(Continued from part 1)
Eastern Oregon is an area I was barely even aware of until not long ago. My dad told me the occasional stories of planting trees out in John Day, our friend Nick was constantly off in the Wallowas or the Steens doing plant surveys, but ultimately, eastern Oregon didn’t really even exist for me until one day some five years ago, when I felt the need to simply get a long way from Eugene, and when I felt I’d gone far enough, found myself sitting at a diner counter in the town of Wagontire, population approximately three, eating a piece of homemade marionberry pie a la mode. I had passed signs showing me the way to Reno, saw the incongruous Fort Rock jutting from the ground, drove through Christmas Valley and past the dry Silver Lake, and stopped in the middle of the longest stretch of straight highway I’d ever seen, not a car in sight in either direction, leaving my car in the middle of the lane for the novelty of it. And the road just kept going.
Part of the formerly fabled eastern Oregon was Hell’s Canyon, which I knew only from maps, fishing stories, and PBS documentaries. So naturally, when my dad suggested taking a rafting trip through it after leaving Colorado, I thought it was just what we needed to do. He had done all the legwork of finding the outfit and organizing our part, and we did some final supply shopping in Colorado for things like camp soap and small gear sacks. We were set.
Rusty, as our introduction to the outfit, was not terribly confidence-inspiring. With an obviously well-tended beer gut and an extremely casual overview rather vague on what seemed like important, possibly life-saving details, my dad and I looked at each other doubtfully as we collected our dry bags after the introduction the evening before leaving. The next morning as we gathered for breakfast at the local diner, we met Ryan, our second guide. Immediately likable and good-natured, a square-jawed college kid in shorts and a hoodie, he made the rounds introducing himself, but nonetheless did little more than Rusty to ease our uncertainty. I devoured my classic American diner breakfast and bottomless coffee, something that had been woefully absent from my life living overseas, and we filed out to wait for the bus to the put-in site.
As we waited, the clouds that had been looming threateningly started a gentle but steady drizzle. Keeping under the eaves, we played with the hotel manager’s rather rotund dog that was obsessed with pine cones, tossing them into the parking lot for him to waddle and scramble for. After some time and a few phone calls, it was clear the bus was late. As a bus blew by us at alarming speed, Ryan watched it pass with bemusement, commenting, “There goes the school bus!”, then added, “The bus should be here soon, that was our bus driver.” The bus driver as it turned out was a very knowledgeable, and distressingly fast-driving, middle-aged woman who gave us history and fishing notes for the entire winding drive. Conversation from the rafting group was limited, due in equal parts to the early hour, mild nausea from the winding road, and a reluctance to distract our driver as she crossed into the opposing lane with each corner.
After arriving at the put-in and lining up for the bathroom, we met Jeff, our third guide of the trip, and our last shred of hope was cut adrift. Ponytailed and looking a little too close to someone from Deliverance for comfort, we looked downriver and shrugged it off; these were now mere details. The river was ready and waiting, a sentiment clearly shared by Ryan as, some five minutes into the video at the visitor’s center, he stood up and announced, “You guys wanna watch this, or you wanna go DO this stuff?”
Like the first rain on a dormant desert, once we hit water, Rusty, Ryan, and Jeff lit up, giving up on their ill-fitting coats of professional stoicism and suddenly, despite still-looming clouds, the whole trip got a lot more promising. These guys clearly not only knew how to do this job with their eyes closed, they enjoyed the hell out of it. Despite having the full-time jobs of shuttling us and our gear safely down the river, setting up and tearing down camp, and cooking three meals a day, our guides quickly became relentless entertainment. Ryan regaled us with seemingly endless stories of past river trips, from the group of Texans who drank enough to never make it as far as their tents the entire trip, to the unforgettable “snake catcher” story. Jeff, weaving in and out of his backcountry persona and his New Jersey roots, despite working as constantly and diligently as the rest, persistently managed to give off an air of laziness and complete moral decay, often eliciting a “Jesus, Jeff!” from Ryan after a particularly colorful statement. Rusty, the senior member of the crew, tried valiantly to maintain some sort of attitude as such, but it would generally last all of five minutes before he joined in, belting out yells that echoed up and down the canyon or drinking enough to have to crawl to bed early.
Over four days we shot rapids in one of the two rafts or four inflatable kayaks, fished, ate amazing meals, hiked, swam, and drifted through stunning wilderness, our thoughts of the rest of the world as absent as any sign of it. After two days of clouds and occasional spitting rain, the skies cleared and we baked in the sun as we drifted downstream, dipping whatever part of us got too hot in the cool, clear water. The canyon walls enveloped us, towering over our heads, but somehow never feeling claustrophobic. At one point, first thing in the morning as I padded to the water’s edge and squatted on a rock to wash my face, I paused, looking in every direction, and found no indication of what century I was in. It was one of those so very rare moments when the world felt pristine and unblemished by the hammer stroke of man. Hiking up the dry, grassy slopes of the lower canyon, we came across endless animal traces, and followed criss-crossing animal tracks, our own presence fairly insignificant compared to the clear abundance of wildlife. This despite the canyon itself looking fairly unforgiving, the dark volcanic rock appearing almost scorched from the heat of the place, the canyon name fairly self-explanatory. In fact, the rain was apparently a lucky break, as the heat at camp is normally almost unbearable, but our cool start carried us through in comfort.
Our trip ended too quickly, every one of us on the trip dreading the appearance of the boat ramp around each bend. Standing uneasily on the artificially flat ground of the launch, we exchanged what last jokes and stories we could, said our goodbyes, then piled into our cars and turned our backs on the river. After such a leisurely pace of life, we hurtled ourselves back at what felt like unnecessary speed towards the world we had done our best to forget for a while.