Starry Night, August 2021

Morning, Spanish Bottom

Starry Night

This is the last stop on the Colorado River, after eight days canoe camping on the Green River in the canyonland wilderness of Utah. The worst day was gotten over on the first day with miserable cold and rain and too many miles. The last day, was a lazy one on a long sandy beach. We arrived in the early afternoon before the coolness of the day was blown away by hot afternoon winds.

Why is this beach so white when everything visible for hundreds of square miles is red rock?

We staked our claim to this beach by spreading out and luxuriating in the soft, wide, open space after a week on hardpack and gravel and almost impossible climbs to find enough dry, flat ground for a tent. We had seen four other people, not counting a Canyonlands National Park Ranger who stopped his jetboat to say hello. On our beach it is just the four of us.

The last day, we are taking our time.

The tent can go almost anywhere we choose.

Our gear is all over the place, drying after washing off the loose sand and mud.

The canoes are rinsed out and draining, two bright red, hard edged curves laying on their sides, the bottoms turned against the light wind. Later, as the wind picks up, we move them into the shelter of a ledge and weigh them down because the wind is strong enough to flip them back into the river. Canoes are like fish, they struggle on land and take the wind as an opportunity to fly back into the river. I’ve seen that more than once; 80 pound canoes flying.

It’s too hot to hike and there’s very little shade so we sit in the water to cool off; wet rags on our heads and shoulders, laughing at the shock of cold water on our skin, every time. Quiet talk, joking, telling stories, knowing this is the last day. Carefully untying the threads that have bound the four of us together for the trip. Placing memories in each other’s minds to take home.

The river was solid with silt. We could not see beyond its surface.

Every night there had been distant thunder storms and occasionally the sky behind an abutment would light up, but no rain fell after that first day and night. The desert monsoon storms are small but violent – loud with thunder and rain drops the size of pennies. But the storms are so localized that we would be dry. Because each side canyon is cut into rock of a different color, the flash floods that poured into the main channel of the Green River shifted it’s color daily, even hourly, from brown to gray, to gray green, to pinkish beige.

On the last day the water was greenish, wide and quiet. From downstream, where we will not go, we could hear the first of the Cataract Canyon rapids roaring like a distant freeway or a huge waterfall.

I always feel that sound as a pull at my chest that is slightly fear and slightly the desire to throw myself into it bodily. This desire to be in the river is not to drown but to lose myself in the rough tumble of water and rock, to let go and be part of the river, to flow in a way that is bigger than my body. I’ve had unpleasant swims in rivers and I know that throwing myself into a rapid would be painful. I would helplessly bang into rocks and get sucked under water and inhale water and cough and cough and cough. No, I don’t want to do that, again.  This desire to be in the river is bigger than my body and beautiful.

There was still some faint light from the sunset when we climbed into the tent and our sleeping bags. I fell asleep almost immediately. In the few moments before I dropped off I heard, I could almost feel, a subsonic thump of a wave slamming against itself in the rapid downstream, a refrigerator door’s muffled slamming.

I woke after a few hours. I had to pee. It was strangely light out but the full moon hadn’t cleared the canyon walls. I put on my glasses and unzipped the door and stumbled around putting on my sandals. Then I looked up.

I am struck by light. The Milky Way is solid with starlight, so much so that I don’t need my flashlight to walk across the beach which glows. The canyon walls and the river are black. I feel myself standing in a small canyon on the rough surface of the Earth with a star-cut bowl curving overhead. A billion stars spreading across blackness like a toss of glitter. I feel scared and safe at the same time, the edge of our Galaxy is so big and I am infinitely small and unimportant. I can be squished like a bug and it won’t make an iota of difference. I am terrifyingly inconsequential. At the same time I am so small that I won’t be noticed. Whatever happens to me is pure accident. The Universe is so full of busyness bigness, it has no time to think about me, to target me.

Statistically I am safe.

That’s the lie I feel in that moment under the starry sky.

To the East the whole expanse of sandstone cliffs was suddenly backlit by lightening. All night there is a light show of flashes beyond our canyon walls and in the morning the flash floods from upstream turned the river bright red.

What will be, was

I picked up a little box of cards at a party recently that had little conversation topics written on them. I thought they would make interesting writing prompts.

#1  Which school subjects do you think will be useful and which will be useless?

At the time, I thought school was boring and a waste of time. There were some classes that made sense to me, like Art and English. I enjoyed French but that was mostly because the two French teachers we had at Novato High in the late 60’s were lively and interesting people.

Our French teachers were polar opposites. Miss Morin was stout, portly, and her personality was warm and kind, motherly to go with her big body, a Venus of Wallendorf. She wore her black hair in a French roll at the back and dark clothes like a French peasant. I trusted her and visited her at her home once, just dropped in during my senior year. Rumor had it that she was a lesbian because she lived with a woman roommate and hadn’t married. It was 1968 and I didn’t really know what a gay person was. There was curiosity attached to the rumor, nothing malicious.

I have forgotten the other French teacher’s name. She was tall and thin and energetic and a lot of fun. She wore calf-length flowered dresses and had long reddish hair that was out of control. It waved and curled past her shoulders. My feelings for her were more volatile and unexpected. I wanted her approval so actually I did some of the homework assignments.. I would mess around exaggerating the rolling “r’s,” parodying her a little. She told me I had a very good accent.

Miss Robb, the art teacher was a small woman, too, but she had a layer of baby fat that made her look young, even to us. She wore her hair very short and taught us all kind of things. She ran the class like a survey course in all the arts and crafts. She taught us to to copper enamel. I still have a piece I made on a penny with an astrological sign on it. She also had us do a light show. She brought in a bunch of exposed 35mm film and we scratched and painted on it. We  mixed colored oil and water and mushed it around in dishes on the overhead projector. When my team gave its presentation I was supposed to give my partner a cue by passing my hand over the oily mess but he didn’t start the movie projector. I cued him again and still nothing. Finally I said, go! Turned out that he was waiting for me to shut off the overhead. In the critique someone pointed out that there were too many hands flashing through my part of the show.

I was interested in making jewelry so one day after school Miss Robb took me to Berkeley to an art store on University Avenue. Neither of us had made any plans for me to get home and there were no buses between Novato and Berkeley. Besides I had no money. I don’t remember how I got home. She might have driven me there.

2001, the movie, came out while I was in High School. One of the male teachers, I don’t remember what he taught. I was wary of him because he had a lot of groupies hanging around him. He held a whole class on the movie 2001. His thesis was that it was a representation of  an acid trip and that the world was going to become a better, more enlightened place if everyone took a trip. I think he got fired and then rehired due to student protests. Maybe I am making that up. There was some fuss about him for encouraging students to rebel and rumors that he took acid.

Mr. Burger, my geometry teacher was pretty cool. He was in the process of building a house in the hills of Marinwood that didn’t have any 90 degree angles. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I wonder how he got the money for that. I always struggled with math, but geometry was easy for me. I have no idea how I got through algebra to get into geometry class. After we had been working with the various formulas he gave us the assignment to make a geometry puzzle. I drew circles and lines and plugged in every formula we had learned up to that point into a diagram. He put mine on the board and solved a lot of the puzzles but gave up before he finished them all. I enjoyed being singled out but disappointed that he didn’t finish. I felt like his inability to figure it out was my failure, not his.

I just realized that if he had answered the questions in order he would have been able to solve the whole puzzle. The answers to some of the questions were dependent on the answers to earlier questions. I just now thought that. After 49 years I figured out why he had to stop. (Just to give you an idea of my math skills I had to write down on paper the 2018 minus 1969 problem and I had problems with all the zeros. I forgot how to carry.)

That was the second time something like that happened.

When I was in 7th grade I wrote a fairy tale for my English class. It was a jokey thing and I made up some elaborate names for the characters. The teacher would read one of the stories out loud to the class on Friday afternoons. She told me, maybe in front of the class, that she would have read my story except that she couldn’t pronounce the names. I felt cheated.

When I was in high school I wanted to be a scientist and write poetry. My counselor told me that I should take typing so that I could be a secretary. I refused. The idea of working in a an office was disgusting. I wouldn’t join the squares and work for the military-industrial complex! Of course computers cured me of that typing bias and I have worked in offices of one sort or another my whole working life. Much more interesting than I expected. Even data entry has its charms, it’s a lot like paid knitting or playing solitaire where it isn’t cheating if you sort the deck if it doesn’t work out.

My political views were full of teen confusions, foggy even, but I really did believe that the War in Vietnam was a horrible, terrible, vicious example of how stupid the government was, that the war was run by a bunch of heartless generals. The tv show M.A.S.H. said it all for me.

In a political science class we played a global simulation game. Without naming the countries we had been given, we were to solve the puzzle of how to avoid nuclear warfare during the Korean War. I don’t think the disguise of giving the countries new names was necessary because hardly anyone knew what the Korean War was. We were randomly assigned to “countries” and given roles to play within that country. We were given the situation and allowed to play it out. I handled the agricultural department of my country. I thought that it was a dumb role. Who cares about food production? (My only justification for my ignorance was that I was in school to learn such things. Later when I heard about the food production problems in China I remembered my little rebellion and wondered what was in my portfolio.) In the meeting of my country’s departments I saw that my fellow countrymen didn’t have a clue how to proceed. They were very confused and I am not sure they understood the assignment. There wasn’t even any horsing around, just muddle. I’ve never been very patient with muddle.

Since I thought I was a minor player and had no stakes in the game, I decided to defect. I packed my folder of agricultural materials and moved to the table where North Korea was trying to figure out how to stop the Chinese from invading. What a shockwave that created. The teacher was called in to adjudicate but he (or she) said there was no rule against defecting and let my defection stand. If there had been a CIA recruiter spying on us he would have rejected me right then. Maybe even busted me.

But I was suspicious of all kinds of fanatics, gurus, and born agains. I resented people who told me what to think and people who didn’t think like I did. School was just another system for soul crushing. If it wasn’t painful it was boring. Mostly boring.

I had a friend who became a born again Christian and he and  I had a long series of arguments about how his beliefs were illogical. I think we only succeeded in hardening our own convictions without opening our minds to other ways of seeing things. Mike. His name was Mike. We didn’t have anything to talk about after we reached the impasse of the faith vs. reason conversation. I had felt animated by our talks but I think he felt bullied. He was probably right. I held the Hewitt convictions coupled with an inability to listen. I had to fix things. If I couldn’t fix them I was willing to toss them aside, to break them further.

One of the teachers at my high school was Harvey Susser. We were supposed to call him Mr. Susser but those who took his drama classes called him Harvey. I was not a Dramie, I was a Hippie, so I didn’t take any classes from him until I was at College of Marin where he had transferred around the time I graduated from Novato High. I knew him there as Harvey. I took his history of film class 3 times.

When he was still at Novato High, Harvey put on school productions that had sold out audiences. Our Town, of course, but also a series of short absurdist plays like Sandbox and Rhinoceros. He also did a full production of Oklahoma and then The Lady’s Not For Burning and The Lottery.

The Lottery burned into my brain. It articulated the paranoia of military life in the 50’s to perfection and helped me identify my fear of groups and authority. “Yes, that’s how it is,” I thought, “I am not going to get any help. I could easily be the sacrifice. I am not going to join any group.” I did eventually find a group, but that is another essay.

Writing this is confusing. There are times in the present when I am stubborn and thoughtless but they are very brief compared to when I was a teen. I no longer hold convictions with the same rigidity, in fact sometimes I marvel at my ability to see multiple points of view. I can say yes and then no to a question and both answers make sense to me. Both are correct. I chew on myself,  “You’re wishy-washy. Don’t be so open minded that your brains fall out.” Etc.

As I get older I find it harder to like my younger self. Not that I really appreciated myself then. I was defensive and scared most of the time and I didn’t find safety for many years. Gentleness and compassion came late, too. Any sense of self appreciation still has to hide. I am still surprised that people like me. Who me? Are you sure?

A friend recently reminded me that I should trust my friend’s judgments, that it is a little insulting to fail to acknowledge that they like me. I try to remember that. I try to appreciate their appreciation of me. They are not nuts for liking me.

Still, there is a part of me that is amazed that my friends show up.  There is a part of me that feels shame when I appreciate myself. When people compliment me I cringe, I feel a fraud, they must be talking about someone else or misunderstanding my selfish evil intentions.

That soul crushing I was so worried about the “establishment” forcing on me was already there. My struggles as an adult have always been about being safe in my skin even though I thought my skin was stupid and useless.

I am 65 now and I wonder why this self-loathing ‘me’ hasn’t looked at the evidence and seen that I am not a creep. I am loved and appreciated. It still surprises me.

#2  How does a person become courageous?

I think courage has a lot to do with experience. Or maybe confidence.

My experience with courage.

My non-boating/camping friends tell me I am crazy for going whitewater canoeing. That some of the adventures I’ve had were borderline crazy. When they say these things I am at a loss to explain that while I am scared at the prospect of flipping in a rocky rapid, I am not mustering up courage. I am fighting down fear. I am not becoming courageous. I am becoming less fearful by pushing fear down into excitement and challenge. Those friends who put themselves in my place, who try to imagine what it would be like to dart down a Class III rapid, should be terrified. If they were going where I was going they would be in danger. Real danger because they would have no idea what to do to protect themselves. I have had practice. I studied with master paddlers and practiced on many levels of river so I know my limitations and strengths in situations on rivers.

This is where I get the idea of courage being circumstantial. If you have practiced a certain task it becomes a skill, you can practice CPR on a dummy, or paddle with someone more experienced than you are, but practice also has taught you something about yourself. You have found confidence in your skills and you have found out something about consequences.

Going back to the courage question; in this context practice and experience can dull your fears and change your expectations so that you can do more daring and potentially dangerous things. You can look more courageous to people who don’t share your experience. It doesn’t feel like courage.

My working definition up to this point is that courage is being willing to take the risk of doing something known to be dangerous.

Spontaneous. There is something spontaneous about courage that I am leaving out in my musings.

I am trying to distinguish between the fireman who has been trained and wears equipment to go into a burning house and the average person who does the same without training and equipment and often without thought. Maybe we need two different words for those experiences. The fireman has far more skills and knowledge about what he is doing and he does it anyway. The average person has an incomplete idea of what she is getting into and she does it anyway. The similarity is in the ‘doing it anyway’ part of the situation. The binding between the two is courage. But you can’t measure courage volumetrically.

Maybe courage is something that happens, rather than something one becomes. Maybe that is the part of this question that stumps me. The fireman has fear but he also has figured out how to work within that fear. He also knows the consequences of going into a burning building without the gear and expertise he brings to the situation. He’s seen the ruins of people who failed to escape. To him the above mentioned average person is completely nuts for entering, not courageous, but stupid.

The driving force for my fireman friend was that he wanted to save someone, some day. I think he wanted to feel heroic. The “average person” is often pronounced dead at the scene, which is what holds most of us back. Is it courage that propels that average person into the flames?

When I paddle a Class III rapid, I am using my skills. I am solving the puzzle the river is throwing at me. I am thinking fast and not at all. I am not brave or courageous, busy is more like it. On rare occasions I have spontaneously jumped into a potentially dangerous situation without thinking beyond, “Oh, god, I hope I don’t land on a rock,” and having a little flashback to the time when I was a kid floating on my air mattress in a shallow stream and hit that rock with my stomach. But all my hesitation had been while I was already in the air heading for the water.

Maybe part of the definition of courage is what people say about the person after the courageous act. Perhaps what they say about themselves should be included.

I’ve never heard someone say,  “I was brave,” or, “I have courage.” I can’t really say those things about myself because I don’t really know what those feelings are. Are they even feelings? People have told me I was brave when I jumped into a river to rescue someone but brave wasn’t part of the immediate experience. Fear, certainly. But mostly on the river I am not actually thinking about what I am doing. I jumped into the river. The water was cold and shocking. I saw rocks and current, things that could threaten me, but mostly I was trying to figure out how to save the situation. Is anyone trapped underwater? Whew, two bobbing heads heading downstream. Can I get over there? Is there someone closer who can be more effective? Where is my throw rope? That boat is really stuck! I really hope someone knows how to do a z-drag.

It isn’t the adrenaline rush or the death wish I seek, it’s the… I don’t know exactly, I just find those situations and how to avoid them, equally and deeply interesting. A friend referred to this as “focused high,” which seems a bit smaller than the experience warrants but it will have to do for now.

So I am circling back to the idea that courage is not something you become as if you suddenly become a redhead or six inches taller when necessity demands it. Courage is a word that gets applied to me by others who didn’t happen to think as quickly as I did, that particular time. Or they didn’t think the same things I did. Or, they gave up on the situation before I did. They gave up on their ability to solve whatever problem lay before them before it occurred to me that I should avoid getting my one set of dry clothes wet on a cold windy day.

Russian River, May 5th, 2012

This time of year I am overwhelmed by a powerful rush of longing to sit by a river and worship the movement, the smells, the sound of rushing water over rocks. To skip the drama, blow the suspense, ruin the punchline: Charlie and I didn’t swim on this trip but we did a stupid portage. A stupid portage is any portage you have to make because you’re lost and can’t find the water.

Trip leaders, Chuck and Jan with their kids Jake and Ruth had been up at the River since Wednesday. They had rented a cabin in Gurnewood Park at the last minute because the weather was threatening and camping and cooking in the rain gets old. So they sat out a huge thunderstorm in a cozy little cabin and got to boat together for one day in the wind. We left our house in Berkeley at 7 AM with Dan and Martha following behind in their car.

When we pulled off the fwy at Healdsburg Avenue, they were on the left filling up at the Chevron. No one was in desperate need of pastry so we decided to go straight to the put-in. I missed the fwy return, I swear there were no signs with arrows anywhere near the access and we ended up taking the main drag all the way through town and out to Alexander Valley Road where we took a right to go the Alexander Valley Campground. The road runs parallel to the freeway so I only felt lost for 30 seconds right before the turn off to Alexander Valley Road appeared. We were a little early at the campground. We drove around the empty campground and found the trail/road down to the river. Then we got out of the cars and wandered around, paid our access fees and waited for about 10 minutes before Chuck and Jan showed up.

Oh, frabjous day! To be fidgeting at the put-in on a day radiating goodwill and sunshine! To see plenty of current and no wind! Life is good! It’s a short shuttle of approximately 7 miles from the campground to Healdsburg Memorial Beach County Park. The river takes two wide goose-necks to arrive at the park so it is a 14 mile paddle. While we waited, Yukon, Jan’s white Lab, a water dog to her cheerful core, chased sticks into the water and frolicked around greeting everyone and joyfully spraying water when she shook off. Kuda, not a water dog, stood close to Dan looking worried. Later in the boats the two dogs went to sleep. Jan, deferring to Charlie and I in our elder statesman roles asked us to be Lead boat. Russian River in this section is a class I, a river that you can usually get down safely with a minimum of difficulty. Charlie and I have been the sweep boat for so many years that being out front was a strange experience, but we agreed. We were flattered. It was really hubris. The water was high and posed a set of problems for us that we didn’t solve very well. It started at the first “rapid”. When the river is low for a year or two, the shore grows a thick line of willows, impenetrable by any living creature except minnows. When the water is high, as it would most likely be in the spring after a big rain, the river carves out the sand and gravel from around this line of shrubbery and leaves most of it standing, a hedge-like picket fence in mid-current. Its not too bad if the current is flowing parallel to the hedge but this isn’t always the case. This day the swift current was running at a diagonal or in places at 90° to the fence. This is very dangerous. It is very difficult to avoid the brush and if you get tangled in it your boat is far too likely to flip (counter-intuitively you have to be sticking your head into the brush to protect the boat) and if you flip, a swimmer is at great risk of being overwhelmed by the current that will shove them into the strainer and under water. Its called a strainer and is very ugly. Within minutes of the put-in the bulk of the current plunged left into a deep undercut bank and disappeared around the beginning of a 100 yd long picket fence of willows that marched into the vague distance where it vanished. River right was covered with a long wide gravel bar and a shallow pool. We didn’t like the looks of the left channel because we could not see through the willows and the undercut looked recent enough that there could easily be a stump, tree, or for that matter a school bus hiding from our sight. Our other choice was to see if there was a break in the willows at the bottom end of the fence. There was enough current to make the second choice look safer than the speeding unknown into the dark of the first so Charlie and I paddled into the wide area above the picket fence looking for a break. Well, so much for plans; the current rushing out of the pool was a lot faster than we expected and there didn’t appear to be any breaks in the picket fence and there was a hidden gravel bar upon which we grounded the bow of the boat and spun around facing upstream paddling furiously in three inches of water to avoid being swept into the fence. The water was so shallow I thought about hopping out and grabbing the gunwale but knew that if I did that there was a pretty good chance that the lightened boat would float off the gravel before I could get a grip on it and Charlie would be swept into the sweeper without any help from me. In our one expert move of the day, we pushed off the gravel bar, pivoted neatly in place so we could see where we were going and darted quickly through a slot in the willows that only reveled itself at the last second. Whew. Not a big deal, but not an auspicious start either.

We looked back to see Jan, who was paddling with her daughter, Ruth, in the bow. She was standing on the shore scouting her next move and the rest of the group was scattered out in the pool above the mess of willows. Everyone safe. Yay.

As we drifted downstream below the willow fence, a nice wide slot appeared in the willows and we pointed it out to our followers and everyone made it down OK. We made another similar half baked decision at the next challenging spot, whereupon I asked Jan, “Are you sure you want us to be Lead?” “No, no, you go ahead.”

The nice thing about being Lead boat is that you get to see all the critters before they get scared off by the boats. We saw an otter on the shore as it scampered into the water. I was reminded of a salamander as the otter’s black form slipped out of sight. After lunch the river messed us up again. Chuck was concerned about the wind and he and Jake in their solo canoes, took off ahead of the group, leaving Jan and Ruth, Dan and Martha, Alice in her kayak and Charlie and I in the lead again. This time the scary undercut channel was on the right; a big fat current flowing into brush and then the unknown but the left was a smaller channel but still with a lot of moving water in it. We thought we could get out of it if it turned out to be a downer but we shot down a steep chute through some willows so that we were committed to this route. We signaled Alice, Jan and Ruth to wait before coming down. Dan and Martha were far enough upstream that they took the right chute. The river got thinner and thinner until it narrowed down into a swift channel racing diagonally through three or four rows of willows at such a speed I wasn’t willing to risk it. There didn’t appear to be a safe zone and failure could be a big problem. That left us committed to a stupid portage. We were on an island and there was no place to go on the left and the right hand channel was protected by a six foot thick barrier of willows. We stomped randomly around looking for a short stupid portage and eventually found a break in the willows that allowed us to put one boat at a time into the water. Jan and Ruth portaged a little bit upstream of us. We caught up with Chuck and Jake who had taken the better channel and ended up waiting for us for a half hour while we sorted ourselves out. Chuck’s comment was, “Yeah, there were some spots that were a little ambiguous.” Charlie and I sheepishly surrendered the Lead to Chuck and he led us quietly downstream.

On Thursday, Ruth, on one of her first solo canoe adventures, had been buffeted by the wind to the point of flipping. Jan said she was side-surfing a wave in the middle of a pool with no current; the wind had whipped the water into a Class II. Today, while there were a few sections where we were bullied by upstream winds, most of the time it, if it blew, it blew downstream.

We drifted into the more residential area of Healdsburg and took a stretch break on a beach lined with small cottages. We arrived at the take-out in Healdsburg and carried the boats up the hill and then got the cars and loaded them. Alice went swimming and picked some lupine from a patch that grew between the pedestrian bridge and the auto bridge. This patch is mentionable because it was a huge, thick mass of intense purple that was clearly cultivated, its edges square and nothing else was growing within its border. It stood out like a flag laying on the shore.

We took Dan and Martha back to their car at the put-in and then Charlie, Alice and I followed Jan to Guernewood Park. We sat around catching up and chatting until dinner. Charlie and I went home and Alice spent the night. On Sunday we all joined up again at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds to watch Joann O. running her dogs in the Dog Agility Contest. But that is another story.

Saturday on the Russian River with Chuck and Jan (and others)

April 30, 2011

Spring run on the Russian River

The first time I paddled a canoe was on the Russian River from Asti to Alexander Valley Road. We had no clue what we were doing and in our ignorance we caught every eddy between the put in and take out despite all our efforts to just go straight down the river. Oddly enough this trip, done in August at less than 100 cfs, was the beginning of our 23 year love affair with rivers. Not necessarily the Russian, but rivers all over the West.
In the summer, the Russian is all the things we try to avoid on rivers. It is very hot and the river is filled, bank to bank, with ratty old aluminum canoes, people in all levels of dress and undress, ripe, red, beer bellies punched into inflated inner tubes and no escape from the teeming masses because the shores are steep and lined with barbed wire fences to protect the vineyards. The last time we paddled the Russian we avoided the summer crush and did a run in December. Then, it was bitterly cold and while Charlie and I were able to take care of ourselves, we were unable to keep Alice, our five year old, from getting wet at the put in. Big mistake! This lead to a long miserable day for all three of us.
So when Jan suggested we join her for the weekend on April 30th, we weren’t very interested, but the weather was promising and eventually we caved in and decided that for one day it would be OK. It is an easy drive from our home in Berkeley and it is always fun to visit with our friends from Arcata.
I have to say right off that the automobile gods were on a rampage that weekend and while there were no accidents there was more than the usual amount of confusion.
When you paddle down a river there are many moods and contrasts. The Russian was in a mood I had never seen. This was partly due to the fact we were on a section I had never paddled. We put in just below the dam at Healdsburg and took out at Steelhead Beach Regional Park. Its a Class I and 11 miles. Oddly the shuttle was miles longer than the river run because there is a shortage of bridges (and we went right instead of left at an intersection).
Once we were on the river there was one section, neatly framed by giant cottonwoods that were standing very still, you could almost hear an occasional leaf pop free of the branches and drift to the water. An oriole was either following us or there was a mile long colony of them so that as we floated along there was always a strong, melodic voice right next to us, singing loud and lovely and yet invisible.
In these places we try to paddle quietly and gently and we catch glimpses of movement out of the corners of our eyes.
At the same time we are surrounded by this idyllic scene, we are also passing through a place where the huge destructive power of the river makes you think constantly of what 30,000 cfs really means. During the rainy season the sandy bank had been pounded upon – cut and washed away, leaving uprooted trees and bushes tangled in piles on the shore. Bits and pieces and whole trees collect in eddies at high water and when the water recedes huge clots of sticks and branches are suspended high up in bent trees looking like giant nests for Dumbo the Flying Elephant. There are even some laughing black ravens flapping from tree to tree.
Bank swallows were building their tiny caves in the sandy cliffs. They darted around knobby black roots under partially up-rooted trees or flew overhead peeping at us aggressively.
Fences and barbed wire and rip-rap intrude on the scene in places; vineyards owners are in constant battle with the river to keep their land from being dragged away by the river and they shove huge piles of rock off the eroding banks of the river, hoping to stabilize the shore. Fence posts dangling from the barbed wire tell of their failures.
But the vineyards give the river a nice cultivated wildness; there are no houses leaning over the riverbanks until we get down towards Mirabell. It is like the river is a lion in the circus that is allowed to rampage through the countryside for six months of the year and sometimes it is incredibly destructive. But during the summer it does its job of filling the reservoirs and wells of the nearby towns as well as carrying thousands of boaters downstream to cool off.
When we drifted along in the spring the wildness hadn’t worn off yet, the lion has left its claw marks.