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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partnership. Thomas Lee photo.

Partnership. Thomas Lee photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit!” Marypat said. “Beaver dam.”

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

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

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

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

“Left!” Marypat shouted, “No right!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Big Bend will cast its spell.


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

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

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

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

And I came back with my family.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Hardshells and inflatables sauntering down the borderlands.

Hardshells and inflatables sauntering down the borderlands.

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

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

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

Navigating some rapid filled shallows.

Navigating some rapid filled shallows.

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

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

Another 'emergency' camp.

Another ’emergency’ camp.

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

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

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

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

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

Meditative solo paddling.

Meditative solo paddling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheer pour-offs abound in the tributary canyons.

Sheer pour-offs abound in the tributary canyons.

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

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

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

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

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

The aerial view of the river from Burro Bluff.

The aerial view of the river from Burro Bluff.

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

Doug contemplates the abyss.

Doug contemplates the abyss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All quiet now.


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

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

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

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

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

Music on the Porch in Terlingua.

Music on the Porch in Terlingua.

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

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

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


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


Now the logistical rubber meets the road. For the next three months the plan gets complicated. Big Bend is on the books for February. I’ve decided to drive south, almost to Mexico, to explore stretches of the lower Colorado River for my January outing. And my hope is to finally run the Gila River in New Mexico in March. The Gila has long been on my river to-do list, ever since I lived in New Mexico in the 1970s. All well and good, but how do I stitch together an itinerary spanning thousands of miles, in the heart of winter, without declaring bankruptcy, and keep it moderately sane?

In the end, the scheme involves recruiting willing friends with driveway space, cheap airline tickets, some heavy-lift driving, and a general leap of faith. On paper, it goes like this.

Some time after the Christmas holidays, I’ll pick a window to drive south from Montana, pulling the T@B teardrop trailer behind, heading for Lake Mead. After a week spent hopping down the Colorado River corridor toward the border, I’ll drive west to Vista, California, north of San Diego, where my cousin lives. She’s offered a place to park my rig for a few weeks while I fly back home with a cheap round-trip ticket, reconnect with family and readjust to winter, before returning in early February. From San Diego, I’ll drive the rig east more than 1,000 miles to Big Bend, Texas and meet my friends who have signed on for the borderlands trip on the Rio Grande. Then, taking my time, I’ll mosey north to Albuquerque, where another old friend from my Santa Fe days has made her driveway available. Using credit card miles, I’ll fly back home from New Mexico for a few weeks before returning, with Marypat, to take on the Gila. After the Gila, Marypat and I will drive on home. Simple as that. What could go wrong?

Laid out like that, it sounds pretty straightforward. More moving parts than ideal, but in theory, almost reasonable. It was anything but straightforward getting there. I juggled air fares, van storage fees, far-flung contacts, mileage calculators, weather patterns. There was a lot of time spent bent over a map of the western United States with my appointment calendar open and a pencil with a good eraser. I seriously considered driving all the way to Mexico, back to Montana, down to Texas, back to Montana, south to New Mexico, and finally, back to Montana, through the depths of winter, before admitting that it was lunacy.

On January 5th, according to plan, I hook up the trailer and drive out of my snowy driveway before dawn. Roads are dry. The cold, pale sun rises. Wintery Montana spreads away from the highway, familiar and comforting. Somewhere south of Dillon, approaching Monida Pass, conditions deteriorate. The weather window I picked closes in gray cloud. The pavement gets slick. I slow to 45 mph, drive in and out of snow squalls. Exactly the conditions I had hoped to avoid.

Hours later, in the downsloping landscape north of Salt Lake City, the weather finally lifts, the roads clear up, and I relax my hunched, clenched posture. The pace picks up. Through the clog of Salt Lake traffic, I keep reminding myself of the trailer I’m towing. Then I’m south of town, the arid landscape opens up, snow line rises.

I’m conflicted. I have friends in St. George who invited me to stay over. I also am eager to start my solo time with a camper, a new era in travel. I imagine myself pulling off at a remote exit, going down a ranch road and finding a pull off to park for the night, cozy in my unit. The image is compelling, but I’m also drawn to see my friends. Mostly, I don’t know if I’ll make the long drive in a day. I’m not excited about navigating to their house, pulling a trailer, after dark.

Caught up in indecision, I keep passing those remote exits. A few seem tempting, dirt roads leading around a bend, but I keep going. It is dark by the time I reach St. George. I follow the phone directions out of town, to the subdivision where they live. The android voice leads me unerringly to their driveway, where I pull in just as my friends arrive from a dinner party.

January is equal parts river trip and vagabond experiment.

Marypat and I are thinking ahead to what’s next in life. Do we sell our house and become gypsies for a while? Do we hunker in? Do we sell and downsize? Do we do nothing? And what might inevitably come along to complicate or derail our best laid plans?

My St. George buddies, Doug and Sunny, have their take on the challenge. They found a way to buy a second house in the sun, while keeping their long-time home in Montana. They are snowbirds with a home nest. Over several winters they have found a niche in Utah, made friends, found plentiful recreation, pickleball courts, yoga studios, hiking social networks, birding groups. No question about it, they have a sweet spot in the desert from which to enjoy winter without a snow shovel. I savor their view of red rock cliffs, their days of sunny outdoor activity and a relaxed pace of life.

Other parts of the equation aren’t as appealing. For one thing, we can’t afford a second home. Even if we could, the idea of maintaining two households full of stuff, seasonal caretaking, and being pegged down to a specific spot every season doesn’t synch with us. But I have to admit, it’s pleasant as hell to have a haven on the road, a place to catch up with friends, sleep in a bed, enjoy a leisurely shower. I do all of that, and Doug and I take a morning stroll through the prickly pear and creosote before I take off. He is joining me in Big Bend in February, and we were members of the same men’s group in Montana for years, until he left town. It’s comforting to contemplate a future off the grid, away from the community we have built over decades, but with the ability to maintain many of those same friendships.

I’m more prone to the romance of the road than to a second home. Give me the freedom to roam. I get a little giddy with that as I drive away toward Lake Mead with my cute yellow and white trailer bobbing behind, and my first outing on the lower Colorado watershed around the corner. I stop in at a McDonalds in Mesquite for a $1 cup of coffee and call Jeff King to check out some logistics for later in the week. He’s been probing around this country for years in his van, and he knows what campground has a gas station nearby and whether the current in a section of river is lax enough to paddle upstream against it.

Las Vegas, that mecca of glitz, is a little tense, jockeying my trailer through the busy miles of freeway, reading the map as I go, but then I’m swinging south around the bulk of Lake Mead, across the bottleneck of Hoover Dam. On impulse I drive down to Willow Beach to top off with gas. Marypat and I were here last March with Jeff and Molly when we paddled Black Canyon. It was our first introduction to the lower Colorado, that long tail of water below the Grand Canyon that I had always written off as a sacrifice zone. For four or five days we dawdled together through the riven dark rock to Willow Beach and on down river to Cottonwood Cove.

I can’t say it revolutionized my attitude about the place. Parts of the trip were downright weird, starting with the put-in at the base of Hoover Dam, for which we all had to produce i.d. and were given 15 minutes to unload, pack boats, and depart under the gaze of uniformed security with badges and guns. The current there is an anemic pulse under the loom of dark canyon walls, punctuated by hot springs. Tourists in every imaginable self-powered craft cruise the miles like people at an arcade. Still, it was new country, great birding, good company, a stealth exploration on the fringe of the manic reality that is Las Vegas and the revved up recreation promoted by the builders of dams. Below Willow Beach, we slipped away from most of humanity and had it to ourselves, just us and the occasional wild burro, nesting verdin in the acacia, the echo of loon call, and the odd houseboat.

My destination today is Temple Bar, a marina and campground on the southern shore of Lake Mead. It is low season, so I’m banking on quiet. The road snakes across desert nearly 30 miles off of the highway. I see maybe three vehicles the whole way, and the campground is as deserted as advertised. In the many loops of sites, I see one other rig. I pick a spot, unhitch the trailer, manually turn it to face the morning sun and reorganize for camp time – chair on the veranda, water jug on the counter, cooler close at hand. Unstrapping my bike from the rack, I tool around the roads a bit, checking out the boat launch, the employee housing, in and out of side roads to nowhere.

Finally, the evening spreads before me, alone with my rig and the prospects of water to explore in the morning. Eucalyptus trees shade the site, their scabby bark piled on the ground. The air is still and quiet. I open a non-alcohol beer, consult my calendar, make some notes, snack on mixed nuts. The sun slides over the edge, my coat comes out. Eventually I make a simple dinner of soup and salad and then set up to write as daylight bleeds out of the evening. By the time I get 1,000 words down, the near-full moon is casting shadows and the light is like milk. I make my bed, open a book, turn on the solar lantern. My little portable cabin glows dimly in the expanse of desert and water and history.

What more could a person need?

What more could a person need?

The launch is deserted when I make my way down after a protracted breakfast, a stretch session on the yoga mat, and two cups of coffee. And it’s about a two-minute chore to lift the canoe off, load up, and take my first paddle strokes. The plan is to meander upstream into Virgin Canyon. I have a pack loaded with enough stuff to spend the night if I need to, but I’m planning on another sweet evening in camp. You never know what winds might come up to complicate the itinerary. At the start the reservoir is glass calm. The Temple looms out of the still water a mile or two off. I ghost past the docked herd of houseboats, a veritable trailer park on pontoons – gas pumps, buoys and ropes. The lake spreads away, blending into arid landscape.

The bathtub ring of high water mark stains the rock layers 40 or 50 feet above the lake surface. The water hasn’t been that high for 30 years and many marinas and boat launches built confidently decades ago have had to be abandoned or retrofitted to reach the water. Campgrounds that once perched next to lapping lakeshore are inland by half a mile or more these days. Lake Mead and all the other impoundments, canals, diversions and pipelines that litter the lower Colorado River valley make life possible for some 25 million residents of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and much between. Without that infrastructure, humanity would be sparse and scattered indeed. It is a technological marvel, and yet, paddling across the bizarre pool of standing water in the expanse of desert, it feels equal parts wonder and sadness, awe and disappointment.

When I cruise over a shallow reef, I imagine that it was once the edge of a dry wash leading down to the river. When I’m paddling against shore and see the bottom fall away in a sheer drop into dark depths, I picture the exposed lip of a cliff scarp high above the ribbon of river, punctuated with bits of whitewater froth below. It is impossible not to mourn that lost grandeur. Technology has its stupendous qualities, from an engineering point of view, but doesn’t serve up anything like the aesthetics of a wild canyon.

For several hours I get in the groove, stroke hard up into the closing walls of Virgin Canyon. Pretty enough, and a beautiful January day to enjoy it in. No one disturbs my rhythm, my thoughts roam, interrupted by a few pied-billed grebe. Maybe six miles up I swing the bow around and start back into a whisper of headwind. Fortunately for me, it keeps to a whisper. A lush green seep along the bank entices me in for a lunch stop, where the ground is carpeted with tiny white clam shells. While I eat, I scan the broad surface of reservoir, try to guess the destinations of contrails x-ing through the blue dome, consider the scale of manipulation undertaken by my species.

There are those who find Lake Mead and its miles of convoluted shoreline fascinating and beautiful. Folks come and spend a week paddling here and there, probing into coves, finding grottos and sheer walls that once loomed above side canyons. I’m not one of them. A day is enough for me. I get it, but the strange beauty isn’t enough to overwhelm the insult.

Strange, out-of-place beauty.

Strange, out-of-place beauty.

I have a neighbor in camp my second night. I stroll over and meet him. We have that campground conversation – how much he likes his A-liner trailer, where he’s from, swap our stories. I get the tour of his rig. He lives in Las Vegas because his wife’s family is there, but he doesn’t think much of the town. He makes regular escapes to spots like Temple Bar to find some seclusion and space and quiet. I don’t extend the visit. People who want some seclusion, including me, don’t need an hour of chit-chat. And I want to get my 1,000 words in on the computer.

My departure from Temple Bar the next morning is underscored by a pretty stout wind that would preclude any realistic chance of an outing in a small boat. I do a set of exercises designed to work in a campsite – tricep dips on the picnic bench, hip bridges, lateral jumps – all I need is a mat. It’s late morning before I drive off, jumping south another notch in the river drainage.

Montana winter is a distant memory. Creosote flats to the horizon, cholla cactus, yucca. The arid mountain ranges rear up dark and forbidding against the skyline. I assume they hide pockets of lush springs full of birds and dripping ferns, chuckling magical creeks with fingerling trout, shady oases, but from afar they look like bleak, tortured places to die of thirst in and puncture yourself on sharp, hot rock and spiny vegetation.

My route turns west at Kingman toward the California border, where I exit just before the Colorado River bridge and head upstream to Golden Shores. I have it on good authority that I’ll find a funky and sweet RV park. Sure enough, I pull in to a loosely-organized, eclectic collection of campers overseen by a pleasant woman named Kate who reveals that she grew up in northwest Montana. She is vague, even elusive, about her past, but we exchange some Montana lore for a bit. I tell her about my monthly river mission.

“I love knowing that the Colorado River is flowing past nearby,” she says. “There is something powerful about that ribbon of water going through this desert landscape. The contrast of it. I think about it a lot.”

Fossils and crystals lie around the office and we get talking about rock-hounding.

“You know what coprolites are?” she asks, suddenly. I understand that this is a test to see just how much of a rock-hound I am.

“Fossilized poop,” I answer, and she nods. I earn a modicum of cred.

“Picked some up the other day,” she says, pointing to a knobby gray rock on the counter.

“Kind of weird that we consider ancient poop a find,” I add.

I unhitch the trailer, plug in, and head out to do some errands. At the nearby Family Dollar store I pick up a towel, then I head down to the spot I plan to launch my canoe from the next morning at the town of Topock. The launch is an underwhelming marina with stagnant shallow water at the base of a concrete ramp, a small parking lot, and a bar/restaurant overlooking the sluggish river. A few desultory coots paddle around in the reeds. I pick up a $7 launch permit for the next morning. The weather report calls for calm winds, so my hope is to paddle down into the narrows of Topock Gorge and then return upstream against the slow current, rather than having to negotiate a shuttle to the take-out below the gorge. Long as the winds cooperate I’d just as soon avoid the expense and logistics of arranging transport. I like the self-contained feel of an out and back day.

There is some spotty wi-fi at Golden Shores RV Park, so I’m intermittently able to catch up with my emails, scan the news, communicate with the outside world. In a way it’s satisfying to plug back in, but on balance, I’m not convinced it’s a win. My old tendencies to get sucked into news and political hype rises up in spite of my better intentions, and I end up only knocking out 500 words of my writing quota because of the distractions. My neighbors are all ensconced inside bubbles of shelter. Flickering television lights illuminate windows. When I go to the bathroom someone is in the shower and has smoked a cigarette in the unventilated room. Steaming and stifling. Jesus, who does that? Outside the palm trees rustle and my phone can’t decide whether I’m on Mountain or Pacific time. I keep leaping forward and back an hour depending on the oscillations of electrical impulse my device picks up in the breeze. Clock time is an arbitrary thing.

No one is stirring when I drive off in the morning, red solo canoe on top of the car. The marina is sleepy, too. I back down the ramp, offload the boat, throw in the few essentials for the day, and paddle off. The air is cool, stirring slightly. I have a thermos of coffee and a go-cup I stuff down the front of my life vest in lieu of a cup holder.

Someone is prepping for the day on the café deck overlooking the launch, music on the radio. I slip past unnoticed, the stagnant backwater opens into the wide, slow river. Sluggish current picks up. The boat swings into it, turns downstream under the interstate bridge. Stroke by stroke I lose the shadow of bridges, an elevated white pipeline, a few houses, a private beach with No Trespassing signs. Briefly I turn the canoe upstream and paddle against the current to test how it will feel on the return. Doable.

The hum of interstate traffic attenuates. The river takes hold. A few coots, mallards, goldeneye keep me company. A great-blue heron stalks the shallows along the bank. A skim of overcast keeps the morning cool. My paddle strokes become a mantra that pulls me into that meditative rhythm, cleaving the turgid, beleaguered river that persists and endures in spite of us. A beaver tows its wake next to the bank. A small coyote trots along the edge of a rocky cliff, not perturbed by my presence in the slightest.

Life on the fringe. The osprey perched atop a bridge tower, the coyote plying the shoreline, the heron hunting, all of it flirting with the borders of civilization, avoiding conflict, making the best of it, taking advantage of opportunities, keeping heads down, paying attention. Living in the shadow of the human juggernaut. And this is a quiet day. I’ve heard that weekends on this bit of river can be a buzzing cacophony of jet skis and fishing boats.

A few bends down I start to enter the riven, volcanic-looking rock of the gorge. Jagged pinnacles silhouette the skyline. Cliffs rise out of the river. These stretches of current between reservoirs whisper with the memory of an ancient river that ebbed and flooded through the millennia, eroding canyons, creating and erasing sandbars, coursing through cottonwood bottoms, dwindling to a trickle in mid-winter, burgeoning into a raging monolith of silty water every spring, teeming with migratory birds. Now a faint whisper of that. Now a slight, managed, tepid current controlled to the inch, pooled, siphoned off, choked, bent to our needs. But here that whisper is almost audible. I imagine the swirling currents eddying past the teeth of bedrock. I can feel the old pulse against my paddle blade, insistent as always, feeling its way downhill as always, coping patiently with the obstacles we throw in its path.

I will outlast you, the whisper says.

Topock Gorge all to myself.

Topock Gorge all to myself.

A couple of hours later I push the bow in against a sandy beach at the base of cliff. I set up a chair, pour another cup of coffee, eat some lunch. I am alone. An osprey hovers overhead. A dark cormorant wings upstream. The river is silent, slipping south.

Upstream paddling is an art. It feels more like probing than coasting, feeling into the lean of gravity and mass. It is a more confrontational process, but also a challenging education with a weird satisfaction that comes from succeeding in a contest.

One of our first northern expeditions featured the ascent of the Rat River in the Northwest Territories of Canada, above the Arctic Circle. We pushed 90 miles upstream to a low pass in the Canadian Rockies. Some days we labored against rapids, hauling canoes up against heavy whitewater and ending up three miles above our last camp. We proceeded via paddling, poling, lining, tracking and simple brute hauling for nearly two weeks before we gained the high tundra pass that led to the Porcupine River drainage and from there into the Yukon. I learned more about the music of current and the dynamics of water in those days than I had in all my combined time in boats to that point.

This is nothing like the Rat, but it is uphill nonetheless. The insides of bends tend to be where the current is slowest, and where eddies form with their helpful upstream tug. My canoe finds a line against the cliffs, hopping from eddy to eddy, fighting past bits of stronger current around points of rock, then relaxing into the next bit of slack or even upstream flow. It goes pleasantly. Good work. My pace is slow but steady, as satisfying as splitting wood.

I extricate from the canyon walls. The view opens. Eventually the distant highway bridge heaves into the skyline. I decide to take another break, have a hot drink on a beach. I aim for a sandy cove. There is a dark, undefined shape on the strip of sand. Garbage bag, animal, dead cow? I come close. Then it moves. A man straightens a leg. His head comes up. He looks down the length of his outstretched body at me. We don’t say anything. I creep slowly past. A homeless man finding a spot for a nap? A drunk sleeping off a hangover? Someone on a lunch break? I bump up another half mile to an unoccupied beach. The faint buzz of rubber on highway pavement wafts down on the breezes.

Winds howl the next morning. Palm fronds clatter outside the window while I have breakfast. I meet a guy in the bathroom at the RV park, brushing teeth. “Not a good day for towing a trailer,” he observes.

“Or for paddling a canoe,” I agree.

The good news is that I can leave my trailer parked and go explore up historic Route 66. Bikers know it as the Mother Road, simmering in the cultural stew of rock and roll lore and hitchhiker fame. I am firmly in RV Land. Along the margins of two-lane, heading toward the tourist-trap ghost town of Oatman, I glimpse RVs parked on BLM parcels of land. Every pull out has a rig or two. Every side road or two-rut track leads to encampments of trailers, truck campers, Winnebegos with solar arrays and lawn chairs, grills and generators. Technically, BLM ground is open territory. No amenities, no regulations, and no fees. Feels like a healthy little dose of anarchy going on, people figuring out protocol on the fly, a little unfettered democracy with a vigilante edge. Fair enough.

Oatman is a scene, on the verge of appalling. What was a dried up mining ghost town that once boomed to a population of 300 souls and bragged that its hotel hosted honeymooning couple Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, has found a new mother lode as a tourist stop along the rediscovered highway. A couple of blocks of Old West main street crammed with curios, tourist traps, rock shops. I have to park on the far end of town in a suspect parking spot. The place is crawling with sunburned tourists buying belt buckles, bumper stickers, embossed leather wallets, cheap jewelry, crystals, shot glasses, crass t-shirts. I wander in and out of stores packed to the dusty rafters with stuff no one needs. The rock stands hold my interest. There are agates and crystals and fossils spilling out of bins and shelves. A few gnarled hunks of petrified poop. Wild burros roam the main drag. People buy alfalfa pellets to feed them. The animals nose into stores, stand at intersections, wait for handouts. They remind me of homeless people flying their flags – Anything Helps – and heading back into the backcountry when the tourists go home.

I happen to be there at noon, for the predictable shoot-out reenactment on main street, a slightly embarrassing, marginally entertaining bit of showmanship. Ready for lunch, I head into a busy restaurant, but can’t face the scene. I end up spending a grand total of 62 cents for a post card and stamp that I send to Marypat from the funky post office near my parked car. Leaving town, I stop to take a picture of a roadside burro who canters right up to my car and sticks his head brazenly into the open window.

More life on the fringe. The dried up town fumbling toward survival, burros on the take, RVs poaching campsites, artisans crafting cheap earrings and soldered trinkets, rockhounds selling crystals, everyone jockeying to get by.

Life on the fringe, where 'wild' burros freeload off tourists.

Life on the fringe, where ‘wild’ burros freeload off tourists.

Driving south on Route 95 the next day, I pick up an NPR station long enough to hear that Iran shot down a Ukranian airliner by mistake, and that estimates of wildlife killed in unprecedented wildfires in Australia are pegged at 1 billion creatures. A billion! Thankfully, the station fades and I am left to the arid, unoccupied landscape, tooling along at a sedate 60 mph. In the middle of it I see a figure on the side of the road. A man walking. Not hitchhiking. Head down. No bag or pack. Just walking. Miles and miles from anywhere. There are no houses, no roads, no towns, nothing, for a very long ways in every direction. Where the hell is he going? Where did he come from? What’s his story? He fades in the rear view.

I am a little fringy myself. Out here finding my way to likely spots to engage with an insulted river, seeking shelter every night, beetling along under the arid skies, paddling here and there, making food, buying fuel. The difference between my dance along the edge of things and the guy walking the road or the coyote making do along the riverbank is that I tow along a cape of security, invisible, but as tangible as the trailer I pull. The security of a dependable vehicle, a network of contacts, friends and family, a phone loaded with people to call, money in a bank, a piece of plastic in my back pocket that has the power to keep me fueled, fed, sheltered and out of trouble. I have my skin color and place of birth, my station in society. I am fringe by choice. Others are not so lucky.

I jog south towards the desert town of Quartzite, Arizona. As I go, RVs of every stripe seem to proliferate. Every single day, 10,000 Americans reach the retirement age of 65. 10,000 old farts every day! That’s 300,000 a month, more than 3.5 million every year. Sure, not everyone retires on the dot of 65. Some retire earlier. Some work well into their 70s. Still, pretty staggering numbers. Some healthy percentage of those 10,000 are going out and buying recreational vehicles and hitting the road, including me. As I approach Quartzite in the middle of January, it seems that all of us are coming here.

Motorhomes, trailers, camper trucks, customized vans, teardrops and bump-outs, RVs the size of buses, actual buses, homemade jobs with smokestacks and wood-burning stoves, folks towing cars and jeeps and 4-wheelers, boats and bikes and scooters and surfboards. Miles before I hit this flat, desert, non-descript town the countryside is littered with encampments, some organized and official, many helter-skelter and off the grid. By the time I hit the main drag of town my mouth is hanging open. When I planned this outing, I had no idea that I’d be driving into the epicenter of RV mania – the January gathering in Quartzite. There are thousands and thousands of rigs parked everywhere, spreading under the desert sun for miles. A veritable antpile of motorized humanity – everyone busy hanging out, tending grills, occupying lawn chairs, bumping around on bikes, chatting with neighbors. There are casually organized markets, craft fairs, speakers, events, outings.

When I stop to gas up I ask a local about the scene. “Yeah, it’s a thing. Every January it takes over town. It’s like Burning Man around here for a month, without the drugs.”

I escape as quickly as I can, slowly slipping free of the motorized gauntlet that clings to the roadside for miles past the city limits. Even then, every side road, every pull out, every flat BLM spot is ornamented with blocky rigs and their clutter of toys.

My target is the Imperial Refuge along the Colorado River. I park at the visitor center where two retirees staff the information desk. It’s pretty quiet there – no other visitors, some information kiosks, the usual banter of government displays. At a nearby boat launch I offload the canoe and hop in to explore the maze of managed waterways fed by the fatigued, overused, recycled remnants of this mighty river that begins far to the north in the high peaks of Colorado and Wyoming, that roars down the awesome canyons of the arid west, that hums with the history of millennia, the lore of pioneers, Indians, John Wesley Powell, the Oregon Trail, and more recently, that suffers from our love affair with technology and all the unintended consequences that romance has unleashed.

It is warm. The water braids through rushes and reeds, isolated palm trees, backwater channels with unnatural contours. No current to speak of. No cottonwood trees or floodplain. A few birds catch my eye – the ubiquitous coot, a great blue heron, an osprey in a palm tree, black-crowned night herons, an egret, a kingfisher or two. I find a paddling rhythm. A rushing sound of air close overhead wakes me from the trance. A duck plummets into the river a few feet from my boat and disappears. I look up in time to see a falcon veer away and fly off.

Then, abruptly, the duck, a goldeneye, surfaces, shakes itself, and wings off. A near thing for this pretty bird. A missed meal for the predator. Who knows if my red canoe put the falcon slightly off its game or if the duck ditched into the river just in time. An outburst of life-and-death drama in the midst of this tamed, restricted backwater. Yes, we may have superficial control of things, we have bent things to our will, overlaid this river channel with our management scheme, but nature carries on.

I decide to join the legions of ‘boondockers’ for the night. A few miles from the visitor center a flat, rocky expanse spreads off the road, pocked with vehicles and campers in an off-the-grid scatter. I pull off, bounce across the moonscape of cobbles to the edge of a shallow valley, keeping a respectful distance from the neighbors, and call it home for the night. Not much to recommend it – the overview of an arid drainage, some military installations in the distance, mountains on the horizon. No amenities, but I don’t need amenities. And the price is right. I sit next to the cute trailer, sipping a drink, reading my book, A Man Called Ove. A cool evening breeze wafts across the flats. Just me and a few thousand other retirees with the same idea.

My final dabble in the Colorado River is an exploration of Senator Wash, a few miles north of Yuma, Arizona and the border with Mexico. I succumb to an organized BLM campground because it is near the boat launch and has a bathroom. To call it camping is an affront to any camper worth their backpack. My site is literally in a parking lot, complete with painted lines I have to park between. Each ‘camper’ gets their spot and one next to the rig in which to set up chairs and grills and plastic fences and astroturf and flags and whatever else they cart along. Most spots are full. Generators hum. The smell of barbeque wafts in the breeze. People stand around chatting up the neighbors, sitting in lawn furniture, putzing with awnings. It’s embarrassing. I escape as quickly as possible to the boat launch and set my solo canoe in the water.

It is a challenge to avoid the clutches of humanity on the lower Colorado. Even out of sight of people, the evidence of human manipulation is everywhere – dams, levees, canals, docks, moorings, buoys, boardwalks, houses in the distance. Fifteen minutes of steady paddling earns me a quiet side channel with a few ducks probing in the reeds. I stop and let it all slough off, lose the hubbub, take a breath. Just then I hear the low drone of an approaching motorboat. A couple putt around the corner in a skiff, fishing poles bristling like antenna. We wave. They disappear around a bend. The noise dies off. I turn into a tiny channel too small for motorized craft.

All this week on various sections of river I’ve had Aldo Leopold on my mind. Leopold, that 20th-century lion of conservation biology and land stewardship, came to the lower Colorado with his brother and spent a week or two exploring the delta of the Colorado across the border in Mexico. It was the pre-dam era. He wrote an essay titled, ‘Green Lagoons’, in which he extolled the maze of watery channels, the thickets of impenetrable underbrush, the hum of life – waterfowl by the millions, deer, jaguar, fish. He and his brother got happily lost in all of it, living off the land, not knowing where they were most of the time, just bumping around in the myriad channels and backwaters and sloughs where the Colorado spread in a wide, lush fan as it emptied into the sea.

That delta is gone. What remains is a sandy, dry expanse that only sporadically sees water at all, and when it does, it is a pathetic trickle of spent liquid that has survived the raids of irrigation, diversion, damming, industrial and municipal use, power generation and evaporation.

Where I paddle was once a fertile flood plain forested with cottonwood trees, through which the river ebbed and flooded by season, supporting a vast and varied array of vegetation and wild critters. Until we showed up with our water needs, our transportation needs, our power demands, our desires for recreation. Gone are the cottonwoods, gone are the floods, gone are most of the wild critters, gone or transformed or replaced by exotics is the vegetation.

In the mid-1800s, Yuma, Arizona was a thriving inland port full of steamboats, busy with commerce, feeding goods to the interior of Arizona and on into Colorado and New Mexico from the historic Yuma Quartermaster Depot. Hard to even imagine that now, despite the museums and displays in town. Much of the year you’d be hard pressed to get a canoe up to Yuma, much less a steamship. These days, Yuma is a ‘port’ to some 85,000 seasonal residents, the RV snowbirds who flock here like motorized migrants each winter for the climate and social life of sprawling, cheek-by-jowl paved RV parks. Among other things, the snowbirds are drawn by the fact that Yuma is the driest and sunniest population center in the country. On average, Yuma reaches 90 degrees on 175 days each year.

I spend the day poking around in the flat water behind another dam, the last complicated diversion of river water into canals and pipes, siphoning off the final dregs into canals like the Highline or All American, piped up and over the mountains to San Diego, the last greedy suck before Mexico gets its meager allotment of precious liquid, tainted and depleted as it is. The water is still, pooled. I stroke past low outcrops of rock, small valleys leading away to higher ground, palm trees perched on rocky slopes. Solitary pintails, cinnamon teal, widgeons come to view. A falcon glides past. It is pleasant enough, but I can’t help thinking about the Leopold boys poking around in the delta, alive to the possibility of seeing an elusive jaguar, startled by flocks of ducks erupting out of backwaters and clouding the air overhead, wondering where the hell they were, but not caring much, cooking on coals with a Dutch oven, sleeping in a canvas pup tent, lost to the world and happy to be lost.

Late in the day I re-emerge at the boat ramp, lift the red boat onto my roof rack, nod to a couple sitting in lawn chairs nearby, fishing pole angled at the turgid pond, red and white bobber motionless in the water. I come back to the paved camp in time for my dinner, eaten inside my teardrop bubble to the monotonous music of neighborhood generators.



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


'Selfie' by Craig Kesselheim

‘Selfie’ by Craig Kesselheim

Early on I knew that the tough part of my yearly schedule would be the heart of winter. The months of December, January, and February; months when Montana is frozen hard and boats are sensibly stored for the season. I knew the mid-winter lineup would be the most challenging to figure out, the hardest to get to, and likely the most expensive.

One of my biggest worries about retirement was the pitfall of free time. Life needs a certain tension to be interesting and to keep me out of trouble. At least my life does. In my freelance career, deadlines have always been welcome. When things are loose, no expectations, it’s too easy to let it slide. I was worried I’d fall prey to frittering time away, getting sucked into endless news streaming in the era of Trump, letting days slip by where I couldn’t remember what I’d accomplished. Even worse, the potential to get lured into old, unwanted habits.

December, January and February turn out to be a pretty effective antidote against that tendency. Planning a year’s worth of paddling trips, without breaking the bank, and while juggling the other responsibilities of life is a half-time job. I have to keep months ahead of the game to get things organized, find contacts, seek partners, arrange logistics. There are repeated dead ends, dates that don’t add up, trips that cost too much.

My first break comes in a conversation with Jeff King. “I’ve got the last half of February open,” he says, one day. “I was thinking about something in the Big Bend area. Any interest in joining me?”

We have coffee one morning with calendars in hand. It’s still early, but we bracket out a couple of weeks during the last half of February, a loose plan to paddle the three canyons of the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, and decide to tighten it up once we get closer.

With that in hand, I email a couple of friends in warmer climes for paddling destinations in their parts of the world – a cousin in San Diego, an old family friend in Mississippi, and a friend I collaborated with on several magazine stories in northern Florida. Any suggestions?

Two out of three come back almost immediately. Mississippi is not encouraging, and things in her life are in turmoil. My cousin in San Diego almost laughs at me through the email. “We’ve been in a decade-long drought,” she writes. “There’s nothing within a six hour drive of us unless you want to paddle in the ocean.”

I had thought about the ocean, but it’s not really my jam. Baja could be an option, maybe, but more complicated than I want to deal with, the border is an absolute shit show, and who knows how friendly Mexicans will be, what with president Trash Talk. Meantime, weeks go by and I don’t hear from Florida. I’m beginning to wonder if I have the right email when he finally replies.

Joe Hutto sounds somewhat encouraging. He’s busy writing a book. He has recently married. Yes, there are paddling destinations he might suggest, but he’s vague about any specifics. His new wife is Rita Coolidge. Yes, that Rita Coolidge, and it just happens that she’s giving a concert in Bozeman in the late fall. He’s going along and maybe we could meet. I go online and buy tickets to the concert.

That’s enough for me. I start looking at maps, firing up ideas I’ve had on the edges of my vision for decades. I’ve always been drawn to the Suwannee River, for one thing. Might be that sweet southern song. Might be that when it comes down to it, there really aren’t that many multi-day river trips available in Florida. Many rivers in the state emerge abruptly out of limestone springs and have short runs to the coast, or disappear again underground. Only a few navigable rivers run any significant distance. No doubt there are candidates, some of them stupendous, but from the vantage of Montana, with a couple of months lead-time, the choices are limited.

I do a little research, find that there is actually a pretty active Suwannee River paddling following, with some non-profit involvement, some descriptive river guides, camps set up along the banks, a couple of outfitters for rental gear and shuttles. Promising.

On impulse, I send out an email to my brother and sister, both of whom live in New England, about joining me. My sister can’t get the time off, but my brother, Craig, seems interested. He’s in his final year of work with an educational consulting firm, planning for June retirement. His workload has been cut back and he’s got a lot of vacation time in the bank and credit card miles saved up. And he’s an obsessed bird watcher. One of those “Stop the car! There’s a long-billed dowitcher in those cattails. Turn around!” That kind of bird watcher. I know damn well that, for Craig, Florida in December might be irresistible.

And I’m right. It only takes three emails and a follow up phone call to have dates penciled in and the early logistics set in motion. I call an outfitter in northern Florida. Craig looks into flights. The focus narrows down.

These kinds of trips – unknown terrain, few contacts, not much reliable intel – are bailing wire and duct tape affairs. The outfitter I chat with has a mixed message. He seems reasonably certain that we can get a trip in, that time of year, but it will depend on water levels. The year before, in the same window of December, the river was flooding at historic levels and was closed to travel. This year it’s been dry, but you never know when a tropical storm will brew up. He threw out some possible itineraries, said he could shuttle us and rent us a boat.

Craig and I book flights to Tallahassee, where Hutto lives, and plan to rent a car for the week. We split up the menu, dry some food on home dehydrators, talk about gear. There is a lot that could go sideways, but if worse comes to worst I’m thinking we can cobble together some sort of outing, paddle around with manatees, do some bird watching in a swamp, something.

In November Marypat and I go to Rita Coolidge’s concert in town, just a few blocks from home. It’s a packed house with a lot of gray hair. Coolidge has been at this for more than half a century. Now in her 70s, she has had a career that included touring with the likes of Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton back in the Woodstock era, a career that earned her a handful of gold and platinum records. Marypat and I have a couple of those vinyl records in a box somewhere. She was married to Kris Kristofferson for a while. She managed to avoid the overdose and excessive lifestyle traps that brought down so many of her contemporaries and she is still standing on stage for a two-hour set, knocking out songs, old and new, backed up by musicians from Los Angeles she’s worked with for years. Absolute pros, all around.

We meet briefly after the show. Hutto breaks away long enough to talk about some paddling destinations, but nothing very specific. It’s late and they are tired. Touring is grueling in your 20s, never mind keeping it going into your 70s.

“I’m so ready to be done,” Coolidge says. “I mean, why can’t I retire too?”

I give Hutto the window of our dates, tell him we’d love to knock around and see some of his favorite haunts on the edges of our time there. We leave it at that.

I’ve made more stunning geographic leaps, but Montana to Florida is a huge ‘L’-shaped plane saga, straight south to Dallas, a three-hour wait in an amorphous airport, and straight east to the panhandle of Florida, hopping over time zones, switching up climate, landing in an exotic place. I get off the plane near midnight. The night is warm and dense. My brother has stayed up way past his normal bedtime to meet me with our rental car, already checked into a motel he booked with credit card miles.

“Not in Montana anymore,” I observe.

“Or Maine,” Craig agrees.

In the morning, after a regrettable hotel breakfast, I call Hutto. “Come on over,” he says. “We’ll put on coffee.”

Half an hour later we’re hanging out in his kitchen, Rita Coolidge in a bathrobe asking whether we take cream, drinking coffee together. And five minutes after that we’re tromping around Hutto’s back yard with binos around our necks, and Craig is in bird-watching heaven.

If Joe Hutto isn’t one of a kind, he’s at least very rare. I first came across him in a movie with the unlikely title, My Life as a Turkey, which tells the story of Hutto’s years-long affiliation with a brood of sixteen young gobblers.

From a young age, Hutto has spent a great deal of time in the company of critters. These days he calls himself an Ethologist, but as a youngster he just bonded with wildlife and couldn’t get enough of it. He spent time in the woods, picked up orphaned animals here and there and took care of them. He was an only child and his parents were tolerant types. They lined the walls of his bedroom with linoleum and imposed only one limitation on his menagerie – no venomous snakes. Set free, Hutto took on hawks, foxes, wild boars, a boa constrictor, crows, ducks, raccoons, anything he could get his hands on.

“Kind of put a kink in sleep-overs when I was a kid,” he told me once. “You know, don’t mind the boa constrictor, he doesn’t take up much room in the bed.”

Mind you, this wasn’t a caged or domesticated relationship. He might coop up his brood when he was off at school, but outside of that, he wandered with his charges through the woods and fields and wetlands of northern Florida. The animals weren’t pets, they were companions. Hutto became addicted to spending time with wild animals and learning from them. When the young animals matured and gained independence, off they’d go, much as they would naturally.

Hutto told me about a fox he’d brought up that one day disappeared. Months went by. Hutto assumed the fox had struck out on its own as an adult, or, more likely, been hit by a car or shot by a farmer. Then one morning Hutto was sitting in his cabin with the door open when that fox ambled back in like no time had passed, hopped up on the bed and visited for a while. Then it strolled back out the door and never came back.

Hutto gained a local reputation. His avocation continued as he grew up. In college at Florida State University Hutto studied archaeology, but continued to spend time with animals. That is also where Hutto and Coolidge first met. They played music together, fell in love, hung out, but then they each went their way. Coolidge embarked on her long musical career and Hutto kept up his studies and his quirky alliances.

One day, when Hutto was living in a remote cabin in backwoods Florida, someone dropped off a bucket of sixteen turkey eggs. Hutto knew exactly what to do. He also knew the responsibility he was taking on. He picked up an incubator and waited, periodically clucking away like a hen turkey over the warm brood of shells. When the baby birds broke free, Hutto was the first thing they saw.

For the better part of the next two years, Hutto spent every hour of every day with those growing birds. For that period of time Hutto had essentially no human interaction. He was, for all purposes, a mother turkey. He walked the Florida woods with them, wandered fields, watched the turkeys grow and develop personalities, talk to each other, find food and water, suffer trauma, observe their surroundings.

Remarkably, Hutto was also accepted as part of the flock by other wildlife in the area. In the company of his brood, he’d wander among black bear, deer, snakes, animals he’d rarely see on his own, but which accepted him as nonchalantly as they would a true mother turkey.

The film is a reenactment of Hutto’s time with the flock. At the end of the movie, a postscript mentioned that Hutto was presently living with a band of mule deer in Wyoming. “What the heck?” I said, when I read that. “How does that work?”

In one of those small-world coincidences, it turned out that Hutto was living with the deer roughly six miles from my parent’s home in Lander, Wyoming. During a visit to my folks, I picked up the local phonebook and there was Hutto. I called him up.

“I’m a fan of yours, “ I told him, when he answered. “I’m also a writer. I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee some time.”

Two days later we met for breakfast at a local café and spent several hours talking. Hutto became a regular contact whenever I went to visit my parents, and over time I wrote several magazine stories about him, including a lengthy interview for The Sun Magazine. I met some of his mule deer comrades. I heard about the incredible string of interactions he’d had with wildlife over the years, from wood ducks to bighorn sheep. More importantly, I was introduced to the underpinning of philosophical wisdom that grew out of those relationships. And we became friends.

Tragically, Hutto’s wife at the time was struck down by a lingering bout with cancer. He had watched animals in the throes of gruesome injury, killed by hunters, maimed by barbed wire, struck by vehicles. He witnessed the grief and mourning of their comrades. Here was his own.

“I have not learned any extraordinary wisdom about the nature of life or come to see nature as kind,” Hutto told me after his wife’s death. “It’s not. My wife contracted a terminal form of cancer. She had led a healthy life, never had a bad habit, and yet this awful disease took her. It was one more tragedy I had to experience up close. She was one more beautiful creature who died with her head in my lap. This lifetime of study has left me disappointed by the brutality of it all.”

After his wife’s death, Hutto lasted another season or two in Wyoming, but eventually sold the property and moved back to his home country in Florida. He hadn’t been back long when a friend mentioned that Rita Coolidge was coming to town to do a reading and book-signing of her recently released memoir. Hutto went to the event, stayed in the back of the room, was shy about reconnecting. Friends pushed him forward. They hugged. They went out afterward to talk. They talked all night. They haven’t been apart since.

Hutto and Coolidge may live on the outskirts of a bustling city, but their back yard abuts a wetland with towering cypress and pine trees, small ponds, habitat rife with birds, gators, otters, deer. We squelch around on deer paths. Craig is intent, picking up songs, catching movement. Piliated woodpeckers, a pair of otters in a pond, song birds and warblers. Hutto perks up at Craig’s enthusiasm, starts talking about migrating water moccasins wriggling across the yard, owls in the trees just past his lawn.

The three of us hop in the rental car and follow Hutto’s directions to Wakulla Springs, the largest freshwater spring in Florida, nearly 200 feet deep, a powerful explosion of crystal clear water ushering an instant, full blown river out of an extensive underwater limestone cave system. The spring gushes 200-300 million gallons of water a day, feeding the short, nine-mile-long river. The springs gained fame after the discovery of mastodon skeletons and bones of other extinct species in the waters, along with bones and artifacts of indigenous people from at least 12,000 years ago. More recently, the springs and surrounding habitat have been the set for Tarzan movies. A stately lodge was constructed on the site by Edward Ball, who later donated the surrounding land to the state under the condition that the reach of river a mile or two below the ‘rise’, and extending down to the next highway bridge, would be permanently off limits to humans. No one allowed, period. Ever since, for more than half a century, those miles of river have been untouched by humans, essentially unvisited.

We buy $8 tickets for the boat tour that putts a mile and a half downstream and back. It is a gray, dreary day. Only a few people are on the ride. The driver doles out historical tidbits, humorous stories, and identifies wildlife as we idle slowly along shore. Despite the touristy nature of the outing, it is rich. Alligators lounge on the banks, anhingas air out on gnarled branches, ibis, egrets, hooded mergansers, black vultures. The river course teems with life and jungle-like vegetation. Where the boat turns around, we peer downstream into the void where humans have been shut out and wildlife goes about its business. It’s a tiny postage stamp of a preserve, but it serves as a reminder of what was, and what might come back if humans stepped offstage.

Hutto grew up in a wild Florida where a young man undaunted by adventure could slip into the forests and swamps and fields, into the thicket of nature, encountering snakes, finding artifacts, adopting creatures, discovering jewels of habitat, swimming with manatees, being half wild himself. Florida is not that place anymore, but if there is a vestige of that quality, it is in the northern and panhandle part of the state. “Experience Real Florida,” the billboards say.

That night we meet Hutto and Coolidge at their favorite diner, a hole-in-the-wall place tucked inauspiciously in a strip mall. The grits and shrimp are the opposite of inauspicious, almost as memorable as the company.

Craig and I drive east to the Suwannee from Tallahassee the next morning. Pastures, small towns, surviving plots of forest, muddy streams. We stop for gas and go inside to pee. A heavy-set, bearded biker dude with solid tattoos everywhere watches us from behind the counter.

“Have a blessed day,” he says, as we leave.

“Yeah, forgot,” Craig says. “Bible belt.”

“Pretty unlikely looking church-goer,” I say. “Probably a story there.”

Craig’s phone has the outfitter’s location and we follow directions that wind us through a vast state park and campground, down to a steep, concrete boat ramp with the dark river at the bottom of it. A couple of beat up vans sit in the gravel lot, racks of dented aluminum canoes. When I called, I imagined a log building with maps on the walls, racks of bug dope and nature guides, paddling accessories, snacks. Instead the ‘office’ is a phone booth sized kiosk with a sliding window and a guy named Steve with a cell phone. He is waiting for us. It is low season on the river, and low water to boot, so things are pretty quiet.

“This place is hopping starting in February,” he says. “It can be busy in September and October too. Right now you’ll have the river to yourself.”

Fine by us, as long as there’s water to float the canoe. We talk about our itinerary, how high up we can go before we’re dragging the boat more than paddling, where the river camps are, what the weather’s supposed to do. It doesn’t take long. I notice that Steve has bible verses up on his computer screen. We pick out a weathered, dinged up Old Town Tripper canoe for sentimental reasons. Both Craig and I started our wilderness canoe careers with that boat. This one has seen better days, but so have all the rest of the canoes in the livery. We get some old-style life vests that neither of us has any intention of wearing, a couple of heavy paddles, settle up by credit card, load the canoe on a trailer and Steve is ready to go.

Steve gives us the twenty-five cent version of his life story as we drive the two-lane roads. He grew up in Kansas, in what sounds like a fairly dysfunctional family, and decided to come to Florida for the warm weather and beaches. He has knocked around picking up jobs over the years since, does some school teaching, started this outfitting business. All of it appears pretty shoestring, but he seems content and cheerful enough. He drives the rattling van upriver to a dirt road with no signage, jounces down through narrow limestone cutbanks at an alarming speed and comes to an abrupt stop at a sandy opening above the river. Three minutes later we are unloaded and he clatters away, leaving us in the faint cloud of his exhaust.

It goes quiet. Where the Wakulla Springs and River were rustling and alive, the Suwannee whispers past through a ghostly silence. We have lunch there on white sand as fine as flour, looking upriver into the cypress and live oak lining low limestone cliffs. The river is as dark as truck stop coffee, the current barely perceptible. Low clouds brood overhead. Not in Montana anymore, I think again.

Photo by Craig Kesselheim

Photo by Craig Kesselheim

The Suwannee begins in the vast Okefenokee Swamp on the border between southern Georgia and northern Florida. From there it winds some 250 miles to the Gulf coast, picking up tributaries, replenished by springs, ending up in the mangroves and bayous along the coast. It isn’t what you’d call wild, but there are quiet sections, along with state parks, music venues, riverside houses. The section we’ve settled on courses through sparsely settled country and gives a solid dose of the river’s character. Anything higher up, at this water level, is more shoal than river and we would be walking the canoe as much as paddling it.

Craig and I haven’t been in a canoe together in a while. In fact, even when we’ve been on canoe trips together, we’ve mostly been in separate boats. The load fits easily inside the hull, we climb in, take the first strokes. The boat sets a purling wake through the slow water, we match our cadence. In the first couple of bends there are shallow spots we have to ease over. Then Craig puts his paddle down, picks up his binoculars. Paddling with Craig is a stuttering affair, punctuated with pauses to identify a distant speck of soaring hawk or the flash of color in underbrush. He’s efficient about it. He doesn’t miss much. It usually doesn’t last more than a few strokes.

“Red-headed woodpecker,” Craig says. Or wood duck, Carolina wren, black vulture. The birdlife is sparse, but Craig picks them off one after another, by song or sight, makes quick, shorthand notes in the notebook he keeps in his breast pocket. GBH for great-blue heron, like that. He’s been at this since he was in college, has become somewhat of an entity in the national flock of birding aficionados. He regularly logs his sightings on eBird.org. To call it a hobby is like saying Joe Hutto enjoys being around wildlife.

Yellow-crowned night heron (YCNH). Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

Yellow-crowned night heron (YCNH). Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

My first deep wilderness canoe expedition was initiated by Craig in the late 1970s. He and his partner at the time had their sights on a big-volume river in Quebec, the Moisie. He invited me along. It was fairly early in my paddling learning curve, but I was young and immortal. Why not? Four days into the trip, near the border of Quebec and Labrador, Craig and his partner very nearly died when a sudden wind came up during a lake crossing and they capsized. We spent the rest of that day rescuing them from the frigid, white-capped lake, hugging their naked bodies in sleeping bags to revive them, slowly rekindling warmth and life. It was a narrow thing. Day 4! Needless to say, caution became the watchword over the next weeks as we descended the whitewater-filled canyons and treacherous rapids back to the north shore of the St. Lawrence.

Craig and his wife, Beth, joined Marypat and me for the second summer of our first trans-Canadian canoe expedition in 1986. They flew in to our wintering site in northern Saskatchewan and paddled with us for 40 days across the Barrenlands of northeastern Canada. Remote, untouched, vast landscape full of immense herds of caribou, grizzly, wolves, Inuit artifacts, daunting weather and portages and black flies. We didn’t see a soul for more than a month, never mind a fence, road, town or any sign of modern civilization. Only the ghosts of the Inuit who thrived for centuries on the austere landscape before being uprooted by the incursion of Europeans. That old story. For Craig and Beth, fresh from a year of teaching school, it was baptism by fire. It was tough enough for Marypat and me, and we’d had a year of isolated northern travel and living to prepare us.

More recently, Beth was laid low by a rare form of leukemia that imposed an endurance survival marathon on their relationship. For years they weathered a seesaw of grim episodes where the end loomed near, followed by hopeful stretches of remission, followed by yet another relapse and brush with death. More than once we traveled east in support, death hovering in the wings. Beth finally received a successful bone marrow transplant and has been cancer free for almost twenty years, but the battle transformed her, made her frail and vulnerable. Through all of it, Craig has been her champion.

Their adventurous outdoor lives were put on permanent hold after the bout with cancer. In the decades since they have gone out in a canoe maybe once or twice a year to pick fiddleheads or poke around an estuary. A few summers earlier Craig came to Montana for a visit and we spent a day on boisterous whitewater on the Boulder River in a self-bailing inflatable canoe. It may have been the first time Craig and I had partnered up in a canoe since we were teenagers in an aluminum boat, back when paddling together was a good deal more adversarial than cooperative.

That day on the Boulder we slammed through watery holes, slapped down wave trains, wove through fields of whitewater and boulders. It’s a run I do every spring, but Craig hadn’t done whitewater like that in decades. Being together that way in a boat, sharing that watery exhilaration, was a gift.

This first afternoon on the Suwannee we only paddle a handful of miles down to one of the riverside camps maintained by the state. Far enough to get the gist of the landscape. Limestone cliffs, pocked and pitted and convoluted, alternate with white beaches of powdery sand. Overhanging the river, live oaks, cypress, beards of hanging moss swaying in the faint breezes. The river swings through shallow sand bars, past freshwater springs gushing in from the sides. Cypress ‘knees’ poke out of the water and stand like knobby posts along the banks. We have it to ourselves.

Mosses swaying in the breeze. Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

Mosses swaying in the breeze. Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

The riverside camp is hardly roughing it. A boardwalk ramp leads up to a series of screened platforms. Wheelbarrows are available for portaging loads. A picnic area, bathroom with hot showers, paved walkways connecting to other platforms, electric lights. And it’s free. We pick our platform, unload, set up camp chairs. No one else is around and the campground host is AWOL.

Turns out that taking a walk with Craig is a lot like paddling with him. More than once on the afternoon stroll we take from camp I realize that I’ve been blathering on about something, only to notice that he’s twenty yards back, binoculars on his face, checking out a sapsucker while I’m entertaining myself. My blind eye and consequent lack of peripheral vision doesn’t help keep track of his frequent pauses.

“Not nice to make fun of the handicapped,” I say, when he catches up, chuckling.

Away from the river, seldom-driven dirt tracks, ribbed with bedrock limestone, wind through the woods. The weather report forecasts rain and thunderstorms for the next day. It rains off and on through the night and the morning is gray and sullen. We could paddle, pull on rain gear, ignore the weather, but we have plenty of time so we decide to lay over in camp, take another long walk, play cribbage.

On our walk through hushed, dripping woods, between sightings of black vultures and towhees, Craig brings up our childhood years and our troubled times as brothers. “I didn’t want to let this trip go by without bringing it up,” he says.

It is a topic we’ve skirted for decades. I was not an easy older brother. In fact, I was something of a tyrant, especially in my adolescent years. Craig suffered the brunt of it and that tyranny had a lingering effect.

“It wasn’t until the road trip we took after you graduated from college that I sensed a change,” Craig says. “That was the first time I really felt treated as an equal.”

I remember that summer when we drove my ’67 Chevy pickup across the country, hiked together in the Uinta Mountains and Canyonlands of Utah, both of us on the cusp of self-discovery, what we would make of life, where we’d live, what we’d do. On the fringe of personal frontiers.

Through middle school and high school I treated Craig badly. I don’t have an excuse.

After he brings it up I let it sit as we walk. Craig stops and kneels down to take a picture of a snail on the roadway with his phone, posts it on a naturalist site he uses to identify things or pose questions.

RFD Suwannee. Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

RFD Suwannee. Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

“There were years there when I felt trapped in a version of myself that I knew deep down wasn’t true to who I was,” I say, finally. “I’ve given up trying to figure out where that version of me came from. I didn’t know how to escape from it, but some inner voice told me that I eventually would. I know that didn’t do you much good at the time.”

We walk some more. Craig’s phone pings. In a matter of minutes someone out there in the ether has identified the snail he photographed on a dirt track in backwoods Florida. A house hunkers behind a spreading live oak off the road – mossy roof, a rusting car, screened porch. No one around.

“I don’t know how to make up for that time,” I say. “I am really sorry for the way I treated you. And I’m profoundly grateful that you have found a way to forgive me and go on. At least I hope you have.”

“College was a chance to hit the reset button in my life,” I continue. “I reinvented myself in those years.”

“Me too,” Craig agrees. “It was an opening to become someone outside of home and family and the roles I was constrained by.”

It is not a come-to-Jesus moment there on the roadway. We’re more restrained than that, but it feels like a breakthrough, a lighter load between us, simply to have it out there, to acknowledge it, to agree that it happened, to recognize its power, to express relief at its passing, to apologize out loud. Not an easy thing, even decades distant, for Craig to bring it up, for me to ask forgiveness.

Our rest day call is propitious. During the night thunderstorms roll through close overhead, shaking the shelter, pelting on the roof. The morning is still gray and brooding when we launch, but the rain has quit. We have almost 20 miles to cover if we want to reach the next established camp. We switch sides paddling every hour or so. Craig keeps racking up birds on the list – limpkin, sandhill crane, red-shouldered hawk.

“Right now I’d say that the trip bird is the eastern phoebe,” he says. “I bet there’s one every two-tenths of a mile.”

Being obsessed with birds illuminates a great deal. It’s a thing I’ve noticed on outings with Craig. By clueing into the bird life, you also clue into the season, migrations, what vegetation provides habitat, weather conditions, insect life. Being curious about one layer of nature inevitably connects you to everything else.

Around midday we stop on a beach and brew up coffee. As we sit and eat lunch, sipping from mugs, the clouds break. By the time we pick up paddles again the day is brilliant, the river transformed. Turtles sun on logs. We’ve heard that there are 100-pound alligator snapping turtles in this river, which effectively constrains any impulse to take a dip. The river coils through amber-colored sandbars. We shed layers. Springs pour in from the side of the channel, Spanish moss waves in the breeze, cypress trees with labyrinthine roots, forests of ‘knees’ poking out of the water. It is an enchanting afternoon and we cruise steadily around the sunlit bends.

Mid-morning boil up. Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

Mid-morning boil up. Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

The campground host is in at the next camp. We arrive late in the afternoon. “At high season this place has 40 people a night,” he tells us. “The line for showers can be 10 deep.”

Today there is one other guy, a hiker out for an overnight along the Florida Trail, which borders the river for long stretches. An armadillo snuffles through the deep leaves outside our screened platform. Woodpeckers drum on nearby trees.

“On this day last year the river was right up to the edge of camp,” the host tells us. “This year it’s at historic lows.” We look down at the tannic flow forty feet below camp.

Leaves through an amber flow. Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

Leaves through an amber flow. Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

The Florida Trail system wobbles from the southern tip of the state all the way north, and then doglegs west across the skinny length of the panhandle to the Alabama border. Counting side trails, the system covers some 1,400 miles. Who knew? Much of it doesn’t sound very appealing. In the far south, there is a lot of slogging through boggy wetlands writhing with invasive, burgeoning populations of Burmese python. Farther north, quite a bit of the trail follows dirt roads. But here, along the Suwannee, the trail stays close to the bank and bends its way through the cypress and live oak with frequent views over the river. Here it looks pretty attractive.

We plan a layover day to do some hiking, despite the campground host’s warning that this weekend is a special hunting season. “I wouldn’t be out walking,” he says. But his advice is leavened by the hiker who did just that for 20 miles without incident. Besides, he tells us, there’s a hiatus on hunting in the middle of the day, between 10 and 3, known as ‘Drive Time’. We figure we’ll wear colorful clothing and walk during the break.

The next day, after a leisurely morning punctuated by distant gunshots, we head upstream. The trail is deep with dead leaves, easy to lose, doesn’t seem very heavily traveled. We follow paint blazes in and out of shallow gullies, through stands of cypress trees. The landscape is pitted and sunken, characteristic of the ‘karst’ topography common to limestone. There are sinks and hollows, shallow bowls. This is a state where houses are fairly routinely swallowed up in sinkholes. There is a lot going on in the subterranean layers, where springs gush from the ground at great volume out of nowhere, where cave systems web here and there out of sight, where solid ground can collapse without warning. It is also magical, quiet, dappled with sunlight, and full of birds.

It is warm and sunny. We pose for pictures next to massive cypress trunks, or in thickets of cypress knees the height of baseball bats. I’m pretty vigilant for snakes along the trail, although we’ve been told that the python scourge that has decimated birds and mammals in southern Florida hasn’t pushed this far north. Even so, there are snakes a plenty without counting the invaders. This time of year should be pretty quiet, on the slithering front, but you never know. Craig keeps picking up warblers, a soaring red-shouldered hawk, red-headed woodpeckers. From high banks we look over the rust-colored river with sunlit sandbars. We eat lunch in the shade of a live oak, leaning against a log coated in emerald green moss.

Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

Photo by Craig Kesselheim.

The Burmese python probably gained a foothold in Florida from released or escaped pets, and has proliferated in the southern part of the state over recent decades, wreaking predatory havoc on a wide range of small mammals and birds. Python effectively extirpated the rabbit population in Everglades National Park in less than one year, for example. Fox, raccoon, birds, opossum, bobcats are also frequent snake prey. The pythons can live twenty years or more, and female snakes lay 20-50 eggs at a time. The largest python found in the Everglades was 18 feet long and weighed 100 pounds. No one really knows how many there are. Estimates range from 30,000 to 300,000. And they are hard to hunt. The 2013 Python Challenge, sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, complete with bounty money, attracted more than 1,600 hunters but only netted 68 snakes in a month.

The python’s potential spread is unpredictable. The biggest limiting factor on their range is temperature. Some models predict that they will be constrained to southern Florida and a few sections of Texas, while others forecast an alarming spread through a third of the United States, including all three coasts. Another instance where global warming is not our friend. All of this because a couple of pet snakes got loose.

Our hike is uneventful, at least on the snake and camo fronts, and we enjoy another relaxed evening in camp. Craig wins the Suwannee Best-of-Five Cribbage Championship.

“It took an act of will not to get my journal out and record my triumph,” Craig jokes.

“Payback time for all those basketball games of H-O-R-S-E I forced you to play, right?” I say.

“Something like that.”

For me, the highlight of our final day on the Suwannee River is the Alapaha Rise. For our part, we rise early, get on the water with mist steaming off the river. The air is bated. It feels exquisitely southern. We don’t break the silence with chatter. Craig looks at things from time to time, interrupts the paddling cadence, but we glide through the dark water mile after mile.

When the sun burns through the mist we pull in on a point of beach and boil up water for a coffee break.

“I wonder if Beth could maybe handle a trip like this,” Craig muses. “If we used the river camps she might be able to pull it off. Probably have to bring a cot along, but it’s a possibility.”

I can almost hear the wheels turning. Craig was once an avid outdoorsman. He worked for Outward Bound over several summers, had an appetite for adventure. All of that evaporated in the glare of cancer and the reality of survival. Even after that immediate threat receded, life changed in profound ways. His role as a caregiver has informed his identity. And he’s not young anymore. But this trip has rekindled something.

“Yeah, it could work. And even if Beth isn’t up for it, you’ve got friends to go paddling with,” I remind him. “It’s not like Maine doesn’t have canoe destinations.”

In the final miles before the boat ramp where we hope Steve will meet us a few houses appear, perched on the high banks, with ladders and stairs descending to the water, boats tied up. A guy in a skiff is bait-fishing in a dark eddy below a limestone cliff. I keep watching for the gap in the right bank where the Alapaha Rise comes in. We are almost to the take-out and I’m thinking I might have missed it when I see a narrow opening in the layers of limestone.

“Let’s go up,” I say.

We turn the canoe in, enter through a gate of rock. Current pushes against us. We pick up the pace, hang near the cliff where the flow is slower, inch ahead. Then, suddenly, we’re there. It is a circular room of bedrock, gray walls looming overhead. Water blooms up from the depths, blistering the surface. The canoe quivers on the break between worlds. Underneath, who knows? It is a dark and wonderful mystery, this outpouring of clear, clean, subterranean flow ushering out of the earth. Our imaginations follow it down, into the labyrinth of channels and fissures and rooms leading to the source, whatever and wherever that might be.

It is cool and dark and hushed. A chapel. Vegetation screens out the sun. Water, endless water, booms softly under the hull, insistent and gentle at once, like an ominous caress. We keep paddles ready, bracing against the quiet turbulence. We both know better than to speak.


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


It would be pushing it to say that I took the teaching job in northern Wisconsin, back in the late 70s, because of Grant Herman. There were other reasons. They flew me from Santa Fe, New Mexico to tiny Ashland, Wisconsin for a three-day interview at Northland College. Over those days I spent a fair amount of time with Grant. If I got the job he would be my partner running the Outdoor Education Department. The job was attractive, challenging, full of potential. It would add a lot to my resume. But the fact that Grant and I clicked immediately, that we found in each other a matching spark of enthusiasm and vision and style, had a lot to do with me finally saying yes, agreeing to leave the landscape of the West that I loved and a job I’d found pleasure in.

The contrast between urban, cosmopolitan Santa Fe and backwoods, off-the-radar Ashland was stunning. Back then, produce in the grocery stores along the southern shores of Lake Superior resembled something from a Hudson Bay outpost in northern Canada – some wizened potatoes, sprouting onions, misshapen carrots, wilted celery. Ashland was a town with more bars than churches, where patrons wore hunter-orange stocking caps all year round and hunched over Leinenkugels in dark caverns with stained-glass PBR lights dimly illuminating pool tables. Social life revolved around fish-fries on Friday nights and polka bands on Saturday.

Over the next three years, the town grew on me, the people I met, the fun to be had. I learned to polka, drank my share of long-neck Leinies, came to relish walleye, but it was the job that consumed me. Together, Grant and I made that program sing. The college, a small liberal arts school in the boonies of the upper Midwest, had come to an existential decision to distinguish itself by putting its curricular emphasis on the environment and the surrounding natural setting. Given that commitment, we were granted a lot of latitude.

We ran rock climbing trips to the Black Hills of South Dakota, whitewater boating courses in North Carolina, summer mountaineering expeditions to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, spring trips to the canyons of Utah. We explored the northern boreal forest, the Boundary Waters, the coast of Lake Superior. We ran leadership seminars, winter skills expeditions, first aid classes, experiential education teaching workshops. On a campus with fewer than 700 students we had 150 majors. Heady stuff, and all consuming.

What I didn’t expect was to find a paddling partner in the bargain. I arrived in town for the school year with an Old Town canoe strapped to the top of my car, fresh from an expedition in northern Quebec. It wasn’t long before Grant and I were teaming up in boats of various stripes on the waters of the upper Midwest. The Brule, the Montreal, the St. Croix, the Wolf and Peshtigo, the expanse of Lake Superior – from intimate explorations of local estuaries to island-hopping through the Apostles. We paddled together in tandem kayaks, 36’ Montreal canoes, whitewater boats, flatwater canoes, expedition freighters. Between our course responsibilities we regularly escaped to the water and found that lovely chemistry of boating partnership, that dance with current, full of glory and mishap, adrenaline and comedy.

A lot of it was spontaneous. Some of it foolhardy. All of it charged with that youthful adventuring kinship so addicting and problematic.

One March we got it in our heads to respond to spring restlessness with a descent of the Brule River. Two bends in we came around a corner into a log jam with no chance to react, capsized, soaked our wool clothes. By the time we made the take-out we were blue with cold, and had given the still-warm-when-wet claim of wool clothing promoters a run for the money.

At the other end of the season, one November, we decided to run the Totogatic River in northern Wisconsin. The shuttle was a tad horrific, and by the time we reached the put-in, we’d devoted enough of the day to getting there that despite the dishearteningly low water level, we decided to go for it anyway. Mistake. The run was a top-to-bottom thicket of boulders we dinged and banged our way down, with a portage around a waterfall thrown in. Daylight was short. Light was waning and the end still a long ways off when I asked Grant nonchalantly whether he’d remembered matches. At that point I was assuming we’d be spending the night bivouacked under a white pine, cozied up around a fire. It would be chilly, uncomfortable, foodless, but doable. It would make for a good story.

“Damn!” Grant said. The fireside image went poof, and the urgency to get to the car gained a great deal of momentum.

It was twilight when we reached the ‘flowage’ reservoir that meant we were within reach of the take out. Our relief was short-lived, because a quarter mile onto the flat water a skim of ice slowed down our progress. We broke a wake, ice tinkling like broken glass before the bow. Then the skim thickened. We became an ice-breaker, ramming ahead, riding up on an elastic layer of ice, then breaking through. Then we were no longer breaking through, but the ice still wasn’t thick enough to get out and walk across. We backed up, shoved our way to the near shore, found a fisherman’s trail, and dragged the boat more than a mile through the woods as night fell and stars came out.

Or the Friday night fish-fry that turned into an all-nighter driving around the back roads of northern Wisconsin listening to the Allman Brothers at high volume, pub hopping, and deciding that a midnight descent of the sluggish White River would be in order. We picked up my canoe, drove to the base of the dam south of town and put in. The plan was to jog the five-mile shuttle back to the rig.

We set the canoe into the quiet flow. Got in. Went around the first bend. The frenetic energy of the night dissipated. The river was slow-moving all right, but also mined with frequent log jams and snags, overhanging brush, beaver dams. The night was impenetrable. We groped our way around corners blind, worked the boat through tangles of branches, pulled around obstacles, poked over low dams of sticks and mud. Beaver slapped the water next to the boat, startling as gunshots. We barely talked. It was oddly sacred, this space, at the same time that we kept giggling at ourselves. No one knew where we were. If something happened, we were on our own. The stretch to the next bridge was only a few miles, but it took us what felt like hours. By the time we saw the black stripe of state highway overhead we’d sobered up a good deal and now faced a five-mile run in the wee early morning hours.

About a mile down the pavement, huffing along, wearing stiff canvas pants and ragged tennies, a cop passed us and pulled over.

“You boys out for a little jog?” he asked.

We told him our story, at least the part of it featuring our midnight canoe jaunt.

“Hop in,” he said. “It’s a slow night. I’ll give you a ride.”

Even after I left Northland College and moved to Montana to be with Marypat and take the leap of faith into what I hoped would be a freelance writing career, I teamed up with Grant on boating expeditions. The summer after I left Ashland, we spent a month on the Seal River and Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba. It was Marypat’s first northern expedition, her first real time in a canoe, and the start of our northern era together. A few years later we joined Grant on a month-long kayak traverse of the entire Canadian coastline of Lake Superior. And a few years after that we met for a week in September in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota.

Boats and water have defined our relationship, but it had been a long time since we’d paddled together. Maybe twenty-five years. Both of our lives had moved on. We kept in touch, visited once in a while when driving through, but contact was sporadic. On a whim I texted Grant about joining me on a November river trip, briefly explained my year of trips theme. I suggested the San Juan River in southern Utah. November would be pushing the season, but we’d have it to ourselves and it is an awesome run through panoramic Monument Valley, a nice follow up to October’s Grays and Desolation journey, farther north. I figured it was a long shot.

“Interesting,” Grant texted back, almost immediately. “I’ve got some details to deal with, but maybe I can pull it off.”

I went ahead and got the permit. In November permits are a piece of cake, required a whopping fee of $6, and whether or not Grant joined me could wait. Grant’s ‘details’ were complicated. He had moved with his wife to the Olympic Peninsula, a gobsmacking leap, given that he’d lived in the north woods of Wisconsin for more than 40 years, and they were extricating themselves from a sea-kayaking operation they’d run near Bayfield, Wisconsin. It involved a neighboring Indian tribe with boundary issues, trying to sell the business, and some major construction. I knew how those things went. I thought the likelihood of having his company was south of 50/50.

So it was a pleasant surprise when he called to say he thought he could pull it off. Still, I didn’t count on it until Grant bought a plane ticket to Bozeman. We would spend a day gearing up together, another day driving down to Utah, and get in the canoe for a week. I was eager for all of it – the time dinking with gear, the hours of driving and catch up, and most of all, that moment when we would step into a loaded open canoe together and match up paddle strokes.

Some friendships take no time at all to rekindle. After a separation, even years long, the same warmth fires up, the familiar repartee, the ease granted by deep trust and history. It’s like that with Grant, from the moment we meet at the baggage claim and haul his whopping duffle off of the carousel, through the next day’s checklist minutia of river shoes, tie-down straps, dry bags. A dinner together with Marypat and an early departure for a long day’s drive south, red canoe strapped overhead.

We drop easily into conversation, interspersed with silence, watching the countryside morph from Yellowstone Plateau with its thickets of lodgepole pine and mountain ranges edging toward winter, to the spreading aridity south of Salt Lake City . . . Price . . . Green River. Past our turn to the Green, the month before, and down to Moab, where we stop at a Mexican joint for dinner.

It is well past dark when we pull into the campsite at Sand Island boat launch outside of Bluff. We are the only ones there. We put up tents by the light of car headlights. Around us, the shoulder of sandstone cliff, the scent of nearby flowing water, the dusty earth, shadowy clumps of sage.

We stand around for a minute in the cold dark. A fat moon breasts the horizon. “I’m really glad you came, Grant,” I say. “I think you’ll like this river. But I’m going to bed.”

In the chilly dawn, after a bagel and cup of coffee, we drop off our keys at the shuttle joint, top up the gas tank, fuss around at the boat ramp with the pile of gear. It’s a tight fit in the boat. I indulged with a full-sized cooler, and we have the obligatory porta-potty, a 7-gallon water jug, the various dry bags full of gear. The canoe hull is maxed out and Grant has to wedge his feet around the water jug in the bow. The San Juan is on the low end of flow, around 700 cfs, a silty green ribbon schussing by. There are no river rangers to check in with, only one other car in the parking lot. Before we leave we stand in front of a massive panel of petroglyphs near the launch, a mural of indecipherable symbols and story lines that runs the length of a football field on a low cliff.


And then, that moment all of this has led up to, when we step into the canoe together.

“I’ll take the left,” I say. It is my preferred side to paddle on in the stern. We push gently off from shore. Our paddles hit the water. The canoe enters the current. All so familiar, so rich.

Silence is a pretty comfortable state for us. Riding in a car, in the boat or at a camp, we can sit and share space without cluttering it up with meaningless chit-chat. By the same token, when we talk, it is without a lot of pretense. I reveal my decision to quit drinking, for example. “I kept trying to rationalize being a moderate social drinker,” I say to Grant. “Eventually I had to admit that I couldn’t do it.”

Grant takes it in. A good deal of our social interaction over the years has been fueled by beer. Part of my anxiety over quitting drinking has had to do with my lack of faith that I can be as socially engaged and entertaining without the lubrication of alcohol. Taken on face value that seems pretty pathetic, but there it is, lurking under the surface. On some level I know that insecurity is ridiculous. Inebriation certainly doesn’t make me more eloquent or funny or insightful. It just fools me into feeling that way. Yes, it can make for some boisterous fun, general silliness, less inhibited interaction, but shouldn’t I be able to manage some level of fun without it? For Grant it seems to make no difference at all. He is the same friend he’s always been. It’s me suffering the angst.

The San Juan runs through a collage of cultures and artifacts, past and present, like a historical kaleidoscope. Within the first couple of miles, the highway 191 bridge crosses the river, funneling traffic south. Also within the first hour or two on the water, the canoe slides past a series of ‘toehold routes’ snaking up sandstone cliffs, precarious footholds chiseled out of rock that I populate with loincloth-clad natives making their daily commutes to and from the river. Petroglyphs punctuate the riverside cliffs, some visible from the water, others up washes, symbols from another paradigm. There are ruins of old trading posts, foundations eroding slowly into the landscape, carvings left on rock by passing Mormons, haphazard junk left behind by miners, an historic wagon road snaking up the rough ridge overlooking Comb Wash.

We pull in and walk through a half mile of scrub to get to River House Ruin, a substantial Pueblo set of structures built under the eave of overhanging cliff 1,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years – granaries, sleeping rooms, corn-grinding stones, much of it relatively intact. I imagine the care taken to choose a site that was defensible, protected, angled to get the most out of the morning sun and afternoon shade, safe from flood. I imagine people sitting in the morning summer dawn, greeting the day, or ducking through a low doorway into a sleeping room, or grinding cornmeal against worn stone, or diverting river water to crops.

River House ruin.

River House ruin.

The human ebb and flow along the San Juan goes back at least as far as the Clovis culture, some 12,000 years ago – big game hunters who may have been responsible for the extinction of megafauna in the region, from sabre tooth cats to gigantic sloths. They were followed by the Basketmaker culture, and then the Pueblo people. While that summarizes what we surmise was the progression of indigenous cultures in the area, there are long gaps in the record, and much is cloaked in mystery. It’s worth remembering, too, that the rendering of indigenous history by western archaeologists may have little in common with the native understanding of their origins and migrations through time. For them, the Bering Strait land bridge migration is a theory fomented by a foreign culture. Their origin stories involve Spider Woman and Sipapu emergences. Their cultures continue corn pollen ceremonies, fertility rites, and embrace a worldview in which animals and plants, weather and rocks possess sentience, hold equal standing with us in the cosmological order of things. Currently, the Navajo reservation borders much of the river, and that side of the river is only accessible to the public through a bureaucratic maze of fees and permits.

In recent centuries the river valley has drawn an influx of Mormons, surges of fur trapping, mining, and oil exploration, and the first river runners exploiting the recreational potential of float trips with whitewater thrills. As with most large western rivers, the San Juan is impounded behind a dam at Navajo Reservoir, near Farmington, NM, and flows are largely controlled by dam releases. Periodic flash floods and the largely undammed Animas River are the other natural forces that can dramatically alter river levels.

And it can be dramatic. The first time I paddled the San Juan, in the late 1970s, I was in an aluminum canoe, back in the days before river permits, and early in the evolution of my paddling expertise. We’d camped above Eight-Foot Rapid and were waiting for our partners before launching at the top of the whitewater. I wasn’t paying much attention, but noticed that I repeatedly had to pull the canoe up higher to keep it from floating off. Then I looked at the river, which had suddenly thickened with sediment, and was carrying down sticks and logs and assorted flotsam. By the time our companions got organized, the river had risen half a foot and the rapid had morphed from a minor drop to a formidable challenge, all because of an upstream flashflood.

Through all of this, the march of human habitation and the overlay of exploitative vandalism, the river has coursed its patient way downhill toward the confluence with the Colorado, and on to the sea. The San Juan runs on the geologic clock, slowly writhing back and forth across the canyon floor in snaking meanders, grinding its way grain by grain through the layers of cross-bedded sandstone, limestone and shales, entrenching oxbow bends and goosenecks, deepening the chasm, one season raging with the erosive power of flood, and the next peacefully chuckling along. Flash floods, boulders rolling downhill, banks sloughing away, vegetation coming and going, species winking out. The river nods along through the millennia, water molecules coalescing and responding to gravity in the simplest of equations.

The San Juan slides through folded geology under a hint of winter.

The San Juan slides through folded geology under a hint of winter.

Grant and I drop into an easy paddling rhythm, much as we picked up the thread of our friendship when we met at the airport. The low volume requires picking our way through thin stretches of river, finding the deepest thread. Grant sees where I’m heading, throws in corrective strokes in the bow to miss rocks or hit a ‘v’ of channel. The teamwork is satisfying, reinforcing, dynamic.

Maybe the most seminal chapter in our paddling history together was initiated by the purchase of a used C-2 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. To the uninitiated, a C-2 is a class of boat that looks like a tandem kayak. It is a fully decked boat with two cockpits, but in a C-2 the hull contours have more in common with a canoe than a kayak, the paddlers kneel rather than sit, and they use single-blade canoe paddles rather than a double-blade kayak paddle. C-2s come in a wide spectrum of designs, from high-volume, fairly roomy craft to surfboard thin hulls that act like sports cars in current, as long as the paddlers know how to drive.

On the way back from Green Bay we put the boat in a stretch of river along the state highway and gave it a spin. In less than 200 yards we capsized and had to swim ignobly to shore, towing our new toy. Paddling that thing involved a learning curve, and it came at the price of excruciating pain.

The hull was so tight that we were literally kneeling with our butts sitting on our heels. A small pedestal of foam served as a minimal seat, but our legs were numb most of the time and we were forced to shore about every 45 minutes where we dragged the paraplegic lower halves of our bodies out of the hull and writhed around on the ground regaining feeling. Then we’d squeeze back in and get the payoff of another 45 minutes of wind-in-the-hair exultation.

One of our best moments came on the Brule River, at high water, when we decided to turn the boat upstream to surf in a wave train. Grant was in the bow. We paddled onto the crest of the wave, where the recirculating current held the boat in place while we balanced and kept our position. Then the bow began to plane down in the water, submerging. Grant went in to his waist. About then I realized that the stern was also interacting with the next wave downstream, and that I too was getting submerged. Slowly the boat went down. Grant went armpit deep. Then I was up to my neck in the current, barely able to keep my paddle braced on the river surface. We realized then that we were both kneeling on the bedrock bottom of the river channel in our boat, with current roiling around us.

Whatever dynamic we’d initiated kept us there for a few seconds, vibrating in the flow, with no idea what was coming next. Then, slowly, the hull released from the bottom, began to surf its way back to the surface, until we reemerged into the air like a breaching submarine. We were alone. No one witnessed the event. There is no You Tube video. But what else can you do, alone together on the river when something so stupendous takes place, but laugh out loud and forget the fact that you haven’t felt the lower half of your body for the last thirty minutes? God, what a boat!

On the San Juan our teamwork is more pedestrian, but no less satisfying, and a lot more comfortable. We pass the only other boater we see all week on Day 2, a young guy in an inflatable boat who is taking out above Mexican Hat. The days are pleasant, about as warm as you could wish for in November. Nights are chilly and long, a reminder of the ebbing season of light. Most mornings there is a skim of ice on the water bucket. We are in no rush. Camps are set with an eye toward morning sun, and while we wait, we cradle mugs of coffee and let the day come up around us.

The Great Gooseneck of the San Juan.

The Great Gooseneck of the San Juan.

At the end of Day 3 the canoe rests on shore beneath high cliffs just past the Goosenecks, a series of remarkable entrenched meanders the river has eroded some 2,500 feet deep through layers of sedimentary rock. It is an iconic spot in the desert southwest. If you’ve paged through a coffee table picture book featuring the region, the likelihood is that you’ve seen an aerial shot of the dramatic goosenecks. We plan a rest day here to hike the Honaker Trail. Camp is set in a protected pocket of sand, surrounded by large boulders and a couple of well-placed juniper.

The challenge of November is daylight. The weather is as benign as we could hope for – little wind, pleasant days, clear nights. But just after an early dinner the lights go out and cold creeps in. We build fires in our fire pan at several camps, but even then the sleeping bag beckons and we are in the tents early, reading and writing by headlamp, staying warm.

To say that the Honaker Trail looks improbable is like saying sailing Cape Horn is no walk in the park. From the river the cliffs rise sheer to the skyline, layer after thick layer of sediment in a series of ramparts that defy navigation. We pack a lunch and some water, set out after a leisurely breakfast. Some bighorn sheep watch us from the water’s edge across the river. How they travel the cliffy terrain is a wonder, but they are far more up to the challenge than we are.

A rock cairn marks the start of the trail. We turn up. The trail was initiated by Augustus Honaker in 1894. He and those that followed kept tweaking and engineering the route over the following decade as an approach to the river and what they hoped would be lucrative gold mining prospects in the sands and gravel of the canyon depths. Like so many endeavors of that period of frontier history, the effort was horrific. Whether it’s crossing craggy mountain passes in covered wagons, hollowing canoes out of cottonwood trees and descending rapid-filled rivers, or simply hewing a homestead out of the bush, the labor, the ambition, the brute physical toll, is unimaginable.

More to the point, what seems unimaginable at the start is that this thread of a path will actually wind its way up 2,500 feet to the canyon rim. We take it on faith. The trail climbs to a narrow ledge at the top of one of the rock layers, and then contours down canyon for a long ways until a break in the next layer above affords a way through. At the top of that, another shelf we double back on and follow gradually up to the next eroded spot to climb through. The grade of the trail is surprisingly moderate, as wide as a sidewalk. Still, a few feet to the side, the cliff falls away. We climb through the layers. We see the speck of red canoe on the beach, our tents in the bower of juniper, the next bend in the canyon.

What Grant hasn’t said much about is that as he has aged, he’s developed a more and more acute fear of exposure. When I told him about the trail he mumbled something about fear of heights, but seemed game.

Grant is a veteran outdoor educator, a guy for whom edgy adventure and sports are a way of life. But now he stays close behind me, keeps his gaze focused on my boots, doesn’t dare look to the side. He is uncharacteristically quiet, fighting his internal terror. I stick to a slow, steady pace, check in with him periodically. “I’m okay,” he keeps saying, while his body posture plainly says he is anything but okay.

When we stop for a break half way up he climbs above the trail onto a flatter spot of ground, visibly leans away from the abyss, even though the edge is dozens of feet away. I walk out onto an exposed shelf of rock called Horn Point and ask Grant to take my picture, arms outstretched in the airy expanse. “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that! I could barely stand to take the picture,” he says, handing me the camera.

Feeling a tad exposed out on the Horn along Honaker Trail.

Feeling a tad exposed out on the Horn along Honaker Trail.

The trail defies the topography. It is surprisingly moderate, well graded. Even the corners where it climbs up to the next ledge are engineered with buttressed walls of boulders. But for a couple of spots to scramble through, you could wheel a cart along it. The fact that Honaker, and the miners who followed, found the route, and then put in the stupendous effort to grade and fortify the trail, is remarkable. It has been true of all the ruins we’ve seen – cabins on top of cliffs overlooking an oxbow bend in the river, piping systems, roads, just the transport of heavy cables and equipment, is hard to comprehend.

In the case of this trail, this endeavor, it was all for naught. The gold prospectors had hoped to cash in on in the canyon below turned out to be little more than trace flakes in the ‘flour’ of sediment washed downstream from a source far upriver. Within a few decades the miners gave up hope, leaving behind the legacy of this whacky route to the rim with its sweeping views.

Grant is visibly relieved when we gain the plateau. We eat lunch looking over the shimmering buttes and pinnacles of Monument Valley, getting the aerial view of the goosenecks we wound our way through the day before. Down in the bottom we appreciated the geology, knew we were paddling through a wonder, but we couldn’t comprehend the scope of it. It was like wandering the warren of back alleys in New York City without the understanding of the wider reality of a maze full of back alleys radiating out for miles in every direction. From the top we get it. The San Juan has etched its way down through the layers of sediment, ‘entrenching’ its course, trapping itself in the vise of rock, sawing back and forth in a ribbon of channel sometimes only a quarter mile from the next bend down as the raven flies, but separated by sheer walls thousands of feet high.

Away from the lip of the chasm, the landscape looks relatively flat, spreading to the horizon. Imagine beetling along under the desert sky as part of a wagon train in the mid 1800s and abruptly pulling up at the edge of this. And the San Juan is only one of many natural obstacles that confronted early pioneers and explorers. Coming up with Plan Bs was a daily fact of travel.

Grant is no more comfortable going down. He keeps his gaze focused on my feet, goes quiet. When we sit for a rest, he backs away as far as possible from the edge, leans back against solid ground. The bighorn sheep are still across the river when we tromp back to camp. Grant returns to his usual self, seems equal parts relieved to be done and proud that he pulled it off.

For the next two days our focus is the river and our teamwork in the canoe. Brilliant days. The tributary canyons, spectacular as they are, remain a sideshow to the dance between boat and current and paddles. We talk our way through minor riffles, stop to scout a couple of heavier drops, discuss strategy, run our lines, team up in the way we have over the decades. It all comes back.

“Remember that day on the Montreal?” I ask, at one point. Grant just laughs and nods.

The Montreal is a short river that runs along the border between northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is dam-controlled. Much of the time it is an unrunnable, boulder-choked channel, but when the dam releases a pulse of water, boaters all over the area drop whatever they’re doing, call in sick, load up boats and head for the put-in. We were no exception. One spring day the dam release alert went out among paddlers and we dropped everything, loaded up Grant’s whitewater canoe on his beater Datsun truck, threw in bikes for the shuttle, and drove over.

The river was high and pushy, full on. We took up our positions, secured ourselves like racecar drivers for the ride, and pushed off from shore. The intensity went from 0 to 10 the instant we entered the current. Our paddles dug into the water in power strokes. From the get go the boat dodged and wove through rocky stretches. The yellow canoe plunged over ledges, threaded the needle between rocks, spun into tight eddies. For long sections we were breathing as hard as we would on a run. We talked some, shouted directions here and there, but there was no time for discussion. Mostly we read off of each other, complemented strokes, saw or, more likely, felt what the other person was doing and reacted.

Once in a while we found a larger eddy along shore to turn into and take a rest, straighten our legs, get feeling back in our hands, bail some water. It went on for hours, just the two of us charging down robust current, paddling right at the edge of our abilities, occasionally letting out a yell or laughing out loud, but mostly saying nothing to jinx the moment.

That day everything clicked. Magic. Like a sports team in perfect coordination, a gymnast in the groove, dancers moving in flawless choreography, an artist under the spell. It was the kind of day that shines bright through the decades. Back home that night I couldn’t sleep for the replay tape of the day running in loops across the mental stage. And here, thirty years on, we both have it on instant recall.

Occasionally we turn into shore, get out, stretch our legs, have a look around – John’s Canyon, Slickhorn, Grand Gulch. Mostly we relish the time in the boat. At night we build fires, watch the first stars and planets come out, stay up until the cold drives us to the tents. In the mornings the light seeps back into the day, warmth comes, feeble but reassuring. Two cups of coffee, maybe three. Easy conversation, roll things up, stuff the canoe, and pick it up again.

My sister-in-law’s father had a period in his life during which he and some old college buddies would take long road trips every year. They covered ground – the eastern seaboard, the desert southwest, the Pacific coast, southern Canada. Once they drove, pretty much non-stop, from Arizona to Niagara Falls. They arrived in the scenic parking lot from which they could see the frothing cascade of water going over the brink. They all looked at it for a few minutes, glanced around at the tourist crowds, then one of them said, “Okay, where should we go for lunch?” It was all about what was happening in the car, not about the destination, not about the passing scenery. Being in the boat with Grant is something like that.

For the final 20 miles, from around Slickhorn Canyon to the take-out at Clay Hills Crossing, the San Juan is clogged with sediment. It is the unfortunate legacy of Glen Canyon Dam, far downstream along the Colorado. The dam, built in the early 1960s, backed up Lake Powell in a gigantic, misplaced evaporation pond. The Colorado, arriving headlong out of Cataract Canyon, fueled by inertia built from Wyoming and Colorado and northern Utah, carrying an unguessable tonnage of sand, hits the slack water and drops its load. The result is that the tributary rivers back up too, building up sand and dirt and mud in deep, unnatural layers. Almost 30 miles upstream from the confluence with the Colorado, the San Juan is choked with it. The channel spreads out wide, sheets over the sand in a shallow, slow, braided flow.

From above it’s easy to pick out the deeper, green-hued channels. On the river it’s impossible to tell, and it doesn’t conform to the usual laws of current. Normally you can count on deeper water on the outside of bends, for example. Not so here. The deepest flow might be right down the middle through a sandbar lurking two inches below the surface. Mile after mile we feel our way along, seeking the hints of current, the greener water, the fickle pattern. When we run aground we push off through quicksand in search of deeper water. Back and forth we weave across the valley.

Our final night we camp at Steer Gulch, a few miles above the take-out. It is the last minor canyon before Lake Powell. It is quiet there with the river murmuring past. In the gloaming, as I set up my tent, a canyon wren calls from the rock ledges above camp. It is the first canyon wren we’ve heard all week – that stirring, happy call of the desert. It comes again while I stand there, tent stake in hand. The birdlife has been sparse this trip. Some Canada geese, a few flycatchers, a couple of raptors, small flocks of songbirds. Things are settled in for the season. Migrations are done. Life is hunkered down.

In the morning, early, as we pack up, the wren calls again, a descending cascade of music ringing against canyon walls. Both Grant and I look up, catch each other’s gaze, lean into the fading echo of song in the dusky light of dawn.



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


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


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.


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


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


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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