The Green River Crawl: Canoeing Utah!

DSC_0679 (1)(State #48/50) Across the mesa and through the arid grasslands, I traveled before halting at the edge of a cliff. Beneath my wheels, a red clay road zigzagged down, coursing the steep walls of the canyon as it descended eight-hundred feet to the Green River. Recent rains left the narrow switchbacks slick and there were no guardrails to forgive a momentary distraction. I creaked down Mineral Bottom Road with uncharacteristic caution, both sweaty palms wrapped around the wheel and my vision fixed on the wet surface before me. That morning my car had passed the 22,000 mile point of my canoe trip and there was no contest — this was the most butt-clinchingly scary road I’d encountered.

In 1974 my Mom rafted down a technical stretch of the Green with her best friend, Diane. The young ladies were escorted by a collection of what were surely buff, tan, tiny-shorted, pot-smoking outfitters. According to her, they’d met them the previous winter… at a bar… in Vail. All together, ingredients for stories involving one’s Mother that you hope to never hear. Still, I pried a bit.

They were smoking dope, which worried me a little, but they were excellent on the water,” my Mom explained. “Once we were going so fast towards this wall. I thought we were going to die, then they turned at the last second. Oh! And I had a crush on one of the guys,” Mom continued to my unease, “but he brought another girl along.” Thank God. Not only did this other girl reduce the awkward story potential, but she also helped ensure my future existence.

04RoadtripVanMy first visit to the area came thirty summer’s later when, in 2004, three friends and I embarked on a high school graduation road trip. We broke down in Arches NP on our first day in Utah. Waiting on van repairs, we slept one night under a gazebo in Moab’s city park… with a drifter… until the sprinklers came on at four a.m. The next day we hitch-hiked to HitchHikeUTArches in the bed of a truck driven by a long-haired fellow named Mark. Afterwards, he deposited us at the Lazy Lizard Hostel at the edge of town. Mark, being a righteous dude, bought us some cheap beer and wine coolers, much of which ended up, along with the night’s dinner, on the ground outside our cabin. Those few days had to be the best of the entire trip.BreakdownUT2

Arriving in Moab in 2017, I stopped at the Lazy Lizard out of curiosity and nostalgia. As always, the communal room buzzed with an assortment of old hippies, seasonal workers and Europeans. It’s the sort of atmosphere where someone might start reading poetry aloud or turn the contents of the free food bin into chicken potpies for all to enjoy. I’ve witnessed both. That night, one drink turned into many and I found myself wandering into town, coerced by a group of rowdy young lads. After an impulsive stop for tacos, the journey ended in an empty, lifeless bar. It was anticlimactic, but at least no one puked up red wine coolers.

DSC_0710 (1)The next day, after negotiating the treacherous canyon road, I caught my first glimpse of the Green River — brown water flowing beyond a verdant thicket. I launched on a chilly, cloudy afternoon and immediately understood traveling up the Green would be more difficult than the Colorado. I canoed across the river to an inside turn, where I assumed the current would be slower. It wasn’t. Against a bank thick with salt cedar and willow, I struggled at a one-mph pace, unable to take a break. My pores leaked cheap beer as I crawled up the river, between the towering tan walls of Labyrinth Canyon.

This muddy river was channelized, lacking sandbars, with little difference in flow rate between the inside and outside bends. I hunted for eddies behind boulders where I’d build up momentum to pass over the swift water pouring around the obstruction. I’d stroke at the current with little resistance, almost stalling before creeping into the next slow portion. On and on, this repeated.DSC_0721 (2)

To make matters more irritating, I passed multitudes of happy down-streamers. “You’re going the wrong way!” Every. Single. Group of floaters shouted as they paddled with ease by me. We all had a good laugh until, about the fifth time, I pulled out my six-inch knife and repeatedly punctured one of the rafts. The occupants fled overboard as their watercraft went limp and submerged. “Anymore knee jerkers?” I asked the wide-eyed, ashen-faced members of the sister vessels. “Didn’t think so,” I said before wiping my nose with my arm still gripping the open blade. Then I let the knife drop to the bottom of my canoe and continued paddling up river, the right way.

DSC_0702 (1)Dark fantasies behind me, I pulled Rider onto a muddy sandbar at the mouth of Hell Roaring Canyon. I walked up the arroyo to stare at an etching of a boat, a faint eyeball with wings and the script “D. Julien, 1836.” A French-American fur-trapper, Denis Julien was the first European of record to enter this land. He was white and traveled up stream, but that’s where our similarities end. Julien entered this unexplored canyon unsupported and alone nearly 200 years ago — I can only imagine. And there I was, muttering about my difficulties in a boat filled with a GPS enabled phone, computer, butane stove, synthetic tent and supermarket fried chicken.DSC_0716

DSC_0733The clouds broke and the warm colors of Labyrinth Canyon deepened as I made camp above the river. Tall grass, long-needled prickly pear, sage brush and fruiting persimmon bushes occupied the flat shelf around my tent. A boulder field of decaying canyon wall lay thirty feet away at the base of the mighty cliff. Beer in hand, I took pictures before stepping on a cactus; two-inch white thorns went strait through my sole. I hobbled back to grab another beer and preformed an evening tweezer surgery.

Bats chirped and the mosquitoes turned to prey as the first stars appeared behind the clearing, high autumn sky. The ceiling dimmed westward, color drained from the landscape and the canyon walls went dark. With no fire,* I fled from the chill and went to bed.DSC_0728

DSC_0779 copyThe next morning, I canoed up to Horseshoe Canyon, landed my boat and trudged through a jungle corridor. Sun-cracked clay, saltbush and tumble weeds met me on the other side of the thicket where I found the petroglyphs carved by the Fremont Culture (500–1275 A.D.). There were herds of bighorn sheep, antlered deer, dogs and people. I tried to imagine the artist carving them. Perhaps for spiritual purposes. Perhaps out of boredom. Perhaps to take advantage of the shade and breeze on a stifling day. What I do know is that these petroglyphs have survived a thousand baking summers and a thousand freezing winters. They’ve withstood the Spanish explorers, the French trappers and, so far, the Americans. If they can make it through the Trump presidency I’d say they’ll have a real shot at another millennia.**DSC_0797

DSC_0802After the easy paddle down, I pulled off the river, got in the car and drove towards the great switchbacks. Movement on the cliffs above interrupted my thoughts of a hot meal in town. I looked up through my windshield as a man stepped off a ledge and onto a line. I stopped and exited my vehicle to gawk in silence. Arms spread, feet shifting back and forth with the slack line, the man took one careful step at a time. He maneuvered for balance, walking hundreds of feet above the empty desert air. I remained quiet, fearing any noise might cause him to lose concentration and, well, I wasn’t that desperate for his wallet. Eventually, he reached the far side totally unaware of his one-man audience. Satisfied with my key role in his safety, I patted the upside-down canoe, got back in the car and drove up the steep, red road and out of the canyon. Across the plateau and through the high grasslands, I traveled onwards to Moab, which, in my experience, is never a bad direction to head.DSC_0816

*Before beginning my paddle, I spoke to a ranger at the Mineral Bottom launch. He was friendly, but went over my signed BLM permit with me and pointed out the many ways I was not in compliance. Like many legal documents, I signed without reading the form. He knew I was honest in my ignorance and let me go, making me swear I wouldn’t make a fire without the required fire pan (fire scars can and do last generations in the Southwest and other environments). I was also supposed to have a throwable floatation device, as required by Utah State law. He seemed less concerned with this one as I didn’t have another passenger to rescue. Finally, the rangers gave me an extra wag bag, for crap, as there are no pit toilets on the Green River in that section. With all of the floaters, they don’t want the river turning into an open sewer. All made a lot of sense and it was a bit embarrassing as I am no stranger to canoeing and various restrictions and rules. Still, it goes to show, there’s always more to learn. I’d say always read everything you sign, but let’s be realistic. Just always be sure to ask about special restrictions and research must-haves for any float.

**The Trump Administration recently reduced the area of two National Monuments in the State of Utah. The President cut Bears Ears by approximately 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by around 45%. Western land use and ownership, especially when it comes to the US Government, will always be a contentious issue. Many praise the decision as reigning in federal overreach while others scorn the decision, arguing that it will open up the land to development and exploitation. It’s complicated.

I bring it up because much of the nearly two million acres, which Trump de-monument-ified (let’s pretend that’s a word), contains a vast array of petroglyphs (like the ones I saw) and historical artifacts from the Fremont People and other ancient cultures.

Personally, I love American public land and how could I not? Public lands allowed me camp, hike, explore, canoe, often for free, all around this nation. I come from a state that has around 2% public land and, well, it sucks. Human history is filled with regrets of all the places, peoples and environments we could have protected. I struggle to find examples of the times we look back and say, “thank the heavens we opened that land up to small herds of cattle, development and natural resource exploitation.”

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Green River, Utah (Labyrinth Canyon)
  • Miles Canoed: 14 miles (7 up, 7 down)
  • Dates Canoed: 9/28-29/2017
  • Launch/Take Out: Mineral Bottom Launch (38.524917, -109.99341)
  • Campsite: 4 miles up from launch on river right (38.564542, -110.00304)
  • Furthest Point Reached: Outflow of Horseshoe Cayon (38.572937, -110.040296)
  • Songs Sung on the River: Moab by Conor Oberst
  • Big Thanks to Kevin and wife with Moab Rafting and Canoe Company! They showed me where to put in, told me I should be able to canoe up river and pointed out spots on the map to visit and locations of 1836 etchings and the petroglyphs at horseshoe bend.
  • Also thanks to Helen with the Utah Welcome Center on highway 70. I spent hours there, writing, researching and having some free coffee on a rainy day!
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Mammals: bats
  • Birds: Great blue heron, Steller’s Jay, ducks, raven, flicker, lots of songbird in the riparian thickets
  • Dominant Vegetation: Willow and now more Salt Cedar (tamarisk). Still some large cottonwoods, but the species has suffered from the changed river flow regime. A few cedars clinging to the top of the canyon. Also, oaks were prevalent in areas above ordinary high water mark.
  • Noted Species: Mountain lion (Ranger’s recently found big tracks near Horseshoe Canyon) and desert bighorn sheep (once nearly extinct, now plentiful)
  • Ecoregion: Colorado Plateaus, (20d) Arid Canyonlands
  • Trash Collected: part of a burnt gatorade bottle, paper scraps and micro trash at camp
  • Current Threats: Salt cedar, people fire scars, human waste improperly buried and changed stream flow from dam far upstream.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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Down in Glen Canyon: Canoeing the Colorado River, Arizona

DSC_0604(State #47/50) Night approaches down at the bottom of Glen Canyon. The moon sets to the south, paralleling the opposing canyon wall, absorbing all the light as the land around darkens. Growing brighter and brighter until beaming white, the quarter sliver is impossible to ignore. I extend a hand, count my fingers and guess the time it will take to exit the scene, giving way to a sky lush with stars.

Ducks wing past, filling the dry air with rushing feathers and nervous quacking. A blue heron follows, emitting loud, echoing croaks. Tiny bats flit above, erratic in flight, piercing the evening with their own echoes. Crickets chirp, fish splash and unseen birds sing their final notes of the day. Upstream, in the distance, an owl hoots. Deep in the canyon I’m the only human representative for miles and, for the first time in over a week, I can enjoy nature’s visuals with the accompanying soundtrack of twilight.DSC_0507 (1)

Four days previous, I stirred to bleary-eyed awareness at dawn, following a wheezing and restless night. At 8,000 feet, gusts ripped across the Kaibab Plateau, flattening my tent against me. I pulled the poles from their grommets and crawled back into the collapsed tent, trying in vain for shuteye. More concerning than the pole-snapping wind was my six-day-old cold, which wasn’t getting better. Admitting defeat, I drove into town and spoke to a supermarket pharmacist. She asked a few questions, frowned and told me to see a doctor.

Afterwards, I spent a few more crummy nights trying to sleep in my car in the desert outside of Page. And yes, if I listened close, over the howling winds, I could hear all of the world’s tiniest violins playing just for me. My parents must have heard them too, because they put me up in a motel. I realize a respiratory infection doesn’t rate high on the Hugh Glass spectrum of wilderness adversity, but I didn’t care by that point. A real shower, a real bed and actual sleep (along with antibiotics) worked. Finally, I woke up rested and ready to paddle up the Colorado River.DSC_0457 (3)

Sunshine poured down on Lee’s Ferry on a Sunday afternoon. Large groups loaded rafts, preparing for three week floats through the Grand Canyon. With slightly less gear, I set

DSC_0304

I took this a week earlier in Pinnacles NP, California — another Condor release site (notice the numbed tag)

off and paddled up the Colorado. As the miles passed, the wide expanse of Glen Canyon closed in, narrowing the gap of blue sky above where two huge soaring birds caught my eye. I confirmed with my camera — California Condors, a critically endangered animal saved by an aggressive capture/breed/release program. In 1987 only twenty-two were left on the planet. And there they were, two ten-foot wingspans, a few dozen deaths from non-existence — an incredible bird and feat of conservation.

DSC_0482Below the enormous scavengers, winds polish the rough edges of the high walls and shadows fill the cracks where ice has cleaved off enormous chunks of sedimentary stone. At river level, I guided Rider over the green-tinged, clear water. Twenty feet down, trout darted between aquatic vegetation anchored to a sandy bottom. This river has run this course, cutting down through the uplifting plateau, for millions of years, but it has only been clear and cold for fifty. When John Wesley Powell floated down the Colorado in 1869, it was muddy and warm. The 1963 completion of the Glen Canyon Dam changed everything — the hydrology, the sediment load, temperature regimes and the entire riparian ecosystem. Three of the eight native fish species — Colorado pikeminnow, roundtail chub and bonytail — disappeared. I know people enjoy catching trout, but I’d prefer the natural Colorado to Lake Powell’s 46 degree outflow. I’m not alone either, there’s a growing movement to drain the reservoir.DSC_0471 (1)

Continuing up, I kept my canoe to the sides, taking advantage of slower moving eddies in the shadows of the gorge. I paddled over occasional riffles and past pontoon boats of waving tourists. Motorboats roared by every ten minutes, most leaving behind large f-you and your canoe wakes. People were a constant feature on the river. Then a few kayakers slid past in late afternoon. That small group, the last bit of weekend traffic, rounded the bend and disappeared downstream with the current. The canyon went silent and there was peace on the Colorado.DSC_0495 (2)

Upstream of my eventual camp, the early evening light reflected off of the walls, onto the placid water. Gawking at the canyon rims, I drifted, careless of my boat’s path as I studied the faces in the stone. To my left, a rock figure skulked, watching me with a demonic smile beneath the shadow of a larger, hooded wraith. And no, I wasn’t overdoing my medication: see for yourself.DSC_0567

Higher up, two hawks flew in tandem against the sunlit wall, patterning their every move off each other, which wasn’t difficult as one was feathery with a white undercoat and one was its shadow. The canyon face, sheer and flat, was an excellent backdrop for the display. The sun was at the perfect angle to create an undistorted silhouette, as if Wendy Darling had stitched the raptor’s dark half to its talons. The hawk circled higher and higher, riding thermals to the clifftop, but never able to leave its specter behind.

I floated back down to a campsite in reverence of my surroundings. The bed the night before, though fantastic, could not compare. After all, wasn’t this the reason I endured restless nights in my car, quit my job and drove tens of thousands of miles around America? Simply, yes. While there are multiple reasons for my trip — to be quiet and to behold the natural world from my canoe is reason enough.DSC_0529

Evening drifted on towards dusk as I created a friend from leftover firewood at camp. Wary of sitting, I paced around my sandy site, rotating my gaze between the fire, the stars and my sandaled feet, where I checked for advancing spiders, snakes and scorpions. Then, for the hell of it, I began singing as loud as my recovering lungs allowed. I belted out “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,” before scouring my memory bank for more of The Eagles, James Taylor and Robert Earl Keen. Hours after celebrating silence, I was creating the noise pollution.

DSC_0612

Ring-tail cat tracks the next morning!

I retired to the tent to read after dinner and spent fifteen minutes dozing off on the same page of The Invention of Nature. Eventually, I lost the battle and awoke, face stuck to the book, to a clinging tin can. Outside the tent my mesh trash bag was gone. I looked around camp: nothing. Expanding my search, I scanned the shrubs with a flashlight from the top of a boulder. Two glowing coins shown bright from a gap in the bushes. Narrow faced and slender-bodied, the creature moved like a cat — a ring-tailed cat! The scamp fled and I found my bag amongst older scraps of trash; this critter wasn’t a first-time offender.

DSC_0628The next morning my schedule had one item — canoe three miles upstream to Horseshoe Canyon. Entering the famous bend, I traversed one swift section before polling up another riffle. I was nearly to flat water, prying at the riverbed when I should have walked the boat, then SNAP! My paddle broke in half. First cracked in Florida’s mangroves, repaired with a hose clamp in Rhode Island, my faithful paddle finally met its end in Arizona. Time to turn around. (solidifying its place, one day, on my mantel — caption below picture).DSC_0635 (1)

A thousand feet up on the rim, fifty people looked down on the postcard image and, presumably, me. The air was warm, the sky was clear and I could breathe, so why not put on a little show for the tourists? While traveling through fast riffles, I began a two-minute canoe dance routine. Standing up, I turned my boat 180 degrees and made exaggerated gestures, using paddle #2 as a prop and, occasionally, pointing up at the humans. Though faraway, I’m confident dozens saw my spinning boat and body flailing against the green Colorado and thought, Holy Smokes, I hope he didn’t quit his day job.DSC_0640 (1)

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Colorado River, Arizona (Glen Canyon)
  • Miles Canoed: 18.5
  • Dates Canoed: 9/24-25/2017
  • Elevation: Approximately 3120 feet above sea level (Lee’s Ferry)
  • Launch/Take Out: Lee’s Ferry Boat Launch (36.865642, -111.586847)
  • Campsite: Mile 6 Camp ( 36.875298, -111.561783)
  • Furthest Point Reached: Horseshoe Canyon (36.880022, -111.514621)
  • Huge Thanks to my Parents for getting me that Travel Lodge for a night in Page! Thanks to the medical professionals that helped cure my respiratory infection. Thanks to the Park Rangers at Glen Canyon for keeping me company and letting me crash the Star Party one night.
  • Songs Sung on the River: Your Cover’s Blown by Belle and Sebastian, Take it Easy, Take it to the Limit and Peaceful Easy Feeling by The Eagles, Fire and Rain, Hey Mr. That’s Me Up On the Juke Box by James Taylor, My New Life in Old Mexico by Robert Earl Keen, Me and Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin and Boss D.J, by Sublime
  • Delicious Local Restaurant: State 48 Tavern in Page — Tasty beer battered fish tacos, fantastic smelling wings and no one beat me up in the alley for rooting for the Cowboys over the Arizona Cardinals.
  • Book to Read: The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Mammals: Ring-tail Cat! Golden Mantle Ground Squirrel, Rock Squirrel and small bats (22 species live in the Grand Canyon).
  • Birds: California Condors! Osprey, hawks, vulture, great blue heron, coot, merganser, blue wing teal, mallards, canyon wren and swallows.
  • Reptiles/Amphibians: Multiple Lizards and a small, tan toad with brown spots
  • Fish: Rainbow and possibly Brown Trout (tons in the deep clear water)
  • Spider: Black Widow! (in the metal fire ring at campsite, way too close to my hand during firewood collection)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Cottonwood (Fremont’s/Alamo), Box Elder, Willow and now more invasive Salt Cedar (tamarisk). A few cedars clinging to the top of the canyon.
  • Noted Species: California Condor, mountain lion, desert bighorn sheep, and chuckwalla lizard, Grand Canyon rattler and the Colorado’s original fish species (most endangered)
  • Ecoregion: Colorado Plateaus, (20d) Arid Canyonlands and (20e) Escarpments
  • Trash Collected: tin can lid, beer can, micro trash and paper scraps
  • Current Threats: Flood regime (or lack thereof), hydrology and water temperature. Invasive species like Salt cedar (tamarisk), trout, burros and mudsnails.
  • Future of Lake Powell: Serious recent discussion about draining Lake Powell, opening the gates and allowing the waters to flow down into Lake Mead, dammed by the Hoover Dam. Experts believe combining the two reservoirs will reduce water loss. Lake Powell loses more ever year to evaporation and seepage into underground fissures. Hotter temperatures and reduced precipitation due to climate change serve to exacerbate the current water losses.
  • American Rivers has also recently published an article about the potential of draining Lake Powell and Restoring Glen Canyon to its natural state. The movement, as both the AR blog and NYT article convey, is not without controversy. Water in the West and controversy? Surprise, surprise.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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Katie, California and the Ghost Canoe of Morro Bay

DSC_0377(State #46/50) Morro Bay is an odd town. It’s certainly not Bakersfield, but it’s not Big Sur either. This coastal community is somewhere in between — an agreeable mixture of blue collar and boutique.

The waterfront is awash with life. Tour boats patrol and kayakers meander while paddle boarders school together for protection. Sea otters barrel roll atop kelp beds, sea lions laze on floating docks and spotted harbor seals surface for quick glimpses of the above-water chaos. Three smokestacks of a closed 1950’s era power plant tower over the town, while Morro Rock, the 581-foot monolith, guards the entrance to the bay. Together, these landmarks, natural and manmade, reign over the surrounding beaches and waterfront bistros.

DSC_0338 (1)I overlooked it all from a bayside park, waiting for Katie. My longtime friend was driving up from Los Angeles where she works in the moving pictures. As teenagers, Katie was on my first multi-day Current River canoe trip. Back then, when not foraging in caves, she thrived in mud fights, cliff jumping and in developing our unique sense of humor. To this day, we never fail to entertain ourselves. And though we haven’t lived in the same town since high school, she’s remained one of my closest friends.

When Katie arrived in the late afternoon, we hit the bay and paddled towards Morro Rock. Our first point of interest was a raft of basking sea otters. With their white fuzzy faces, whiskers and tiny paws, they appeared more like living stuffed animals than wildlife. I tried to count the delightful creatures, but the damn things wouldn’t stay still — never have I seen animals so energetic in their apparent relaxation.DSC_0353 (1)

We turned around at the choppy mouth of the bay. Passing a group of paddle boarders, I had the urge to canoe into the mob at full speed, sending as many diving and scattering into the water as possible. I refrained from the unnecessary attack and settled on a picture. I figured having Katie in the front of my boat gave me a little extra latitude to be the shirtless, bearded creep with a camera. Still, I wasn’t about to point my lens at one of the bikini-clad women. Instead, I photographed a nice young man, who stared at me in confused amusement.DSC_0359 (1)

Reaching the calmer waters protected by a several-mile long sand spit, we cracked open Tecates and canoed into a sea lion village. We kept wanting to jump in and squirm around with them, but we recalled the lesson from Arrested Development about swimming with loose seals. Keeping both hands intact, we cut between rows of anchored sailboats and weaved through kayakers traveling with the tide.DSC_0360DSC_0363 (1)

Towards the estuary, the bay widens and the sand dunes on the peninsula grow higher. Only barking sea lions and calling gulls pierce the salt-thick air. The background hum of tourism subsides and the sound of the distant, crashing ocean exists at that almost imperceptible level of putting a shell to your ear. Civilization is still visible, but a mile and a half from Morro Rock, nature regains dominance.

DSC_0378The peninsula became our port of call as my bladder demanded we make landfall. We jumped out and I pulled Rider halfway onto the sand. I looked around for trash as it happened to be California’s Coastal Cleanup Day, but couldn’t find much (it seemed the annual event was working). Katie and I took our beers, a bag of chips and journeyed into the dunes, with no fixed destination. To our left was the Sahara of coastal California. To our right, the evening light shone through the sea haze and lit the grand rock face. We trudged up the high dunes until we gazed upon the greater Pacific — white foam waves curled onto an uninhabited beach. Katie and I sat down in the sand, talked, drank and ate BBQ chips.DSC_0388

At length, I stood up and surveyed Morro Bay. Something stood out in the water. My mouth opened wide as it sunk in. Katie saw my face and looked out, too. “Ohhh Nooo!” I cried. Out in the bay, already a hundred yards from land, my green canoe drifted, unmanned. I began laughing as I ran down the dunes, Katie following behind, laughing as well. After forty-six states, she’d had enough; Rider was trying to escape.DSC_0390 (1)

I wasn’t worried about getting my boat back, eventually. The question was when and whether I was going to have to swim for it. Approaching the water, I saw kayaks, canoes and lit grills. Two women poured wine on a red cloth-covered folding table. A few dozen people milled about, sipping California red, enjoying the fleeting sun while watching, with vague curiosity, the lone, drifting ghost ship of Morro Bay.

To my delight and shame, I spotted a kayak making a beeline for Rider. I slowed my run and handed Katie my empty beer. “I might not want to be holding this when I meet this group.” I said, thinking of all the probable judgement. “Is that your boat?” a man asked. “No, it’s not mine, but whoever’s it is must be mighty embarrassed” I said before telling the truth. Katie walked over, still laughing. “Katie, I told you to secure the canoe!” I said, trying to pin it on her.DSC_0394 (1)

Though it wasn’t a formal affair, I felt a tad self-conscious as the other humans mingled about in clean clothes, drinking wine, while Katie and I stood there panting, covered in sand and holding crushed Tecate cans and a half-eaten bag of off-brand BBQ chips. Instead of judging from a distance, a woman named Mary approached us and offered us wine from Lone Madrone vineyard. We accepted. Katie and I toasted as a man in a kayak towed my canoe in by a tether. Both red blends were fantastic and not just in comparison to cheap Mexican beer. Sometimes life isn’t fair in a good way.DSC_0397

Not wanting to meet the kayaker retrieving my canoe with wine in hand, I asked Katie to hold my glass. To my surprise, the man didn’t scold me or lecture about the tides. He seemed genuinely happy to help. I thanked him, still ashamed of my rookie mistake, but more so in explaining I was at the tail end of canoeing all 50 states. Again, I didn’t detect judgment. “We watched it for a few minutes,” he said, “and thought maybe someone was napping at the bottom.” It was only after a seagull landed on the bow that they realized it was unoccupied. We posed for photos, finished our wine, thanked our hosts and returned to the bay.DSC_0401

That night we enjoyed a lively dinner at our beachside campground until the neighbors shushed us from their RV window for being too loud. I’m sure we absolutely were, but it was 9:05 on a Saturday night. “How many eggs do you think you’ll want for breakfast?” I asked Katie. She was confused. “Let’s say two apiece, so that gives us eight to throw at their camper… When they come out, we’ll be sitting here and say, ‘Oh man, those damn kids on their bikes, we wanted to yell at them to stop, but ya know, we didn’t wannabe too loud.”

Instead of shelling our neighbors, we walked down to the beach, where the Pacific drowned out all our laughing and outbursts. We sat atop shemaghs and fixed drinks from the cooler. With no moon and low light pollution, the stars shown bright and a few fell over the ocean. We joked, talked and found brilliant solutions to most of the world’s problems as the thin white lines of the surf grew together, dissipated and reformed out in the black sea.

When writing this piece, I asked Katie if she remembered any quotes from our float. She thought about it before responding, “I just know that there was a lot of discussion around how sexy the otters were.” Yeah, I thought, that about sums it up.

Bay Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Morro Bay, California
  • Dates Canoed: 9/16/2017
  • Miles Canoed: 4
  • Weather: Highs in the low 70s, party cloudy
  • Elevation: Sea Level
  • Launch Point: Beach near Coleman Park (35.372239, -120.860298)
  • Furtherest Point Reached/where I lost the canoe (35.349134, -120.857506)
  • Campsite: Morro Strand Campground (35.401026, -120.867493)
  • Massive Thanks to guy (didn’t catch his name) that rescued Rider and towed her back to shore. Big Thanks to Mary and Lone Madrone for offering us wine (The Dodd and The Will, red blends) and for being so damn friendly. Thanks to Christine at Morro Bay State Park for advice and the rangers at Morro Strand Beach for helping me get a campsite on short notice, on a Saturday… not an easy task on the coast. Also, thanks to Pam at the waterfront for giving me a cold bottle of water and sharing her grapes!
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Seagulls, Brown Pelicans, Osprey, Long-billed curlew, multiple species of shore/wading birds and Vultures
  • Mammals: Sea Otters, Sea Lions, Harbor Seals and California Ground Squirrels
  • Noted Species: Morro Bay Kangaroo Rat (Close to Extinction, if not already gone),
  • Ecoregion: Central California Foothills and Central Mountains, (6aj) Southern Santa Lucia Range
  • Current Threats: While in better ecological condition than many coast estuaries in the state, threats include increased sedimentation from tributaries, elevated pathogens, nutrients and reduced dissolved oxygen. Stormwater runoff and toxic materials related to boats and the marina are also a concern for the bay’s waters.
  • Trash Collected: I only managed to find a flattened can, a bottle and a little plastic in the dunes. Remarkably clean for a coastline. It happened to be California Coastal Cleanup Day that Saturday. So by the time I arrived at Morro Strand Beach at eight in the morning, there were dozens of people collecting trash and a table set up to provide volunteers with litter cleanup buckets/supplies. So the beaches near my campsite were pretty well combed by the time I began hunting for garbage. Great program.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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I Am (not) Moana: Kayaking Malaekahana Bay, Hawaii

DSC_1045(State #45/50) I felt my blood pressure rising as I tried to keep a level voice. “I’m not trying to be difficult,” I said, “but the name of my thing is Canoe50, not Canoe 49 and Kayak 1.” Matching my tone, the man replied. “So, you want to find a Canadian-style canoe on this island?” Canadian canoe? I thought. “Where I come from, they’re just called canoes.” I shot back, continuing our transpacific argument.

This guy wasn’t the first person to scoff at my inquiry to rent a canoe in Hawaii, but he was the first to make sure I knew I was an idiot for asking. He continued about the hazards of ocean waves and all the terrible realities which would befall me if I tried to pilot a traditional canoe in the sea surrounding Oahu. “Alright, I’ll take the damn kayak!” I relinquished and packed my bags for Honolulu.

DSC_1053 (1)Days later, the sun radiated tropical heat as I un-strapped a sea kayak from atop a rental car. Already struggling with the physics of carrying an unfamiliar watercraft, I blew out a flip flop in the parking lot. My soles burned as I lugged the kayak towards the crowded beach below Diamond Head. By the time I reached the water, I was a black-footed, sweat-soaked and red-faced mess. Melody, with KITV Island News, didn’t seem to mind and began the interview. Though it wasn’t my dream that my first moments in a kayak since 2010 were going to be on television, I was confident my off-key versions of Moana songs would distract the viewer from my poor technique.Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 4.42.11 PM

Afterwards, I drove through the rainy mountains to Malaekahana Bay, where azure sky and happy, white clouds stretched overhead. Above my tent, branches swayed and dropped fermenting fruit, which pattered upon the dried leaf litter and exuded a sweet, pungent smell. The breeze found a gap in the waxy vegetation and added the aroma of saltwater to the air. Through that corridor, a path extended from my camp and ended at the glinting, blinding blue sea.DSC_0026

I followed the trail, dragging the kayak through the loose sand and out into the cool surf. Waiting for my chance, I hopped on and used the double-bladed paddle to cut through the incoming waves. Saltwater lapped against my legs and filled the kayak as I sat right atop the ocean. I peered into the bay — straight down to a sandy bottom between rocks and patches of coral, all vibrant in the distorted evening sunlight. Twenty feet away, a green sea turtle popped its head above the water to investigate me. Then a big wave rolled over the boat. Nervous about ruining my camera and phone, I decided to hide the dry bag in the mangrove brush. I surfed in on a thrilling wave, which deposited me on the beach. A moment later, another crashed down and sent me and the boat tumbling.

After stashing my bag, I paddled out a half mile, up and over more large waves. Goat Island, a flat, grassy affair, protected me from the open sea to the north. The crescent sweep of La’ie Bay guarded the south. Straight ahead, a single small rock island marked the entrance to the great ocean. Already, ten-foot high, white-capped swells, curled and broke at my flanks. The trade winds nipped at their crests, sending sea-mist sideways like steam drifting off moving volcanos. The combination of this sight, my supreme inexperience and the knowledge of all the terrible things that happen out at sea gave me zero desire to paddle into the unprotected Pacific. Despite my singsong claims from earlier in the day, I am not Moana.DSC_0013

DSC_0004 (1)Beyond the developed southern end of La’ie Bay rose the Ko’olau Mountains, the main range on Oahu. Light from the dipping sun illuminated the towering spine of deep green. Each ridge spur cast a shadow, shading the vertical-running crevices between the lush, rainforest-coated mountainsides. Dark orographic rainclouds shrouded the tallest peaks, extending their arms of gray out towards my bay. The clouds only dropped a few sprinkles upon the water, but enough to precipitate an intense rainbow. My first urge was to take a picture, but I remembered I’d left the camera behind. Oh well. I just sat, rocking up and over waves, transfixed by the most vibrant display of color you can imagine.DSC_0031

On the way back, the sun dropped into the trees lining the steep, beige sand beach. It found a window through the thicket and cast wide, outward angled beams of gold through the visible humidity, like the classic shot of the steaming jungle. I landed near camp, ran to dig up the camera and capture what remained of the rainbow.DSC_0034

Then, drink in hand, I plopped down in the sand below a nodding pandanus palm and watched the clouds turn pink and orange. Ducks and sea birds flew towards Goat Island. A little DSC_0057shorebird patrolled the surf, tiny legs skittering along, beak searching the wet sand for creatures as the water receded, before fleeing from the next rush of sea. Crabs tunneled up out of their fresh burrows, scattering for cover when I tried to get a picture. The turtle surfaced again, spying from the waves, as I sat still and listened to the rhythmic pounding of the ocean. Night fell on Oahu and stars blinked to life.DSC_0087

I took a refreshing shower, grabbed my cold shrimp burrito and asked to join a large group under a tent. They were all local, tattooed, tan and worked at a Honolulu hospital. I listened to them talk, in their distinct Hawaiian accents, about everything from drunken parties to local school issues. When they asked about my trip, I mentioned my sea turtle encounter. “That’s a good omen in Polynesian culture. Seeing a sea turtle when you start a trip means you’re being watched over,” one man said. Though I doubt any spirit would choose me, I liked the thought of sea turtle protection.DSC_0137

DSC_0066 (2)The next morning, wild roosters began crowing by six a.m. Outside my tent, feral cats prowled, a mongoose scurried through the jungle and myna birds fed their young (all three are on the IUCN’s list of 100 worst invasive species*). Leaving the terrestrial pests behind, I drug the kayak back into the sea and paddled out into the bay. A large wave crashed upon me, but I remained upright. Bobbing up and over the rolling blue sea, I sat watching a pair of surfers catch breakers off Goat Island. The two guys found a few good rides, pumping down on the board to maintain speed before falling back into the Pacific. Part of me wanted to try to surf one in the kayak, but a larger part of me wanted to not die in Hawaii.

Zigzagging my way through the waves, I completed another circumnavigation of La’ie Bay. As I closed in on shore, my stomach fell as something large passed beneath me. My mind raced for answers. For some reason — some utterly absurd reason — my initial conclusion was a swimming deer. A half second later it took the form of a massive green turtle passing through the clear water. My spirit animal disappeared into the blue and I rode one last wave onto the beach, completing my foray into sea kayaking.DSC_0165

On the final morning in Hawaii, I strolled out from my campsite on the North Shore to let the tide rush over my feet. Taking one last reflective gaze over the tropical sea, something caught my eye in the surf; it was the head of a sea turtle. We regarded each other for a quick moment before the turtle submerged and I left for the airport. Good omen, I thought.DSC_0181 (1)

*Invasive species are non-native animals that wreak havoc and severely degrade natural ecosystems. Feral house cats and mongooses are incredible hunters, wiping out native animals where they are introduced worldwide. Mynas aggressively displace (stealing nesting sites) native birds from their natural habitats. For a number of reasons (small populations, lack of competition, restrictive specialization, etc.), islands, like Hawaii, are particularly susceptible to such unwelcome inhabitants. I recall the first time I visited Hawaii as a kid, we bought a guidebook and realized all these birds we had seen were the now dominant, introduced species… What a pity. Sometimes humans alone cause ecological disasters and sometimes we do something stupid, like bring cats and mongooses to Hawaii, and pit nature against nature.

Bay Stats and Fun Facts:

  • La’ie Bay, Oahu, Hawaii
  • Dates Canoed: 9-10/11-2017
  • Miles Canoed: 3 (about 1.5 miles each day, though difficult to gauge)
  • Elevation: Sea Level
  • Launch/takeout Point/ Campsite: Malaekahana State Rec Area (21.65934, -157.927331)
  • Songs Sung on Bay: Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet (mostly because I blew out a flipflop),
    Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian Christmas song), I am Moana and Flake by Jack Johnson.
  • Thank you to Go Bananas Watersports for the kayak and being flexible with my pick up and return times. Thanks to the group of locals for letting me crash their hang out and for the beer. Thanks to Melody and KITV for the interview, I had a good time doing it!
  • Birds: Great Frigatebird, Sanderling, Ducks, Seagulls, Chickens, Mina Birds, Egrets, small song birds I couldn’t ID
  • Mammals: Mongoose and Feral Cats
  • Reptiles: Green Sea Turtle (Honu)
  • Noted Species: Humuhumu nukunuku apua’a (Hawaiian state fish. Saw one snorkeling a few days later on the North Shore)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Pandanus Palms, coco nut palms, salt cedar and mangroves (both of the last two are invasive to Hawaii)
  • Ecoregion: Hawaii Tropical Dry Forests
  • Current Threats: Invasive species (like Mongoose, feral cats, feral pigs, rats, mangroves, etc.). The islands native species are vulnerable to extinction (75% of all US extinctions have occurred on these islands). Development, sea trash and sea level rise and change due to climate change are also major concerns.
  • Trash Collected: 3-4 grocery bags filled with all manner of sea-garbage (part of the nation of The Garbage Isles no doubt). Soda bottles, thick hard plastic containers of unknown origin, shoes, ropes, buoys, and micro trash. Most of it was washed up from god knows where. I cleaned a 100 foot section of beach and not even completely.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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A Great Basin Canoe: Pyramid Lake, Nevada

DSC_0769(State #44/50) Nevada fascinates me and little of that fascination stems from the bright light gluttony and celebrated debauchery of Las Vegas. For me, the appeal is in the landscape. Looking at a topographical map, you’ll notice the state’s terrain is a series of north/south running squiggles. On the ground these squiggles become high, forested ridges separated by wide, sweeping valleys coated in sagebrush — mountain islands floating upon the desert sea. This is basin and range country. This is what draws me to the state.

Nevada’s terrain, though enchanting, doesn’t lend itself to canoeing — most of the state’s rivers are dammed up or described as “disappearing” and “stinking.” Yet, near Reno, the Truckee River flows out of Lake Tahoe and north into a terminal basin. There, the high mountain rain and snowmelt empties into a deep depression in the desert, set between mountains, forming a natural body known now as Pyramid Lake.

DSC_0767 (1)Driving through Northern California, I traded smokey air for triple digit heat as piney hills gave way to The Great Basin. Blue sky became visible and the mountainsides, once reduced to varying shades of gray, now bore detail. Crossing the border, there was no grand sign declaring “Nevada!” The blacktop just turned into undeveloped road at the state line. As I entered Paiute Land, a road closed sign and a concrete barricade appeared, partially blocking the road; red spray paint declared “R.D. Washout. 7/17. Turn Around.” I checked the map… long way to turn around. So, I trucked on, betting, hoping that they’d repaired the route since July. I lucked out and drove a bumpy, yet maintained gravel road, which passed above shiny new culvert pipes. Then, over a low ridge, beyond more baking sage, appeared the great inland sea of Nevada.DSC_0791

After procuring my permit from the marina, I met a shirtless Paiute guy named Primo, who runs a kayak business. He suggested the best place to camp in solitude and warned me about the lake. When I asked about canoeing across to the Pyramid Rock, suggesting it was only a couple miles, he laughed. “Who told you that? It’s more like 10 to get across. People will disappear when they paddle out that way.” Primo said. Pointing at the map, he showed me where authorities rescued a pair of jet skiers the previous afternoon. “Oh,” Primo continued, “that north wind can come out of nowhere. So, if you see the water bubbling, you get to shore.”DSC_1007 (1)

Beyond the hazards of reality, we discussed older fears rooted in Native American legend; Red-haired, cannibalistic giants (Si-Te-Cah) roam the desert and Water Babies  haunt the lake. The latter are said to be the spirits of ill-formed babies thrown into the lake, which sometimes enact their revenge by dragging the living down into the salty depths of Pyramid. “I think it’s mostly to stop kids from swimming at night,” Primo told me. “There’s sudden drop offs close to the beaches where people disappear.”DSC_0829

DSC_0844 (1)I parked my car at the Monument Rocks camp, where Primo had suggested. With the heat of the day subsiding, I launched my canoe and headed north, towards the Needles formation. As south winds picked up, I had a sudden feeling I’d been here before. Then it hit me — this lake in Northern Nevada reminded me of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia. An odd notion at first, but then I realized both are at similar high elevations, in arid/semiarid climates, ringed by mountains and are endorheic,* salty seas far from any true ocean. As Alexander von Humboldt noted over two centuries ago, latitude and elevation link distant corners of the globe, lending to similar vegetation type, climate and environment; the deja vu was more than superficial.

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Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia

DSC_0860 (1)Paddle in my lap, I pondered atop my duct tape seat as the wind pushed me northwards. The evening sky was a mix of distant smoky haze, unobstructed atmosphere and gray-bottomed clouds, dropping bands of rain that never reached the ground. Sunlight blotched the mountains to the east at random, while a rainbow formed across the lake. The sun took turns illuminating the protruding, craggy Needles to the north, turning them a blinding white. DSC_0986

Along the waterline, a patrolling coyote caught my eye. The narrow-faced, big-eared canine slinked along shore, stopping on occasion to look my way. Pelicans, gulls and ducks, disturbed by my presence, filled the moody sky as I let the breeze carry me to shore. I poured a drink and traded off scanning the land for wildlife and watching the clouds and sun play on the lake.DSC_0882DSC_0943

DSC_0989The waves grew larger on my return. Remembering Primo’s advice, I paddled only a stone’s throw from shore. Rollers were constant and Rider pitched up and slammed down in the troughs, sending up spray to wet my face. I felt experienced. I felt mildly badass. But, knowing cockiness leads to mistakes, I kept focused. I reached the rocks as the white-tipped waves ramped up to the highest I’ve canoed. Timing my beach landing between sets, I exited the lake in a hurry.

I set up my tent twenty feet above the lake in the last lingering light of day, not used to eight o’clock nightfall. Waves continued to crash on the lava sand beach below, where bleached white uprooted trees lay fallen in the surf. Crickets and insects hummed as the night set in, pleasant but not yet cool. The waxing moon rose from the south, where the wind originated. Clouds framed the Big Dipper to the north in the only large patch of dark sky. A few cold drops rained down on my bare shoulders — the leftovers from storms formed over the Sierras.DSC_0958

Peering out from a southern overlook, a few stars blinked above the horizon, beneath the veil of a dying thunderstorm. Below that, I saw the far-off lights of Sutcliffe. The near-full moon, however, was master of the scene, dominating the early September sky. The waves on Pyramid Lake scattered its reflections, creating a bright, glinting chasm of moonlight, which stretched on for miles. Strong gusts created finer ripples upon the surface, which swept across the lake and advance towards shore until the warm breeze met my bare skin. Above the wind, I strained to listen, but couldn’t hear any crying demon babies. Still, I had no desire for a night swim.

DSC_0994 (1)The cool, pre-dawn air vanished the moment the sun rose over the mountain. I awoke in a pool of sweat and fled the tent. The songbirds and desert cottontails retreated to shade, ceding the open ground and air to the scurrying lizards and circling vultures. I got on the water and canoed towards the Willows, where an osprey perched on a dead tree and a herd of cattle grazed the beaten down ground. After my morning paddle, I made pancakes in the shade of the rock, picked up the littered shards of glass around camp and drove off in my small pocket of AC.

Back at the marina, I ended up talking to Primo and his German wife for several hours. We hung out in the shade of their large tent and discussed topics spanning from wilderness survival to politics to poetry. Primo was an army veteran with pride in his Paiute heritage, but also with disappointment in how his community now regards nature. “Heck, you’re more Native American than most of the people around here.” Primo told me. I was flattered, but also saddened. All groups in the country, it seems, struggle with maintaining real connections to their land and the natural world.

Before I left, Primo lit some cedar incense he’d collected in the mountains. He gave me some as a parting gift and I wished them luck on their new kayak business. Driving on towards California, I left Pyramid Lake and the Great Basin behind with two contraband-like baggies of incense, a hundred photos and a strengthened fascination with the state of Nevada.DSC_1021 (2)

*An endorheic basin is a closed drainage basin, which retains water and allows no outflow to other external bodies of water. So water flows in and only leaves through evaporation (or through pumping for irrigation in the modern age… Poor Aral Sea).

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Pyramid Lake, Nevada
  • Dates Canoed: 9-4/5-2017
  • Miles Canoed: 5 (3 the first night, 2 the next morning)
  • Elevation: 3797 feet above sea level
  • Launch/takeout Point/ Campsite: Monument Rocks (40.090122, -119.689779)
  • Furthest Point Canoed North: (40.118122, -119.701881)
  • Further Point Canoed South: Willows (40.074599, -119.691678)
  • Songs Sung on Lake: Governors Ball by Conor Oberst, After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, All at Once by Jack Johnson and Life Without Susanna by Rodney Crowell
  • Thank you to Primo and his wife for the canoeing/camping advice, info on lake dangers, legends, the incense and good conversation.
  • Birds: American White Pelican, seagull, various sea/shore birds, osprey, hawk, killdeer, merganser, Canada geese, coots, ducks, doves, great blue heron and nighthawk
  • Mammals: Coyote, Desert Cottontails, Ground squirrels
  • Reptiles: Collection of small to large lizards at campsite
  • Noted Species: Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, Cui-ui fish and American White Pelican
  • Dominant Vegetation: Willows, sage brush, salt cedar (invasive)
  • Ecoregion: Central Basin and Range, Lahontan and Tonopah Playas (13h) and Lahontan Salt Shrub Basin (13j)
  • Current Threats: The lake level is down around 100 feet from 1866, when measurements began. Much of this drop has to do with irrigation diversion and the damming of the Truckee River in 1903. Rising salinity with the lake level dropping and pollutants from upstream waste and agriculture are also a concern.
  • Legends: Stone Mother Creation Story (of Lake Pyramid and Paiute People), Red hair giants and the Water babies
  • Trash Collected: Lots of glass shards, aluminum can, plastic bag, bottle caps, orange plastic toy and wrappers (overall, minus glass, pretty clean for an oft used monument)
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3984 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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Canoeing the Oregon Coastline: The Salmon River Estuary

DSC_0704(State #43/50) All apologies to California, Maine and Florida: The Oregon coast is my favorite. I love the abrupt transition as the steep pine ridges of the Coastal Range plunge into the Pacific. I love the huge rocks that sit out in the surf unable to ward off the nesting seabirds and I love how the wave action eats away at their bases, turning them into island pagodas. So, when rampant fires dashed my plans to canoe the state’s interior, I shed no tears as I drove towards the most enthralling coast in America.

I arrived at a sun-drenched trailhead near the mouth of the Salmon River. The parking lot bustled with car-tethered sightseers, silver-haired hikers and blue collared fishermen, hosing off crab traps. Upriver, the Salmon wound up a wide valley. Pine-covered hills gave way to pastures, which angled towards low-tide mudflats encasing the clear, brackish waters. Toward the mouth, a forested spit protected the river from the open ocean. Overlooking it all was the 1,200 foot prominence of Cascade Head, a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

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A view of the estuary from Cascade Head

DSC_0664From the launch, I could already spot seals, glistening on the far bank. I was eager to get on the water. So, once I sorted out overnight parking,* I paddled Rider up the estuary where the seals surfaced to watch me watch them. After a half mile, I turned around and rode the tide out towards Cascade Head and towards the sea. The Salmon widened out as a few expensive homes, made entirely of windows, CascadeHead2jutted out from the forested hills. As I drew closer to the peninsula, the wind picked up. It roared out of the north and entered the mouth, where it toyed with my boat. When I paused to put on a life jacket, a gust ripped across the water and spun my canoe sideways. Struggling, I regained control before wrecking against the rocks below the cliffs.DSC_0659 (1)

Nearing the Pacific, I saw a half dozen fishing boats occupying the nexus between river and ocean. The fishermen wore dour expressions as they braved the winds, waves and potential collisions with other vessels, while trying to reel in King Salmon. This was not the peaceful, beer-drinking, day on the lake type of angling most of us imagine; this activity looked high-stress and near miserable. I guess it must be great fishing.DSC_0385

I kept my distance as I paddled through the chaotic fray to where the water became more ocean than river. After a brief landing on a small patch of sand, I navigated between the boats and canoed across the mouth and into a small channel. With strong wind at my back, I sailed to the end of the long puddle and started to carry gear to the dunes, where I’d make camp. Sand ran with the wind as tan colored streams flowed DSC_0395 (2)across the beach, vanishing my fresh tracks. Stronger and stronger the gusts blew until the air howled and sand stung my shins. When the largest gust hit, I turned back to see my canoe — still half filled with belongings — blowing away, across the beach. I watched in disbelief before chasing after my boat. On a path to the Pacific, Rider made it over fifty feet before I caught and dragged her towards camp.DSC_0410 (1)

The dunes were capped with hacksaw-serrated beach grass and driftwood. Little bare sand glens occupied the low spot in between. Too windy to set up the tent and struck by hunger, I grabbed my cooler and found a sheltered area. There, I laid back against the sand and ate my entire ration of cold, supermarket-clearance fried chicken.DSC_0421 (1)

DSC_0573 (1)Soon, the gusts softened along with the evening light. Drink in hand, I walked a half mile to where a rock face terminated the long spit of sand beach. To my left rose a highland of pines, existing less as individuals and more as one windblown, green mass. To my right, a blue, cloudless sky sprawled above the sinking sun and an equally endless ocean. As I neared the outcrop, a natural arch took shape. Seawater streamed through from an unseen land beyond. I walked though the gateway and found a shrinking carpet of sand, sculpturesque rocks and crashing waves. I didn’t stay long as the tide began washing over my feet.DSC_0508 (1)DSC_0527

The sun was on final approach into the horizon as I strolled back. The next day was the dreaded and feared month of September — the terminus of summer and thus, all things good and holy. From there begins the downward spiral into the shitty season of fall, punctuated by kids returning to school, shorter days, dreary weather, cold and flu season and overly gleeful women, delighting in the opportunity to wear scarves and sip gourd flavored coffee drinks. So, I remained shirtless on the walk back, ignoring the goose bumps from the sea breeze, and soaking in the last sun of summer.DSC_0580

By the time I reached my camp, the August sun was almost gone. In cathartic repose, I watched it take its last few breaths before submerging into the Pacific. “Noooooooo!” I cried, falling to my knees, pounding the sand and screaming, for no clear reason, “You damned Dirty Apes!”DSC_0595

I freshened my drink and sat between dunes, near my canoe, and watched the swath of warm colors shrink over the surging sea. The moon rose over my shoulder, illuminating the white surf of the churning, foaming waves, while hundreds of miniature moons reflected off the waxy blades of surrounding beach grass. Out at sea, three rock islands sat, pitch black against the now dark gray horizon. The Big Dipper disappeared below the prominence and a shooting star zipped overhead. The air grew chilly and wind cut through my old high school tennis hoodie, so I headed for the tent and bid August adieu.

The morning began cool as a light breeze blew the salty mist in from the ocean. The sun rose, dispersing the chill. I sat in the shade of beach grass, drinking instant coffee from a McDonalds cup, while eating an egg rolled in an old tortilla. Gazing at the surf, I pulled out the computer and searched for words to describe the day. All I managed was b-e-a-utiful. I accept no points for creativity, but I’ll stand by it.DSC_0642

I counted eight boats fishing for salmon, all jockeying for position in the waves of the narrow mouth. Above the awkward spectacle, I studied Cascade Head. Cliffs sprang from the sea, supporting yellow grassy slopes, which climbed to a blunted, pine dotted summit. I had scanned for the elk that lived there the previous evening, but came up empty. Every potential sighting ended up being a human on the hiking trail.

DSC_0667 (1)I returned to the launch and crowded parking lot by early afternoon. “Have you hiked up to the top of Cascade Head?” someone asked. “No, but I got a great view of it from the beach,” I responded. They weren’t satisfied. “You don’t get many days like this on this coast… There’s no smoke and all the typical clouds are gone. You have to take advantage of a day like today,” urged the stranger. So I did. I put off a long drive and hiked three miles to the top. Looking down, I saw my beach and campsite across the Salmon River. Gazing further south, I saw miles and miles of rocky coast, sweeps of sand and the arching white lines of breaking surf stretching on to, what I swear, was The Golden Gate Bridge. Okay, maybe September isn’t the worst, I thought for a moment. No that can’t be right; the Oregon coastline is just the best.DSC_0701 (1)

*Unfortunately, gorgeous coastlines often pair with luxurious homes and boutiquey communities, which strive to keep up their appearance by keeping riftraff — me being a prime example — out, especially after dark. Luckily, I found a sympathetic landowner who let me park overnight on their property, saving me from a several mile hike from a sketchy parking area off the 101.

Estuary Facts and Fun Stats:

  • Salmon River Estuary, Oregon
  • Dates Canoed: 8/31-9/1/17
  • Elevation: Sea Level
  • Launch/takeout Point: Knights Park Public Launch, no overnight parking (45.040587, -123.993496)
  • Campsite: Dunes on the sandy peninsula: (45.043854, -124.005298)
  • Furtherest Point Reached upstream: (45.034343, -123.988008)
  • Songs Sung on Beach: Cowgirl in the Sand by Neil Young, I’ll Be Here by Robert Earl Keen, Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones, Lightning Crashes by Live and Say it Ain’t So by Weezer
  • Thank you to Kimberly at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology for great advice on the area and letting me refill my water bottles before the hike up to Cascade Head. Thanks to Bill and Betty for the great conversation and for sending me a picture of my launch onto the Salmon. I met numerous other tourists, locals, state officials whom were all friendly/fascinating — what a place.
  • Birds: Sea gull, Crow, Canada goose, Merganser, Kingfisher, White egret and Vulture
  • Mammals: 5-6 Harbor Seals
  • Other Creatures: Dungeness Crabs (10 feet underwater), Sand Fleas (2 bit me) and thousands in the surf zone as the tide came in.
  • Noted Species: Elk, Pacific Giant Salamander Sea Otter, Humpback Whales, Peregrine Falcons and King Salmon (Chinook)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Trees: Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir and Red Alder. Grasses: Red fescue, wild rye and Pacific reedgrass to name a few.
  • Ecoregion: Coast Range (1a), Coastal Lowlands
  • Current Threats: Like all coastal ecosystems, climate change threatens estuaries along the Oregon and entire Pacific Northwest coast. Rising sea level, warming waters, changes in precipitation patterns, acidification, etc. are all major threats to these fragile, complex and productive ecosystems.There are multiple threats to native salmon. One of the biggest problems is caused by invasive species like crappie and smallmouth bass, which eat juveniles migrating downstream to the ocean. Invasive beach grass also threatens to change dune height and structure, causing loss of protective barriers from storm surges and possible tsunamis. Finally, upstream development and pollution runoff pose a threat to water quality and the crab and salmon fisheries.
  • Trash Collected: Tennis ball and a shotgun shell. For a beach, surprisingly little sea garbage.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3959 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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The One Eared Bear: Canoeing the White River to Lake Wenatchee, Washington

DSC_0210 (1)(State #42/50) I sat on a lifejacket at camp with a tent at my back and a milky blue river rounding the sandbar before me. The sky was gray and light flakes fell upon my keyboard as I typed. At 80 degrees in late August, the flakes weren’t snow, but ash from wildfires. While Hurricane Harvey swamped southeastern Texas, fires attempted to choke out every patch of blue sky in the west; Washington state was no different. But the night before, it wasn’t the forest fires that had me scrambling for flashlights, knives and yelling into the darkness. No, it was that damned one-eared bear.

The previous afternoon, the air was dry, hot and hazy as I paddled down the White River. Exposed, craggy peaks, tinged with smoke, lined the valley, while mighty hemlocks and firs grew along the meandering stream. Below the conifers were berry bush thickets and shrubs sporting the first flaming colors of fall. The river’s blueish hue hinted that, somewhere high in the Cascades, a melting glacier fed its headwaters.DSC_0270

As I navigated around downed trees, the afternoon transitioned into an orange-lit and peaceful evening. Then “CRACK!” I heard the crisp snap of deadwood. I pulled the paddle from the stream and listened to rustling brush, crunching branches and the deep, low thuds of heavy feet from the forest. It sounded big… it sounded bear.

DSC_0271 (3)Without a sound, I canoed over to a gravel bar, planted my paddle blade into the river bottom and fetched my camera from the dry bag. I remained motionless as the noise drew closer and closer. Soon the bushes swayed along the bank. Yet, nothing appeared. It — a bear, I was sure — had wandered to the fringe of the river, but never showed. Minutes passed. Damn, I want to see one more bear, I thought. That might have been my last chance. Disappointed, I continued on down.DSC_0212

I floated past the now motionless bushes and below a high cliff, where the river pressed against the valley wall. A few hundred yards further, I again heard rustling along the right shore. I paddled on and fixed my gaze upon the thicket, butting up against the waterline. Then, a snout protruded from the bushes. Moments later, the entire bear appeared! Without noticing me, he turned downstream and plodded along the narrow, muddy bank.DSC_0241 (1)

The oblivious animal continued to mosey, stopping, on occasion, to assault the berry bushes. I was thirty feet away when the bear realized he wasn’t alone. For ten seconds, we had a stare-down. The older bear was missing his right ear and he peered at me with wild looking, independently wandering eyes… I realize wildlife doesn’t exist to be attractive, but this poor creature was particularly unbecoming. If cast in a Disney movie, he would either be the village idiot or the villain (think a combination of Ed and Scar from The Lion King). After enough time to mutually agree that we were the ugliest representatives of our given species, the one-eared bear scurried up the bank and crashed back into the thicket.DSC_0247

Content with the sighting, I continued my paddle. I passed by more berry thickets and heard noises I was sure were more bears. With night approaching, I made camp on a crescent-shaped gravel bar and set up my tent atop fresh bear tracks. As the twilight faded, thoughts of the one-eared bear became top-of-mind. With no campfire, the darkness crept in more than usual. I listened to the night, analyzing each sound from the woods and each splash from the river. My bear spray and knife lay on the ground beside me.

DSC_0283Black bears, while less dangerous than the much larger Grizzly, are still not to be trifled with. This summer they killed two people in Alaska. Also, one kid in Colorado, as my Mother often reminded me, woke up to one chewing on his skull. With any carnivore, it’s typically not the strong, healthy ones you need to worry about. It’s the old, sick or injured individuals; the one-eared bear looked like he fit into all three categories. Animals, which can no longer take down their natural prey, resort to the slower, weaker options — like the lone Texan sitting twenty feet from the berry bushes.

Retreating to the tent, I unsheathed my knife and unholstered the spray before drifting off. Big splashes roused me in the night. I sat up, grabbed the bear spray and listened. In the distance an owl hooted. Probably just a jumping salmon or a beaver slapping the water, I thought. But, just for good measure, I yelled out at the night something like “Stay away bear! Or you’ll regret it!” — an empty threat even I didn’t buy. Then I laid down, waiting, listening, until sleep overcame nerves.

DSC_0285The next morning, I woke up un-eaten (always a pleasant surprise). Feeling a bit ridiculous for worrying about the bear, I focused my concern on the dark smoke-filled sky and falling ash. I decided it was time to go.

Back on the water, I ran into another problem; a massive logjam blocked the entire river. A single four-foot diameter tree lay horizontal, stretching from bank to bank, while smaller, floating logs piled up against the obstruction. Both sides were steep and thick with bushes, voiding any portaging options. Furthermore, I was too far downstream to paddle back up. There was only one way through — up and over. It seemed like a terrible option, but also the only option.DSC_0289 (1)

I put on my life vest and drug the canoe across the unstable, floating raft, testing each log before placing my weight on it. I had no desire to fall into a mess of half submerged, shifting debris. Finding the most stable log, I picked up an empty Rider and hoisted the 16-foot boat on top of the main tree trunk. Then, balancing on top, I lowered it down into the water with a rope before re-loading the canoe by tossing gear in from above. Though I used as much caution as possible, it was still one of the most dangerous activities of my entire trip.DSC_0291

DSC_0296I paddled a few more miles, under a bridge, over an old broken two-foot dam and to the end of the White River. A bald eagle watched me from atop a huge cottonwood as I entered Lake Wenatchee. After a mile of flat water paddling, I headed towards shore to find a public take out. I saw a pontoon boat dock at a private house and canoed towards it.

As I neared the boat I got a better look at the raised flag — it had a skull and cross bones with the words “Surrender the Booty.” On deck, a man was bent down working. Metallica, or some heavy metal of equally shitty merit, blared from a speaker. Two younger guys in wet suits looked at me from the dock. “Are you guys diving?” I asked. “Well, not right now…” one replied. I hate that answer. “How deep’s this lake?” I inquired, trying to make conversation. “I don’t know, we’re not from here.” They repeated my question to the guy still crouched down on his pirate ship. He either didn’t hear or ignored them as he made final preparations to sail the Seven Douchey Seas. Growing irritated, I asked, “Do you know if that’s a public launch over there?” They did not and seemed overly satisfied with their total lack of usefulness. “Well, have a good dive!” I said and paddle away. Of course, what I meant to say was “well, I hope you turds drown.DSC_0295

Further down the shore I beached near a long dock in front of a massive cabin. I walked to the road and saw no trespassing signs. I knocked on the door, a man answered and I explained my situation. “You can carry your canoe up here and drive in and get it,” the man said. “Oh, thank you,” I said. “You’re welcome, now I’ve got to go, I’m actually on a conference call. Just this one time and don’t tell anyone.” He said. “Sure!” Now whom would I possibly tell…

I jogged up the road and returned with my car to load up my canoe. “It work out?” the man called from the front porch. “Yes, thanks again!” He came over and I told him about my trip as I strapped the canoe onto my roof rack. “Want a beer?” he offered. For an hour, Bill and I sat out on the back porch, overlooking the lake, enjoying beer and talking hurricanes, forest fires and the outdoors. The view was fetching, even with the smoke.

Later, driving back towards Seattle, I arrived at two powerful conclusions: 1. Not all ugly bears are out to eat you and 2. Not all guys on Lake Wenatchee are dick-bag scuba divers or wannabe booty pirates. Thank heavens for all of it.

River Facts and Fun Stats:

  • The White River to Lake Wenatchee (There are two “White Rivers” in Washington State: one flows from the side of Mount Rainer, westward towards Tacoma and the smaller one, which I canoed, flows eastwards, eventually emptying into The Columbia River.)
  • Dates Canoed: 8-28/29-2017
  • Miles Canoed: 5
  • Weather: 90 degrees and partly cloudy, lows in the upper 60s in the night. Second day, highs in the 80s and extremely smoky.
  • Elevation: From Approximately 1898 to 1875 feet above sea level
  • Launch Point: Side of the White River Road (47.86499, -120.859826)
  • Campsite: Gravel Bar on river right (47.853067, -120.853929)
  • Takeout Point: I’ll never tell!
  • Songs Sung on River: Badge by Cream, Peaceful Easy Feeling by The Eagles and Femme Fatale by Nico and the Velvet Underground
  • Thanks to the Ranger that told me where to canoe (back in April) and to Bill for letting me take out at his property, giving me a beer and the good conversation.
  • Birds: Small duck species, lots of kingfishers, pileated woodpecker (1st one in a while!), osprey, bald eagle, mergansers, Steller’s Jay, cedar waxwing and blue heron
  • Mammals: The one-eared Black Bear, Bats at twilight, chipmunk and minkDSC_0247
  • Noted Species: Black Bear and Lynx
  • Dominant Vegetation: Douglas fir, hemlock and cottonwood and a few aspen
  • Ecoregion: North Cascades (77g), Wenatchee/Chelan Highlands
  • Current Threats: Increasing development and associated runoff around the river and Lakeshore.
  • On the Forest Fires: In trying to assess whether this fire season is just run of the mill or abnormal I found these articles: One from The Atlantic  and FactCheck.org about whether climate change and/or changing land practices aided these fires. One takeaway, is clearly climate change doesn’t cause the fires, “But it can bring about the conditions that make wildfires more likely to occur and spread, such as heat and drought.”
  • Trash collected: A few scraps of plastic and paper trash along the lake shore
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3697 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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