Moved by the Wallowas

Winter in the Wallowas

Wolves

Six hundred pounds of Oregon Elk thundered up the small freestone creek in a desperate dash for life as a pack of gray wolves gave chase. Two or three wolves were closing in on her flanks in the shallow stream as the rest of the pack ran just behind them on the high banks of the small tributary. In a final powerful move to avoid the wolves at her heels, she wheeled left and attempted to jump up the six foot bank from the bottom of the creek bed. Her fate was sealed when her front legs sunk to her shoulders in four feet of deep snow. The trailing wolves, running lightly on a thin layer of crust, caught her quickly and ended the struggle for life at the top of the bank in a flurry of fangs and flesh.

Less than twenty four hours later we approached the scene on our snowcats not half a mile from our destination by the river in the heart of the Wallowa Mountains in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Northeast corner of Oregon.

Snow prints told the story.

Boots

It was a solemn moment in the middle of a remote area that had taken us several hours and a variety of vehicles to reach. Our destination was a cabin by the river, owned by my friend and river running brother, Jim Whitney who led our overland caravan of three through a maze of trails, locked gates, logging roads, switchbacks and abandoned railroad tracks in some of the most breathtaking country in Oregon. Steve Corey was with us – a good fisherman, great outdoorsman, and fantastic cook.
We reached the little cabin, started a fire, unloaded gear, and propped our wet boots by the stove to dry out. Steve’s Danner Boots were the same model as mine, with 50 more years of stories to tell. I slipped on my waders, grabbed my fly rod and headed upriver to pursue steelhead on the fly just as it started to snow.

Steelhead on the fly…

Asparagus

A mile upriver, I started fishing for steelhead in the familiar two-step of a determined fly fisherman committed to the old school style of swinging flies with a single handed rod working the pools, tail-outs, slicks and likely looking pockets where those elusive fish might be holding. Four fishless hours later and I was ready for the warmth of the cabin and whatever food Jim and Steve were cooking.
I thought he was kidding when I walked through the door and Steve asked how many lobster tails I wanted for dinner, two or three? When I said four I thought I was calling his bluff but he said “alright but that won’t leave you with any for tomorrow night”…..  WHAT??  Seriously?? They added roasted asparagus, caesar salad, toasted french bread, melted butter for the lobster and a bottle of wine too expensive for my palate to appreciate and I started thinking – my usual posse of river rats on the western side of the state need to step up their game !!

Lobster dinner

Winter

Clearly this was going to be a steelhead trip to remember… but the Pendleton Whiskey after dinner would challenge us to recall the details. The next morning was clear and crisp. I slipped on my waders, slipped out the cabin door and hiked to the pools upstream.

We fished hard all day – upstream, downstream, swinging, nymphing, plunking….. we tried it all with the same result. A fishless day – not at all uncommon or unfamiliar to steelhead fishermen…. and so, we headed to the cabin for ribs and lobster. Jim had been smoking ribs all afternoon on the grill (of course there’s a grill a million miles from nowhere). If nothing else, this trip would add a few pounds for us all to work off at a later date.

After another elegant dinner I grabbed my Therm-a-Rest cot, my sleeping bag, and my Pendleton blanket and headed for the river to do some open air winter sleeping down by the river. I explained it as a field test for winter gear – but I really wanted a closer connection to the river, the valley and the Nez Perce tribe of Native Americans that called this place “home” more than two hundred and fifty years before us. I looked up at the stars in the night sky and thought of them in this place.

Sleeping simple

My breath was heavy and my nose was cold but the familiar sound of running water over rocks and the rawness of the night was something I’ll never forget. The image of the slaughtered Elk was something else I’ll never forget and a few times during the night imagined I was being surrounded by the Minam pack of wolves that patrols this valley and did my best to snore loudly hoping to be mistaken for a hibernating bear. When I woke to the first light of dawn, I was pretty glad I hadn’t been eaten by wolves and figured either they thought I was a sleeping bear, a mad dog, or a middle aged fly fisherman that wouldn’t taste very good…. or maybe the wolf pack was only in my dreams. I hiked up to the cabin and made coffee.

Swinging flies

Things were different from the very beginning of the third day.  Jim positioned himself on a stretch of river he knew well and threw his egg pattern upriver in just the right spot so it would slide over and around rocks and boulders that had produced a boat load of steelhead in the past. He had several “bumps” before the solid hit that bent his rod over in that familiar powerful arc.

JIm with a “hook-up”

Native steelhead

It was a native fish – wild and strong and after a classic fight Jim carefully released it back to the cold water.

Meanwhile, back upriver I was continuing my own quest for steelhead in some of the “fishiest” looking steelhead stretches I had ever seen. Perfect clarity, pace, and personality for those fish…. I was sure the steelhead were there but wasn’t convinced they would take the fly I was offering. So I switched flies… often. For over two hours I threw cast after cast with a variation of flies when suddenly, “WHAM” I had a solid hit from a solid fish which stopped me cold in my tracks and took my breath. The rod bent and the reel started to scream and then… just as suddenly, it didn’t. Everything quit. Silence. arrrrrg. It was almost as startling as the initial hit. It’s a helpless and defeated feeling. After the replay of events in my head, I gathered myself and went back to casting.

Shadow casting

The sun came out briefly and I watched my shadow on the water making cast after cast and then it was time to pack up and leave the valley.

Snowed in….. almost

Last look…

 

 

 

 

 

 

We made our way back up the steep narrow trail and near the top we stopped for one final look down at the river snaking it’s way between the mountains of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

In 1877, over 800 members of the Nez Perce tribe and their 2,000 horses fled the valley and headed Northeast in a desperate attempt to elude the pursuers hot on their trail. They were searching for a new home and chased by the U.S. army for over 1,000 miles and three months across Idaho and parts of Montana before a final bloody battle less than 40 miles from the safety of Canada. It was the battle in the foothills of the Bear’s Paw Mountains where the Nez Perce were finally forced to surrender and Chief Joseph is said to have pronounced to the remaining Chiefs and the U.S. Army “Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

As I looked over the raw beauty of the Wallowa valley with the steep dark green Mountains on all sides dusted with a fine layer of white snow tumbling into the river below, his words took on a depth that made me ache for his people and the way of life they gave up. I was moved by the Wallowas.

Ancestral home of the Nez Perce

Patagonia

Chief Joseph Blanket by Pendleton

Boots with a view

 

 

 

 

Badlands National Park


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In the Badlands National Park, there is a Wilderness Area where bison, coyotes, prairie dogs, and snakes make their homes. You can be a guest there and share this space with them – at least for a night or two.

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It’s the primitive camping area at Sage Creek in the North Unit of the park and if you take the rutted dusty “rim road” on the north side of the Badlands park you will find it – tucked between the gentle bluffs and rolling hills of buffalo grass in South Dakota – just southeast of Rapid City and the Black Hills.

img_4307As I pulled into the area, it was a warm day for October and the only signs of life were a couple of bison calmly grazing who didn’t even look up as I rolled by in my FJ Cruiser pulling my little wooden boat. A ring-necked rooster pheasant was quite a bit more shy but still curious about the sound of loose gravel crunching beneath the tires. My window was down and I took a quick photo just before he put his head down and disappeared in the tall grass.

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While there are no rivers to “float” in the Badlands, I was towing my boat through the park on my way to the midwest for a little off-season repair work. I’m so used to camping next to the boat on the river, it somehow seemed to “fit” in this rustic setting. If nothing else, I figured it would be a nice wind break for my campsite. I picked a level spot for the tent that was in-between buffalo “pies” that were stale and crusty and no longer smelled. The canvas tent blended with the terrain and when camp was “set”, I pulled out my lap-top and did some late afternoon writing as the sun set and the temperatures started dropping.

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Such a sharp contrast – using an apple computer in such a rustic setting – but it was actually a peaceful place to write – regardless of the instrument. The afternoon temperatures continued to drop and when the sun set behind the hills I put on my fleece jacket, moved my Therm-a-rest cot, bedroll, and camp chair inside the tent and continued to write. Temperatures dropped to the low 30’s and the clear cloudless sky revealed stars so bright I didn’t need a flashlight. One of the most vivid memories from that overnight stay in the hills was the haunting howls of the coyotes who were prowling in and around camp all night long. Their high pitched yelps and long lonely wails made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and I hoped I would snore loud enough to have somewhat the same effect on them a few hours later.

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As I drove through the Badlands and admired the unique rock formations it all looked so raw and primitive. The strong wind of the prairies has been sandblasting and shaping these formations for thousands of years – just like the strong current of the river shapes the rocks and the channels where I run my boat. As I drove through the rock maze I thought of one of my favorite quotes from Teddy Roosevelt when talking about the Grand Canyon… “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”

Clearly the “ages” had been at work here and the evidence was unique and beautiful.

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When I finally hit blacktop it was a welcome change to the washboard dirt and gravel roads that had been rattling the frame of my Toyota and my teeth for the past couple of days. And while the smooth park roads were a nice change, suddenly I felt like a park tourist and the adventure lost a little of it’s “edge” for me. The winding roads of the park snaked their way through the formations and I was glad it was off-season so I could take my time admiring the terrain without seeing much of anyone else.

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The fall colors of army green and pale yellow prairie grass stretched to the horizon on all sides as far as the eye could see and were a perfect match for the Badlands park flag and Pendleton blanket. Big dark brown Bison dotted the prairie with their heads down and plodded slowly along, grazing on the grass before the cold winds from Canada would bring snowfall to cover the prairie in just a few weeks.

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As I left the park and drove over the dusty ruts I rode in on – I appreciated the solitude of the setting and the fact that it remained so “unchanged”. The Badlands are truly a work of art and will continue to be under construction as long as the wind blows over the prairie.

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If you go there and primitive camping is not your thing…  there is an “improved” campground at Cedar Pass with tent sites and RV sites – electricity, toilets, and water.  The Cedar Pass Lodge is open seasonally and there are even new cabins that offer all the indoor comforts of home – with a view of the Badlands.

Go there.

GH

 

 

On the Rogue River – No Such Thing as Bad Weather

The forecast for our October trip on the wild and scenic section of the Rogue River this year was rain…. lots of it. We could see it coming a week away and there was no way to stop it.

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The tributaries were all running strong.

It was quite a contrast to last year when we launched on a record low level of water and had a hard time getting our boats “lined” around the Class VI Rainie Falls.  This year, on a higher water level, the lining channel was treacherous for other reasons…. higher water, slippery rocks, and runaway boats kept us on our toes.

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Lining our boats around Rainie Falls.

A few days before our launch date, while other groups were making decisions about whether or not to go at all, we were making decisions about what gear to pack. Our most seasoned river rat, Scott Vollstedt (Commander “Fun-sucker”), has a saying that goes something like this….. “there is no such thing as bad weather – just bad gear and poor planning”. We packed our best water-proof gear and planned to get nailed by one of the biggest weather systems of the season.

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Colorful tarps and tents.

With rain flys and triangle tarps we had a covered kitchen and enough room for a mini mess-hall where we huddled and ate, smoked cigars and sampled various Oregon whiskey’s around a propane fire before “lights out”. The weather was even more aggressive than expected and we estimated that out of 4 days and nights on the river, it rained 65% to 70% of the time.  That’s A LOT of water in October… even for Oregon.

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River Rat council on the Rogue.

Our drift boats became rain gauges for the nightly deluge and each morning we bailed them out before loading them up with gear and fishing our way downriver.

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Drift Boat rain guage

As usual, we ate well.  Each cook team did their best to “outdo” the other and featured such favorites as “Huli Huli” Hawaiian Chicken, Pasta and rice, fresh “Guacamole” and chips, and steelhead appetizers.  The blue ribbon of “river cuisine”, however, went to the Sunday night crew who prepared an Oregon Jambalaya which included fresh crawfish from Lake Billy Chinook in central Oregon (peeled and prepared by Jeremy) and blackened salmon from the Umpqua River in southern Oregon (caught and prepared by Jayson).

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Oregon Jambalaya over pasta

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Blackened Salmon from the Umpqua River

With such rainy weather we pretty much had the river to ourselves….. or did we?? On the morning of the third day I left camp early to fish a slot just below the riffle at Missouri Bar where we had camped for the night.  Just a couple hundred yards from our camp, a black bear was making his way upriver toward camp.  I grabbed the camera and started shooting.  The bear stood on a mossy rock with a commanding view of the river as well as my boat and I slowly rowed to the rock for a closer shot.

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Bear with a view.

It felt like I was craning my neck up at him from directly below but, figuring the bear would not jump off the rock and into my boat, I was pretty safe – although still pretty close. It was a cool way to start the day.  Actually, the day started with a close encounter with a deer when Rick Allen and I hiked the hill behind our camp up to the remnants of the Old Frye cabin and surprised this little deer on the trail.

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Deer on the trail above Missouri Bar camp.

That same day we rowed the difficult Class IV’s – Mule Creek Canyon and Blossom Bar. It’s been my experience that the higher water and rising river makes Mule Creek a little easier and Blossom a little harder. All our boats made it safely through the twists and turns of the canyon and when we rounded the corner for Blossom we discovered that 3 boats from previous trips were “down” in Blossom.  One was sunk in the Picket Fence, one was lodged at the top of the Beaver Slide – presenting us with an additional rowing challenge, and a raft, complete with frame, was “shipwrecked” and washed up on shore at the bottom of the rapid.

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Tan colored Cataraft wedged at the Beaver Slide in Blossom Bar.

So much destruction in one rapid made us cautious and careful but we all ran the gauntlet of boulders, eddies, and holes to reach the bottom “floating” – all boats upright… and had a quick shot of whiskey in Celebration Eddy before running Devils Staircase.

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Scott Vollstedt – “Commander Fun-sucker”

It’s a term of endearment and it “fit’s”.  Scott is also the Commander of the kitchen, Captain feng shui of the campsite, and camp Sergeant-at-arms if we forget to wash our hands before coming into the kitchen or if we set up the dish washing station in anything but the “upriver to downriver” configuration.  If the “Seinfeld Soup Nazi” was in charge of a river trip that would be Scott… and we love him for it. He’s also great on the oars and the camera.

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Cot set-up “before” a heavy rain came down and a heavy tarp went up…

Cot camping on such a rainy trip was challenging but Therm-a-Rest has a great rain-fly that kept me dry and Pendleton has a National Park Blanket that kept me warm so I was more than comfortable on this trip. If you ever have the chance to run the wild and scenic section of the Rogue – I would highly recommend it. If wilderness camping is not your thing – there are historic lodges along the way that are rustic and cozy.

GH

Show Me… an Oregon Adventure

pic by Garrett King

The Sansone Men Jimmy, Jim, Lan

As they walked the narrow path leading back to our campsite tucked away in the Willamette National Forest  surrounded by old growth Doug Fir and towering Hemlock trees, they said it reminded them of a scene from Jurassic Park. Our rustic canvas teepee tents were drawn tight and the flaps were folded back to let the lite mountain breeze from the Cascade range blow through the opening and reveal a bright splash of color from the Pendleton wool blankets laid out on canvas cowboy bedrolls on Therm-a-rest cots inside. Just behind the camp a little stream of icy water provided just the right amount of white noise as it babbled away between the smooth river rocks and moss covered tree limbs. We were in the heart of Oregon between Eugene and Bend – Big Water country, known for steelhead, white water, and fly fishing. The Sansone men of St. Louis – Jim Sr, Jimmy, and Lan had come out west for a WoodenBoat adventure and wanted to test drive some rugged new apparel from their Normal line of clothing. While they are seasoned outdoorsmen, they had never experienced an Oregon river adventure and I was thrilled to be the one making the introductions.

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Canvas Tents in the Willamette National Forest

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Normal Brand Gear – Pendleton Wool Blanket

One of the best parts of an Oregon adventure is fresh Salmon grilled on a cedar plank over a bed of coals. We brined the Chinook fillet’s in ice water with sea salt, lemon slices and herbs, brined the cedar plank in the icy brook behind camp and brought them both together on the grill.

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Cedar Plank – soaking in ice water

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Fresh Salmon on Cedar Plank – diced Yukons with sweet Walla Walla Onions

Our proper campfire meal was followed by Pendleton Whiskey and cigars of course.

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Pendleton Whiskey – 1910

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Jim enjoying an after-dinner smoke

Deep sleep came easy and dawn came early to our camp in one of the largest National Forests in the country. After a big river-rat breakfast and hot coffee, we broke camp, loaded gear in the Toyota FJ40 and prepared for a day on the McKenzie River.

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Cowboy coffee and hot tea over coals – Good Morning Oregon

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Breaking camp and packing the FJ

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To the River

We were met at the boat ramp by my good friend and fellow guide George Recker who also runs a wood boat and is one of the best oarsmen and fishermen on the river… his specialty = the famous McKenzie redside rainbow trout which we would be pursuing that day. To get to these fish, we run whitewater in boats that are designed for this specific purpose on this particular river and are named for it.  We run McKenzie style drift boats made of wood and their unique features allow us to move with speed and agility as we cut sharp lines with our Sawyer Oars around a variety of river obstacles to get to the fish.

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George Recker on the oars… Marten Rapid – Class III – McKenzie River

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WoodenBoats in white water on the McKenzie – form follows function!!

We caught lots and lots of trout as we avoided rocks and boulders and cut an elegant path through Class II and III rapids on the McKenzie. The next day we pursued steelhead at sun-up on slower water draped in a heavy fog and the thrill of running white water rapids from the day before was replaced by the anticipation and possibility of hooking into this king of gamefish with flimsy rods and fancy flies.

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Smoke on the water….

With a reputation as “elusive” – Steelhead are hard to find, hard to catch and extremely difficult to land. We have found that ideal conditions for hooking up with a steelhead include cool water temperatures with an overcast sky and/or slight rain. By ten o’clock that morning our water temperature remained at a higher than normal 63 degrees and the bright sun had turned the fog into a beautiful clear blue sky. Degree of difficulty = EXTREMELY HIGH.

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Sansone brothers Jimmy and Lan – synchronized casting

After a full morning of pursuit – throwing our best flies and making our most enticing presentations, we had nothing to show for it. No hits, no grabs, no bumps, no nothin…  I gave a discouraging look at my watch as we approached one of the last best spots on the river and announced that we only had 5 minutes left of fishing time before we needed to wrap it up and get to the airport.  Evidently one steelhead was listening and slammed young Jimmy’s fly sending our boat into a frenzy of activity. I dropped the anchor and stopped the boat as the steelhead charged the boat on his way upstream. The fly line went slack and everyone thought the big fish had gotten off…. everyone, that is, except Jimmy – who continued to reel as fast as he could and finally caught up to the large steelhead who sprang to life again and the fight was back on.  Yikes.  (9 out of 10 times, an upriver run like that will result in a lost fish – but not this time).  The tug of war was classic and the fish took several epic downstream runs peeling line off the reel so fast he got deep into the backing at least three times. Finally, the fish was played out and came to the net in front of our whole river posse. It was a bigger than normal steelhead and demonstrated why these powerful fish are on almost every fly fishers “bucket list”.

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Steelhead river posse.

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“Show Me”……. the steelhead – fine fishermen.

It was a great ending to a river adventure that featured some of the best attributes of the great outdoors in the Pacific Northwest. And the BEST part is they “got it”….. all of it.  Not just the fish and the fishing……  but the whole Oregon outdoor experience. Father and sons appreciated the little stuff as well as the big stuff and noticed things like the knobs on the FJ40, the little woodworking details on the boat, the extra touches in camp like the stacked firewood and the 1952 Coleman lantern, the wildlife on the river like the ducks and the geese, and the river otters and beavers and osprey and eagles.  They noticed all the “stuff” that makes an adventure authentic and that we work so hard to show. It was as much fun for us as it was for them.

It was also special because we are all from the great state of Missouri – you know – the state “in the middle” – and while we don’t have steelhead back there – we  DO have Cardinals, and Royals, and Tigers, Normal Gear, and the best barbecue in the country. As the Sansone’s headed back to the middle of the country and the “Show-me” state, they had a lot to talk about – and a lot to “show”. Another great thing they brought with them was a world class photographer named Garrett King. He took over 1,200 stunning photo’s and captured the little things and the big things to help tell about this Oregon adventure.

This trip was a highlight to my guiding season and will always be a fond memory. The things we could control went well and the things we couldn’t control seemed to fall into place like the stars were perfectly aligned. It was a great trip to be a part of.

Photo’s by the legendary Garrett King.

GH

 

 

 

 

 

 

WoodenBoats in Port

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Port Townsend WoodenBoat Festival

The marina at the edge of Puget Sound with the Olympic National Park in the horizon, is the center of activity in the quaint little harbor of Port Townsend, Washington. It positively buzzes with activity every year in September with wood boats arriving from all over the western half of North America… including mine. I participated in the 40th Annual WoodenBoat Festival as a presenter (WoodenBoats in National Parks), as a wood boat builder, and as an enthusiastic admirer of boats made of wood. I had my river boat the “Obsession” on display amidst all the other small boats and if there had been an award for “rattiest”, my boat would’ve taken a trophy.

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My buddies at Popticals had the booth next to my boat.

With scars and scratches from a life filled with adventure, it was quite a contrast to most every small boat on display around me. Every one of them looked like they just rolled out of a boat shop with a fresh coat. In contrast, my boat looked like it just rolled off the boat ramp, with a fresh mark. It was on a river trip the week before the Festival and it would be backed down a river ramp and running rapids the week after the Festival. I actually thought about putting a fresh coat of varnish on it before the show but simply ran out of time. So for my boat, it was a “come-as-you-are” party and I explained to anyone who stopped for a closer look that it was a “working boat”. I even proudly pointed to split ribs and chine dents and told the stories that gave my boat character. I rationalized that most of the boats in this neighborhood would never actually touch water let alone shred a Class IV on a wild & scenic river. Back in Oregon, we’d call them “garage boats” with derision – but I admired them just the same. The workmanship was inspiring and I had the urge to build another boat.

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Small Boats in the Common Area right on the Sound

The evenings brought options.  Either the live music from the Bar Harbor stage under the big canvas tent or the haunting sounds of the chanty songs from the old wooden community room on the far side of the marina where people gathered to sing old timey songs of the sea. Originally intended to set a rhythm for the strenuous manual work required of sailors who worked the tall wooden-ships of the day, they were at times bawdy and brawling but mostly they were wistful and melancholy. The songs, led by anyone in the room who felt led to answer the call which was presented to each attendee as a “request, pass, or lead” option…. spoke mostly of lost love, lost lives, and longing for home. The authentic voices and sad lyrics I heard that night will linger in my head forever.

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Canvas Tents on Puget Sound

At night, camping on Puget Sound, the air was filled with the sounds of the bells from the buoys, fog horns in the distance, and the gently crashing waves of the incoming tide . When the weather allowed, I left the tent and slept on the sandy beach in a bedroll and a Pendleton blanket on a Therm-a-rest inflatable pad and cot.  Magical way to sleep with the stars overhead and the quarter moon rising.

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Cowboy bedroll on the Beach – Rocky Mountain “Swag-Bag”

I was field testing a new bedroll by my friend David Ellis called the Rocky Mountain “Swag-Bag” which provides a protective shell of the all-weather canvas bedroll and gives options for the padding and the bag that goes inside. For me it’s PERFECT.  The pad I prefer is the neo-air by Therm-A-Rest and depending on the weather, I can slip my choice of sleeping bags inside the shell or when the temperature is right, just use my favorite Pendleton blanket.

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Sleeping on the sand of Puget Sound

Each morning, the dew was as thick as rain and the beads of moisture rolled off my bedroll each morning. I was cozy and dry even when the night-time temps dropped into the 40’s and if someone had a mute button for the sea-gulls I would’ve slept til noon. Oh – and there were a couple of presentations to give too – one on Saturday and one on Sunday talking about WoodenBoats in the National Parks

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WoodenBoats in National Parks

 

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It was a great WoodenBoat Weekend in Port Townsend – already looking forward to next year!!

GH

 

 

 

The Canyonlands

Cataract Canyon is a section of the Colorado River that has been on my bucket list for several years. It’s tucked away in the south east corner of Utah and it flows right through Canyonlands National Park. I went down there for a river run with my friends at Popticals right after the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. It was just a week before the 100th Anniversary of the National Parks which made the trip even more special.

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Photo by Ted Wright

Our plan was to launch near Moab, Utah at the boat ramp at Potash. On the drive down from Salt Lake, we entered a world filled with red dirt, towering rock hoodoo’s and mesa’s that stretched for miles and miles. Such a stark contrast to the tall trees of the Pacific Northwest where most of my adventures occur. I felt out of place as we drove the bright green Popticals Jeep through the earth tones of the desert but got a number of enthusiastic waves from four wheel drive fans along the way.

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Arches National Park – Photo by Ted Wright

Or maybe the waves were from admirers of the “rock star” graphic artist Ted Wright who drove the jeep and let me hang out with him at O.R. while he signed the National Park posters he created featuring the Poptical sunglasses. Ted was our trip photographer / graphic artist for the week and took hundreds and hundreds of photo’s.

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Ted Wright & Greg Hatten at Outdoor Retailer

On this stretch of the Colorado the water moves slowly and the scenery is breathtaking with sheer rock walls that are rooted in the river and reach straight up to the sky.

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Photo by Ted Wright

All of us were anticipating the faster water of Cataract Canyon… and steaks on the grill for dinner.

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Photo by Kevin Miquelon

On a couple of side hikes, we got to explore ancient Puebloan granaries built about 1,000 years ago to protect and store grain from the flood plain far below.

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Photo by Greg Hatten

There are petroglyphs in the Canyonlands that are estimated to be at least 800 years old and I was fascinated by the rock art and the history surrounding them.

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Photo by Greg Hatten

When we reached the confluence of the Green River, things got even more interesting. “The junction”, as river runners call it, is the largest confluence of two rivers in the southwestern United States and it signals the start of Cataract Canyon – named by the Powell Expedition of 1869 because of it’s high degree of difficulty. The canyon walls quickly got steeper and the shadows grew longer as we faced rapid after rapid – each one more difficult than the last.

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Photo by Ted Wright

The premier rapid in Cataract is the third drop in the Class IV called Satan’s Gut. Around the campfire the night before, I learned that earlier in the spring on high water a couple of wood boats ran into big trouble. One got stranded on a rock and one got smashed in the technical and challenging rapid.  We scouted before we ran it & I kept seeing and pointing to rocks that weren’t there (I missed every one of those).

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The “Scout” – Photo by Kevin Miquelon

After getting comfortable with the “line” we crawled over the rocks and made our way back upstream to our boats that were tied to shore.

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The set-up was the key and with a blind drop it was hard to see the line until we were right on top of it. I watched a fully loaded rubber raft go over the drop and through the rapid which gave me a great “visual” of what I wanted to do in my little woodenboat.

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Satan’s Gut – Photo by Ted Wright

A quick bow swing just after the first drop was required to send my boat sliding right to left to start the rapid. The set-up was perfect and the Portola slid right between two rocks into a narrow opening that was just a little wider than the boat. My buddy Kevin Miquelon shot some video of the Portola slicing through the chute.

The wave train between the rocks took us for a fast ride and then, twenty seconds later….it was over.  Time to start planning for the “next” rapid.

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Satan’s Gut – Photo by Ted Wright

At night, the stars were so bright they lit up the sky like someone left the light on. Sleep came easy in the tents and on the sand.

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Photo by Greg Hatten

The Portola at first light in the canyon….  a great way to experience this national park.

Portola in the Canyonlands National Park

Photo by Ted Wright

If you haven’t been to Cataract Canyon on the Colorado, I highly recommend it. If you need a guide – contact the folks at NavTec in Moab – those guys are great.

GH

 

Fathers & Sons in my Boat…

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My own father – circa 1962 on a Minnesota Lake

As an outfitter and fly fishing guide in the state of Oregon, I’ve rowed a lot of “personalities” in my handcrafted wooden drift boat. I’ve hosted experienced anglers, beginners, athletes, celebrities, actors, artists, great casters, bad casters, quiet guests, loud guests, and guests that made me laugh so hard I cried. We fly fish for steelhead and we run some wild rapids in my boat made of wood and I’m pretty sure I’ve had more fun than my guests.

Of all the trips I host, I look forward to father-son outings the most. Perhaps it’s because it reminds me of the river adventures I’ve shared with my son over the years on these same rivers… or maybe it’s because I never got to share trips like these with my own father because cancer took him before he turned 40. Both of those are a part of it but what I enjoy most about Father-Son outings is the way they root for each other, talk to each other, and joke with each other as if they are sitting at a family dinner table.

From my rower’s seat  just a few feet behind them, I’m privy to lots of those conversations and I can tell you – the dynamic between fathers and sons is special in my boat. Brothers tend to compete (first fish, biggest fish, smallest fish, most fish), married couples tend to bicker (just a little bit), friends tend to horse around and give each other a hard time… all of those are fun but father-son trips are just… special.

The most unique father/son trip I ever hosted was actually on Father’s Day several years ago. A father booked me for a trip with his 19 year old son and wanted me to teach his son the art of casting a fly rod and… “make him fall in love with fly fishing” he said, “so we can do that together as an activity” (his son was coming out of some rebellious “teen” years and… need I say more). There was a catch even before the trip… the father wanted to row his own boat and send the son with me. “How odd”, I thought. When I asked him why in the world he wanted to take his own boat I will never forget his answer… “if I am in your boat, I will interfere with your instruction, I will over-help, over-instruct, over-complicate the teaching and my son and I will end up in a big fight and he will hate fly fishing. I want you to teach my son without my interference and the only way that can happen is if I remove myself from your boat. I will row my own boat and take pictures of you guys from across the river of my son casting, of my son learning, of my son catching a fish on the fly – we will both have a better trip and hopefully a life-long sport that we can share together.”

How could I say no to that?? Well – my insurance agent told me how and why I should say no to that… but I drew up a plan anyway and off we went. It was one of the most memorable days of “guiding” I’ve ever had. The day was unique and special – the son was a quick study and he was casting great by noon. Not only did he catch several fish on the fly, the father took lots and lots of amazing photo’s and we shared a traditional Father’s Day grilled burger on a shoreline lunch. What I’ll remember most fondly about that trip was the insight and sensitivity the father had in his relationship with his son and the fact that he could set aside his desire to instruct his son about casting a fly rod and give him the space he needed to “learn” with someone else. There was so much depth to that day it left a profound impression on me as a father and a son… and actually, as a guide.

From my seat in the middle, I know the power of moving water as it shapes the course of a river, smooths the rough edges of rocks, and sweeps a boat along between steep canyon walls and peaceful green valley’s. I also see it have the same powerful effect on the people in my boat. I’ve seen it heal broken relationships and I’ve watched it strengthen the bond between fathers and sons in ways that are so moving I know they will remember the trip for the rest of their lives. It’s a privilege to row my boat for fathers and sons.

Happy Father’s Day.

If you are still shopping for a gift for your Father, Grandfather, or Son…… please consider supporting one of my excellent sponsors – they make great products that I enjoy showing off in our pictures and videos…. Pendleton Wool, Patagonia, Therm-a-Rest, Ellis Canvas Tents, Kokatat, Popticals, Mountain Khakis, Sawyer Oars, West System Epoxy, Phantom Fire Pans & Teathers, Watershed DryBags, Abel Reels, NormalBrandLeibowitzMenswear

Some Fathers & Sons in my boat…..

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Rick & Zac Lipira

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Ron & Brad Taylor

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Rick and Rich LeBlanc

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Doctor Butler and Son

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Gary & Brian Hatten

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Rick and Michael Drake

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Steve and Jake Hill

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Pat & Peter Hogland

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My own son Daniel & I “rocking” the Rogue Wild & Scenic

GH

 

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915 and is one of the most visited parks in the entire National Park system. It’s located in north central Colorado and has so many incredible natural features it can take days to experience them all.

Photo by Tim Hatten

Portola in the Park

It was the first National Park I ever visited and when I was 10 years old Smokey the Bear seemed real, the Park Rangers in their pressed wool uniforms and flat brimmed hats were super heroes, and the park itself was an outdoor paradise just waiting for me to explore each year on family trips.

With all the beautiful waterfalls, hiking trails, snowy peaks, and colorful meadows of the Rocky Mountain National Park, the feature I most wanted to see on my recent trip was the headwaters of the Colorado River. The last time I saw this river, I was a thousand miles downstream and fighting for my life as I struggled to break free from the current and reach the surface from deep under the cold water. Since that experience in the Grand Canyon, I’ve had a strong desire to see the source of the river that was powerful enough to flip my boat like a toy and humble me as an oarsman and a person…

Pic by Dave Mortenson

Portola Upside down… in the Grand Canyon

“Where’s my boat”… I asked Doug, as I gasped for air and coughed up river water in an eddy on the Colorado in the heart of the Grand Canyon. With a soulful look, my teammate, who had just fished me out of the river and onto the deck of his blue raft, pointed back up river to the keeper hole I had just escaped. I could see it there – or flashes of it – an empty boat violently spinning over and over and over as the powerful current pounded away at it. In river-speak it’s called the “spin cycle” and it happens when a powerful current pours over a house-sized boulder in the middle of the river with such force that it creates an “upstream” wave that crashes back on itself.  The result is an endless cycle of waves that beat each other up and if you get sucked into the middle of that fight – there is only one way out….. the bottom of the hole – and everyone knows – THAT’S the scariest place on the river. It’s a trap that’s easy to get drawn into and nearly impossible to get out of in one piece. I got flushed through the bottom almost immediately. My boat, however, was not so lucky and remained “stuck” in the trap – spinning helplessly in the hole.  Unless the current pounded it through the exit point at the very bottom of the hole it would continue to take a beating until it was reduced to pieces that were small enough to exit on their own. I spent hundreds of hours building and sanding and painting the Portola and when I visualized the broken remains that might come floating by as I watched from the eddy it made me sick.

That was two years ago and it was the last time my wood boat, the Portola, navigated that river. Or any river for that matter..

In Rocky Mountain National Park, the 1,400 mile Colorado River comes to life as a babbling little brook several hundred miles upriver from the Grand Canyon. A few weeks ago I trailered my fully restored and freshly repainted Portola across the plains of Kansas toward the headwaters of the Colorado River.  I had a lot of miles to think about that experience.

Photo by Tim Hatten

Portola at Grand Lake

Since it was before Memorial Day, the park area seemed to be just waking up from winter.  A few of the campgrounds were opening and most were unoccupied, new park rangers were still training for the upcoming season, and patches of snow were as numerous as the visitors were sparse.  Night temperatures were below freezing above 8,000 feet and the river water was ice cold. As we rounded the corner high above the valley of the Upper Colorado where we would start our river journey the following day – the view far below was stunning.

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Upper Colorado River Valley

The river snaked its’ way in lazy “s” curves through a valley that seemed to have 1,000 shades of green and then it rounded the corner and disappeared into a deep, dark canyon in the distance. We set up camp on that scenic stretch of the Upper Colorado River just outside Rocky Mountain National Park with towering bluffs on one side and dramatic peaks on the other.  The flat valley beside the river had a rough-hewn log fence that ran the length of the river and when we set up our cots and canvas tents, it looked a little bit like a civil war encampment.

Photo - Tim Hatten

Camp on the Upper Colorado

Directly across the river was a dead tree that served as a fishing platform for a mature bald eagle that entertained us daily with his aerial exploits and fishing prowess. Recent warm spring temperatures had accelerated the snow melt from the mountain peaks so the river was running higher and faster than normal. Just as we arrived however, the temperature dropped for the week and we woke up each morning to a heavy layer of ice and dew. By mid morning the sun dried the David Ellis Canvas Tents and Pendleton blankets that we hung out on the fence.

Photo Tim Hatten

David Ellis and his Canvas Tents

On our first morning, after a full breakfast of eggs, home fries, bacon and cowboy coffee, we jumped in our boats and pushed off to run a ten mile section of the Colorado none of us had ever seen.

Photo - Tim Hatten

Breakfast never smelled so good.

The river carves its way through Little Gore Canyon and is known for walls that rise 1,000 feet up from the river in some places, spectacular wildlife that includes Big Horn Sheep, Mule Deer, Moose and the occasional black bear… and is well known for a couple of technical Class III Rapids called “Eye of the Needle” and “Yarmony”.

Photo - Tim Hatten

Upper Colorado in the Portola

Those rapids were immediately on my mind as I settled into the rower’s seat of the Portola and wrapped my hands around the oar handles I had worn smooth by rowing the little wooden dory through the Grand Canyon just a few short years ago. The original Portola played a large role in the history of Colorado River running in the early 1960’s and was Martin Litton’s first Grand Canyon Dory in what would become a fleet of colorful canyon boats – all made of wood. The Portola was one of the dories used in 1964 on a run through the Grand Canyon that would help tell the story of the mighty Colorado. At that time, the river and the Grand Canyon were threatened with extinction by an appropriations bill from Congress that would’ve turned the Grand Canyon into a lake and taken the river with it. The bill was ultimately defeated, thanks to people like Martin and David Brower of the Sierra Club and the dedication of many passionate and talented people. The little wooden boats played a starring role in the fight to save the river by illustrating an elegant way to run the river and experience the Grand Canyon. We replicated that famous trip on the 50th Anniversary in 2014 and I rebuilt and rowed an exact replica of the Portola. It was on that trip that I rowed myself and my boat into the bottom of a keeper hole and almost didn’t make it out.

All the emotions of that encounter came roaring back as I heard “Eye of the Needle” just downriver and around the corner. After a two-year hiatus from rowing the Portola, the sound and the fury of the rapid brought back a familiar anxiety.  For me – it’s always a pre-rapid routine where I quickly go thru my checklist: oar blade angle set, oars tethered, rescue rope in reach, life jacket tight, knife and whistle clipped, oar locks secured, spare oars ready and so on. Then everything slows down just before the first drop and I calmly answer my own questions:  can I find the line, can I “hold” the line, will the boat respond to my touch, do I have the strength, what’s my contingency if things go wrong, do I have the nerve, do I have the reflexes, do I have the judgement to row this rapid well???

Everything moved in slow motion as we approached the infinity line of the rapid where the bottom drops out of the river and then suddenly… we dropped over and we’re “in it”… and everything picked up speed – the rapids, the rocks, the eddies, the line, the canyon walls – everything comes at you quickly – like someone hit the “fast forward” button on the river remote. My instincts and reflexes took over as I made subtle moves to hit my spots and follow the line and I was reminded – THIS is the reason I row – to find the rhythm of the river where the line constantly shifts between calm and chaos, and challenges you to find it and hold it as it sweeps you along through a rapid filled with loud noise, conflicting currents and wild confusion. It’s the art of working with the river to keep the boat in that sweet spot as it snakes its way through the rapid in the midst of all the influences that are trying to tear you away from it. It is the ability to stay calm, keep your head, and make the moves that you’ve made a thousand times. To run these rivers in a vintage (and somewhat fragile) wood boat adds an element of risk and reward that heightens the senses and makes every rapid memorable.

On that particular run, I found the sweet spot in “the Needle” and with bold strokes and no hesitation, I was able to ride the zigzag line through the maze of rocks and swirling eddies the entire length of the rapid without touching a rock. The Portola felt light as a feather and very responsive without the 500 pounds of goods and gear it carried on the 24 day adventure through the Grand Canyon two years ago. I was pleased.  It was a great start to four straight days of rowing…

Photo - Tim Hatten

Upper Colorado – Lower Gore Canyon

One of my good river friends, Mark Stuber, came down from Montana to join us on the trip and rowed the wood dory he built by hand and named for his grandmother, Florence.  The last time “Montana Mark” and I rowed together was on the Snake River in the Teton National Park in Wyoming – I rowed the “Obsession” and he rowed his Florence – that was almost a year ago.   On that trip we played follow-the-leader for two days in our wood boats at the very base of the Teton Mountains and explored parts of the Snake where the Tetons rose straight up from the banks of the river and soared a mile to the sky.  We set up camp along the banks of the river and rowed our boats with enthusiasm in one of the most breathtaking stretches of river either of us had ever seen. Mark is one of the best oarsmen in the northwest, and as with most rowers of wood boats, he can read the rapids, see “the line”, and avoid obstacles better than most any oarsman on the river. He maneuvered his boat with a fluid style and distinctive flair that was so much fun to watch I sometimes forgot that I needed to row my own boat instead of watching Mark row the Florence.

Photo - Josh Weaver

Mark Stuber in the Florence

Also along on this trip was my friend and professional tent maker, David Ellis from Durango, my son-in-law Josh Weaver, and my Uncle Tim from Grand Junction, who was the photographer for the trip. Special guests were my friend Bill and my pastor Darrell Jones and his three sons-in-law – Royce, Andrew, and Josh. It was nice to have a pastor on the trip as we approached treacherous rapids – it felt like our prayers would have a more direct connection than normal. Quite a crew on this trip!

We ate well on the river, as usual, and prepared each meal in cook teams using a variety of cooking methods – Coleman two-burners, charcoal in the Phantom fire pan, Dutch Ovens, Jet Boils…. we each had our own “style” of cooking which made things interesting and fun in the kitchen. While cooking the evening meal wasn’t a competition, sometimes it seemed like it. The result was some fancy outdoor cooking and a lot of “overeating”.

Cook Team

We actually had a lot of fun planning and preparing our elaborate meals – and in the course of just the first couple of days on the river we had pork loin schnitzel, asparagus in bacon, buffalo burgers, diced sweet potatoes, fresh vegetables, sweet corn, tossed salads, bacon bomb appetizers and dutch oven cobbler and apple crisp with CoolWhip.

Photo Tim Hatten

Cook Team

On the fourth day, we split up. A few of us left the boats and hiked the National Park trails through patches of snow and towering pine trees to explore the Colorado River, where it’s so narrow you can jump across it.

Photo Tim Hatten

Headwaters of the Colorado

The cold, clear water that ran under my feet and the wood bridge where I stood was headed for the Grand Canyon but had miles and miles to go. On the long journey southwest it would continue to swell and expand as snow melt, spring rain and tributaries fed the river and shaped its personality.The Colorado pauses behind Glen Canyon Dam just for a bit and then comes roaring out the other side near the bottom of the concrete wall with all the power and passion of a natural force that’s been controlled and pent-up too long.The river comes into its own as it rips through the canyon and it’s hard to believe it’s the same river I could walk across in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Photo Tim Hatten

Headwaters Gear

While casting flies in such a serene setting, the river seems incapable of inflicting pain and punishment in the raging torrent down river.  Those little riffles that swirled around my ankles high in the Rockies could be the very same water that holds someone else’s ankles in an undertow a thousand miles away next week. The river doesn’t care or discriminate. It keeps moving – without apologies or explanations, it moves on – and so must we.

Photo Tim Hatten

Throwing a loop

I went to the headwaters of the Colorado River in the Rocky Mountain National Park out of curiosity. What I found, in a quiet pool above the chaos, surrounded by tall pines and snowy river banks, was closure to an event that shook my core two years ago on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.  GH

Photography: Tim Hatten

If you go there, I highly recommend camping in a canvas tent or under the stars. If “indoor” camping is your thing with plumbing and running water check out The YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park or Snow Mountain Lodge. Both have lots of activities and are great for families.  If rafting is your thing, I suggest Mad Adventures – quite simply the best outfitters and guides on the rivers!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Owyhee… rowing in the canyon

The Owyhee Canyonland in southeastern Oregon is an area filled with spectacular natural wonders that very few people have seen. It is raw and rugged and remote. And while it’s not a National Park… yet, one day it might be.  I had a chance to run it between my “other” National Park adventures.

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Canyon Walls so high…..

In a typical year, the Owyhee River that flows through the “Grand Canyon of Oregon” is only “runnable” for a couple of months each year when the river level is high enough. Thanks to above average snow in the Sierra’s this winter, that window opened briefly this spring creating an opportunity that only comes along every few years. Any chance to run my wooden boat in such a wild and beautiful place is worth a little “creative scheduling” and I dropped what I was doing to join my favorite crew of river rats for the trip of a lifetime.

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Deeper in the Canyon

The Owyhee is named after three trappers in Donald MacKenzie’s North West fur company that were sent by him to explore the river in 1819 and were never seen again. They were natives of Hawaii which, at that time, was spelled Owyhee and the spelling and pronunciation stuck. No one knew for certain what happened to them.

Our first night on the river was several degree’s below freezing and a thick layer of frost covered everything when we woke. It warmed up each night we were in the canyon and night-time temps stayed mostly in the lower forty’s.

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Room with a view…

As we rowed into the depths of the Owyhee, the light created shadow creatures on the walls of the canyons that appeared even during the middle of the day.  They seemed to be guardians of the gorge. Keepers of the secrets. Protectors of the wild and scenic river.

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Here be dragons….

We ate well, and the food always tastes better in remote and beautiful settings.  Entree’s of fresh halibut, prime rib, and chicken were complimented by sides of baked potatoes, rice pilaf, fresh salad, and finished off with cheesecake and dutch oven cobbler.

Prime Rib in a Dutch Oven by Aaron Helfrich

Prime Rib in a Dutch Oven by Aaron Helfrich.

 

Fresh Halibut on a bed of coals

Halibut on a bed of coals… by Jeremy Starr

Chicken Linguini - colorful and tasty

Chicken Linguini – colorful and tasty

River running in the Owyhee was filled with challenges as the rocks and boulders formed several technical rapids that we ran with respect – always watching out for each other.  All told – we stuck two rafts on rocks that had to be roped off, flipped one raft completely over, and had one thrill ride in a wooden boat that got turned around in a Class IV and had to finish the rapid “backwards” (… which I prefer to remember as a “demonstration” for my team-mates of the “old school” style of river running when “backwards” was the preferred method of rowing).  ((No-one around the campfire bought that explanation either…. DOH))

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Aaron running it right in his new wood boat.

There weren’t a lot of fishing opportunities, but we had an “angler” in the group and Aaron caught several nice smallmouth bass on the fly.

Casting in the Canyon

Casting in the Canyon… a fine fisherman.

While this trip was filled with great scenery, fantastic food, and thrilling rapids – I will remember the fellowship around the campfire as a particular highlight of this trip on the Owyhee.

Fellowship around the circle

Fellowship of the Fire

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Evening Meal – friends around the fire.

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Around the campfire… a look.

If you want to go there… I recommend the section of river from Rome down to Birch Creek at a river level above 1,000 CFS.  Make sure you are with an experienced crew of rowers that can handle technical rapids and river rescues.  If you want to hire professional guides to take you through this incredible canyon – contact the  helfrich group….they are quite simply the best and you will have an unforgettable experience.

GH

 

Olympic National Park

Lake Quinault Lodge

Lake Quinault Lodge

Olympic National Park has one of the coziest Lodges you will ever see.  The Lake Quinault Lodge was built in 1926 at the Olympic National Park and sits on a slightly elevated perch overlooking a stately green lawn that runs down to the crystal water of Lake Quinault. If this was any other “woodenboat adventure”, I would pull in to the parking lot, walk the grounds, admire the view, take some pictures, maybe have a sandwich in the lodge, and then go find a spot by the river for my tent and cot. On this National Park adventure, however, I checked out the Lodge, and then I “checked in”…. that’s right – I signed my name, gave them my credit card, and got a key to a room with a roof, indoor plumbing, and a soft bed with clean sheets. It was elegant really and I felt very out-of-place… like they must have given me the key to the wrong room.

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Since most of the camping area’s in Olympic are closed during the wet winter months, I decided early in the planning stages that it might be a good time to make an exception to my camping rule and stay at the Lodge… or maybe I was just “rationalizing”.  Staying indoors kinda violates our “code of the river rats” and I am prepared to suffer the campfire ribbing on our next big trip where I will surely be reminded “there is no such thing as bad weather….. just bad gear and bad planning”…  to which,  I will counter with “I had great gear, put together a great plan, and stayed at a historic and very dry Park Lodge”. I will be heckled with great enthusiasm.

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Before I got to the lodge in the late afternoon, I had to drive the two lane highway in a wicked rainstorm and high winds which made for slow going in my Toyota FJ40. Pulling a wood drift boat didn’t make it any easier as it fish-tailed in the grooves of the road, swayed with every gust of wind and slowed me down that much more.  My fishing companions got tired of waiting for the rain to stop and for me to arrive so they went upriver from the Lodge for an afternoon float a few hours before I arrived. The parking lot was almost empty at the Quinault Lodge when I pulled in and the intensity of the rain picked up. Joining me on this National Park adventure were Rick and Rich LeBlanc from the Portland area – father-son.  Rick and I are old friends and long time fishing companions.  Our mutual obsession with chasing steelhead on flies led us to each other & many fine adventures.  I was looking forward to seeing if Rich had the same passion for fishing as his dad.

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Rick & Rich LeBlanc

I caught up with them after their fishless afternoon and both were as soaked as two fishermen can be. We agreed to dry off and meet for dinner in half an hour. Just as they went to their rooms the entire Lodge went “dark”.  No power – anywhere. A huge tree was the victim of high winds and knocked out power lines on the way to the ground. I talked to the site manager who told me they once lost power for two weeks – “no telling how long it will take to repair the lines”. I made my way to my smartly appointed room in the “west wing” and opened the door. The only light in the room was coming from the gas fireplace, giving the room a warm glow. If you used your imagination and could look past the king bed, throw pillows, indoor toilet and carpet – it sort of resembled a campfire scene – which inspired me to set up my Therm-a-Rest cot and Pendleton bedroll next to the fire in case power wasn’t restored til morning. My friends will call it “glamping” and I will be heckled all the more.

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Glamping in the Lodge

I walked from my dark outbuilding to the “lit up” lodge where the backup generator provided power and met the boys for dinner.

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Night in the Lodge

Over dinner I heard details of their afternoon and it gave me “chills”.  The heavy rains of winter and the high winds of the past two days had caused many large and small trees to go crashing into the river creating a mine field of log jams and “strainers”. A strainer is a pile of downed trees that collects on river bends, bridge pilings, shallow places in the river & creates a treacherous obstacle for boaters. The river still flows “through” a strainer and drags everything in the current with it – popping rubber rafts, flipping drift boats, sinking kayaks, knocking fishermen from their boats. Late in the afternoon they had tangled with one and it almost brought their boat down.  The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I remembered again the river tragedy I can’t forget.

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“Strainer”

His name was Warren Moran and the first time I met him was on the Deschutes River in central Oregon. I was in the boat of my good friend Rick Allen who was rowing and in the late, mid, early afternoon, I popped the cork on a 12 year bottle of Macallan and took a deep, satisfying pull. Out of nowhere, Warren, with his big Texas grin came rowing up beside us and said he detected the presence of scotch on the river….  after complimenting his sense of smell and his ability to row half a mile in 45 seconds, I handed him the bottle and we became instant river friends – bound by fish, flies, and scotch. Just a few years later, Warren was out on the McKenzie River on a spring float with two friends in his drift boat. They were approaching a “strainer” at a sharp turn in the river, got a bit too close to danger and were pulled into the middle of the log jam. The branches stopped their forward progress but the river kept pushing the boat, forcing one side up while the other side dipped. Water came pouring over the compromised side and the boat flipped instantly. The river kept pushing and even though the boat wouldn’t fit through the tangled broken limbs, the river continued to push like a pile driver and took all three fishermen with it – trapping them under the trees and under the water. Warren never made it out.  The other two fishing friends washed out several hundred yards downriver – alive but not without serious injuries. Early the next morning a couple of us went upriver to retrieve the boat and Warren’s things. Strainers make me nervous, and anxious and wary.

Great Room - Lake Quinault Lodge

Great Room

After our meal in the rustic Roosevelt Dining Room, I made my way from the well-lit Great Room of the Lodge to the still darkened wing where I was staying. The fire in  my room burned warm and I was content in my Pendleton blanket and bedroll. Sometime during the night the electricity was restored but I slept through it.

Frosty Dawn

Lake Quinault Lodge

 

There was frost on the roof of the Lodge early the next morning and we drove upriver several miles higher than the LeBlancs had launched the day before.  When the rainless dawn finally exposed the river, I could see very well what my companions had faced the day before and a familiar ache retuned to my stomach.  There were downed trees everywhere in the river – many with their bows still green and “alive”.  For the first mile it was a gauntlet and I was more concerned about rowing than fishing. Finally, the river opened up a bit and the main channel became more defined. Even so – every time we approached a “strainer”, I was edgy and focused and all business.

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When I could look past the treacherous obstacles of the river I saw such beauty on the Upper Quinault, I will never forget it.  Sharp steep dark green mountains with wispy clouds seemed more like smoke from a chimney than any clouds I had ever seen.  There were waterfalls around every turn – some were mere trickles and others “gushed” from the mountain sides. We saw elk and eagle and mink and river otters – all signs of a healthy vibrant river wilderness.  The forest ferns provided even more shades of green to the landscape and it was breathtaking.

Rich the son with Steelhead

Rich LeBlanc

Rich the son managed to catch two steelhead and Rick and I both missed a few chances – it was more activity than we expected considering the heavy rain and the condition of the river.  We had a great day, stayed relatively dry, enjoyed fishing together, and only had a few brushes with log jams on the river. Burgers and beer in the Roosevelt Room that night tasted good and we enjoyed some time by the walk-in fireplace after dinner. Before I went to my room, I looked closely at the vintage pictures around the Great Room.  Black and white photo’s of Native American Indians of the area,  lumber jacks, construction workers, and early park visitors told a visual story about the history. A lodge like Quinault, still so similar to what it was like on the day it opened, makes it possible to feel a very real connection to these people in the photographs without even knowing their names. In this rustic setting, it’s possible to feel their spirit… of adventure, of fishing, boating, hiking, and exploring this beautiful, unique rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula.

The next day we fished outside the park on the Wynoochie River – or the “Nootch” as the locals call it. Since it was Super Bowl Sunday there was a lot of activity on the river early but it thinned out by noon and we mostly had the river to ourselves.  Like the river conditions the day before, downed trees and log jams kept us on our toes and on our oars. After a slow morning we had an exciting couple of hours of steelhead activity.  Rick started it off when he was nymping an egg pattern right below a riffle.  Suddenly his indicator went down and didn’t come back.  He set the hook strong and could immediately tell it was a heavy fish.  With a solid hook-set, the fish bolted straight downriver taking most of the line and backing in Rick’s reel.

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Rick LeBlanc

After 4 or 5 good strong runs, Rick was finally able to get him close enough to the boat and turn his head for Rich to slip the net under him.  It was in the neighborhood of twenty pounds – one of the largest steelhead we had ever taken out of these waters.

Big Steelhead

Big Steelhead

We continued to fish and while I had one on and lost it, Rich caught a couple more to add to a memorable day on the river.

Father Son

LeBlancs

 

Olympic National Park had been on my list of parks to visit for a long time and it completely exceeded my expectations. Spending a couple of days on the river with  great friends was a bonus and before we went our separate ways we bounced a few ideas around for future trips.

Lake Quinault LodgeWhat I didn’t expect to find on this trip to Olympic was the memory of Warren Moran. Perhaps it was the high number of “strainers” we had to thread our way around or maybe it was the whiskey we had at night in the lodge. Whatever triggered it, I was glad and melancholy at the same time remembering his big Texas smile and warm greeting on the river and at Trout Unlimited meetings. His memory reminded me to be cautious and skillful when rowing around strainers and to really appreciate the friends I was with on the river… and  I’m pretty sure he would’ve had a good laugh at my expense on sleeping indoors.

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I would highly recommend a visit to this park or any of our National Parks in the off-season. Lodging is a great option to camping – particularly in the weather of winter. Find Your ParkPatagoniaTherm-a-RestNational Park ServicePendleton

By Greg Hatten