A Travellerspoint blog

November 2010

On Climbing

An Essay On One Of My Favorite Pastimes

Author's Note: I wrote this awhile ago, lost in bout of memories of my youth. Currently, I'm back in Michigan, spending time with my family after our loss. I'm returning to the Sea Bird on the 2nd, and so I have about a week of down time until then. Early winter in Michigan doesn't offer a whole lot to a vagabond. It's cold, and wintery; not enough snow to ski, unfortunately. So I thought I'd post this little piece and share some thoughts and stories about my climbing exploits.

I started out climbing trees. The land I grew up on had a thick forest of maples, oaks, red pine and apple trees, among others, and I climbed them all. I’ve spent many hours swaying in the thin branches of the tallest trees in the woods. I really liked climbing up high in strong winds. The wind would cause the tallest branches to buck and sway, and for me it was a homemade rollercoaster of sorts. Climbing trees is relatively easy. Most have reliable branches to elevate and descend with. Some of them bear gifts- fruits such as apples or cherries. Sometimes when I’d climb, I’d find the perfect branch, and turn it into a throne, a favorite spot to sit and think, daydreaming the afternoon away. I still climb trees at 29. I don’t climb them as much as I used to, but a couple times a year, I like to recapture my youth…Recapture is the wrong word, I like to reconnect with my past by exploring as a kid. I find that it helps me retain my interest and youthful vigor in my explorations as an adult.

I have to thank my oldest brother for getting me into rock climbing. When I was about twelve, he used to fill my head with stories of his exploits climbing the rock cliffs that make up the Greenstone Ridge of the Keweenaw Peninsula. His tales involved climbing, camping, freedom, friends and youthful vigor. He told his stories well, and I was an interested listener. He inspired me and I wanted to climb. Whenever someone would take me hiking up in the cliffs, I would take every opportunity to climb up a rock face instead of hiking along the trail. I was hooked even at an early age.

During the summer of my 15th year, my dad died. After numbly attending the series of ceremonies that goes with a death, I finally found myself alone and looking for an outlet. I called up a friend of mine, wondering if he wanted to do something. “Like what?” he asked. “I don’t know, how about we go climb up in the cliffs?” I said. “OK,” he said, “I’ll pick you up in 20 minutes.” So began my climbing career.

I don’t remember much about that first climb. I know it was a beautiful day, and that we had a great time climbing the face we chose to tackle. I remember the euphoria running through my body as I clung to the rock high above the pines of the forest below. We were both reveling in the challenge, and the fun of climbing. For the next three years, we spent any free time we had climbing. Some summer days, we’d work in the morning, attend football practice in the afternoon, meet up and climb two or three pitches in the late afternoon before descending down the sheer cliff faces in the dark. When school was in session, we’d climb every weekend, usually on Sunday. During the winter, we didn’t climb, but we still hiked up and down the cliffs, looking for new routes, and sledding back down. We called it exploring, and so it was.

We were purists. For footwear, we wore tennis shoes. No kidding. That was what we had, and so that’s what we used. We wore jeans, as not to scrape our knees on the rocks. We didn’t use ropes of any kind. We climbed the hardest faces we could. We specifically chose the more difficult routes that we could, as we reveled in the challenge. The routes we climbed were anywhere from 20 feet to over sixty feet high. If we fell, we were probably dead, or mangled. Neither one of us wanted to have to be the one to tell the other guy’s mom that his son fell off the rock. Our moms didn’t even know what we were up to, and I was very vague about my afternoon’s adventures when I showed up in the evening sweaty, filthy, bloody, and grinning. We came up with ideas on how to tell our mothers what happened if something went wrong. I figured that if it came to that, that I would take a casual approach. “Hi Mrs. Parks, do you remember Jeff? Oh, you do? Well, about that, he’s going to be late for dinner. He wanted me to let you know that. Why am I driving his car? Well, he said I could have it, as he wouldn‘t be needing it any more…”We were invincible. I didn’t learn that I wasn’t until ten years later, in an unrelated incident.

There was only one time that I was stuck, and had to improvise a descent. In climbing, it’s always easier to climb up, than to climb down. We were climbing in an area that we hadn’t been to before. Typically, we’d each choose a separate line, instead of both of us climbing the same one. Often, if someone was higher, he could call out holds that were unseen to the other climber. On this particular day, we were both climbing a 30-foot wall on two separate lines. I had worked myself onto a tiny shelf that allowed me to stand on it while hugging the overhanging rock above my head. I could shinny to the left, and to the right as far as the shelf went, sliding my feet as I palmed the rock with my hands. I couldn’t find anyway of getting around the smooth overhang. There was nothing.

Meanwhile, Jeff was having his own dilemma. He was perched on one good foothold and had one good handhold. The line he was climbing petered out of holds, and he had a decision to make. He could see a possible hold several feet above him, if he gripped a slender twig of a tree that was clinging in a crack, he could jump up and grab the “handhold. “ If he made it, he would complete the climb. If he missed, he fell twenty feet onto a hodge podge of jumbled boulders. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. He went for it. Luck was with him, and it was a good hold. He pulled himself up and kicked his leg over the top of the wall.

I wasn’t so lucky. I was still hugging the smooth surface of the bulging rock. I was nose to nose with it. I could smell the earthy moss, and ancient scent of the rock itself. Young lovers couldn’t have been closer to one another that I was with that rock. I heard Jeff’s shout of triumph that indicated he completed his climb. I couldn’t see him, as a chimney and an outcrop separated us. I tried shinnying left again, and still I couldn’t find a way. I knew I was tiring, and I knew I had to do something, so I decided to go back down. Climbing down is easier said than done. The same holds you used to elevate yourself are often only useful on the way up. The friction and force of your hands and feet on the rock are different when going up and down.

To get down, I knew that I couldn’t use the same holds that I used on the upward climb. They were of no use. I lowered myself gingerly over the side of the shelf, using the edge as my last handhold. The way down was slightly sloped in my favor, I wouldn’t be free falling. I slowly let go, and began a twelve foot slide using only my bare arms and feet as a brake against the rock. Time stood still. I landed on the boulder I was aiming for with a loud “THUMP” on my feet. My arms were in agony. The raw scrapes reached from my palms up to my biceps. My legs also had some scrapes, but overall, I was none the worse for wear, and very happy to be back down.

We compared our stories, laughed at our fortunes, and decided that it was probably enough climbing for the day.
"KC Rock" Named after the Keweenaw Central Railroad which used to run beneath it.
Our greatest climb was when we took a direct line up “KC Rock.” KC Rock is probably the most difficult climb on the whole length of the ridge. It’s definitely the highest pitch I’ve ever climbed. We climbed the first couple of steep pitches with ease. We were feeling good, in great shape, and ready for the challenge of climbing the big one. Finally, we were perched about a hundred feet above the ground and directly underneath the overhanging “nose” of the rock itself. KC rock is a monolithic rock that sticks out like a nose at the very top of the cliff. The over hand is a flat roof of 20 feet that for us was unclimbable (we still didn’t use rock shoes, protection or ropes).We had to find a way around it. We maneuvered our way to the right side of the rock and there found a chimney that led halfway up the rock. Then it narrowed into a 4-inch crack that led all the way up to the top. It was a climb of about thirty feet. We jammed our bodies into the chimney, using our arms then our legs to force our backs flat against the chimney wall. By alternating arms to legs and sliding our backs along, we made it up to the crack. We jammed our feet and hands into the crack, climbing around a five-inch pine tree that had taken root. We continued upward, until I grabbed the backside of the rock the crack was in and pulled myself over the top. Jeff soon followed, and we had done it! We climbed KC Rock, a feat normally only completed by members the serious climbing club at the local university. We did it in tennis shoes, without ropes.
Climbing At The City of Rocks, New Mexico
I continue to climb. I’ve given up the death defying routes of my youth, I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. Instead, I’ve become an avid boulderer. Bouldering is climbing in its simplest form. All that I need for equipment is a pair of rock shoes, a landing pad, and a chalk bag, though I only use shoes. In bouldering, you climb rocks close to the ground up to about 20 feet (this varies with the climber). This takes away the fear of falling, so you can try harder moves without worrying. It’s great exercise, a complete workout for the body and mind.

I’m not a great climber. You’ve probably have seen climbers clinging by one finger as they cling to the underside of an overhang. I’m not that good. I challenge myself as best I can, and I have fun. I get into a zen-like state when I’m climbing. I have total focus on the problem at hand. It’s probably the only activity that allows me to forget about everything else, concentrating completely on the climb. It feels so good to lose yourself in the climb. It helps me purge my body and mind, leaving me fresh.
I have favorite climbing areas all around the country. That’s what is great about this sport, all you need to do is find some rock, and there are rocks everywhere (except North Dakota and Florida). I have a catalog of climbing areas for every state and Canada, so no matter where I’m traveling to, I can find some places to climb along the way. It makes a trip that much more special when I can find a good place to climb.

I love climbing on the shore of Lake Superior. The rock is usually excellent. It’s good for gripping, not too high, good landing areas. Moreover, it’s a beautiful place to climb. I love climbing out over the clear water, testing my mettle against the rock. If I fall, I fall right into the lake, which can be shockingly cold, especially if you fall into the water in late April. That’s a jolt to the system let me tell you.

I was climbing the other day on my favorite wall on Black Beach near Silver Bay, Minnesota. A gaggle of teenage girls came up to me as I was clinging precariously to the rock. “Excuse me, are you climbing?” one of them asked. “No, I’m just hugging rocks,” I replied. “It looks like you are climbing to me.,” she said. “Really?” I asked. “Yes. What’s your name? This went on for a while, each of the girls asking questions, and bantering with one another. Meanwhile, I was weakening as I was still clinging to the rock with my fingers and arms outstretched like an eagle. I decided to try the next move. “Why don’t you just climb up over here? It’s way easier.” One of them pointed out helpfully. Grunting with the effort, I gasped out, “BE..CUZ I like the challenge…” “Well, that’s dumb,” she said. The group finally was bored with me, and moved off letting me finish my climb in peace. It’s not everyday I am interviewed in the middle of a climb.

I’ll continue to climb as long as I can. At this point, I see no end in sight.

Posted by Rhombus 08:51 Archived in USA Tagged deserts rock climbing travelling philosophy Comments (2)

Positioning: Crusing From Portland to San Francisco

Crossing the Bar, Life at Sea, Entering San Francisco by Water, Troubled Waters

semi-overcast 59 °F

We crossed over the Columbia River Bar at about 2 am Saturday morning. I got up for the crossing, as I was very interested in being a part of crossing one of the more dangerous stretches of water in the Pacific ocean. The Columbia River Bar is known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” There have been over a hundred documented shipwrecks in the area, and countless undocumented losses. The reason why this place is so dangerous, is because the 1200 (give or take) mile long Columbia River empties into the roiling North Pacific Ocean. Added to this mix are the strong winter storms that surge across the pacific in a continual salvo of oceanic and meteorological energy. The combined wind and current often brew up the wind into a gale of over 60 knots, and build the seas to over 40 feet. This is no place for the timid.

Our passage was uneventful. We rocked and rolled in the 9 foot swell, but by all accounts, it was one of the smoothest crossings that our veteran crew members could remember. There really wasn’t much to see, but the boat was definitely pitching back and forth in the moderate seas. I stayed awake watching our crossing on our GPS, but soon grew tired and returned to my bunk. Thus began our three day voyage to San Francisco.

Day One:
I awoke to the heaving swells of the open ocean. It was cloudy out, gray and misting. We were traveling south about 14 miles off the coast of Oregon. While I have driven this section of coastline several times, this would mark my first time sailing of the coast. Not that there was much to see. The heavy mists and fog made for a gray world with limited visibility. Inside the crew lounge, it was eternally dusk. The day before we left, we spent a lot of time “battening down the hatches”- securing everything on the boat for potential rough conditions. This included putting aluminum window plates on all of our main deck windows. It took away all outside light, and left us in a state of semi-darkness while we hung out in the main dining room.

We didn’t have many chores to do. Most of my time on duty was spent reading, writing, socializing, eating, and making the rounds to see all was secure. When my shift was over, we played games, Boggle mostly, watched movies, socialized, and enjoyed our downtime.

Walking around on a tilting ship is not easy, and it seemed everyone had there own technique for crossing the open areas of the dining area. Some would take baby steps, making short choppy steps to keep balance. Others would walk normally, and then make quick steps to curb the momentum that was sending them away from their destination. I liked to make long slow arcs, walking with the tilt to starboard, then using the tipping point and momentum back to portside to get me where I wanted to be. All of us looked silly, but that’s part of the fun of being onboard. I vacuumed the rug, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had vacuuming. I tried to do straight lines, but it was impossible, and the rug looked like a drunkard had haphazardly cleaned the rug.

We were in a continual state of swaying. I thought that reggae music should have been played over our sound system, to make all our swaying make more sense. It was pointless to do my usual stretching routine that I like to do, as the tilting of the boats axis put way more strain on the muscles compared to normal.

As it is, I’m not really designed for engine rooms, or the lazzarete. I’m of average height, five foot eleven inches tall. So far, I’ve managed to crack my head on the metal of the boat every day that I’ve been aboard. My head is beginning to resemble a golf ball with all the new divots it has acquired. My shins have faired no better, as I’ve raked them over the metal doorways countless times. I’ve gotten better about it, but I can’t wait until I finally learn to protect my head.
We began to see more wildlife. I saw albatross once again (a sign of good luck). I saw two different varieties and as many as five of them at once. They were sailing the winds, making long snake like arcs across the ocean, tacking their way southward. Their long wings were extended to full extent to catch as much wind as possible. I like the albatross, especially their size and for how close they fly to the water. Their wingtips seem to touch the swells as they bank and turn into the wind.
Day Two:
The second day of sailing brought better seas, and blue skies. We could see the shoreline once again, and the temperature was warm. We were somewhere off of the coast of California, and I like to think it was somewhere off of the “lost coast.” The lost coast is a hard to reach area, which remains one of the prettiest in California. I’ve never seen it myself, but it’s on my list of places to explore in California, should I be so fortunate.

The bow of our ship was the place to be on this day. Inside the ship, it was hot and oppressive, but outside it was beautiful. The warm sun was shining, and the seas were pleasant. A long fog bank could be seen off to the west, but staying away from us. To the east, the California coast was rugged, the coast mountains were glowing a golden green. A lot of the staff came outside to enjoy the sun, and we were all really digging our lives at that particular moment. To think we were getting paid for this was a pleasant thought. They could have paid me in sand, and I still would have come to work. I had some good conversations with some of my new friends, and it was nice to spend time getting to know them.
That evening, the dolphins came. Dolphins have been known to swim and play in the wake of ships for as long as men sailed the seas. I’d never seen dolphins before, and I was quite excited to see them. I’m guessing there was a group of eight or more that would skim just underneath the water, then course right into our wake wave, do a barrel roll, and then jump out of the water as the swell caught up with us. It was amazing! The light was fantastic from the warm luminescence of the setting sun. The dolphins were playing, very much in their element, and I was in mine. Many staff members came out, and we were all excited to take photos, videos, and just enjoy the amazing agility and playfulness of the dolphins. They were Pacific White Sided Dolphins, and we enjoyed them very much.
Day Three:
Our last day dawned warm and clear. We were steadily heading east, into the rising sun and directly towards the coppery orange span of the Golden Gate Bridge. Most of the staff came out for the moment. It marked the end of our first positioning, and an entrance to the San Francisco area, our temporary home for two weeks. As the sun rose, the air warmed nicely, and we were bathed in sunlight. It was glorious. It was the best entrance I’ve ever made into San Francisco. In years past, I’ve driven south over the bridge, pissed off, and tense, hating the intense flow of city traffic and writing off the city as a hell hole. It wasn’t a fair evaluation, and I regret my impatience and stubborn behavior. In comparison, the fastest speed we travel on our ship is around 10 knots (just over 10 miles an hour). It’s very relaxed, and stress free. It gives you time to take it all in, and since I wasn’t driving, I could take my time in composing some photos, and really, really enjoy the morning. A friend gave me half of her grape fruit, and its fresh citrus was a perfect compliment to the morning.
We passed under the impressive span, and I couldn’t help but remember the stories of the men who built this bridge. Specifically, the “Halfway to Hell” club, a group of guys who fell off of the span during construction- only to be saved by the safety nets that were installed underneath, designed for that purpose. The Golden Gate construction was the first that made mandatory use of hard hats and safety nets for bridge workers.
We cheered and posed for a group picture, and soon everyone drifted off to the dining area for breakfast. I was more interested in seeing the city-scape, Alcatraz, the bay bridge, and the downtown area. There were great views in every direction, and I took pleasure in the beginning of my day.
That was the last peaceful moment I’ve had. After we docked, we got busy getting the ship back in order. It was a long day of hard work in the hot sun. Later that evening, I finally checked my phone messages and learned of family emergency and terrible news from home. My mom had a major stroke, and it wasn’t looking good. It was if the floor fell right out from underneath me, and I had to get home. Everything else seemed completely pointless, and so I got the next flight I could to make it back home.

In this world, you can be flying high one minute, only to have your wings fall off the next and sent into a spiraling freefall. That’s life. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. It’s easy to enjoy life when times are good. In my experience, bad times are usually horrible to go through, but can give you valuable perspective into what’s truly important. I often learn more about myself, and others when times are bad, then when they are good. I wouldn‘t be who I am today, if I hadn‘t experienced the darker side of life. I’m hanging in there, often lost in my thoughts and contemplating how to face the unknown. It’s not pleasant, but I’m buoyed by my friends and family who have and will be by my side.

Posted by Rhombus 14:10 Archived in USA Tagged ocean wildlife ships photography pacific cruising coasts philosophy Comments (4)

The Best of Astoria

Some History, Good Eats, The People, The Column, and the Columbia River Bar

sunny 50 °F

I’ve been spending time in the small coastal town of Astoria, Oregon lately. Astoria has some charms, beyond being famous for the home of “The Goonies.” First, some historical facts. Astoria started out as a fur trader’s settlement in the early 1800’s and has been settled ever since. In fact, it is the oldest permanent settlement west of the Mississippi River in the U.S. John Jacob Astor’s controlling grip on the North American Fur Trade brought fur traders, opened the settlement, and was named after him. When the fur bearing animals disappeared, the people turned to Salmon for their livelihood. Salmon sustained the town well into the 1900’s. The fisherman caught the fish and sold it to the cannery who sold it to the consumer. “We didn’t mind the smell (referring to the stench of fish products). To us, it smelled like money, and we felt prosperous.” ~ Astoria Fisherman, talking about the Astoria fishing industry.
There aren’t any canneries open anymore. Hundreds of wood pilings line the shore line of Astoria, reminders of former industry. Astoria lives on, a nice town, an enjoyable place to spend some time if you get the opportunity.
On my first visit, I had three hours to explore the town. I was free from ship duties for the day, and we didn’t set sail until the evening. It felt fantastic to be walking on land, in the bright sunshine. I felt good, and wanted to see what this town had to offer. I moseyed toward the downtown area, and soon found myself on a binge of impulse buying. What does a vagabond spend his money on when he’s on a “spree? “ Well, the first thing I found was a music store, and I needed a capo for my banjo, so that was an easy decision. Continuing on, I found a chocolatier who had fresh truffles for sale. I’m a man who can’t resist chocolate, and refuses to feel guilty about it. Five truffles were purchased, three of which went to some of the hard working stewards on our ship. I’m quite generous with my chocolate.

Walking around the corner, I started my way back east on Commercial Ave, the other main downtown street. I stopped in at a local market to buy some hand soap for my cabin on the boat. A plan formed in my mind, and I bought an ice cold drink to enjoy later on at the Astoria Column, a lofty tower that overlooks the country side from high atop the steep hills above town. It was a good thing I did, as the hike up the steep hills of Astoria was a grueling, dehydrating climb. I’ll talk more about that later. I digress, and want to talk more about the downtown spending spree I was enjoying. I decided I wanted a book, so I stopped in at a likeable new and used bookseller (Godfather‘s). I briefly glanced around at the well ordered shelves of books and found myself in the Non-Fiction section. I remembered the last name of an author of a book I wanted to read, and looked at the shelf for “Larson.” Sure enough, they had the book I was looking for. “Thunderstruck” by Erik Larson. It was a done deal. I made my purchase, and was about to leave, when I decided to write an email before I continued on my grand adventure up to the column.

As I said, the climb up the column is arduous. The people of Astoria have legs of steel, without a doubt. I enjoyed the hike. It felt really good to stretch my legs out on some serious uphill. It was kind of maddening however, as I didn’t see the tower until I finally rounded a bend after many blocks of walking. I was following the signs that led up to the park. I like to see my goal, when I’m laboring that hard.
Then there it was. A tall lighthouse like pillar set atop a hillside towering above the nearby coniferous trees. My timing was good. The soft puffs of the clearing white clouds dotted in the azure blue sky made for a pleasing backdrop for the sunlit column. The grounds of the tower were landscaped and well manicured. The tower area had uniform sidewalks of concrete led people to the entrance of the tower, and the spiraling staircase that rose up to the viewing platform. I was getting tired from all the vertical footwork I was making on this jaunt. However, I knew that soon enough I would be at the highest point around, and there would be nothing more to climb. When I walked through the door to the viewing platform, the entire northwest corner of Oregon spread out before me in every direction. It was gorgeous. I could easily see across the river into Washington, and Cape Disappointment. I could see the famed Columbia Bar, also known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” An area of violent seas, where the 1300 mile long Columbia River meets the raging north Pacific Ocean. I’ll be writing more about the Columbia Bar, in a few days, as I’ll be crossing over it myself for the first time.
Looking down onto the concrete far below, some kids were messing around with the gliders they sell at the gift shop. The slanting low angled sunlight of late afternoon made for interesting long shadows on the grid of concrete.

After awhile I tromped back down the stairs and out into the sunny meadow where I relaxed on a picnic table for awhile, before back tracking down the hills to the ship. I was probably making the longest strides of my life as I made my way back down those steep hills. I’d like to see an Astorian walk on flat ground; I bet it would look awkward and funny, like a bowlegged cowboy getting off his horse after many days of riding.

The people of Astoria are open to street conversation. I’ve spoken to four random people on the street, each with their own story. I met a college student studying to be a marine biologist. I talked at length with an elderly lady about what types of meat she prefers to eat. She eats buffalo way more than fish, chicken or red meat. She doesn’t eat pork at all. You might be wondering why I’m relaying this onto you, poor reader; after all, the eating habits of a random woman are hardly vagabond material. This lady spent the better part of fifteen minutes explaining her eating habits to me, and I was patient enough to listen to her, even though my own half pound burger and fries from the Custard King was slowly cooling in its wrapper. I just wanted to share her story with you. I met the leader of a litter pick up crew who told me about some of the better beaches along the coast. Most of them I’ve been to, but he did tell me about one called “Indian Beach” which I’ve never visited. Finally, I met a bookseller, who gave me the location of the bookstore I had already visited. A nice lot, and all of them seemed generally proud of their town.
If you find yourself looking for a good café in Astoria, look no further than the Columbian Café on Marine Drive. I had a day off, and I was looking to go out for breakfast. I ordered Italian sausage, eggs and toast and with it they offered four kinds of pepper jelly. I’m now a huge fan of pepper jelly, cayenne, in particular. It was sweet and spicy, and excellent on toast.

I ended off my day by visiting the Columbia River Maritime Museum. This is one of the better museums I’ve ever visited, and I was pleasantly surprised at how informative and interesting it turned out to be. It covers a lot of ground, from shipwrecks, aids to navigation, the coast guard, fishing, canneries, tug and barges, steamships, and Bar Pilots. I liked all of it, but I was especially into the old stories from the gill netters, the ship wrecks, the history of the Columbia Bar, and the bar pilots.
The Columbia River bar pilots are the elite class of the marine navigators. All commercial vessels must take on a pilot to navigate them over the bar. To board the super container ships, the pilots head out during any kind of day or night, in 60 knot winds, and seas commonly over 30 foot seas. They pull along side the monstrous ships, and climb up a wood and plank ladder. Then they direct the vessel safely over the bar.
I can’t wait to see the bar for myself. It’s going to happen tonight at 2 am. There is so much sea faring history in the bar. It’s known as the graveyard of the pacific, and dozens of ships have floundered and sunk in its dangerous waters. It’s going to be fun…

Posted by Rhombus 07:30 Archived in USA Tagged parks rivers fishing history photography astoria Comments (4)

Returning To Palouse Falls

Exploring Deeper into the Canyon, Behind the Falls

sunny 55 °F

Returning to Palouse Falls was one of the better decisions I’ve made lately. To make it happen, I had to stay awake for what turned out to be 23 hours straight. I’ve been adapting well to long hours and little sleep it seems. I made the plan the day before, I would work my night shift, stay up, and catch the zodiac/ bus ride to the falls with the guests who were going on a tour there that day. There was in fact, two tours going that day, which allowed me an opportunity to stay longer as I could go there with the first group and return with the second group. This gave me three uninterrupted hours to explore this magnificent gem of the Palouse, and Washington State.

The Palouse region of Washington is located in the extreme southeast part of the state. It is a land of high rolling hills, squat eroded mesas, dotted with glacial erratic- boulders dropped from retreating glaciers of long ago. The land is wild, undulating and lumpy, carved and shaped by the usual suspects: water and wind. It has a desolate and barren feel to it, like the empty distances of western Kansas or the sand hills of Nebraska. However, those locales are flat, and the Palouse is anything but flat. I tip my hat to the pioneers who crossed this region by foot, those hard men and women had legs of steel, make no mistake. To view the Palouse from a high point is to see miles of vertical fields stretching to the horizon.

Agriculturally, the Palouse is one of the best wheat producing areas in the world. The climate is ideally suited to wheat, and so the land is covered in long acres of fields, mixed with occasional small stands of apple orchards. The ranchers who live here must do more planning than the average settler must. The nearest grocery store can be over 40 miles away. Forgetting the milk too many times is grounds for divorce in these parts.

I had a plan in my mind for my visit to the falls. Two years ago, when I visited in the spring, I had spied a promising trail that might lead down to the water and possibly to the lip of the high falls. On that visit, for whatever reason, I didn’t follow the trail, but instead was content to gaze at the expansive canyon from up high. This time, I was going to beeline it straight to the trail and head down to the river. I found the trail easily enough, right where I left it, in fact.

Looking down from the top of the ridge, I could see a thin line of the trail first descending a scree pile and then worming its way through a tangle of sage to the upper falls. This was indeed my ticket to paradise. Without a further glance, I galloped down the ridge to the top of the talus pile. I love running down talus piles. The trick is to keep your feet moving quickly, and make small switchbacks to check your speed. It looks reckless, and it is, but my technique is a controlled recklessness. Once committed to running down a talus pile, the only thing to do is to go with it, as stopping midway is hard to do. I kept my feet moving, making light steps, and descended the 500-foot pile with relative ease.
I was on the floor of the canyon, walking a beaten trail through a corridor of wet, green sage from the morning dew that had formed on it. I love the smell of sage. It’s such a clean, earthy, powerful smell. It evokes images and memories of past desert jaunts, solitude, and wanderlust. It’s powerful medicine, both figuratively and in reality, (drinking a bitter sage tea has been used to combat colds). The sun was still rising over the canyon wall, illuminating the southern half of the floor of the canyon, but leaving the northern half in cold blue shadow. The air was quite fresh, and the sound of the upper falls drowned out any other noise except that of my thoughts. I was in my element once again.
I set up a few pictures of the upper falls, satisfied with my efforts; I moved on over the slippery rocks and found that the trail continued toward the high falls. I love it when a hunch proves correct. I found reserves of energy I didn’t think I had, after being up for 18 hours, and I bounded over the rocks, jogging along the trail, energetic as a deer. The trail clung to the base of the sheer canyon wall, and I had to slow down to pick my way across a few sketchy areas. Rounding a final shallow turn, I found myself looking at the Castle Rocks, a band of thin finger like rock jutting into the sky; they look like two hands rose up waiting to catch a falling star.
The whole canyon opened up before me, I was looking at the expansive Palouse Canyon from the north side looking south, and it was as awesome and impressive as I’d hoped it would be. The canyon is expansive, a massive void that impresses upon the senses. I found myself settling down for a moment, sitting in a good location to take a drink of water, and a drink of the beautiful scenery in which I was situated. This huge canyon was carved down through the ages, and the layering of the rock is evident in the sheer canyon walls that surround the falls. It rather puts things into perspective, what a brief time we live in comparison to the eons that it took to carve the rock.
In time, I took out my camera and tried to do the landscape justice. I found I like the Castle Rocks the best, and the lighting was decent but with the sun rising it soon would wash out the scene. I worked methodically, and ended up content with my choices.
Hiking out was just as pleasant as hiking in. The upper falls were finally lit up in sunlight, and they made a pleasant resting spot before I scrambled back up the steep talus pile and topping out on the ridge once again. The climb was a killer. Gasping, and churning, I burned my legs back up the incline, and made it back up to the quiet top of the mesa.
The sun was beating down, and it felt good to sit on the canyon edge and gaze out over the river, the falls, and the majestic canyon out in front of me. I settled into a good loafing position using my backpack as a pillow. I watched the scenery, and then I noticed about 10 black beetles milling about in the short grass around me. I pondered there movement, and wondered what was going on in there world. A migration? Foraging for food? Who knows? All I know is that I thoroughly enjoyed my day at Palouse Falls, and I’m looking forward to my next visit.

Posted by Rhombus 14:22 Archived in USA Tagged waterfalls boats hiking canyons photography palouse Comments (0)


Working The Graveyard, Solitude, Takes on the Night

sunny 45 °F

I’m working the graveyard shift right now, from 7 pm to 7 am. I’ve never worked night shift before, and I was curious to see how I would function trying something completely different. So far, I’ve found that I can handle it quite well, and relatively easily. After my shift, I eat breakfast, take a shower and go to bed to hopefully sleep for 8 hours. Sleep is the name of the game. It’s important to get enough of it, because any shortage will make the early hours a challenge to stay awake. I’ve also done it without caffeine. Of course, I have my usual cup of coffee when I wake up, and I like a cup of hot tea about 2 am, but that’s it. I didn’t want to be a hopped up, caffeine dependent slave. I wanted to be alert, and functioning, adapting to the night instead of fighting it. My plan has worked, and I’ve enjoyed the darkest hours.

Embracing the night has its moments: I’ve found myself dying of laughter all by myself in the empty dining room, remembering a funny bit from a movie. I love leaning on the rail immersed in the deep inky darkness of the night. There is a ceiling of stars above me, along freight train flying by on the riverbank, and a fresh cool breeze whipping by my face. It’s so very beautiful and tranquil.

There’s a quality to the night that embraces you, enveloping you in the hidden knowledge of darkness. The night is a peaceful solitude. I like the idea that I’m the only person awake and the entire world is asleep. I like having the ship to myself. Living in such a small area as a boat makes it hard to find privacy.

There are nightly chores to finish every night, and a bridge watch to assist. Another deckhand and I, switch this job up hourly after making a security round to break up the chores we have to do. This also helps break up the monotony of staring into the darkness trying to stay awake. I like being on the watch late at night. Our second mate likes old classic country music, which he plays as soon as he gets on shift. He usually has the heat blasting, “I like to bring a little South Carolina wherever I go.” Old music warbles out the radio played by Bob Wills, Jon Conlee, Marty Robbins, and Tom T. Hall among many others. So I sit there, scanning the horizon for navigation lights, logs, boat traffic, and anything else, listening to old tunes in the hot cabin, and making light conversation about whatever comes to mind.

Fringe benefits of this job:

Watching the silver moonlight shimmer on the river. I can’t help but think of David Bromberg’s “Moonlight on the Water”. It’s so very beautiful, especially when view with binoculars.

We have very high-powered binoculars up on the bridge. The other night, I used them to scope out Venus, and I saw its three moons like tiny glimmering mosquitoes circling around an orb.

Midnight milkshakes. Enough said.

Seeing the Columbia River and Snake River from the water is a cool perspective. For those of you who are interested in amazing engineering projects, the nine locks that we pass through on our upstream voyage and downstream voyage are very impressive. As a deckhand, one of our jobs is to toss a loop of 2 inch line around a bollard, making it fast to secure the vessel to the side of the lock. This is a lot of fun. On my first throw, I was too keyed up and ready to throw that when my partner said, “Wait.” I threw the line into the water. I was about 15 feet away from the bollard, and didn’t know that we closed in before we had to throw. It was quite funny. I was able to reload and make the next toss with plenty of time to spare. I generally learn from bad experience, and when learning something completely new, I tend to make a mess of it. Ah well, no worries, I haven’t missed a lock toss since that very first throw.
Today I took part in perhaps the first ever banjo sale on the streets of Portland. I have been itching to get my hands on one, as I hadn’t played in quite some time. Using the all-powerful tool called the internet, I located one, contacted the owner, convinced her to drive to the dock, and met her on the street to see if it was worth purchasing. The meeting took place after I stayed awake all night working, and giving myself just under two hours of sleep before I had to get up for the meeting. I feel I was looking and feeling my best, bleary eyed, stumbling, mumbling, I somehow communicated my feelings through a mixture of spastic gestures and slow grunts that I wanted to buy it. I handed over a pile of uncounted cash, grabbed my new friend and made plans to dismantle it and rebuilding it to a workable piece.

On my way back from the banjo purchase, I noticed an old pair of work boots sitting along side of the dock. They didn’t have any laces, were worn and scuffed, and completely alone. I vowed to return later, to give them their proper respect, but I needed sleep more than I needed that picture. After catching some rejuvenating sleep, I returned with my camera, and took a satisfying picture of the boots.
I’ve been fortunate to find satisfying photographs on my limited time off the vessel. Granted, I’m open to my environment and usually can find a pleasing scene. Take the boots. I didn’t have a lot of time to go out for a shot, but I had an idea that they would make a cool shot. I found them, just as I had seen them earlier, and took five photos of them. Upon editing, I only kept one.

“Some say it’s darkest before the dawn. This thought keeps me, moving on. If we could heed these early warnings. The time is now, come early morning.” Pete Seeger

Author’s Note: I find this particular entry very disjointed. I wrote it over a period of several days during the week I was working nights. I’ve decided to keep it as is, because I think it’s a good example of how I was thinking during the long night shifts. In the night, ideas come and go, often abruptly, then come back in new forms.
You probably aren’t asking yourself, “What’s next for our fearless adventurer?” I’ll tell you anyway. A little day hike down to Palouse Falls.

Posted by Rhombus 22:43 Archived in USA Tagged night rivers boating photography Comments (2)

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