Tieton Eddy Repose

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

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Our Own Private Idaho. . . River - Part 1

“The Selway, between Double Drop Rapids and Ladle Rapids, has averaged one drowning per year, over the past 8 years.” the veteran Selway River guide intoned.  “Don’t take it lightly.”  

As if we needed additional angst prior to boating one of the most difficult rivers to get a permit for in the country and one of the most remote rivers to navigate.  Our long drive to the put-in carried us deep into the forested Idaho wilderness. 

It was springtime.  The weather was gorgeous.  The skies were the kind of blue poets wax over and writers fawn on and on about struggling to come up with an original description.  The river itself was flowing at an optimal level for a party that had never seen any of its whitewater.

It’s not that we weren’t loaded with experience, we were.  Just not loaded with experience on the Selway.

Our group consisted of a paddle raft, a cataraft, two kayakers and a bevy of oar boats.  What we discovered at the put-in on the morning of our launch was that we were critically shy on everyone’s favorite beverage.  The beverage some people believe Seattle was founded on.  The beverage that contains the ingredient that has launched a thousand ships, fueled a billion college students and so permeated the Puget Sound that its main component cannot be used to detect pollution.

Coffee.  More precisely, caffeinated coffee.

The day before we drove for half a day and over a few substantial mountain passes to get to where we were.  We were about as deep into wilderness as you can be in the contiguous continental United States.

In other words, a rafter of Seattleites (‘rafter’ being the formal name for a group of domestic turkeys) were about to run a river trip without their morning cups of joe.  Essentially, cold turkey.  Which, of course, was unacceptable.  Yet resupply was impossible.

I have been on river trips where we were forced to reuse coffee grounds.  I have been on a river trip where we had to cook every meal and brew coffee over an open fire.  I have been on a river trip where the coffee provided was so distasteful we begged for Nescafe at the resupply.

But I had never had to raft cold turkey sans coffee.  Rafting without coffee was tantamount to fly fishing without a hundred pockets.

As the realization spread through camp, good natured ribbing turned to alarm.  Nancy had been tasked with the coffee requisition and she was feeling the heat of responsibility.  

Fortune - thankfully - intervened.  The wilderness ranger, who came to check us out, had a sufficient stash of Middle America’s finest blend - Folger’s - to see us through.  And he was willing to part with it.  

Disaster narrowly averted.  Everyone’s good nature returned.  Nancy would not be ostracized or left behind.  Elated, we returned to our rigging.  

A Selway permit was like a unicorn.  I believed I would never score a Selway permit, or be invited on someone else’s permit, just as I would never see a unicorn.

But here we were on the legendary river in the heart of the Idaho backcountry with perfect weather, a manageable river level and an All-Star cast of boaters.  As we delighted in the challenging whitewater above the innermost canyon where the notorious rapids lay in wait, we also marveled at our exquisite timing.  Like the mercurial Illinois River, the Selway is renowned for ‘blowing up on you’ in no time. 

We floated up to the final camp above the inner gorge and opted to spend an extra day.  A layover day on any river trip is prized.  But doubly so with a good group.  It means more time in one another’s company.

From our layover camp, it was a short walk down canyon to scout Double Drop, the opening whitewater salvo of the inner gorge rapids.  A portion of the group scouted while the rest of us lazed about camp reading or playing dice games.  

Around midday a quiet rain commenced.  The scouting group hiked back to report on what they observed at Double Drop but no one seemed impressed.  Despite the inclement weather and the big day of rafting before us, we recreated until late in the evening.  Some significantly more than others.

Mike Krausser and Hans Slette giggled late into the night by a dying campfire over whether or not ‘sedges had edges’ and whether or not it was snowing.

We awoke at dawn to a river seriously changed in character.  The clarity was gone, replaced by murkiness.  The rafts bobbed restlessly in the slack water near shore like horses unnerved by unseen predators.  Once we launched, I felt through my paddle how the nature of the river had switched gears from playfully bold to monstrously powerful, and perhaps, unpredictable.  

The river’s current had noticeably quickened.

Due to the blasé scout of Double Drop, the paddle-rafters, myself included, opted to appoint Kook as guide.  But as we shot by a swollen tributary, while those who had scouted bantered back and forth about where we were on the river, I realized, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we were definitely ‘no longer in Kansas’.

The Selway of legend, the Selway we heard stories about, was, literally and figuratively, rising from it’s long winter nap. 

I had not gone on the scout but I sensed us barreling toward a major drop which had to be Double Drop.  I distinctly recollect there being some back and forth amongst those in the raft about whether it was possible we could have already reached Double Drop.  In the stern, Kook was equivocating and the remainder of the crew looked askance to me.  The doubt in everybody’s faces was all I needed.  

I superseded Kook’s command and called for an immediate eddy out on the left side of the river.

We watched as Robert, rowing feverishly, trying to slow his downstream progress, disappeared into the exploding chaos hidden by the river’s bend.

(To Be Continued.)


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Pain and Suffering in Patagonia - Part 2

(A little over halfway around the circuit trail of Torres del Paine, running short on food, running short on patience, our intrepid adventurers, having moved on to a camp safe from falling timber, discover ‘el sendero’ - the trail - might just get worse. . . )

The night following the lunch communication fiasco we camped away from the forest of quaking, due-to-topple-at-any-moment behemoths, enjoyed a final cookie and began dreaming of being anywhere but on that godforsaken trail.  The winds off the glacier were sporadic, but always prevalent.  As we tromped the western portion of the trail most exposed to the glacial torrents, we started encountering ravines with lively, splashy streams.  

A few posed no challenge to cross but one was especially treacherous.  Other than the slippery footing due to algae on the surface of the stones, gusts of wind with enough power to fling you backwards were palpable against our bulky backpacks.  At one ravine, the winds were so strong we were forced to time our jumps to keep from being sent tumbling and cartwheeling downhill through a scree field of angular rocks the size of basketballs.

When we were all safely on the other side of the hazardous crossing, we paused to acknowledge our good fortune and recover our composure.  It was then we saw him coming around the corner going in the opposite direction.  I swear about two things in regards to this encounter.

First of all, the hiker was on all fours with every indication that he had been on all fours for quite some time.

Secondly, he was the spitting image of Steve Laboff.  If he had not spoken anything other than Spanish, we might have assumed it was Steve Laboff.

He was miserable.  Jeans torn at the knees.  Face grimy, thinning hair matted to his balding pate.  

And we imagined we were miserable.  

This guy, alone, groveling on hands and knees with a heavy frame pack, muttering “El sendero es malo”, over and over, cheapened our misery.

Our spirits sank.  Even lower than they already were.  

He was groaning about how awful the trail was behind him, just as we were beginning to think the worst lay behind us.  Our next thought was, “If he thinks the trail behind him is bad. . . . wait until he encounters what we just survived!”

We gave him swigs of water, attempted a few more clumsy and futile efforts to communicate about the trail ahead and behind, and then bid him adieu.  It would not have surprised any of us if we had heard later that he had required rescuing.  Or worse.

Our trudge south continued expecting the worse.  It was not very long before we encountered the bad part of the trail that had shellshocked our crawling Argentinian friend.  We were now walking through the remains of a significant forest fire which, though ugly, would not have been much to write home about except that the glacial winds blew relentlessly.  

We were fortunate because the winds blew in the direction which we walked.  Steve Laboff’s doppelganger did not have that luxury.  He hiked and crawled into the winds.  Fine ash and small cinders were airborne.  Being a contact lens wearer, I was in my own special earthbound hell.  The winds blew too steadily to remove my contacts, while the ash particulates were too ubiquitous to keep wearing them.

Misery doubled down for me.

Robert loves to tell about the times I break into, what he loves to call, my ‘fuck dances’.  Though I have no recollection doing that at this time, this would - undoubtedly - be the ideal setting for a ‘fuck dance’.

I stumbled down the trail trying to maintain focus through watery, throbbing eyes.  As per usual, when having as much fun as I was, time staggered on.  But, then, quite suddenly, we emerged from the blackened ashscape into another inviting meadow like the one we hiked on our first day, the hurricane breezes tapered off and a shimmering, blue lake appeared as if conjured.

It was getting late in the afternoon, so we set up our tents near the lake and inhaled the last of our dwindled rations, figuring tomorrow we should easily reach park headquarters and the promise of additional foodstuffs.  There beside a pacific lake in a verdant field of ankle-high grass under a panoply of stars I might never witness again, I felt confident I would sleep like the dead.

I could not have been more wrong.

The glacial winds behaved as if they were an out-of-control firehose left to writhe about untended.  Where we had nestled down for the night was an enormous bowl-shaped valley.  The terminus of the glacier was just to the north of us where it emptied into the lake.

The winds thrashed about all night, but they weren’t always tormenting our camp.  As I said, they reminded me of a firehose unleashed with the water pressure on full bore.  You could hear the winds whipping about the valley, sometimes very far off into the distance.  At our camp, it would be as still and as calm as a becalmed sea.  

But then, as I lay awake in my tent, doing a prone version of the ‘fuck dance’, I could hear the ferocious winds making their way down-valley until - of a sudden - camp was being beaten down by hurricane force gales.  Our tents flattened to conform to the shape of our bodies as we hunkered tight.  The winds pounded us for half an hour and then move away only to return after making their rounds.

I slept nary a wink.

Dawn broke.  Winds died.  Bleary-eyed and ravenous, we packed up.  We hiked a good distance along the north end of the lake to a ferry we trusted to deliver us to the park entrance.  It wound up returning us back from whence we came.

Which - in the grand scheme of our epic hike of the Torres del Paine - was par for the course.   

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Pain and Suffering in Patagonia - Part 1

We utilized a half dozen modes of transportation to wend our way to the end of the South American continent - train, plane, taxi, rental car, ‘chicken bus’ and foot.  When we reached Puerto Montt, we mulled over taking a ferry to the ‘earth’s end’ but airfare was so enticingly inexpensive and, as an added bonus, it included complimentary cocktails on a spacious jumbo jet. 

We felt like dirtbag jet setters.
The ‘end of the earth’ was gorgeous and windswept.  The glaciated mountains to the north were stark beckoning sentinels on the horizon.  We were in the land of Patagonia and the Argentinian Fitzroys - famous climbing destinations and mountain ranges.  Tricia, Robert, Kent and I came to Chile for river adventures, but we journeyed to the southernmost end to exercise our legs.
The jagged peaks we could see from the hostel were called the Torres del Paine, part of the region’s most noted national park.  “Towers of the Pain,” I thought, “Great.”  Actually the origins of the name Paine were lost to the sands of time, but, in the end, when all was said and done, and often while it was being said and being done, it was a fitting descriptive term.
We had two objectives on our two month tour of Chile - visit Patagonia and raft the soon-to-be-dammed Bio Bio River.  We weren’t sure what we would do when we reached the wind whipped terminus of South America. However, having seen the majesty of the iconic Patagonia peaks that inspired the logo of the well-known outdoor clothing and gear company, and learning there was a trail that circumnavigated those peaks, it appeared to be kismet to set out on that trail.
Robert, Kent and I were quite familiar with backpacking, though, as we were soon to discover, it was not our strongest outdoor suit.  Tricia was a backpacking newbie, but when our plan was being hatched, she didn’t bother to emphasize that fact to the rest of us.  We set out knowing very little about the circuitous trail other than there were supposed to be some European-like warming huts, and possibly, food options at said huts.
This false hope was the reason we hoisted our heavily loaded packs and headed down the trail with three days of rations on a trek supposed to take seven days we planned to do in five days.  As I mentioned previously, backpacking was not the outdoor skill we were noted for.
The day was lovely with brilliant blue skies.  The four of us excitedly walked the trail through a meadow sprinkled with wildflowers.  Even though we knew we needed to make haste, the meadow enticed us to lie down and bask in the warming sun.  Our first day on the trail ended far short of our intended destination, but, at that stage, we were neither alarmed or concerned.
We were having too much fun at Tricia’s expense.  At camp, we discovered her backpack contained two pairs of heavy jeans and the novel, Sacajawea, which was essentially a cinder block disguised as a paperback.  She had been struggling with her pack throughout the course of the first day and now we realized part of the reason.  If she was carrying those items, what else might she have packed?
On the second day the trail abruptly took a turn for the worse.  A wind storm had knocked over dozens and dozens of trees with ample girths and we spent a good portion of the day clambering over the fallen forest.  And then the trail veered into a bog with exposed, criss-crossing roots interspersed with mud holes of indeterminate depths. 
Indeterminate until I landed in one and found it to be nearly up to my armpits.  By that time, Kent and Robert were well up the trail.  Tricia was struggling with both her backpack and her hiking boots and I was trying to be chivalrous and helpful and not fall into any more pits.
When we finally emerged from the bog, we found Kent and Robert at Campomento Los Perros, or The Dogs Camp.  It was on this grim evening, exhausted from the challenging terrain and the physical impediments strewn in our path, we came to the realization we were seriously shy on foodstuffs.  Backpacking innocence lost…
What we had not yet lost however, was a sense of humor. 
It was ‘gallows’ humor, but humor nevertheless.
For dessert, Kent carefully carved one of the few cookies into four tiny segments.  Stomachs rumbled throughout the night.
The following day the trail began to climb up and over a pass.  For some unknown reason, the masochists who created the circuit decided not to bother with switchbacks.  Their preference was - virtually - straight up.  As we approached the saddle of the ridge, we walked on bare stone littered with rocks and pebbles.  Winds gusting off the glacier that snaked down the valley on the other side of the ridge were so stiff the rocks and pebbles skittered across the stone, practically airborne.
Once more, Kent and Robert jogged ahead.  I walked sweep with Tricia.  Her overstuffed backpack and nagging blisters had her hobbled. 
For some reason, we believed lunch was with our comrades who had disappeared.  Consequently, despite hunger, we pressed on.  The trail on the opposite side of the ridge plummeted straight down into a spindly forest of alder-like trees. We literally were forced to grab trees alongside the trail like monkeys.  My hands quickly became raw and even my gallows humor succumbed to misery.
We caught Kent and Robert blithely cat-napping in a forest grove where we had hoped to camp.  We slung our packs to the ground and plopped down exhausted and ‘hangry’ - part hungry, part angry.  While discussing our options, the giant trees swayed in the glacial wind.  Creaking and groaning.  Fallen trees surrounded the open forest floor designated as a camp.  We opted to move on.
As it turned out, Robert had packed our lunches in our packs.
(To Be Continued.)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Big D Little A Double L A S

We called him Heavy D.  Because his gait was reminiscent of Bigfoot and carabiners were a part of his stock and trade.  

We called him Dilly Dally.  Because his concept of time was warped.  Skewed more toward the Latin American version than the northern European version.

I called him Big D, little A, double L, A, S.  Because that was how the radio station I listened to growing up spelled Dallas, and I liked repeating it.

He was noted for absolutely not wearing a dirndl despite our most determined efforts.  He was also noted for - begrudgingly - donning pink bunny rabbit ears to emcee Dinner Theatre on guide training despite feeling under the weather.

On that night, we called him ‘Angster Bunny’.  It has taken him more than a decade to laugh about that.

A story Dallas loves telling about me occurred during his weekend training.  He accompanied me in the company van from the greasiest of greasy spoon cafes in the slumbering lumber town of Darrington to a county park located twelve miles out of town on the lower Sauk River.  We knew very little of each other beyond the pleasantries we exchanged over the course of the training and the twenty minute ride from restaurant to campsite.

Basically, he knew me as the boss.  I knew him as the eager trainee.

Winnie, my Australian shepherd/sheltie mix, had also accompanied us in the van.  At the restaurant before we left, I let her out to stretch her legs.  She was a smart, well-behaved dog and I rarely needed to look out for her.

As Dallas and I pulled into the county park I came to the sudden sickening realization I had driven off without Winnie due to having been distracted - no doubt - by the need to do some cat-herding.  I exploded with a torrent of choice expletives and Dallas thought we had either thrown a rod in the dilapidated Orion rig or were about to drive off the bridge into the river. 

I am sure he was terrified and impressed at how quickly I transmogrified from mild-mannered James to ranting-and-raving James.  

No phone booths required.

Dallas was a young, good-looking buck who took to guiding like sows take to mud wallows.  Being young and egotistical, I anticipated he might, like many self-absorbed males before him, become a hazard to himself and clients.  But he surprised me.

His wake-up call happened early on.  He said everything changed about his attitude toward guiding the day he fished one of his customers out of the frigid waters of some Washington river and got a look at what terror looks like up close and personal.  

From then on, he never checked being empathetic at the door.  He never forgot commercial trips were not about the egos of the guides, but about the experience of the guests.  That guiding meant you had to know what it was like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  

And the vast majority of guests have zero desire to find themselves without a boat in whitewater.

Two of his more memorable remarks were:

“If I had to, I could get infants down this river.”

And. . . 

“That turd’s gonna shoot on through. . .”

The former came during a media interview when, in his inimitable way, he was explaining the confidence required to succeed in guiding a commercial raft.  Enough to declare that you could take infants if needed.

The latter comment was uttered as he and I watched a raft dive over a falls on an impressively high water trip in May.  I had my reservations and fears as I watched the boat lock in to the slipstream above the cascade, but Dallas was as confident as a blackjack dealer who knows exactly how the odds are stacked.

Dallas and I have always had a complicated and competitive relationship whether it be drinking games, horseshoes or esoteric topics.  He was never one to blindly kowtow to my authority, and I have often listened to, if not harkened, his sage, and ample, advice.  

We’ve watched one another’s backs on many occasions on river banks around the western United States. 

We’ve howled at the moon and rebel yelled loud enough to disturb the dead. 

But the story I like to tell about him happened on the Grand Canyon.

It had been a long day on the water and - for once - I was not the group leader.  But, the downside was, I was not in charge of determining the itinerary.  It turned in to a day where we pushed further downstream than I was comfortable and, as the afternoon acquiesced to twilight, I was not in any humor for shenanigans when we reached camp.

It was my group’s cook day.  As it so happens, Dallas and I were partners, along with Ally, in a three member chore group.  We were midway through the Canyon and, so far, Dallas’ primary contribution to our crew on the days we cooked was to bar tend.  Which - ordinarily - was wonderful.

He was noted for never skimping when it came to the quality of alcohol.  Nor the quantity for that matter.  

(Another one of his favorite expressions:  “Twenty four beers in a case.  Twenty four hours in a day.  It can’t be a coincidence.”)

I hit the beach that evening exclaiming to anyone in earshot, “I’m going to be useless!”  Meaning I was prepared to do some drinking.

But, as the cooking commenced, some god-awful barley concoction, it became clear that if I wanted to be ‘useless’, Dallas needed, for Ally’s sake, to be somewhat useful.  

He had already begun his bartending routine.

That’s when I pulled him aside and told him in no uncertain terms, “Heavy D, I love you like a brother.  But if you don’t chop some onions, I’m going to heave you into the river.”

Incredibly enough, he took it to heart.  The meal still sucked.  But we had a swell time creating it.