Tex-Mex

Where does one journey stop and the next begin? Is it a moment of departure, or arrival? The minute you leave one place, or the hour you enter the next? A geographical shift, a border crossing, a change in location names or physical address? Or does it begin with a change in consciousness, a refocused alignment in attitude? Does it get going the instant the thought occurs to go, or the minute the first plan of motion is followed through with? Perhaps, if one feels the need to compartmentalize, clear delineations may be by found and argued. Perhaps, there is no beginning, no true end.

 

For our current purposes, however, I will say that this trip began an hour or so after something else was finished, which was the income generating before the actual travel. The expenditure of energy involved in the shoring up of resources. The work which allows for the not-work, always an expedition, of sorts, unto itself. In this case it was San Antonio, Texas and 30 even days of attachment to a noisy parking lot full of harvested Christmas trees from North Carolina and the PNW. Our job being, as it were, to sell them to suburban families in search of status quo holiday décor. We did that, for twelve hours a day, but really more like 24 as we couldn’t leave the lot at night, having been contracted to stay with the trees at all times, for those 30 successive days without break. So, in reality, I suppose it was more like 720 total hours in the end – nothing in real life as it looks in those tiny three numbers. As I mentioned, an experience all of its own, though not the focus of the rest of these words. Suffice it to say, that when the last of the little trees left the parking lot that final afternoon, there was a significant shift in mental focus, an ease of tension, a release. Though the physical location, noisy, hectic, and unstimulating as it was, had not been altered in any way save for the disappearance of the inventory, a palpable modification of intention signified the shifting of one thing to the commencement of another.

 

We spent another couple nights there, on the lot next to the intersection with the same staccato roar of traffic piercing the air around us, but the days were far different from the ones before. There was time downtown, a day of walking in the cold and riding bikes in the rain and just feeling a sense of freedom only available to those who have been without for some time. There were different neighborhoods, and a couple of restaurants, paths by the river. There was exploration and spontaneity and a sense of relaxation even in spite of trying to see as much as possible in the time we chose to be there. There was a slow Sunday morning, the packing up, and the inevitable departure. The open road before us and no real plans and the undeniable sensation that the intense monotony of the past 30 days had never occurred at all.

 

From San Antonio we cruised the freeway the few hours to the coast, going first through Corpus Christi, then south down to Padre Island National Seashore. We arrived in the cool evening hours to the sounds of wind and gently lapping waves, a light mist, and the scent of unseen flowers blooming in the darkness. The next morning we discovered that the park allows visitors to drive and camp along the beach, which is exactly what we decided to do, traveling several miles south across the sand and finding a place to just be for a few days. And that was it. Sitting, walking, running, reading, sleeping. More than anything, decompressing I think, letting the hums of the ocean replace the remembered barrage of suburban traffic, those bullying modified mufflers trying without end to scream meaning into countless existential crises.

 

It was foggy and cool for the first couple days we were there, brilliantly sunny the last. We hopped in a van with a couple of park service volunteers that last morning before leaving, and went cruising around looking for birds. I am a longtime admirer of the avian world, and appreciate knowing the common species wherever I might be spending my time. I am not, however, a ‘birder,’ and probably never will be, the checked boxes and life lists and driving to garbage dumps and wastewater treatment ponds to complete them not seeming nearly as appealing as casual observation. But I like to hang out with those who know more than I do whenever possible, and always appreciate the opportunity to look at animals through spotter scopes worth more than some cars I’ve owned. It was an enjoyable couple of hours, though slightly foreign to my idea of outdoor activity as we never strayed more than 20’ from the van. The couple’s enthusiasm for ticking each species of the day’s list was an even blend of infectious and absurd. After driving in loops in order to scan the bay, the beach, the duck ponds, the dunes, and a sadly unfruitful radio antennae (where was that peregrine, he’s always there…), our pencil-ticked sheets showed a grand total of 35 birds, a new record for the short time they’d been there, and a joyous success.

 

That afternoon we made our way back west and down to Laredo, having decided over those past days to head into Mexico for a while. There it was a couple of nights in Casa Blanca State Park, a day of errands, a final decision to store the van and board the bus rather than drive ourselves. It was a long walk across a harsh urban landscape from the storage facility to the Turimex station. It was a three-hour ride turned to seven or so, including the hour-plus spent sitting in standstill traffic on the bridge over the Rio Grande. It was the day before Christmas Eve, and hordes of heavy laden pick-ups carried gifts and goods home for the holidays.

 

We spent that evening in Monterrey in a hotel just down the street from the central bus station, surrounded by acres of gridlocked vehicles and fruitlessly blaring horns. An almost comical cacophony of anger and futility. In the hotel bar there was a company Christmas party in progress complete with Santa hats and potentially regrettable happenings on the dancefloor. The main entertainment was a man with long gray hair and glasses seated casually on a barstool surrounded by sound equipment. He seemed to be a professional karaoke singer who took requests on cocktail napkins and kept the crowd going with some real belters. It was much too loud to hold a normal conversation, but quite fun to watch from the edges.

 

In the morning things were a bit more tranquil when we walked back to the bus station to find our local connection. We were headed west of town an hour or so to Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon, and then from there to a climbing area called Potrero Chico. Some information was available on the internet as far as how to get there, complete with a photo of the appropriate window to purchase tickets. Much to our chagrin, however, when we arrived at the counter everything was exactly as shown in the photo, minus the destination placard of Hidalgo. It was quite funny to hold the screen up while viewing the real world version of the scene, as even the counter woman looked almost exactly as the one in the photo, however, that one word was missing and nothing else. It was like one of those find the differences games come to life. Once the amusement wore off, however, there was little to be done but try and figure out how we were going to get to where we wanted to be going, which provided the basis for an ever more confusing set of conversations and wanderings around the city center. In the end, and after several hours of mild frustration, we managed to find, board, and ride the bus to Hidalgo and finally arrived around noon.

 

The first mission was eating churros in the town plaza where the bus dropped us off, the next, finding lunch, which ended up being tamales at a tiny shop nearby. Afterwards, we bought a few groceries, and found a taxi to carry us up the hill towards the national park and outlying campgrounds. Finding one to our liking, we set up camp for the week, grabbed our gear, and walked up into the park for a bit of evening rock climbing.

 

And that’s about how the next few days went. Climbing for a few hours, going out for a run afterwards, cooking, eating, repeating. Potrero Chico has become, in the past several years, an internationally renowned sport climbing destination, especially popular during winter in the northern hemisphere. It boasts masses of beautiful karst limestone, and hundreds of bolted routes at all climbing levels, many of them multi-pitch. The entrance to the park, whose name means little corral, is a spectacular looking notch between vertical cliff faces on either side, a corral gate of colossal dimensions. There is a dirt road which runs through the center of the cliffs, and on up into the park. An enormous water park, empty and ominous in the winter months, sits off to the side, just past the gate, leading one to consider the very different sort of recreation popular over the summer months as local families arrive to escape the heat of the Chihuahuan Desert. There are certainly Mexican climbers around, but for the most part, the locals prefer to drive up the road a ways, crank some norteño music, and drink beer while watching groups of foreigners eke up the cliffs around them. Tuba rhythms and the occasional trumpet section reverberate off the canyon walls as you climb.

 

I am not much of a climber, and never have been, though I’ve given it my best efforts plenty of times and in multiple locations over the course of many years of knowing lots of climbers. It’s simply never excited me the way that other methods of experiencing the wilderness have, and to be quite honest I often find it rather boring as so little of the time one invests in a day of climbing involves actually working your way up some rock. I’ve also recently realized, after visiting three celebrated spots in the past months, that most popular climbing destinations offer very little in the way of solitude, as lines form for certain climbs, crag dogs bark the day away, and you’re often roping up about three feet away from others groups. Erin, however, was once an avid climber who previously planned international vacations with her sister based on climbing destinations, and it’s something she still enjoys doing, and something that seems to be rewarding to her in many ways. So, as of late, we’ve been giving it a go together with mixed success. Her somewhat rusty leading skills combined with my neophyte belaying behavior often make for some emotionally charged situations, though I suppose we’re getting better each time we go out. For the first several days we were around, we went out for several hours and managed to climb a few easier routes a few times each before finding something else to do for the rest of the afternoon. It worked well enough for us, but there were certainly times when I felt, though I tried my best not to, like some kind of fraud due to the intense focus and monotonous climbing conversations which dominated the social energy of the place.

 

And I get it, the inability to discuss anything but the common denominator of a shared lifestyle focus, having been involved in the whitewater community for years, but that doesn’t mean I particularly enjoy sitting quietly on the sidelines in shared living spaces and tiny restaurants and the one coffee shop in the area suffering through non-stop jargon and endless references to routes, crags, and all the places in the world one could go to climb and presumably talk to likeminded people about climbing ad nauseum. All of the talking was also conducted in English, in Mexico, with little interest shown regarding that particular geographical/cultural circumstance. I will respectfully say one final thing about climbers vs boaters, however, and that is that climbers seem to be a decidedly more healthy group all around, focused more on set goals and increasing physical prowess rather than getting sloppy drunk on a nightly basis. A refreshing dissimilarity. In short, there were certainly a couple days I enjoyed more than others, and we did find ourselves climbing away from the crowds once or twice, which I really appreciate, but I wasn’t altogether broken up when the weather turned nasty for a few days and we were forced to find other ways to entertain ourselves.

 

The best day I had over the course of the several days of living in the cold wet cloud which set down on top of the place was when we decided to take the bus over to the neighboring town of Mina for a visit. I suppose I appreciated this day because, like so many days we’d have for the rest of the trip, it exemplified the type of traveling I really like to do – the limited plans, see what you find, everything works itself out type of 20171228_142614exploration that calls for patience and problem solving and above all a positive attitude. The type of travel that ideally leads to interactions with remote places, kind people, and unexpected events that will not be soon forgotten. I won’t bother with all of the details, as they might not seem as serendipitous in the retelling as in the actual living of them, but some of the highlights of the day were: a small but well-done museum, a well-cooked meal (you know it’s going to be good when you hear the tortillas being pounded out in the kitchen as you wait), a long cab ride down a deserted dirt road to a closed park gate and telling the driver to go ahead and leave with no idea as to how we would get back to town, eventually finding our way into the park, wandering for a couple of hours through a desert landscape and hundreds of petroglyphs, getting a ride out that evening with the superintendent who showed us the ruins of the adobe house he was born in, being invited to share a cab back to Hidalgo with a couple of local ladies sick of waiting for the bus, and getting a ride back to the campground from another local who turned around after seeing us walking out in the cold.

 

Around that time, which happened to be a few days after Christmas and a couple days before the New Year, the place started to really fill up with climbers, mainly travelers and college students on break hoping for some sun and fun before heading back to a winter of work and study. The weather was still cold and rainy, and as things became noticeably more crowded, we decided to move on for a while.

 

From there it was back to Monterrey for a couple of days of walking around the city, visiting museums, and checking out the urban revival of a city recently plagued with cartel violence and the accompanying reputation that comes with such troubles. A serendipitous, though somewhat terrifying ride from two local women in their 20s who picked us up as we were leaving Potrero (terrifying due to the maniacal manner of driving and the casual nonstop banter from both as we careened multiple times towards oncoming traffic), landed us in the heart of the city a couple of blocks from our reserved residence. We ended up at a real dive of a hostel in the Barrio Antiguo district, but its proximity to most of the major attractions made most of the egregious shortcomings somewhat tolerable. And besides, you get what you pay for, and in this case that wasn’t much from either party. The surrounding neighborhoods and multiple plazas were full of families on holiday outings, and we walked for miles the first evening we were there submersed in a festive atmosphere and surrounded by crowds of happy people.

 

The next morning we woke up early and toured several museums, including a contemporary art museum, a historical museum, and a cultural museum where throngs of diligent Catholics leisurely swarmed through a traveling Michelangelo exhibit replete 20171231_141248with life-sized replicas of many famous statues and paintings. Most were snapping selfies in front of the pieces, rather than of the works themselves, but hey… Afterwards we strolled along the river walk, eventually ending up at Parque Fundidora, a proud metropolitan park dotted with historic artifacts now serving as industrial art showing off the city’s legacy as an iron producing powerhouse, where sprawling acres of pathways, attractions, and open space await the weary city dweller. A true gem any city would be proud to boast. While there, the weather started to turn nasty, leaving us to seek shelter, sustenance, and coffee in a cozy diner nearby. Things were no better once we were ready to leave, so we decided to try our luck on the Metro rather than walking all the way back in the rain. Success, followed by a cozy siesta in our sparse quarters as the storm settled in to stay for a while.

 

Later that night, New Year’s Eve, we spent the celebrated observance of the changing of calendar years without much fanfare. It wasn’t for lack of trying on our part, as we went back out in a steady downpour and walked around for over an hour trying to find someplace to eat and perhaps listen to some music until midnight, but almost everything was closed down completely, or else dinner was by reservation only. New Year’s in Latin America is commonly celebrated with family rather than out partying. We were happy to finally get some dinner, and probably the best veggie meal of the trip in the form of some tasty portabella tacos, and a couple of beers, and ended up calling it an evening sometime around 10.

 

The first day of 2018 in Monterrey was far colder than anything we had yet experienced, with temperatures near freezing and a steady drizzle coming down from the dark skies nestled low across the city skyline. We eventually motivated ourselves to go on a run, however, and were rewarded with empty streets and open sidewalks. The cold air was harsh on the lungs, the breeze frigid against bare legs, and the needley rain a bit rough on the face, but we eventually got used to it and made our way back to Fundidora, seeing a few paintings and places along the way that we’d missed the day before. Later that morning, we packed up, braved the artic wind tunneling through the streets while searching for breakfast, and headed for the airport for the afternoon hop down to Tampico, Tamaulipas on the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Things in Tampico weren’t much warmer, nor the hotel room that much nicer, but it was more stopping point than destination. A few days earlier, we’d decided on somewhat of a whim to do a fly-down/bus back option that began as close as possible to Ciudad Valles in San Luis Potosi, a few hours by bus away from Tampico, as it turns out. Having finalized those nonspecific travel plans, by which I mean we bought two plane tickets and didn’t bother to plan much further, we mostly forgot about them until a couple hours before the plane took off. As far as spending any time in Tampico, which didn’t seem to be a highly recommended tourist destination, my general attitude holds that if you’re probably only going to be somewhere once in your life, you might as well make an effort to at least see a few things while you’re there. As such, we ended up booking two nights in town while at the Monterrey airport, and spent the next day checking out a good portion of Tampico.

 

The morning started with a huge breakfast buffet at a little restaurant next to the hotel. Most of the food was prepared on site, and the offerings were numerous, delicious, and hard to resist. Needless to say, we left, as will happen after one pays for an ‘all you can eat’ experience, overly sated. Erin, bloated more from multiple glasses of fresh juice than anything else, swore off of buffets for an indeterminate future. We held our bellies on the way over to a nearby bus stop and boarded the first one that came by after an affirmation from the driver that he was headed to the beach, only to be promptly dropped off several minutes later and nowhere close to the coast, for reasons I could not clearly understand. Vague directions were given as to which way we should go to board the correct bus, but we decided to start walking instead, eventually arriving at the beach an hour or so later. (Turns out a large road construction project was happening near the entrance, which was the cause for all of the initial confusion as all bus traffic had been suspended from the thoroughfare.)

 

Wind off the ocean amplified the pervasive chill as we walked for a couple of hours along the edge of a tumultuous sea, down a beach recently hammered by a tropical storm, now strewn with hundreds of empty palapas and battered wooden chairs. At the end of the beach was a jetty extending from the mouth of the Panuco River. The boardwalk along the top of which was the only populated area around. Aggressive gulls dashed and dove, fighting for food scraps, while vendors sold puffed corn snacks to tourists who then fed them to vacant eyed raccoons ensconced in the rocks along the pier.

 

From there we ended up on another town bus, and received a thorough crisscross tour of the streets of Tampico from a local’s perspective. It was not a city I would love to live in, dirty, noisy, and monotonous. I wondered at the lives of those who did, but am sure I found myself no closer to imagining their realities than they mine, if the effort was reciprocated to any degree. After almost an hour to traverse what would have taken us about three minutes in a cab, we were dropped off in front of Laguna Carpintero, a sizeable lake in the center of the city. After a salty snack of tamarindo in a cup, we almost jokingly boarded a small boat for a quick tour of the lake, imagining there wouldn’t be much to see. The night before, my interest had been piqued in seeing the place after the cab driver from the airport told me there were crocodiles in the lake, though I was somewhat skeptical of his claims. Turns out he was telling the truth, as a seven-foot long one swam just in front of the boat as soon as we left the dock. But crocodiles weren’t the only attraction of the ride, as the other side of the lake was a small wildlife refuge of sorts with multiple species of herons hanging out in the trees alongside hundreds of enormous orange-red and emerald green iguanas. Quite cool. Towards the end of the tour there was also a beach full of sunbathing crocs, which, though impressive, almost paled in comparison to all of the unanticipated wildlife we’d already seen. Perhaps my favorite part of the trip, however, was the trip host/announcer, who, in spite of the fact that he probably did this dozens of times a day for years on end, resonated fresh enthusiasm for the laguna and for his city as a whole with his upbeat attitude and positive affirmations pertaining to Tampico’s attributes as an outstanding city worthy of pride and consideration.

 

From there we walked to the central district, stopping to check out the obligatory cathedral and the main plaza before catching a, thankfully, more direct bus back towards where we were staying. Still full from breakfast, dinner consisted of fresh fruit in the hotel room, and breakfast the next day was no more than a couple pieces of bread and some coffee before boarding the bus to Valles.

 

The intention to check out San Luis Potosi had been a couple years in the making. Perhaps never a true intention, rather more of a suggestive impetus in the back of the mind. As such, finding ourselves a state away while in Nuevo Laredo, opportunity merged with subconscious slowly developing as potential reality. Two winters ago we spent several months in Argentina, where I worked on the Mendoza guiding rafts, and Erin shot photos of the rapids. While there, we met lots of kind and generous people, among them a Mexican river guide by the name of Miguel, who often spoke passionately of his adopted home state of Potosi. It was there that he spent a majority of each year running trips on the turquoise blue waters found throughout the region, and his descriptions of the waterfalls and countryside in the area left one with a strong desire to visit and explore.

 

The main hub of adventure based activities in the state is found in Ciudad Valles, several hours east of the capital, and a couple hours west of Tampico. In Valles we ended up staying several days in an apartment near the city center which we found on Airbnb. Our host, Don Gustavo, and his son Marco, picked us up at the bus station and shuttled us over to their place. Once there Don G provided us with an outline of the multiple locations worth visiting in the area, along with several hand sketched maps drawn over the course of our conversation. He left with an invitation to join him for a sip of tequila at some point during our stay, which we later took him up on, showing up expecting a quick nip and some light conversation only to find ourselves being served a full dinner and hanging out for several hours of casual Spanish chatter.

 

The biggest challenge during our stay in Valles become quickly apparent when we realized that most of the outlying destinations weren’t necessarily all that close to the city, and no one could provide us with any solid details pertaining to public transportation to and from any of the major attractions. Frustrating as this may have been, however, some of the more rewarding, though potentially maddening, experiences garnered in the course of both travel and language acquisition (and the combination of the two) arrive in the form of seemingly daunting and insurmountable obstacles such as getting from one place to another. The good news is that if you want to go somewhere in Latin America, there is almost always a bus, or series of buses/colectivos/etc., heading that way from somewhere at some point just about every day. You just have to find them. And we did, eventually, and without excessive effort and a little bit of occasional luck.

 

The first day there we decided to go for the easiest place to reach, which was the small neighboring town of Xilitla and the surrealist garden of Sir Edward James. The eccentric James was an uber-rich Scottish socialite who transplanted himself to the Mexican jungle in the late 1940s, eventually creating/sponsoring the construction of a paradisiacal micro-reality in the form of Las Pozas, where towering concrete sculptures and multi-storied staircases to nowhere serve to visually enhance the already fantastical pools and waterfalls on the sizeable property. I had read about the ‘garden’ years before, while in southern Veracruz, which is as close as I imagined I’d ever get to seeing the place, so it was a truly dreamlike experience to walk the paths there for a few hours and marvel at both the imagination and labor that went into the creation of such a unique locale.

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That evening, we caught up with Miguel, who was preparing to head down to Costa Rica for the next several months to guide rafts during the slow season in Potosi. We didn’t have much of an opportunity to hang out with him throughout our time in Valles, as he left a couple days later, but it was fun to visit with him for a couple of hours all the same. Always a treat to reconnect with people you met in a totally different set of circumstances, people you never really imagined you’d ever see again. He also set us up with his company to raft down the Rio Tampaon the following day, which was an enjoyable experience and welcome opportunity to check out a new river – and our one day of no hassle transportation as the operation’s headquarters was only a block from our apartment. The Tampaon, like most all of the rivers and otherworldly swimming holes we’d eventually see in San Luis Potosi, was a brilliant turquoise, the exact color you might imagine in an advertisement for a Caribbean vacation. And while there wasn’t a significant amount of serious whitewater, there were a couple of fun rapids, and a long scenic float through deep gray canyon walls followed by a quick portage around a chunk of limestone where the entire river disappeared into a cliff blocking its passage. Lots to take in.

 

We stayed around Valles a few more days, heading out on a couple more excursions including a day on the Micos River (same startling blue water) where we found a guide to lead us down the river about a mile, jumping off one waterfall into the current and swimming downstream to the next in a series. It would be hard to describe this place, as with several of the other places we would eventually end up later that week, without hyperbole, so I won’t attempt to do so. Suffice it to say that the entire time we were in that portion of Potosi, we had the great fortune to see (and swim around in) a lot of places the likes of which I’ve never seen similar. And Micos was one of them. A few leftover acres of Eden, if you will.

 

Deciding to be done with the daily busing to and from the city, we headed out after about a week with the intent to spend some time in our tent, as we’d heard there was camping available nearby most of the other places we’d wanted to see. And there was. We based out of the town of Tanchachin for a couple of nights, checking out both the top and base of the Tamul waterfall. We spent one night a hundred feet or so from the opening of a 1200’ deep cave shaft, known as Sotano de las Golindrinas, where tens of thousands of birds, mainly white-collared swifts moving at fighter plane speeds and green parakeets, return with astounding velocity each evening at dusk, and ascend in concentric circles to leave the abyss come dawn. We stopped by the popular Tamasopo Falls for a few hours for swimming and some lunch, and later camped out a short walk from Puente del Dios, yet another improbable and almost indescribable collection of water features, including multiple falls spouting out of all directions from the porous walls of an enclosed amphitheater of aqueous crystallinity, and a natural tunnel through a land bridge one could swim underneath from pool to flowing creek. Unbelievable that such grandeur exists in this world – truly – and even cooler that you can buckle up a PFD and jump right in!

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When it was time to start heading back north, we first had to travel west a bit. We camped one night at Laguna Media Luna, a warm water, spring-fed lagoon in the form of a half-moon, and then made our way by bus to the capital of San Luis Potosi, which bears the same name, the following morning. We spent the late afternoon wandering around the city, and arrived in time to spend a couple of hours in the national museum of masks, which moved into place as one of my favorite museums ever.

 

From the city the next morning, which happened to be Erin’s birthday, we headed due north and back into stark landscapes and lanky cactus, though I think the actual shift occurred somewhere between Media Luna and the city. It was remarkable to observe how quickly the environment changed from lush jungle to arid desert, and to marvel at the curious plants in the transition zones. After a long ride, a transfer, and a bumpy ride, we arrived at the Orgarrio Tunnel, gateway to the ‘Pueblo Magico’ of Real de Catorce, an old silver mining town in the mountains of the Sierra Catorce. The local shuttle ferried us through the two kilometer tunnel, where we departed and searched out our hotel along the steep narrow cobblestone streets of town. As it was Erin’s birthday, we splurged a bit and ended up in a quaint, stone constructed suite owned by an Italian couple, both ex-accountants who vowed not to die at their desks before moving to Mexico to begin life anew. During our two-day stay, they plied us with Italian coffee, homemade focaccia, and explanations about one of their cats, half-crazed from a recent operation.

 

We got there early enough to go for an evening stroll up a steep hill to the old ghost town on the outskirts of town. From there we watched the sun set behind the mountains, and wandered around the well-preserved remnants of old mines and habitations. Dinner was simple fare of beans, gorditas with nopales, and quesadillas made with local cheese and 20180115_134916huitlacoche, a type of fungus that grows inside corn ears that is somewhat of a delicacy and surprisingly good. The following day we woke up early and hiked south out of town. Spotty directions and good fortune led us out on the right road, and we eventually found ourselves climbing up and past more old mines and a few occupied dwellings, shanties burdened by difficulty and squalor. Up we went to around 11,000’ and the top of Cerro Quemado, sacred mountain of the Huichols, who make annual pilgrimages to the site. Views in all directions, perfect weather, and not another person the entire time we were walking. We made our way back down a different route, following a ridgeline over to Cerro Oregano, whose namesake grows wild across the hill, and the huge cross above town, descending from there.

 

The next morning we walked north of town a ways, before leaving around noon via one of the antiquated Willys jeeps commonly used for tourist excursions in the Wirikuta Desert below town. Once a day, collective rides to Estacion de Catorce are offered at an abominably low rate for what ends up being over an hour long trip straight down the mountain and across the desert into town. Even better, we rode on top of the jeep with two other passengers and the luggage. It was nice to take in so much fresh air before the bus ride that awaited us that afternoon. We spent an hour soaking up some sun in the main plaza of Estacion before boarding for the hours long ride to Saltillo, Coahuila, and finally arrived there around dark just as the weather was getting very nasty indeed. It was back to winter in a flash, with snow and sleet beginning to blow sideways across the city, and the driver didn’t even bother to pull into the station, simply dropped us off on the main thoroughfare and sped off, hoping to make it to Monterrey before things got really ugly. Which they did, as I read the next morning of a 46 car pileup on the roads through town, and heard of other multi-vehicle accidents for the following two days.

 

We found our hotel, back to budget and with nothing in the city really set up for that kind of cold. Once again, as we were traveling through, we decided to spend a full day seeing what Saltillo had to offer, what kind of city it might be. Turns out, a really nice one. Mellow, relatively quiet, clean, and with all sorts of museums focused on everything from the Mexican Revolution to the history of the serape. The following day, the one after we arrive that is, the one we spend walking around the city, was bitterly cold with snow falling for most of the morning and afternoon. It was hard to find a place to eat in an enclosed setting, as most of the year it’s probably a lot more comfortable to dine in an open air atmosphere. Many of the shopkeepers didn’t bother to go to work, and even a couple of the museums we were going to check out were closed due to weather. We finally found the internationally renowned bird museum open, and ended up spending a couple of hours checking out all of the well-conceived exhibits and trying to memorize as many bird names in Spanish as possible. Afterwards, we tried to find anyplace warmish to hang out, eventually ending up at the Cineplex (which, though not all that toasty, was at least out of the wind). We decided to test our Spanish skills while watching Una Mujer sin Filtro, a contemporary comedy filmed in Mexico City. It ended up being easy enough to follow with or without total comprehension, and provided several warming laughs to boot.

 

The next morning it was back on a bus to Monterrey, only a couple hours away. The roads were relatively clear, though several passengers used their phones to film the frozen landscape outside the windows, an uncommon sight in that part of the world. We stayed the night in the same hotel we started out in, a block or so from the main terminal, and I enjoyed the full circle sensation of return. That evening we found the nicest place to eat available in that area of town, which isn’t all that nice to tell the truth, ate our final tacos and drank the last couple Carta Blancas of the trip. In the morning it was a few hours spent on a bus to the border, the crossing, the bus station, a cab ride to the van, and straight on out of Laredo, the open road before us, and no plans for anything to be over anytime soon.

 

 

Northbound 17

Left Terlingua, Texas and the southern border in early April of last year. Spent a week with family in the Panhandle, and drove out of Texas around the 14th. The end goal was returning to Alaska for the summer, where I guide whitewater trips for a company called NOVA, primarily on the Matanuska River, which is about an hour east of Palmer, which is about an hour north of Anchorage, which seems to be about the only place anyone has ever heard of in Alaska despite the question I’ve heard about 200 times in the past month “Where at in Alaska?” (Point being, I suppose, if you’re a recluse that cringes at small talk, you should never drive around the lower 48 in a van with Alaska license plates…)

 

However, the main goal, the means not the end goal, was to see a few states I’d spent little to no time in, but have been interested in for several years. The two main ones being Nebraska and South Dakota, with northern Montana thrown into the mix somewhat spontaneously after visiting some friends down near Yellowstone. I also spent about a day in Wyoming, a half-day in Idaho, and a week in Washington before boarding the ferry in Bellingham and traveling by boat through the Inside Passage up to Haines, AK. From there it was a day’s drive through a sliver of Canada, and then another day of driving over to Fairbanks, where I met up with some folks to do a training trip over Memorial Weekend. That’s the basics.

 

Here’s the details: Just before I left Texas I decided to participate in some sort of organized run in either Nebraska or South Dakota. I’m somewhat into running these days, I suppose, mostly on trails and on my own, but occasionally I enjoy signing up for an event and spending an hour or two panting alongside a bunch of semi-athletic types who appreciate fitness and suffering more than most of the people I normally hang out with. Anyway, thanks to the interweb, I was able to locate a half-marathon in Arthur, Nebraska, which happened to be more or less on the way to the Niobrara River, the floating of which was my main reason for visiting Nebraska in the first place. And so it was decided, first stop, Arthur.

 

Left Texas on a windy Friday morning, pausing for coffee in my long forgotten hometown of Stinnett perhaps for no reason other than to write it here, and pretty much cruised right on up through Kansas stopping for gas once and swerving around dead badgers a few different times. It was windy there as well. Ended up staying the first night on Lake McConaughy, enjoying a sunset and the sounds of passing trains.

 

In the morning I woke up early, drove the remaining 30 miles or so to the town of Arthur, population 146 according to the sign outside of town planted next to a barbed wire fence with posts covered in disintegrating cowboy boots. We, collectively around 120 people I believe, met at the high-school at 7 a.m., boarded three luxurious coach model school buses, and rode out to the start point at a place called Sillassen Ranch. 13 miles never seemed so far as it did that morning with the buses creeping along slowly up and down hill after hill. At the starting point, the wind was whipping, though it ended up blowing from the west all morning as we runners headed east. It was cold, but had it been a headwind instead, the day would have been miserable. Before the race started, the organizers asked all military veterans to step forward and then made the crowd thank us for our service. Having been in the Army for several years, every time someone tells me that I wonder what nutless conservative douche started that trend in the first place. If you want to thank someone for their service, pick an environmental engineer, a teacher, your local collector of recyclables, or anyone working on the problem of overpopulation (which, I suppose, could grimly be considered to be a soldier after all, so whatever…). After that we all honored a flag someone had gone to lengths to station nearby, while a high school girl sang the Star Spangled Banner over a portable PA system. Finally, with hard nipples each one of us from standing in the cold wind for 30 minutes, the gun sounded and we started the run. I was tired from poor sleep, untrained, and underprepared, but ended up doing alright I suppose. I ran the entire time, at least, and even finished with a better time than the last one I ran in Anchorage a few months ago. The Nebraska sandhills got bigger and bigger mile after mile, with the steepest two falling at miles 10 and 11, but then the last couple of miles into town were downhill, with BBQ provided to all finishers at the end. A good morning overall, and a great way to start a trip in the Midwest.

 

From Arthur, I drove up, over, and through further lengths of hills to north central Nebraska and the town of Valentine. On the drive, an odd coincidence occurred as the only station available on the radio was NPR, which was broadcasting the nationally syndicated program Radiolab. The minute I left town and turned on the radio, the show shifted to a story about the very area I was traveling through, which could easily be described as the middle-of-nowhere. It’s a place where there are no towns for long miles, and what small populations there are seem to be very small populations indeed. Not a place, in any event, that generates a lot attention from the national press. Anyway, this show was about one of those towns, or what was once one of those towns, with a populace of about 20 that proposed and then voted to unincorporate due to very opposing views as to what the town was about. Basically, from what I gathered, there were some folks who wanted freedom in the form of living like trashy shitbirds, and a few others who somehow got themselves elected into positions of power (again, in a town of 20 people) who wanted them to clean up their yards, lives, etc. In the end, the shitbirds won and the town was unincorporated. The vote was something like 11-9. As a result the no longer town basically lost all the services and rights once offered to them by the state, which seemed to be significant according to the story and recorded interviews, but no one was forced to clean up their yard. Also, in the end, my previously planned route took me to about 10 miles from what was once the town, and I elected to stick with that route rather than drive 20 miles out of my way to blink past a bunch of stupid people’s trash filled lawns, no matter how cool the coincidence seemed at the time.

 

Okay, maybe I’ll speed things up a bit from here on out, otherwise I’m guessing this is going to be much longer than the average internet user’s attention span (not that you, of course, my dear friends and family who have managed to follow thus far, are average internet users by any means..). Or, maybe I won’t. I’ll try, how about that? From the junction which led me away from the town, it was a beautiful backcountry drive into Valentine, where I planned on beginning a multi-day float trip on the Niobrara River.

 

Having worked on rivers for many years, I’ve always enjoyed asking clients about the rivers in their home state. Most folks from the Midwest (I’m hoping my geography is correct here in labeling Nebraska as such) generally guffaw at the question, though many will come up with something when pressed. Nebraskans always answer with the Niobrara, though pass it off as a canoeable stream generally inundated with drunken tubers. I’d heard several times that a 2-day trip was possible, and that it was indeed a beautiful stretch of water lined with waterfalls and wildlife, all this, mind you, by Nebraska standards according to Nebraska residents who often offered that caveat. As such, checking out the Niobrara served as the original impetus of this entire trip. And once I started looking into it online, about a week before I decided to go, of course, I learned that there is actually a 70+ mile section of river that is federally designated as wild and scenic. After a few inquiries to park service personnel and local outfitters, most of who encouraged me to only float the first 20 miles or so, I decided to canoe the entire stretch.

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Oh yeah, speeding things up. Great trip. 4 days. Lots of waterfalls and wildlife, as promised. From the river I saw buffalo, beavers, deer, bald eagles, lots of turkeys (one recently killed and being eaten on by an eagle), ducks, pheasants, monstrous soft shell turtles, and more. After the recommended initial section, the river changed characteristics quite a bit and finding one’s way around sandbars became a slight challenge, though the river was high enough that it wasn’t generally a problem. The only hairy moment came when I took a swift-moving side channel and ended up having to charge across the top of a tightly strung barbed wire fence. Two days of excellent weather, one day of so-so haziness, and then a final night of violent thunderstorms followed by an afternoon of rain, upstream gusts, and chills. I ended up paddling 30 miles into the wind that day, arriving at the van around dusk just in time to chat with the friendly local sheriff who was checking up on the abandoned vehicle his deputy reported some days earlier (after sniffing around for a whiff of a potentially decomposing body inside). I had left it at a supposedly official take-out that apparently receives very little use, and the sheriff was actually so nice that he even said I could go ahead and stay the night there, which is what I was intending on doing anyway as it was past dark by then. Did not see another person on the river at all, which is always my definition of success as far as wilderness trips are concerned.

 

The next morning I drove a series of small highways up and into South Dakota. I ended up heading east for a few extra miles in order to detour over to Mitchell and the ‘World’s Only Corn Palace,’ a long-standing tourist attraction designed to keep the town alive way back in 1892 (and back then, it wasn’t actually the only corn palace, but more of a rip off of another state’s original). I don’t generally go out of my way to stop at tourist traps in general; most of the time, in fact, I avoid them at all costs. But when I first heard about this place 15 years ago, for some reason the idea stuck in my head: an enormous palace adorned with annually changing murals made from corn. Who could resist? From what I saw of Mitchell, it’s a good thing the corn kingdom (which really isn’t all that enormous after all…) still exists, otherwise that place might not. However, I must say I considered it worth the stop (though I wouldn’t drive more than an hour tops out of the way to get there, if ever you’re traveling through). This year’s theme, which changes each fall hence the double year date, was ‘Rock of Ages.’ The façade murals included Elvis, a nondescript woman belting out a tune, a weird corn guy rocking out, and then for some reason moonwalking Michael Jackson, Saturday Night Fever Travolta, and a prominently featured Willie Nelson (though who knows, maybe it was Dicky Betts – it was made out of corn cobs, after all). So not entirely sure about the Rock part of the theme, but did enjoy checking everything out and seeing all the photos of the palace themes over the past century plus.

 

That afternoon, I finally started heading west and made it over to Badlands NP in the early evening. Watched the colors change over the Big Badlands Canyon as the sun set, spied on a porcupine walking around on top of nearby formations for a while, and then drove slowly across the north part of the park through multiple herds of mule deer. In the morning, I woke up super early and did some route planning. For some reason, before I left that part of the world, I had to stop off at one other tourist trap, one that I’ve seen ridiculous stickers from for countless years now, as well as billboards galore all across the state: Wall Drug. Somehow, I arrived in the town of Wall around 7 a.m., which happened to be when a few of the shops started to open. One of the ubiquitous billboards on the way in advertised ‘Free Coffee and Donut for Military Vets.’ I don’t generally bother mentioning to most folks that I was ever in the military, but hey, a free donut is way better than the before mentioned ‘thanks for your service’ comment. And damn that freshly made donut was about the best I’ve ever had.

 

One thing I learned from my South Dakota trip is that I enjoy Americana much more than I cared to admit. I spent about two hours wandering around that place amazed at the success of the original concept, which was basically get people off the highway and make some money by inundating the potential consumer with copious and relentless advertising (still is) and enticing them with a few potential freebies. In the beginning it was, get this, free ice water. There was also a large hall full of articles written about Wall Drug in various mainstream publications spanning several decades, along with exhibits of vintage black & white photos and written histories from the Black Hills area.

 

With a full tank of gas and a couple dollars less than I came with, I left Wall mid-morning and headed back into the park. Did some scenic driving, spotted several big horn sheep, lots of pronghorn, and uncountable mule deer. A few hours later, I ended up in the main campground drying and reorganizing gear from the river trip. The sun was shining, a light wind helped the drying, and the songs of meadowlarks permeated the afternoon. That evening, I took the bike and rode several miles over to one of the main trailheads, where I got in some sunset hiking and marveled at the ever-shifting hues of light illuminating and then fading from the characteristic formations. In the morning it was a lengthy run on the Castle Trail, followed by a drive west across the park, buffalo and prairie dog viewing, and eventually  finding a secluded spot to camp in a separate sector with amazing views from the rim of a plateau.

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The next morning entailed a lengthy drive across the high desert and along many miles of dirt roads. A shortcut of sorts, I suppose, on the way to Wind Cave NP. Here I went on the morning tour of a small section of what is apparently an incredibly vast and mostly unexplored cave system (also one of the earliest national parks, and the first cave to be designated as such – who knew…) Not the most exciting tour, if you want the truth, but then again being stuck underground with 40 people in a foreign environment guided by a seasonal employee of questionable competence and going ever deeper into a place you could die a slow terrible death in should the lights go out and you get lost, has never been all that appealing anyway. I suppose I only went because it seemed as if you couldn’t visit Wind Cave NP and not actually go in the cave, plus, truth be told, it was National Parks Day, so the tours were free, which made hanging out in the dark with a lot of loudly whining kids and some completely capable seeming old man with his ‘service dog’ and its homemade vest only slightly more tolerable.

 

Back on the surface, things were much happier. Spent that afternoon hiking around next to buffalo, and the next morning going on a run that ended up being much much longer than originally intended. Also had the distinctive experience of running, inadvertently, next to a small herd of bison and six pronghorns at the same time, and later causing a near stampede when more and more bison joined the original group in ‘our’ run, eventually forcing me to stop, change direction, and sneak around yet another herd. Within the first two steps of resuming the run, I almost trampled a startled coyote in its den which bolted with a surefire quickness.

 

And that was only the beginning of that day. From there I drove north through Custer State Park and into the Needles, multiple ranges of huge granite spires seemingly transplanted from the southern Sierra into western South Dakota. Without much warning, the road went from ordinary double lane highway to climbing single lane asphalt, hairpin turns, and tunnels so tight the van barely squeezed through. My initial plan was to rest for the rest of the day, and then hike Harney Peak, South Dakota’s highest point at around 7200’, the next morning, but when I asked the gatekeeper of the park what the weather might be like the next day she replied: ‘Snow. For the next week or so.’ So it was over to the trailhead and onto the summit. The trail passed through miles of beetle killed trees, and next to great chunks of neatly eroded towers as I walked under ever-darkening clouds. The top culminated in intricately designed stairways and a huge stone lookout structure built by the CCC long ago. From the tower there were great views to one side of the ridge, and cold misty clouds blowing swiftly up and over the other.

 

Once back at the van I decided I should start descending, and realized I could probably catch a quick glimpse of Mt. Rushmore before the day was over. And I did. And again, something I had somewhat low expectations for, and no overwhelming desire to visit in the first place (I suppose because I equated the site with places like Wall Drug and the Corn Palace, touristy stops for unmotivated chunkers looking for something to do between meals (this one with an American flag sweatshorts patriotic bend to it…)), turned out to be pretty darn impressive and interesting after all. I was wrong to judge without empirical evidence, though I’ll probably never learn that lesson. I guess that’s all I have to say about that.

 

That night it did indeed snow, and several inches at that. I woke up around Lake Sheridan, motivated to cook up some coffee and breakfast burritos in spite of the white, and decided to head into Rapid City to figure out what I should do next. Spent the day there, later spent the night near Deadwood, and due to the snow elected to skip the couple of other things I would have liked to do in South Dakota and head west the next day instead.

 

Drove into Wyoming in full sunshine which quickly turned into a dense fog as I headed north from the freeway the hour or so to Devil’s Tower. Entered the monument having yet to see anything resembling the famous formation, which is usually visible from miles 20170426_120121out. The parking lot and visitors center are at the base of the tower, where you still couldn’t see any rock at all despite being only a couple hundred yards away. There was lots of snow everywhere including at least 6-7” on all the boughs of all of the conifers making for stellar winter scenery and also neck freezing dump hazards when walked beneath the limbs (personal experience). After about an hour things cleared up enough to get some decent views. I walked the mile loop around the base listening to large sheets of ice breaking up and sliding off the columns terminating in small explosions. Saw a pair of peregrine falcons on the far side, and enjoyed the stroll through the quiet snowy landscape. Was nice to experience winter again after several years without.

The next day was driving into Montana across large swaths of green ranchland and through flurries of humongous snowflakes. Made it to Billings in the early morning, and spent a half-day there looking around town and going for a run on some trails down by the Yellowstone River. From there it was over to Livingston, which is about an hour-and-a-half north of Yellowstone NP and a half-hour east of Bozeman. Spent the next several days reconnecting with a couple of old friends that I hadn’t seen in years. They don’t know one another, and lead disparate lifestyles, but it was convenient enough to get to spend a few days with my friend Matt L, who I shared a house with for years in Colorado, and then head south to Emigrant to hang out with Sean H, who I know from the military and have kept in touch with over the past couple decades.

 

Matt, once a founding member of PETA when we were going to school at Ft. Lewis in Durango, now manages a mechanic shop, recreates motorized, and stockpiles guns. Full force Montana, in other words. He and the owner of the shop, Drew, treated me to a redneck weekend spectacular. We took off on Friday afternoon, drove across Yellowstone and over to Cooke City. Saw a couple bears along the way, lots and lots of bison, eagles, osprey, hundreds of elk, and plenty of early season tourists. I was quite surprised to arrive in Cooke City, the end of the road in the winter, and see that the mountains were indeed still packed with untold feet of snow.

 

Those guys go out on their snow bikes, a cross between dirt bike and snowmobile with one ski in front and large track in the back, almost every weekend and ride like banshees through the trees. When we arrived that afternoon, they gave me a conventional snowmobile with an absurd amount of horsepower and away we (well, they) went. I putted along behind somewhat nervous to see what the sled was actually capable of (this machine, by the way, had just been repaired since a throttle-sticking incident which ended up leaving one of their mechanics with a broken femur some months earlier). We rode around most of the afternoon, had a big fire and wild game BBQ that evening, and then went back out the next morning for a long ride into the mountains. While I still prefer to burn calories over fuel when in the wilderness, I ended up having a great time and kind of getting the hang of things as far as getting on the gas went. I also managed to avoid crashing into any trees and destroying myself or the recently rebuilt snowmobile, so success overall. Was also fun watching Matt and crew disappear into the trees and fly off the occasional snowberm.

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The next afternoon we met up at Drew’s place for some shooting and basically blasted away for several hours. Target practice, skeet shooting, a fantastic tannerite explosion (look up on YouTube if you haven’t seen this (why is this legal? Not sure, but if you have some extra cash and a high powered rifle I’d recommend seeing it for yourself at least once.)), and some experimenting with Matt’s self-smithed black powder rifle. Crazy to imagine that people were once proficient with these weapons as you have to aim, fire, hope the flint ignites the powder, which it often doesn’t, keep aiming through the smoke when the powder does light, and finally hold steady once it actually fires. Anyways, hell of a weekend. Ye-haw everybody.

 

From Drew’s house it was a short drive south to meet up with Sean outside of Emigrant, MT. He bought an amazing piece of property some years back, and lives way up on a hill backed up by Forest Service land. Most of the ‘neighborhood’ consists of empty multi-million dollar houses owned by rich folks who are seldom home. The views are stunning, and with the access he has to the wilderness there’s almost no reason to leave the place on his days off as he can just walk around the hills next to his house and spot more wildlife than you would likely see in the national park. I only got to hang out there for a couple nights, but we did a lot of walking around and catching up. Also, thanks to Sean’s hospitality and hunting success, I ate a lot of elk meat. The second day we headed over to Tom Miner Basin to look for grizzlies, one of Sean’s hobbies along with wildlife photography and, again, Montana, shooting (both targets and in-season game). Still seemed a bit early for the bears to be really active, but we did follow some tracks through the snow for a while. Also caught sight of a couple moose, a herd of bighorns, and loads of white-tail and mule deer.

 

Sean works in the park and had to take off at dawn the next day. I followed him out and made it to Chico Hot Springs for an early morning soak before spending most of the day driving north. I had originally considered spending a few days paddling around Yellowstone Lake, but access was still closed in early May due to snow, and reportedly a lot of the lake was still frozen. As such, changed plans and decided to take advantage of my (relatively) close proximity to the Missouri River Breaks, a canoeing section of the Upper Missouri I’d only heard of earlier this year. Made it into Ft. Benton later that evening after a ridiculous misadventure on some incredibly muddy roads leading to a rural ferry operated by a surly old man with the nose of a lifelong alcoholic. I’ll skip the details. I’ll also go ahead and skip a lot of the details of the week long trip, which was awesome, but will tell you that it started with a lot of uncertainty as to how I could run my own shuttle and which sections I would be able to do due to limitations pertaining to that problem.

 

In the end, I elected to take a big chance and hitchhike on remote county roads for 150 miles across northern Montana. That allowed me to stay out of the treacherous mud as well as paddle the entire Wild and Scenic stretch of river, though, as before in Nebraska, most officials suggested I might just want to do the more popular sections of the run. They were right, of course, but most times I like to find out for myself. Woke up at 5 in the morning, left my canoe and belongings at the boat campground in Ft. Benton, drove to the take out arriving around 8:30. Sharpied up a cardboard sign and packed a possibilities bag, knowing I could be spending the night out there somewhere, walked across the road, tried to smile, and stuck out my thumb. In the end, I got super lucky. The first car that picked me half-an-hour later dropped me off at a junction about 20 miles down the road, and then, for the first time in my life, a slowing semi pulled over to let me in. The driver, Frank, told me that he was eventually going to Ft. Benton, however, first ‘we’, I was immediately part of the team, which was sweet, would have to detour a few miles in order to pick up a load of fertilizer, but that I could hang out if I wanted instead of getting off where I’d originally requested. I considered myself incredibly fortunate to be in motion at that point, and didn’t need to think about that one at all. On the ride, Frank told me all about the agricultural industry in that part of the world, ‘we’ got our 84,000 lbs. of fertilizer, I got to see a slightly different route than I’d driven that morning, and Frank dropped me in town around 1 pm. An auspicious beginning to the Upper Missouri.

 

Put in that afternoon and made it almost 20 miles before arriving at camp. Spent seven days floating 150 miles of river, doing a fair amount of hiking, and admiring all sorts of changing scenery and wildlife. Plenty of sunshine most days, but also got to see a couple big thunderstorms roll through, and experienced some major wind at times – though on this stretch of the Missouri the standard pattern actually results in the wind blowing primarily – and what seems like miraculously after all these years on desert rivers – downstream. The first 50 miles or so was mostly farmland and rolling hills, followed by the White Cliffs section, replete with its namesake formations (and also impressively juxtaposed intrusive black dykes) for the next 40, and the Badlands stretch for the final 60 miles. This section, though not as popular as the White Cliffs, was my favorite for its distinctive wilderness feel. The riverbanks also hold lots of history in the form of century-old homesteads to visit, and all along the way the guidebooks offer tidbits of information pertaining to the Lewis and Clark expedition which used the river enroute to the Rockies and beyond.

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From the Missouri it was north again, and then west. A couple days later, I was in Glacier NP, most of which was still closed due to snow. Camped two nights, and caught a couple of sunsets from the banks of Lake McDonald. The one full day I spent there, I rode my single-speed bike 25 miles through the park, up over and down a steep pass, and then along the North Fork of the Flathead River on the western boundary to the locally recommended Polebridge Mercantile, famous for its baked goods, where I had a cup of coffee and a fritter before turning around and riding back.

 

Westbound now, I checked out White Fish for a morning, had some food at a brewery in Libby, stopped by Kootenai Falls for a while, stayed the night at Bull Lake, and then strolled around the Ross Creek Cedars before leaving Montana a couple days later. Did a run along Lake Pend Oreille and some shopping in Sandpoint, ID, and then kept moving. Ended up cutting back south after Spokane and taking a somewhat circuitous route which eventually led over to Tacoma via the Columbia Wildlife Refuge and Mount Rainier. I loved the refuge. Lots of streams and reed filled lakes/ponds, tall grasses, columnar basalt cliffs, and fantastic colors as the light shifted each evening. Stayed one night along the Tieton River, and then did a slow early morning walk through a grove of old-growth trees at the base of Mt. Rainier while sipping coffee the next day.

 

In Tacoma, I visited another old Army friend and stayed with him and his 4-year-old son for a few days. From there it was up to Bellingham to catch the ferry to Haines through the Inside Passage, a route I’ve longed to travel for years now, and am thankful to have had the opportunity to do so. Within an hour of leaving port, a pod of orcas swam within view, and that’s basically about how good the whole trip was in my mind. All sorts of weather, from dense fog to belting sun to pounding rain, and I loved every minute of it. Spent three days on the ship and slept each night in a tent on the upper deck. Lots of narrow channels, waterfalls, and marine life. Eventually managed to briefly transcend the solitary travel mode I’d slipped into and have some interesting conversations with some interesting people. The second full day the ship landed in several coastal Alaskan towns, Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg. Each time it stopped a couple of guys and I would grab our bikes and go tearing about seeing everything we could before having a quick drink at a local pub, and then furiously pedal back again before the ship’s departure. Three days after boarding we arrived in Haines and drove off the ferry. 20170521_211040I did some short hikes there, and ended up camping out at a state park surrounded by glaciers with a few of the folks I’d met onboard. The next morning everyone went their separate ways, though we’d later pass each other a few times on the way through Canada and beyond. I stayed to run around the park trails a bit (back to yelling for grizzlies every few steps), then headed north again, this time up the Chilkat River, across the border, through BC, and into the Yukon. Camped one night in Canada next to a little creek and re-crossed into Alaska the next day. Spent the morning looking at birds in the Tetlin Refuge, messed around in Tok a bit, and then kept moving.

 

The last week of travel was a day at the Chena hot springs, north of Fairbanks, where I toured their thermo-generated power plant and impressive hydroponic greenhouse (9,000 lbs of tomatoes last year, along with a variety of greens and more, all used in the restaurant) before soaking for a few hours in the outdoor pool. The next day I biked around Fairbanks all afternoon, cruising around town and checking out the sandhill cranes on their summer grounds. Spent Memorial weekend on the Chatanika River doing some training with a company that runs trips in the arctic, hoping to guide one later that summer, though things fell through in the end due to cancelled reservations. People talk. From there it was south again, down to Denali to have dinner with my old boss at Denali Raft Adventures, and then further south still to Palmer, AK and back to the Matanuska. And then there I was, 5500+ miles later and hanging out at the NOVA camp getting ready to throw on a drysuit and run some whitewater…

Jarbidge/Bruneau

Most people who regularly engage in adventurous activities have a story or two about a trip turning epic. Maybe it was a day hike that morphed into near hypothermia and a night in the woods, or a mountain expedition in white out conditions, three days without food, and more time in a tent than ever hoped for. Perhaps it’s lightening on a peak and a hail storm on the way off the hillside, or just an excruciating hike out of some remote trees at the local ski resort. And I’m talking about epic not in the sense of a glorious experience, but as in a Murphy’s Law situation in which nothing happens the way one might wish it would. Epic as in one questions if the experience will ever end, and how. Maybe no one gets hurt, maybe no one dies, but there’s a fair amount of time spent wondering about what is going to happen next. Our second day on the Jarbidge is the day our trip turned into that story.

The best thing about epics is that they make for much better stories than trips where everything goes according to plan. Like most stories though, it’s probably better to start near the beginning and tell the story the whole way through. And in the beginning I hung around the muddy little take-out for hours before finally waking the boys up. I rode my bike in circles, paced back and forth, sat in a chair trying to read, and watched in envy as several other groups came and went, usually with a look of contempt in the direction of my companions–haggard lumps on the ground next to a tacky fire pit surrounded by beer cans. This was the day we were supposed to put in on the Jarbidge River in Idaho for a week of whitewater paddling and wilderness experience. Instead, I waited with building frustration as sunny morning turned to brilliant blue afternoon. The sleeping bags, giant slugs beneath the cloudless sky, showed no semblance of motion.

The Jarbidge and Bruneau Rivers flow through southern Idaho and serve as part of the drainage system for the Jarbidge Mountains, a small range of peaks in northwestern Nevada. Like most desert rivers, one would scarcely believe in their existence if not sitting on the river bank. Driving south from Boise, there’s scarcely a sign of the verdant plant life we generally associate with a living environment. For as far as the eye can see there’s nothing but brown grass, rolling hills, and the occasional dirt road stretching for miles into the horizon. Next to the river, however, abundant vegetation lines the waterway, and several irrigation canals divert into sprawling riverside fields where local farmers eke an existence out of this otherwise barren land. And it was next to one of these bug infested irrigation canals that I stewed in the mid-morning sun thinking about the remote river upstream, and wondered why I was sitting there in the first place.

Most of my experience with river trips came from years of working as a commercial guide. I was accustomed to getting up and doing things–loading rafts, meeting customers, even cooking breakfast if it was a multi-day outing. We were always on the water by nine and tucking in to a nice deli spread around noon. I soon realized there would be none of that enthusiasm or efficiency on this trip, and as I sat there I tried to relax and enjoy doing nothing. It was early May and I was migrating from Texas to Washington. One river season was ending while another was just getting started.

In the past couple of years I’d been following the water from job to job. Summer in Oregon, winter in Costa Rica, spring in Arizona. The next summer in Tennessee, fall in West Virginia, a winter in Kenya and Uganda, and most recently springtime canoe trips in the Big Bend. Guiding was the one job I’d ever had which I was passionate about. It was a way to travel, to know and experience new places. But as much as I loved being on the river every day, at times it was a lot of work. There was always something to be done, the next part of the trip to consider. There were always customers to deal with and questions to answer, which meant little time for solitude and personal experience.

I was looking forward to doing some private trips with competent companions, people who could take care of themselves. I’d wanted to get into doing more trips with friends in order to fully appreciate the rivers. The trip also fit perfectly into my current downtime between jobs. And, after several years of sitting in a raft, I’d finally started kayaking and wanted to spend some time in a smaller boat. This trip was also an opportunity to run a couple of rivers that only flow at the end of big winters in the Northwest. Some years they run, others they don’t. Trips have to be spontaneous, which means less people on the water and less people in the know. Until a month before, I’d never heard of the Jarbidge or the Bruneau, two of the three rivers we were going to be running over the next couple of weeks. Running, that is, if we could ever get moving.

What kept me from waking up the guys earlier was that I was only friends with one of them. Most the people on the trip were from Durango, Colorado, where I’d lived for five years, but I thought I only knew Chad, a grumpy twenty-eight-year-old with an afro of tight, blond curls, and a huge shotgun scar on one of his calves from a hunting accident. Oddly enough, I didn’t know Chad from Durango, but from Costa Rica where we’d met the winter before. I’d also run into him in Arizona a few months after leaving Central America. Chad was a good person to know because he made plans with the intent of following through with them.

The two of us had spent a couple days prior kayaking the Payette, just north of Boise, but had been separated the day before as we drove through town. I ended up heading to the take out and going to sleep, while he waited for the rest of the group, acquaintances of his, and drove down later. At least that’s the story I got after I finally did wake them up and they began to move around at a painfully slow pace. Chad said they got there around midnight, drank around the fire until early morning, then decided they needed to go back into town for beer, cigarettes, and handgun ammunition before the trip. (Quick note here, there would be no firing of guns on the trip, or a need for any ammunition.) Once there, they watched the sun rise, ate breakfast, and terrorized a couple of shop owners before driving back to the site and going to sleep, just about the time I was waking up.

Chad told me the story, while the rest of the guys began to groggily emerge from their bags. “Duuude…” one of the mangy heads announced, and I knew at once the voice belonged to Scotty Baker, a kid I didn’t really know per se, but whose unmistakable surfer bro expressions I’d heard penetrating the room at many an après ski event. I’d never really talked to him before, due to the annoying nature of what I imagined to be his affected Spicoli demeanor, but Baker ended up being one of the most positive, funny, and original people I’ve ever met. He’d spent the year before paddling some serious whitewater in Ecuador and could talk for hours about rivers around the world he’d never been to. He avoided the high cost of rent in Durango by stealthily living in a storage unit while going to college, sold light-up belt buckles as a side business, and subsisted on dollar double cheeseburgers. His best stories included the triumph of bringing a girl back to his makeshift room, and the recent challenges of sneaking in and out of his unit while the owner landscaped the premises.

The other three guys on the trip were Clint, a mellow stoner type who worked on the Gunnison as a river ranger and moved at the speed of drifting continents; Johnny, a hardcore Class V boater with a carefree attitude and a love of whiskey; and Johnny’s old high school buddy, Jeff, who had never been on a river in his life and would probably never get in a raft again after the week was over. There was also Chad’s dog Kayden, an aging retriever whose only animated moment of each day came with the removal of her life vest. When freed of the burden she would spring to life for three quick, spiraling jumps then promptly find a place to sleep.

Long after noon, we were finally on the move. The trip from the take out to the put in entailed driving for hours on a washboard dirt road across an Air Force bombing range. The land was dull and flat with the exception of the Jarbidge Mountains in the distance. The river was almost never visible. It flows through a deep crack in the earth, hidden by the monotony of high desert landscape.

The put in was a small parking lot with a couple of Forest Service signs. The signs were meant to inform passers by about the river, and to provide information to those about to embark on a boat trip down the Jarbidge. The boating sign consisted of a map, a couple of photos of the bigger rapids, and a concise message that basically said that under no conditions should groups attempt to navigate the river in a raft. Due to the nature of the river, we learned, kayaks were the only recommended craft, though it was possible to get a small, light cataraft down as well. This information did not conform to our plan, which was to load all of our stuff (six or seven drybags of personal gear, an entire kitchen setup–wooden folding table, big, steel box full of pots, pans and utensils,  propane tank, four-burner stove, etc.–a couple of coolers, about twelve cases of beer, and so forth) into Chad’s raft, along with Jeff and the dog. We would then spend one or two of our allotted six days floating the Jarbidge until we met up with the Bruneau. The total trip distance was just over 70 miles, which meant that even though we’d basically squandered the entire first day, we should still have plenty of time to float along at a leisurely pace.

After a brief discussion about the sign followed by a some serious dicking around and beer drinking, we started pulling gear out of the vehicles and readying ourselves for the week. As we pumped up the raft, started rigging the frame, and began carrying all of the gear down to the boat, Chad, who had way more vested in the equipment than anyone else, expressed his concerns that maybe there was something to the warning. While a decent enough rafter, he’d just spent a couple thousand dollars the week before in the acquisition of a 14-ft. boat complete with all the accoutrements necessary for the riverside opulence raft trips are known for. Understandably, he wasn’t excited about the prospect of having to leave it all in the canyon if something went wrong. We began to reassure him. This sign wasn’t for people like us. Johnny and Baker were expert kayakers, Clint was a river ranger, I was a seasoned raft guide… This sign was for idiots with no experience and no clue. The Forest Service was always putting up stuff like this, rating hikes, rating rivers, trying to scare people away. It wasn’t meant for people who actually knew what they were doing. And besides, we were already there. We continued to carry our personal bags to the boat, to cram a couple hundred cans of beer into any space we could find, to help Chad tie down the fire pan, the wash buckets, a couple of fishing poles.

As we pushed off the bank a couple of hours before dark, life was good. A swift current carried us down the river. We made a couple of easy miles in no time. It was a beautiful evening, the sky a glowing gold around us, and we were finally in motion. For now, life was as it should be. We felt more confident about our decision as we cruised around each corner on our way into the canyon.

Not long after getting on the water, we decided to stop and make camp. We found great spot on the left bank with a big, sandy beach at the base of a large escarpment, pulled everything back off the boat, and set up for the night. We made dinner, made a dent in the beer supply, and did as much exploring as the area would allow. There was a sketchy climb up loose boulders to a cave which provided a good view of our surroundings, and a spring in the side of the cliff. There was also a long, rocky beach where we gathered driftwood for a fire.

It turns out that the massive driftwood piles were an omen for what we were in for the following days. When rivers flood, they carry large amounts of debris downstream– sticks, logs, and even entire trees. And this debris sometimes amasses in very inauspicious places, places where the current heaps it together into solid, deadly formations that resemble monster beaver dams. Known as strainers, or sieves, fixed wood represents one of the biggest hazards in whitewater sports. Like a spaghetti colander, water rushes through while larger objects, like bodies for instance, do not. They stay pinned to the wood by the rushing current, and even moderate flows can create lethal situations.

While gathering wood, I noticed a skeleton wedged in a pile of logs that had been formed in an earlier flood. It was the remains of a mountain lion that had been caught in current too swift to swim in and then shoved into this strainer on the outer bend of the river. Perhaps it had been going for the shore, but couldn’t quite make it in time. I’d only seen a mountain lion skull, reminiscent of a saber toothed tiger, in a magazine, and was excited about the find. But when I told the guys back at camp about it, I found out that Johnny had already seen it, and planned to take the teeth as a souvenir, something I might have done as well if he hadn’t already claimed it. We would later attribute our bad luck to this decision, but only because it was easier than just admitting that the truly stupid choice we made was loading down the raft and pushing off in the first place. Even so, I will remain forever weary of disrespecting animal spirits. It’s best to let sleeping cats lie.

Day two was the day things took a turn. Maybe the trouble began when Chad picked up his tent that morning only to find that two large rattlesnakes had been keeping themselves warm beneath it. Every time he set the tent down to try and fold it up, the snakes would hurriedly slither to get back under their shelter. But the real difficulties started about the time we decided to try to pull over for lunch. Now here, I must say that I’m not trying to make the Jarbidge out to be anything more than it is. It’s a stunningly scenic river which flows through a narrow basalt gorge, but very low on the level of difficulty as far as whitewater goes. It’s basically continuous Class II (out of a scale of I-V) interspersed with a few larger rapids. Kayakers doing self support trips can easily run it in a day or two, and do so on a regular basis when the river is flowing. The issue for rafts, especially when loaded with 1,500 pounds of cargo, is that the river doesn’t stop. In a kayak it’s easy to catch small eddies, the calm water behind obstacles and bends in the river, but it’s almost impossible to stall a big boat anywhere. This was the fact that began to concern us as we swiftly floated deeper into the canyon. The banks were no longer banks, they were steep slopes of scree butted against dark, towering cliffs. Having brought no map for reference, we had no idea where the major rapids were, or if the boat would have time to stop above them. We were also increasingly worried about the wood that might be awaiting us around every bend. An unexpected and unavoidable strainer would mean serious consequences.

The four of us in kayaks went out in front of Chad, sending paddle signals when appropriate to guide him from one side of the river to the next, or to alert him to any potential hazards. It was fun and fast moving for the first hour or so, but when we decided to look for a stopping point, our concerns were confirmed in that finding a place to beach the raft began to pose a problem. We spent the next hour or so scouting banks, slipping into eddies, and watching Chad pull hard on the oars trying to get himself into a position where either we could grab the boat, or Jeff could jump out with the bowline and pull the raft to shore. The second option was quickly becoming nullified, however, as it became apparent that Jeff was about as athletic as Oprah Winfrey. It was kind of hard not to feel sorry for the guy. He’d flown out from Tennessee just for the trip, not having a clue as to what he was getting himself into. I don’t think he had any idea as to the reality of the things Johnny was accustomed to doing in a kayak. And I also don’t think Johnny ever bothered to consider the sedentary nature of Jeff’s life. I suppose the trip just sounded like a great adventure to Jeff. He was probably hoping for the bonding of Deliverance without the hillbilly butt sex. His borrowed wetsuit with a big hole in the rear end, his oversized life jacket, a bicycle helmet, and goofy little booties probably didn’t do much to inspire self-confidence. Not only that, but he was occupying Kayden’s normal seat on the padded cooler, which meant neither Chad, a cranky misanthrope to begin with, nor Chad’s dog, were very happy about his presence on the raft. In short, he was out of his element, dressed like a total gaper, and his performance as an agile and helpful crewmember left plenty to be desired.

At one point we all ended up in a big, swirling eddy full of foam and debris. The boats were cycling around each other in circles at the base of a 50-foot cliff, along with a bunch of logs and the occasional plastic bottle. We decided against trying to fit everyone on the raft to eat lunch, and elected to leave the eddy in order to try to cross over to a sunny beach on the other side of the river. As I mentioned earlier, I was a novice kayaker. While I knew how to read water, I didn’t always know how the kayak would react to it, and even when I did I wasn’t always capable of dealing with it. The current formed a powerful eddy line of tricky current which fed right into the cliff wall. As I was paddling out of the eddy, I flipped over, washed into the wall, and was forced to swim out of my boat when I couldn’t roll up. As Baker and Clint went to chase my boat, they crashed into each other and the wall, and bounced around for a while before making it out and heading downstream. Then, as both Johnny and the raft tried to leave the eddy at the same time, Johnny ended up upside down between the boat and the cliff and ended up swimming for the first time in years. After cleaning up the pieces, we didn’t bother trying to stop for lunch again.

Luckily, behind a lot of big rapids the water backs up, forming a calm enough pool to pull over in and get out and scout. This was the case with Sevy Falls, or at least we guessed the rapid was Sevy Falls when we looked at it, since the only information we had to go on was our brief familiarization with the pictures at the put in. Most of us stood on the bank looking at the entrance to the rapid while Johnny took a quick look from a little further downstream. It was a nasty looking rapid mostly because of the rock sieves just downstream of the first drop. The move was to go through the drop, then ferry quickly across the river to the left, where, (and it turns out Johnny just kind of assumed this) there was meant to be a nice clear channel. Baker went first, cleared the first drop, was pushed precariously against the rock sieve for a while, then calmly made it through a small chute that only a kayak could fit through. Chad went next, leaving Jeff and Kayden on the shore as a precaution in case things went wrong. It was a hairy entrance, so we helped line the end of the raft into the slot, then sent it floating down through the rapid with Chad on the oars. The boat went over the drop, then stopped suddenly. It looked as if the raft was getting surfed in the hydraulic, but it had actually gotten stuck on a tree branch concealed just below the surface. Chad struggled to move the boat forward while water coursed violently over the back half of the raft. Meanwhile, I ran onto a boulder which jutted out over the rapid, and managed to jump into the front of the boat hoping to put some extra weight there in order to free the raft. It worked, and Chad started frantically pulling on the oars in order to make the next move. He back-ferried around the big rocks in the center of the rapid and lined up for the exit. Only once we were around the rock did we see that there wasn’t actually an exit, only a massive strainer all the way across the channel with a large amount of current pouring directly into it. When we hit the logs, Chad was cussing so much that he didn’t bother to get on the high side of the raft as it started to fill with water. I wasn’t about to die lamenting the gear, however, and promptly climbed over the side and onto the strainer, a solid mass of wood four-feet across with most of the river disappearing beneath it. Soon enough, Chad was up there too, and we couldn’t do anything but watch as the boat was sucked under and nastily pinned against the woodpile. We held onto the frame and tried to pull the boat up as high as possible, but it was quickly ¾ underwater and not going anywhere any time soon, if ever again.

Johnny, who couldn’t see what was happening from the right bank, jumped in his kayak, cruised through the first drop, and came around the corner to the same sight we had, only with a boat fully wrapped on the strainer instead of just the strainer–not that one was any worse than the other. He slammed sideways into the boat and Chad and I were able to grab his life jacket as he leaned into the tube. He handed his paddle to Chad and was able to precariously make it out of his kayak, onto the raft, and then onto the logs. It was a scary situation. Anyone who would have gone under the raft would have no chance of rescue. They would have been instantly pinned beneath both boat and wood.

Baker had now made it over to our side of the river from down below, was out of his boat, and next to the raft with the rest of us. Chad was so angry I thought he might just throw Johnny back into the current, but he managed to restrain himself. He was convinced that all was lost, and it certainly looked like it initially. But we started to cautiously take what we could off of the raft, unloading it so that we could maybe pull it free somehow.

It was a slow and chancy process to stand in the rushing water and unstrap the gear, which was then handed to someone else to carry to the bank. And while the four of us were dealing with the boat, Clint, Jeff, and Kayden were still on the other side of the river, along with my kayak and paddle. I tried to yell at them to walk downstream, but my instructions were apparently misunderstood. When I looked over again, I saw Jeff getting ready to push my empty kayak into the rapid. I shouted at him again to get his attention, then made a few hand gestures meaning “don’t you fucking dare.” After a while I walked upstream to the calm section and swam across the river to get my kayak and let Jeff know what was happening, since it was going to be a long time before the group went anywhere. When I got to my boat, there was no paddle in sight. I hiked it up and over some rocks to get to where Jeff was standing, and noticed what looked like Clint’s paddle, or at least half or it, lying on the bottom of the river. I later figured out that Clint had taken my paddle for some reason, leaving his at the mercy of Jeff, who accidentally dropped it in the river when he was trying to shove my boat into the water.

I talked to Jeff, gave Kayden a pat on the head, and swam back across. Clint stayed in his kayak to pick up anything he saw floating downstream. Chad was still fuming while Baker and Johnny unloaded everything they could, and the situation was not looking promising. It was also starting to get late. After a while though, the front half of the boat was almost empty and we decided to try to pull it up and off the strainer. The only way it would work was if we could flip the raft over and pull it to shore. Thousands of pounds of water pressure ensured that this wouldn’t be an easy task, but the only way to unwrap a boat is to find the spot with the least amount of force pushing against it and try to use that to gain an advantage. We attached several ropes to the heavy-duty rings on the top tube and worked our way upstream to look for strategic positions where we could stand and heave. Initially, the raft didn’t budge, but then, inch at a time, we were able to work the top half of the boat out of the water, which allowed the current to help us pull it upside-down and over to the side of the river. Once there, we were able to resituate our ropes and flip the raft right-side-up. After this was accomplished, we still had to unload the rest of the gear in order to lug the boat and frame to the other side of the wood where we could reload it.

Once Chad realized that he still had a raft and most of his gear, he was in a much better mood. The two of us stood in the boat unloading the rest of the bags, while Johnny and Baker carried everything downstream. As this was only the beginning of events to come, I will tell you now that we racked up some bad river karma throughout the trip by losing a good amount of equipment to the river; but one thing had to be done that I still regret even today–we had to empty our toilet into the Jarbidge. Truth be told, it had only seen one morning’s use. There was only a small amount of waste in there, but the normally leak-proof container, having been submerged for a couple of hours, was completely full of water. When Chad unstrapped it from the bottom of the boat and realized the situation, he did the only thing feasible. He set the box on the side of the raft and unscrewed the valve. The angle he was holding the box at meant several watery turds slid over his bare hand as he hurriedly tried to free the cap. While the act itself was shameful to witness, watching him dry heave for several minutes afterward was by far the most comical part of the day.

The whole process took several hours and the sky was turning to dusk when we finally got everything loaded back in the boat and strapped down. Chad managed to ferry across to the other side to pick up his passengers. I rode across with him and hiked upstream to my boat. Clint was fairly unhappy to learn that his $200 paddle would be staying at Sevy Falls, but he wasn’t a bad sport about it as Chad had thoughtfully brought along a spare paddle which meant he could still kayak. Miraculously, the only other gear we were missing (for now) was one of Jeff’s two drybags, and about three cases of beer. Everything else we managed to salvage, or find in the strainer once the boat was free.

Once I caught up with the trip, the group had managed to get the boat to shore about a half-mile down the river. A couple of the guys were in the process of unloading the boat in order to camp for the night, but a quick look at the surroundings showed that not only was there no place to set up the kitchen, there wasn’t a flat spot big enough for even one person to sleep on. Like most of the canyon we’d been going through that day, the bank was nothing but huge boulders balanced on a 45° slope topped by spectacular basalt walls. It was certainly scenic, but no place to spend the night. A quick discussion ensued. While a couple of people thought we should take the opportunity to camp while we had one, the majority, myself included, voted to go downstream just a little farther in search of something better. There’s got to be something, we assured Chad, while helping him hastily strap down the gear that had just been derigged.

We paddled away in the kayaks. It was almost dark and we anxiously scouted around every corner looking for somewhere to pull the raft in. The current was still moving steadily downstream, and eddies were as scarce as ever. Our plan was to get to the best place we could find, get out of our boats, and stand ready with throw bags and manpower in order to get the raft to shore. After a quick mile, we found the perfect spot. There was a little beach just around a sharp right hand bend, and the four of us hurriedly paddled over, jumped out of our boats and stowed them on the bank. Johnny ran upstream to get Chad’s attention so that he could make the move in time.

After a couple of minutes Johnny yelled down to us, “The raft is coming…”

We were prepared to do whatever was necessary to get it to shore.

We weren’t prepared for what happened next.

“The raft,” Johnny hesitated, then continued in a matter-of-fact tone “is upside down.”

How this happened I still haven’t a clue. The water above the beach, while moving rapidly, would be considered Class I, but somehow the raft had shot up onto a branch lodged in the river, broached, and flipped over. Chaos ensued. We threw lines out to swimmers who didn’t get them, there was gear floating everywhere–drybags, sleeping bags, buckets… at one point Johnny, or maybe Baker, had a hold of the raft but had to let it go. We ran to get in our kayaks in order to chase the raft, in order to pick up floating gear, in order to make sure the passengers were okay. Jeff was nowhere to be seen, neither was Kayden. Chad had managed to swim to the left bank and was working his way downstream, searching for his dog and pulling jetsam out of eddies when he found it. While the other three kayakers gave chase, I walked upstream to see if I could see Jeff. He had just crawled out of the water onto the shore. He was notably unhappy when I told him we had to get going.

I rushed him down to where my boat was, got in the kayak, and told him to get in the water and hang on to the back of the boat. He complied, but was understandably reluctant to do so. Again, I was a novice kayaker and nervous as hell about paddling myself down the river–trying to drag Jeff across to the other side was not something I was excited about. I paddled as hard as I could, trying to keep upright and get to the other side. As soon as we left the beach we started moving into three-foot waves and working our way around a rocks which were almost impossible to spot in the low light. When we were almost to the other side, I yelled to Jeff, “Let go and swim.” We were probably about five or six feet from shore, but Jeff was having none of it. “I can’t touch,” he yelped. I screamed at him again, “Just let go and swim!” He did, and he made it, and I nervously headed downstream in the dark, noticing all the while that the river was getting faster and faster and thinking that the raft could be long gone. Not too far downstream, though, the boat had washed into a couple of big, triangular rocks and was again up on its side, pinned against them by the current. It was close enough that we could reach it from the shore, but it wasn’t going anywhere as the guys tried to heave on it and get it off the rocks. Most of the gear was in disarray, loosely strapped to the frame, and there were no oars in sight.

Kayden and Chad eventually showed up, followed by a soggy looking Jeff. Once everyone was finally there, we were able to painstakingly right the boat and began to assess the extent of our losses. By this time, it was completely dark, and had just started to rain. Somberly, we built a fire, ate our lunch, and tried to dry things out. It continued to drizzle off and on. Later that night, we hiked upstream to look for the gear Chad had pulled up onto shore, but it was almost impossible to walk the shoreline, instead we hiked up a huge scree slope and dropped back down to the banks, crawling over loose boulders the whole way.

Before we went to bed, we knew this: we were in the middle of a large wilderness surrounded by formidable walls, we had food for a few days, we had one oar (the spare) and basically no way to get the raft, or the people and dog who came on the raft out of the canyon. Most of my things were dry, as were Chad’s. Everything else was soaked. Around midnight, I went to sleep completely exhausted. The other guys stoked the fire all night and shivered in their sopping sleeping bags.

In the morning, everyone moved incredibly slow. The despair was unspoken, but palpable. Jeff’s fear was apparent. Everyone else just kind of moped around not saying much of anything. The sun wasn’t out, but it had stopped raining. We kept the fire going for a while, and tried to warm up and dry out. Again, I don’t want to make this sound like anything more than it was. We knew that we weren’t likely to die out there–we always had the option of paddling out in the kayaks and going for help if necessary. But having to be rescued in any form would certainly be an ignominious last result.

Late in the morning we made breakfast and discussed our alternatives. Jeff was adamant about hiking out, and Chad was even considering it, but the realities of that option weren’t practical. Even if a person could have scaled the 100-200 ft. walls, they would only do so to find themselves in the middle of the bombing range, with no available water and at least a day’s hike to a road that was likely to be deserted. About that time a group of three kayakers paddled by. We motioned them over, told them our situation, and asked them to be on the lookout for any of our gear. They said they would, wished us luck, and continued on downstream.

When we prepared to leave shore later that morning I was sitting in the center of the raft holding on to the one oar. My kayak was strapped across the back. Chad and Jeff were up front, with Kayden squeezed between them. Chad had thought to bring along one regular raft paddle, which had been crammed in the bottom of the boat and was now bent in an S-shape. Jeff warily rested it on his lap, while Chad held my kayak paddle at the ready. The plan was for the two of them to move the ridiculously heavy boat forward and backward while I steered with the oar. They were both sitting in awkward positions which made it difficult to paddle, and it was unlikely their strokes were going to be effective regardless of where they were in the raft. There was simply too much weight for the tiny paddles to be efficient.

None of us wanted to consider the repercussions of our plan not working. But we all knew it was ludicrous. We had at least another 20 miles to go before a road came into the canyon, and there was a lot of whitewater between where we were and there. As we pushed off, the tension was high. We immediately found ourselves in the middle of a long rock garden with plenty of opportunities for failure. Clint, Baker, and Johnny were out front, pointing anxiously with their paddles, and we did the best we could to follow their directions.

We ran several rapids this way, and the Class II water all of the sudden seemed to have Class V consequences. It was non-stop anxiety. Thankfully, our preposterous arrangement was short lived. After a mile or so of some of the most intense riffles I’ve yet to experience, Baker spotted an oar which the group that passed us that morning had been kind enough to prop up in the weeds on the side of the river. There was much rejoicing. We managed to get the raft over to shore where we celebrated with a few of the remaining beers. I went back to my kayak, Chad took control of both oars, and Jeff and Kayden resumed their struggle for the cooler seat.

Five minutes later, we noticed something lodged in a big strainer on one side of the river and pull over to investigate. A heroic rescue netted us the bag of beer we lost when the boat wrapped the day before. Further celebration ensued. The sun came out.

That night we camped above one of the bigger rapids. It didn’t look extremely difficult, but we decided to play it safe and portage the gear around in the morning. The campsite was nice and sunny; our dinner of macaroni and cheese, steak off the grill, and garlic bread was great; the fire was huge, and cheap bags of wine appeared from the cooler. Most of the gear dried out and everyone got a good night’s sleep.

And everyone would be thankful for that sleep the next day, which turned out to be much like day two. We scouted often and cautiously lined the raft through questionable sections. At one point we had to figure out a way to get the raft off some rocks in the center of a big rapid. We unloaded and reloaded the boat several times in order to get it up and over trees which had fallen across the river. We had to push it and pull it through other places. The found beer was lost again. In eight hours we managed to make about four river miles. That evening, Johnny decided to throw the mountain lion teeth back into the river.

The most comical part of that day came when the raft almost flipped again. It went sideways into a sedan-sized rock in the middle of a pretty big rapid. We watched in resigned disbelief as it started to wrap around the boulder. Jeff, Kayden, and Chad scrambled for the high side. Jeff and the dog, who were both committed to not swimming, had enough time to make it over the tube and onto the rock just before the boat popped free. Chad was still in the raft, which went another two-hundred yards downstream before coming to an abrupt stop in the middle of a wave train. Jeff and Kayden were left standing on the rock in the middle of the river with rushing current around them, while the raft aggressively bobbed up and down in the current below thanks to Jeff’s botched bowline coil, which had come free and caught fast in the river’s rocky bottom.

Neither Jeff nor the dog were going to jump off that rock on their own, so I swam out in the current, barely catching the eddy just behind the rock. Once there, I managed, without Jeff’s help, to scuttle up onto it. A couple of the guys threw us a rope, pendulumned Jeff to the bank, threw it out again, and pulled me in along with a shaky, pissed off dog. Chad had to cut himself free, and the crew eventually rejoined a good ways down the bank.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at Jarbidge Falls, the one rapid we had anticipated portaging the whole trip. Everyone was tired and sore, but started doing the necessary work with renewed energy. We realized we were almost to the confluence with the Bruneau, where we could expect three times as much water and hopefully none of the trees.

The raft had to be completely derigged, deflated, and carried several hundred yards downstream across a maze of loose rocks, along the rest of the gear. It was like lugging everything to the end of a long jetty. We strapped the boat onto the oars and carried it like a palanquin. Clint almost broke his leg when he went pelvis deep in a hole with the boat on top of him, but other than that, everything went pretty smooth. We set up camp about halfway along the portage, and rigged the boat up downstream so it would be ready the next morning.

The location turned out to be an awesome camp right next to the soothing sounds of a boulder strewn set of falls. Everyone slept well. In the morning we completed the portage, secured everything in the raft, and looked forward to bigger water. After a mile or so, we were at the confluence and much happiness ensued. The Bruneau presented a large river, with room to move around, and easy to get to banks, and plenty of stopping places for the raft. It was big and deep and mellow, and there was still plenty of canyon scenery to admire as we floated for many miles. It was now the fifth day of our six day trip.

We pulled into a spacious camp in the late afternoon, set up for the night, and sprawled out in the sun. We killed the bagged wine and drank the last six shots of whiskey. One shot each. Spirits were high even when we ran out of alcohol, which was probably one of the more demoralizing events of the week. Even Jeff seemed to be in a good mood, now that he knew his chances of surviving the trip were higher than ever before.

In fact, Jeff was so cheerful the next day that we all awoke to a waiting breakfast of reheated spaghetti. And not only was there reheated spaghetti, there was warmed up pasta in every pan in the kitchen. As it was his first real attempt at helping out, we tried to hide our chagrin while slyly scraping a full skillet of the stuff into the garbage so we could cook up the last of the bacon and eggs. It was another sunny day, and there were reportedly some good rapids on twenty miles to the take-out. Probably the most fun was Five-Mile Rapid, which, when we got there later that afternoon, was a fairly accurate description and a welcome respite from the miles of flat water above it. The whitewater ended with a cool little pillow at Burro Rapid, then it was a long float through farmland back down to the muddy little take-out where I’d spent the first morning wondering what the trip was going to be like.

That night we ran the four-hour shuttle back down the dusty road to get the cars at the put-in, then made it into the town of Mountain Home for some dinner. We ended up at Charlie’s Bar listening to some of the worst music I’ve ever heard, a fact unanimously supported by the rest of the group, drinking draft beer and being thankful we didn’t live in Mountain Home. One night here had us longing for the river we left, and looking forward to the rivers we would soon run.

Lest anyone think we are a bunch of disrespectful redneck dirtbags destroying the wild places we love, I would like to take this opportunity to say that never before, nor since, have I been on a trip where so much was lost to the river. But the final tally was something like this: group: a couple cases of beer; Clint: kayak paddle; Johnny: river knife, gear bag, a good hunk of flesh next to his right eye; me: a couple of carabineers and straps; Jeff: some clothes, a pair of boots, and any prior notions he had of becoming a boater; Chad, poor Chad: fishing poles, throw bags, wash buckets, an oar, and maybe a few years of youthful appearance.

In the morning, Jeff caught a flight back to Tennessee. Chad went to buy an oar and a river map of the Owyhee, where we were headed that afternoon. Ironically enough, the map turned out to include the Jarbidge/Bruneau as well, allowing us to spend the next week speculating as to where we might have been when each event occurred. The rest of us went to the store, shopped for another week’s worth of groceries, and made sure we had twice as much beer as before. Later that evening we met up at the take out, consolidated our gear, and readied ourselves for whatever the next section of river had to offer. In anticipation of an early start, the guys all went promptly to bed at three in the morning.