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