Spring 18

Interpretations of spring seem to vary. I forget that sometimes, only to be quickly reminded as I head north each year thinking that summer must surely be setting in everywhere else, having already spent a couple of months baking in the desert sun myself. While once an avid proponent of winter, I’ve managed to do a decent job of skipping that season for a few years now, heading south of the border for a couple of months around December and returning to the Big Bend just about the time the heat starts to set in. This winter was about the same, though we found ourselves enveloped in snowstorms in Mexico in January, and again in New Mexico and Utah in April and May. The between times, however, were spring to me, starting, as a matter of fact, in late January this year as we floated through the Great Unknown blessed by unbelievable weather, and continuing on through early April when it was time to flee the hazy skies and 100+ degree temps setting in. It was not spring elsewhere, we soon discovered, but it is always nice to see a bit of snow each year, just to know what you’re not really missing. Here are a few highlights from the past few months.

Conservation Work. Or something like that. Spent all of February working on a restoration project around the confluence of Terlingua Creek and Rough Run Creek. The project, developed by Fred Phillips Consulting out of Flagstaff, consisted of harvesting sandbar willows and other varieties of native plants, and then strategically replanting them in zones where they historically thrived before the severe denuding brought about during the ranching and mining era. By the end of the project, our team of six had planted around 4,500 cuttings. Two months afterwards, around 80% of them were sprouting, in spite of no precipitation and ruthless spring temperatures nearing and exceeding triple digits. Here’s hoping that the project continues to be a success, and that its effects last for generations to come.

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Rancherias Loop. While working on the project, we put in the standard 40-hour week, allowing time to plan weekend excursions. One trip that I’ve wanted to do for several years was a three-day backpacking trip in the state park called the Rancherias Loop. The trail leads across a wide variety of rugged desert terrain, running up a narrow canyon for the first day’s stretch, then following a 4×4 road for a few miles on the second morning, and eventually dropping down another drainage before heading up, across, and back down a huge mesa. Even in February, things warm up quick out there, and water becomes a staid concern once you commit to the trail. Fortunately, there are two fairly reliable springs along the way, spaced perfectly apart for a three-day walk, though the drier the year, the less reliable the springs become. The information at the ranger station as to their status is also of questionable reliance, as neither of the rangers that we spoke to had ever hiked the trail, leaving them to depend on sporadic reports from returning trail users. This year being about as hot and dry as it gets down there, we certainly had some anxiety with relying on the availability of water, even once we spotted the stands of vibrant green cottonwoods popping out of the otherwise dried up landscape. The first night’s stop had one bubbling brook that appeared out of the ground near the roots of one tree, and disappeared back into the ground 20’ further down. Plenty for filling up, but not necessarily for assuaging concerns about the following day’s spring. The next afternoon we arrived at even bigger stands of cottonwoods, but had to search for a long while before finding a mudhole big enough to filter out of. But, we eventually filled up every receptacle we had, and carried a couple of gallons up onto the mesa to a dry camp and a stunning sunset. A great trip and a great trail with lots of varied terrain along the way.

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River Guiding. From the end of the project in early March, until the beginning of April, we guided canoe trips on the Rio Grande, which has been a spring staple for several years now. This year, the busiest few weeks of the season were enough to satiate my annual desire to run commercial trips down there. I will always love the Big Bend, but the river continues to drop to near dismal levels each spring while the temperatures continue to rise, the wind rips up the canyons, the long drives to and from the river only get longer each day, and the crowds are getting there earlier and sticking around later… Still, however, I love it somehow, working down there, being in the canyons, being on the river, even if I’m dragging a canoe up a canyon instead of floating for days down through it. Love it for a little while, at least. And I did get to do a Boquillas Canyon trip, four days of downstream travel on my favorite stretch of the Rio Grande, which also meant that I got to float the full length of the park plus some this year. Pretty awesome. At the end of the month, my mom came down south to visit for a week, which was a whirlwind of a Big Bend tour and hitting all of the highlights from Balmorhea to Ft. Davis to Ojinaga to both Big Bend parks and several other state parks and a few miles on the river in a canoe to boot. Was great to get to show her around and let her in on a bit of van life for a while.

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New Mexico. After dropping my mom off in Midland, we headed over to New Mexico for a few weeks, primarily to attend a couple of classes, but also just to do some poking around. On the way over we stopped off in Guadalupe NP for a run up McKittrick Canyon followed by dinner at the Frijole Ranch, and then spent the next morning touring around the pictographs at Hueco Tanks SP. That afternoon, we drove into downtown El Paso and took a quick walk over into Ciudad Juarez for some lunch. In spite of all the stigma, Juarez seemed like every other town in Mexico I’ve ever been to, just a bunch of decent people trying to go on about their lives. And good tacos. After that, it was leaving Texas and a couple days of driving up to Taos, where we spent three days renewing our Wilderness First Responder certifications, followed by a week of swiftwater rescue instruction with Tommy Gram from the American Canoe Association. Both classes were excellent, and after receiving our instructor credentials with the ACA, we headed west for a ways to check out the Rio Chama.

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Rio Chama. I’ve wanted to run the Chama for years now, but was never in the vicinity at the right time. Now we were, and with one of our beater canoes along to provide the ride. Having heard only that the Chama was awesome, with no real specifics, I suppose I had no idea what to expect, nor had I put any significant thought or effort into finding out what the run might entail, other than ensuring that there wasn’t any major whitewater to be encountered along the way. I guess, due to its relative closeness to the San Juan in Utah on a 2-D map devoid of elevation markers, I’d always imagined it would be desert river, and somewhat warm in mid-April. Not so. From the mountain town of Taos, we drove up to get there. Up and up and up. And then down a little, but not that much. Our first day on the water the wind blew cold and steady at around 30 mph. That night the temperature dropped down into the low 20s. It warmed up a little the next day, but not much. We were adequately prepared, but it was still pretty dang chilly for most of the four-day trip. Early early spring in the Rocky Mountains. Snow on the tent the last morning.

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It was quiet out there, being still winter like, with almost no signs of life other than birds. At one point, after trying to name all the avian species of the morning, I said aloud that I’d like to see at least one mammal. A bear, perhaps. And about two minutes later we floated past a strange looking piece of fur on the right bank. It took while to realize that it was in fact the fluffiest blondest little bear cub I’d ever seen, just kind of hanging out all alone waiting for its mom to return. And that was about the only land based creature we spotted other than a couple of squirrels and a bunch of cows and a few other humans.

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The scenery was spectacular. We floated through open canyons of mixed conifer forest interspersed by massive multi-hued sandstone walls extruding along both banks. Walls of purple and orange. Other highlights were fossilized dinosaur tracks up one wash, a hot spring, and several short side hikes with stellar views of the canyon. With the flows we had, it was fun canoeing with steady current, lots of riffles, and the occasional rapid. Near the end, the rapids got a bit bigger, and we swamped pretty good dropping into a big ledge-hole at the bottom of Bridge Rapids, barely making it to shore and calling it our last night’s camp as we pulled everything out of the almost capsized canoe. That evening, we went for a run on the Continental Divide Trail, which happened to cross the river on the bridge just upstream of us. The wind went back to blowing cold, and continued to do so till the end. We navigated a couple more rapids the next morning, packed up, and ended up finding a few unanticipated diversions in the hours to come.

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Abiquiu, New Mexico. After packing up our gear, we debated as to what to do next. Having been slightly cold for several days, and with the breeze going, and big thunderstorms blowing in, the hike up to the canyon rim we’d been discussing lost its appeal. We decided to check out a couple of nearby locations on the map, with no real destination in mind. Just the way I like it. And it ended up being a really sweet day. The first stop was Echo Amphitheater, just up the road. The site is a monstrous sandstone amphitheater, as the name suggests, a huge half-dome of naturally sculpted rock. We hung out for a while with the place to ourselves, ate lunch, made some noise, checked out the acoustics. From there we drove a few more miles and visited the Ghost Ranch, where we were surprised to see hordes of busy artists scattered across sprawling parking areas diligently producing landscapes in a variety of mediums. And the natural landscapes they were attempting to recreate, albeit while leaving out the car-crammed chaos of the parking lots they chose to stand in, were indeed unique and amazing, replete with towering spires and animated colors in constant flux due to the briskly shifting clouds. Knowing nothing about the place when we entered, we eventually learned that the ranch was a long-time base of the famed artist Georgia O’Keeffe; many of her works can be directly correlated with iconic rock formations found around the ranch. The site also has a lot of history with Hollywood movie production, as an impressive list of films have shot parts here, and as a paleontological site of renowned interest. A bit overwhelmed by the crowds of people and their easels everywhere, we decided to take off after a short visit to the museum and headquarters. Less than a half-mile back out the driveway, we found an easy ridgeline trail to stroll along with incredible views of the surrounding features and not an artist in sight.

From there, we drove a few miles to the town of Abiquiu, a name I’d recognized from a post on a random blog I’d read two years before. The basis of the article had to do with a church of sorts, the still utilized meeting place of an archaic religious sect, a secret brotherhood of practicing penitents. I won’t get into the details here, but will say that we somehow happened to stumble upon the site on the outskirts of this odd little town, which had a distinct aura of insularity about it. The town itself, that is, whose empty dirt streets were enough to kindle a strong sense of foreboding. Aside from the church (technically a ‘morada’), there wasn’t much to the town other than another church, a library, and an art gallery, which we visited on our way out of town. The gallery itself housed an eclectic collection of pieces from around the world, with one half of the location packed with myriad Buddha sculptures and African peculiarities, and the other half filled with a combination of Americana kitsch and Indian weavings. None of it seemed to be priced to sell, but I don’t think I qualified as the target clientele. The most interesting part of the gallery turned out to be the manager, who offered us a detailed history of the Abiquiu area. As we were leaving, I asked him what his personal interests entailed, and he mentioned photography, pointing to a few works mounted on the wall which I’d been admiring earlier. I asked him where one of them had been taken, a shot of a distinctive rock formation I’d never seen before, and he told me that it was from nearby, at a place called Plaza Blanca, another site frequented by O’Keeffe. He gave us directions to get there, I thanked him sincerely, and we headed out of town. We ate dinner beside the Chama, and then drove several miles down another dirt road to arrive at Plaza Blanca, which actually sits on private land owned by an Islamic foundation which sponsors educational programs at their mosque a few miles outside of Abiquiu. Another story in itself, as you can imagine. Anyways, we spent a couple of hours wandering alone around the ‘Plaza’ which is actually comprised of many acres of spectacular surrealistic landscapes. Formations of white rock sculpted by wind and water. The sun began to set about an hour after we arrived, softly shifting both sky and sandstone through revolving pinks and blues. A perfect end to an inspiring day.

Utah. Well, really Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Nevada, then Utah, but mostly just Utah. The day after taking off the Chama, which was also the day with the amphitheater, the Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, and Plaza Blanca, we decided to head out of New Mexico and on towards Tennessee, where we were planning on leaving the van for a while as we traveled on to Utah, then Peru, then Alaska (where I’m finally getting around to writing all of this…) So it was out of New Mexico, USA (distinguished on their license plates for some reason), over to the panhandle of Texas for a quick visit with the folks, across Oklahoma on the freeway, and then onto some Arkansas backroads through vast miles of flooded rice fields for a change of scenery. It was a couple of days in Tennessee hiking and running around a couple of state parks, followed by a long day of airports, delays, lost luggage, and an eventual arrival in Brian’s Head, Utah about 24 hours after waking up in Tennessee.

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The week in Utah was hanging out with Erin’s family. Lots and lots of driving, some day hiking, and several different parks – Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Snow Canyon State Park. It was navigating throngs of other visitors in the insanely crowded national parks, and having a bit of space to ourselves the days we didn’t go to the national parks. It was cool weather, sunshine at times, and a day of heavy snow. It was hotel living and internet service and all the hot water you could handle. I think those things are commonplace for most people, but not always part of my personal reality. It was healthy eating and plenty of sleep. It was another good reminder that March and April really only mean spring when you’re in the Big Bend. In the most parts of the country, it’s still winter, apparently. I forget that some years. So yeah, Spring 18, and now for my own annual winter – summer in AK.

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The Great Unknown

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About a week after our last trip to Mexico, we’re back again. This time it’s a quick trip across the border into Ojinaga, Chihuahua and an easy walk over the bridge and into town for a big food buy in preparation for some days of canoeing on the Rio Grande. From our last border crossing back into Laredo, Texas it was a night of sleep near Lake Amistad, then the drive west over to Terlingua, where we generally spend several months each winter guiding trips on the river, and doing lots of hiking, backpacking, canoeing, and running when work gets slow. While here, we usually make the journey to ‘OJ’ every few weeks or so in order to stock up on fresh produce and other items not generally available in the ‘nearby’ towns of Presidio and Alpine (both 80 miles away). Most times we try to combine a trail run and night of camping in the Big Bend Ranch State Park and make a day or two of it rather than drive there and back in the same day.

An afternoon in ‘OJ’ usually starts with a big lunch at Lobbys, a popular local restaurant, followed by a serious bout of shopping at the Al Super, the biggest supermarket in town. Depending on whether or not we drive or walk, which mostly depends on if I’m feeling like it’s worth it to get hassled/searched for driving a van filled with random boxes packed with camping supplies and river gear, we might also make a few stops at the fruit market, the tortilla factory, and maybe even sit around in the shade of an ice cream shop for a frozen fruit bar before coming back over. On this particular day, we walk across with empty backpacks, enjoy our lunch, and then go straight for the groceries, loading up with a couple of weeks’ worth of food for the river trip, which we’ll start the next day, though this already feels like part of the adventure, hence the inclusion here. The walk back to and through customs takes a half-hour or so, and then it’s back in the van and heading out of Presidio. That evening we stay in the state park, as per usual, get up and run some trails the next morning, and then head over to Lajitas and the put-in, where I drop off Erin and the gear before heading off for the necessary tedium of the long shuttle that awaits.

Each year I come down to the Big Bend, I usually have several trips/missions in mind that I want to do before leaving again in the spring. Sometimes those trips entail checking out something totally new, while others are repeats of trips worth revisiting. This trip happens to be one of the latter, in a way, though with a couple of changes to the start/end locations and canyons floated from some years earlier. It’s a trip on the Rio Grande along the border of Big Bend National Park, which also happens to be the international border, right bank Mexico, left bank Texas if one is oriented downstream. The majority of boaters who come down to float the river are generally most interested in paddling through one or more of the several deep canyons found along the 118 miles of river forming the park boundary, which are awesome and certainly worthy of attention. Most trips through the canyons generally start and end near the entrance and exit of the canyons, which clearly makes sense if that’s what you’re down here to see and only have a few days to a week or so to see them in. As such, there is a lesser frequented section of the river, a section that winds slowly along the through the open desert, which receives far fewer visitors each year than the canyons. Due to this relative unpopularity, most folks refer to the section as the Great Unknown. And it is the Great Unknown, with the addition of a couple of those awesome canyons, which we are planning on paddling.

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We’ve allotted nine days to travel about 95 miles total on the river. Sounds easy enough in writing, a measly 10 miles a day, but making miles on the Rio Grande can be a tiresome process depending on how low the water might be, and how fiercely the upstream wind blows. Even on the best of days, paddling more than a couple of miles in an hour can be a chore, and on the worst of days, going even one mile downstream in a canoe can be literally impossible. And down here, it’s best not to ever plan for the best of days.

The crew consists of myself, Erin, and my pops, Glendon, who’s driving down from the Texas panhandle to join us. I love my dad. He’s one of the smartest and most content human beings I’ve ever met. He’s constantly reading something interesting, and always cultivating curious new hobbies such as making and utilizing atlatls and bows, fashioning native flutes and other instruments, studying native grasses, etc. The list fluctuates continually, and I have endless respect for his dedication to lifelong learning. He’s also a lot more of an outdoorsman than he admits, as capable and enduring of a hiker/backpacker/camper as you could ask for, and he never complains about anything – though you wouldn’t know either one were true if you ever read his pre-trip correspondence, which always expresses great concern as to potential weather and his unfounded fear of somehow physically encumbering whatever plans we’re trying to coordinate. To date, I’ve never outwalked him, though we might not always travel at the same pace, and I certainly tend to grumble about the wind, rain, and cold way more than he ever has, especially since that’s never that I’ve heard. We’ve done a lot of great trips in the outdoors together over the course of my life, and over the past couple of decades he’s met me in a lot of different locations, from Colorado, to Alaska, to Costa Rica for a range of different adventures. He’s also been down to the Big Bend several times, including my first time down here when I was a kid, but this will be our first real river trip in this part of the country.

In order to run our own shuttle, my dad and I arrange to meet at the take-out, Rio Grande Village in the national park. He drives down from the panhandle the day before, staying the night in Ft. Stockton, and we both arrive at RGV around 11 a.m., leaving one vehicle and getting right back in the other one for the lengthy drive back to Lajitas. We make it to the put-in around 2 p.m., where Erin has done almost all of the boat rigging and even has lunch waiting for us. It’s a beautiful day. Blue skies, no breeze, maybe 75 degrees out. A true gem of a day, in fact, and over the next nine days we are to be blessed with day after day of amazing weather. Probably the nicest continuous stretch of atmospheric pleasantness I’ve ever experienced down here. There is one chilly morning, one slightly breezy afternoon, one evening of rain, but other than that, nothing but sunshine and no wind – which, if you’ve ever spent much time on desert rivers, is almost unheard of. I’ll credit Papa for the good karma.

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River flows are typically low this time of year, and this trip is no exception, though there is sufficient volume to cover most of the rocks and even a bit of current now and again. That afternoon we paddle about five miles downstream. Erin paddles her own boat, while Glendon and I go tandem in the second canoe. Both of the boats are second-hand beaters Erin and I purchased from the river company we work for, and not designed for anything even close to expedition boating or even smaller rapids, but they float and carry gear and are basically good enough for just about any stretch on the Rio Grande. Having said that, however, Glendon and I come as close to flipping as we will the entire trip about an hour or so into the first day while navigating our way down a skinny channel in a shallow rock garden. The boat low sides through a slot, we lean hard to the right, but still fill up with a significant amount of water and barely make it to shore before tipping over. Funny, but not necessarily the way to inspire confidence at the beginning of a long journey. The next morning our wonky load has us tilting sideways for miles before we finally pull over and reconfigure all the gear in the boat, which sets us up right for the rest of the trip.

That night we make camp on river right, in Mexico, that is, getting everything set up in time to cook dinner and wash dishes just before dusk. One of the more controversial aspects of paddling on the Rio Grande is the fact that it serves as the international border, though, for now, in our potentially pre-wall era, there isn’t anything glaringly different about any one side. This is surprisingly surprising to many of the tourists who visit, and I’ve never been able to figure out what they imagined they would witness when gazing across into Mexico. I suppose the severity of their conceptions could be directly correlated with the amount of corporate media consumed on a regular basis. The same animals live on both sides of the river, the same birds fly back and forth. The same vegetation lines both banks, canyon walls rise on either side or the desert extends in all directions. Sometimes there are great campsites on the left, other times on the right, and there can be long miles between those campsites. It’s a river. And it’s pretty much impossible to only paddle on the left side of a river, which means you’re constantly crossing the border, officially the deepest channel of the river, all day long.

On paper, on your permit, you are forbidden to step into Mexico other than to scout a rapid or portage. In practice, it’s never really worked quite like that. Even on commercial trips, we’re often eating lunch in Mexico, or hiking a side canyon, or even spending the night on the right bank. Guidebooks highlight features on both sides of the river without discrepancy. For decades, river runners have traveled the river as any other, exploring sites of interest on either bank, lunching wherever there’s shade, camping on grassy flats or sandy beaches regardless of nationalistic labels, following the same wilderness ethic without distinction between governing entities or geographical specifics. Recently, however, due to so much vitriolic attention directed towards our southern neighbors, it seems inevitable that consideration must be given to the prudence of this practice, and those thoughts are on my mind that first night, and throughout the trip, a lot more than I want them to be. I’ll leave it at that. We still camp in Mexico that night, and a couple of other nights throughout the trip, just like I always have, just like common sense would dictate one would do while floating down 100 miles of river, but without quite the same serenity as before, perhaps the one downer of the entire experience.

That night we build a small driftwood fire in the firepan and hang out talking for an hour or two before bed. This ends up as the standard for the trip, and is another reason I appreciate having my pops along. Spending so many days and nights of every year in the wilderness, I practically never bother to build a fire. It simply doesn’t occur to me to do so. I suppose I got out of the habit years ago, and no longer associate camping and campfires, as most folks who only spend a few nights outside each year might do. Once it gets dark, I quite enjoy sitting around and looking up at the night sky for a while, and then usually read in bed until it’s time to sleep. This can make for some long nights in the winter months, not to mention chilly evenings, so it’s great to have someone along that’s motivated to gather wood and get a blaze going each evening. We talk about nothing in particular, or nothing at all, simply stare at the fire and enjoy the quiet of the desert.

Relative quiet that is, for another factor to doing trips down here involves the ubiquitous livestock found along every mile of the river. While parts of the Mexican side enjoy a somewhat vague level of federal protection, most of the adjoining land is used for grazing, and, believe it or not, herd animals seem disinterested in recognizing the river as an international border. As such, horses, mules, and cows will be encountered frequently on either side, and are often nonplussed to find humans occupying their nighttime grazing areas and water holes. The beach we are on is no exception, and sometime in the middle of the night a troupe of galloping horses storms through the middle of camp, bringing quick awakenings and unwanted imaginings of bandidos riding upon us. A quick head thrust outside the tent reveals that it’s only frustrated mules looking to graze in their usual spot, however, and they reluctantly choose to move on to perhaps less green pastures rather than roam among the strange tents on their home turf. Several nights later we have a more intense encounter with a proudly prancing gelding intent on intimidation, and have to get out the pots and pans in order to scare it away for good.

In the morning, we wake up, laugh a bit about the horses, and pack up the boats. We float and paddle for several miles through open canyon country, spotting a roving fox on its morning patrol and various ducks, flycatchers, and other birds. We stop at a spot called ‘metates’ and spend a few minutes pondering holes worn deep into bedrock from the grinding of mesquite pods used in the production of flour by early inhabitants of the area. Up on the cliffs around us we spot a herd of about 30 aoudad, or Barbary sheep, a non-native species of mountain sheep that were introduced as game animals on Texas ranches back in the 50s. Aoudad (pronounced aw-dad), native to northern Africa, have since escaped the private ranches they were originally released on, and now thrive in the harsh desert environments of several southwestern states. All over the Big Bend they continue to proliferate, to the point that they are open-season animals for hunters here (though not in the park), and are slated to be targeted for significant numbers reduction by the National Park Service, which considers them a threat to the ecology of the area for multiple reasons. All the same, it’s pretty awesome to see them in what certainly seems like their natural habitat, to admire their climbing agility and determined adaptability. We watch their red bodies move gracefully upwards, almost entirely camouflaged against the desert rocks, until they simply disappear into the mountain.

We lunch at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, and hike up to an overlook for a quick peek into the shady depths we’re about to float through. The canyon is a narrow slot through two massive limestone mesas. Around seven miles long, its walls reaching heights of around 1500’, it’s one of the main attractions in the national park, and an inspiring sight from all vantages, through especially impressive from the river. As we enter the canyon in our canoes, the temperature drops significantly and the current picks up a bit, giving the experience a slightly ominous feel. We navigate a few easy riffles, and line the boats through a couple of others where the current surges into banks lined with overhanging river cane. About a mile into the canyon, we come upon Rock Slide, where an eponymous event centuries prior left monstrous house-sized boulders strewn across the river in a difficult maze. With a bit of lining, dragging, and paddling, we manage to get our boats through the confusion, and then spend the rest of the afternoon drifting slowly downstream, our necks craning upwards as we attempt to take everything in. Reluctant to float through the entire canyon in one day, we decide to camp a couple miles above the exit. Knowing we won’t have any sun the next morning to animate us seems a small price to pay for a sublime evening spent on a rock beach in the bottom of such a wondrous environment. That night, the near full moon illuminates the canyon walls, surrounding us in silvery blue light.

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The next day we leave the canyon mid-morning with cold fingers and toes, happily paddling as we continue past the usual take-out, and officially enter the Great Unknown. Around the first corner we’re immediately rewarded with big views of the Chisos Mountains and Cerro Castellan. A few miles downstream, we stop for lunch at Cottonwood Campground, a popular birding destination in the park, temporarily closed for repairs, but easily accessible from the river allowing us to have the place to ourselves for long enough to sight several colorful species including vermillion flycatchers and golden-fronted woodpeckers. Back on the river we float past a great-horned owl as it snoozes in the sun. That night we camp on a low beach with a good view of the Chisos in the distance. A fiery sunset turns clouds and mountains brilliant pinks and reds.

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The next six days we paddle, hike, camp, repeat. We swim a bit, bask in the morning sun, seek shade in the middle of the afternoon, sit around a fire each night. On the river it’s mostly steep, cane lined banks, though there are occasional glimpses of ever-changing desert scenery as we slowly make our way downstream. There is wildlife in abundance. A short list of birds would include: great blue herons, blue and green winged teal, cinnamon teal, buffleheads, cormorants, multiple raptors, two species of vultures, ravens, Pyrrhuloxia and cardinals, Say’s and black phoebe, several species of wrens… We catch a quick glimpse of a bobcat early one morning, see another fox, spot several herds of aoudad…

The guidebook offers thoughtful histories about the early Anglo settlers of the area, and we often stop to poke around the foundations of old rock houses, remnants of lives left long ago. We try to imagine what life might have been like for those people, how different the landscape might have been before the taxing human endeavors of ranching and mining, said to have significantly altered the ecosystem. More grass and trees? Less desert? How hot?

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After several days of floating through the Great Unknown, we drift into Mariscal Canyon, every bit as spectacular as Santa Elena, though infrequently visited due to the challenge of getting there. We check out the crystal caves near the entrance, walk up a steep path to the abandoned dwelling of a hermit, said to have spent some time there while dodging the Vietnam draft, navigate ‘Tight Squeeze.’ We lunch at Cross Canyon, and speed hike up the steep trail there for a few miles, hoping to get on top of the canyon wall but not quite making it due to daylight constraints; there are rewarding views all the same. We spend a night in that canyon as well, on a high grassy knoll alongside silent waters below.

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One of our favorite campsites is a large barren island just upstream of the old Solis house, which we arrive at the next afternoon. Favorite for the views, and favorite because we decide to do a ‘lunch-over,’ in which the lunch spot also serves as the camp spot, one of my preferred ways to float rivers these days. The afternoon off provides a welcome respite from long days of paddling. We all do our own thing for several hours, reconvening around dinnertime. That night, the moon waning now and not appearing for several hours, the stars explode in the expanse of sky above us.

For half of the next day we paddle through the short but spectacular San Vicente Canyon, and then back into the open desert. A final river campsite, and out the next morning. The last day comes on as perfect as the first. We eat our last oatmeal breakfast, perform the standard camp breakdown, fasten everything securely into the boats, and push off the banks for a few sunlit miles down to Langford hot springs, where we soak in the springs and swim in the river for a couple of hours before paddling through Hot Springs Canyon on our way to the takeout.

We arrive at the boat ramp around noon, pack quickly and efficiently, and head back across the park, this time at 50 mph rather than 2. Back in Lajitas we say goodbye to Glendon, hoping for many more adventures in the years to come, but more than anything incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have lived this one.

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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 conservative douche started that trend in the first place, undoubtedly some nutless Fox News pundit trying to con viewers into believing their bigoted rhetoric stems from patriotism rather than cowardice. 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…). Above all, thank a farmer. Thank an artist.

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 raw nipples each one of us from standing in the cold wind for 30 minutes in our running clothes, 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 — Things Get Interesting

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.