The Calm Before the Calm

I’m leaving to go on a 7-day, 450 mile bike ride in about 4 hours. I haven’t packed yet; there is so much to do, but it will all happen soon enough. There is time for one last blog entry.

It’s dark out this morning. The night sky is clear, yet here in Oregon magic happens and it’s drizzling. It hasn’t rained in months and the aroma of wet desert is exotic yet wonderfully familiar. The dampness and chill morning air carry a hint of winter. I stand outside in shorts and t-shirt, staring at the stars, while thinking of snow.

My wife is gone for the weekend and she took the dog. When UPS rang the doorbell yesterday, it was only then that I realized our doorbell doesn’t actually go “ding-dong-woof-woof-woof”.

As I drift around, making preparations to leave, the house feels strangely empty. I should be more frantic, there is much to do: pack clothes and food, take out the trash, straighten the wheel on my bike, find the tent and sleeping bag, call the bike shop… The list goes on.

But there is an irresistable serenity at work. The calm before the calm.

Canyon Coda, Part Deux

Okay, enough of the schmaltzy talk about Canyon spirituality. Here’s why the Canyon river trips really rock! How would you like to have this this view from your bathroom. And, yes, those boxes in the lower left are in fact the toilet. Just be glad there isn’t more detail.

Coda for the Canyon

I’ve just returned from a river trip through the Grand Canyon. My fifth such trip. And as compelled as I feel to share the experience I doubt I’ll be able to properly … or that anyone could for that matter. A Canyon river trip is a transcendent experience. Most visitors to the Canyon spend a few minutes on the rim, ooh’ing and ah’ing at the physical beauty, then mail a postcard to family back home. But a river trip emerses you in that beauty for weeks and, equally importantly, creates a nearly perfect sense of isolation. The experience becomes something spiritual – a visit to a chapel, a mirror of truth, or even an oracle – something that may change a person in unique and profound ways.

Or at least, that’s come to be how I view these river trips. Certainly each one I’ve been on has made deep and lasting impressions.

My first two trips through the Canyon were as a child (age 11, then 14) and were spent exploring the natural wonder. Waterfalls, sandy beaches, wet and dry canyons, tepid pools, the vast flowing river, and all the critters and beasts they contain providing a wonderful playground. And to my chagrin today, I recall doing my best to avoid the necessary chores of cooking and cleaning around camp in an effort to spend more time fishing or throwing rocks or simply not working. All of this punctuated by moments of, to be frank, sheer terror whenever we had to run a big rapid. What changes were wrought on me? Those are hard to identify, but I have carried memories of those trips with me always.

Subsequent trips as an adult have let me appreciate the more sublime aspects of the canyon, not to mention handle the responsibilities of camp duty more gracefully and, for that matter, conquer my childhood fears of the rapids by rowing my own raft. Or at least turn them into adult fears.

My third trip, at age 25, occured during a time when I was deeply unhappy with where I was living, the work I was doing, and the relationship I was in. It was on this trip that I discovered the Canyon’s unique ability to change a person’s perspective on life. The time spent floating down the river, in quiet contemplation of the towering cliffs and endless natural beauty are the only form of meditation that I’ve ever known. The routine of camp and river slowly pushes aside the stress and anxiety of your “normal” life, and it is not until the end of the trip that you realize just how profoundly your world view has changed. On this trip, the return to my life in L.A. was disturbing and disorienting, and played a key role in my eventual decision to leave L.A.

Trip number four, at age 31, was literally days after I had returned from my honeymoon. And, as you might expect, mostly made me realize how hard it was to be away from my wife and how important it was that someday I be able to share this experience with her. It was also on this trip that we encountered Lava Falls at its worst. A water level that presented an unrunnable wave on the right, an even more terrifying pourover in the middle, and a ferocious rock garden on the left. I spent hours gazing into it’s swirling waters searching for just the right route, a route I later ran with satisfying precision. But not before taking a last look up at the canyon walls, only to see them waving back and forth in violent motion, as my brain continued its attempt at conteracting the chaotic motion of the water I’d been gazing at for so long. I occasionally awaken at night to visions of that rapid. My heart doing a rapid tap dance as I replay those moments.

And so this most recent trip, just days ago. What I find most remarkable and pleasing about this one is how natural it felt. The fear of rapids replaced by a pleasant anticipation with just the right touch of anxiety and enjoyment – and a sense that those late night visions of Lava Falls might be gone for good. And the camp chores are now a welcome diversion, a chance to socialize with those around me. And, most importantly, the return to society no longer depressing, but something to anticipate (albeit with a tinge of regret at leaving the Canyon).

Fishing – part II, III and IV

Rainbow TroutI’ve been meaning to write about my ongoing fishing expeditions, but haven’t quite mustered the time and energy. I actually had a new project start up which has diverted my energies, but there appears to be a little bit of a hiatus while my client does some shuffling around of… well… me, I suppose.

I’ve actually managed to go out 3 more times since my last post. The cool thing about getting back into this sport is that I’m not as focused on actually catching fish as I was when I was younger. This allows me to appreciate what’s going on around me a little more. I’ve seen otter, deer, and what I suspect was a grey fox (but was too far away to tell for sure – it could just as easily have been a coyote or a large stray cat for that matter.) I even saw a cute little marmot sunning himself on the rocks along one of the golf courses here… go figure.

And, of course, the weather continues to make it’s presence felt. I’ve managed to get snowed on 3 of the 4 times I’ve gone out, which makes for slightly chilly hands but is otherwise not too much of a nuisance.

The big news, I suppose, is that I’ve actually started to catch some fish. As you may have noticed from the tenor of these posts, this is definitely not a high priority for me. But the fact that after my 3rd outing I hadn’t so much as seen a hint of a fish… well it hadn’tt entirely escaped my notice. But as they say, “when it rains it pours.” Actually, I guess it’s “when it snows” around here. Last evening, with a couple hours to kill until dinnertime, I decided to try my luck again at a spot nearby (within walking distance, if you believe that!). The skies were grey, the sun was hidden behind clouds, but it actually felt like the fish might be up to something… which it turns out they were.

With Roni in tow, I scrambled down a ravine to the lower of a series of pools that I’d found last time. Within minutes of my first cast on the water, I noticed a fish jump slightly upstream from me. I worked my way up to the spot and cast in the same general vacinity. Sure enough, the fly disappeared in a little swirl of water as the the fish hit it. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to set the hook, but it was progress on an enormous scale: I’d actually seen a real live fish and, more importantly, he was gullible! Unfortunately, a few more casts made it evident that I’d scared him off.

Regardless, I was definitely excited. I moved on to the next pool upstream, and sure enough, it only took a couple of casts for another fish to hit the fly. This time I was ready though, and managed to properly set the hook! I had a glorious few seconds of battling this monster, enjoying my visions of a trout dinner big enough to feed a table of 8… and then I got a good look at him. Unfortunately I don’t think a fish that is 9″ tip-to-tail will divide up that well when the guests arrive. Fish around here have to be at least 10″ before you can keep them anyway, so I unhooked him and released him, terrified I’m sure, back into the water.

To make a long story short, I went on to catch two more of these little pipsqueaks, and get a couple more strikes, before the snow started falling in earnest and I needed to head home. Oh, and I went back to that first hole and did manage to catch the fish that first struck at my fly.

Thus, the die has been cast, I’m officially a fisherman again.

A Fly Fishing Pretense

I went fly fishing today, in the purist sense of the sport. That is to say, I lost a couple flies, got both my shoes wet, and didn’t see anything that even the most optimistic of fishermen would call a fish. That wasn’t unexpected however. It’s been almost 20 years since I last tried this.

Now that we’re not in the heart of San Francisco, I’m trying to get back into the sport. Not that I was ever an avid angler, but when my family vacationed in Montana back when I was in high school, an old family friend – my namesake actually – taught me how to flyfish. Somehow the notion of picking it up again has caught my fancy. I sort of like the idea of riding my bike to some back-country stream and catching a couple fish for dinner. A romantic vision? Sure, but there are worse things I could be working towards.

The last time my father came to our house, I talked him into bringing me the box of old gear he’s had stowed in his garage. One of the more unexpected finds was his old fly-fishing pole from when he was a kid. All it needed was a new eyelet and a little work with some steel wool. The box also contained some flies that my grandfather once tied, and even some of the hackle he used, which is still in perfect condition. So fly tying may get added to the list of pasttimes in our household.

This morning started out windy but I needed to get the dog some exercise. So I finally got around to putting the final touches on my gear, threw some flies in the fishing vest (unused, also in the box from my dad) and drove 15 minutes out the road to nearby Tumalo Creek. By the time I got there, the wind had picked up even more and it was snowing lightly. Yup, fly-fishing in a blustery snow-storm at noon. It is probably safe to say that actually catching a fish was the least of my worries.

In an effort to scout out the terrain for the season ahead, Roni and I walked through the marsh and shrubs along the creekbed for about a mile. I stopped at several promising looking pools and proceeded to flay the surface of the water in what a myopic geriatric might say resembled fly fishing… assuming he was standing far enough away. The reality is that I was just practicing , trying to get to a point where I wouldn’t feel like a complete idiot if someone happened to stroll by and see me.

As we walked, I crossed the creek a couple of times where fallen logs made rather dicey bridges. One of these days, I’m sure I’ll have a fun little falling-off-the-log-into-the-creek incident to report, but I got away with it today. Roni doesn’t like logs, however, nor does she like getting in water any deeper than her belly so she is left to whine and scamper along the river bank until she musters up the courage to plunge in and splash across, taking all of 5 seconds for the entire crossing. Wuss.

The highlight of the hike, for Roni at least, was the discovery of a ground squirrel underneath an old tree stump. The ground was soft, the scent strong, and she proceeded to excavate an amazing quantity of dirt. While she was thus engaged, I walked to the car for the water bottle which as luck would have it was empty. But Tumalo Creek is part of the Bend Watershed, which is pretty much what comes out of our faucets at home only purer. I just filled the bottle at the side of the stream.

And, while standing there, I had one of those Central Oregon moments. The sun broke through the clouds and lit up the valley, the front of the approaching storm cloaked the distant hills in a surreal haze, and the snow continued to fall. Roni was throwing dirt everywhere, I was drinking some of the best tasting water you’ll ever find, and carrying my father’s pole and my grandfather’s flies.

I almost don’t know how to answer when people ask me how I’m enjoying the move to Oregon.