Sunday, July 14, 2013

Gathering at the White Salmon River

White Salmon River (click to enlarge)

The White Salmon River has transported pure water and salmon to the Columbia River since time immemorial.  The Columbia River Gorge area was a vast gathering place for First Peoples, the epicenter of which was The Dalles, Oregon, where the volcanic rocky slabs narrowed the Columbia (before we constructed The Dalles Dam).  In the narrows, Native Americans netted the salmon swimming upstream to other parts of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.  Native Americans socialized, gambled and even created rock art as they harvested the salmon and processed what they could not eat today it into pemmican for the months ahead.  Studies of thousand-year-old bones indicate that salmon may have constituted nearly 50% of the diet of the Klickitat, Chinook and other First Peoples.     

I’m not sure when I first met Jim.  Maybe we attended Mrs. Cavanass’ kindergarten class together.  Maybe we met some time later at Madison Elementary School in Elmhurst, Illinois.  Either way, the time span is rapidly approaching 50 years.  Not exactly time immemorial, but give me a few more years towards Alzheimer’s, and I’ll need this journal to remember things. We discovered that we both lived in Portland a couple of years ago, thanks to mutual Facebook friends. Friday, we got together with his wife Jill to raft the wild and scenic White Salmon River.  

Zoller’s operates rafting trips from BZ Corners.  After they fit all their customers into wetsuits, booties, splash jackets, life jackets and helmets, they start instructing us on how to raft safely.  The instructions seemed to last forever.  -- “If you fall out, don’t stand up you might break a leg.  Float on your back with feet up.  If someone falls out, grab him by the life vest and yank him back. Don’t grab the arm or wrist; might break something.”

Finally, we march down and down and down the stairs to the bottom of the canyon and step into the rafts. It’s cool down there by the rushing river and the mossy rock wall.  Jim, Jill, our raft mates and I received an extra dose of instructions, cautions and war stories. That’s because ours was the last raft to launch.  So, Ben, our guide, kept talking.  He made sure we knew where to jam our feet for maximum holding power.  But, no one ever told us where to put our keesters.

The Middle Gorge of the White Salmon runs fast and cold.  Whitewater dominates.  It is a wild and fun ride.  It is too wild for Allyson.  She did not join us because, last time, she fell out of the raft.  When I yanked her back in, she looked up at the high canyon walls and realized she had to continue the bucking bronco ride.  There was no way out.
Rafts launching on White Salmon River

At long last, we launch.

Ben has been doing this for years and years:  over 400 trips down the river.  If someone pops out of the raft, his boss fines him $5.  Ben was an entertaining guy.  He kept talking the whole time.  He told us about nature; he showed us the nest of an American Dipper.  Ben had not lost a rafter all season, so far. Ben showed us where he has found Native American artifacts along the river. He never told us where to place hind ends.

You guessed it.  Someone fell out of the raft.  We fished her out with no broken bones.  Then, Ben tells her, for future reference, where on the raft she should’ve sat to avoid falling. 

Overall, it was a terrific trip.  Zoller’s offers people many places to get wet, whether it is paddling the raft upstream into a rapid, jumping off a 10-foot wall, or trying to survive Husum Falls.  We skipped the falls, thinking that the potential for spending months rehabbing body parts was not worth the thrill.

Four rafts full of people tried it. People paddle fiercely towards the roaring drop off.  Then, they drop down to survival position, and let fate take its course.  The rafts dive into the water below, submerge mostly or entirely out of view, then pop up like a cork.  The suspenseful question is whether they will land bottom down with people aboard. Most made it, with only a couple of people falling out. (No fines to raft guides for losing people at the Falls.)

After the falls, the river mellows out some.  This permits less focus on paddling and allows more time to enjoy the scenery until our exit.  

Later, we met Allyson at a brewpub in White Salmon, WA for dinner.

So, as it was centuries ago, the Columbia Gorge area provided a gathering place for socializing around food and river activities.  I had a lot of fun with my old / new friends, and we look forward to getting together again soon.  

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