(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Black 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.
The 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.
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.
I 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.”
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 mink
- 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