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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

WILLEXIT

Kip showed up at the bar with a detailed river-keepers' map and guide-books that explicated his proposed route down the Willamette River. He had performed a careful analysis of the water route, marking potential launch sites, sensible campsites, and devising preliminary outlines for shuttling the boats. He had even spaced the campsites apart according to his estimates about river velocity based on seasonal water volumes and the river gradient, and also which sections of river would require extra time for thorough fishing. It was almost as if he was some kind of project manager. But as the early July launch-date approached, it became clearer and clearer via meteorologists that the trip would test our resilience to rain—lots of it.


Though  I often imagine myself to be a daring and self-sufficient outdoorsman (and by often I mean whenever I spend several hours at a bar), the fact is that so far, my camping experiences in the rain have been accidental, infrequent and generally less than vacation-like. Realistically, when it comes to surviving in the wilderness (if I even manage to reach the wilderness), the only reason I think I'm still alive is because I appear to have a self preservation instinct strong enough to keep me from putting myself in life-threatening situations (I'm a big chicken) and more often than not, I've been lucky. It's like when the three of us make the now tacit agreement to eat only the things we find or catch on the fishing excursion (which doesn't apply to beer) yet, because of my keen appreciation for my own fishing skills, I find myself inclined to hide potatoes and sausages out of sight in my cooler. So, at the bar, while I pretended that a little rain would never hurt me, I was relieved when Uncle Rico and Kip began suggesting that perhaps we should come up with an alternate plan—maybe one that would tuck us into the rain-shadow extending East beyond the Cascades.   

On decision day, our two car caravan pointed Southeast and after hours of driving, we entered the maze of forest-service roads beyond Oakridge where malevolent, tipsy trees had previously jumped out at me in the night and left their impression on my truck, impressions written in wrinkled sheet metal and the shocking revelation of primer-coat (at least I'm pretty sure that's how it played out). This time, although we arrived in the day time, the maze was no less confusing. Thankfully, I was riding with Kip in his vehicle because he charitably recognized my fear of these particular trees. Occasionally the caravan would stop as Uncle Rico consulted the GPS or as the evil branch fingers reached out and impinged on our path like fences in a slaughterhouse (or maybe something more like gillnets), driving us into a single file.

Somewhere in this puzzle landscape, we established a base of operations on high ground next to some nameless meandering minor tributary of water, manifesting as a creek for now, but showing evidence for the capacity to become wetlands or even a lake. For now, instead of a lake, we were perched at the north tip of a vast flat field, perhaps 5 miles in circumference, all of it decorated with sparkling ponds strung together by tentative necklaces of crystal clear water.


Despite our best efforts to escape the predicted rain, a nimbostratus cap of clouds concealed the sky and gently explained to us that we should take some care in preparing the evening's shelter. Kip rose to the occasion by providing a —well, I think it was something like a transportable house— which not only provided protection from rain, but also a defense against mosquitoes, who though we did not know it, were silently waiting undercover for the arrival of dusk and the cessation of an initially gentle but present breeze.


Compared to the energy Kip had put into planning his Willamette River proposition, our situation was very much ad hoc. We had meant to fish in our various watercraft, but the tributary we camped next to was better suited to roving fishermen on foot. Fortunately, we had an old book (I can't remember if it was Uncle Rico's or Kip's), a sacred out-of-print text of sorts that listed all the nearby lakes and what kind of fish could be reasonably expected to be harvested there.


An article on Crescent Lake incentivized us to wage a small campaign in pursuit of capturing Kokanee salmon. The first step in our campaign was to gather intelligence. We infiltrated a bait shop close to the lake and Uncle Rico, speaking the native tongue of the fishermen, was able to glean some helpful data about the condition of the lake and what bait the resident Kokanee considered attractive. This information informed our decisions to purchase giant reflecting spinners in silver and bronze, heavy kidney shaped sinkers, and leader-lines with imitation squid thingies hiding multiple hooks festooned with corn underneath their colorful umbrella of plastic wiggly arms. For my part, I kept my distance from Kip and Uncle Rico because I was afraid my inability to understand or make comments using the secret vocabulary of fisher-people would accidentally reveal us as outsiders and perhaps prejudice the locals to feed us misinformation.


The next step was to find the lake and then find a suitable launch point. Finding the lake wasn't that hard, but a suitable launch site was somehow more difficult. Dogs, when they are looking for someplace to poop will often conduct extensive surveys for just the 'right' spot. This evidently is a complex calculation for a dog which involves considerable sniffing and walking first one way and then another and then back again. Finding a suitable launching site was something like that.


Eventually, we found our spot. Uncle Rico set off in his inimitable AquaPod, while Kip and I set out in our sleek kayaks. Our makeshift fishing fleet then proceeded to 'troll' the lake. When we started, the lake was smooth for the most part, but as time wore on, low dark clouds blew in on wind that stirred the lake and raised rolling waves. In this setting the kayaks performed like futuristic independence-class littoral combat ships in comparison to Uncle Rico's Edmund Fitzgerald-like AquaPod. Because of it's low pancake-like profile, the AquaPod has unsurpassed stability, but that same low profile means that paddling into waves and wind is an invitation to take-on water with no appreciable gain in nearing a specified destination. Despite this gap in technology, Uncle Rico was the only one of us who managed to catch the stunningly-bright-silver land-locked salmon. We speculated it was because his vessel's inherent trolling speed was best matched to the fish's preferences. I don't know about Kip, but I was also having a hard time visualizing how deep the hooks were running in the water in relation to the amount of line I had out, how much weight I should have on the line, and how fast I was trolling. In the process of making adjustments to my rigging, keeping plump corn-kernels on the hooks, and positioning my pole holder so the pole didn't interfere with my paddling, I managed to drop the pole holder over the side of the kayak into the depths of the lake. Evidently for me, it isn't really kayak fishing until I lose a pole over the side or some other essential bit of gear.

This photo copyright 2016 by Kip

Sometimes, the weather relents and stops doing the troubling thing that it's doing. But the wind kept blowing and waves ran the length of the lake, gathering momentum and breaking on the shore as if we had been traversing a mini-ocean. The work-to-fun ratio was veering sharply to the work end of the scale and with the sun long past its zenith, the temperature was reaching new lows.

Kip uses his cage-fighting instincts and refined sense of balance to ride his kayak ashore on the lake-surf

Here and there you could see the gray slanting smudges between cloud and surface that betrayed approaching rain.


We packed up the boats and headed back to our base-camp to see if our trout catching efforts would be better rewarded.


Fish are beautiful. They are also tasty. Having to (there isn't a easy way to put it) kill your food somehow adds a level of holiness to the process of eating. It reminds me that the preservation of my life comes at the cost of another's life—whether that life is a fish, a cow or a carrot. When I eat a fresh fish, pan-fried in butter, I am thankful in a way that I never am when I eat a processed fish stick. Will I become a better man, making the world a better place? I don't know. But I feel like I owe it to these fish.





Branches of meandering streams carved their little arcs into the grassy field. According to the vagaries of gravity and erosion, some arcs become isolated, transforming into 'C' shaped ponds. I suppose from an airplane one would be able to read a long history of the river's writing. The streams rise or fall according to season and precipitation, to melting snow-packs, and to strategically placed beaver damns. Mysteriously, trout are omnipresent.


Hiding back from the edge of the stream, I emulated Uncle Rico and Kip and cast doomed earthworms into the water in order to trick trout into biting the sharp hook concealed inside the worm. I treated the worm like a puppet, moving it as if it were just an ordinary drowning worm with no strings attached. Sometimes I saw torpedo shaped shadows draw close to the bait, or imagined I did. Sometimes they would strike, like an electric shock. Each step of the process is one more level up the improbability slope for me so that, when a fish does bite and I do manage to reel it on to the bank, it is a thrilling gift.


Of course, what isn't evident in these pictures is that while we were acting as if we were apex predators, we were actually being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Frightening clouds of them would hover about our heads and settle on our leeward surfaces, taking time to poke through any material less thick than their proboscises. I sprayed enough Deet on me to poison myself, but the perpetual hovering mass before my eyes convinced me that I needed more.  Even with lips swelling and eyes tearing-up from the toxic insecticides, I felt compelled to repeatedly slap myself wherever I felt a tickle on flesh. Still, those little bastards found plenty of ways to leave their infuriatingly itchy marks. The trick is to become fully entranced in the moment, to fixate on the project of fishing. Any other route leads to hysteria—like a fat man of limited endurance freaking out, screaming and trying to outrun the buzzing aerial plague only to collapse in a quivering heap of itchy scabs, unable to breathe (I'm not saying that actually happened).



Miles and miles of stream were laid out like a particularly sinuous snake. As I followed along the bank, I saw long undulating plants stretched out as if in an underwater ballet—reaching to break the surface and touch the sun. These stretches were interspersed with deep pools and sheltered undercut banks and sprawling sunken tree stumps where I imagined smart trout ran silent and deep.


Nothing but an occasional game trail interrupted the continuity of the tall grass, and heavy with fallen rain, the grass clutched at our legs thereby impeding our progress and weighing our pants down with all the water thus imparted. As we regressed toward the forest and found ourselves among the shelter of the trees, the mosquito plague briefly expanded exponentially. I think this is partly because of the wind-break provided by the trees, but also partly because standing puddles of water in swampy ground is an ideal environment for mosquito eggs.

Uncle Rico seems 'excited' to discover this tree. Though expert outdoorsmen often participate in conservation efforts, this activity does seem to transcend classical examples of 'tree hugging'.

Photo copyright 2016 by Kip

When we finally found a sun drenched clearing on dry ground, the mosquitoes seemed to disappear, and we relaxed briefly and basked in a rare outbreak of sunlight.


Schrodinger's forest. 
Unfortunately for this forest (that was both dead and alive while depending upon the outcome of a quantum superposition), it collapsed into the definite state of death when it was finally observed.


Rain showers walk the length of the plain, like long skirts worn by giant rain ghosts.


I took a hike along the stream one evening with the goal of reaching a railroad trestle Uncle Rico told me about. In my head, I imagined one of those tall, precarious, picturesque, wooden-trestles so I set out with a camera and one of Rico's GPS walky-talkies. Like most technology that isn't your own, I had only the faintest glimmerings how to use Uncle Rico's GPS walky-talky. Since its voice transmitting feature stopped functioning after about a mile or so, it didn't really matter. In any case, Uncle Rico didn't think it would take me very long to finish the hike. But in retrospect, he didn't know how slow I was, and I didn't know how far it was, and right about when night fell, I realized I didn't have a flashlight.


The trestle had turned out to be a rock and earthen embankment, topped with rails and also with a stone tunnel at its base to accommodate the stream. The bank along the river was pockmarked with what I tend to call nutria burrows, which made walking in the daytime challenging, and which, in the dark, made it something more akin to scary. Generally, there is a lot of light available after sunset, and I continued walking while I watched that light slowly fade. But the heavy clouds had not dispersed which left no hope for redemption by moonlight, nor did the clouds stop dispensing showers. This ensured that I was soaked from the waist down as I  plowed through the high grass. Venturing into the brush-choked woods beyond the flood-plain returned me to the domain of the mosquitoes who were now invisible but still sonically distinct. I alternated my time between the two unpleasant optionsall the time growing more and more hopeless until I stopped and started planning how I might find shelter until the morning. My plan; something I call the mud and stick blanket. But just as I started searching for sticks, the wail of distant coyotes broke the silence. They seemed to be howling the word, "Tacos!" which is when I realized it was Uncle Rico and Kip in the distance, giving me a beacon of hope in the darkness.


It turns out Uncle Rico and Kip, while they sat by the fire, had been able to monitor my progress with the map feature of the GPS (the walky-talky I carried served to identify my position on their map). So they had decided to put-off making the 3-species tacos until I returned. When it became evident I had stopped, they filled the night air with the one word they thought would most likely spur me to action.


Often I feel sad like I don't have any friends. But that night I learned I have real friends who would even postpone eating 3-species tacos for my sake.





That night, eating the sacred fish, sitting before the warm fire instead of sleeping in my proposed mud and stick blanket, I felt rich and comfortable and was content to watch sparks from the fire naively attempt to ascend to the heavens from beneath the interminable drizzle. And uncle Rico's beers were still icy cold.


Later, passing through Woodburn, we discovered a wealth of Mexican Restaurants (not pictured). As is customary, we ate at one and appreciated the little things like clean plates, napkins and a marked decrease in the number of mosquitoes.



Even later, while examining the hull of the AquaPod, I noted the existence of aboriginal drawings. As I do for native American artwork, I later subjected these images to computer analysis...



...but did not arrive at any conclusions regarding the psychological state of the aboriginals...though I do have some concerns.

NAVIGATION AID

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