Over Our Heads Part 2 (A Continuation)

Lowering the dogs...

This is an excerpt from my memoir, A River Knows My Name that is a continuation from the Over Our Heads story I posted on April 21st.  Perhaps revisiting that before proceeding with this might be helpful.  Then again, I do like just jumping into the action.  Some brief context for those not wishing to look at the previous post:  We were five days into our wilderness journey up the Klallam, having lowered our dogs down on ropes to the bottom of the Klallam Canyon.  It was almost dark, and while we were for the time being, safely on a rocky beach, we had to cross a fast-moving stream flowing down from Mt. Tst́iláalati.   We we were desperate for a camp site, and it was not looking good....

“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.     

To prevent the dogs from being swept to their certain deaths we tied them one at a time to their harnesses.  Then Seth fought his way through the white foaming waist deep water to the other side and Dixon threw him the rope.   Then, after each dog was fastened to the rope, Seth called.  Each dog dashed into the foaming creek getting immediately swept off its feet and into the main channel.  The rope and harness held, as they were pulled through the foaming water to safety on the other side.   Then went Creed, Lane, and Dixon, each holding the end of the rope as a lifeline as Seth anchored himself against the rocks, holding firm and keeping a tight line as each hiker picked his way through the rapids.  My heart was in my throat when it was my turn, but there was no choice.  A fear, wonder, and deep sense of pride burned in me.  We were coming of age.   

Finally, we stood on the other side, together.  “No turning back now,” I said.   The morning’s campsite seemed like weeks ago.  So much had changed, not just in topography, but in me.  I felt like I was a different person than the young naïve man wiping sleep from his eyes that morning.  

Darkness was swallowing the canyon by the second, and we were now silhouettes to each other, hoping and praying that Dixon was right, that just around a couple of bends we would find the flat camp spot promised by the map.   There was no time to lose.  Thankfully, the river had calmed a bit, and the milky blue water sucked and gurgled around massive hidden boulders, some of which the tops were barely showing.  We waded into the current one by one and began wading up the river.   The current lessened, but it was growing deeper.  “Look!” I heard someone yell, and as I glanced back, there were both dogs, midway across the river, stationary in the current trying without success to swim upstream.  Lane waded out and grabbed Bert by the collar, and I reached Trushka right after.  We continued wading upstream into the dark, holding the dogs by the scruffs of their necks. 

I cannot begin to accurately describe the feeling of despair as we rounded the bend only to see the faint outline of the river continuing up another twenty yards, sluggish before bending out of sight again.  We continued, churning through the waist-deep water.  Finally, as we reached the bend, the sense of desperation only increased.  The water grew deeper.  Now it was up to our navels and becoming hard to keep our footing despite the slow-moving current.   If it got any deeper, we would literally be sunk.  Now, holding our packs over our head and inching upstream, I head Dixon’s voice whooping and hollering up ahead in the darkening gloom just out of sight.   “We’re here!  Come on y’all.  We made it!”   Sure enough, as we rounded that bend in the canyon, like a gift from heaven, there was a bank of welcoming sand sloping gently down to the river.  Dixon was already standing on it, soaked up to his chest.  His pack was soaked too.  Ours were as well as we stumbled ashore, overwhelmed with elation.   At the top of the bank was a meadow with plenty of places to easily pitch our tents.   

In moments we had a roaring blaze lighting up the rock walls around us, and our sleeping bags and gear were steaming from the heat of the fire.   We stoked it so much the flames leapt higher than any of us.  We ate in celebration, recounting the harrowing events of the day before departing into our tents.  I fell into an exhausted slumber.  

The morning broke sunny and the birds were singing loudly in the trees.  The river chattered merrily next to us, and the mood was profoundly different than the morning before.  Hope and youth was springing eternal, and there was nothing in eternity that mattered more than this day.    Coffee, cigarettes, and oatmeal were the fare before we doused the smoldering fire.   

We hiked upstream through blueberries shrubs carpeting the benches just twenty feet over the river.  Compared to the day before, this going was much easier in terms of gradient, though the thick understory kept the pace slow.   The key for us was finding well-used elk trails and staying on them if possible.  Also remarkable was the fact that none of us had hit a wasp nest.  If everything went according to plan, we would be camping in Klallam Basin that night.  But, since nothing had really gone according to plan thus far, it was naïve to assume it would.  

For several hours we beat brush, climbed around obstacles, and managed to stay close to the river, constantly slowed by a myriad of small canyons and gullies coming off Tst́iláalati.  We began getting glimpses of a glaciated peak rising above us just to the south—Mt. Klallam.   After a few miles we reached a small canyon colliding with the Klallam.  We had crossed so much terrain that our legs were scratched and raw.   We could have found a way down to the bottom, like we had, so many times before, but looking at the map, and what lay directly above us was enticing.  The map showed massive alpine meadows, free of brush to wander through just a couple of thousand feet higher.  “We’ll still get to Klallam Basin if we go up,” said Dixon.  

“It’s all Klallam Basin, really.”  That only was partially true.  

We climbed steadily northward and up, winding our way through blueberries, salmon berries, and alder.  It was tough slogging as again, the thick brush pushed us back a half-step for every full step gained.   Nonetheless we powered through and soon we were two hundred feet above the gushing white thread water rattling down the gully from unforeseen heights.   Suddenly I heard a shout from behind me.  “Look!”  

I turned and stared in disbelief as my brown fiber-filled sleeping bag that moments before had been strapped to my pack frame was now bouncing down the canyon careening crazily of rocks like a pinball, getting smaller and smaller.   “Fuck,” I heard myself whisper.  When it hit the water, it would be sucked away downstream and into the Klallam canyon, gone forever.