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 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ip1zsUIosoA). 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.