Friday, May 8, 2009

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

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