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)

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