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Sunday, May 31, 2009


Just down river from here, there was a horseshoe structure of waterfalls where American Indians fished for over ten thousand years, establishing a trade center that stretched from Alaska to California.

By the time Lewis and Clark sailed through here in dugout canoes, vast Indian populations had already been decimated by European diseases. If it wasn’t the end of the world, it was, at the very least, the end to their world.

The sound of the falls was silenced by 1957 with the completion of The Dalles Dam. The water backed-up and rose and changed the shoreline of this island. The river itself became an artificial sequence of controlled lakes, put to work turning turbines and diverted into the desert to grow crops.

Today, windmills creep westward down the sides of the gorge, even as far as this island. Time can be told not only by the position of the sun or moon, but by the regular passage of rumbling freight trains.

But the passage of time is still marked here by the passing of the seasons, and by scales less relevant to hominids, like the erosion of the gorge itself.

From the perspective of a deer’s lifespan, the old fence-posts from an abandoned corral may seem permanent and timeless – something that has always been there as a part of the landscape. Perhaps in the same way, we misunderstand the permanence of our environments … assume the mountains and valleys will stand till the end of time … forget that the very crust of the earth is in motion … evidence of the past continuously being submitted for recycling into earth’s molten core.

The basalt plateau at the head of the island stands like the prow of a mighty ship, strong enough to withstand the repeated onslaught of ice-age deluges.

The wind whistles around and over the giant wall, stacking shoulders of sand and dust at the base of the sheer cliffs. Eager grass optimistically calls the accumulations soil and starts setting down roots.

Gravity, roots, rain, wind and extremes of temperature - nature’s chain gang - making big rocks into little rocks.

Like ballerinas with little respect for gravity, deer glide effortlessly across the plain. I speculate it is this group’s tendency to run single file that has produced a veritable highway of trails from one end of the island to the other.

On the day this picture was taken, the wind comes out of the west and tries to push the river up-hill. Seemingly inexhaustible, the wind persistently coaxes the waves to march to the east in white-capped rows. From my vantage point high on the plateau, I can see eddies and other patterns appear on the river’s surface as the confounded water seeks to elude the wind and resume its journey to the ocean.

The sun ducks down behind the edge of the gorge long before it actually sinks below the horizon, leaving the island in an extended time of shadows before true twilight.

Back at the beginning of April, a lone kayaker paddled into the shallow ‘lagoon’ at the head of the island as the true dusk commenced. He spotted me returning to my camp and hailed me. “Did you walk here?”

Still equipped with a brain challengeable by clams, I wasn’t able to figure out a quick response. Of course I walked to my camp – he could see I walked – he must be driving at something else…

He must have sensed my confusion because he formulated an easier question for me, “Is this an island or a peninsula?” He shouted out cheerfully.

I knew the answer to that one.

It turns out he didn’t have his map available and while choosing to go left or right around an island usually doesn’t make a great deal of difference, approaching a peninsula carried a 50% chance of choosing a dead end channel and possible strenuous backtracking. When he found out it was an island he seemed relieved. He headed off to search the shoreline for a suitable campsite and indicated he’d visit my camp once he was settled.

It was an interesting visit. The lone kayaker said his name was Keel. Kiel I asked, sounding it out. No, he said, Keel, like a part of a boat.

I wondered if that was an alias as I eyed the giant knife he used to stir voluminous sausages into a greasy vegetable/noodle mixture – a serving size that would likely feed an entire Chinese family for a week.

Keel explained that he needed to ingest considerable calories to keep pace with the rate at which he was burning them. I came to find out that he had been on the Columbia river for the better part of a month, following it from its source in British Columbia (or as close as was possible considering the weather) with the intention of paddling all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

He had covered 35 to 40 miles that day, taking advantage of a break in the weather. Considering that in April, frost still decorated the grass in the morning, I had a hard time imagining the cold windy conditions Keel must have endured up to that point.

You’re taking this journey by yourself? I asked incredulously. The answer turned out to be no and yes. It had all been part of a sponsored adventure called The Columbia Experience. He and two others had set out together, but one called it quits after a week, and the other was outfitted with a catamaran style raft that showed a high profile to the wind. With such ill-matched craft, they had not been able to travel together for the most part. Then, perhaps that very weekend, the second adventurer was indefinitely sidelined by a broken foot leaving Keel on his own.

I had a million questions about expedition kayaking, and Keel was eager to share his hard won knowledge…which is surprisingly cool.

Keel noticed that I was shooting pictures with a Canon camera and since he had a similar model, the conversation soon drifted toward photography. I had been getting such poor results with my low-light long exposures that I had almost concluded that my camera wasn’t capable. Keel was able to show me that my chosen aperture setting was counter productive. Once the adjustment was made, I spent a good portion of the remainder of the evening shooting in the dark. It was his idea to put the flashlight inside my tent to create the kind of image that outdoor magazine editors supposedly ‘eat up’.

The ‘lagoon’ by moonlight

A twenty minute exposure reveals the earth’s rotation.

sunrise (late May)

sunrise (early April)

Keel sets out for the ocean.

It was great listening to Keel’s adventures. One of the stories I liked had to do with confronting an obstinate lock-tender at one of the dams. The lock-tender legalistically explained how regulations forbid him from operating the lock for boats that didn’t have engines. Evidently Keel, sitting in his kayak at the entrance to the lock, shouted back up to the tender, “No engine? What about these ‘guns’?” as he displayed his work hardened arms.

I remember that when Keel visited my camp, I didn’t have much to offer save for a substantial quantity of rum. He turned the rum down even though he professed to be a capable drinker. He didn’t really have an articulated reason for going without, but it seemed his exposure to the river and its rhythms had spurred him to seek a different kind of balance. I know for a fact that he was wrestling with questions of environmental balance, questioning whether human short-sightedness had already irreparably ruined the gorge, so much of which he had just seen first hand.
It will be interesting to see what Keel learns by journey’s end.

Keel (in the highlighted box) entering Hell’s Gate

Detail from entering Hell’s Gate

For more about Keel’s kayak journey see:

See also:

The wind during my May visit afforded me an opportunity to try capturing the motion of the grass, which was undulating in waves like a Kansas wheat-field. In the extended dawn, I was able to take 30 second exposures that showed the same kind of blurring effects I ordinarily see with water.

I suspected this deer cornered at the tip of the island would try to run past me. I panned the camera as it bounded by, which explains the blurry background. Out of six or so shots, this one was the best.

I was hoping the differential in movement between the grass and the sturdier foreground plant would create a painterly blended background suggesting the motion of the wind.

I think it may be worth experimenting more with this approach.

evaporating ponds high in the island interior

1 comment:

  1. Keel Brightman!?! When I was giving him and his kayak a ride on my sausage truck from Wenatchee to where he put in at The Dalles his name was "Rudder Starboard".....stole my knife and camera too.


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