Snow Geese

Snow geese have been filling the sky,
along with the first big November snows.
Through the gray, sifting day as
I shoveled the sidewalk,
their talk constant and urgent overhead,
their elegant geometry, lines and V’s,
skeins of them pushing south through the
weather.

And this morning, out walking Beans
in the barely lit day,
full moon bathing the white fields,
no one else about.
Again, overhead, invisible in the pale light,
loud and steady,
talking their way toward open water
and fields of grain stubble,
leaving me with winter.

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Brilliant!

A photographer friend recently revised my concept of the fall season. I had always thought of it as a beautiful waning of the year, when leaves withered on trees, rivers ebbed to anemic winter levels and the world girded itself for the harsh austerity of winter. Not at all, he said. Fall is the crescendo of health, when everything is at its peak. The leaves burst into a brilliant display, animals are at their most robust, the world is shouting with exuberance and well-being. Fall is the peaking of the fat season.

Ever since I have bounced back and forth between these realities. I see a stream dwindling and I think of the coming ice, the brittle time of year. As the trees turn skeletal and dark, I think of months of low light to come. And yet, his image is also hard to deny in the flush of fall color, or when I see a herd of sleek, fat elk lounging in a field.

The last couple of weekends have been indulgences in the robust version of fall.

First, a 30-mile, overnight paddle down the Yellowstone River between Columbus and Laurel, Montana, with cottonwoods fired up dazzling yellow in the sunlight. Tailwinds pushed us along down the miles. The river is bouncy and unpredictable there, even as it shrinks toward winter levels. We camped on a sweet sand island just below a set of high cliffs. Ruby and Everett, Martin and Billie, Marypat and I – our three canoes nested together below camp. Coyotes caroled in the darkness, geese lined out like elegant punctuation in the skies, the river murmured past all night. We sat by the fire in coats and hats, held mugs of hot tea close, listened to trains moan in the distance, and for two days with the river to ourselves, we forgot everything else.

Then, the next weekend, a visit with Eli and Sam in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. I had forgotten how stunning the larch are in western Montana and northern Idaho. The mountains were painted gold with flaring larch groves. While Eli and a friend went hunting on Saturday along the Idaho/Montana border, Marypat and I hiked in the opposite direction to Blossom Lake, a six-mile round trip through dense conifers. There, the trail was a shag carpet of larch needles. Sunlight filtered through the thick forest, lighting up the steady glitter of falling golden needles. Magical stuff.

Today there are two inches of slushy snow on the ground. Driving and walking are treacherous. It feels like winter has arrived. But there in the pocket of recent memory these two weekends of flaming beauty sending out the season in fine fashion. And with us lucky enough to be in the middle of it.

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This Schitzy World

Recently I received my Medicare card in the mail. How the hell did this happen? Suddenly I’m among the elders. Young people call me sir, out of some generic habit of respect for old people. Marypat and I have sporadic conversations about retirement – whether we can, how it might look, whether we really want to, what adventures might still be ahead, and which of them are pipe dreams no longer very accessible to us. We are discussing another major northern expedition in Canada, and wondering whether we can pull it off. We talk about becoming vagabonds, living out of a van, traveling and visiting and exploring. We talk about a lot of things, while the days march past, friends and family members die, others enter the world, nieces and nephews get married, start careers, buy houses, succeed and flounder by turns.

I have so little to complain about. I have health. I have love and companionship. I have strong family bonds and essentially no strife. I manage to make a living doing mostly what I like to do. I live in a secure part of the world, for now. Despair and tragedy are fairly distant prospects covered by the nightly news. The sun rises spectacularly every morning. The moon waxes and wanes, washing the sky with its creamy light. The rivers run downhill and the chickadee calls each morning.

And yet, looming over it all, over the quotidian rhythm of my days, is the specter of something truly sinister and unfathomably grave. Above and beyond the politics, alarming as that has been, Mother Earth is struggling to regain some semblance of equilibrium in the face of our excess, and she wields gargantuan force. From unprecedented floods in Texas to absolute Stone Age devastation in Puerto Rico, from “flash drought” in NE Montana to cataclysmic fires in northern California, from earthquakes in Mexico to hurricanes hitting Ireland, the scale and power is staggering. I say it is a response to our excess, and I believe that – oceans warming, injected wastewater deep underground, mountains of waste and garbage, overcrowding, denuded landscapes. How can the earth, the organism that sustains us, not respond? I’m no scientist, but common sense would suggest that the kind of burdens and demands we have placed on the natural balance would require a reaction.

Don’t get me started on the politics. I’m tempted to start the litany, begin the rant, but we all know it, are already tired of it, and are sickened at heart because of it. It is a pall as real as the smoke-heavy skies we endured all summer in Montana.The longer I live, the more I am convinced that the right response to damn near every situation is acceptance, generosity, love, sympathy and compassion. Our politics, now, are the absolute antithesis of that.

And so, yesterday, the one-year anniversary of my father’s death, Marypat and I loaded up the ancient van with two solo canoes and the dog. We spent the afternoon paddling the lower section of the East Gallatin River. It was one of those, “wrapped in gold”, days, as Marypat likes to say. The russet grasses undulated in the breeze. We startled coots out of the weeds. Beans lay on his bed, resting his muzzle on the edge of the boat. A red-tail screamed that iconic scream from the top of a cottonwood. We stroked along, side by side, while the early snows in the mountains set of the edges of this bowl of horizon we are lucky enough to live in – the Bridgers, the Tobacco Roots, the Spanish Peaks. Yellow leaves shook loose from trees, gusted to earth. Fish jumped. Sunlight dappled the river, bend after bend.

We came home in the waning day, unpacked and stowed the gear, as is our time-worn habit. People arrived for our new tradition of Sunday night dinners – family, friends, friends of friends. We sat around the table sharing warm, plentiful food, talking, telling stories, laughing. Not a cell phone in sight.

If you believe, as I do, that the way you are in the world changes the world, then that is what we were doing. It sounds pretentious, yes, and it is, to think so grandly of one’s impact, but what else do we have?

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Another Summer

Year by year the currents of time speed up, so that, looking back, it’s like scenery clicking past as I slide downstream on a heady flow. Suddenly, it’s fall again. I am back to riding my $5 town bike up to campus and greeting another crop of younger-and-younger-seeming students who have decided that college might be a good idea. The tomatoes are hard to keep up with but the potatoes are long past.I watch the cobbles of experience flash past under the hull of my boat, try to catch what I can before they get lost in the mosaic and the season is gone.

Smoke has infiltrated our lives this season. It clings to the valleys like dirty mist. The sun and moon rise like orbs of ripe fruit, alien skies, remarkable and disturbing. Eastern Montana and the Dakotas are experiencing drought like never before in human memory, including the Dust Bowl years. They call it a “flash” drought. Four months ago they were worried about flooding, about saturated ground. Now, they would give their tractor for a half inch of rain. Meantime, of course, Hurricane Harvey dumps 50 inches in a couple of days, the water in the Gulf of Mexico simmers at 90 degrees, a metropolitan area the size of Connecticut lies under feet of fetid water.

The smoke that oppresses us this summer serves as a metaphor for the pall that hangs over our country. A country, now, where our president can’t make it through a day without a lie, where Nazis march in broad daylight, where young people who have lived and worked and contributed to our country all of their lives fear being deported, where the rights of sexual orientation are under siege. Where corruption and treason are passed off in the interest of political gain. Where cynicism and hypocrisy and blatant falsehood have taken the place of reason and integrity.

Meantime, oddly, life goes on in this lucky place. At the same time our foundations erode, we travel, we share vacations, we support our children, we put boats on rivers and climb peaks and relish the luxuries we have come to assume are normal. I think, more and more often, about the other people through history who have watched tyranny and fascism creep into their social fabric, how they couldn’t believe it could happen, how they kept on as if everything were normal, because, really, what else could or should they do. It feels that way here and now.

So yes, summer is waning. Life rides on down the currents. We look back at the gems of experience and shared time – the Owyhee River in May, the Middle Fork of the Flathead in July, the Wind River Mountains in August, and more to come before winter clamps down. We relish the week in Lander, sprinkling dad’s ashes next to mom’s under the ancient juniper tree in the lovely Red Canyon where the Little Popo Agie runs past the base of the cliff, where the ancients left their mysterious markings in the sandstone, where the energies that were the vibrant lives of my mother and father come full circle and return to the red soil, to the probing roots and eager earth. We watch our children carry the torch forward with their own robust and adventurous lives.

And over it all the smoke hangs, cloying and dark. We wait for it to lift, for the air to clear, for some restoration of sanity.

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Now!

Listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Three Days . . . Three Rivers

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

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

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

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

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

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Gauging Season!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Easter Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Ambushed

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

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

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

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

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

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That Dirty Devil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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