Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our Marathon

Over the weekend, I ended up telling tales on Mike.  Most of these Scouts don't know that he was an Arrow of Light Cub Scout, a Boy Scout, a counselor at a Boy Scout camp, an Eagle Scout, a member in a high adventure Explorer Post, and as soon as he was allowed, a leader for it.  He has said that Boy Scouts can save a boy's life.  I wonder if he meant his own.

My job isn't to tell them about all of these accomplishments.  More often than not, I tell them the story of how he dumped our noodles into the latrine by accident on the island in Alaska, or how he was the only one in our group of duckies that didn't capsize going over the 14 foot vertical waterfall in West Virginia.  I even tell them stories about our dog, Indiana.

I found myself telling one boy how Indiana got into a cactus on our trip along the John Day river in Oregon.  That was a good trip.  It's in the desert of Oregon near Fossil.  There's a fossil museum there, but Mike said it was closed before the trip and we ran out of time afterward.  I wonder about that now.  One time, we were in a store I just loved and he told me they were closing in five minutes.  The cashier laughed and said I could relax because I had another couple of hours before they closed.  Mike's not all that interested in fossils, so maybe he told me that story to get us onto the river sooner.  We had hiked in a lava tube near Bend.  We'd traipsed around on the lava flows, cutting our hands on the sharp, bubbled rock.  Now it was time to test the water. 

You know, I don't remember the details of this trip, like whether we were planning two or three days on the water.  I don't actually remember camping along it at all.  The paddling was incredible, just at the edge of our abilities.  I loved it, though I think it worried Mike.  He is always more sensible about safety than I am when we're on the water.  My excitement gets the best of me.  It seemed as if the water was high, but I don't actually know since I'd never seen it before.  It was swift.  It was grand, too, blue skies with basalt columns rising up around us.  Oh man, they looked as if someone had put them together as part of some mechanical structure, the way each red column was hexagonal and nested against its neighbor.  Did you ever see that same thing on the Northern Shores of Ireland?  The Giants Causeway.  No? When we went to Ireland, we didn't get to see that either, but I sure want to.

It was going to be a long bicycle portage back to the Blazer when we were done paddling.  That's how we did it, just the two of us.  We traveled with the canoe and the bike.  We'd lock the bike up at the take-out and go back to the beginning.  Then, when we were done paddling, one of us, usually Mike, would pedal back to the put-in and pick up the Blazer.  At least the biking was usually in a straighter line and so it was shorter than the paddling by at least a third. 

When we finally got going, I really didn't have much time to look up out of the gorge. Did I tell you the water was swift?  It was exciting, though I always seemed to conjure a different route than Mike did.  We spent a lot of time reading this river, looking for the way through.  We'd pull off to one side when it looked dicey and walk downstream to see what was what.  I loved that part, though Mike was better at seeing a way that wouldn't scrape the bottom of the canoe from one end to the other than I was. 

There was one section of river that just looked too challenging for us.  Mike said that with an empty boat, we might try it, but it was dicey since we had a full load, all of our gear plus Indiana.  She might have been wearing a life jacket on most of the whitewater trips we took, but we knew we could still lose her if we weren't careful. 

We decided to line the boat through this set of rapids instead of portaging or being stupid and paddling it.  So, we tried to walk along letting the current pull the canoe downstream like an eager dog on a leash.  Indiana got really upset.  The canoe was getting away and she kept trying to jump back into it.  She whined.  She looked at us and then back at the canoe.  She leaped, crashing into the current one time and half way across the gunnel of the boat another time.  Over and over, she did this.   Finally, we let her ride and we lined the canoe through the rapids, taking a more cautious yet difficult route.  No matter how much it bumped and bucked, she was happier being there in the canoe.  That canoe was like the car to her and it was not going to leave her behind.

Back into the boat, we paddled along a bit before we hit another obstacle.  The river hit a wall, literally.  It was one of the basalt rocks, stunningly beautiful, but with its own set of challenges.  Whitewater is confusing when it hits a wall and makes a sharp bend in the river.  Turbulence can cause strong eddy lines that suck at the boat's sides or worse, spin it.  This current was going to work to send us bounding straight for the cliff face.  An eddy line sat couple of feet from the cliff face and beyond that were a couple of rows of standing waves.  My heart rate went up just looking at it. This line would have rolled us and beyond it was a long narrow hole.  If we'd gotten into it, it might have been a while before it spit us out.  Imagine the water running toward the wall in an even sheet.  Then it rolled into a tube at the cliff face, funneling downstream with some standing waves reflecting back off the wall.  Here's what you need to know:  An eddy line is like a wind shear; Standing waves are simple turbulence; A hole is a tornado.  We didn't want to get close to that hole. 

We decided to run it.

We worked hard against the current to stay to the inside of that turn.  Mike shouted some commands.  I followed them, not wanting to take a different route than he intended.  My breathing was rapid.  My muscles strained against the paddle in the water.  I could feel the current pulling us toward the wall as if it were a powerful hand that held the bottom of the canoe.  I should tell you that I improved my cross-draw stroke that day.  I had no time to switch to my weaker side.  When we made it through, I wanted to pull off the river and look at it again.  I did not want to run it twice, the way I did sometimes after a good set of rapids.  My breathing took a while to even out. 

About that time, Mike started looking for campsites.   There were three we could choose from before there was a stretch of private land with no place to stop until the end.  We scouted what we thought was the second one.  A cow skull greeted us as we walked up the hill.  This was no Georgia O'Keeffe painting.  It sill had some vertebrae and a little gristle and skin attached to the bones.  Yuck. 

Then, Indiana came running up to us with her front paw in the air, whining.  Mike looked at the foot she held out to him.  Nothing.  She kept whining and limping on that foot again.  I took a look too and didn't see a thing.  Mike stood up and stepped back a bit.  Then he started laughing and bent down to us again.  Indiana had a clump of cactus stuck into her butt.  After he put on his neoprene gloves and pulled it out, Indiana stopped limping. 

"I don't want to stay here," I said.  "It's creepy."

"Okay, we can keep paddling," Mike said and off we went. 

The problem was that we didn't see the third campsite.  Finally, about an hour after we thought we should see it, Mike told me that the one we looked at must have been the third camp, not the second.  We'd have to paddle another ten miles and take out tonight.  We talked about surreptitiously camping on the private land, but neither of us relished the though of waking up to a shotgun pressed through the opening of our zipped tent at an early hour.  We were done for. 

It was already a long day, the rapids, the wall.  We were tired, but there was nothing for it.  We just kept paddling until we got to the take-out.  Thankfully, we were done with the challenging water.

"You know, don't you," Mike said when we finally finished, "that we just paddled twenty-six miles.  It was our marathon."  My arms felt like rubber.  My butt felt like stone. 

"Who's going to bike back?" I asked as I laid back in the grass in the dusk.  I don't remember if we camped first or if Mike rode back to the put-in that night, the good man that he is.  I know that I didn't do it. 

Thank you for listening, jb

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