Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I Am Pro Salmon...

Monday, June 27, 2005

Matt and I hadn’t spoken to each other since some time in May. Not that this is anything out of the ordinary for us. It’s been like that since we met last year. We planned to meet at Earth Song for an early lunch. He brought his boat. I brought my dirty laundry. Sometime during munching on ridiculously overpriced turkey pastrami sandwiches he asked if I would be interested in going to the 49 bridge to spend the day at the river. If so, he needed to meet with his paddling partners there so he could tell them that he wasn’t going to paddle. We could hike upstream from there. Spending the day at the river is much more appealing than laundry. So that’s how I arrived at the put-in in a skirt and flip-flops and no boat.

The guys arrived. ‘Where’s your boat?’ they asked. ‘I brought my laundry instead.’ I shuffled around by Matt’s car, conscious of my skirt, thinking of how I must have looked like an archetypal shuttle bunny, the one responsible for Matt not boating with them. This thought did not settle well with me.

Matt and I walked onto the bridge as the guys slid one by one into the water. One sat in an eddy chatting with three bikini–clad girls standing on a rock. We watched them silently follow the current down a few drops, becoming smaller and smaller, until they disappeared around a bend. I wished I were one of them. Then we continued across the bridge to the trail on the other side.

I’ve never known the South Yuba to be runnable at the end of June. The water is a brilliantly clear green. Wildflowers still cling to the hills. And I had no camera.

We hiked upstream for a while, ignoring multitudes of trails branching off to the river. Eventually Matt chose a trail and we descended through thickets of healthy green poison oak to the granite boulders of the river. I cursed my skirt as I awkwardly rock hopped and slid on my butt down to the river.

White granite rose steeply from the riverbed. I glanced at it briefly then turned to tell Matt how beautiful the spot we arrived at was. But the words never drifted past my lips. Instead I said, ‘Damn. You wasted no time!’ His shoes and shorts were already piled on a rock and I watched his naked white butt move as he headed for a large flat rock at the river’s edge. Momentarily his body was spread stomach down on a hot white rock. Unmoving and fully clothed, I stood where I was. Matt looked at me and said, ‘When did you become self conscious?’ ‘Two minutes ago,’ I replied. I didn’t move. ‘Don’t look at me. I’m not stripping for you.’ He turned away. I still wouldn’t move. Then it all seemed ridiculous to me. Who wants to be wearing a skirt at the river anyway?

We both sprawled on the sun-baked rock and watched little fish swim in the eddies. We talked about the hope of salmon coming back to the river some day. Years ago someone gave me a bumper sticker that says ‘I am Pro Salmon and I Vote.’ I thought it was funny like a cynical dig on more serious statements such as ‘I am Pro Choice and I Vote.’ I slapped it diagonally across the lid of my two-burner camp stove as my commentary on the tastiness of fish. But sitting naked on the rock I finally got it. The salmon belong there in the water by the white granite walls. They need to come back. It doesn’t feel right without them just as swimming in the river doesn’t feel right with clothes anymore. It feels empty.

I’m not a biologist. I’m not exactly an exhibitionist either. Hence, I can’t give any tangible support for either the salmon or for the absence of clothes as the way it should be. A few weeks ago I took my friend Colleen down the North Fork of the American River for her first time. At the beginning of the trip she commented that there’s something special about water that’s not dammed. She couldn’t say what it was, only that she could feel something different.

It feels alive.

The South Yuba has the Englebright and Spaulding dams, one above and one below. The river is squashed between walls of concrete and reservoir water. It’s regulated. The walls stop the fish. But this year, with all the rain, the river has been resisting its walls. This last week in June it still flows as a river instead of a series of swimming holes. It still has a voice, but it’s not as clear as undammed water. Perhaps clothes just get in the way of hearing it.

Eventually we relocated to another rock downstream from the first. It was further in the current and offered a better view downstream. As we sat there, three people hiked up the rocks and peered into the water. They looked down, gesticulating toward the water and each other. I wanted them to do something. I waited impatiently for something to happen.

Finally a girl in a bikini jumped. She swam to an eddy, but missed it and was swept over a rock and down a pour over. Her body disappeared, then re-emerged ten feet below. Her eyes were open wide and she was gasping for breath as she was swept past us. Both Matt and I lurched toward her a bit. It was an instinctual reaction. But, how are two naked people on a rock going to help a swimmer in the river? Then she swam strongly into an eddy on river left. With bruised legs, she crawled onto the dry rocks, hiked upstream, then she jumped again. She made it to her eddy the next time. Soon a guy followed her line down the pour over. He was calm as his body disappeared under water. He had obviously done that many times before. Effortlessly, he caught the same eddy, climbed up to the rocks above and jumped again.

Our sun was disappearing over the ridge. Matt and I climbed back over the rocks to our piled clothes. The three jumpers were high on a rock above us. We shouted hellos at each other. They were rafters they told us, and we: kayakers, we replied. So they offered for us to join them on their rock. They handed me their last beer from the cooler – the King of Beers - and a pipe was passed around.

Erin, Julie and Jeff all work for the same rafting company. Jeff grew up in Grass Valley. That’s why he was so comfortable in the river. He was showing the girls his river.

As we talked, Julie realized she knew who I was – the one who dislocated her knee salsa dancing, the kayaker. She admitted to feeling intimidated to meet me from what she had heard of me in Coloma. Oh, Coloma. I can’t escape it even at the South Yuba! Erin wanted to know if I was at the Coloma Club Friday. ‘Oh, please say you were there!’ she pleaded. I was not. I never made it past the River Shack across the street. I’m glad I met the three of them on the South Yuba instead of at the Bermuda Triangle of Marco’s, the River Shack, and the Coloma Club. It made our meeting seem more real and substantial to me. In Coloma they would have only been three more raft guides in the Bacchanalian soup of summer. Plus, it’s impossible to be intimidating to anyone while naked.

The five of us scrambled over rocks together to the trail, me in the back with my skirt pulled all the way up over my hips so I could jump unimpeded, and hiked out chatting amiably. The river was silver with the setting sun. We walked our separate ways to our cars and waved at each other enthusiastically. I’m looking forward to seeing them pushing rubber on the South Fork American as I sit in class II eddies explaining currents to my students. And of course, I’m sure we’ll meet again soon at the Coloma Club.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Surface 1

Surface 1, 2005

Friday, June 03, 2005

Place II

Place II (To Chris J. and Christopher (and Chris T. for being the first))
Friday, June 03, 2005

What happens when that wanderlust really does set in? The restlessness is here. The bitterness has begun. And I don’t know what to do about it.

For six months I have stayed. I have committed. I have loved this place.

After six months with one day’s notice to a friend I barely knew, I packed my bag, loaded my boats and drove north with a sense of urgency that was almost uncontainable. I needed to remind myself to not step so hard on the pedal as the pine trees of Nevada City abruptly changed to dry scrub down Highway 20. I glided, I flew; it was not driving – it was escaping silently with the wind.

For months it had been raining. The rivers in California were showing off in earnest. Perfect flows. And all I wanted to do was leave them all behind. I drove alone with the window down and my arm out the window to a place I hadn’t been to in over a decade to meet with people who would take me to a different place that I had never been – to a place where the water was running low; to a place I where I felt an apprehensive unease in visiting. I had the strong sense that I was trespassing where I was not quite wanted.

Hood River, Oregon has been on my mind for a while. The scenario was too similar to my first introduction to Nevada City for me to ignore it. Over the past few years I have been told by countless people that I should go to Hood River because I would love it. And like Nevada City, it took several years for me to follow those instructions. For this reason, I was apprehensive to go. I didn’t want the potential confusion of falling in love with it. I’m supposed to be in love with Nevada City.

In a whirlwind, week-long episode of recent extended phone conversations (now abruptly ended without warning – the voice I began to anticipate hearing has now been replaced by constant ingratiating busy signals), I had listened to detailed descriptions of the disdained 75 cent toll bridge spanning the Columbia River from Hood River to White Salmon, Washington; of the open landscape desired over closed ones such as Nevada City’s; of the White Salmon, Little White and Wind Rivers and their named rapids and runs; of the influx of water lovers – the kite boarders, wind surfers and kayakers – arriving for the summer; of a new sushi restaurant still being built that will probably have some real wasabi behind the counter at least for a little while. I listened carefully to the place being lovingly recreated for me over garbled wireless connections sometimes with yearning to see it myself and sometimes with irritated frustration because I, myself, do not have the desire to share something like the details of the bridge layout of Nevada County with someone over the phone. I realized I was jealous.

As I drove north I did not know if I would see the owner of the voice on the phone. I hadn’t informed him of my imminent arrival. Busy signals were, and still are, the only form of communication I receive. In Bend I learned he would not be there, producing simultaneous feelings of relief and disappointment. The voice would not be there in person to further shape my new experience of the place.

To my surprise, as soon as I saw that huge dam stifling the Columbia River at The Dalles, a different voice parked itself in my brain. This voice had named his second daughter after Celilo Falls, now silenced by the dams on the river. The owner of this voice had been compelled to swim the entire length of the Columbia to get to know it as intimately as possible. That dam made my jaw drop. The water behind it made me sputter unintelligibly. I am in awe of what you have done, Christopher.

The first voice was soon joined by a happier chattering voice that piped up every time we drove over the toll bridge – you’re right, it is a ridiculous bridge: it’s not paved, you can’t walk or ride a bike on it and you have to pay 75 cents every time you cross it. That voice kayaked the rivers draining into the Columbia with me, walked through town lodged in my brain, and had dinner in my head accompanied by an honest-to-god real jug band playing in a cafĂ© where the Where the Wild Things Are monsters and Max dance on the wall above the booths.

Now I have caught a glimpse of the importance of this place to my resident voices in my head. It’s not something that I can describe with words. It’s one of those things that just is. I left with reluctance. This evening I returned to Nevada City craving both of those voices to some day step out of my head and return to me again in the real world. I miss hearing them. As I let the same CD replay over and over three or four times, barely being conscious of it, I thought about both of you. I now have a greater appreciation and understanding of the thoughts you have shared with me. This place has moved me too. Thank you both for drawing me there.

Next time I will bring my camera. And perhaps my bed and kitchen table…

Special thanks to Courtney and Orion for physically bringing me to this special place that I now have a HUGE crush on.