Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thawing Out in Thunder Bay

Splashing through a film of ice stark naked, I had a strange moment to contemplate the absurdity of my position. It was November in northern Minnesota, and this was the first sunny day after nine snowy days of continuous gray.

This was no sanitary bathing or life affirming communion with nature; rather, I was chasing my boat which had come unhinged from its locking place amid the rocks. Now, I grew up with canoes in the vicinity of seventy pounds, and in one job ran wood and canvas monsters of 100 pounds, even. In November's Minnesota and the 2800 miles previous on this expedition, it was a thirty pound kevlar canoe, the miracle of space-age materials science. While in every corner a tremendous boon, the featherweight character of my dependable friend causes it to literally fly off when a duck, two lakes over, has the occasion to sneeze.

Upon returning from a twenty foot carry around a short, angled drop on the Basswood River, this is precisely what had happened. In 12 seconds of inattention on a day when none of my senses could detect a breath of wind and the cove had no current to speak of, Casco, my trusty partner in cross-continent voyaging, had sprung its bounds of rock and ice and was currently 30 yards out from shore and accelerating.

Habits mark the experienced outdoor person long accustomed to environment and activity, and good habits and reliable consistency mark the pro's. When something goes wrong, it is always the sum of a series of small and seemingly inconsequential bad decisions- one or more of which is either a bad habit followed or a good habit not. I always pull my boat on shore and tie it up whenever I am more than a few feet from it- always, except this time.

Shikata Ga Nai. There is no other choice. I shed my clothes, layer upon layer that had been with me without break for much too long, and waded in.

My breath came ragged in dying hot exhalations, air steaming on the iced water's clean surface as I started to swim. Happily, I am no slouch in the water; I swam competitively for over a decade and got my name on record boards at a handful of area high schools. I swam too fast- my boxers started to slip off almost immediately. Holding them on was slowing me down, so I let them go with the intention of retrieving them on the return trip. Unfortunately, they promptly sank, though given their age and state that may perhaps have been a blessing.

Climbing into a canoe from the water is necessarily an awkward maneuver; being cold, wet, and naked added a novel element. It was not until I was standing on shore quite pink and without a stitch with the secure boat at my feet that the hilarity of the event overwhelmed me.

I laughed.

I could do little else- the consequences of my mistake, my first real mistake on this trip, revealed dauntingly post-swim. I dried off and got my clothes back on, perfectly comfortable within a few minutes, but moving on with humor protecting me from the shuddering thought of what could have happened. The swim capped off a string of mistakes- I dropped my spoon in a lake during a snack break and let the wind catch and carry off a waterproof mitten shell during a snow squall. These things hit me hard- scary mistakes a hundred miles into the half-wilderness of the Boundary Waters.


I wrote the above in an empty bus station in Thunder Bay, Ontario. That was three days and a forty-four hour bus ride ago. Now, I am home and relaxing comfortably with all the hot water, fresh food, and central heat I can stand. The moment post-trip when one ceases relying on their metabolism for homeostasis management comes as relief that is hard to appropriately describe. My run across the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota saw me push 300 miles in fifteen days, consuming forty-five pounds of food.

I had planned for 13.5 days to reach Lake Superior, but the weather had other ideas. Seven sunless days of snow flurries and wind-driven sleet was followed by a few calm but portage-filled days. On one particularly calm afternoon I was forced into my parka at dusk- about an hour early. The lake was glassy calm and the sky cloudless- this would be the night. In the north, this is a special night: the first cold, calm night when the last warmth of the lake is sucked into space. The next morning, ice as far as I could see.

It forms first in crystalline lines that if given a chance stretch out into perfect angel wings, singular as if shed, deer-like. These coalesce and disappear into the first sheet, 1/32 of an inch thick and growing. By the second day in areas of perpetual shadow the ice was ply-wood thick, 5/8". The larger lakes stayed open, but in the narrow areas the ice slowed me down by at least a day, so the margin of error in my food was in the final counting not much of a margin at all: I ate full meals five times a day right to Superior, but ate my last handful of dry roasted peanuts thirty feet before I sighted the Great Lakes, that being the last ounce of food. Good timing.

The Boundary Waters are the most traveled canoe area in North America, and I traveled it from end to end and did not see a single person in fifteen days. It deserves its reputation; it seems an endless string of clear lakes bound by living rock and conifers. In my experience this string was domed by skies either gray or angry and precipitating. By the time I reached the Pigeon River and the last of the lakes, the lack of sun had long since begun to hurt. In fifteen days I had maybe thirty-five hours of sun. The days were short, the nights long- sleeping for ten hours and reading a book every two days became the norm as I hid from the dark and cold.

In a fury of portaging, I hauled my boat and kit nine miles down the Grand Portage as the voyageurs did, having crossed from the Arctic watershed to the Great Lakes and Atlantic. As I came down the old and long beaten trail to the shores of the largest lake on earth, it began to rain once again, tiring after its hour long respite. On shore at the end of the Portage is the reconstructed stockade of the Northwest Company, a fur-trading concern of the late eighteenth century. It is a National Monument and the kind superintendent allowed me to store 'Casco' in the warehouse there- my slim, space-age canoe leaning against the wall amid thirty plus foot birch bark Montreal canoes of ages past. It is an odd juxtaposition, but one I keep telling myself fits in some odd way.

I made it out with winter at my heels, the way closing even as I emerged. The gales of November will blow on Superior, and I will rest. Come May, we'll see about the third and final leg: the way down to the sea at Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wet in the Water and Back in the Forest

Bike tires scratching down through the muddy and gravel of a gas station parking, the inevitable involuntary groans of pain escaping the hood of my rain jacket, the click of the kick stand snapping down, and the retching sigh as my legs move me toward the heat of the log building. Sounds.

Then, the grumbling roar of a diesel invading my personal space and that of my rather expensive boat, currently coated in mud. Into the space next to my dilapidated rig a giant black pick-up rips in, jacked up on mud tires with two aftermarket exhaust pipes curving up its sides. In the bed is a muddy ATV casually lashed down with polyethelene, and behind the truck a boat trailer with a small powerboat and a snowmobile cantilevered into and held in place with bailing twine. Needless to say, I was impressed.

The man who rappelled down from the cab was also rather large, bearded and grimacing in front of a disintegrating wad of chew. He stepped around and we both starred at each other, the oppostie standing in front of their rig as if in defence of a maligned stepchild. I broke the silence.

"So. You must be the motor lobby."

He squinted down at me- I'm 6'4" and few men have need to look down at me-, then grinned broadly and let his chew fall to the ground.

"And yer the human-powered bit if ever I saw it."

We stood grinning at each other for another moment, then he said; "I'm gunna buy you a sandwich, I am. Come'on."

So we went inside and ate an absurdly big meal and talked for a while about the woods and northern Minnesota- "Exclusive non-motorized use is bunch of bull-crap," - before I got back on the road to continue my portage, now a few hundred miles old.

I was just out of Roseau, home of the Polaris company- makers of fine snowmobiles, ATVS and other off-road vehicles. The holy land.


Minnesota has been a dream. I have left the plains behind and none too soon. No offense to North Dakota, but I was ready to get out. The flat farmland continued for a few dozen miles, but once out of the Red River valley the biome quickly changed to the mixed forest that at this time of year reminds me so much of home. For months I had been longing for this rendezvous with the far western off-shoots of the Northern Forest- that great biotic community that stretches in a thick, rich band from the Canadian Maritimes through Maine and over the mountains of New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York into Ontario before washing up over the far shores of Superior to engulf northern Minnesota and our own little sliver of rocky Candian Shield country. Now in this band, this stark reminder of home, I will follow it for 1600 miles to the Atlantic Ocean and the conclusion of my expedition- but not this year. The winds of November on Superior are the thing of legend, and I will happily be heading home from Grand Portage.

I've made good time despite bad roads, headwinds and cold rainy weather. Now I am in International Falls and plan to put in on Rainy Lake tomorrow to begin the journey along the old voyageur route to the shores of Lake Superior. Voyageur National Park, the Boundary Waters, it is one of the holy places in paddling and I am excited to experience it, even in this late season. I am 300 miles from Grand Portage, and they are expecting snow every day for the next week. Some old story, it seems.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Can-Do-It (Cheat, That Is)

I'm in a town named Cando right now- a town named that in 1884 because the pioneers wanted to make a statement that they "Can Do It." Settle the town and battle the elements long enough to bring up grain and cattle, that is. If the surrounding countryside is any indication, they could, in fact, do it.

I made it to Minot, North Dakota a few days ago and put in on the Souris River. Here I had crossed another of the Continent's Great Divides- I was in the Hudson Bay draingage now, and the Souris would take me north to the Assiniboine and through Winnipeg and the old voyageur route to Superior. I paddled the Souris with hesitation, moving 10 miles northeast for every 30 miles of oxbows and switchbacks, the current slack behind beaverdams and logjams and banks crowded with brush. It was a quiet, pretty river but spending a month of fighting my way into Canada was not in the cards. Winter hovers at my back, and the fickle weather of the northern plains in autumn could snap at any moment and send the prevailing forty-degrees-and-raining more toward the ten-degrees-and-ground-blizzard side of things.

So I decided to cheat. I'd been lugging my bike Taj around for the last 700 miles, might as well give 'em some use. Poor-Taj.

So I rigged everything up, and here I am. The road literally goes straight from Towner, North Dakota to Minnesota, and I'm halfway there already. Lake of the Woods is not too far past there, and by portaging 300 miles across eastern North Dakota I cut almost 400 miles of slow, slow travel through southern Manitoba. It is cheating, but of a good sort. Portaging, even by bike, is a painful operation at best, and the bit of Manitoba that I miss now would surely have been beautiful with good water. But winter nips, and I'll take this chance as I get it.

In other news, I am smack dab in the middle of the main North American bird migration route, and there are ducks and geese everywhere. Tens of thousands every hour or two- it is quite a sight. The ducks seem to be of the weaker endurance, having to pause in farm fields and pothole lakes to rest, and inevitably fall prey to the hunters from around the country that arrive in droves to take in the season. The geese I do not see up close in North Dakota as I did along the Yellowstone- now they appear in honking chevrons a thousand feet up and eight hundred abreast, a sky-borne compass for me and the route I should invariably by nature be taking. Instead, I plod east, towards home.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Most Sincere Compliment I've Given About Someone's Camo

"Scare them this way, boy-o."

I just about fell out of my boat. I haven't seen or heard another human being for four days, and now the bushes were talking to me. I've gone completely crazy, and did not even have the mental fortitude to notice or enjoy the process. And there, the quickly turning colors of the cottonwood trees and the mixed sage and Russian olive around them were filling the void in verbal communtication for me.

I floated on, oblivious.

The slow water in this side channel would have been a haven for migrating Canada geese, of which I have seen more than ten thousand in two weeks, but all that sat on the water were decoys. As my brain lurched forward one full revolution the hillsides began to move and a shot rang out. A trio of white toothy smiles flecked out at me from the brush, and as movement broke and sharpened the profiles of their heavily camoflagued and face-painted bodies, I smiled at the eminently pleased hunters.

"Couldn't see you at ten yards!" I shouted, now moving away quickly from the militia, er, hunters.

"Thanks man!"

As always, all photos and text Copyright 2009 Alexander B. Martin

Photos from Wyoming & Montana

A few photos, out of order.

1.) Bundled up but enjoying a cloudy peak at the sun. Yellowstone River.

2.) The snow line the morning after my first storm. Yellowstone River.

3.) The portage from the Snake River to Yellowstone Lake. Gibson River.

4.) Paddling across a calm Jackson Lake with the Tetons in the distance.

As always, all photos and text Copyright 2009 Alexander B. Martin

La Tramontana

Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne me rendra fou...

The wind which comes across the mountains would drive me mad... (Victor Hugo)

Sometimes I turn the Pat Benetar up so loud I can almost, just barely, not hear the wind howling outside my tent at night; to my endless misfortune my iPod has not the vigor to out-do such a tempest. I began my descent of the Yellowstone River 17 days ago, and in that first week I felt the wind would be my most bitter enemy- and it was. But then into the stacked deck of ripping northerlies, easterlies, and southerlies was adding a dose of rain, and shortly thereafter a bitter cold.

The weather has been a bit interesting, with phrases like "coldest autumn on record" and "a truly bitter October" being bandied about by meteorologists and cow town old-timers alike. The most reasonable explanation I have heard yet was of the government dumping aluminum foil and rock salt into the stratosphere the week before. Very reasonable. I've been pinned down three times so far, all due to freezing rain. I can travel in 25 degree air and heavy snow- and I have- and 45 degrees and raining, both of these just fine if somewhat suboptimal. It is the 34 degrees and blowing sleet that is the real show stopper. So for one day outside of Livingston and two days outside of Billings, I hunkered down through the wet and cold. That, only to save myself for the truly cold.

I was a day out of Billings when I got the news from a fly fisherman; an Arctic front was barreling down the eastern edge of the Rockies and seemed to have ever intention of sitting on central Montana for the following week. For once, the forecast was right. I recorded temperatures in the low teens at night, with daytime highs not clearing the freezing mark for 6 days. Perfect river travel weather. Still, freed from the soul sapping manacles of the dense wet, I took off with a purpose, travelling hard through the chill days and frigid nights.

* * *

I've been managing some interesting repairs lately. During the wet snow/sleet bivouac outside of Billings, I woke to a gunshot at 4AM, and witnessed on my tent what in the medical profession they call a compound fracture; the snapped jagged pole end had punched through the fly and was now pouring a thick stream of snow the consistency of a half-melted snow-cone onto me. A chop job wire and tape fix gave me three more hours of sleep, and was followed that afternoon by a rather drawn out operation with file, pliers, wire, and a shim of aluminum I found under a railroad bridge near Forsyth, Montana. Good as new.

Then there was the Speedy-Stitcher operation on a failing bicycle tire sidewall- I think I'll avoid medical analogies here. Best of all, with the cold weather coming in two months ahead of schedule I bought a ragged old blanket at a second hand shop in Forsyth and sewed it into an envelope with cord running in lateral loops every two feet. I can stuff my puffy jacket and the rest of my clothes into it and tie it around my sleeping bag and pad, and voila- a packed out 20 degree bag becomes something significantly warmer. Still, upping my butter intake and switching to dry hands/feet were the best decisions in dealing with the cold.

The weather has not been all bad. For example, a few days ago my spare paddle kept sliding down over the exact spot on my map case that I was focusing on that afternoon. I did what any thinking man would do- I drizzled a bit of river water on the paddle and within ten minutes it was frozen in place, never to bother me again. Still, the 8 days without seeing the sun was a bit of a downer. Was? Is. Sun hasn't come out yet.

Now, with 530 miles of the Yellowstone River behind me, I concentrate on the Missouri River and my upcoming portage into the Hudson’s Bay watershed. I only pray that the Souris River is holding water this late in the season. I have felt winter’s touch already, and I took the warning. Onward, North Dakota.

As always, all photos and text Copyright 2009 Alexander B. Martin

Friday, October 2, 2009

My New Life as a Bison

"Now hold still. And smile for Pete's sake!"

Apparently, the tourists had found a bison that would take orders. Pedalling and paddling through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks brought me into contact with the last few retired tourists of the season and their insatiable desire to photograph all the wildlife they could find. In turn offs on the side of the road, the SUV's and Winnebagos clustered and emptied their passengers for a glimpse across the Hayden Valley or the meadows below the Grand Teton at that elusive elk or bison. But why spend time gambling on a chance encounter when the folks back home would be even more impressed by a lunatic on a bike hauling a canoe over the Continental Divide? So they made me stop, time and again, to take photos of the last talking bison and his mud-spattered canoe trailer.


I'm in Columbus, Montana now, 330 miles by bike and canoe from my start in Jackson Hole. The climb past the Tetons and up onto the Yellowstone Plateau was a bit of a slog, 3,000 feet up that was at least half dirt due to construction. The weather was incredible- cold every night and in the 70's during the day. I was lucky, time and again. The construction at the start made the going harder- but gave me my own lane to portage in. In Yellowstone, I made it through hours before a major fire closed the road, and most importantly of all, I made it off the Plateau and onto the Yellowstone River 30 hours before the first significant snowstorm of the season hit.

I woke up yesterday morning, October 1st, in a quickly yellowing cottonwood grove to a bit of sun poking through the clouds and the steady wind, heavy rain, and 38 degree temperatures that had pinned me down the day before gone, all gone. In their place, the butte beyond my little island and the Absaroka Range in the distance were print paper white with deep snow. The snow line was at about 6,000 feet, and I at 5,500 had ducked below the bar just in time. A day slower through the Parks, and I would have been snowed in on the Yellowstone Plateau. There is luck in speed.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Back to It

After eight months in the field with only a handful of days off, I am at my parent's house enjoying beds, ice cream, fresh food, and showers. The comforts here and the prevalent ease of life is overwhelming and wonderful. As I mentioned in late May, I put the ARE on pause for the summer so that I could go back to work and earn enough money to continue. I put the boat in storage, headed home, and drove 4500 miles from the East Coast to the Yukon with two of my best friends from college. We did the trip in three days, and I immediately started in on three months of work with the National Outdoor Leadership School.

A month of hiking through the snow, rock and tundra of the Coast Range was followed by a thirty day hike/canoe combo course that had us completing the first descent of the North Big Salmon River. A flight to Utah followed, as did a three week canoe expedition on the Green River from Flaming Gorge to Green River, UT, through Lodore, Desolation, and Gray Canyons. Now I am home, resting up for my brother's wedding in the Adirondacks.

As soon as the wedding is over, I will pack up and fly back to Jackson, WY, clear out my storage unit and attempt Leg Two of the America's Rivers Expedition. This leg will take me north from Jackson through the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park to the Yellowstone River at Gardiner, Montana. There the sleigh ride begins- for the first time on this trip I will be going downstream, and for over 600 miles of free flowing river. I cannot wait.

After the confluence with the Missouri, I will paddle across Reservoir Sakakawea and then portage to Minot, North Dakota, the Souris River and the Hudson's Bay watershed. The Souris leads to the Assiniboine River and on to Winnipeg, Manitoba. From there I will take the well established voyageur road up the Winnipeg River to Lake of the Woods and up the Rainy River to Rainy Lake, Voyageur National Park, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Leg Two will conclude at Grand Portage, Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior.

I've got a hair less than 2,000 miles to travel between September 23 and the true onset of winter, whenever that is going to be this year. I could get blocked by ice October 15 or December 15- all will depend on the weather this autumn. I expect to either be praising or cursing the weather volitity that global climate change has injected into the system. As I get closer to the height of land and the Laurentian Divide, Lake Superior will exert more and more influence on the weather, increasing the chance of ice and snow. The effieciency with which I approach the first 1000 miles will make the second vastly easier though still inevitabilty cold and snowy.

My favorite canoe trips are usually those the week before the ice comes or the week after it goes out- the timing is always chancey, but the beauty of the landscape in sometimes violent transition is unparalleled. That's what I'll keep telling myself anyway. Stay tuned, more to come as I get back to it.

Sponsor Update

Apparently, my website is not interested in being edited, and with plenty of other things on my plate this week technical troubleshooting is not high on the list.

In addition to Kokatat and Delorme, Bell Canoe Works, Alder Creek Canoe and Kayak, and Cooke Custom Sewing have also joined the America's Rivers Expedition as Sponsors.

Bell Canoe Works has graciously offered me the use of a Bell Magic 16' solo canoe. This thirty-three pound Kelvar canoe proved it's worth in April and May during Leg One of the expedition. The Magic is a fantastically fast and comfortable canoe, seaworthy in heavy seas, and so well made that it has stood up to quite a bit of punishment and still looks as sexy as when I met it in Portland, OR. The folks at Bell went to great lengths to get this canoe across the country for me, right to my launch point in fact. I owe much of my success to the quality of equipment I've been able to use.

Dan Cooke of Cooke Custom Sewing is known to many in the expedition world. His high quality, hand-made hard and soft goods have withstood countless expeditions, and I was lucky enough to get a CCS spray deck custom made for my canoe. So far, it has kept me warm and dry in some particularly dicey (and wet) situations.

I showed up in Portland, OR in April with a few loose ends. The folks at Alder Creek Canoe and Kayak in Jantzen Beach (North Portland, OR) helped me pull it all together. A last minute discount on a paddle, letting me use their workshop and tools to outfit, store gear there, among many other kindnesses set me up for sucess in a very busy few days. I launched from right behind their store as well. If you are looking for the best paddlesports store and outfitter in the Northwest, check them out at:

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Surprising Effectiveness of Bottle Cap Crampons

I was south of American Falls, ID about a week ago when travel conditions on the water gave me two choices: camp or portage. A 2PM finish didn't appeal to me, so I took to the road and set up Taj to haul the 240 pound trailered boat and gear. The bike is a helpful friend on long portages, provided there is no uphill. Even a 2-3% grade is impossible for more than a few hundred yards. Anything steeper requires that I walk the bike, and with steeper inclines I usually find myself horizontal to the ground with elbows locked and heels pointed skyward as I picture myself front pointing imaginary crampons into an ice wall.

The problem in this case was that a band of basalt cliffs pushed a highway so close to the river that it striped the lowlands of any non-highway road or trail- not even a frontage road on which to portage. So I hauled up on a road that ascended the cliffs looking for a detour around the highway. What I found was a seven mile dirt road with an 850 foot elevation gain in the second mile. The hard packed clay was coated in patches with sand and gravel such that every other step had me sliding out and driving a knee to the earth. No amount of effort could prevent it- my horizontal hauling technique was the only thing that could get the rig up a steep hill- with the suddenness of a bad fall on blue ice, my boot would kick out and the grinding pain of flesh being hammered into mineral shot up my thigh.

Knees being as important as they are, I stopped. After calming down and letting the sweat dry, I dug around in my glucose-starved brain for a solution to the day's Seventy-Third Significant Problem. I'll spare you the dramatic details of my eventual engineering, but an awl, some wire, a bit of Gorilla tape, one very large needle, dental floss, and a handful of bottle caps held the answer. I fastened two bottle caps, crimped face down, to the front pad of each sneaker as temporarily as I could. Just the afternoon before I had decided to start picking up trash on late afternoon road portages to pass the time and clean up the hilariously filthy rural Idahoan roadsides. So serendipitously I had a handful of old Budweiser caps in my boat- another stroke of luck.

I was shocked at how well it worked- rarely do ideas like this turn out so well. The bottle cap crampons bypassed the gravel and bit into the clay with each step, and I strained upwards like a Polar sledger on the Beardsmore. Soon I was looking out eastwards to the mountains from the top of a desert bluff. The dirt road fired arrow straight across the valley before me; I laughed at myself in the slanting sunshine of early evening and I reached down to cut the caps and floss out with a pen knife. Onwards, westwards.


The long push across western Idaho is now, finally, over. I arrived in Jackson, WY on Sunday afternoon and was quickly taken in by my friend Elyse. Soon after I was clean, fed, and drinking good beer on a couch. Heaven is made of such scenes. The next day she made me breakfast; I easily finished four bagels, seven eggs and a half pound of bacon without really pausing. So began my first day of rest since leaving Portland, Oregon fifty days and 1130 miles before.

And none too soon. The week preceding my arrival in Jackson was one of the hardest of the expedition thus far. It did not matter whether I was paddling, biking, or walking, in any method of locomotion my body cried out for rest ceaselessly. The part of the body in agony might change as the day went on, but the struggle was continuous. No amount of food satisfied- I would stop eating only when my stomach stopped stretching. With the first entry into the ramparts of the mountains, the fight was on in earnest. With the heat of the previous week, the snow had come off the hills and mountains in sheets and the river was over at 150% of its mean, charging downhill at 17,000 cubic feet per second. Outside of the reservoirs and meanders, I was forced to portage more often that I would have liked.

As in all things, the great effort & pain brought great reward. I left the procumbent geology and sapping heat of the river plain and was wrapped round in the glorious embrace of the Rockies. Pines ran up each successive ridge in increasing density, and soon the snow patches merged into unbroken bowls and fields at high elevation. The air seemed cleaner, more cool and of that singular scent most northerners relate to home. So it is with me. The water too I finally deemed clean enough to swim in, the farms, nuclear reactors, feedlots, and cities were all behind me. Arriving at Palisades Reservoir, I limped down to the cold water and plunged in, ecstatic with progress and the feeling of finally being in the mountains once again.


Now, I rest. The Continental Divide is only two days travel to the north, and here in downtown Jackson, Wyoming I have reached the end of Leg One of my journey across the North American continent. For the summer I will return to my job for a time, working 30-day backpacking and canoeing courses in the Yukon Territory until August. I will start the 4,000 mile drive North in a few days.

It dawned on as I was coming into Jackson that life is good when in your dreams, your work, and your vacations you are always doing the same thing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Zander's House of Pain

I will never do that again.

That's a lie, but I won't do it again for a while, anyway.

I was getting antsy, so I decided to push myself a little bit. To that end, I woke up early yesterday in Rupert, ID, and commenced on a day of travel that I intended not to end until this afternoon. I've been moving 55 minutes out of each hour for the last 35 hours. I've pedalled (20%), walked (20%), and paddled (60%) 132 miles since I woke up today, er, yesterday. Thats what its all about, right? Pushing yourself.

There are two quotations written in black ink on the thwart in front of my canoe seat. One says "Just keep moving, that's the secret." Verlen Kruger said that, the biggest bit of wisdom from his 100,000 mile paddling career. The other says "You are human." During the parade that followed a Roman general's campaign, a man was hired to ride in the chariot with the soldier, and later, Emperor. The man's sole job was to whisper those words, "You are human," to the Caesar every few seconds, keeping his pride in check.

I don't write well when I'm tired, so I'll end this one short. I can see the Tetons in the distance....I'm goin' to Jackson.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

El Toro, Mennomite Cinnamon Buns, and my New Friend Taj

Just the other day I was portaging along between two massive fields, one dotted with beef cattle, the other planted in potatoes. The day was warm, in the upper 70's with a hot, steady sun. I watched cows to pass the time and distance. I saw a cow licking its exhausted and reclining calf and mooing softly to it. Without breaking stride the cow dropped the afterbirth into the grass nearby. The calf's chest was rising and falling steady, alive.

Further on a larger calf had gotten itself stuck in the barbed wire fence, probably trying to follow its friend who had gotten through and was standing on the road's edge as if unsure of what to do with it's new found freedom. I kept on trucking until I reached the farmhouse a mile distant. Walking through the boneyard of dead trucks, rusting farm equipment, and barking dogs that characterize most properties in rural Idaho (rural America, really) I came to the run-down house to warn the farmer of the impending loss of two calfs, aka money on four hooves.

The farmer was Mexican, and neither he nor his daughter spoke any English. It was hot inside, we were all sweating as I tried to stumble through my explaination of the problem. I got the idea of the barbed wire fence across with my hands and a piece of p-cord, then got to the heart of the problem. I didn't know how to say 'cow' so I tried with the only four legged animal I knew: 'cabello' horse.

"El poco cabello es.." I made the sign language for fence again.

"No, no poco cabello senior," they looked at me like I was daft. They indicated the table, and some left over breakfast tortillas and a cold corn and bean salad. I sat, thinking. The calf had blood on its sides, mooing for its mother and struggle in the fence. My meager Spanish wasn't up to the task, and I doubt they'd follow me a mile up the road on foot. As I ate and we all smiled at each other without comphrension, it dawned on me. I could use my college eduation to solve this problem.

I jumped up and began pawing the ground angrily, then in a dramatic voice shouted, "El torro!" then indicated the fence sign. You see, the bottom shelf tequila most easily attainable where I went to college was called "El Torro" and had a picture of a bull on it. Same species, they might get it.

The daughter shouted, the farmer shot to his feet and unlocked a cabinet by the door, then flung open the side door with shotgun in hand and began marching towards his truck. He thought a bull had broken into the paddock with the cows and newborns and was running amok. I stopped him in his truck, getting down on hands and knees and saying "Pequeno torro! Poco Torro!" He finally got the idea when I ran to a nearby fence and tangled myself in it, shouting "Pequeno torro!" across the yard. He smiled, put away the gun and drove off to settle affairs in the paddock.


It's been hot lately. The temperature hit 97 degrees yesterday, and today is supposed to be warm as well. In the farmland of southern Idaho where I am, one can travel for twenty miles without seeing any shade or public ground. I was portaging last week in just such a situation, sweating intensely, when I came on a little old Mennonite woman selling baked goods on the side of the road. A mirage, I scoffed. She said hello, and offered me some cinnamon rolls, which I readily accepted.

Seventy-five cents got me 8 buns the size of softballs. We chatted about being Mennonite in rural Idaho, and I told her stories about the Mennonite men whooping my ass in climbing Katahdin in Maine, they in their loafers, woolen trousers and dress shirts sprinting up the rockslides. We talked about religion, about baking, and my trip. I was distracted for a moment, as her granddaughter, a stunningly beautiful girl in an ankle-length home sewn floral dress and bonnet attended to the garden and eventually climbed into a beat-up white Ford pick-up and drove off, smiling at me as I stuffed cinnamon buns into my mouth.


It has been an interesting week since last I wrote. In Weiser (Weezer) I got to scheming again, with wonderful results. The lack of camping along the river, the horrendous current, and the insane number of snakes, as well as my painfully slow progress all convinced me I had to figure some new methods and generally step it up if I wanted to make it to the Continental Divide by June. From Hell's Canyon Dam to Weiser I had made about 24 miles a day, got into camp at a reasonable hour and while I was working hard 8 or 9 hours a day, the struggle had left the equation.

I realized my mind and body had caught up with my aggresive pace. I was in good shape and was meeting great challenges with growing comfort. It was time, of course, to kick it up a notch. With the extra hour or two of daylight I was now getting with the advance of spring and the crossing of the time zone, I decided I needed to travel more each day, and to travel harder. I was ready, but a bit hesitant about the whole thing.

Next, I went back to the Weiser library and got on Craigslist to look for a bike. I looked through 500 listings before I found one even remotely close to the tiny town of Weiser, that for a small woman's AutoBike. On a wing and a prayer I made the phone call. He man who answered was gruff and kept reminding me it was a women's bike. I had caught him just moments before he was walking out the door for the day. He agreed to bring the bike in, he lived only a half mile from the library. He arrived a few minutes later with two bikes; the small and unacceptable AutoBike, but also a beat up old Scott. I paid him $30 for the Scott; all this in under 30 minutes of getting to the library. I laugh at my own luck sometimes- for all of those chance occurances to come together in my favor.... amazing.

I spent the afternoon fixing and tinkering, then talking my way into a machine shop to fabricate a trailer. I had grand designs, all beautiful and well-engineered, but I realized I couldn't fix most of the parts if they broke, so I kept it simple so I could easily repair the trailer in the field. $1.20 at the hardward store and access to the dumpster behind the shop gave me what I needed, and I pedaled out of Weiser smiling like an idiot at my good fortune.

For the last week, I've managed to keep it up. I'll paddle for eight or nine hours and then portage a bit in the late afternoon. The bike and trailer set-up is solid, but a bit finicky. It won't go up any kind of hill or turn much for that matter, but it helps me get around waterfalls, dams, and heavy rapids just a bit faster.

In keeping with my lonely personification of inanimate objects, I've named the bike Taj. As in, 'Poor Taj', a subtle jab at Canadian pronuniation.

About 880 miles and 50 days down, with 190 miles to Jackson, Wyoming and hopefully my first rest day!

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Shitty Way Around

Back in Lewiston, I schemed. I love schemeing, and I'm good at it, but this time around I could find no real way of getting my boat and myself around the Canyon. After eight days of travel, I was back where I had started. I searched the town, made a hundred phone calls, even tried hitchhiking- but with a 16' canoe, hitching isn't going to get you very far.

I retreated to a campground outside of town, down and out after nearly an entire day of head ends and frustrated efforts. My expedition was doomed, Hell's Canyon had defeated me, I couldn't portage 250 miles by road over the mountains. I could store the boat and fly home, my trip shatted. But then, a horse walked by, and it shat on the grass next to my tent.

I looked up, hopeless.

At the far edge of the campground, dozens of horses, cowboys, and trailers sat, a small round-up. I started walking over, but then stopped and ran back to my site and dug through my pack to the plastic bag at the bottom, holding my clean change of clothes. I put on my American flag shirt, emblazoned with the letters 'USA under the waving flag.

I was passed from group to group, each now in the tailgating phase of the event. I talked to dozens. I schmoozed cowboys and teenaged equestrians, riders and breeders. Within an hour, I found someone headed south, and, yep, they had two trailers and could shuffle the horses. If I didn't mind riding in the back, no.... A canoe? What in the hell?

The next morning, my boat resting in a bit of dry horse shit in the trailer and me hovering on a pile of gear next to it, we set out over the mountains. Five hours later, they dropped me off on the side of the road. From the high plateau between the mountains, it was only a twenty mile portage back to the river. I paddled downstream all day and the next to the dam, and walked as far as I could before cliffs blocked the way. Around the bend, the muted roar of Granite Rapid could be heard. (

I retreated back to Hell's Canyon Dam and retraced my strokes to Brownlee Dam. Then, onward. Only a short break in travel, and a major concession in my trip. The letter of the mandate I had set for myself had been violated, a hiccup in the human-powered crossing of North America. But the spirit remained, I hoped. With effort, it could remain.

No One in Weiser Listens to Weezer

Greetings from Weiser, ID. I bought a large pizza for lunch, and as with nearly everyone in this tiny town, the girl running to register told me she didn't recognize me and asked where I was from and what I was doing in Weiser. I explained, and told her I was just passing through 'Wiser'.

"Oh no, its Weee-zer, deary."

"Ah, like the band." I said. Blank look. "You know, the band Weezer. Singer is Rivers Cuomo." Another blank look. I sang a few lines from the songs 'Buddy Holly' & 'Hash Pipe'. Her brow furrowed in deep thought, she crossed her eyes at me, shook her head and handed me my pizza.

"Must be an Eastern thing."

As you may have guessed, no one in Weiser listens to Weezer.


As usual, I report from a public library in a small town. To my left, a dusty caked farmer in cowboy boots with a Milt's Feed and Grain trucker hat; to my right, a young mother teaching her sons how to Google. Behind me, the periodical racks, where someone has neatly written "Magazines" over the word 'Periodicals'. Nearby, the Teen Space, full of young adult books and CDs, as well as magazines of their own. 'Teen People', of course, as well as 'Seventeen' and 'Cosomo-Girl', but also 'Modern Bride' and 'Your Wedding'. That bridal magazines adorn the shelves of the teens-only library zone, I guess shows you that this town is in touch with its reality.

I have to say that Weiser is probably my favorite town yet. Polite and helpful people are everywhere, and curious in a way most others haven't been. It seems Westerners have pretty effectively bred out their curiousity in most areas- here, it survives. Within two blocks of the library I found a supermarket, hardware store, and best of all, a good used book store. The angels sang; I've been firing through books, finishing about one every five days. I just finished "Undaunted Courage" by Stephan Ambrose, as well as "Standing up to the Rock" by Louise Freeman-Toole and "River of the West" by Robert Clark. All highly reccomended.

I pass now into southern Idaho, a land of occasional canyons with farmland starting at their rim and extend for hundreds of miles. Land her is either Bureau of Land Management or is private- private in the 'I'll shoot you if you trespass' manner of the world. A farmer on an ATV actually said that to me the other day, but he was much more polite about it. Still, his four-wheeler did have a gun rack.

The current is strong here, and the river is rising everyday. The reservoirs and irrigation canals that blanket southern Idaho are quickly filling up, and soon the river will be in flood. A ranger at Farewell Bend pointed down to the river and then to the high-water mark on the bluff at our feet. He said that in ten days he wouldn't be surprised if the river hit that mark, meaning a rise of thirty feet. I pause now to plan. Fighting the current as it is brutal, the banks are overgrown and eddies nonexistent. There are almost no campsites in the next 300 miles. A few RV parks, boat ramps, and isolated stretches of canyons are my only options, unless the reality on the ground is different from what my maps and research tell me. So I pause and plan, thinking of solutions to the problems that I face. So has it been, as so will it continue to be.

Halfway to Hell's Heart

I had left Lewiston full of trepidation at the path before me, at its challenges both real and imagined. In my planning, the ascent of the Snake River through the Canyon- the deepest in North America- consumed and undule amount of time and energy. I feared that on the ground and in the water it would do the same.

The current just a mile upstream from Lewiston was almost impassable, running at almost 7 knots. Gradually, the current grew stronger and began to pass over cobble bars and form riffles, and soon, rapids. As I fought my way upstream, sometimes earning only a mile every two hours, the rapids grew larger and the canyon walls steeper. Near Heller Bar I left the dirt road behind, and near Cache Creek the last of the boat accessed camps. The walls only grew steeper and the river more powerful. The eddies I had counted on were not there, where basic hydrology would dictate that an eddy should form, only a howling, boiling current.

In the first ten miles of my ascent, the river reaches a depth of almost 140 feet. I would be inching across a flat stretch of current, and then be lifted 4-5 inches above the river as a mushroom cloud of water the size of a pick-up boiled up from the depths. Further upstream, these boils would grow so large and powerful that whirpools a foot or two deep would spin the boat, then a new current would throw the bow into the main body of the river and I would be washed down, losing a half mile of hard-fought progress. The river was big and it was fast, a willful and intense creature.

I labored for a week, earning a paltry distance and a fatigue as deep as any I have ever felt. The rapids I lined or portaged were getting larger- the flow sure to increase as spring wore on. The most conservative method of ascent in some cases had me balanced precariously on a rocky ledge ten feet over a churning drop, the painter lines clutched tightly in each hand. At one point I had forty feet of line out, the boat secured with a slippery mooring hitch so I could climb- actually rock climb- up and over to haul the knot out from forty feet upstream and track the boat to calmer water. In short, the risks I was running were beginning to get away from me. What I couldn't managing, I was struggling to mitigate, but even that was stretching it.

Heavy rain and wind took its toll, as did the tracking and wading in thick brush- each night I would retire soaked to the skin, my flesh sodden as only days of rain and wet can do. In all, I was tired, but I was having fun. This was the immense struggle I had sought, in some twisted way, but the reality of the situation was that I had no business continuing on. It was not a hard decision to make- my judgement told me I had to turn back, but it was a decision I did not want to make. I had talked maps with a group of rafters, they indicated places where the rising water had reached sheer canyon walls. It would be almost impassable - almost. But then, around mid-day on a rare partially cloudy day of hard upstream tracking, my old friend The Ghost of Decisions Past came out from the ether I made an early camp to talk with him.

The time had come, obviously. I knew my route goes. I also knew that I could do it. But, as the Ghost reminded me, I shouldn't. Maybe someday with a dedicated team and in the lower water of autumn, but not here, not now, and not alone. I had made a promise to my mother pertaining to safety, and while nothing I was doing was 'safe' I had sought always to keep my promise in my own way, and to return, six months hence, a tired but happy boy still in possession of a pulse.

The next morning I hiked upstream from camp with a full pack and tarp and walked for a day and half, just to see more of the canyon. The rapids below continuted to grow, as I was happy, if wistful, about my decision. Two morning's later, I loaded my boat and peeled out, headed downstream.

It took me 5 hours of lining and paddling on the ten knot current to undo a week of the hardest labor. I arrived back in Lewiston on what I thought was Mother's Day (I was a week early) and called my mother to tell her I had kept my promise.

As always, all text and images Copyright 2009 Alexander B. Martin

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Road Turns South

As usual, I have run out of time.

Of the many things I listed as necessary to do before leaving Lewiston, only a few key pieces have been put together. Heavy duty tubes for my cart tires, a serious re-ration, and fresh beer and hamburgers.

I have dallied in town, reluctant to leave and face the long canyon to the south. It will be the most wild stretch west of the Continntal Divide, and certainly the most challenging. I have spent more time determining the validity of the next 100 miles of my route than any other by far. So far as I can tell, it goes. Much of my time in Lewiston has been spent calling and visiting outfitters and picking their brains on portage routes, eddies, and the dynamics of each rapid (though I won't be even getting near most of the rapids- not in the spring, and not alone). Enough lining and portaging to fill a lifetime.

Chances to bail out if things get hairy are few, but several do exist. Hell's Canyon is the deepest canyon in North America and a famous downriver run. Going up it, my expedition skills and judgement will be well excercised. I plan on only a few miles each day, for a 12 day ascent of 109 miles, and the remaining 90 miles of flatwater above Hell's Canyon Dam in 4 days. It will be a slow and methodical problem solving session followed by a flatwater sprint into the first upstream town.

So that's all for now. The time to start dragging my boat down to the ramp has come. It is 42 degrees out and drizzling. The river is flowing at 20,000 cfs, relatively low. Expect the next update in 2-3 weeks from Weiser, ID.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Mexican Peanut Butter and the Feeling of Home

I write from the library of Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. I will be brief as I can be, as I write in a closing library. I have always hated closing libraries, the stacks slow and perceptibly dimming and the librarians shuffling about, closing things down even as you rush to print or finish a chapter of an over-due term paper. Their are always librarians wary from long hours, silence, and constant reptitive work. I always liked to think they go home, crack a 40 of Steel Reserve and listen to Children of Bodom or Rick Ross at 90 decibels to blow off some steam. That always worked for me.

The campus here is beautiful though, and it makes me nostolgic for my college years. I am rapidly approaching the one year anniversary of my own graduation, and those that know me know that I am not over college, it any way. Some day, a decade from now, I know I'll sit in my car, in my driveway drinking Keystone and listening to Whitesnake; that is to say, I'll never be over college. Speaking of Keystone, I found my first river beer two days ago. The fisherman in the Pacific Northwest crush 'stones with some regularity, judging by the hundreds of cans at the public boat launches and in the hands of the men I've seen. The can I found was on the crest of a wave, unopened but battered and scratched of most of its markings. It rode the backs of giant waves to me, a gift from the river gods. I waited until I had to bust out from behind a large natural breakwater into hard surf and blowing wind before I shotgunned it.


I lived in Lewiston, ME for four years and came to love Maine very deeply in that time. Even Lewiston I came to view and love as home. Some say Lewiston is the armpit of Maine, but if thats true then the Pine Tree state carried me close to her bosom and I love her for that. Lewiston, Maine was named for an Indian that fell into the falls on the Androscoggin, though I've always thought that story seemed a bit made-up, especially that part about him supposedly being drunk.

Lewiston, Idaho is named after Meriwether Lewis of the 1803 cross-continental expedition, and reminds me of home. Walking downtown, I smelled fresh bread and paper mills, each smell alternating with the wind. The awful funk of a river near a major paper mill ocasionally entombs both towns, and in Maine the bakery downtown had its match from an unknown source in Idaho. The small downtown, with run down old theaters, new sidewalks and an aging and sometimes attractive industrial decor made me pine for home, and my years in Maine. I am a long way from home now, a stranger in a land not quite as strange and alien as it first appears.

I've been having some stomach problems lately. Nothing too major, but a pain none the less. I've never had a problem with gut bugs on trip before, so this is all new to me. The only open grocery store in Pasco, WA within walking distance was a Mexican one, and of course I bought the cheapest of everything on my rations list. So I left with 4 pounds of peanut butter, and I suspect that my stomach problem is intimately connected with the aforementioned Mexican peanut butter.

No food has ever given me gut issues before, but lo and behold, I cut out the PB and I'm healthy again. Go figure. I spent a month in Mexico this winter and ate the best food of my life with no problems, but from thousands of miles away and months later, the PB strikes me down. The causal relationship there might be fuzzy, but all I care about is asigning arbitrary blame and moving on.

Springtime in the Blue Mountains

I left behind the flat geography and hot weather of the central Columbia Basin after only two days on the Snake, and as I crawled my way upstream the banks steepened into mountains and the weather built into the cold, constant wind that I remembered from my first week. In all, I was glad. The current was almost impassably strong in places, morning temperatures hit the low 30's, and the wind blew 30 knots in every direction, but I would trade that struggle and discomfort for any uninteresting day, hot and calm with no mountains to set eyes on. Still, it has been a serious challenge, and knowledge of my limits and weaknesses becomes crystal clear at 8pm after fighting my way upstream through 25 miles of wind, rain, dams, and current backed by 75,000 cfs.

When the wind wakes you up in the morning, something mighty good has to happen that day to make up for that awful feeling you have, warm and dry in your bag, as you listen to the roar already building at 5am. The wind woke up earlier than you did, and was ready to play. So it was, four days ago. It was one of those launchings when you line your gear up, in order and right on shore, so that when the boat goes in the water you can load without moving your feet. Waves were already crashing in, and spray had begun to sputter in the occasional gust. It was 6 hours in the boat before I could find a protected enough spot to have lunch, but the best part of the day was yet to come.

By late afternoon, I had gotten into a rhythm. Hard, repitive motion, hyper alert and always looking over your shoulder for a breaking wave. A white rock snapped me out of my pattern, a large white rock on shore amidst the ubiquitous dark black and brown basalt. I let the swells move me closer and closer, curiousity overseeing my downfall. At five feet I saw ribs, and knew. Some cow, peacefully munching cheatgrass a thousand feet above, and felt a gust and tumbled to its death, here beside the river. I made moves to continue on, no sound but the crashing waves all around, and as I did I looked over my right shoulder as my rhythm began its march to camp. A grandfather set of breaking swells was sweeping in, the foam on their crests a sure sign I had little time to keep myself off the rocks. Two hard strokes and I was moving forward, but too late and at the wrong angle. My paddle swung out to brace and, eventually, to keep me off the rocks. A roller lifted me and pushed into the bank, my paddle hitting rock, then bone, and with the force of four hundred pounds of boat and thousands of water, the blade slid between two ribs and sank to its throat. I pulled. I jostled. I tore. But as a second set loomed, I abandoned my paddle and made way ahead and hard with my second blade.

A half mile later, the boat secured in safe harbor, I hopped from rock to rock back to the cow to extricate my paddle. It waved at me from far off, shaking its finger in time with the waves. From shore, it was simple surgery. I returned to my canoe, paddle in hand, wary forever after of wind-blown bovine corpses and their paddle theifing ways.

As always, all text and photos Copyright 2009 Alexander B. Martin

By the Numbers

I arrived in Lewiston, ID at the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers this afternoon, making it exactly three weeks on the water, down to the minute as it turns out. I launched at 1:10pm on April 5th, and pulled in at 1:11pm today, April 26th. My itinerary gave me three weeks to do it in, so I guess I'm on schedule. With all the time I've had to myself lately, I've been counting and timing lots of things. My friend Duck inspired me to this end, and so, here is the America's Rivers Expedition: The First 21 Days, by the numbers:

Days on: 21
Days off: 0

Miles traveled: 375
Paddles stolen by wind-blown cow corpses: 1

Elevation above mean sea level: 845'
Dams: 8

Miles portaged: 42
Ounces of Sriracha Chili Sauce Consumed: 40

Pounds of Food consumed: 64 (dry weight and fresh food)

Rivers: 2

Average current in rivers: 3-4 knots
Average windspeed between 10am-4pm: 18 knots
Books read: 3

Mountain Ranges paddled through or over: 2
Number of minutes spent staring at maps: 47 (per diem)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Onward to Idaho

In a few minutes, I'll head out and put in on the Snake River. From there its exactly 1000 miles to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the continental divide. Time to turn it on.

I'll catch up a bit more on the blog when I get to Lewiston, Idaho, 140 miles from here. I used to live in Lewiston, ME and I am psyched to see how the Idaho version stacks up. Lots to report on too. Like the Bretz floods, my visit to a full sized replica of Stonehenge, the Bonneville Power Administration, and the Hanford Site. So, stay tuned.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Roll on, Columbia, Roll on

The wind was contrary and the legs needed a bit of a stretch this morning, so I decided to portage into Pasco, WA. Hauling along Rt. 12 through Burbank, WA (great town, Burbank) and all its center-pivot irrigated glory, I happened to notice a sign in the distance. I as I came closer, I saw that it said "It's more than a feeling- don't stop believin'," which, needless to say, put me in a great mood. You see, Journey is the greatest band the world has ever known or will ever know- 'Don't Stop Believin'' might be the greatest song ever made ( So I started singing.

As I began to climb the hill, the rest of the sign came into view. "It's more than a feeling- don't stop believin'...... in Jesus." Foiled again.

I passed the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers today, and expect to begin my ascent of the Snake tomorrow. I have now been traveling 13 days and made 227 miles around dams, through the Cascades and against the power of the mightiest river flowing into the Pacific from North America. It has been hard travel- the hardest canoe tripping I have ever done. I am on the water 10-12 hours a day, always moving, and many days end with me unable to lift my arms over my head. In the morning, I stretch for ten minutes before the tightness moves out long enough for me to get out of my bag. I don't mean to be dramatic- I know it will get easier as I adjust to the pace and to the boat. A solo boat is much harder to paddle for long distances than are the tandem boats I am used to; every stroke, both power and steering, must be done by one person. When that canoe rolls over the Continental Divide, it's passage will definitely have been earned.

The day after my last post, I entered the desert. It was the most dramatic transition I have ever seen, much less paddled through. One day, I am surrounded by steep and densely forested mountains, a wet and moss-covered landscape, and by day's end the trees have completely disappeared and as far as one can see are rolling, green hills. A few miles later, the green fades to brown and the hills to plains. The Cascades form a very effective barrier to moist air flowing in from the ocean, and the elevation wrings much of the moisture out due to orographic lift (elevation equals low pressure, low pressure equals expansion, expansion equals cooling, cooling equals lower dew point & saturation point, that equals rain). So, ergo, I am in a desert now.

Sort of. It has still rained most days, in addition to a lot of other big weather. Afternoon build up, massive tunderheads on the plains piling up to 14-15,ooo ft, and two days ago a hail squall that blotted out the bow of my boat from view. I waited, huddled under my rain jacket, shivering just a bit in the 45 degree air. To pass the time, I made a little snowman from the moist, slushy hail and mounted him on my map case. He had eyes made from sunflower seeds and a little p-cord mouth that looked more like a mustache. So it goes. He lasted until the seas picked up in the late afternoon, the swells rocking the boat until Kaiser Frosty jumped ship. Yes, I named him. Several days alone tend to make one ever more likely to personify things. Like mounds of hail...

I am in Pasco, WA now, a city that so far has only really shown me one side, that of endless miles of prefabricated metal buildings that sell pipe, pipe supplies, or pipe accessories. It reminds me of Vernal, UT, another town I've spent time in; an extensive industrial strip lined with fabricators and suppliers that support some sort of agriculture or extractive industry. I'll have to read up on which. Downtown is dominated by signs in Spanish, by little taquerias and Mexican grocery stores. About 85% of the folks I've met and talked with here are either Hispanic, Native, or Asian/Filipino.

A few days ago when I was portaging McNary Dam, I paused in the beating sunshine to sit in the grass and let the building lactic acid in my legs drain out a bit. Behind me the rock and concrete of the dam loomed, and hung over a small extension of the superstructure a sign read "Fish Viewing Room". It was far isolated from the powerhouse and the offices, and my curiosity over took me. I had to pause inside the door to let my eyes adjust- inside it was dark and cool, a sharp contrast from the intense desert sunshine outside. The walls were smooth concrete, no windows, and seems slick with moisture as if the dam itself were sweating. Along each opposing wall were huge handpainted murals of fish, dark colors well used and lit by soft yellow track lighting itself hidden in a fold of wall. Pikeminnow, sturgeon, and all the types of salmon adorned the walls- steelhead, chinook, and so on. Two dozen fish, frozen there. On the far wall three giant glass windows let in a green light, filtered through the fast flowing river water of the dam's massive fish ladder.

The place was a shrine. As I stood there in the deep silence, a steelhead fought its way from left to right, disappearing for a moment between the concrete pillars. It was huge, three feet long, and covered in scars. The flow of the ladder was intense, the salmon dogged. Soon it disappeared to the right, to continue the ascent of the Columbia and McNary Dam. It would have been one of the first of the year, as April turns to May the salmon run begins and the steelhead lead the charge.

"A good one. A Fighter."

I wasn't alone. It was a strange little shrine, and on a bench facing the green windows sat two very old men in dusty jeans and ragged mackinaws, the place's only supplicants. The scars on their hands and faces matched the fish's, they too were Fighters. I nodded, and stood in silence for almost twenty minutes. No other fish came, but the men would maintain their vigil, watchful through thick glasses and cloudy eyes.

As I was leaving, I passed a teenaged girl, pretty, and maybe a quarter Native. She was coming to check on her grandfather. "He spends most of the day here. Just watching with Larry there. Funny, huh?"


Some long over due photos. Classic too- the camera only comes out when its sunny. In these photos I think I've captured all the sunny moments of the trip. Not really, but close...

1.) My boat, a 16' Bell Magic solo canoe. This photo was taken in the Columbia River Gorge on Day 3, just as I was contemplating my first portage.

2.) The first portage. In early spring the winds in the Gorge begin to blow more consistently out of the west, providing conditions more conducive to upstream travel. Unusually, day 3 saw them roaring at 30 knots out of the east, halting all progress on water and forcing me onto the road. Nine miles, 2100 feet in elevation and two bike tubes later, I returned to the river.

3.) Bonneville Lock and Dam. The furthest downstream hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River, I include this more to show the topography of the Gorge (steep) and the colors (green).

4.) The Dalles Lock and Dam. Quite a portage, with 12-16 foot standing waves ripping into foam below the spillway- glad I took the long way 'round.

5.) The Columbia Hills region near Maryhill, OR. This photo was taken from the Stonehenge monument.

6.) Abruptly, the end of the Cascade Mountains: dark, sheared off basalt cliffs.

As always, all text and photos Copyright 2009 (Alexander B. Martin)

Friday, April 10, 2009

You have Reached the End of the Oregon Trail!

If you ever played the game Oregon Trail while struggling to get through math or typing class in 4th grade, you remember the moment towards the end when you get the option to caulk the wagon and raft down the river to the promised land, aka the Willamette Valley. Well today was my lucky day, as I had my first lunch at a little riverside park just down from The Dalles, where in the game you get to make that fateful choice. I didn't get to dodge any rocks, however. "Thomas has dysentary. Annie has been bitten by a wind-blown snake. You have shot 978 pounds of buffalo meat- you can carry 41." You get the idea.

I am in the city of The Dalles at the public library, enjoying a chair and some climate control. Public libraries are such wonderful things- even in the smallest town you find one, and it is usually the only place there where you can sit down without any pressue to buy anything. Also, free internet is nice.

The launch went well, a little champagne and a Pabst Tall Boy marked the occasion, along with a few friends and a homeless man that kept asking questions about my kayak. Not a kayak, hombre. With a deep breath and a few hard pulls I was in the current, going upstream. Oh, and I just checked on this- the Columbia is flowing at 200,000 cfs right now. And I'm going upstream- perfectly logical.

The wind and current has been interesting, to say the least. It can be totally calm, softly pissing rain and 50 degrees out, and then you come around a 60 foot rocky headland and all of a sudden you are in the land of the giants. Safe harbors are plentiful, but the giants still peak at you from out in the two-mile wide river, knowing you will have to face them again soon.

The Columbia River Gorge has been unreal- huge, jagged peaks densely forested and always the damp, dark green of moss and pine. Salmon fishermen, some Nez Perce among them, line the banks in the hundreds, hoping for the odd salmon so show itself to them and their line. I portaged once when the winds were blowing- they get to about 15-20 knots every afternoon- downstream instead of their customary easterly direction. I gained 2000 ft on the portage and made 9 miles, finally to an overlook of the entire gorge and the Cascades through which the river cuts. Both tires on the portage cart had long since given out, so I sat there, painstaking stuffing an old bedsheet into the tire to give it some loft. None of the patches had held, but the bedsheet, un-poppable, stood the test of distance and weight.

Yesterday I reached the confluence of the Hood River and the Columbia, and ended up carrying over the huge sandbar at the Hood's mouth. The town there is famous for its wind and kit surfing, and there were dozens of folks out, zipping back and forth around me in the howling wind. As I was finishing the carry, a rather attractive woman came over with her dog and starting asking me about my trip. I hadn't talked to anyone in a few days, not more than a few words anyway, and I obviously couldn't really string coherent sentances together. Turns out she's a boater, and yes, that gorgeous golden retriever is hers. So she completes the pretty girl/dog/boater trifecta, and I'm fumbling to snap my spray deck back on. She asks for the blog (its 2009, of course an expedition has to have a blog...) and then to me, blinded by the power of the trifecta, she bids me aideu and nods towards the river, smiling: "Your boat is floating away."

Wading in, I catch up with the boat in mid current, myself thigh (crotch) deep in the glacial meltwater rushing down from Mt. Hood. Classic. I can handle huge waves, pissing rain, 10 mile portages and 200,000 cfs, but I'm undone by a girl and her puppy.

Oh, and if anyone says "Nice kayak" to me again, I'm going to have an aneurysm. Also, to the four people that have asked "Where's Clark?": he fell off, and thank you for speaking to my Lewis-like qualities.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Impending Launch, Hipsters, and the City of Beer

One thing I've realized about Portland, OR is that you can walk to almost any street corner in the city, close your eyes, spin around ten times, throw a rock, and your chances of hitting a hipster are pretty good.  They are thick on the ground, thick as alder on a sunny river bench.  The difference, I think, is that East Coast hipsters are a bit more confrontational than the Portland, Oregon style.  Which is good: getting around this city -if you're from away- without asking for directions from countless hipsters would be a real challenge.

Anyway, I'm here in the City of Beer and Bridges only 26 hours away from launching on my expedition.  I've been gathering packages of gear sent to friends, random bits of equipment, and nailing down the logistics of the next few months.  Without friends in the city who have generously given couches, food, storage, and transportation pulling this adventure in absurdity together would have been impossible.

More to come later, about logistics and this wonderful city.  For now, it is time to search out a pop riveter in this town, finalize the outfitting of my boat, and then buy my fresh vegetables and cheese.  Because once you buy your freshies, there is no turning back.


The launch is going to be tomorrow, Sunday April 5th, at 1pm at Alder Creek Canoe and Kayak on Tomahawk Island Drive in Jantzen Beach.  It is on Hayden/Tomahawk Island in North Portland, OR.  Come on over if you can.  Media welcome.

If you are in town, I think the plan is to have a leisurely gathering tonight, but who knows- I may be preparing well into the evening.  Lots to do.  So give a call or send a message if are around and I can clue you in to where I am at.  

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Launch Dates, a Warm River in Winter, and the Endless Prep

It's a beautiful day in Tucson, about 70 degrees under clear blue skies. It has been full too- the kind of day you plan on spending in a lawn chair and end up on your feet and jotting numbers until your brain hurts from breakfast 'til dinner. Still, that usually makes dinner taste better.

I am in Tucson at the NOLS Southwest base after having worked a wonderful course on the Rio Grande in west Texas. I had never paddled the Rio before but was excited to do so- in the winter months when most other classic rivers are covered with ice and snow, the Rio is 70 degrees and running well. We had a strong student group, fair weather and good flow, all this in February. Here are a few shots from the course:

Pretty spectacular. There were semi-wild cattle and gun-toting Border Patrol about as well, but nothing we had to worry about.

Next up is 14 hour drive north to Utah and a course on the Green River in Desolation and Gray Canyons. After the warmth and sun of the Chihuahuan Desert, Utah in March is surely going to be a doozey. Racing ice flows through whitewater has its charm, however.

Things are coming together on the ARE, dates are firming up, food is being purchased and support arranged. With the close of the Desolation Canyon expedition, I fly to Portland, OR on March 31st, and after a few days of prep in the city, I launch in the early afternoon on Sunday, April 5. If you are in the Portland area, there is going to be a little send-off party on Saturday, and the launch of course on Sunday.

On a final note, we are excited to partner with Bell Canoe & Cooke Custom Sewing for the expedition- more on that soon.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Scouting from On High

I once saw a tourist in a Starter jacket gaze carefully over the edge of the 90 foot cliffs that make up Class V Rip Gorge (on the West Branch of the Penobscot in Maine) and casually remark: "Honey, isn't Class V the biggest? It doesn't look too bad from here." She had a fanny pack and everything. Too easy.

It demonstrates a point though. It is never a great idea to scout from on high. Looking down on a rapid from an elevated position flattens out it's hydrological features and might goad you into a poor decision. It's a spatial trick of the eye to lose the depth of field proportional to the distance from the object.

Sometimes, of course, you have no choice but to clamber over rocks and up to some promontory to see around the next bend or get a better angle on an OK-but-not-quite-good chute on the other side of the river. Still, scouting is best done from river level and then complimented with an overview later.

* * *

So, just now I was looking at satellite images of Sheep Creek Rapid in Hells Canyon on the Snake River and thinking to myself; "Well now, it doesn't look too bad at all... I bet I could sneak up river right no problem..." The sat image showed the river to be about 2 inches wide with a few tiny, blurry comet-shaped white splotches depicting the Class IV/V monster; the point of view was probably 1000 feet up.

I reached down into my fanny pack for my chap stick, grimacing and clicking over to the next sat image.

All text Copyright Alexander Martin 2009