume.

“Whoa!” Everett says, when we peel away from shore below the confluence and the boats teeter precariously as they cross into the main flow. The river is instantly a force to reckon with, pushy with newfound power. The eddy lines are boat-tippers, the boils shove our canoes sideways, the waves and holes are twice the size we’ve been dealing with. We adjust, tiptoe down the first miles, feeling our way into the new dance, suddenly in the big leagues.

Along the way, as the weeks and miles pass, jewels of experience sparkle in the necklace of our watery route. Quinn performing a very credible Michael Jackson ‘moonwalk’ on the firm sand next to the canoes one morning; miles of fast river, clipping us along at 7 or 8 miles an hour, dodging boulders, riding tongues of current, slipping past the edge of holes, the shoreline whipping past; a lunch spot we climb to up a steep bank to gain a moonscape of glacial litter – erratic boulders, scraped bedrock, jagged pinnacles, depressions where we hide out of the bitter wind and the sun warms us so we strip down to shorts; a fountain-of-youth spring we scramble up to at the top of a cliff, bubbling clear and strong out of a rocky crevice; the bull caribou we watch in a swampy basin, agitated as a bull elk in full rut, rampaging through knee-high wetlands; Ruby fashioning ‘headset microphones’ out of driftwood twigs and performing on a gravel bar; the large black bear swimming the current as we come around a corner.

Exploring a side canyon, stunning in its own right.

Exploring a side canyon, stunning in its own right.

We have decided that the merlin, that fast-winged dagger of predatory bird, is the trip symbol. We see them repeatedly, winging against canyon walls, hovering over an outwash stream, perched in the top of a snag. One morning, forty feet from our breakfast fire, a merlin lands on the sand. We watch, cereal bowls in hand, while the fierce bird of prey devours a songbird it has captured. It rips feathers, pulls the smaller bird apart, steadily swallows its meal down while we watch through binoculars. Finished, it flies to the top of a nearby spruce and begins to preen. We walk over to look at the carnage and there is nothing but a feather or two left.

Much of our attention has focused on the canyons that punctuate the valley. They are forbidding gateways of rock, looming high above the river, often with no good landings. In each there is some level of whitewater, some set of waves, or a ledge to avoid, or a wall the river slams into, undercutting the rock. Most of the worst water is avoidable, if you play it right and pay attention. Most of the canyons are more spectacular than dangerous. We pass roaring holes of whitewater at a respectful distance, ride the waves when we have to, slip past them when we can, steer clear of the walls.

Between canyons there are also moments. We take turns being the lead boat each day. The lead canoe makes the route choices, decides whether to stop and scout, points the way. Every boat is competent. Each team takes it seriously. Every choice is freighted with the knowledge of how remote and self-reliant we are.

One of a half dozen major canyons.

One of a half dozen major canyons.

One morning Marypat and I are in the lead, and MP is in the stern. Early on, a few bends down from camp, the river makes a sharp corner, running past a steep rock wall. A set of intimidating standing waves mark the middle of the channel, with what looks like a strong eddy on the inside of the corner. We set up to ride the line between the worst of the waves and the upriver counter current of the eddy. But what we thought was calm water turns out to be a powerful boil blistering up next to the standing waves. As we enter the turn, the boil shoves our boat sideways. We slide across the river towards the main current and waves. Nothing we can do to fight the push of boiling river. The canoe hits the main current. Our gunwale is sucked forcefully down in the conflict and we are over in an instant.

The shock of cold current. I struggle to free myself from the spray deck. The dark water sucks around me. Finally I kick loose, but I am momentarily trapped under the boat, have to feel my way out from under. When I come to the surface, I see Marypat looking for me. We hang onto our paddles, start to swim the boat to shore. If we can make the eddy, it will help us. If we miss, we might be carried downstream a mile or more before we can make land. We stroke hard, hauling the boat behind us, breathing fast, encumbered by layers of clothing. We are lucky. The eddy brings us in. Meantime, the kids have landed above the rapid and are running toward us over the rocks.

“God dammit!” I throw my paddling gloves down.

Marypat looks at me, laughing. “You should have seen your face when you came up!”

“Yeah, it was a little desperate under there.”

“What did you lose?” Ruby asks.

“I think only my water bottle,” Marypat says. Ruby starts to jog downstream to look for it along the bank. “Don’t bother,” Marypat calls after her.

“Let’s get a fire going,” says Everett.

“You guys need to strip down, get warm clothes on,” says Sawyer.

The kids take over. It is gray and overcast, threatening rain. The wood is damp, but in short order they have flames, string a line to hang clothes on, help us get the wet, cloying layers off. Quinn gets the grill out, fills a pot with water, starts rummaging for hot drinks. Not that long ago I was carrying these guys on my shoulders, putting up with their shenanigans in canoes, cajoling them down the trail, cooking their food, changing their diapers, carrying their weight. It is a sweet circle to have come around, and a true relief to be the recipient of this payback.

All trip the kids have proven their worth, their skills, their judgment. Time and again, when I turn to do some task, I find that it has already been done. They are more than our equals now when it comes to strength and stamina, and they are proving our equals in making decisions and assessing dangers.

In the end we are delayed an hour or two. The rain holds off. Our clothes dry above the flames, we warm up with food and hot drinks. When we take to the boats again we are newly appreciative of the river’s power, and of the danger of the hidden boils that blister the current with muscular, unpredictable force.

Just another morning on the Tour d' Hot Drink.

Just another morning on the Tour d’ Hot Drink.

Canyon number five is the one to watch out for, we’ve heard. Canyons three and four had their adrenaline-laced moments – a ledge to avoid, a wave train to survive, a wall to miss. We have taken them in stride, careful but confident. The sketchy weather persists as we approach the gate of rock looming over a sharp right turn in the river. Gray, cool, drizzly. We are in full splash gear, paddling mitts, neoprene boots. Above the entrance to the fifth canyon a set of waves and a couple of ledges announce the challenge. We pull off, river left, to scout.

The train of waves is impressive, but along the left bank the current offers a slot of safety, as long as we can avoid the mid-river pull of water. Below the waves, as the river banks hard right, several ledges and holes lurk, spots we very much want to avoid. The trick is to sneak along shore to skirt the waves, but then make a power move across the main flow above the ledges to get to the right shore as we enter the gorge.

One canoe at a time we slip down along shore, back-paddling to tuck against the bank and stay well clear of the buck of waves. Marypat is nervous about the ‘ferry’ move we have to make across the river and wants to start as soon as possible. We turn the boat to face upstream, angle toward the far shore, power across. It is almost too early, too strong. The canoe is torqued in the last of the wave train, but we gain the far shore safely, wait for the other boats, turn back downstream.

The canyon rises sheer above the roiling river – holes, eddies, boils, water jostling for equilibrium, reacting to the constriction, to unseen, underwater obstacles. Each filament of river, each boulder, each nook in the shoreline sets up a fluid dynamic – changeable and tricky. At the same time the gorge is awesome, spectacular, dark and forbidding and exhilarating. Our three red boats slide through the vise of rock down the ribbon of water. At the exit the current slams hard into a sheer bedrock wall. It looks a lot like the river dynamics that capsized us a few days earlier – turbulent waves, a powerful eddy line, and treacherous upwelling boils blooming out of the depths.

Into the maw of another canyon on a chilly day.

Into the maw of another canyon on a chilly day.

We pull over above. Quinn walks down to have a look. She stands there at the edge of turbulence, hands tucked into her life vest for warmth. Quinn might as well be one of our kids. More than a cousin, she has been with us on dozens of trips, from the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island to weeks in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. She has taken part in all the goofiness and triumph, pranks and danger that come with extended backcountry family time. She has grown up with us, and she has been a model of behavior, an absolute sweetheart.

When our kids were younger, and misbehaving, our admonishment to them would often be, “What would Quinn do?”

She comes back to the boats over the cobbles. “I think we should line down this,” she announces. “We might be able to get through, but it looks pretty scary.”

Without debate we all clamber out of the canoes and start walking them through the shallows. No one has an appetite for mishap, especially on a day with hypothermia conditions. And no one questions Quinn’s assessment.

At the end of the canyon we make camp. The mountainous terrain dramatically ends here. A steep wall of rock marks the edge of the rumpled landscape. Below it the river spreads and meanders another 50 miles to the confluence with the Mackenzie, coursing through one final canyon, a rib of rock, along the way. We have dawdled through the landscape to get here, but plan on a couple of long days through the bottomlands to finish out.

The tarp goes up, firewood is collected, flames coaxed out of damp wood, a pot of water put on to boil. It is a well-oiled routine by now – the knots that won’t slip on the tarp guylines, the collection of fire-starting tinder, the run for water, tents going up, boats tied to anchors, a pattern ingrained over the weeks, and a team that looks for what needs to be done and then does it. But the drizzly, cool weather is getting to us. Day after day of it.

In the morning it rains again. We get through breakfast under the tarp, and the sky begins to clear. Patches of blue open up, the sun shines through, we whoop in response. I let off a celebratory blast of the bear-deterrent air horn that makes everyone jump.

The sky clears, but by the time we load into the canoes for the day, the wind is howling.

“Be careful what you wish for,” I mutter, standing by the boats, looking at the spray whipping off the river.

All day wind hounds us. The river, here, is huge, braided, full of channels. We follow each other closely. If one boat takes a side channel, no telling when it would reconnect, and by the time it did, whether it would be ahead or behind the other canoes. The current continues strong and steady, but the headwind is dangerously tricky. It is powerful enough to tip a boat if you got broadside at the wrong moment and didn’t brace. Yes, the sky clears, the sun warms the land, but the wind is a torment. The recent rains wash in muddy torrents off the banks, turning the river brown and thick with sediment. What might have been a relaxing coast down miles of opening valley turns into a tense battle. Several times we consider stopping, but manage to inch our way past a bad reach and into a more protected section. Bit by bit we wind down the river and at the end, reach the final canyon, another rampant notch of rock, a final rib of resistance the river cuts through.

There is no whitewater to speak of, and part way through, a warm spring bubbles up. We decide to camp. The tarp goes up. The women go up to the spring for a tepid bath. Sawyer scampers up the slope to the final high ridge of the journey, let’s out a wild call, his tall silhouette against the sky.

On the final day the wind again blows a gale. The good news is that it has shifted direction to more of a quartering tailwind. We are able to make steady progress, but the canoes skitter across the current and there are precarious moments. Thunderheads loom in the sky, dark-bottomed bombs of storm. One of them comes our way. It’s hard to tell if it will hit us. On one bend we seem safely past. On the next, in the direct path of storm. And then, suddenly, it is looming directly overhead.

“Death-star alert!” calls Sawyer.

We drive the canoes hard into shore, haul them up into the willows, grab the tarp, race into a nearby alder thicket. As we snug the wild flapping nylon overhead, the storm hits. Winds lash the small trees, billow the tarp. Rain hits the flimsy roof of fabric like buckshot. We cower beneath, tightening lines, while the violence unleashes. It lasts maybe an hour. The dark sky, the loud crescendo of rain, the flailing bushes. It goes on long enough that I find myself lying down, napping on the pillow of my life jacket despite the cacophony. Then it is over. We peer out. The canoes are where we left them, the river courses past, the wind rages, but the dark-bottomed cloud moves on across the valley.

In the final miles before the Mountain joins the flow of the Mackenzie, the river takes a hairpin turn and wind battles us to a standstill. It is all we can do to claw our way against shore, inch by inch, up the long bend of current, the final salvo of challenge before this mighty flow we’ve paddled from its first narrow chuckle lets us go.

The Mountain is a major river at the end, but the Mackenzie is gargantuan. We paddle upstream from the confluence a quarter mile, find a place for our final camp. The water is so muddy we have to skim drinking water from settled puddles in the gravel. We find a pile of bear scat. Everett brings in a load of driftwood. Ruby starts the fire.

Sawyer retrieves the satellite emergency device we’ve carried along, loaded with contacts, capable of sending out an SOS in a dire emergency. He texts the bush flight dispatch center. KESSELHEIM PARTY AT CONFLUENCE. READY FOR MORNING PICKUP. Almost immediately he gets a response. ROGER. CAN YOU BE READY AT 9 AM? Sawyer responds, NO PROBLEM.

On schedule departure from the confluence.

On schedule departure from the confluence.

True to their word, a few minutes after 9 a.m., the air blessedly calm, we hear the drone of approaching plane. The Turbo Twin Otter circles us, lands in the main current, taxis our way, backing in to the shallows. Fantastically, we load all three canoes and our entire outfit into the plane, and then climb aboard. Less then an hour later we are back at the float base, unloading, spreading gear out to dry, taking showers. The vortex of life begins to reel us back in – news of the world, phone calls, Quinn’s wedding updates, plans we’d forgotten about, wallets we haven’t seen in a month.

The next morning winter returns. It may be August, but here, a degree or two shy of the Arctic Circle, snow coats the nearby hills. Winds howl. At breakfast the outfitter gets word that scheduled air flights have all been cancelled and it will be another two days before we can get out.

 

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A Little Urban Combat Boating

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

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

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

Descending 'Slag Canyon'

Descending ‘Slag Canyon’

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

Beaver are clearly relishing the restored creek full of willows.

Beaver are clearly relishing the restored creek full of willows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

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

Chapter 3: JULY – MORE SALMON

Wimberg photo

Wimberg photo

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

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

Wimberg photo

Wimberg photo

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

Wimberg photo

Wimberg photo

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

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

Wimberg photo - short people earning their whitewater chops

Wimberg photo – short people earning their whitewater chops

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

Wimberg photo - Eli prepares to walk the plank

Wimberg photo – Eli prepares to walk the plank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

It gets hot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wimberg photo

Wimberg photo

 

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

CHAPTER 2 – JUNE: REUNION

Dan White photo. The Grande Ronde crew

Dan White photo. The Grande Ronde crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” we chorus. “You’d do that?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Not a big deal.”

“If you say so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem,” he says.

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

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

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

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

 

#

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

CHAPTER ONE – MAY: TRADITIONS

Thomas Lee photo

Thomas Lee photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Lee photo

Thomas Lee photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Lee photo

Thomas Lee photo

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

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

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

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

 

#

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Rivers crew along the lower Dearborn River

Three Rivers crew along the lower Dearborn River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Rivers parade down the upper Sun River

Three Rivers parade down the upper Sun River

 

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

WATERSHED – INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are things about me I don’t trust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I worry about myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Anticipation!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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