Paddle For Water - A Memoir
Journey with Me . . .
by canoe across the country
excerpts from Paddle For Water:
Most days we wake to rain. We cook breakfast in rain. We paddle in rain. We lunch in rain. We establish camp in rain. We cook supper in rain. We go to sleep to the sound of rain. Sometimes the rain comes in the form of a tiny cloud relieving itself as it races across the lake. Despite our best efforts, we cannot outrun these torrents; but they do give us fair warning. We hear a pounding waterfall getting louder and louder. We look behind to see a dark curtain stirring up the surface as it chases us down. No time to waste. Pull up the hood, cinch up the spray skirt, stop paddling and hunker down while big, heavy raindrops give us a whooping. Within a minute, our punishment has stopped. We raise our heads to see the attack cloud continue on its way.
“Look at the waves around that point” I holler, referring to the jut of land we would have to paddle out around. “I don’t want to do that.” I yell adamantly. Waves have been routinely breaking over our bow. The waves at the point are even more menacing.
“Neither do I” Tom hollers back.
Once again, we disembark onto the rocky embankment, as that’s all there is for shoreline. This one is steeper than our last stop. The merciless waves beat our poor boat against the rip rap again and again. Tom tries to hold it at bay while he unclips the gear and swings it back to me. I grab each pack, heave it onto my back and clamber up a few feet to wedge each behind a sturdy rock. I make trip after grueling trip miraculously without twisting my ankle. On my last trip I grab the bow of the now empty canoe while Tom man-handles the stern and we stumble up the rip rap to clunk her down behind a log that is well out of the water and stable enough to secure her to it.
The wind is incessant! The question is: Now what? Here we sit on a hill of boulders. One thing is plain - we can’t be out on the river anymore. Therefore, we’ve got to hike, no matter how far, to find a place to stay.
On the other side of that window a woman sits in a little dark room observing them. She is the fish counter. At a glance, she identifies the type of fish passing by her window. She adds a fish to her count that makes forward progress and subtracts the backward moving ones. As she explains her work, I can tell she obviously takes pride in what she does. Jim explains the bigger problem is getting the fingerlings down. Forty million dollars was spent at this dam for a fingerling bypass, so the little baby fish don’t have to go through the turbines en route to the ocean. Jim estimates a mere 4% mortality rate even if they did go through the turbines. Gulls, he estimates, account for a much higher mortality rate . The Army Corps has installed wires over the gates to lessen the impact of gull predation on the fingerlings. We hop back in the truck for our next stop[on our personalized tour of John Day Dam.].
“Anyway, what do you think of Memsochette Wallula, Traveler of Many Waters?” I ask expectantly.
Tom nods in approval. “We’ll have to call her M.W. for short.”
Personalizing the canoe gives me great satisfaction. Like having a puppy for a month without a name, it is inappropriate and awkward referring to our canoe as just an object. She already displayed character and inspired confidence and I venture to say is showing her personality. Equal in worthiness to any troller, schooner, tanker, tug, or dog, she has earned and deserves an appropriate name. We have no bottle of champagne and frankly, I don’t want to break anything on her. We vow to get some stick-on letters the next time we stop in a town, so she can display her name proudly on her stern.
Just shy of the dam we hit the fishing spot. Fishermen stand high overhead along the jetty with huge fishing poles outfitted with heavy-duty monofilament. They are lined up almost shoulder to shoulder trying their luck at catching a big sturgeon lurking down in the deep cold water below. The current out beyond their lines is too swift to paddle against. We need to ply the shore eddies if we are ever to make progress, but fishing lines lace a monofilament fence across our course. Tom’s quick thinking produces a solution.
“Hold your poles out!” he shouts between heaving breaths hoping they can hear. “Hold them out” he keeps repeating to the fishermen above and we begin to steadily navigate the narrow corridor between lines on the river side and shore to our right. Our powerful strokes inch us along under this bridge of fishing poles until one fisherman tries to reel in. He isn’t quick enough. I feel a tug on my PFD.
“Tom, I’m caught,” I yell, “Stop!” From the bow Tom attempts to maintain our heading and momentum but we immediately start to drift backward while I frantically fiddle myself free of the hook in my PFD. “OK, I’m free,” and we dig in to keep muscling onward, Tom continuing to yell. I can’t help but think, “Are they swearing at us up there?” I can almost feel it in my bones. Two canoeists going against this powerful flow is no doubt a strange and unexpected sight on the Columbia River.
Just a cement growth off a riverside road, the boat launch I remember so vividly is rather ugly and mundane. In a much less rambunctious river, trailered boats get backed down, parallel to the river, and fed into the downstream eddy the ramp creates. Today, only our lowly canoe is readied for launch. Tom and I pack MW at the bottom of the ramp while Mom, Dad, and an occasional passer-by looks on anxiously.
“That water is really running fast,” Dad says.“Are you sure you want to do this?”