Lisfranc recovery: looking back a year later

Lisfranc recovery: looking back a year later

Today is the one-year anniversary of the day I jumped on a trampoline and suffered a Lisfranc fracture of my right foot. It’s a good day for reflection, to consider how far I’ve come and the challenges yet to overcome.

The 215-mile Lisfranc recovery test

The 215-mile Lisfranc recovery test

When I tore my Lisfranc ligament June 2 and needed reconstructive surgery, I expressed to my doctor that I wanted to participate in a 215-mile, 20,000-vertical-foot, hut-to-hut backcountry mountain bike ride from Telluride, Colorado to Moab, Utah three months later. “That’s not definitely out of the question,” she’d said. Her initial optimism was all I needed to keep the ride on my autumn to-do list.

Relearning to walk and ride a bike after Lisfranc surgery

Relearning to walk and ride a bike after Lisfranc surgery

Throughout my recovery I adhered 100 percent to my doctor’s orders except one. With a 200-mile, 20,000-vertical-foot, across-the-West mountain bike ride to train for, I needed to get my heart and lungs pumping harder again. The only way to train those organs is to put in the time.

Lisfranc recovery is slower and tougher than imagined

Lisfranc recovery is slower and tougher than imagined

Recovering from Lisfranc surgery is like touching a hot stove. You know it’s going to hurt, but until you actually experience it you don’t know how much. For me, the actual ordeal was more difficult physically and emotionally than I’d imagined.

Surgery day and learning more about the Arthrex InternalBrace

Surgery day and learning more about the Arthrex InternalBrace

Our feet are amazing and complex. Each has 26 bones and 33 joints, of which 20 actively articulate. A foot has more than a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments. With all those mechanics built to support 200 or more pounds, how could something not go wrong once you’ve broken it, drilled through it or added hardware to it?

The Seven Devil's Mountains: a Nez Perce legend

The story goes that the Seven Devils Mountains were once seven giant, child-eating monsters living in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. Each year the monsters travled east, devouring Nez Perce children in their path. According to Nez Perce legend, the tribe’s chiefs asked Coyote to help free the children from the tyranny of the seven giants, and Coyote asked his friend Fox for advice.

“We will first dig seven holes,” said Fox. “We will dig them very deep, in a place the giants always pass over … We will then fill the holes with a boiling liquid.”

Coyote gathered all the animals with claws: beavers, marmots, cougars and bears. They helped dig the seven holes. Then Coyote filled the holes with a rust-colored liqued. Coyote and Fox dropped hot rocks into the liquid to make it boil.

The next time the seven devil monsters traveled east, they fell into the seven deep holes of boiling liquid. They fumed and splashed, but they couldn’t climb their way out. As they struggled, they scattered the liquid as far as a man could travel in a day.

Coyote came out of his hiding place and said, “You are being punished for your wickedness. I will punish you even more by changing you into seven mountains. I will make you very high so that everyone can see you. You will stand here forever, to remind people that your punishment comes from bad deeds. I will make a deep gash in the earth here so that no more of your family can get across to trouble my people.”

Coyote changed the seven giants into the Seven Devils Mountains, and then he struck the earth and opened a deep gash in its crust, Hells Canyon, at the feet of the petrified giants. No more evil monsters from the Blue Mountains troubled children in the land of the Nez Perce.

* * * *

The Snake River originates in Yellowstone National Park at 9,500 feet above sea level and first meanders south past the Tetons and through Jackson, Wyoming, before winding west through the basalt canyons of southern Idaho. It then turns north to form the boundary between Idaho and Oregon. After picking up the flow of the Salmon River, it again redoubles in Lewiston, Idaho, where it meets the Clearwater River. It then veers west again into eastern Washington, where it eventually merges with the roiling expanse of the Columbia River near Pasco, Washington.

Upstream of its confluence with the Salmon River, however, the Snake cuts through the deepest canyon in North America: a canyon called Hells. He Devil Mountain, at 9,393 feet above sea level, is the tallest of the Seven Devils Mountains. At Granite Creek, six miles away, the rapids in the canyon’s gut are 7,913 feet (one and a half miles) lower than the towering peak. This crack in the earth’s surface, built through eons of geologic uplift and the Snake River’s downward cutting, is about ten miles wide rim-to-rim.

The 652,488-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area was established by Congress on Dec. 31, 1975 and includes the inherent 214,944-acre Hells Canyon Wilderness Area, an area where mechanized and motorized access is prohibited, “untrammeled by the hands of man,” in the words of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

Murtaugh reach of the Snake River flows at 17,000 cfs, rafter killed above Let's Make a Deal

There are about 20 men and women wearing helmets and neoprene spray skirts scrambling around a small basalt island in the middle of a thundering Snake River. There’s a rainbow of plastic scattered around, too. Their kayaks come in all hues: red, yellow, green, blue.
Most of them are crowded near the north side of the island. They’re staring at a place where the river curls through a slot and disappears within itself in a fit of frightening foam. They’re waiting for someone among them to muster enough courage to test these waters, but at 17,000 cubic feet per second Pair-a-Dice rapid is a solid, if short, class V. It is intimidating.

A man with a red helmet and ample crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes taps me on the shoulder. “This is great,” he says. “What a day. Where else can you paddle Grand Canyon-scale whitewater as a day trip?”

The span of Hansen Bridge is visible just downstream connecting two vertical basalt cliff walls. It dangles some 350 feet above the river and marks the beginning of the next test, a rapid called Let’s Make a Deal, where basalt columns rise from the riverbed creating five distinct doors through which to pass. Door two, says the man with the red helmet and crow’s feet, is safest.

But I’m happy, for the moment, to be off of the river’s surging currents and 10- to 20-foot waves, merely staring at its scale and power. Kayaking a river with the size and gradient of the Snake River in Murtaugh Canyon has been a renewed lesson in an ongoing education that focuses on one of the most important life metaphors. Control is an illusion. Only by working with a river’s currents and whims can a boater enjoy success. The bigger the river, the truer this lesson holds.

Building a Canyon

The Snake River in Murtaugh Canyon doesn’t often flow except for the couple hundred cfs released from an Idaho Power hydro facility. At a place called Milner, where the river first drops from the flats of the Snake River Plain into a small basalt gorge, the river is diverted to the north and south in large irrigation canals. The one on the south is the one that returns water to the river via the hydro electricity generation plant. This spring, however, there is ample carryover from last summer’s irrigation season, and the managers of the reservoirs on the upper Snake have opened the gates, letting the huge whitewater runs of the Snake River Canyon come to life for the first time in years.

Despite the modern-day trickle that usually passes for a river among the basalt ramparts of the Snake River Canyon, the geologic wonder of the canyon was built by water. When the world’s second most powerful flood poured from the Great Salt Lake over Red Rock Pass into what is now Idaho it found a chink in the desert’s basalt armor at Milner. The Bonneville Flood scoured the canyon for six weeks 15,000 years ago, moving house-size boulders and digging the canyon 100 to 200 feet deeper than it once was. All told, 1,128 cubic miles of water crashed through southern Idaho, carving out Murtaugh Canyon, Auger Falls and Shoshone Falls–a thunderous cascade taller than Niagra.

The canyon was a true impediment to early travelers. Washington Irving recounts the canyon’s early exploration in “Astoria or Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains.” He describes five explorers aboard canoes discovering the Snake River Canyon for the first time.

“The wreck struck the rock with one end, and, swinging round, flung poor Clappine off into the raging stream, which swept him away, and he perished. His comrades succeeded in getting upon the rock, from whence they were afterward taken off.

“This disastrous event brought the whole squadron to a half, and struck a chill into every bosom. Indeed, they had arrived at a terrific strait that forbade all further progress in the canoes, and dismayed the most experienced voyageur.

“The whole body of the river was compressed into a space of less than thirty feet in width, between two ledges or rocks, upward of two hundred feet high, and formed a whirling and tumultuous vortex, so frightfully agitated as to receive the name of ‘The Caldron Linn.’ Beyond this fearful abyss the river kept raging and roaring on, until lost to sight among impending precipices.”

Today’s Snake River

In the first mile below Milner, the river constricts and drops at close to 100 feet per mile, producing a true class V experience fit for focused expert kayakers only. Settled within basalt canyon walls, the river then works on lazily toward the ominous horizon of Caldron Linn. It is several miles below this unrunnable waterfall that Murtaugh Canyon begins near the weathered agrarian hamlet by the same name.

Murtaugh Canyon is undeniable world-class whitewater. It has the rare combination of steep gradient, breathtaking scenery and lots of water—when it has water at all.

Since 1905, irrigation has largely dried the Snake below Milner from April through October. Canal companies are required to leave only 220 cfs in a river channel that can easily accommodate 50,000 or more. But the 57-mile reach of the Snake River from Milner to Hagerman is resilient. It gradually gains from several small tributaries, but more so from the plethora of cold-water springs that emerge from the basaltic water table of the Snake River Plain to the north. This poorly understood system of underground pockets and channels is among the largest fresh water aquifers in the world. By the end of Murtaugh Canyon, where the river is swallowed by yet another reservoir before tumbling over huge waterfalls near Twin Falls, freshwater springs pour from vertical cliff walls on the north side of the canyon. Farther downstream, in Hagerman, the cold, clean water from these springs gives life to the United States’ largest trout farming industry.

The Snake River is a true working river. It quenches the thirst of nearby residents. It feeds irrigation canals and greens the desert. It produces power that helps keep lights on at night. And it puts trout on dinner tables the world wide. But these benefits come at a price. The Snake River Canyon is a testament to the raw power and resilience of Mother Nature. But as the uses of this famed river multiply, the river has vanished. It is polluted with agricultural runoff and, most of the time, consists of nothing much more than a trickle.

This spring, however, things are different.

When we put on the river near the town of Murtaugh earlier today, we didn’t really know what to expect. My friend had run the river before but didn’t remember much. A quick scout of the rapids from a bridge near the put-in showed waves and obstacles similar to those we’d paddled before. But speed, scale and power can be deceiving from a perch high above a river.

When we let the current pry at our boats we were quickly whisked downstream into those same features we’d scouted moments before. Waves were easily 10 feet tall, perhaps as high as 20, and we couldn’t see downstream except when atop a huge, breaking crest. What I saw from those crests wasn’t encouraging. The river continued in that fashion for as far as eyes could see.

As instinct typically prompts, I fought the wild currents for a while before realizing the struggle was futile. The river would do what it wants. Mine was a job of working with the river to ensure safe passage. That means staying loose and confident, letting the river spin you when it wants and correcting such unexpected alterations with patience and humility.

But Pair-a-Dice is a little different. There’s a life-threatening recirculation on the north side of the river with which no sane river runner would flirt. And there’s nervous chatter among the paddlers lingering at the island’s edge.

Then, it happens. A man drags his boat to the island’s edge and snaps himself in. He takes a few paddle strokes, braces off a big lateral wave, then disappears in the froth, surfacing some 25 feet downstream, upside down. After a few failed attempts, he rights himself and paddles to shore below the rapid.

Then one after another, the kayakers roll the dice at Pair-a-Dice, vanishing in the tempestuous torrent before paddling on. My companion elects to run the drop. I carry my boat across the island and plunge over a 10-foot cliff into the current below.

When we reconnect downstream in a reach of towering breaking waves leading into Let’s Make a Deal, his helmet and clothing are askew.

“How was it?” I ask.

“I’m not sure,” he says. “I don’t really know what happened.”

“Did you come through upright?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t think so, but I didn’t roll. I think the river flipped me back over.”

After picking our way through the second door at Let’s Make a Deal, we arrive at a place where the entirety of this 17,000 cfs torrent drops over a river-wide ledge and then builds in a 20-foot-tall glassy wave that stretches from bank to bank. I turn my back to the wave and paddle forward, then lett the wave and gravity work in the upstream direction as I coast onto the curl and feel the hull of the boat rise onto a smooth hydroplane. I surf there for a while, a 15 mile per hour current passing beneath the hull, and I smile.

Only by working with a river’s currents and whims can a boater enjoy success. And sometimes success is defined as using the river’s strength to let you do what you want.


Ed. note: I discovered on Monday that an east Idaho boater died on the Murtaugh on Sunday, April 19, the day after our trip. Read the Times News newspaper account here. For a video news report from Twin Falls KIDK TV click here.

Clearwater Country: an important piece of the Salmon Nation

The grass is lush and green at the U.S. Forest Service ranger station near Selway Falls on the banks of the fabled Selway River. A big-bellied man with camouflage pants and scruffy face likes to talk, too.

“There’s a road up there above Gedney Creek, but it don’t go nowhere. It’s what we used to call a way route. If there’s a will there’s a way, but you’d better have a lot of will to find your way.”

He chuckles, then rambles on about federal classifications for dirt roads, about the perilous nature of the Selway River, about the thickness of the forest and the abundant wilderness surrounding this place.

The woman sitting on the cabin’s front steps is wearing U.S. Forest Service fatigues. There’s a pack near her feet with a radio antenna protruding from an open zipper. She scans the greenery near her feet and plucks a mint leaf. I do the same, and we begin to chew.

The big belly man with the scruffy face, who says he’s from Wisconsin, turns and goes round the side of the cabin, returning a minute later with a fist full of leaves.

“Try one,” he says. “It’s catnip. Supposed to calm your nerves.”

Clearwater Country

The Clearwater country of northern Idaho stands in stark contrast with southern Idaho’s sagebrush deserts and arid mountain ranges. Irrigation in this moist climate isn’t required, and with the exception of hydro-electric dams the rivers run clean and cold.

I’m nearing the end of a 1,000-mile, five-day trip that began in Boise and has threaded Idaho south to north. I’ve become attuned to the rivers that pump through this big state’s heart, and I’ve seen dozens. From south to north I’ve navigated the basins of the Boise, Payette, Salmon, Clearwater, Lochsa and Selway. All were salmon country before Europeans moved here. Some are still.

There’s a high plain near here called the Camas Prairie, a peninsula in the midst of some of the greatest of these rivers. To the south over White Bird Summit is a steep, grassy grade descending to the lower twists of the Salmon River. To the west are the desert canyons of the Snake, a river whose headwaters begin as a trickle in Yellowstone National Park. To the east is the South Fork of the Clearwater, which drops through deep timbered rainforests before converging with the Middle Fork of the Clearwater, a roiling expanse that drains the Bitterroot and Clearwater mountains on the Montana-Idaho border. It is the Clearwater River that borders the Camas Prairie to the north.

This is also Nez Perce country. It was along White Bird Creek that the first shots in the Nez Perce War betwen Native Americans and the U.S. Army were fired on June 17, 1877. That battle was a route the Indians won, but it triggered a flight that led the Indians far from their ancestral homeland. This is Lewis and Clark country, too. It was the Clearwater River that led the team west to the Snake, to the Columbia and, eventually, to the Pacific, a journey the salmon once made on their youthful pilgrimages to the ocean, where they matured before returning to these same mountains to renew the circle of life.

A Landscape Logged

The primary resource concern in northern Idaho is logging. The economy here was built in large part on this extractive industry, and there’s a pulp mill downstream in Lewiston where the big trees are processed. Potlatch Corp. was founded in 1903 in the city of Potlatch, Idaho, and is a “verified leader in sustainable forestry.

Potlatch produces paper towels, napkins, bathroom tissue and facial tissues, with additional production of paperboard that’s sold all over the world for products like CD covers and cigarette cartons. Branches in St. Maries and Post Falls, both Idaho cities, produce lumber, plywood and particleboard. The abundant forests in Idaho make this operation possible.

A Landscape Dammed

Compared with arid southern Idaho, north Idaho is relatively free of scarring impacts of dams, and, yet, it is in this region that the debate over dams is coming to a head.

The massive ramparts of Dworshak Dam loom above the timber town of Orofino. This 717-foot-tall structure, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is the third tallest dam in the U.S. and creates a 53-mile-long reservoir that submerges the North Fork of the Clearwater River and its ample salmon and steelhead spawning habitat. Completed in 1972, Dworshak was built to provide hydroelectric power, and the generators came online in 1973.

Two miles below Dworshak, on the banks of the Clearwater River, is the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, built by the Corps of Engineers to mitigate the loss of salmon and steelhead spawning habitat in the North Fork of the Clearwater basin. This is, according to the Corps, the largest steelhead hatchery in the world. For a person standing at the overlook above Dworshak there is an evident irony: electricity is produced by harnessing Mother Nature’s power and nearby factories produce more fish, all within eyeshot of one another. Humans make the fish. Mother Nature makes the electricity.

Downstream, however, on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state, is where an ongoing debate over how to recover salmon and steelhead is maturing. There are four dams on the lower Snake that produce both a small percentage of the Northwest’s hydroelectric power and establish Lewiston as an ocean port. But these benefits come at a cost, effectively blocking downstream and upstream migration of salmon and steelhead. Idaho has habitat. What it doesn’t have are fish.

The Selway

The woman sitting on the steps of the cabin near the Selway River says she’s a wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. She flies into and out of the Moose Creek Guard Station to keep an eye on what’s going on inside the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area’s boundaries.

The 251,443-acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness is the third largest wilderness area in the lower 48, surpassed only by the Death Valley Wilderness in California and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, farther south in Idaho. This vast area is one of the roughest mountainous areas on earth, a country of high, glaciated mountains and towering ridges dropping into sheer-walled canyons.

And the Selway country contains thousands of rivers and creeks, tributaries like Meadow Creek and Gedney Creek. They’re swift, clean and cold, and they illustrate once again that Idaho has what it takes to make salmon and steelhead recovery possible. Fish-making factories like the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery are merely life-support systems, helping sustain populations while people work to address the root of the problem, the four dams on the lower Snake River. Idaho has habitat. What it needs are fish.

The wilderness ranger says she’s seen giant chinook spawning in the streams and brooks of the upper Selway, but she doesn’t see many, “and that’s too bad.”

But her observation illustrates that the Clearwater Country of northern Idaho is representative of the foremost challenge facing the planet and its people today, that of working toward balance and sustainability rather than profit alone. Working toward sustainability is about finding common ground.

While figuring out what to do next is heavily disputed, there is common ground throughout the Northwest, affectionately referred to by some as the Salmon Nation. And that mutual footing is the overriding sentiment that healthy salmon runs are good for the environment, good for people and good for business.

With that, anyway, there is a starting point.

© Greg Stahl

Lolo Creek and the Weippe Plateau

It’s 4 p.m. and beginning to rain in the heavy forest near the timber town of Weippe, Idaho. The creek looks pretty tame, too. It’s swift but placid.

The guidebook, Idaho the Whitewater State, says it’s a 15-mile-long canyon containing four or five class V rapids and a “six-mile whitewater blur,” and we wonder about our late start. Neither of us has been here before, but we’ve managed some adventures before. A year ago we’d been bumping along a dirt road among the sagebrush of southern Idaho and passed a sign that read “rattlesnake depository area” before it occurred to either of us to read the guide book. “Don’t attempt this run unless you are immune to poison ivy and can paddle class V with a smile on your face.” That had been the beginning of an grueling eight-hour day of terrifying rapids, forests of poison ivy and, poised rattle snakes.

“Do you have a headlamp?” my friend asks amidst the north-Idaho drizzle.

I nod.

“Throw it in,” he says. “I’ve got some matches.”

I add the headlamp to a small bag containing two Cliff Bars, a first-aid kit and a water bottle. We finish donning  life jackets and helmets and drag our boats to Lolo Creek’s gravely edge. And so begins another adventure on a remote Idaho creek.

Remembering the butterflies

An hour before I sensed a familiar feeling, the grating of my insides while traveling some serpentine highway on the way to set my kayak on the meandering sensibilities of an unknown river. It doesn’t happen much anymore. I don’t push the limits like I used to, and most of the rivers I paddle are ones I’ve paddled before.

This spring has been different.

In four weeks I’ve ticked off four new rivers, and none have been walks in the park.

I gave a speech this morning in Lewiston, and stayed longer than expected because a reporter asked for an interview. Leaving an hour behind schedule I’d declined to fill my gas tank to avoid making Sean wait any longer than he already had, and I expected the town of Greer would have a service station. Greer, it turns out, has a mere 10 or so houses, so we drove back down the highway next to the Clearwater River, to Orofino, and then returned to the river a second time.

In any case, it’s 4 p.m., and we’ve finally arrived at the put-in. That’s a late start by anyone’s standard to run a remote 15-mile canyon that’s supposed to contain class V rapids, especially when nobody in the group has floated the stretch before.

Weippe, Idaho

Lolo Creek is a tributary of the Clearwater River, and at the confluence is the gas station-free town of Greer. From Greer Idaho Highway 11 climbs ever skyward through slanted meadows and thick stands of timber to the Weippe Prairie, where in 1805 Lewis and Clark had their first encounter with the Nez Perce Indians, who would become their Pacific Northwest guides.

In the center of the Weippe Prairie is a town of 400 by the same name. Weippe, originally spelled Oy-ipe by a U.S. Army general during the government’s campaign against the Nez Perce, means “very old place.” In Nez Perce oy means “all,” but no meaning has been unearthed for iap.

According to the city’s Web site, Weippe was incorporated in December 1964. It is home to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center at the Weippe Discovery Center, and the Weippe Prairie is rich with Camas roots, a wild tuber harvested by Indians throughout Idaho. They’re said to taste like sweet potatoes. There’s another town just up the road called Pierce. It’s the first place in Idaho that gold was discovered, back in 1860.

From the edge of the Weippe Prairie, Lolo Creek canyon descends into a deep, forested fold of mist and a mystry about to be solved.

Lolo Creek

Lolo Creek quickly twists past a floating salmon trap and into a mossy, granite-walled canyon. Within a few miles the gradient picks up with rapids coming in rapid succession. The whitewater isn’t too challenging at first, but the ramifications of a mistake this late in the day in such a remote place would be severe. The canyon walls are sheer, and there would be no easy way to hike out. We stop at every horizon to look downstream, and our progress is slow.

It’s raining, too. Not that it matters when you’re on the water, but it adds a chill. Mist clings to canyon walls, and everywhere it’s not rock it is green. A black bear cub scampers up the canyon wall and disappears behind a rocky outcrop. A mule deer browses near the water’s edge.

The lower 15 miles of Lolo Creek are pristine. It is extremely inaccessible country, and there are no signs of human intervention. The forest grows as it always has.

But people have been here. In fact, Lolo Creek is one of the locations the Bonneville Power Administration has worked to improve salmon spawning habitat in the Clearwater River basin in order to mitigate the losses suffered at the dams it manages on the lower Snake River. Lolo Creek has been manipulated to this end, “barriers” “modified” to make fish passage more effective.

The project, with a budget of $425,679, was designed “to mitigate (albeit partial) the juvenile and adult anadromous fish losses accrued through hydroelectric development of the Columbia and Snake River systems by enhancing existing habitats and accessing ‘new’ spawning and rearing habitats…” in the Lolo Creek and Lochsa River sub-basins.

The study, prepared for BPA by the Clearwater National Forest, goes on to point out that Dworshak Dam on the North Fork of the Clearwater River eliminated 60 percent of the highest quality salmon and steelhead habitat in the Clearwater basin.

“In Idaho, the need to mitigate for past fish losses is very critical and probably warrants priority consideration within the Columbia River Basin. Salmon and steelhead destined for Idaho tributaries must traverse a gauntlet of eight dams and reservoirs. Mortalities associated with this hydroelectric system have been and continue to be substantial . . . In Idaho, every square meter of habitat for natural production is needed to deal with the gauntlet and insure long term survival.”

Progressively harder

The whitewater on Lolo Creek becomes more difficult as the miles pass, and we’re tiring from getting out of our boats to scramble along the steep canyon walls to scout. The evening culminates with a long rapid containing a river-wide tree half way through before thundering over a five-foot ledge and then through a jumble of tight boulders. I consider portaging, but realize the scramble along the mossy canyon wall might be more frightening than running the rapid.

Four hours after putting on this beautiful gem of a creek, the water finally calms, and the sky turns shades of pink. Still navigating timber-crowded sections of a very wild feeling creek, I worry about the impending darkness. And then a railroad trestle comes into view, and we know Lolo Creek’s confluence with the Clearwater River is just out of sight.

Sean pulls into an eddy near the bank and reaches beneath a rock in the river. He produces two cans of Coors Light he stashed while waiting for me to show up earlier today.

Exhausted, we stay in our boats for a while and drink the beers as the pink in the sky flickers, and then vanishes. The muffled twilight begins to fade, and the rain resumes.

“That is one of the best little creeks I’ve ever paddled,” Sean says.

And he’s right.

Discover the hidden landscape of yourself

How often do we look but not see, sniff but not smell, listen but not hear? Who have we become when we’ve learned to touch without feeling?

Sometimes when my vision blurs and I fail at these fundamental tenets of living there’s a Hawaiian word I ponder: kipukas. Literally, it means “openings,” and it came to be in the native Hawaiian tongue in order to describe the unique geological and ecological phenomenon that occurs when lava surrounds a portion of land, in effect cutting it off from the greater surrounding ecosystem. Kipukas are undisturbed islands where native vegetation and animals are protected from invasive species and the forces that have ravaged much of a surrounding landscape.

They’re windows into what the land was before outside pressures mounted.

We are, like the land, inundated by outside pressures. Childhood naivete and curiosity are eroded by life experiences. An ability to trust is undermined by a sense of betrayal. An inherent ability to heal is hindered by a drive to overcome and move forward. Our proclivity for sight is clouded by a drive to achieve that prompts us to look without seeing. That goes for looking inward as well as at one’s surroundings.

As with the kipukas inherent to the lava flows on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, as well as on Idaho’s Snake River Plain, there are untarnished openings inside us, and we would do well to remember they’re there.

Following two days on the river in the spring of 2008, I drove with a friend across Southern Idaho’s Camas Prairie. It’s a rolling expanse of sagebrush bordered by the snow-capped Soldier Mountains to the north and the Bennett Hills to the south. It’s a place named for camas roots, which bear beautiful blue blossoms called camas lilies in the spring. The roots from camas lilies were harvested historically by  Shoshone-Bannock Indians using digging sticks called tookas. The roots are said to taste like sweet potatoes.

I’ve driven across the Camas Prairie dozens of times, perhaps dozens of dozens of times. I’ve seen its rolling sagebrush desert through the beams of my headlights, during sunrises and sunsets, and in four seasons of varying light. I’ve viewed it with skis on my feet, with a whitewater kayak wrapped around my waist, from the seat of a car, and with hiking boots on my feet. The salient fact is that when compared with many of the West’s jaw-dropping vistas it’s not inspiring country. It is, after all, mere desert: an expanse of sagebrush, grass and decrepit old homes and ranches crumbling with the passing of the high desert seasons and the ailing agrarian economies that prompted Europeans to move there in the first place.

That spring weekend in 2008 things were different. Perhaps my vision was attuned to the subtle nuances of light and shadow, maybe the timing was right—maybe both—but that hour-long drive across the Camas Prairie was among the most beautiful I’ve experienced.

It was a long spring in the Northern Rockies, and the prairie had only just begun to bloom: arrowleaf balsamroot smearing the hills with yellow while cornices of snow clung to north-facing ridges, mirror-still pools of water lined with purple splotches of blooming lupine, antelope browsing on abundant green forage. The seasons were mixing on the Camas Prairie, and signs of life combined with winter’s remnants.

My companion, a life-long Idaho resident, was working on his undergraduate coursework and was compelled to share his newfound fascination with the stories the landscape tells. Having just completed a geology course, he talked about how the land is more than rocks, trees and animals. It’s the product of millions of years of interrelating forces. It’s all the things that came before, he said, over millions of years. So much more than a beautiful view, a view that many people don’t even see.

It’s like a story, I replied. Even the people who see it are often not aware of the story it tells.

The sky dangled huge anvil-shaped thunderheads, the late-day sun peeking from between mottled puffs of drifting cumulus clouds and casting long shadows across the prairie. Everywhere there were images worth capturing, and I worked hard not to stop. Not all of life needs to be photographed, after all. Sometimes living is enough. Sometimes.

Speeding by a pool of water I noticed a barb-wire fence strung between crooked posts that protruded from the water and cast perfect reflections. A few minutes later I squatted at the edge of the pool looking through a lens and waiting for a red-winged blackird that fluttered nearby to land on top of one of the posts. I probed the pool, shifting left and right to bracket the scene at first with the fence posts, then with a nearby willow, then with the smooth curve of the hills in the background. As I did little rings appeared in the pool, and I pondered how the drops created perfect concentric forms that mingled with one another to create an impossible pattern that erased the reflection that had, moments before, been my quarry. As the rain intensified the rings grew both in number and intensity, thousands of perfect circles interacting with one another to rearrange the texture of the pool.

It was one of those moments, an opening both of myself and by Mother Nature that revealed sights, smells and feelings easily taken for granted. We are so much more like the land than we usually consider. We’re drops of water of the same pond, concentric forms interacting to create a unique intellectual and emotional design that rearranges reflections reflected on before.

And like the land we are stories that have been shaped by the events of our lives. Just as life affords kipukas through which to view things untarnished and beautiful, there are kipukas inside us. They’re windows that afford views into the stories of who we are.

© Greg Stahl

Creases of the White Cloud Mountains

There are beginnings and endings in the mountains where ancient folds layer one upon another concealing the mysteries tucked therein. Each crease is a beginning, and each crease is an end. They’re dawns and dusks, and they’re folds within us as much as without, places where questions and answers mingle as one. (The upper Salmon River canyon photographed from an old fire lookout atop Lookout Mountain in the northern White Cloud Mountains.)

The secrets of water

“‘I’m afraid’ is always what stands between us and the page. When people talk about ‘discipline,’ they are really talking about how do you get past ‘I’m afraid.’”

-The Right to Write, page 89

My mother tells me she had me swimming when I was six months old, but I suspect there’s something more to it. I’ve always been drawn to water. As a child my parents took my brother and me to a huge Army Corps of Engineers reservoir near their home, and we would wade through shin-deep muck or jump off rocks into the deep green abyss. The depths were frightening. I imagined giant fish or the extended twigs from submerged trees swishing past treading feet. I was scared by what I couldn’t see, and water hid a world I didn’t understand, but I was drawn just the same, and I submerged myself in that murky mystery as often as I could.

As I grew taller and the world expanded, my attention to water developed. I’d join friends and set canoes on the meandering sensibilities of Appalachia’s gentle streams. Suspended over deep, reflective riverbeds, diffused sunlight playing on leafy banks, we would watch the rhythmic beat of a great blue heron’s wings over the glassy shine. The meditation was broken only by sounds from the gentle strokes of our paddles and the hollow resonance of clunking aluminum underfoot. There were smells of loam and maple and honeysuckle caried by the wind.

There’s a place near my parents’ house where we used to carry giant inner tubes along an old railroad track to a deep, motionless window-clear spring. Where the spring emerged from the riverbank leaves, we released ourselves to the current’s gentle whims. Time stood still.

As our world grew, a rocky perch far above the meanders offered perspective. Looking down from sandstone cliffs we recognized the river for its parts. We saw that the fish fed the eagle, that the eagle discarded parts for the otter. We saw that the forest filtered rain and that the river delivered fertile soils to its banks. We saw that for the balance to remain we must protect the parts and pieces that make the river whole.

It took time for the lessons to sink in, but we eventually saw our friendship as a reflection of the river. We recognized our bond for its parts, and we realized we must protect the parts and pieces to maintain the bond over the minutes and miles that life placed between us. One of the pieces of that friendship we chose to protect was the river. It was our temple. It was our classroom. It was our bond.

My own meandering path eventually led west where I continued to be drawn to water. Along the rugged spine of the Rocky Mountains, my attraction evolved. Western rivers are wild, remote and untamed, an arena in which I continued to test my fears. An old girlfriend taught me how to navigate rivers in a hard-shell kayak, and I rapidly excelled, working my way from wide, gentle streams to some of the West’s most challenging whitewater torrents.

It was mid-June in Central Idaho, about two weeks after my departure from Colorado, and the rivers were swollen with near-record levels of icy runoff from vast fields of snow tucked high in the state’s craggy peaks. It was beautiful-but-cool, a piercing azure ceiling overhead, and I joined two men from Sun Valley to travel north into the mountains to test our fears on a stream none of us had tested before.

The creek we sought was obscure. Nestled in the Salmon River Mountains near the ghost towns of Custer and Bonanza, it was in a valley filled with piles of rock-pile tailings left in the wake of a huge gold dredge owned by potato magnate J.R. Simplot. It was also an area home to a huge open-pit gold mine about five miles up a tributary called Jordan Creek. In 1997, after a mere two years of operation, the Grouse Creek Gold Mine closed. It was supposed to be a state-of-the-art paragon of how large-scale, modern-day mining could be done in harmony with the environment. At the mine’s dedication on August 12, 1995, in front of four-hundred and fifty Idaho residents, Hecla Chief Executive Art Brown called the mine an “environmentally safe, efficient mine.”

That was then.

A few years later cyanide and heavy metals were discovered in the creek downstream of the mine’s five-hundred million gallon tailings pond, which was below an enormous rust-colored gash in the side of a mountain. The curious part of the Grouse Creek story was that the state of Idaho has declared the entire Yankee Fork of the Salmon River Valley downstream a state park. “The Land of the Yankee Fork State Park brings to life Idaho’s frontier mining history,” the state promotional literature read. And, indeed, it did. Idaho’s frontier mining history was still flowing in the area’s streams, cyanide and toxic metals poisoning the endangered salmon that returned there every summer from the Pacific Ocean to spawn.

The section of whitewater we sought was on the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. For forty miles or more it meanders alongside a well-maintained dirt road, but there’s a short section at Five Mile Creek where it drops into a steep, tight gorge for two miles. The section of river is short, but it’s tangled full of house-size boulders and drops with a high-mountain stream’s characteristic steep gradient. I’d hiked the gorge a few summers before when it was no longer swollen with runoff. It was August, and I’d jumped off a small ledge into a shallow pool to discover a massive chinook salmon clinging to the final threads of her remarkable existence, a life that began in those very waters. I knelt in the pool to watch her, her scales falling away, her jaw opening, then closing and opening again.

The big fish don’t return to the mountain waters of Central Idaho in the storied numbers they once did, eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers downstream blocking their nine-hundred-mile migrations to and from the sea. But there she was, returned from a journey that took her as far away as Japan and Alaska, and I watched her for a long time and contemplated the completed cycle of life. “In this, her death, she has survived,” I later wrote in a journal.

Anyway, I always wanted to see what the canyon below Five Mile Creek looked like during spring runoff. The three of us walked with nervous energy along the bank of the first series of rapids and agreed they were navigable. We floated the first half mile of steep sloping ledges, portaged some wood and a waterfall, and then arrived at a dramatic series of rapids where a landslide filled the river with sharp, angled rocks, the river tumbling over and through great tangles of debris.

Only two of us elected to run the rapid, the third declaring it unsafe. He set up on the right bank half-way through the mess with a safety rope in hand should anything go wrong.

The deafening roar of the river drown our voices, and there was nervous energy between my riverbound companion and I as we prepared to release ourselves to the current. We snapped neoprene spray skirts around the plastic combing of the cockpit rims of our kayaks, then discussed the rapid, which we couldn’t see from they eddy where we waited. I agreed to give my companion a twenty-second head start to get underway before following. He issued a few grunts to energize himself, took a few paddle strokes and was gone. And there I sat in the calm of the pool listening to the roar of the nearby river, feeling reflective, feeling excited, feeling frightened.

But that’s what I arrived for. The fear energized me. I remembered the first time I kayaked an expert-level rapid years before. As I approached the ominous horizontal line of the horizon, little spates of foam flipping into the air from below, I was so stricken with fear that my bladder failed, and warm urine trickled into the seat of my boat making my butt itch.

The strange thing was, I wasn’t paralyzed by it. It was bladder-releasing fear but not paralyzing fear. There’s a fine line, I supposed, but I never crossed it. I had never been unable to act, or react, because of fear. My bladder, on the other hand, had failed on rivers several times.

Resigned to my decision to run the scary rapid–and having spent a half-hour memorizing it–I dug my paddle without further thought into the water and let the current take over. Kayaking difficult rivers was akin to my early experiences jumping off of high cliffs into the deep green waters of my childhood. I’d stare at the distance, entranced by the task, but when I finally decided to jump, I did so without thinking, placing faith in my prior assessment. Once I jumped, instinct took over. Fear was present, but it ebbed to the back of my mind. It was a strange kind of involuntary control over emotion.

That’s what I did when I dug my paddle into the water and released myself to the current. I placed faith in my prior assessment and let instinct and intuition take over. As I melted through the first series of ledges, I looked up to get my bearings. Things weren’t going well. My friend was fighting against some rocks on the far side of the river, far off our intended course. It was only the beginning of a long and complex rapid, and it wasn’t a place where I was able to help. I was on-line, and so remained focused on my own survival, trusting instincts and reflexes I’d trusted before. I slipped through a slot, moved left and soared over a dangerous reef of rocks, melting through a final frothy wave and pulled into the calm of a pool behind a large rock. I worked to collect myself, steadying my heaving breaths, and anticipated my friend’s arrival.

He didn’t arrive. Minutes passed, and, still, he didn’t arrive. I began to consider climbing onto shore to peek upstream when a flash of yellow from the hull of his kayak appeared. Upside down, he dropped over the rapid’s final ledge onto the shallow reef of rocks, where his head made a jarring impact. He was feebly trying to right his upside-down boat, but the river had a different plan. He was pushed into a pile of rocks to which neither of us paid attention during our pre-run preparations. Water poured through the loose jumble of stones, and his upside-down boat wedged firmly in a crevice. The pressure from the water lodged him there, and the dire situation quickly became apparent. In kayaking parlance, the pile of rocks is called a sieve, and the predicament often proves fatal. Both the man on shore and I recognized the ominous circumstances immediately.

I was on the wrong side of the river to help. The man with the rope scrambled down the bank. He moved fast, but there was little he could do. The emergency was in the middle of the river, a place to which neither of us could get to quickly. Time seemed to crawl. Thirty seconds. A minute. Two minutes.

The boat still upside down, half wedged in the sieve along with logs and sticks and other river detritus, I began to feel hope slipping away.

And then his head began to surface, barely at first, lips open in a great gasp for air. His strength clearly gone, he clawed his way to the rocks with his body still dangling dangerously into the rocks. He stayed that way for a long time, lingering on the precarious edge between life and death, and, then, inch by inch, a process that seemed to take minutes, dragged his body up and onto the rocks. He was still in the middle of the river with a foam-spitting rapid rushing by, but he was safe. And, for a long time, nobody moved. The world, it seemed, stopped. Nobody moved for a long, long, long time.

“This was really, really bad,” said the man with the rope while we worked to extricate the boat. Our other friend sat near the riverbank staring blankly at the passing water. The comment was unnecessary. We all knew how close we came to death that day.

Later, on the highway back to town, my mind worked. At what point was enough enough? I loved running rapids like that because it was a pure and inescapable form of meditation. There was nothing else a person could think about when in that white contemplative space, a foamy room of instinctive thoughts and reflexes. And though I felt like my skills had been up to the test that day, anything could go wrong. Sometimes I wondered if I should train myself to back off, but then that meditation I craved would be lost. I wondered if I should continue to drag my friends to places like that, where things could go wrong and I could share in the blame for an ill-advised adventure I alone conceived.

That hadn’t been the first time such an event crossed my life. When I was ten I’d been riding speedy runner sleds after school with a childhood friend, a story I hadn’t considered since discussing it with a woman in Colorado a months before.

On our after-school adventure the two of us found ourselves careening down steep alleys, and at the alleys’ intersections with streets, we carried our momentum across the asphalt and hit the snow of the adjacent alley, continuing in an adventurous white winter blur.

As dusk began to settle over the little Appalachian town, we decided to go one more time. We hiked back up the alley to where it merged with a meadow that overlooked the twinkling lights of the sleepy berg below. The snow was crusted with ice from a rain that soaked in and refroze. After arguing about who would have the honor of leading—important in the world of boys—we set off, me following my friend. I watched as he lay on his sled and slipped into the night. When we approached the edge of the clearing and the alley’s upper extremity, the trees, coal against a slate sky, grew before us: twisted creatures with contorted arms. We flashed through the outstretched pine boughs and accelerated into the cold darkness below.

I watched the ride develop. The wind bit my cheeks as garages, back yards and fences ticked by. I could see my friend not far in front, and I lowered my head to improve my aerodynamics in an attempt to catch up or pass him. I couldn’t see his face when he hit the alley’s intersection with the street, but I like to think our smiles were equally as big at that moment.

But that’s when and how he died. Heart jumping, gut wrenching, flying on the wings of adventure, weightless, sailing through the winter wind with and ear-to-ear grin, he was plucked from the world and cast to the cold, hard asphalt by a passing car. He was broken and snarled in a tangle of twisted steel and splintered wood.

A woman emerged from behind the steering wheel.

“Did I hit your dog?” she asked.

“No. You hit my friend,” I returned and ran to the front of the idling vehicle where I knelt on the asphalt to look into the jaws of a terrible monster.

My memory is mixed with the smell of leaking antifreeze, chirps from the steering wheel woman and visions I wish I could forget. But one image is emblazoned on my brain above others, a vision I’ll be able to call on my life long: a trickle of thick green snot seeped from the dead boy’s nose, which split the space between two big, unblinking brown eyes.

The day’s river events were too close, and I wondered why I continued to flirt with the boundaries of safety—and to drag my friends to those places. I felt an instinctive need to feed an unquenchable thirst for fear. It was a driving force in my life, but something didn’t connect. Something didn’t fit.

Maybe I should hang this sport up, I thought, move on to one where I can be a beginner or intermediate again and feel the total absorption in a safer environment, not drag friends along for activities that could put them in harm’s way.

If nothing else, I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for a friend’s death. That was something I hoped would never happen again.

© Greg Stahl

Yellowstone National Park by boat

A moon-just-past-full cast silver edges on clouds slung across the east, and long hoary shadows worked through a small strip of lodgepole pine nestled between a willow-filled marsh and the sandy southern shore of Shoshone Lake.

The muscles of my shoulders, arms and stomach were sore. We arrived in this remote corner of Yellowstone National Park between the Pitchstone and Madison plateaus by kayak, and our day was filled with tens of thousands of paddle strokes, first three miles across the turquoise waters of Lewis Lake, then three more up the gentle currents of the Lewis River and, finally, a couple miles along the southern shore of Shoshone Lake, a body of water cradled by the Continental Divide to the north and east and the lodgepole-coated undulations of the Madison Plateau to the west. At 8,000 feet, we were at the icy headwaters of the fabled Snake River, a slithering course that works 1,040 miles from the mountains of Wyoming across Southern Idaho’s Snake River Plain, north through the deepest canyon in North America and then west through Washington state’s palouse hills before melding with the roiling expanse of the Columbia River.

Afternoon thunderstorms had marched across the Yellowstone sky, and their remnants were still scattered across the stars, the clouds nearest the eastern horizon shimmering all cool in the silver glow of the moon. With cookware washed and belly full, I reclined in the dirt with two friends, and our conversation meandered as the pressures of daily life slowly slipped from consciousness and into the stunning silence, the deep and varied solitude.

As we enjoyed the heart-warming trickle from nips at a small, plastic bottle of whiskey, the silence was faintly broken. The howl from a lone wolf emerged from a ridge to the southeast, a mile or so away. A little later, a spate of scattered raindrops began to fall. Everyone scrambled for the cover of the tent. I stayed out and put the hood of my parka over my head. From another ridge to the southwest came that clear, spine-chilling, silence-splitting bugle of a bull elk in rutt. Then, from the other ridge to the southeast, the wolf again howled. Call and response, a nighttime duet that lasted fifteen or more minutes.

Mother Nature’s auditory wizardry at work.

The Park

Congress set Yellowstone National Park aside on March 1, 1872 as the nation’s and world’s first national park. Travelers the world wide flock to Yellowstone’s renowned geothermal features: geysers, springs and mudpots, but also the world’s largest high-elevation lake, Yellowstone Lake, high plateau forests, the headwaters of several major rivers and inspiring waterfalls. It is also one of the world’s foremost wildlife sanctuaries, one of the last strongholds of the grizzly bear but also home to major populations of elk, bighorn sheep, antelope, bison and moose.

Yellowstone encompasses more than 2.2 million acres, mostly in Wyoming, but it is part of a much larger ecosystem that encompasses some 13 million acres of mostly federally-owned land. This vast region stretches from the Wind River Mountains and the headwaters of the Green River in the south to the Beartooth Mountains in the north. The greater Yellowstone ecosystem includes towns like Jackson, Wyoming; West Yellowstone, Montana; and Bozeman, Montana.

The Yellowstone Park Act of 1872 declared the park proper “hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people…”

And pleasure them it does, by the millions. Twenty-five percent of all Americans will visit Old Faithful, the park’s signature geyser, which shoots boiling water 180 feet into the air, at least once in their lifetimes. Three million people visit the park each year.

Shoshone Geyser Basin

The Shoshone Geyser Basin contains 110 geothermal features, including a half-dozen geysers and numerous boiling springs and mudpots. Photo © Greg Stahl.

Geology tells stories, and Yellowstone National Park has a story to tell.

After rising late to a denim-blue sky and drinking lazy cups of coffee by the lake, we broke camp, packed boats and then fought a headwind five miles to the west end of Shoshone Lake, where boiling water splashed from small vents on the lakeshore. The two main vents spit bubbles and puffs of steam in the air, splashing boiling water on the rocks. We climbed out of our boats and began to walk into the Shoshone Geyser Basin, one of the park’s truly pristine geothermal hot spots.

The southwest corner of Yellowstone is not mountainous country, but it is rugged and remote. Shoshone and Lewis lakes are near the southern boundary of the Yellowstone Caldera, which encircles the park’s geothermal and volcanic activity.

Shoshone Geyser Basin has not been transformed into a board-walked tourist spectacle like many that are on-the-beaten-path. It contains 110 thermal features, Union Geser the most famous among them, though it’s been dormant since the mid-1970s. There are a half-dozen additional geysers, and numerous bubbling springs and mudpots.

Walking beside a basin full of bubbling mud and watching wisps of steam rise from the hillside, I began to hear my footsteps resonate beneath my weight, and I paused. The earth was hollow in that place, and I remembered stories of backcountry hikers killed from falls into boiling pools of water or mud. I backtracked my steps and considered Yellowstone’s fascinating geology as I retreated.

Beginning in eastern Oregon and northern Nevada 16.1 million years ago, the geologic hot spotthat is now beneath Yellowstone first percolated onto the earth’s surface and created the Owyhee Mountains and surrounding basalt canyon country. As the North American plate drifted to the southwest at a rate of about two centimeters per year, the molten hot spot moved beneath the surface of the landscape, resulting in southern Idaho’s vast sweeps of basalt and rhyolite lava fields, canyons and mountains, features like the Bruneau and Owyhee canyons, Jarbidge Mountains, Craters of the Moon National Monument and, of course, Yellowstone.

No one has ever seen eruptions on the scale of the Yellowstone eruptions, which threw flame, lava and ash into the alpine air three times between 600,000 and 2 million years ago. According to park literature, Yellowstone’s most recent lava flows occurred merely 70,000 years ago, “yesterday in geologic time.”[1]

And that begs the question: Is Yellowstone still erupting? Recent earthquakes suggest this is a strong possibility. As of this writing on Sept. 10, 2009, seven earthquakes of a magnitude of 3 or less trembled Yellowstone’s graceful lodgepole ridges and deep river canyons in the preceding week, according to the University of Utah Seismograph Center. And last winter, a mere nine months ago, the second largest spate of earthquakes ever to be recorded in Yellowstone was logged in a two-week period. [2]

The majority of scientist agree. It’s not a matter of if, but when, even if indications are that it probably won’t been soon. Not in people time. Geologic time, however, is another matter.

Black Beaches

The afternoon wind gusted from the south, and we fought white-capped cross-currents east, where black basalt beaches stood in contrast to Shoshone Lake’s turquoise waters. We passed a tree where a bald eagle was unconcerned with our intrusion, simply cocking its head to monitor our progress.

After rounding a cape, we found our campsite in a thick stand of timber near a coal-black beach and set up for the night, enjoying a six-pack and finishing our meager whiskey provisions. Then the sunset and silence and darkness reigned.

Once again relaxing into the silence of a Yellowstone evening, the eerie bugle of a horny bull elk rose from the timber behind camp, and I felt a tingle crawl up my spine. Then it bugled again, before another from across the lake joined with his solemn, piercing call for a mate.

We hung our provisions from a bear-pole high in the trees, and then I climbed my paddle-weary body into the tent where I nestled into a sleeping bag with thoughts of silence and remoteness and wildness drifting to and fro. It’s not every day you get to sleep in a place where you’re part of the food chain, where the value of wildness and remoteness are so tangible.

It’s not every day you find a place to get lost in.

It’s not every day you find a place to find yourself in.

Darkness. Silence. Sleep. Deep, easy sleep.

© Greg Stahl

The West in the wild

“The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were. . . .

“. . . Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest-trees.”

-Henry David Thoreau, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau

Northern lights over Sun Valley

It was a cool November evening in 2004, and we motored north across the Snake River Plain, me and a woman from Ketchum, Idaho. We’d spent the afternoon kayaking on the Snake River near Hagerman, which is as close to a banana belt as Idaho’s got.

Twilight crept across the sky as we eased north into the Wood River Valley, home to Sun Valley Resort, and far to the north above the Boulder and Smoky mountain ranges I thought I began to see the faint traces of spooky lime green light oozing across the evening sky.

“Do you think that’s the Northern Lights?” I asked her. We were both exhausted from a long day on the river, and, citing the interesting light common to that time of day, she was skeptical. Still, I kept my eyes trained on the horizon and decided not to mention it again. The more I looked, though, the more I was certain, and if she didn’t want to see it that was her decision. I was craving a solo adventure anyway.

I dropped her and her kayaking gear at her condominium, then raced home for my camera, a Canon 10D, which was still very new to me, and a tripod. I’d never taken a very successful photograph of anything at night before, but the more I looked toward the waning twilight the more I was certain that the faint coalescing of lime green was more than the remnant of an interesting sunset.

I didn’t know where to go, so I aimed east along a small creek that meanders out of the towering spires of the Pioneer Mountains, and as I did twilight vanished, the light remained, and then it began to transform, first oozing into an unmistakable green, then radiating and pulsing with smears of red, crawling from the north to the east, then across the vault of vivid, sparkling stars. There was no doubt: The Northern Lights were in rare form.

The unfortunate thing was, I didn’t know how to use the camera. The fortunate thing was, that was the night I learned to use the camera. The majority of the photos were blurry, many shot at high ISO settings, and most shot without using Mirror Lockup, a trick I figured out only by the evening’s final few frames, when I had made my way back into Ketchum and climbed the lower flanks of Bald Mountain to shoot back toward the east across the mountain town, after the display’s rarer reds had passed.

I’ve seen some magnificent things in rural Idaho. I’ve watched meteor showers from the comfortable cocoon of a mountain hot spring. I’ve seen sunrises and sunsets that might make a man cry. I’ve watched fog drift and snows settle, mountains move and rivers roar. And on about a half dozen occasions I’ve seen the Northern Lights, and each time they were mysterious and strange and magical and magnificent. That November evening in 2004 was the best night sky I’ve ever seen, and even if I didn’t know fully how to use it at the time I had a trusty camera along for the journey.

Most of these images aren’t refined enough for publication, but hopefully the top one is. I’ve returned to it time and again through the years to attempt editing it into a finer work of art, and each time found myself limited by what I knew about computers and photo editing software. This week I decided to try again. It is composed of 13 separate images shot in two rows and seven and a half columns. Each frame was a 30-second exposure. One of the biggest struggles through the years was the fact that I’d left the white balance on Auto, and the frames including the town’s lights contained grossly different hues from the balance. Only recently have I discovered a piece of software that deals with these amateur inconsistencies.

Hopefully the wait was worth it, though now that I look it’s awfully similar to the version I did over the course of 12 hours by hand six years ago. Hmm.

Hells on Earth

Hells Canyon, a great gash in the earth’s surface, is created by the Snake River along the Idaho-Oregon border. The Snake in Hells is big, but there are only indications of what it was before the days of European expansion into the West. Between the Snake River’s headwaters in Yellowstone National Park and Hells Canyon, dozens of dams capture its waters and are used to create electricity, as well as to water crops in southern Idaho’s desert.

The Snake River in Hells Canyon does not have an abundance of difficult whitewater. What it does have is outstanding scenery, wilderness camping and, depending on who you ask and how they define it, the deepest canyon in North America. The river runs more than 8,000 feet below nearby He Devil Peak in Idaho and more than a mile below the canyon rim in Oregon. The Grand Canyon, though by most standards more stunning, has 4,000 and 6,000 foot walls on its south and north rims, respectively.

At 1,040 miles long, the Snake River is the largest and longest of the Columbia River’s tributaries, and it threads a diverse landscape including national parks, mountain resorts, working agricultural country, working cities, huge basalt canyons and the Palouse hills of eastern Washington state. Last weekend, looking for a graceful transition into summer activities, I loaded up with four friends for my first trip through Hells Canyon. In three days we covered 35 miles from Hells Canyon Dam to Pittsburgh Landing. With medium-high flows, we probably could have done it in one long day, certainly in two.

For more on Hells Canyon and Snake River history, lore, geography and topography, read some of my prior posts:

Death Has Many Faces on the Snake River Plain (Astoria 1811) (Upper-Snake/Hells Canyon Historic Fiction)
The Seven Devils Mountains, a Nez Perce legend (Upper Snake/Hells Canyon Native American Fable and Perspective)
Yellowstone National Park by Boat (Upper Snake/Yellowstone National Park Nonfiction Feature)
Murtaugh reach of the Snake River flows at 17,000 cfs; rafter killed above Let’s Make a Deal (Upper Snake/Snake River Canyon Nonfiction Feature)

Whitewater park makes Cascade a New West innovator

Cascade, Idaho, has become one of the newest parts of the New West, and the talent in the eddy at the city’s recently unveiled whitewater park was evidence of that.

There were four or five kids in shiny Jackson playboats, and a few more over the age of 25 or 30 trying to keep up. I gave quick measure to their abilities in the hole and realized there was no way I would stand out in this group of highly skilled playboaters.

One of the kids had a red, white and blue Jackson boat with shiny letters on the side reading “NEURO.” After watching him take a few surfs in the hole, I tapped the letters with my paddle.

“What’s NEURO?” I asked, my voice elevated to compete with the foaming water nearby.

A drink company, he responded.

“You sponsored?”

“Yep.” He held out his hand. “I’m Jason.”

We shook hands across the current of the eddy. “You from around here, Jason?”

“No,” he said. “From Reno. But I’m thinking about going to college in Boise. There are some amazing rivers around here.”

We talked for a while about school and kayaking, and then Jason from Reno paddled into the whitewash with a few smooth paddle strokes. Another kid waiting his turn looked at me.

“He’s good, isn’t he? That’s Jason Craig, the reigning junior freestyle world champ.”

“That would make sense,” I said as Jason Craig from Reno performed an acrobatic aerial stunt called a loop. “He is good–and a nice guy, too.”

With its grand opening only three weeks ago, Kelly’s Whitewater Park in Cascad has alreeady logged 8,000 visits by boaters, floaters and curious Idaho residents, and it is clear that the addition of Idaho’s first whitewater play park will become a boon to the community of Cascade and its residents.

An old timber town, Cascade’s biggest employer, the Boise Cascade Mill, closed in 2001. In 2009, after considerable fanfare and marginal success, one of the nation’s newest ski resorts, Tamarack, closed in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown. But Cascade had not yet taken advantage of one of its most obvious assets: the North Fork of the Payette River.

With help from private donors, lots of fundraisers and a few grants, Kelly’s Whitewater Park became a reality at no cost to Cascade or its residents.

“Cascade is a community in transition with new opportunities in recreation and services rather than their past resource extraction based economy,” said Steve Drown, professor and chair of Landscape Architecture and Extension education specialist in Bioregional Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Idaho.

Cascade Mayor Dick Carter reported that the park is already propping the local economy, which boasted 20 percent unemployment following Boise Cascade’s closing. Two tube and raft rental companies have taken root, as have a bed and breakfast and bistro. What’s more, the Payette River system is already nationally renowned for its high-caliber whitewater kayaking and rafting. Known to some as the University of Whitewater for its summer-long season and boating at all skill levels, the Payette system has been highly enhanced with this play-specific addition.

Kelly’s Whitewater Park has five water features ranging from beginner to advanced, and the facility boasts a 2,600-square-foot welcome center, which is perched over the river with huge glass windows with views of the whitewater.

But the park is more than a simple addition to a community searching for its place in the New West.

In the fall of 2008, the University of Idaho’s Building Sustainable Communities Initiative and the College of Art and Architecture joined the project to help create a new vision for Cascade. They developed concepts for community design that involved green infrastructure, community wellness, civic architecture and affordable housing.

Among the ideas whipped up in this cauldron of creativity was a tourism generator, the whitewater park. In March 2009, a $500,000 gift from Mark and Kristina Pickard of Miami, Fla., gave life to the project. Named in honor of Kristina’s late sister, Kelly Brennan, Kelly’s Whitewater Park could generate in excess of $1 million in retail business annually, according to a preliminary economic analysis.

“The energy of the park development and donor involvement catalyzed the community and created a new vision,” said Drown. “It has given the community a new drive to look at comprehensive plan work and entrepreneurial opportunity.”

And, when further stages of construction are complete, the community will boast a superlative 200-acre greenbelt park with additional recreation facilities and reclaimed wetlands where once the detritus of the Boise Cascade Mill’s downed timber and empty facilities were scattered.

“We want our community to be a destination – a place where people intentionally come visit, stay, walk around and enjoy what we have to offer,” said Carter.

Back in the eddy, I quickly discovered I was in the midst of more than one sponsored kayaker. Another was from West Virginia, and several other highly accomplished boaters made the two-hour drive from Boise to spend a weekday afternoon getting wet in Cascade.

A year ago, Cascade was a scenic blur for kayakers driving north or south on state Highway 55. Now it is a destination, a part of an evolving New West, and a model for communities searching for creative ways to build sustainable futures.

© Greg Stahl

Armstrong embraces the 'unknown and the doable'

Those are the words the 33-year-old native of Denver, Colo., chose to describe his first encounter with a whitewater kayak, but the phrase just as easily applies to his increasingly refined eye for beauty through the lens and his evolving knack to spin a good yarn.

Both kayak and camera, it turns out, are mechanisms for exploration.

“I want people to leave their desk or wherever they’re watching and get lost in some other place,” Armstrong said. “I want people to feel and experience the same emotions I do when I go out and do those things.”

By many measures, his recent work succeeds. With critical help from Co-Director Ryan Bailey of McCall, Idaho, a four-part series focusing on the seasons of kayaking in the Pacific Northwest is taking shape.

In October 2010 “Fall” became the series’ first. Shot on the White Salmon River in southern Washington state, it features local resident Kate Wagner hiking and paddling through the seasonal transition. The film won best short film at the 2011 Reel Paddling Film Festival in Toronto and at the National Paddling Film Festival in Frankfort, Ky. It also won best film at the Portland Whitewater film festival in 2010. The second in the series, “Winter,” was released in February 2011 and promises to be equally acclaimed.

“Winter” features Boise kayaker Brian Ward, whose evocative narrative about the darkness of the season offers inspiration and motivation to those who might feel suffocated by the cold, gray tunnel of the ice-encrusted months.

“But even in the darkest season of the year there’s a lot of lightness to be found; you just have to go get it,” Ward says as footage rolls of him paddling through a serene sheen of reflected silvery light.

Skip Armstrong in Hells Canyon
Skip Armstrong behind the lens. Photo (c) Greg Stahl.
“I was feeling down about winter, and I brought it up with Brian when we were recording,” Armstrong said. “I decided to put it in the film. Winter’s dark. It’s not traditionally the time you get out and do these sports, but you can. And it’s actually really rewarding when you do.

The narrative style of filmmaking is something new for Armstrong, who until the last three years focused on what he called “adventure chronology.” Now, with new vision, an unfailingly positive attitude and an ever mounting supply of ambition, the idea is to emphasize places and stories more than stunts or overwhelming grandeur. The irony is that in pulling this off, the result is more impressive than any grand stunt could be.

“I think what I want to do is relay all the little teeny things that make these adventures so fun,” Armstrong said. “What’s it like to walk to the put-in? What do you do when you park in an eddy and look around? What goes on in your head all day long? When you go out and do the activity, it’s so much more rich than the typical adventure film captures.”

With two more films in the series yet to be directed, shot and edited, Armstrong doesn’t want to give too much away. Spring, though, will focus on predictable iconic elements such as rebirth. Summer, the most active paddling season, will feature the idea of community. What’s more, if everything goes as planned, completion of the summer film will feed swiftly into one of the most exciting opportunities of the young filmmaker’s career.

Last year, when Idaho’s North Fork of the Payette River flowed at record-high levels, Armstrong helped shoot footage for a film by award-winning videographer Anson Fogel of Forge Motion Pictures. Called “Wildwater,” the film has been acclaimed at festivals across North America.

This August that chance meeting will pay off when Armstrong joins a team of kayakers and filmmakers, including Fogel and Squamish, British Columbia filmmaker Bryan Smith of Reel Water Productions, who will paddle the world-renowned Stikine River with Idaho whitewater legend Rob Lesser. Long considered the Everest of North American rivers, the Stikine flows for 45 miles through a deep and remote canyon where rescue would be impossible and early exit improbable. Lesser first explored it in 1981 and then returned in 1985 with a team to complete the first full and self-supported run. From 1985 to 2006 only 15 teams completed the run successfully.

As with Armstrong’s seasons-of-kayaking-series, the 60- to 90-minute film will be much more than an adventure chronicle. It will be the story of an aging world-class explorer and what significance that has.

The project website at puts it this way:

“Now, in 2011, at age 65, Rob is returning with his heirs to the river that shaped so much of his life. This is a story about a quiet hero in a deafening place of almost incomprehensible power. It is an exploration of essential human questions about purpose, perspective, will and mortality against the backdrop of one of the most powerful, yet little known, places in the world.”

Lesser has no children and has never been married. And at the same time he’s accomplished the incredible—to many, the impossible. “He’s looked fear in the eye and pushed it aside,” Armstrong said. “This will be his story, the evolution of one of America’s great unsung explorers, told in the setting of one of the places he explored.”

From working with two of the most respected filmmakers in the genre to paddling a remote full-throttle river with the legend who explored it, this summer’s project is the culmination of goals and dreams for Armstrong and an opportunity for which he expressed deep gratitude.

Still, if he were asked back in 1997, the year he was introduced to both filmmaking and kayaking in Durango, Colo., if these two tangents might someday converge, he’d have scratched his head. Even today, now that they have come together, it can be difficult to imagine that the combination could supply an income. After all, they’re both activities Armstrong pursued for fun.

“I thought there was no way to make a living doing what you loved, “he said. “There are tradeoffs. There’s a ton of uncertainty. But it seems to always work out. You just have to go for a walk and let it out of your mind when it seems like it’s not going to work.”

And while he doesn’t aspire to direct Hollywood films (maybe work on a set once or twice), he hopes to continue toting his camera into wild places and returning with inspirational scenes he can share.

“I am who I am today because I got to wander around in open fields, climb mountains and paddle rivers,” he said. “I got to know myself, push myself and be myself outdoors. I want everyone to have that opportunity, and wild land is at the center of it. One of the ways to show the value of wild spaces is to bring it back to people.”

And that goal, in many ways, is the perfect melding of Armstrong’s original fascination with the whitewater kayak. It’s the pursuit of intangible values like quality, reverence and stillness of mind shared with known quantities like learned skills and experience.

A combination, in short, of the unknown and the doable.

© Greg Stahl