Tieton Eddy Repose

Tieton Eddy Repose
"So, this is the river." said the Rat.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Not the Sharpest Tool in the Raft Shed

The first time I rowed a raft was on the Rogue River.  Come to think of it, the very first time I rowed - anything - was on the Rogue River.

Thirteen kayakers led by a WWU professor hired me to haul their cargo on a week long trip.  But there was one glitch - I was a paddle guide.  I had no idea how to row.  What I knew about rowing you could put on the back of a matchbook cover.

But it was an offer I couldn’t refuse for two reasons.  It was the Rogue River made famous by Zane Grey, the pulp fiction western writer, and by guide books claiming the Rogue harbored one of the country’s ten biggest rapids.



More importantly, the kayakers were paying me five hundred dollars for the week. 

I saw no reason to dissuade them of their offer, or mention my deficiency.  I set about building an oar frame out of knotty pine purchased at the local lumber yard.

I found a blueprint for a rudimentary frame in a river running handbook.  I wisely, and assiduously, countersunk the bolts binding the planks together.  I coated the planks with layers of varnish.  I purchased oar stands and meticulously attached them in the best anatomical position for my height and inseam. 

The trouble was, I procrastinated on constructing the frame just long enough to leave no opportunity to test my skills.  Add to that the fact that what I knew about the Rogue River could have easily been added to the back of that matchbook cover detailing what I knew about rowing.

Besides, what could go awry?

I was familiar with oarlocks, but what I was accustomed to seeing on oar boats in Utah was a system called ‘oar rubbers’.  Essentially, rectangular strips from a tire hose clamped, on each end of the rubber strip, onto each oar.  The pin on the oar stand could be shoved between the strip of tire and the oar and, finally, capped with a plastic knob.  The knob prevented the oar from popping off the pin and provided a smooth, round surface instead of a potential impaling rod.

Ingenious.  

Cheap, too. 

Practical?  Not at all. 

You couldn’t rotate or ‘feather’ your blades.  You couldn’t pull the oars across your body to ‘ship’ them on board.  You couldn’t adjust in any direction.

But one positive feature was you also couldn’t - easily - lose the angle of your blade or have the oar pop off unexpectedly in mid-stroke.

In any case, I knew no better. 

Overnight gear for fourteen people on a sixteen foot raft for a five day river trip was bad math.  To be honest with you, I have no recollection of how it all fit together, or how I managed to strap it down.  Especially since the only knots familiar to me were the half hitch and the bowline. 

I probably used a plethora of straps in a spider web configuration.

Due to my experience paddle guiding, reading rivers was second nature.  That knowledge and skill set sufficed from the put in at Graves Creek, around Rainie Falls, over Upper Black Bar Falls and through the turbulent Mule Creek Canyon without mishap.

But just past Mule Creek Canyon’s narrows was the crux rapid - Blossom Bar.  

Once upon a time, Blossom Bar was boulder-choked and unnavigable.  That was before boatbuilder Glen Wooldridge, a pioneer of the Rogue who was the first to navigate it from the town of Grants Pass to the Pacific Ocean, decided to dynamite it.

Our leader signaled me to eddy out.  As we scanned the quarter mile of white water pocked with immense boulders and dubious channels, I remember he remarked how it was not uncommon to witness gear boats from the commercial outfits get wrapped on the part of Blossom Bar called “The Horn”.  

The crux move within the crux rapid.

I still hadn’t admitted I was a greenhorn in terms of rowing.  Maybe he suspected as much and figured, if he threw down the challenge gauntlet, my competitive nature, which, surely, he picked up on over the course of a week, would rise to the occasion.  He did, after all, have a stake in my success.  The fate of his and everybody else’s stuff was in my hands.

As we stood on the cliff, the kayakers picked their way through the chutes and drops.  They spread out in the rapid loitering behind every boulder.  They looked like they were having the time of their lives.

I returned to my overloaded boat, pushed off, settled behind the oars and locked my eyes on the path I had chosen along with the markers I needed to get me there.

I think I miscalculated how much room I had at the entrance.  Or maybe I could not quite see over the hump of gear in the bow.  My right oar jammed into the rocks at the apex of The Horn.  I pulled with my right oar while pushing with my left oar in an effort to spin into the channel.  My right oar suddenly felt free of all encumbrances including the oar stand itself.  I mercifully swung backwards down the chute and flushed through.  I’d line up for the next boulder in line and initiate the spin move again.  

All of this with just one able oar.

In this manner, I cartwheeled through the remainder of Blossom Bar.  As I caromed off and by each boulder - and there seemed to be dozens - a kayaker smiled and gave me a friendly wave.  Blithely unaware I was totally out of control and his or her stuff was in mortal, imminent danger.

When Blossom disgorged me, I crabbed over to the lefthand eddy with the one useful oar and a death grip on the useless one.  On inspection I discovered the reason why I rowed Blossom Bar with - effectively - one arm tied behind my back.


Instead of bolting the oar stands to the frame, I used wood screws.  Lesson learned. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Dam River

“So, this is how it is going to end,” I thought.

Ironic. 

   
Steelhead Falls - Lower White Salmon - low water

It appeared I was to be the first drowning fatality on one of my company’s outings.  After all these decades.  Nothing sobering about it.  I was already as sober as a church deacon.  I was being flushed through an unfamiliar gorge toward an uncertain ending.  My thoughts as incurious as a heifer facing her demise.

I can’t define irony but I know it when I am experiencing it.

It was only moments before I was masterfully in charge of my raft and three powerful, experienced paddlers.  We were wending our way downstream on the Lower White Salmon, marveling at the changes since Condit Dam’s removal.  The dam had plugged the river for quite some time, and was now meticulously deconstructed and effectively vanished.  Videos immortalizing its vanishing act were viral internet sensations amongst the conservation crowd.

Time lapse photography.  Aerial cameras, perhaps drones, observing the destruction of the obstacle that had been put in place in order to control both the river and the environment.  Bloggers remarking and pontificating.  Social media erupting into a tempest of huzzahs, figurative back slaps and congratulatory comments.  

For the last century - in America - we plugged up rivers as if tourniquets were the cure for every ailment.  But in the modern age, we’ve realized that “if your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail.”

We stand on the precipice of a new age.  And dams are no longer - in this country anyway - looked upon as the only answer.  Time to try a tool other than a hammer.

So, I wanted to see the Lower White Salmon unleashed from the confines of Condit Dam.  I heard through the river running grapevine there was white water and wood and a rapid where the former dam once stood.  But nothing I heard rose to the level of ‘Alarming’ according to my finely honed sense of white water conservatism.  In other words, I was blithely under-informed as to the character of the river before I found myself thrashing about in its chilly waters as if I was being sucked down a sewer pipe in an unexpected flash flood.

To be clear, we had ample opportunity to be better informed.  We were fresh off our annual guide training course.  So, even though it was the very beginning of a new season, the fourteen paddlers in four rafts were armed to the teeth with experience, the finest gear professional deals can buy and a whole week to limber up.

At a bar the evening before, we collected beta from a friend who guided the White Salmon and who rafted the lower stretch several times since the dam was removed.  The discussion centered on the Class V drop - Steelhead Falls - at the old dam site.  But all agreed it would be a mandatory portage since it kicked off a narrow gorge which was known to include a random log or two.

Talk included the nature of this falls.  The height.  The width.  The surliness of its nature.  The chasm it protects.  How it captures rafts like belly buttons trap lint.

The bar banter was all ‘sturm und drang’.  Anxiety generated for anxiety’s sake.  We planned to portage.

To portage, we would have to grab a micro eddy upstream and then walk the rafts to the falls.  While holding tightly to the bowlines, clinging to ropes imbedded in the cliff wall on the left bank, we intended to line the rafts over Steelhead Falls.

All was good in theory.  Except, when we reached the busy, challenging water above the chasm and the falls, it became instantly clear we were not going to be able to eddy out.  The current was too swift.  The eddies too tiny.  The hydrologic features leading up to the river wide reversal too protective and likely to spin us out of control at the precipice of the falls.

I watched as the lead boat - way past the point of no return and way too far right - plunged over the horizon line and disappeared.

No dramatic breaching like a whale.  No spectacular inflatable back flip.  Just gone.  Out of sight.

I urged my crew to paddle and worked the raft to the river’s left side.  If I was going to run Steelhead Falls blind, I wanted the best possible position to succeed.  However, when we arrived at the brink of the falls and stared down into its frothing maw, we saw our lead raft blocking most of our path.

I shouted numerous profanity-laced commands in quick succession and braced for impact.  I was hopeful - for a split second.  The boat, with Neil and Craig in the bow and Dane on my left, surged forward.  But, as a guide, you know when the odds are not bending in your favor.  You know when the river calls the shots.

I felt the raft shudder to a halt.  Watched Dane and Craig get siphoned overboard, and just as I reached for a handhold to clamber toward the rising downstream tube, Rivers’ raft, the third in line, cascaded on top of us.  Without a handhold, I had no chance of staying on board. 

Once I was over board, I was engulfed by the turbulence of the falls, shoved momentarily up against the floor of what I assumed was my raft, and then regurgitated downstream like a leaf in a flooding gutter.  

So there I was.  Thinking morbid thoughts, sucking water, struggling to keep my head above the waves and flailing about with my arms in search of current going anywhere but downstream.

To no avail.  Worse still, white water loomed ahead.

“So, this is how it is going to end. . . .”  I was drained of my stamina and exhausted.

“James!”

The next thing I knew I was yarded on board an upright raft by either Robert or Tom, or both, and they paddled us to safety.


Irony, I supposed, would have to wait until another day.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Most Unlikely Candidate




The call came in the dead of winter.  It was a Seattle winter; therefore, instead of layers of snow blanketing the ground, or biting Arctic air knifing through your thickest, down jacket, there was a dismal grey light coming through the window and the streets glistened with rain.  Any phone call was a welcome distraction.

His voice sounded young, his questions were many and he spoke in the laconic parlance of surfers.  Or, in his case, a snowboarder.

He wanted to know about rafting and, specifically, guide training.  He hailed from Baltimore and was working his way westward.  That winter, he was a “liftie” at Schweitzer in the panhandle of Idaho.  A Democratic governor with a penchant for Krispy Kreme donuts and blue dresses had just been elected president and - frankly - anything seemed likely.  

Even so, I was dubious.  

A snowboard punk thousands of miles from home, unfamiliar with the Northwest, expecting to land in Seattle and earn a living guiding!  What were his odds, I wondered?  I fielded his questions, promised to send the information about guide training, and promptly filed it away in that sliver of your brain reserved for useless detritus destined for the trash bin. 



Except to relate the story later to a few friends and my partner about this teenager from inner city Baltimore, who said ‘dude’ more often than not, and planned on driving to Oregon in March to freeze his ass off learning to guide a raft.

A week or two later a check arrived covering the cost of his training.  The itinerant snowboarder called once again to see if it would be all right if he crashed at the warehouse the night before the seven-day river trip that kicks off guide training.  

I didn’t see why not.  

The warehouse was an outbuilding behind a farmhouse on acreage in a rural part of King County.  His presence would alarm absolutely no one.  In any event, I remained skeptical of his attendance.  Potential trainees backed out at the last moment numerous times in the past.  The likelihood of this character showing up seemed as far-fetched and remote as the dark side of Jupiter.

However, on the morning of our departure, I pulled into the drive at the warehouse and noted a road-weary Ford Bronco tucked against the side of the building.  I opened the warehouse and started rummaging about in the gear.  The instructors and some students arrived and the quiet morning began to give way to bustling activity.  The inhabitant of the truck had not yet stirred and with every passing minute my curiosity grew exponentially.

When he finally emerged from the back end of the dust-caked, previously blue truck with the Maryland license plates, he was just as goofy and young as I had imagined.  A ponytail reached to the middle region of his back but, for having spent the night curled in a ball in his vehicle, he was tidy in every way.  In fact, his jeans looked freshly pressed.  He pulled a weathered Baltimore Orioles cap partway down his forehead and sauntered up to introduce himself.

“Hi.  I’m Kook.” he croaked.  His smile was charming, off-putting and mischievous all at the same time.

But, with that hello, the legend commenced.

Only a teenager, but unlike most teenagers I’ve encountered, Kook was on a mission.  A fellow ski bum spoke to him of guide training and, even though he had never been rafting with no idea how to swim, he was undaunted.

Now, I would be lying if I told you he excelled.  I would be lying if I told you he displayed any sort of promise.  

He persevered.  He entertained us with his notorious, ass-wiggling, ass-slapping, ass-exposing ‘Kook dance’.  He gave effort.  At the end of the four weeks, he volunteered to do whatever to secure employment.

One of Orion’s veteran guides offered him a mother-in-law apartment in his basement in exchange for yard work.  Meanwhile, Kook made himself indispensable by offering to work odd jobs around the warehouse, repair gear and serve river trip lunches.  All the while he continued to gain experience on the river awaiting his debut as a guide.

It was during this time when, as the lunch person on the Wenatchee River, he responded to Governor Gardner’s query as to how he had come to be here with this memorable, guileless, innocent remark, “I drove my truck, dude.” 

Kook was one of a kind.  It took him a long time to hone his river running skills, but, in the meantime, his sense of humor as well as his rafting foibles kept us entertained.

Like the time he was caught in a hydraulic feature in a raft on the Skykomish and he was beseeching the river gods - out loud for all to hear, “Please let us go, please let us go, please let us go.”

Or the time he was tossed into the turmoil near the bottom of Boulder Drop.  As he floated toward rescuers in the eddies below, he raised his paddle straight overhead - the universal distress signal for Swimmer - as if the dozen boaters with rescue lines might have not seen him.

Or the time he cheated Lava Falls so far left he beached his boat on a small boulder near shore.  When we went to discuss his predicament, yelling and gesticulating from the left bank, we realized, Kook was seated to row in the opposite direction of what would - normally - be customary.  Though clearly rattled by the powerful forces arrayed before him, once freed from the obstacle, he rowed safely to the bottom of the rapid.

Kook guided intermittently for nineteen seasons.  Somewhere during that time, he graduated from a culinary arts program having learned to be both cook and pastry chef.  He even earned his commercial bus drivers license.  He continually redefined ‘indispensable’.  

Our inveterate dog paddler, who came to be here by driving his truck, even, eventually, learned the crawl stroke.