Friday, August 27, 2010

Counting of blessings

Risa didn't report to Independence Days this year over at The Chatelaine's Keys -- too much other stuff going on. But here is an end-of-summer update of sorts for 2010.

The garden was possibly our least productive, for the effort going into it, of the last 35 years. This was the result of what we think of as winter extending into mid-June, causing planting delays and crop failures. The soil, in its depths, has never really warmed up, and went, in the suddenly hot weather straight from a cold brown soup to a hard iron-like consistency that resists watering. Flats, in the house, grow tunnel, or potting shed resisted germination as well.

That said, some things did well: sunchokes, lettuce, broccoli, chard, kale, cabbage, favas, peas, comfrey, perennial spices, potatoes (though small), zucchini (oddly enough). Some things did okay: the fifth planting of green beans, the fourth planting of runner beans (very small crop), cucumbers (one of three plantings). A small field of dry beans will make it. Tomatoes eventually established themselves but are very slow to redden, in spite of a hot July and August. Winter squash and corn are almost a complete disaster, eggplants and peppers little better. Spinach, beets, radishes, carrots, parsnips, and turnips all failed.

How the heck do you have a crop failure of radishes?

Figs, cherries, quinces, plums, persimmons, nectarines, peaches, pears, and filberts made no crop. Some of these are young and no crop was expected, but the plums are a sad disappointment. We are gathering apples from half the apple trees and collecting all the blackberries we have time to pick. Blueberries are new but had a good year; however, two of them are dying. One peach and one plum died and were removed; all the other new trees survived. There might not be any canning done this year other than some applesauce. Alternatively, a lot of vegetable leaves have been dehydrated and crumbled; this makes a nutritious add-on to soups, breads, and assorted dishes such as potatoes or pasta, and can be given as gifts in jelly jars.

Kiwis and most of the hops made it through the summer. They are new and very small as yet. The grapes are doing well, as usual -- our steadiest crop.

The Ancona ducks managed to hatch three newbies, who are doing well. If we had penned a duck with a clutch she might have raised many more. We blew out fifty-three goose eggs for psanki. Poultry in general had a good year and eggs were superabundant year-round.

With relatively little to do on the farm, we concentrated more on physical plant.The grow tunnel was taken down in the garden to set up by the barn, but it looks like we will skip a year. We added a room to the house (mudroom, former front porch), set up and furnished the downstairs bedroom for guests, rebuilt the entryway ceiling which was falling in, rebuilt the potting shed, cleaned out the upper barn, and coated (most of, so far) the house roof with white roofing compound. Painting goes on in a desultory fashion. Firewooding has gone well. We got in a generous supply of used building materials, some of which went directly into the mudroom construction. We updated the living room and are no longer too embarassed to have visitors.

Synchronized paddles!

Risa has met a couple of personal goals: she paddled from Eugene to Portland on the Willamette River and started a post-apocalyptic novel (blovel) that is up to twenty-six chapters. She also got up to the wilderness areas twice (hopes to go twice more), made it to the beach once, and has done some volunteering at a state park. Friends came over to watch for the Perseids (mostly we all fell asleep). Risa and Beloved had a short vacation at a mountain cabin, with a day trip to Crater Lake. Fishing went well and there are lots of trout in the freezer. Beloved's job looks like it will be good for another year, barring a spectacular city-budget blowout.

Planned for the next year, "God-willin'-an'-th'-crick-don't-rise": finish the roof, do the same for the barn roofs, rebuild the grow tunnel, pour a floor in half the upper barn (for goats or a small Dexter cow and calf or pigs, depending), develop the second well for irrigation, improve the seed-sprouting arrangements. Move the goumi plants inside the deer fence and plant tea (camellia sinensis). Fix the kitchen sink (bucket brigade at present). Finish insulation under the house. Paddle with Granddaughter. Paddle the river again, with Daughter. Go see family back East, via train. Wipe out Daughter's school debt. Make wine (instead of vinegar; we have plenty now!). Have a little bit of coffee by the fire and count our blessings.

Particularly the coffee and counting of blessings.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Apple chips

Risa has learned, through experience, that the storeroom is right for potatoes but not very good for apples -- they store better in lower humidity than she can provide. And while everyone likes her applesauce, the supply goes more slowly than we think -- there's lots from last year, still. She could freeze some, but the space is taken. So she'll dry all she can, though it looks like it will be a short drying season. She's gonna start right now, though the apples on the second-maturing tree (first one's apples have been eaten) are still a bit green.

She takes a bowl, puts in it a teaspoon of vitamin C, 1/4 cup of salt, 1/2 cup of sugar, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and a cup of homemade cider apple vinegar, and adds water. This is the dip-bowl, in which the chips will pick up a bit of flavor and lose some of their hurry to turn brown.

She picks a basket of apples. With her favorite kitchen knife and chopping block, she reduces a number of apples into slim chips which are thrown into the bowl right away as she throws each core in a bucket destined for the chickens. Then she spreads the chips on a screen.

The screen is carried to the potting shed, which will get close to 100(F) today -- nice and warm. The process is then repeated till three screens are full. That's about as many chips as she can deal with at one time.

As the sun doesn't reach all the chips in this setup, she's running a little fan to help with the dehydration. Next year, maybe a better system. In about four days these should be done, and ready to throw into a dry jar or bucket. And then she'll do another batch, and so on until the weather is too cold to bother. The remaining apples can go into storage if in great shape, but more likely into cider.

Each batch of apples will be sweeter (but also, perhaps wormier) than the preceding one. The chips make good snacks but can be reconstituted for use in hot cereals, with yogurt, or in pies, cakes, and breads.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fabulously rugged

It's going up into the nineties for a few days, but Risa suspects that's it for this year -- the Canada geese have left -- like they know something we don't, and the orb-weaver spiders are everywhere.

So her thoughts have turned to firewooding.

She might have enough wood for this year, or she might not. To be sure, she needs to fill one more bay in the woodshed. There's plenty of lodgepole on hand, not the best wood, but it was free. We picked up eleven truckloads of it from a place where the utility was clearing power lines, courtesy of the landowner and Craigslist.

Larger diameters of lodgepole present a similar problem to one we're familiar with from cutting up cherry logs. The bark fibers wind tightly around the bole, and the pieces resist splitting. Moisture will stay inside the logs for practically forever unless they are split. Risa's solution to this is to run a slot down the length of the log, vertically end to end, half an inch deep, with the chainsaw. Maybe two slots sometimes.

These chunks average thirty inches in length and range from ten to twenty inches in diameter. They're too much work for the little electric saw, and Risa dislikes using gasoline saws where there's an electricity supply. And don't talk to her about bucksaws -- she often works alone, and needs some kind of slave energy source at age 61.

Fortunately, the friends who gave her the garden shed to tear down also offered her some other odds and ends.

"You want this?"

"Wow, what a saw. Where'd you come up with that?"

"Garage sale, five dollars, over a decade ago, "she said. "We cut a lot of wood with it for awhile, but lately the chain won't stay tight. We figure you'll know what to do with that."

"Maybe ... sure, let's put it on the truck."

Back home, Risa examined her new treasure. It's a ten-amp industrial-standard electric Skil chain saw, with a heavy-duty twenty-inch bar and chain, and extremely heavy. She suspects it was built between 1957 and 1963. Fifty years old! The bar is tightened with the usual screw, but instead of a pair of 9/16 lock nuts on embedded bolts, as one finds nowadays, the bar is locked down with a bolt mounted in a spoked knob. The end of the bolt had worn down to the point that tightened the knob all the way would not secure the bar. She rummaged around in the garage and found a lock washer large enough to shim the gap, and the problem was fixed.

The chain wanted sharpening, which was soon done. The only non-trivial repair would be to fix the saw-bar oil pump. But this was solved by simply remembering to hand-oil the chain before each log.

Risa set up her "sawhorse," which is a wheelbarrow to catch sawdust (for blueberry beds and the like), with a slotted wooden pallet mounted on top. The new saw performed even better than anticipated -- the motor is fabulously rugged and does not overheat while cutting a twenty-inch diameter log.

With any luck, Risa will be back in the garden by the time the hot spell is over, picking such tomatoes as will ripen this year, starting the apple-drying operation, getting in the last beans, and planting out the peas she's started in flats.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A real emergency

Two friends of ours own, or own shares in, family getaways that they rent out to help with upkeep and land taxes. One of these is on the coast and the other in the mountains. When Beloved gets to go on a (rare) vacation, we often choose to go to one or the other of these for a three-day.

The mountain cabin is a large (to us) one-room A-frame with a loft, set among lodgepole pines in the middle of nowhere. We find the site fascinating, as it rests on about a twenty-feet-deep layer of yellowish-white pumice. A frothy lava honeycombed with trapped air bubbles, pumice is an excellent insulator and so the "soil" stays very cold much of the year, while at the height of summer, the sun's heat is reflected from the surface, creating hot dry conditions for the plant life. Most species aren't up to it; lodgepole and rabbit brush are among the few plants that can establish themselves here, though there is lots of willow along the streams. Indian paintbrush is also fairly common.

The altitude is over four thousand feet, and most of the local people own snowmobiles.

What they don't own is farms and gardens. The cold-hot-cold regime is too rigorous, and the soil fertility is almost nil.

Occasionally one reads about survivalists who buy a place in the area, build a fortified house, and stock it with Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) or bags of oats and the like. Fine; but come TEOTWAWKI, what will these people do when the goodies run out? Go and rob their neighbors, who would be in like desperate case? There are some deer, which they would run out of in a hurry, and then it's gnaw on the nearest pine tree, I suppose ...

The cabin is a nice place to unwind, but Risa would not try to live there. She imagines there are a great many places like this, in which "second homes" have sprung up all over along with small roadside towns with fast-food places and gas pumps, but which would depopulate in a hurry, should there come a real emergency.

A real emergency did, in fact, occur in the area once, about 6800 years ago. The twenty-foot-deep pumice was laid down all at once; perhaps in a single day. Risa mentioned to Beloved the possibility that beneath the cabin and for thousands of square miles, there might be the bones of trapped animals, people, whole villages -- men, women, children and dogs all together.

"That's a cheery thought."

"What? Life is always uncertain. And then, after it happened, other plants, animals and people returned, but with all this pumice it went very slowly, and so things were never the same again."

"Are we headed for another one of your 'peak oil' things?"

"No lecture; just a broad analogy. What would you like for dinner?"

Like the survivalists, we'd packed in our supplies -- in a Saturn sedan.

The next day, we went to see the place all the pumice had come from, a little over fifty miles away.

Everyone should go there at least once. It's pretty amazing.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A bit footloose

Throw your stuff in the boat and go ...
While the summer garden's deciding whether to mature enough for a canning season, and the roof's too hot for the paint job, Risa finds herself a bit footloose and makes forays into the nearby mountains.

Little Eva is a modified kayak design and weighs seventeen pounds. Too small for the recent river journey, the Micro Poke Boat excels in back-country lake trips.

Manifest: boat, PFD, paddle, rod and reel, landing net, fishing kit (with flies, split shot, spare line, swivels, sharpening stone, pliers and lures), change of clothes, knife, headnet, DEET, gloves, camera, monocular, headlamp, good paperback book, candle, lighter, compass, map, emergency mylar blanket, toothbrush, baking powder, tent, tent poles and rainfly, poncho, bandanna, packframe, hat, sunblock, sewing kit, mirror, hairbrush, ointment, permits, duct tape, match safe, patched-up sleeping bag with broken zipper, bread rolls, granola, steel cup, powdered milk, canvas bucket, peppermint oil soap, water, lip balm (cherry, from Burts Bees -- this is the make-up kit).

Three Sisters Wilderness. Left to right: cutthroat, rainbows, brook trout. None are native to these lakes.

Sunset -- Waldo Wilderness
 In August, fish are not guaranteed, but mosquitoes are. Sometimes you will find trout. Sometimes only views and companionship. All of it becomes memories to be treasured.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

With a sledgehammer

Risa has sawn off the bottom of the door and is bringing out the grain with a little bit of stain.
One thing a new mudroom wants is its own door. For summer, a screen door, so that a fan can be run in the living room on nights after 90+ degree (F) days and pull air in through the mudroom, without inviting all the mosquitoes and moths in the area to come in. For winter, the door can be equipped with a panel to help prevent heat loss from the living room -- the entire mudroom becomes a dead air space of sorts. The room also provides extra insulation to the two main bedrooms in this way.
"Does this make my ... " Maybe she shouldn't ask!
She's leveling up the door with wooden wedges before installing hinges.
Risa would like to have found a door for this at the recyclers, but all they had was metal ones and the door frame is necessarily only 77 inches high. New wooden ones aren't cheap, though they are cheaply made.

She sawed the bottom end off the door, stained it, and set it in the doorway. Adjustments were necessary, and here the rough and robust nature of the framing carpentry was a bonus. All she had to do was beat on the door posts with a sledgehammer until the door fit!

A brace-and-bit works just as well as any battery powered drill and has far fewer environmental issues.
Level the door with wedges or blocks and install the hinges. Add doorpulls and a latch and spring and you're in business. For a final touch, Risa added a wall-mounted bottle opener next to the door for people on their way outside -- Fifties redux!

Daughter's dog Mojo, who's visiting, checks out the new view.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Beat the heat

The white roof is almost done, and it's 93(F) outside, this afternoon, and 73(F) inside. Of course, solar shades on all the sun-facing windows helps. As does the insulation. As does closing up the house in the daytime and opening at night. But you get the idea. So far, though we are no longer young, we haven't had to install AC. Meanwhile, Risa's told, the roof is doing its share to reflect surplus solar radiation back into space. A community-minded way to beat the heat.
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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Meteor Night

The meteor night ...

... rounds off the second week
of August. We spread an ancient carpet over
grass, and sweep it clean, then roll it up

to pass the first dew's fall. Friends come, bearing
food and vacuum bottles, blankets, pillows,
sweaters, and good cheer, staking out

what are believed to be the front-row seats.
The guests trail whiffs of basil, sage and mint
where cuffs encountered these along the path.

Sunset drains away from Jasper Mountain's
scree. A screen door bangs; small bodies hurtle
in and out of inner space. Tea

and coffee make their rounds, and someone says:
"I see a star -- the first!" Vega, usually,
unless it is a planetary summer.

One of the young ones knows his sky charts better
than we do; he walks us through the brighter stars,
small arm sweeping the great ecliptic:

"This is Regulus; the red one is Antares;
And that is Altair." We tell him we like Altair;
a fire so hot it looks a point of ice

dropping to where the golden sun went down.
"Look, look," shout others sitting near. Some
turn, as often happens, a hair late;

the quick ones tell them what they've seen.
A spark has overrun an arc of sky
from beyond the neighbor's nodding cows,

fading as it neared the shadowed oaks.
We settle now to a serious evening's work,
this witnessing of evanescent shows

these stones make, vanishing in our air
-- all as it were to entertain frail creatures
hardly less ephemeral than themselves.


Monday, August 09, 2010

One for each of them

Day 8.

After the late night gabfest (from which we mostly learned that Risa is a born pessimist and The Cowboy a born optimist), we rose late, ate late (no more food, now!), found excuses to hang around and explore the island, and finally struck camp and departed after nine a.m.

The next point of interest was our last break and one of the most interesting. A cluster of rock islands, rising abruptly from boulder-strewn water with more than a little current, stands sentinel for the Great Waterfall. We could explore them a bit, but our appointment called us onward to the take-out landing, a mile away.

The Cowboy would have liked to stay longer; most of the vegetation here is not the usual riparian cottonwood, etc., but falls within his comfort zone, with viney maples, madrone, cascara, and a decent island forest of fir trees and sword ferns.

We took to the back channel and drifted until we came out into the sunshine in view of the landing.

"I see a red pickup in the parking lot," crowed Risa.

"No way you can see a truck that far away."

She took out her monocular and checked.

"Yep, that's our truck."

They paddled on, and just as Risa anticipated, on the shore stood Beloved, waving. In her other hand she carried a cloth shopping bag with two quarts of fresh blueberries -- one for each of them.

Mission Accomplished!


4.5 mile day; 145 river miles. With all the back channel exploration, Risa and the Cowboy covered about 155 miles in the eight day paddle. You can, too, but watch for strainers ("do as I say, and not as I did ..."). It's a fabulous river but it plays no favorites; you are on your own out there. Wear your PFD, carry a whistle, know and obey the laws and river rules, and use common sense. Waterproof map/guide books are available (for a check) from Willamette Riverkeeper, /, or you can download the PDF files.  Happy paddling!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Outlaw tendencies

Day 7.

We stayed put for breakfast for once, without first breaking camp and paddling away, as we'd found it such a lovely park; also, getting the boats down the stairs and loaded seemed a daunting process.

There was no sign of the tandem 'yakkers as they had taken over a rented yurt and partied with their shore-based friends and were still asleep. They overtook us after about forty minutes, waved, and passed on.

We were not in a hurry. Very few miles remained to our pickup point, the appointment for the pickup was tomorrow, and we would have to make one more camp somewhere.  Risa argued for another state park, having become enamored of showers; The Cowboy held out for an island. None of the remaining islands had designated campsites, which Risa stressed over, but The Cowboy likes undesignated sites: "It appeals to my outlaw tendencies."

We found the state park and stopped first at the place where a tributary comes in, but too much was going on in the area, and people had indulged in unsanitary behavior on the site. If this was the park's designated river-camping place -- the map was vague about it -- it would not do; so this became our lunch break. We watched a father and son, in swim trunks, fishing at the confluence by spotting trout with a face mask underwater, then casting to it -- an interesting method. In this way the child was able to hook and play an actual game fish, something Risa and The Cowboy had neither done nor seen done by all the rods and lines the length of the river.

Paddling on, they found the rest of the park held only a picnic ground, with No Camping signs in evidence everywhere, so Risa gave up hope of another shower and reluctantly followed The Cowboy back onto the water.

At least the day was a little cooler -- about 91(F). They passed the third and last river ferry. Risa backed water and sat looking back at the big boat as it chugged past on its long cable, carrying a pickup truck and a handful of bicyclists.

"You really like those, don't you?" asked The Cowboy.

"Yes. In another lifetime, I'd be captain of one -- it has everything; water, romance, public service, changing seasons, and yet a set routine. Always the same, never the same. Like farming."

"Yes, that about sums you up, Sacajawea -- living to serve, serving to live."

Aww ... !

Around the next bend they paddled right into the river equivalent of a speed trap.

County Mounties, with a speedboat and two ski-doos, were checking all vessels for licenses (Rubber Ducky, under ten feet long, did not need one), PFDs, sound devices, and absence of visible containers of alcoholic beverage. They were gentlemen and showed genuine interest in two retirees making such a long journey.

The Cowboy knew that they knew that we would have to spend one more night, so, more to stay on their good side than from any lack of map knowledge, asked, "so, is there anyplace between here and our pick-up that we can camp?"

"Oh, yeah! There's an island right around the corner. Can't miss it."

So much for our outlaw campsite.

There was a raucous party in progress on a beach within sight of the obvious take-out point, but we paddled down the back channel, found the tail end of the island unsuitable for once, and returned to a spot just out of sight of the "wildlife" and almost as nice. 12 mile day, 141.5 river miles total.

Along the way, Risa met a Cooper's hawk. It was standing in the water at the edge of a narrow strip of gravel below the bluff, bending over, sipping at the river, tipping its head back, and gargling down the water, just like a chicken. Risa drifted to within fifteen feet of it before it spread its wide wings, took off majestically, and soared to a more private spot among Douglas firs on the far bank.

The campsite was the biggest animal trail yet -- it had obviously been used for millennia by velociraptors, woolly mammoths, and the like -- but we were not disturbed. We faced the tents toward each other, as usual, and talked philosophy, long into the last night.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Ah, bliss!

Day 6.

We rose early to escape the heat and wind. Risa, whose wrists were burning despite the sunscreen she lathered on, switched from her long-sleeved tee shirt to the microfiber jacket she'd brought along for evenings, to take advantage of its over-long sleeves. She draped a bandanna round the back of her head, tucked into her cap band. Every quarter mile or so she would pour some of the river over her head and shoulders.

To paddle in such heat, without benefit of current, hour after hour, requires fine-tuning of paddle technique. Risa learned to barely touch the water, so as not to build up fatigue in her muscles and joints, and yet maintain way on the vessel. There is a bow wave, or wake, that lets you know you are making decent time, and the idea is to keep that going at its minimum, but not less, which is actually more work. So you check the bow wave and the muscular effort and you also check on a landmark toward which the bow is pointing. On the left stroke, your bow, as seen from your vantage point, should slowly cross the landmark, then on the right stroke, the bow should cross back again, no more than a few inches each time, and the same distance across, each time. There is no straight line in nature, but in paddling still water, the straighter your line, the less work.

Risa keeps her bow wave up

The Cowboy took naps from time to time, slouched deep in the kayak with the paddle at rest and drifting along backwards, a practice that is safe only for short straight stretches of river that have been examined in advance for strainers and deadheads. From one such nap he awoke to find a llama sitting on a beach, staring back at him and twitching its ears. He tried to engage the llama in conversation but it was deep in thoughts of its own.

A large island provided a decent lunch spot in the usual place, at the tail end between the currents with carp napping in the shallows. The willows were not very tall, and hiding from the sun was difficult. Two kayaks appeared from downstream, in them a retired-looking couple paddling against the current.

Risa hailed them. "Nice Greenland paddle."

"Thanks! Greenland kayak, too," said the gentleman. "Made them both." The boats were long, lithe and very beautiful, and The Cowboy asked at length about their construction and performance. Risa could see the wheels turning in his head.

Immediately below this island, the current vanishes and the motorboaters and private docks multiply accordingly. The pool -- lake, in effect -- is over thirty miles long, ending in a 40-foot waterfall at the place where the ancient inland lake that is now the river valley suffered its blowout.

It now became necessary to watch out constantly for ski-boats, wakeboarders, and their wakes, some of which were large enough to swamp a loaded kayak. It being Sunday, with a high of 95(F) or thereabouts, there were more than two hundred such boats in the pool, with a police helicopter to keep them company. Bedlam! We kept to the shoreline, both to avoid being run over and to take all possible advantage of shade.

View, at lunch, of a gas pipeline crossing

Risa came to a foot-long suckerfish, swimming lazily on the surface as if addled by the heat. She put her paddle blade under its belly and lifted it out of the water. They regarded one another somnolently for five long seconds; then the fish shrugged itself off the paddle blade and swam unconcernedly away. Risa thought wistfully of the wilderness island they had just left behind. Every now and then The Cowboy would catch up to her and say, "This is excessive! Sacajawea (his name for her on the trip), where do we get off the river tonight? Round the next bend, I hope?"

"Where" eventually turned out to be a large state park on a high bluff. To reach the bluff, it was necessary to pull in to a dock eighteen inches above the water, find a way to clamber up and flop to the hot deck amongst a crowd of local fishermen and biki-clad teenage cheerleaders, unload the boats, carry gear up a ramp and staircase, negotiating dogs and baby carriages the whole way, then come back for the boats and repeat the parade. A pair of tandem kayakers whom we'd met along the way, and who came in a few minutes behind us, elected to padlock their boat to the dock and bring up only their gear.

19 mile day, every inch on flat water against wind and wave and cigar-brandishing SUV-boaters. 129.5 river miles total.

The designated river-camper area was baking in the sun, so we piled everything and retired to a shaded picnic table for a dinner of summer sausage and Gouda cheese, washed down with some hoarded Kahlua. Risa then found a park ranger, who very nicely provided a map of the park and directed her to the developed campground, where she would find a shower-house. She hoped he would not smell the Kahlua on her breath.

Hey, it was only a 2 ounce bottle ...

The Cowboy elected to pitch his tent, change therein to swim trunks, set aside his cowboy hat for once, and dive off the dock into the river. Risa took her one dress, a muumuu she'd acquired in Miami, and headed for the motor-home-with-satellite-dish packed campground, where she met many quite nice people, then stood under an endless stream of hot water with a bar of soap in her hand.

Ah, bliss! Free, too.

Friday, August 06, 2010

A full moon rose

Day 5.

The day dawned lovely and windless, and we quickly broke camp and then paddled for two hours, landing for breakfast at a county picnic park.

Here an osprey hit the water and spread its wings for bouyancy, fiddling around "waist-deep" for about ten seconds before lifting off, somehow, with a large fish. We saw this several times. Apparently they like to adjust the catch to face forward, which is aerodynamically preferred. Risa imagines, in her macabre way, that it's so the fish, poor thing, can see where it's going.

We came to another ferry, and after passing it safely, landed on and explored an extraordinarily beautiful island. Risa gathered a few blackberries -- the first of the year!  -- and made a present of them to The Cowboy. Across the water, two golden eagles were fishing. Risa also saw a river otter and some kind of very small weasel.

On all the islands and elsewhere, there are piles of logs up to fifteen feet high, which were heaped up by the floods of '96/97'. Occasionally we came to a dock with a sign on one of the pier posts -- which are designed to allow the dock to rise with, rather than be destroyed by, a flood -- saying, "High Water Mark, February 1996." These signs were more than thirty feet above the water where we were paddling. A very sobering read.

We fell in with some canoe campers with whom we chatted for a mile or so, and also met a group of college-age kids on inner tubes, linked in a circle with a cooler of beer in the middle, floating along merrily.

In the afternoon we came to a large island, and, missing the back channel and finding no other suitable camping spot, allowed the current to rush us past the end of the island, then paddled up the backwater to land on the backchannel side from downriver. A good campsite presented itself here, and we claimed it. 21.5 mile day, 110.5 river miles from home.

The giant carp were fascinating. Risa bounced everything in her fishing kit off their noses, but they paid no mind whatever.

This island seemed to harbor more wildlife than any other place on the trip (mosquitoes, too). Beavers and giant carp swam back and forth, crows badgered ospreys, ospreys pestered eagles, and a lone, sad-looking goose, half Canada goose and half Toulouse -- too heavy to migrate -- croaked an astonishingly loud response to every wild flocked that honked past. After a 92(F) degree day, the evening fell cool upon the tents, and a full moon rose to light the flocks the way to their repose.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

By about two feet

Day 4.

Clouds were racing across the sky, from the west, when Risa arose, and she had a sense of foreboding. The sky became gray with low, scudding marine-air-mass cloud cover that refused to burn off, chilling the riparian environment. The winds were strong as we left the island, rather than coming up in the afternoon as usual, and at times it was a struggle to paddle forward, even with the current. Risa became obsessed with "wind shadow," seeking out the shorelines with the least wind and hugging them. All went well till she came to a corner where a surprise riffle took the Rubber Ducky and sent it hurtling toward a strainer that seemed to gather half the river underneath -- certain death should Risa spill and be swept below.

For about fifteen seconds she dug with the paddles as she had never done before, and will hopefully never need to do again, and the three days' exercise and long nights' sleep served her well. She cleared the log by about two feet and drifted downstream slowly against the cold wind, gulping down one long, ragged breath after another.

The Cowboy, who habitually keeps more to midstream than Risa, saw it all and navigated the edge of the riffle with ease, then pulled alongside, joining the boats together with a gentle hand. Risa was crying softly.

"Hey," he said, smiling. "Didn't get you, did it? That was good paddling. You're fine, I'm fine, the river's fine, and the trip's fine. Want a choco-chip granola bar?"

For lunch we pulled off the river in a fascinating town with the city hall facing the river and ate in the park. When we carried our lunch sacks, we looked like bums and the people would not make eye contact. But then when we filled our water bottles they realized we were river-trippers and smiled and talked. A little lesson in what it feels like to be "the homeless."

The sun came out and the day rapidly went from cold to hot. We paddled through the state capital and paid a brief visit to the paddle-wheeler tied up at the waterfront, then made our way to the designated campsite, a wilderness island only a stone's throw from downtown. We had made another 20.5 miles in the incessant wind, with a high temperature of 91(F) in the shade. 91 miles total.

And we'd not seen much shade while paddling.

Here the only spot was right on the beach, with the island's embankment and cottonwoods towering over us. The tents were in the broiling sun, so we had supper on the bluff above camp, back in the shadows. A motorboat drifted by with each of its occupants trying to fix the motor in turn. One of them was on a cell phone, and sure enough, a few minutes later a county sheriff's boat motored past at high speed, apparently on its way to render assistance.

A gravel pit across the channel made a horrendous din but fell silent at five o'clock, and we had the darkening river to ourselves in the midst of the metropolis.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

More current than she could paddle out of

Day 3.

In the morning, Risa caught a small fish but as it was a Northern Pikeminnow, which are practically inedible, we chose to release it and eat granola and powdered milk instead. Larger fish of various kinds were jumping at dawn and dusk but almost none took any interest in lures or flies. We put in and resumed our rhythm -- Risa forging ahead, dipping her paddle blades just enough to keep a bow wave for hours, The Cowboy meditating awhile, then catching up with longer strokes. From time to time we would ship paddles lengthwise and grapple gunnels with our hands and drift along side by side, eating granola bars and commenting on the pumps.

There are thousands of pipes sipping at the Mighty River. Power poles march down to the water -- each delivers high-voltage electricity to a pump mounted on a frame of one kind or another. Some are on an axle with tires, some on rails and iron wheels like the small railcars in old mines. The water is drawn up through an eight to twelve inch pipe and distributed to the fields through irrigation pipes and rain birds. The streams flow out through the air as much as eighty feet, lazily circling over the crops.

Lately there has been more wheat than in the last fifty years or so, but much of what is irrigated here is industrial scale grass seed, turf, hybrid poplars, and corn destined for ethanol or high fructose corn syrup. What's going on is not especially good for the river and its creatures, the soil, or us. And even the electricity, which everyone thinks of as all hydropower, includes a large dollop of coal in every gulp, from a plant far upstream on the Even Mightier River.

Our personal objection, of course, was that the pumps were almighty loud.

We paddled to a city river-park to refill our bottles and re-charge The Cowboy's cell phone in a picnic shelter. The shelter's only other occupant was a man slightly younger than us, who had with him a bicycle and trailer, with many of the comforts of home packed on the trailer, reminding Risa of Alvin Straight from The Straight Story. His unemployment benefits had run out, he said, and he was on a shakedown cruise with the bike, around town, before setting out to go and see his son.

"Where's your son?"


The Cowboy thought to ask him if he had everything he needed for the trip.

"Well, I didn't get a tarp. I'm wishing the money had stretched to a tarp. It's not dry all summer everywhere the way it is here."

"Well, let me tell you. My kayak is way overloaded and I will not be needing a tarp. Come on down to the boat with me and help me out by relieving me of my tarp."

That is the kind of person The Cowboy is.

Portrait of The Cowboy. Shot through the mosquito netting on Risa's front porch.

We waved and floated away under the city's bridges and around the bend.

For lunch we made two stops at semi-developed campgrounds maintained by Risa's organization, the Riverkeeper, and signed the guestbooks which we found there. The stories told by the other boaters that had signed the guestbooks made fun reading.

After this we came to a ferry. It was our responsibility to avoid getting run over, and Risa sprinted ahead. Behind the ferry was an island, and Risa suddenly found herself in more current than she could paddle out of, drawing her into the back channel. So she signaled to The Cowboy, who changed direction and followed her just before he would have been carried off by the main channel out of sight.

Riffles like this one are usually not especially dangerous, but they do take concentration. One paddles steadily, to keep the bow of the kayak pointed downstream. Otherwise, one might find oneself broached broadside onto a rock, or strainer, or shoal. About which more later ...

Against increasing wind, we came to an island covered by willows and ash trees and grass four to five feet tall, and made camp in a sandy area under the willows, by walking down enough grass with our paddles to set up the tents. It seemed quite cool compared to the 91(F) heat on the nearby beach.

After a 20.5 mile day, we were 70.5 miles from home.

Beavers swam back and forth in the night.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Mr. Big and Mr. Little

Sparkling fresh
Day 2.

In the morning we found that deer had walked all round the tents and did their business in the "living room" between them. This made sense as we chose the campsite as the only flat sandy spot, but it had been theirs for years as a highway to the water, and we were being an inconvenience.

We were on the water by 8 a.m. to beat the prevailing winds, which come from the north and east along the river, or against the current, which is south-to-north. There were many red-tailed hawks, cooper's hawks, and ospreys, and a bald eagle or pair roosting at intervals of about one mile. Herons would abide our approach to within about fifty feet, then launch downriver with a resentful croak. A raccoon walked along the bank, stopping to sniff empty mussel shells.

We rested on a gravel bar in the hot sun and, while eating jerky and granola, were treated to the sight of a four-point buck in velvet crossing the river with a doe, a long swim for them both, with only their heads above water.

Got everything?

Water has its preferences when running downhill, and one comes to know them and read the river and its terrain. Anywhere along the river, there will generally be a gravel beach with young willows on one side, and a high undercut bank, with cottonwoods, or an artificial riprap wall of three-foot boulders, on the other. The current stays with the high banks and wall, which are found on the outside of bends.

You may take advantage of the current by going the long way round each bend, but this is also where the "strainers" -- tall cottonwoods that have fallen down the bank and are waiting to catch and drown you -- tend to be found, so it's not something you can do in your sleep.

We also learned that as the current divides around any island, it picks up speed, and can make landings problematical, but at the tail end of the island there will be backflows -- "backwater" -- and shallows where the gravel and sand tail off. The best access and best campsites are often at this point, so it is always worth investigating.

We were doing just that when five deer came down to the water on the mainland, stepped in without noticing us, and swam toward the shallows below the island. We drifted almost among them before they became alarmed. The leader, a big buck, fairly leaped and walked on water to make the island, but the others, a smaller buck and three does, were stuck in the eddy and swam in place. Risa went by them perhaps ten feet away, and said, "C'mon, babies, you can do it" -- which was a bit much for them, so they turned as one and swam back to the mainland.

The Cowboy watched them go, and remarked: "See, there -- nature has a way of providing for the little guy. Mr. Big is on the island but Mr. Little has the does."

Our second campsite, on yet another island, proved to be even more of an animal highway, but the beavers apparently routed around us all night. The tents were close together in the only flat spot and as night fell, we were able to converse back and forth in the dark, a tribute to Risa's very ancient but still serviceable hearing aid. Twenty-five miles had been paddled yet again, for a total of fifty for the two days.

Sleep comes easily to a paddler who has put in eight hours on the water in 93(F) degree heat.

Monday, August 02, 2010

A very good night's sleep

So, where did Risa go? Down the Mighty River -- one of the few which runs north. Two of her children live in the Big City at the other end, and she thought it would be fun to see how one might get there without simply pushing a gas pedal.

This was merely a symbolic gesture, as Beloved would have to meet her with the truck at the other end and bring her home, but perhaps instructive. And anyway, she's a water baby.

Risa has wanted to make this trip for years -- when she was a child, her dad talked about floating down the Savannah from Augusta to Savannah with her -- but it never happened. So it's kind of a memorial trip to her dad's long-gone boat years (he's 94 and not getting out much).

At the "put-in," day one.

A friend of ours kindly lent Risa her husband, The Cowboy, for the trip, so that she wouldn't be going alone. He's a gentleman, boat-handy, roughing-it handy, and has outstanding "situational-awareness" qualities, making him the perfect chaperone for a half-deaf old lady gadding about the wilderness.

The water was swift enough at the side-channel launch point, not far from home, that there was time for one goodbye wave to Beloved and the journey had begun before we fairly realized it. Serious paddling was necessary for several miles, so that there was a full shakedown before we reached the mainstem.

Cowboy reaches the Mighty River.

We thought we would make ten to fifteen miles a day, and had planned accordingly, with lots of food and water, and were very heavy laden and low in the water. The River however is higher than most years at this time, and moving along at a good clip in the upper reaches. We found the maps disconcerting at first, until we discovered we were covering twice the water we had anticipated.

Not being so young as they used to be, the travelers made made many "lunch" stops. 

Risa used Beloved's Rubber Ducky for the trip, a Trinity Bay Critter 9'4" long, which made for a tight squeeze with all the gear. Cowboy paddled a slightly larger boat, a Maxi Poke Boat, very wide and stable, with room for two one-gallon jugs of water. It wasn't necessary to carry a filter. Our gear, like ourselves, was very old-fashioned -- the tents, sleeping bags, survival kits and the like have seen decades of use.

Cowboy wrangles the boats around a swamp for the day's take-out.

Although the morning had been coldish, a heat wave was in the making, and at three in the afternoon it was clearly time to get off the water and recuperate. A suitable campsite on a small, nameless island presented itself, and the tents were raised and supper served -- in such shade as the small willows afforded.

Risa settles in.

The day's run was twenty-five miles. This boded well for a very good night's sleep.