Over Our Heads

Here's another excerpt from my upcoming memoir, A River Knows My Name.   Sometimes in life you just have to believe that the way forward will only appear after you step out of your comfort zone.  I hope you enjoy:   

It was getting on toward evening now, and the late sun had lightened the sky a little, but dusk was not far off.  We trudged along the darkening slope, broken continually by large rotting trees that now created often insurmountable obstacles due to the steep contour of the slope.  Going up or down several hundred feet was exhausting and progress, slow.  The day’s effort had taken its toll and I was nearing a state of exhaustion.   We were a mile from the slide and as our tired legs worked their way over the uneven slope, light was growing ahead and before we even reached it, a dejection came over the group.  In moments we were standing on the lip of another canyon, and this time there would be no crossing it as vertical rock fell from our feet to the floor of the canyon easily a hundred or more feet below.  Even with fresh legs and lots of light, this looked impassable unless one was a mountain goat.   Dixon pulled out the map and we sat down.  The descending slope was so steep there was no feasible way we could see setting up even an emergency camp.  “We gotta go down,” said Dixon studying the map.  

“You sure about that?” 


“What about up?” 

He pointed at the dark contour lines.  The gorge only deepened and impassable cliffs lay above us.   We slowly started picking our way down the slope.  The sonorous roar of the river deep below us grew louder and as it did, the way became steeper.  Eventually we could see a bead of white and blue water about a hundred feet below.  On the rim of the canyon to our left flowed the creek that was blocking our way as it rushed down to meet the Klallam canyon below us.  Down, down down we descended, ever so carefully finally stopping on a ledge at the intersection of the two canyons about thirty feet directly over the Klallam.  The beach was littered with torn logs and jagged broken boulders.  To downclimb to the river would take great care as one slip would send a person tumbling to his death.  But there was no choice.   I felt my heart beating in my throat.  “I’ll go first,” said Seth.  “Lower the packs down to me.” 

“What about the dogs?” 

“We’ll have to lower them too.”  The dogs were subdued as if they sensed the gravity of the situation.  They wagged and trembled on the ledge as Seth descended, using saplings, and hand holds as he down climbed toward the beach below.  What seemed like an eternity later, he had made it and was looking up, laughing.  “It’s not so bad,” he yelled.  

We began tying the packs and lowering them down one by one to the canyon floor as he untied them and sent the rope back up.  (The rope turned out to be a godsend and the reason we avoided catastrophe.)    

Finally, it was time for the dogs and thank God he also brought a harness.  We put the harness on Bert, and the dog whimpered as he sensed what was about to happen.  Then, with the rope around a tree, Creed, Lane, and I held tight while Dixon pushed the terrified animal into space as he clawed wildly at the air, shrieking and whimpering.  Immediately we loosened our grip as he slid a few feet below the ledge with nothing more to attach his paws to.  Hanging there, the writhing animal tested our stamina on the rope, but we held firm and down he went foot by foot until Seth was able to hold him in space and set the grateful dog gently on the beach.  “Good job!”   He untied the rope and sent it back up.  Trushka was next.  It was all I could do to hold her and keep her from running after Bert.     Somehow, we managed to get her in the harness before she could fall.   She made the rest easy as she ran off the ledge and into space all on her own.   Down she went all the way down into Seth’s arms.    Now it was up to the rest of us to each get down to that beach without injury.   

There is something about watching someone engaging in a hazardous activity like cliff climbing that makes it far more stressful than engaging in that same activity yourself.   The rest of us descended one by one as Seth called out instructions about where to place feet and hands.  It was absolutely nerve wracking, and the feeling we were entering a trap grew as the light from the sky faded.  It was dusk with darkness coming fast when we were all finally on the beach together at the bottom of the Klallam canyon.  We filled our water bottles and stared in awe at where we were.   The canyon walls rose all around us and out from the canyon coming off Tst́iláalati spat a thundering creek.   As we looked upstream from the intersections of the two canyons, our hearts sank.   With the vertical canyon walls rising from the river, it disappeared in a darkening chasm ahead with no beach on either side.  Dixon looked up from the map, then pointed to it.  “About a quarter mile upstream there’s a flat area, see?”  He pointed to the place he described on the map.  

“Looks like we gotta wade the river.”    But to even begin wading the river meant we had to first cross the whitewater stream gushing down from Tst́iláalati.   The speed at which it fell into the river more than made up for its size in terms of the hazard of crossing.  One slip could have immediate and potentially lethal consequences as we had landed on the only place there was a beach.  Directly downstream below the confluence, the river fell out of sight into a foamy chasm of glistening black rock and boiling spray.