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.