Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Skagit Effect

So here’s a little something I drafted up a year ago for a writing contest. I didn’t win. That’s likely because every word is true. Sometimes you gotta stretch the truth to win the prize. So I lost. Enjoy.


The Skagit Effect
I wonder sometimes. What exactly were we thinking? How exactly did we not die at twenty-one? With thirty-five more years of further misadventures with kayaks, canoes, skis, chainsaws, firearms and dive bars behind us, this one stands out. The kind of watershed moment that proves Darwin was wrong. We just got lucky.
We were adventurers. It was the 1970s. Our gear, experience, and expedition planning skills were cutting edge.
I never saw “Deliverance” in its full glory, start to finish. But man, as a teenager, I knew all the best scenes from my friends’ descriptions. Then I got to college and met Dave Magee. Magee could reenact the entire Ned Beatty rape scene, with a few innovative pieces of added material, on command, without moving a muscle. He had no props. Just his voice. Magee may be the only guy who could crack up a room full of college guys with a comedy version of a rape scene. The improv got a little better with every retelling.
“Squeal like a pig, boy.”
“Come on, boy!”
“Wee. Oh! Ow! Wee!”
“’at’s it, you fat little piggy, say wee!” 
“Weeee! Come on you guys… oh! Wait a second, don’t – ah! I didn’t know you were gonna – oh! Weeee!”
More than once, someone laughed so hard he had to lean over a garbage can, ready to puke up dinner, when Magee did the rape scene.
With the movie in the back of our minds, my buddy Doug and I still decided it would be a great idea to throw some backpacks in my big Grumman canoe, launch at Newhalem Campground and paddle the lovely Skagit River for a few days. Camp on the riverbank, drink whiskey, maybe float all the way to Mount Vernon.
We put intense planning into this expedition. High tech clothing consisted of wool shirts, blue jeans, tennis shoes, and rubber ponchos. Safety gear? Old school Zeppelin life jackets, and garbage bags, a ton of them. Our clothes, sleeping bags, food and tent would be stuffed in garbage bags which were then stuffed in our metal frame packs. Our packs, stuffed into garbage bags, would be lashed into the canoe. Didn’t want them floating away if we capsized. But in the unlikely event of a water landing, the garbage bags would keep everything dry. The military calls this “redundancy”. All part of the plan. 
We got this highly technical gear and expert advice from the guy at REI. That’s what they did at REI in pre-Goretex 1978. Instead of guilting us into spending a fortune on stuff we didn’t need, cutting edge service meant real outdoorsmen with real advice on how to paddle on pennies a day. “You guys should just go with garbage bags, man. It’s way cheaper.”
We did not have a guitar. Or Burt Reynolds’ archery gear. Or any misguided expectation to find a kid with a banjo. But we did have a map. And we did know that the road – and civilization – ran along the North side of the river. The map didn’t say exactly what was on the South side, just the tight contour lines of mountains dropping sharply to the river. And for sure, no road. We had no interest in finding big dudes with ratty Carhartts and no teeth, so camping would be restricted to the North side or, if we got lucky, a sweet idyllic island in midstream.
September came. With Summer jobs ended, and Fall Quarter not starting for a few weeks, we headed to Newhalem and put on the river on a crisp, sunny morning. Inside the canoe, a floating commercial for Glad Plastics kept everything sealed up in high-tech goodness. The only thing sitting out for quick access was the pint of bourbon, held down under a strap. We nipped on the bottle to celebrate the launch, and paddled away. 
By the first bend in the river, we realized that moving water is powerful. Yeah, really. A little bumpy water, an innocent-looking eddy, and we were out of control. Um, why are we facing upstream?
But we built confidence after the next rapid, and got the hang of staying straight, most of the time. Big waves – no problem! We have garbage bags!
Take a snort of that whiskey. We’re on a roll. Just stay away from that South shore. I swear I hear banjos.
With a victory shooter after every rapid, we decided we’d better eat lunch and sober up. It was only 11 am and the sun was just getting warm. The river was low, the way rivers are in September. We found a nice gravel bar on an island in the middle of the river and pulled our sandwiches from deep within the layers of garbage bags.
And we took another pull from the bottle. Which drained the pint. No problem, we had a fifth in the pack. After our well-earned eats – we’d been on the river at least an hour and a half – and another pull from the bottle, we relaxed and sat back to enjoy the sunshine.
Nowhere to be, just here. No rush. Just a river to float, whenever we got around to it. Our music of choice drove our attitudes: Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, Jerry Jeff Walker, Charlie Daniels. We were free birds, rollin’ easy down the road, no worries. None of those guys ever sang about what a river can do to an unprepared man. Just warm sun. Nappin’ music.
“Hey man, wake up. Time for dinner”.
That was some nap. After lying exhausted on a rocky beach for five hours, we uncramped ourselves, stretched the cobwebs out and fired up the camp stove. We pulled more food out of the garbage bags, drank more whiskey. Sticking with Jerry Jeff’s takin’-it-as-it-comes style, our lunch spot / nap island became a perfect place to spend the night. We pitched the tent at the downstream end of the island on a soft, sandy patch, and fixed some chow.
We were treated to one of those perfect Autumn sunsets, where everything – the sky, the snowfields on the peaks, the Vine Maples on the riverbank, and their dappled reflections on the water – wheels through every possible shade of gold, orange, red, and purple, fading through dusty pink to a final, starlit blackness.
Lighting our campfire, Doug decided he’d had enough whiskey. This did not deter me. Channeling Sammy the Tiny Irish Waiter from another adventure that summer, I conjured a “River Irish Coffee”: Instant Folgers and cheap bourbon. Sans sugar and cream. I could imagine Sammy’s righteous indignation but laughed it off. That was a mistake. Don’t screw with the leprechaun. 
Mmm, that was good. So I had another. Good thing we already pitched the tent. I could never set it up now.
Well past dark, deep in a discussion only two drunk 21-year-olds would be having, we felt a few raindrops. This was a concern. The forecast was warm and sunny all week. Hmm. Random clouds maybe. Just a little shower maybe. Yeah, that’s it. But what’s going to get wet? Sleeping bags? Already in the tent. Food? Throw it in the stuff sack, chuck it in the tent. No bears on the island, no problem. Packs? Still in garbage bags, they’ll be fine right next to the tent. Stove, utensils? Leave ‘em there, they’ll be fine.
Yeah man, we thought it through. Planned for safety with ultra modern gear. Consulted the experts. Looked at every eventuality, and had a plan. Dealt with this unforeseen shower with quick-witted wilderness savvy. Climbed in the tent and went happily to sleep knowing a little rain wouldn’t dampen the perfect week.
Fzzz-BAM! My eyes came slowly open. A flash of light, and again, Fzzzt—POW!  Then, from outside the tent, “Hey man, get out here! Now!”
Oh baby, I was not feeling good. No longer was I the Beast of the Wilderness I had been earlier that evening. But the urgency in Doug’s voice got me moving.
Doug’s bladder may have saved our lives. At least it saved our gear. He’d gotten up to pee, taking one step away from the tent and finding himself ankle deep in the Skagit River. Swift water raced by where our lovely sandbar used to be, and we were engulfed in the heart of the lightning storm raging overhead. By the time I heard him hollering and got out there, we were soaked in a rainstorm the likes of which neither of us had ever seen.
That low Autumn river level was no more. Along the shores of the island, lapping against our tent, packs, and cooking gear, the Skagit River was rising. That’s what happens in freak storms.
Time for the next level of preparedness. We went to work, flashlights in hand. The packs, sealed tight in techie wrap but half-submerged in the rising water, got rescued first and chucked into the tent. It was going to be crowded in there.
The only high ground on this island was just two feet above where we stood, tight-packed with alder saplings. But we stepped off a spot just big enough for the tent. Leaving all of our gear piled inside, we pulled the stakes, knocked down the poles, grabbed the ends, carried the whole mess like a body bag into the trees, plopped it down, pulled the poles back in place, re-staked the lines and all four corners, climbed back in…
“Um… Doug? Aw, man… Aw, man, no…”
“Man, the canoe.”
I loved that boat. Even more than the canoe, I loved the gorgeous Sawyer wood paddles that went with it. I bought it all when I was 17, even before I owned a car to carry it around. Tonight, I saw it swept from our sandbar by the angry Skagit. It was bashed on a rock, bent around a bridge piling, folded, destroyed and lost downriver. Someone in Sedro would find it and report it. We would be presumed dead when the river kept rising and washed our tent away, only to turn up on a cedar branch in Marblemount after the river went down. Meanwhile, a couple big banjo players would paddle over from the South bank in the dark, rescue us from the treetops and make us their own little Ned Beattys.
“No problem man, I tied it to a tree.”
Amazing. One of us had his wits. I wanted to hug him but, you know, that would be weird. We sloshed in the dark along the riverbank to the boat, where it was dry on the shore a few hours ago but now bobbed impatiently in the current. We heaved it up on the low bank, lashed it to a tree trunk and finally headed back to bed.
Crisis averted, for now, thanks to Doug’s detailed planning and quick thinking.
Still on high alert for the rising mighty Skagit, we crawled back into the tent but it was going to be a nervous night. What if the river came up another two feet and inundated our little island? Would we drown in our sleeping bags, trapped in the tent as it was thrown from one tree trunk to the next? Should we try to swim or paddle to the North shore, only to get swept downriver into a log jam and suffocated? What if we climbed a tree to save ourselves, only to fall to our bloody deaths after holding on until we were exhausted?
So focused were we on how we might perish, my next adventure came without warning. Sammy the Leprechaun, screaming in anger at my bastardized Irish Coffee recipe, reached his vindictive evil hand 10,000 miles from the old country and straight into my gut. I had time to get my head out the door of the tent into the raging downpour, when the digestive catharsis hit me. Sammy didn’t stop until he had wrenched every drop of undigested matter from inside me, and he cackled with evil laughter as I spewed it across the drenched grass in front of the tent. Doug later recalled my spasming body “cavitating like the starter on Roger’s old truck.”
The end of a good long puke is like going back to the womb. Consumed by exhaustion, nothing but the aching need for warmth and sweet sleep registers on the brain. In my fetal position, the mummy bag and tent only served to complete the metaphor. All concerns of high waters and untimely death just faded away.
I blinked awake and threw the tent flap aside in panicked recall of our crisis on the edge of Death:
It was plain that the end had come.
It was just as clear that my twenty-one years on Earth had been pleasing to the Almighty. I was in Heaven.
Where last night’s deluge and terrifying flood had raged, bright sunshine and sweet birdsongs greeted me by a peaceful, glimmering stream.
Angels had removed every trace of my bout with Sammy’s brutal vengeance from the grass.
And angels had entered our tent. Everything was bone dry in there – sleeping bags, clothes, and food.
Not a drop of water was in our packs, which had been half submerged in the river just hours earlier. Garbage bags, man. Angels worked at REI too.
The melding of Heaven and Earth faded to reality. Breakfast was on, but where I expected a bikini model cooking bacon and mixing me a bloody mary, I saw Doug boiling water for that damn Instant Folgers and frying up a can of Li’l Smokies. “Heh heh heh, bet you’re hungry aren’t you? Of course. There’s nothing left in your guts.” Empathy was not a strong suit for Doug.
We didn’t talk much about our close call. We had four more days to kill. After our nutritious camp breakfast, we loaded the Grumman and headed downriver. We pulled into an eddy upstream from a foamy, rumbling rapid, and climbed up the bank to the road. We walked closer to get a better look at the drop, and we looked at each other. We looked at the river, then back at each other.
Our next move was our best judgment call of the trip. Doug had actually seen the movie, and was flashing on the part where the big Grumman just like mine went straight into a rock and catapulted Burt and Ned into the churning water. Even in my blissful ignorance of the moviemaker’s thrilling portrayal of swimming through rapids, I was still shaken by last night’s sudden mood change on our friendly river. As our eyes met for the second time, a “naw, man” came out in unison. We’d had enough.
In short order we had hauled the boat and gear to the road, hitchhiked back to the truck, and decided Eastern Washington – just an hour away across the Pass – sounded warmer, drier, and safer.
The river had beaten us. We had paddled that fine line to avoid Darwin’s best effort to remove us from the gene pool. Thirty-five years of misadventures later, with five grown kids between us, our offspring hear the stories, roll their highly-evolved eyes and wonder just like we do. What were those guys thinking?