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.


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.


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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Here’s to Alaska! Canoeing the Chatanika with Cousin Mindy

DSC_0667(State #41/50) I woke up in an empty terminal, surprised to feel rested. I’ve tried before, with little success, to sleep in airports. Typically, there’s a frequent, booming robotic voice saying “Welcome to…” and reiterating why it’s a bad idea to let a stranger place a bomb in your carry-on. The main objective, it often seems, is to prevent any travelers from dozing more than ten minutes. If you somehow manage to sleep a few hours, you will inevitably wake up to a gate swarming with crying children and beaten down families waiting on their next flight. Sometimes, it’s almost like airports aren’t meant for sleeping.

So, when I arrived in Fairbanks at midnight, with no intention of getting a hotel, I assumed I’d spend a restless night on the floor. I found an empty gate and built a nest in a corner, beneath a row of seats. I drifted off and, in a true North Pole miracle, slept undisturbed. I awoke after eight o’clock to discover I was the only traveler in the terminal. I stood up, stretched, put on pants and wandered down a few gates to order a coffee — a pleasing start to my first morning ever in Alaska.

DSC_0673 (1)That evening I sat on a bear barrel in a puddle-filled parking lot, waiting. A van arrived and out poured my brother and two cousins. They were fresh off the train from Denali, where they had backpacked over squishy tundra and through low trees. They checked in and snuck me up to the hotel room, where their backpacks had exploded; clothing, water bottles and zip locked bags of oatmeal coated the beds and floor. Wesley and Shane, having already served their time in my canoe, geared up for a Gates of the Arctic adventure. Now, it was cousin Mindy’s turn to join me and brave 40 miles of an Alaskan river.AlaskaFamily

Mindy, the poor thing, has one brother and three male cousins on the Straw side. At home, she took dance, played flute and collected small glass horses. At our country place, however, we conscripted Mindy into our plastic gun-toting armies, dam constructing detail and, often, just digging holes with unclear goals in mind. Now, my older cousin joins us for long backpacks and runs marathons. Perhaps there’s some connection between the senseless dirt-moving activities of our youth and her penchant for strenuous physical feats. Nevertheless, Mindy remains skeptical of any activities we drag her into.

Remember, I haven’t canoed in a long time,” Mindy reminded me as we drove out of Fairbanks. She worried that we were going to canoe a fast flowing, rapid-filled affair. So when Cat (from Alaska Dream Adventures) deposited us on the banks of the more mild Chatanika, Mindy was relieved.Chatanika

After I gave Mindy a brief tutorial on paddling, we launched an un-named, new canoe under the misting sky (Rider waited, high and dry and rightfully jealous, back in Seattle). The Chatanika wasted no time on introductions. Within a hundred feet, the river wound through cut-banks, where the water narrowed into fifteen-foot channels. Pressing, the water formed slopes against these bends like the outer lanes on a racetrack; a phenomenon I’d never seen. Adding to my unease, the current undercut weak-rooted (from permafrost) spruce and aspen, which fell into the river, creating “sweepers.” Though Mindy was unaware, I stressed while trying to prevent swamping in the freezing waters or being skewered by the dead trees.

DSC_0691“Something’s in front of us,” a faint voice said. I saw a big strainer, fifteen feet off the bow. I maneuvered to avoid the log, which would have scattered us into the river. “Mindy, call that out louder!” I said. A couple minutes later she did; I leapt out of the boat and stopped the canoe from going into a series of disastrous logjams. We scouted the gravel bar for a way to portage, but it was stacked chest-high with washed-down trees. So, Mindy got out some cord and we used it to lead the canoe around through the rushing waters and past the dangerous obstructions.

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An Aspen to avoid

By evening, I was happy to make camp. We chose a mossy permafrost upland and placed the tent atop the great northern shag carpet. Some aspen and spruce grew, stunted and thin, while many of their relatives stood dead and burnt or lay strait across the ground, like big used match sticks — slow rotting relics of a hardy life*. With bear-spray in-hand, we stepped over moose tracks and piles of scat and stared at the shallow arching hills of the river valley. We looked and looked for moose and bear. Nothing. Just silent and still wilderness, rolling on over the hills to more Alaska.DSC_0715 (1)

Gathering firewood, I studied the tiny wintergreen spruce trees, some sprouting only a few inches high from the orange and green and white array of mosses and lichen; I felt like a giant, plodding around camp. Aspen saplings joined in, helping the allusion of the micro forest. I’d grown used to tantalizing views of mountains and sunsets over water, but never had peering down at my feet been so captivating. Along with the baby trees and dead wet logs, mushrooms abounded. “What about this one, Mindy?” I asked, pointing to a red and white capped toadstool, “Can we eat this one?” Mindy shook her head. “No! We’re not eating any of these mushrooms!Always so damn sensible, I thought (My cousin didn’t budge from that position, even after I told her it might be the only way we’d see the Northern Lights).

The Alaskan summer evenings last forever. Hours and hours of low-angled light pass by and you’re only halfway to remote darkness. The light rain abated and bits of blue sky and sunshine broke through the gray dome. Though it required a lot of maintenance, we got a fire going. I prepared whiskey and cokes and, breaking normal protocol, Mindy played her Alaskan mix as the sun took it’s time setting. Sometime… maybe eight, maybe ten o’clock… we stuck sausages on black spruce branches and roasted our dinner over the taiga fire.DSC_0703 (1)

DSC_0783A cold, rainy morning gave way to clearing skies and a warming sun. After breakfast burritos, Mindy-made coffee and we set out for the second day. As we continued down, thicker forests replaced the burned, bare sides of the sweeping hills. Glittery minerals sparkled beneath the Chatanika as the sun found gaps between white clouds. The enveloping scenery wasn’t the dramatic faces and glaciers of the Alaska Range, but it was enamoring — unlike many places on my journey, there was no doubt where we were canoeing.DSC_0727

DSC_0823We found camp on a sandbar that evening as the sky clouded over and temperatures dropped. Mindy and I bundled up and set a collected mass of driftwood ablaze. Warming by the fire, we made drinks and ate canned chilly for supper. It was our last good chance to see the Aurora, so we devised a strategy. It was simple — I’d look skyward when I got up to pee and wake her up if I saw anything.DSC_0844

Around 2:30 a.m. I stood outside the tent and stared at a patch of clear sky. In the Alaskan summer, the sun doesn’t as much set as just skip off the horizon, as a light blue glow follows the unseen polar star across the northern sky. I didn’t spot the Northern Lights, but it was worth the chilly minutes to behold the night.

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I know, poor me

On our final day, the low, wide hills gave way to higher summits, thick with verdant, sun-soaked spruce forests. Even the trees along the river grew taller and more robust. Already behind from a porcupine sighting, the Chatanika took one last shot at swamping us. After flying around a small island, piled with logs, the river swept our boat into a ten-foot wide channel. The current rushed towards the left cut-bank, beneath a jagged, downed spruce. In heroic fashion, I managed to point Mindy away before I crashed into the tree, arms outstretched for impact. We avoided flipping, but the spruce gave me a nice little gouge on my left hand.

We paddled the final stretch, joking about continuing onward, down into an ever-snaking, never-ending wilderness of Minto Flats. Instead we pulled out at the bridge where Cat and Tony waited for us. We were two hours late, but they just seemed pleased we had survived… I mean paper work alone… Jokes aside, they were wonderful DSC_0871 (1)outfitters and even showed us sights driving back to Fairbanks. In town, we met Wesley, ate Thai food and saw the house where our Fathers had lived in 1961. Satisfied with the day, the trip and the glimpse of ancient family history, we strolled back to our hostel in the horizontal light of another slow burning, late summer Alaskan sunset.

*Black Spruce seeds after wildfires, which helps them reestablish burned areas. In the absence of fire, hardwoods, such as quaking aspen, will take over a grove. Wildfire, while appearing solely destructive, is a crucial part of most North American ecosystems, even way up in Alaska.

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Chatanika River, Alaska
  • Dates Canoed: 8/19-21/2017
  • Miles Canoed: 40
  • Weather: Rainy and overcast with nighttime lows in the upper 30s to partly cloudy with highs in the upper 60s
  • Elevation: From Approximately 1201 to 504 feet above sea level (no wonder there was such flow!)
  • Launch Point: Mile 60 (65.272976, -146.64731)
  • Campsite #1: Taiga burn area (65.215505, -146.972351)
  • Campsite #2: Sand Bar (65.15153, -147.380819)
  • Takeout Point: At Elliot Highway (65.083577, -147.726223)
  • Songs Sung on River: Alaska and Me by John Denver and Stephanie Says by The Velvet Underground (“Cause sheeee’s not afraid to die, the people all call her Alaska”)
  • Huge thanks to our outfitters, Alaskan Dream Adventures, for their knowledge,DSC_0868 (1) low prices and flexibility in meeting our specific timeframe. Cat and Tony are friendly, professional and good company, too. Cat dropped us off with a beautiful new canoe, good paddles and all the proper gear. Wonderful experience. Contact: alaskadreamadventures@gmail.com (907-460-2909). Also worth noting: Tony hosts kayak ultimate frisbee games during the summers, of course.
  • Thanks to Uncle Russell for creating my new fiberglass tent pole (replacing the thrice broken aluminum, which wouldn’t have made it to Alaska). Thanks to Wesley for being the courier and delivering it to me in Fairbanks. Thanks to Dad for researching places to canoe and doing all the leg work to put me in contact with Tony. Also, big thanks to Julie (and Marcus) for letting me park my car and canoe at her place in Seattle!
  • Birds: Bald Eagles (2 adult, 2 juvenile) Gray Jay, Crow, raven, song birds, kingfisher,DSC_0766 hawk
  • Mammals: Porcupine! and beaver (Grizzly tracks, moose tracks, droppings)
  • Noted Species: Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Timber Wolf, Lynx and occasional Caribou
  • Dominant Vegetation: Black Spruce, Quaking Aspen, Paper Birch, Balsam Poplar and White Spruce
  • Ecoregion: Split between Interior Highlands, (105) and Interior Forested Lowlands and Uplands and (104). I had no luck finding Level IV designations
  • Current Threats: Potential pollutants from historic hydraulic mining activities
  • Trash collected: some rope, tin cans and micro trash (not much garbage!)
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3447 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-campaignDSC_0850 (1)
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Fiordland of Idaho: Canoeing Lake Pend Oreille

DSC_0393(State #40/50)Who knew Idaho could look so good?” my friend Lawrence remarked in response to a picture. He wasn’t alone with this reaction. “That’s so much prettier than I would have thought for Idaho,” another friend said of a sunset photo. I had no idea the state wasn’t widely regarded as scenic; searching for someone or something to blame, I landed on the potato. After all, could a state known for brown, odd-shaped tubers be worth a damn?

I hadn’t visited Idaho since a 1993 family vacation and, I’ll admit, my takeaway also had nothing to do with the views…

Driving up from Salt Lake, we had only one Elvis cassette tape (a small, rectangular object that played music, which you had to rewind) that we played ad nauseam. By the time we reached Pocatello, ID, my parents were scanning the dial for anything. But, in search of variety, they landed on “Louie Louie Radio.” To our confusion and delight the station declared that it played “all Louie, all the time” and that you were “never more than two minutes away from Louie Louie!” We listened to slow versions, classical takes, harder tracks and, of course, the original 1963 jam by The Kingsmen. To this day, I can’t think of Idaho without hearing that song.

Twenty-four years later, I drove into the panhandle of the state, just below Canada and far from Pocatello. Rain cleansed the air of the smoky haze, which had plagued the western skies for weeks. When I arrived at Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced Pon-der-ray), the air was cool and fresh, though still cloudy. Not for long.DSC_0390

The moment I launched onto the Clark Fork River, the sun tore through the atmosphere and set the land aglow. Under this new light, I paddled into the wide, calm, turning channel. The current carried me past poplar trees, high grass and towards a steep mountainside, framed by conifer trees and low vegetation, turning red and orange. I passed swimming beavers, patrolling osprey and a single, attentive doe. The evening sun, unhampered by smoke, enriched all it touched to the most vibrant degree. The clouds, the cattails, the cottonwood trees, the rock faces, the clinging evergreens, the reddish coat of the deer, all appeared lit from within.DSC_0441DSC_0410

After two miles, I left the river delta and canoed onto the lake. I rounded a narrow strip of trees separating the river’s end and the lake’s beginning. There, on Long Beach, I pulled the boat up onto the polished stones and made camp in a small clearing between the trees.

DSC_0509 (2)I cracked a beer and met the only other person out there — a guy named Drew with a collection of dogs and a boat anchored on the river side. Drew was a native Idahoan, who had spent time in Texas, stationed at Fort Hood back in the 90’s. For almost an hour, we talked Texas and its important subsets, including bass fishing, tornadoes, brisket and salsa. After the sun set, Drew returned to his boat and I returned to mine for a twilight canoe out on the lake.DSC_0477 (2)

Lake Pend Oreille is a large, deep* lake prone to dangerous swell-producing weather. Therefore, I didn’t plan to stray far from shore. I watched the fading light, beyond the distant black mountains and between the mostly cloudy sky. Bats flitted and flew sporadically through the air, still sharp against the dusk sky. Laying back, I let the wind push me further out into the great lake. I drifted towards the tip of the nearby mountainside, which tilted at 45 degrees into the water. Silhouetted pines grew against the sky. Miles beyond, another mountain slope, carved by glaciers, fell, curving into the lake. I could have been in Norway.DSC_0493 (1)

Soon, the trees above camp were tiny as I drew even with the jutting mountain point, at the threshold of the grand lake. Trying to about face, I turned the bow to the left, but the small waves and a fierce wind, which had propelled me out, now worked against my plans; I was unable to turn on the first attempt. Not wanting to end up in the middle of the lake at dark, I dropped to my knees in the center of the boat and fought the winds. Cutting against the wind and the waves, I stroked back at what felt like ten mph.

Safe on the beach, I took in the night sky. To the west was a patch of light pollution, courtesy of the town of Sand Point, across the lake and over the low mountain. To the north was a thunderstorm, flashing with lightning every five seconds. Dark patches of star-studded sky lay between clouds. Between the openings was a single large cloud, which blotted out all light and celestial objects. It looked like a huge zeppelin, tethered to earth by an unseen rope. No, that’s not it, I thought. It was the bottom of a fishing boat and I was dozens of feet below an ocean, looking up at the hull. Indeed, it was a strange sky, worth the prolonged study and pointless, imaginary debates. I was thankful to oblige in both.

DSC_0457 (2)I slept well, waking to a sun-warmed tent. I stepped out into daylight and ran into Drew, walking through the path between the brush. “Come grab some coffee! I know what it’s like to live off of the instant stuff.” He told me. We walked the dock with his dogs, drank real coffee and watched the sea planes fly in and out of the Clark Fork valley.

DSC_0518 (1)Back at camp, the wind now blew across the wide lake, creating sizable waves. They rolled and crashed along the steep bank piled with some of the most ideal skipping rocks imaginable. I cooked breakfast at a picnic table as my mind wandered towards salsa and tortillas — good salsa and tortillas, from Texas. I missed them. You realize when you leave for a long trip you’ll miss your friends, family and girlfriend. But, it’s not until in the midst of the trip do you start missing the unsung heroes of normal life — Tex-Mex, cooking in a kitchen and walking a mile, pounding shitty, warming beers on the way to a Rangers game. I often missed our summer pool hangouts. Here I was, on some of the most spectacular waterways our nation has to offer, and I sometimes longed to be at a generic apartment pool in Plano, TX… Conversely, I didn’t miss checking work emails, stressing over my old job or watching hours of bad TV. All of it, I decided, would be there when I made it back. For the moment, I had a mountain lake before me and a hot plate of eggs and sausage to devour strait from a dirty pan.

After testing my canoeing skills on the rough lake, I loaded up my gear and launched from the dock on the river side, next to Drew’s boat. He gave me a cold bottle of water and wished me luck as I paddled up the river delta.DSC_0514

I still have much of the state left to explore. And yet, I know this — basing your thoughts of Idaho on the southern agricultural flatlands is about like viewing California through the lens of the hot, flat, Central Valley. Yes, Idaho does grow potatoes (which as a nation run on French fries and potato chips, we should all be grateful), but what makes it worth a visit are the remote northern Rockies, valleys, peaks, forests, rivers and lakes that look as much like Scandinavia as they do America. Pend Oreille is just one spectacular piece of the potato pie. Now, I have something else to add to my childhood memories. Though, to be honest, a small town radio station devoted to the many incarnations of Louie Louie will always come first.

*The Lake is 1150 feet deep (5th deepest in nation) and is notable for the Navy conducted acoustic underwater submarine research during World War II, when it was the 2nd largest Naval training ground in the country.

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Lake Pend Oreille/Fort Clark River, Idaho
  • Dates Canoed: 8-13/14-2017
  • Miles Canoed: 4
  • Weather: Smoke cleared from rain, partly cloudy and warm, windy in the morning
  • Elevation: 2066 feet above sea level
  • Launch/Takeout Point: Public boat launch (48.138949, -116.228761)
  • Campsite: Army Core Campsite on sand spit (48.149095, -116.249889)
  • Songs Sung on River: I can’t recall, though I hope it was Louie, Louie
  • Big Thanks to Drew for the coffee, cold water and good conversation. Thanks to Cynthia with Going Green for info about where to canoe and camp!
  • Birds: Bald eagle, 3 osprey, vultures, crows, ducks, loon or diving duck
  • Mammals: White tail deer, 2 beavers, many bats at nightfall, 2 Boston Terriers named Duke and Sally and one stump that looked just like a silhouette of a beaver, that fooled me several times and Sally kept barking at it.
  • Noted Species: Black Bear, Mountain Goat and Lynx
  • Dominant Vegetation: Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Black Cottonwood, Western Paper Bark
  • Ecoregion: Northern Rockies, (15u) Inland Maritime Foothills and Valleys and (15o) Coeur’d Alene Metasedimentary Zone (what a name!)
  • Current Threats: Stormwater runoff and pollution from local communities. Potential spills from rail traffic carrying coal and oil (there was a coal train derailed up stream on the Clark River the day I canoed). Aquatic invasive plants species such as Eurasian watermilfoil and Flowering rush are also threats to the great ecosystem. Additionally, Lake Trout threaten the existence of native species.
  • Trash collected: beer cans, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3367 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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Welcome to the Smoke Show: Canoeing Glacier NP, Montana

DSC_0076(State #39/50) Sitting on a peninsula no larger than a tennis court, I watched gentle waves lap against the colorful, flat, stones of the shore. In both directions, a smooth, long lake filled the bottom of a u-shaped valley. Peaks of sheer gray rock rose up, beyond the blue water, beyond the conifer forests, until they mingled only with snow, contrasting against the sky. Over a hundred years ago, someone dubbed this park the “Crown of the Continent.” Though I’m one to ridicule overindulgent titles, I approve of this one. Glacier National Park is beyond an international treasure and, for a night, I got to lay claim to a little piece of the fortune.

I arrived at the backcountry office where rangers only issue permits in person and within twenty-four hours of your excursion; there wasn’t much left by three o’clock. The ranger said I could show up early the next morning and hope to get a site on one of the more remote lakes. But, after he assured me the open site on Lake McDonald wasn’t the dredges, I opted on the sure bet and am glad I did.

DSC_0969 (2)Like Yellowstone, Glacier was smoked in by surrounding wildfires. So, when late afternoon storms overtook the high peaks, I reasoned well, at least this rain will help with the fires. The next morning, however, I learned that lightning had caused multiple additional fires in the park. Furthermore, Glacier was not issuing any new backcountry permits. Yet the rangers still honored mine, proving again, it never pays to wake up early.

DSC_0996 (1)At the edge of Apgar Village, I geared up my canoe. There, my fellow tourists filled restaurants, gift shops and parking lots. Retirees meandered, children ran loose and folks of all kinds rented kayaks. A group of Jehovah’s Witnesses sat under a tent in an open grassy area. I felt their smiling, beaming, come-hither stares upon me as I looked at my feet and made a long, elliptical pass. I nearly walked into another group, thankfully, in ranger uniforms. “What’s that all about?” I asked. “Oh, it’s free speech or something,” an older ranger said, unwilling to hide his feelings. “Can you imagine the outrage if that was a Muslim group?” he asked. I saw his point, but changed the subject. “What’s the telescope for?” It was a dumb question as the sun was the only visible celestial object above us. I took a look, through the protected filter, and confirmed that the sun was both still round and still orange. I thought about egging on a fight between the rangers and Witnesses, or at least going to tell the group the good news that the sun still shone, but I had a lake to canoe.

DSC_1056Paddling away from the hubbub, I counted 400 consecutive strokes before stopping over a mile into Lake McDonald. Helicopters carried trailing buckets of water towards the new forest fire, which exhaled blueish smoke skyward from a mountain, adding to the haze. I made the other side of the lake and hugged the shoreline. Soon, the thick pine forests gave way to an old burn area. Beneath charred poles, juvenile pines, birch and flowering shrubs made their slow race towards the sun. I passed near a cliff and looked down at the clear water, which transitioned into deep glacial-blue as the bottom of the lake fell off into oblivion. I’m snorkeling today, I decided.DSC_1022

DSC_0218Arriving at camp by mid-afternoon, I kept my life vest on and explored with my bear spray out of its holster, finger near the trigger. Part of procuring a backcountry permit is the mandatory viewing of a twenty-minute video on grizzly bear safety. Typically, these are the types of videos people scoff at, but the entire room remained attentive. We only broke the silence when the narrator said, “play dead if it’s a defensive attack… However, fight back immediately if the bear starts to eat you.” Those words, said with utter sincerity, forced the room into nervous laughter (more on Grizzly safety below).

I made my rounds, investigating the cooking area, the food storage, the pit toilet and the tent sites. As instructed, I took my food and toiletries and strung it up on the 20-foot post, lashing it taught. Hot and done with camp chores, I made myself a whiskey/lemonade drink and grabbed the snorkel. I peered into the water from the shore; polished stones gave way to a sandy shelf, which sloped down at forty-five degrees into the dark blue. I tossed my snorkel gear in the shallows, counted down from ten and executed a surface dive into Lake McDonald. Oh, the glory.DSC_0070

DSC_0024Reveling in the cold shock, I snorkeled to the edge of the slope. There, I dove to colder depths to fetch stones and handfuls of white sands, which I let pour through the water column and return to the bottom. Beyond the sheer novelty of snorkeling in Montana and in a park named for huge chucks of melting ice, it, simply put, felt fantastic. Feeling clean for the first time in days, I walked onto the beach, plopped into my canoe chair and thrust my feet into the sun-warmed pebbles. I leaned back and stared at the high peaks across the calm mountain sea, letting the whiskey and sunshine exercise their warming effects. Again, oh, the glory.DSC_0042

Curious about the land I looked upon, I pulled out the National Park pamphlet and poured over the map. I was impressed by Triple Divide Peak, which separates water flowing down to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Pacific and up to Hudson Bay in Canada. I read about the flora and fauna and human history. Then I came to the depressing, but impossible to ignore part — the glaciers, the namesake of the park, are vanishing and it’s due to man-made climate change.DSC_0250 (2)

The melting glaciers in Montana aren’t the most worrisome impacts of climate change (like droughts, severe storms, floods, coral bleaching, sea level rise, etc.), but have become a tragic barometer for the warming planet. It is not hyperbole to say I’m glad I saw them now, in 2017. There were 150 estimated glaciers in 1850, 50 in 1968 and only 25 remain today, most of which are wisps of their former glory. Current estimates have them disappearing by 2030, which gives us thirteen years to workshop a new name. Perhaps, The Park Formally Known as Glacier?DSC_0349

I looked up from the brochure and noticed the air was clearing to the east. The smoke that, an hour before, hung thick above the distant tree line, creating a 2-d movie set backdrop, had lifted from the high mountains, leaving them with more color, texture and depth.DSC_0073 (1)

DSC_0093I enjoyed the tranquility before a tour boat interrupted, passing a few hundred yards out on the lake. The sound of a guy yammering on a microphone carried over the water. Immediately, I hopped up and began dancing, with wild exaggerated moves, to unheard music. Unbuttoning my long sleeve shirt, I helicoptered it above my half naked body before commencing further lewd stripper routines. I’m unsure if any of the twenty passengers saw, but I hope, with all my might, that a sweet old pair of birders from the mid-west got a glimpse of true wilderness in action.

Twilight fell and the mountain across Lake McDonald glowed red with flames. With night coming, the choppers ceased, allowing the fire to flared up. I canoed in the growing waves of dusk, watching it grow and spread. Back at the dark campsite, the thought of bears pressed upon my mind; I never imagined I’d be alone in Grizzly country. “In summer the bush fires rage and rage and rage on such beautiful days!” I sang, hoping to frighten off any bears. Un-mauled, I crawled into my tent, peered out the screen window and said goodnight to the lake, the bears and the burning mountain.DSC_0203

DSC_0214I woke up the next morning to another sunny, yet smokey day. I packed up, policed camp and launched Rider around noon. I stayed along the shore and, again, snorkeled near a cliff and above an underwater ledge. Approaching the takeout, I muscled out the last half mile and beat a kayaker to the landing. Partly tan, mostly red and fully glistening with perspiration, I peacock-ed around the landing as I loaded up my gear and boat. I must not have been the physical display I imagined because the other park goers went about their business as if not in the presence of a shirtless, canoe demigod. I didn’t take it too personally as it’s hard to compete with the surrounding National Park. With hours of light left, I headed up to the alpine zone to hike, see the mountain goats and view what remains of the ancient ice patches. Crown of the Continent indeed, I thought. Now, I implore you, go see the glaciers while you can.DSC_0292

My Take on Grizzly Safety:

Grizzly bears don’t set out to hunt and eat humans. Typically, they want absolutely nothing to do with us. People and bears alike, get into trouble when they learn to associate us with our tasty pic-a-nick baskets. A fed bear is a dead bear, as they say (once a bear links humans with easy food they become problem bears. Sometimes they can relocate them, but often they have to kill them once they’ve been conditioned to raiding trashcans and campsites.

Most attacks are defensive and are a result of people surprising a bear or, most dangerous of all, coming across a mother with cubs. Therefore, they instruct people to talk loudly, clap, bang rocks, and do whatever you can to ensure you don’t surprise a grizzly. If you do come across one, you’re supposed to hold your ground, and talk in a low and neutral voice. You don’t want to seem like a threat, but you also don’t want to appear submissive. Most charges, I’m told, are bluffs. Still, you’re supposed to hold your ground (while not encouraged, crapping your pants is acceptable). But, if there is a second charge, it’s the real deal. Bear spray, (pretty much just pepper spray), is an important last ditch deterrent. Rangers stress you need to have it on your hip and ready to use in an instant (they can’t stand seeing it packed away in a backpack, as it does you no good). I wore it on my hip and, when in high brush, kept it in my hand and ready to go. If you do, make sure you’re up wind and spray it low to the ground. When a bear charges, they come on all fours and the spray will drift up. If used correctly, the spray will deter the bear. But, unlike some people and their guns, you really hope you never have to use it.

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana
  • Miles Canoed: 12
  • Dates Canoed: 8-11/12-2017
  • Weather: Smokey, sunny, warm with a breeze coming on in the evening.
  • Elevation: 3153 feet above sea level
  • Launch/Takeout Point: Apgar boat launch (48.528546, -113.99156)
  • Campsite: MCD campsite (48.593965, -113.925516)
  • Songs Sung on Lake: Same Jeans by The View, Don’t Let It Bring You Down by Neil Young and The Wine Song by the Cat Empire.
  • Thanks to Sam and the other Rangers at Glacier Backcountry office for all the advice and convincing me that the MCD site would be stunning.
  • Birds: 2 Bald Eagles, Mergansers, Raven, Rufous Hummingbird, seagull
  • Mammals: Beaver, chipmunks and a vole
  • Noted Species: Gray Wolf (night before I got on river I saw one way down a dirt road just outside the park), Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Mountain Goat, Lynx, Bull Trout (native), Roufus Humming Bird and Long-toed Salamander
  • Dominant Vegetation: Lodgepole pine, Ponderosa pine, Douglas Fir and Aspen in the drier areas along the shore. In the shade of the mountains on the southern shore, Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar grow
  • Ecoregion: Canadian Rockies, (41c) Western Canadian Rockies
  • Current Threats: Climate Change, Aquatic invasive species (zebra mussels, etc.)
  • Trash collected: cigarette butt, a few plastic ties and piece of foil.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3192 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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Yellowstone with Taylor: Canoeing Lake Shoshone, Wyoming

DSC_0943(State #38/50) Right after I told her my Canoe 50 plans, Taylor claimed Wyoming. Visiting the Grand Tetons, as she explained, was on her bucket list. So was seeing a wild moose — something I assured her, with the utmost cockiness, that’d we’d accomplish without problem. Well, after our canoe to Lake Shoshone and five full days in the Northwest corner of Wyoming, I can say we accomplished exactly one half of my girlfriend’s goals…

We spent our first day exploring Yellowstone, traversing the thousands of spectators from the world over. We witnessed Old Faithful blow and stared at boiling thermal pools, exuding warm, sulfury breath. The best part, however, was talking to an older ranger, who told a terrifying story from last year — A man went to go hot-potting in an off limits thermal area. When testing the water with his foot, he was shocked by the extreme heat and fell into the scalding pool, dissolving in front of his sister. “All that was left,” she continued, “were his sandals.” Taylor and I stood with mouths wide, thinking about… and then trying not to think about it. I believe it’s true, but I have no interest in corroborating the tale with the grander internet; a story like that is just too horrible to ruin.DSC_0341

To my sincere delight, the rangers at the backcountry permit office were just as matter-of-fact and morbid when warning about the dangers of canoeing. “Wear your life jacket, so it will be easier to find you,” the ranger said, head tilted down, sizing me up from above his reading spectacles. “If not, I’ll have to get my sonar to look for you,” indicating he wouldn’t be searching for living versions of us. Then he explained how the wind and storms can whip up out of nowhere in the afternoon. “Stay along the shore and don’t take the short cuts across open water,” said the ranger. He looked at me a little longer, studying my dumb face and stupid grin, and then told Taylor she was in charge.

DSC_0614There are times and places — ballgames, fairs, concerts, public executions, etc. — where being amongst a massive crowd enhances the experience. For me, National Parks aren’t on that list. Therefore, I was thrilled to leave the swarming boardwalks and overflowing parking lots and show Taylor some true Yellowstone wilderness. And Lake Shoshone, the largest Lake in the lower 48 with no road access, was just the place. To get out there, you either hiked or paddled; either way, you’d leave 99% of the dawdling masses behind.

We set off onto Lewis Lake at noon. The day was sunny, warm and, technically, clear. But, forest fire smoke hung in the atmosphere and, along with the midday sun, washed out much of the color from the forests, lake and sky. The water was calm so, as the ranger suspected I’d do, I ignored his advice and paddled strait across, towards the inflow of the Shoshone River. For the first two miles, the river winds, lazy and translucent, between boulders, flowering meadow and piney hills. Then, with one mile to go, the swift water forces you out of your boat. It’s time to pull your boat upstream.DSC_0446

Looking for the channel of least resistance, I trudged up the cold Shoshone River, tugging on my canoe’s lead like an owner walking an unresponsive dog. Paralleling me, Taylor hiked along a semi-trail, over logs and through meadows. Ten minutes passed before I heard a slight squeal and turned to see Taylor standing in the midst of many blooms and their pollinators. Not a fan of bees, she stepped along, arms tucked in, fists clinched while making a series of unconscious, nervous squeaks. Half sympathetic, half amused, I told her to join me in the water. Though the walking was trickier, there was less chance of a bee attack or a bear dragging her away.

After over an hour of towing Rider, we reached the shores of Shoshone Lake and met a new challenge. The August air grew tumultuous and a few gray bottomed clouds blanketed portions of the lake with rain. The term flat water no longer applied to the lake as a bald eagle flew by and thunder cracked overhead. I kept Rider close to the steep, rocky lakeside and scanned the shoreline for spots to land and take cover if the lightning intensified. But, between the sheer rock cliffs and thick conifer trees, there were few places to pull up the canoe. This was why the ranger had told us to “get an early start.” Using partial common sense, we did follow one piece of advice and strapped on our life vests.DSC_0493

Continuing on the rough water, we watched the pop-up storms emerge from the smoke to the west. I strained my eyes to see light behind them, trying to determine if they were lone scouts or if they were just the foot soldiers preceding the cavalry. Either way, the shelling had begun. Flash! Boom! It was like the board game Battleship, but replace the red pegs and gray naval vessels with lightning bolts and a green canoe. Also, there wasn’t any way for us to fire back or cheat, so the game wasn’t much fun.

DSC_0460Despite the weather, Taylor kept cool and kept paddling. We bobbed on through rain and wind, trying to cut the larger white-capped waves, now rolling across the greater expanse of Lake Shoshone. Nearing the final cove, we canoed out into open water to avoid getting broadsided. Up and over with thuds and splashes, Taylor and I pressed on until spotting the small sign for our camp, sweet glorious camp! We reached land, threw up the tent and sheltered as the storm marched eastward.DSC_0491

Once the danger passed, we explored our little spit of land where the narrows separate the two larger ends of Shoshone. It was a charming little peninsula with a forested camp area, bear pole and our own section of gray lava rock and pumice beach. The evening light softened on the calming lake and the eight miles of canoeing, one mile of pulling and the gambling with the lightning gods felt worth it. We were now in what all of Yellowstone used to be — expansive, untouched nature without a single motorcycle, RV or fat kid in sight.

DSC_0481DSC_0509 (1)We sprayed down with mosquito repellent, made drinks and set up the tarp on the beach. Taylor and I gazed over the lake and discussed vital matters of life like the new season of Game of Thrones and whether Emily Blunt could pull off being Mary Poppins. By drink number three, we thought it an excellent idea to take turns singing songs. Taylor, knower of all things Disney, went straight to theme song of Hercules. I fell back on Sublime, a favorite from my youth. And yes, I do see the irony of finally finding a quiet, peaceful spot in the National Park, only to taint that silence with my off-key vocalizations. But, our singing had two important results: 1. We were thoroughly entertained and 2. We frightened off all possible grizzly bears within several miles.DSC_0518

The sun set between the pines and through the forest fire smoke, giving it that LA-orange glow. Originally, we discussed canoeing around the shores at twilight, searching for the illusive moose, but coziness and hunger had other plans. Night fell as we prepared one tasty Italian sausage pasta, which we devoured well after ten o’clock.DSC_0505

Slow to stir the next morning, we eventually got the bear bag down and made eggs, bacon and avocado burritos. We set out before noon and glided over the still lake towards the outlet. It was almost unfair how fast we navigated the section of river we had pulled the boat up. We floated over “rainbow rocks,” named because they bare the color of every craft, which scrapes over them. “You’re going the wrong way!” other groups joked as we flew by them, not the least bit envious of their toil.DSC_0538

Taylor and I spent the next several days exploring the parks and getting stuck in bison jams. Though we scoured the land and went to all the riparian hot spots, we never saw Taylor’s moose.

On our final day, we sat outside the Jackson Lake Lodge, sipping local beers while watching the evening settle into the vast, marshy valley below. The air was warm and pleasant. We talked, joked with our neighbors and stared out at the Tetons. Yes, even through the smoky haze, they were still grand, imposing and majestic mountain peaks. Now, maybe I’m just deflecting from my failure to deliver a moose, but I think checking one out of two items off Taylor’s bucket list ain’t too shabby. And, more importantly, neither one of us dissolved in a hyperthermic pool.DSC_0927

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Shoshone Lake via Lewis Lake and the Shoshone River
  • Dates Canoed: 8/5-6/2017
  • Miles Canoed: 18
  • Weather: Smokey, highs in the upper 70s to lows in the upper 50’s. Isolated thunderstorms in the evening.
  • Elevation: 7795 Feet Above Sea Level
  • Launch/takeout Point: Lewis Lake Boat Ramp (44.282618, -110.628789)
  • Campsite: Site 8Q1, South Narrow Point on Lake Shoshone (44.363781, -110.718852)
  • Songs Sung on River: Feel It Still and Number One by Portugal. The Man, Elephant Love Song from Moulin Rogue, Lovin’s What I got and Wrong Way by Sublime, and Taylor sang The Gospel Truth from Hercules (one of her top favorite Disney Songs of all time) and an Afro Man Song, I can’t recall it’s name, surely something suggestive.
  • Thanks to all the helpful rangers at the backcountry office. Professional, but not without a good dry, morbid sense of humor, which I appreciate to an enormous degree. And I promise, I fully intended on following most of the advice they offered. It just didn’t work out that way.
  • Special Thanks to Monica and Kelley with for letting me hang out and use the wifi at their Library in Kaycee, Wyoming. They were friendly, funny and great representatives for the. I still have the old card catalog Return of the King card, which they recycled by writing the wifi password on. As we decided, it will remind me to read that series.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Bald Eagle, raven, seagull, loon merganser, ducks, and a variety of song birds
  • Mammals: Chipmunk and Red Squirrel
  • Reptiles/amphibians: Frog
  • Noted Species: Grizzly Bear, Gray Wolf, Wolverine and Lynx
  • Dominant Vegetation: Lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, Subalpine fir and Whitebark pine,
  • Ecoregion: Middle Rockies, (17j) Yellowstone Plateau
  • Current Threats: I’m unaware of any specific threats. Comparatively limited human interface, protected buffer zone and good watershed. Threats facing Shoshone will be the common non-point source facing all global lakes, i.e. effects of climate change.
  • Trash Collected: A few bits of trash at the launch, but nothing from the river or campsite!
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3041 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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