A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about rivers

The Soul of a River

Rivers and Grandfathers, Be like Water, River Grandeur

semi-overcast 70 °F


There is something calming about a river. The scenes of a river are a soothing balm to an unsettled spirit. When the trivial petty little differences of life start to get to you and change your perspective, go outside, lean on a rail, a tree, a fence, or a friend and watch a river. Rivers are great listeners. They will listen to all your problems even if you don‘t voice them aloud. When you have finished venting, a river will often offer up some solace in the form of a continuous chuckle of the water, a dragon fly landing on a nearby flower, or a reflection of a cloud.
To me, rivers are a lot like grandfathers, patient, understanding, often slightly amused by your petty problems, but too kind not to give it away except for the twinkle in their eye. I doubt I’m the first to come to this conclusion. Whoever coined the term “old man river” was probably of a similar disposition. Besides that, some rivers have a musty, earthy smell to them, which might remind you of your own grandfather.
A troubled mind is not the only reason to venerate the qualities of a good river. I like them in all moods and temperament. There is something proper about a river. Perhaps it is their ancient quality, as if time doesn’t pertain to them. Take a hike down through the ages and layers of the Grand Canyon and you will understand what I mean. People come, and people go, but the river just keeps on running.
One of my old teachers recently had this to say, “The other day I immersed myself in the Traprock River, as I had yet to do that this year. Do you see a difference between the Ganges and the Traprock?”

I think not. Rivers have been a part of humanity since humanity began. It doesn’t matter where you are, man and river are intertwined.
Their greatest virtue is their laziness. Rivers are lazy. They never go out of its way for any unnecessary movement. If they move at all, it is because gravity is doing the work for them. Watts reminds us “to be like water. Watch water move over a piece of ground. It sends out little fingers of water, feeling its way along. When it comes to a dead end, it waits until it finds another way. Water always finds a way to go. You never see water cry out when it reaches a dead end, ‘Oh, I have failed’ for that would be neurotic water. Just wait patiently and like water, you will find a way without using any effort at all.” (Beware that this is roughly paraphrased).
I have been spending my time on some of the once great rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Even though man has put tremendous effort into controlling and regulating these rivers, the rivers carry on patiently, waiting the day when they will be free once again. I doubt it will be in my lifetime, but I would like to think that in time the Columbia and the Snake will run free once again.
In the mean time, these rivers are still offering up their solace and grandeur. I can lean on the rail late in the evening, look out over the star streaked sky, and listen to the sounds of the river. It is time well spent. I think I could have summed up this whole essay in one sentence. Rivers are good for the soul.

Posted by Rhombus 10:35 Archived in USA Tagged rivers oregon rocks sunsets photography washington philosophy Comments (0)

Anatomy of a Lock Toss

Navigating the Columbia and Snake River Locks, Tossing, Calling, and the Art of the Toss

overcast 67 °F

Each week, I travel up and down the Columbia and Snake rivers from Portland, Oregon to Clarkston, Washington. Along the way, I pass through seven different lock and dam systems that the US Corp of Engineers has constructed for hydro electrical power. The dam is for electricity. The lock is to allow easier navigation for shipping between upper and lower parts of the river.

The Columbia used to be a wild river, full of treacherous bars, sand shoals, rocks, waterfalls, rapids, narrows, not to mention salmon (I‘m not going to get into that topic). The late 1800’s was a golden era along the Columbia with steam powered paddle-wheels navigating these attention demanding waters, carrying cargo and people upstream and back down. I have seen pictures of these stern wheelers out in the middle of a series of big rapids, and it is impressive to see such shaky looking boats handle the rapids. I would love to see this with my own eyes, but alas, those days are long gone. Nowadays, a large portion of the Columbia and Snake rivers has morphed into a series of lakes with water levels controlled by the corps.

While I long to see what this river used to be like, and curse the “progress” of man, I must admit, I enjoy the challenge of navigating through the locks.
Every deckhand running up and down the Columbia River needs to be skilled at “lock tossing.” Lock tossing, is an acquired skill that involves making a loop of heavy mooring line and throwing it cleanly over a floating bollard. This line is then whipped around the bollard another time, and made fast, thus securing the ship to the side of the lock. The water can then be pumped in, or out depending on where the ship is headed. Since the bollard floats, and is secured to the wall, the ship rises or falls along with the water level.

I first started lock tossing about a year ago, when I first joined the Seabird, and it is one of my favorite parts of this job. I like the challenge of relying on my judgment and athletic skill to get the job done. Not very many people get to do what I do, and this is another example.

The Anatomy of a Lock Toss

There are three people involved in successfully navigating a lock. The watch officer, who is driving the boat. The caller, who gives the watch officer distances to the bollard. Finally, the tosser, who is strictly focused on throwing the line around the bollard.

After setting up three fenders on the bow of the boat that protects the hull from the concrete wall of the lock, the caller and the tosser go to their prospective starting points. The caller starts out directly below the wing station which is where the watch officer will be operating the boat from. This station allows him to see the entire length of the side of the ship. This helps them maneuver when getting close to a lock, or a dock. The watch officer lets the caller which bollard they want, and navigates as close to the side of the lock as they can.

This is not easy. There are all kinds of factors involved in putting a ship right next to a lock wall: the wind/direction, the water currents, the speed of the ship, the skill of the watch officer. As you might imagine, it doesn’t always go according to plan.

Usually, the officers get us within about five feet of the wall, give or take, and it is up to the tosser to decide if they can make that distance. I like the challenge of a long toss, but I can appreciate the skill of the driver who puts us within six inches of the wall without touching it.
When the target bollard is inline with the caller, they hold out there hand and walk with it, calling distances to where the tosser is waiting. This is usually mid ship at the number three cleat. The caller calls out, “30 feet, 20, 10, 5, 3, 2, 1, and Abeam,” meaning we are dead even with the bollard. When the bollard gets close, the tosser must decide when to go for the toss, and again, that is not easy. If the ship is close to the wall, it’s easier to make that toss then when it is nine feet away.
There are different techniques used when tossing. The most popular is to hold two coils of line one in each hand with a “tongue” of line to throw over the bollard. Tossing is not about upper body strength, it is about technique, and the better throwers will have their technique down. You want your tongue to land over the bollard, which is roughly two feet wide, and two feet tall. In order to do this, you must throw the line not only outward, but spread apart to land over it. It takes practice.

I don’t use the popular method of coiling my lines. I hold two long curls of line in each hand between three fingers with the tongue hanging down. I don’t really think about the toss too much, I just let my judgment and athletic ability do its thing, and most of the time I’m successful on my first toss.

The following photos were taken by Clay Collins, and used with permission. You can follow his travels, at www.atlastrekker.com
Sequence Of The Toss

If the toss is made, the watch officer will have you “make it” meaning securing the line to the ships cleat in a series of figure eight wraps, or will have you go for the second wrap. The second wrap is applied by pulling in all your slack on the line, and making a smooth wrap around the bollard making doubly sure that the ship will be secure to the bollard, and the lock wall. After the second wrap is on, I pull in all the slack and make the line fast.
In adverse conditions such as high wind, or if we are locking with another vessel, it’s important to get the ship secured as quickly as possible. This added pressure sits pretty much on the tosser, and this is what separates the good ones from the average.

After securing the vessel, the deckhands stand by to make sure everyone stays away from the line, as there is an immense amount of pressure and strain on the line. If the line snaps, it is an extremely dangerous situation. A snapped line has been known to take peoples legs off or worse. I’ve never been around a snapped line, but I’ve moved far away from lines that have stretched.

The big doors of the lock will close, sometimes with a resounding BOOM! and the lockmaster will pump the water until we are at the right level to depart. It’s a good time to lean on the rail, and chew the fat. In the early morning, when the stars are out, and everyone is asleep, and I’m deep in the philosophy of the night, I realize that these are the moments I love about this job.

Posted by Rhombus 20:57 Archived in USA Tagged rivers ships columbia photography locks navigating 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)


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)

Out to Sea: The Next Journey Begins

Starting Life Aboard a Ship, My New Home, First Impressions of the Watery World.

sunny 55 °F

My latest attempt at money making has me signed up for six months aboard a 152-foot cruise ship that will be sailing the Columbia and Snake rivers this fall, and down the west coast to Baja California, Mexico this winter. It’s exciting, and seemingly a perfect job for a curious wanderer and inspired student of the world such as myself.
I am a deckhand. I’m one of a crew of four that work aboard this vessel. We work long shifts, 12 hours on and 12 hours off, on a rotating swing schedule that changes every week. Our shifts cover the entire day, so the ability to be flexible in sleep schedule is already apparent. This is my fourth day on the boat, and while I still have a lot to learn about my job, everyday I feel more comfortable here. I’m settling in to my new home. My deck partner and I, who is also my roommate, and the person who works opposite schedules to me, has the same birthday as me. When we found that out, it was kind of like a twilight zone moment of weirdness. How bizarre! What are the chances of that happening? Astronomical. Anyway, I’ve decided our room needs to be decorated with May 10th paraphernalia, in honor of the situation.

My “home”, my berth, my cabin, is much what you would expect for a crewmember aboard a relatively small ship. Its cramped quarters, designed for efficient living, where mostly to get at anything you want in your berth you only have to turn around. However, my cabin living space is actually quite a bit larger than my van is, so I’m more comfortable than one would expect. It also has lights, electricity and a functioning head (bathroom) which makes it quite a bit more accommodating. In the head, you have three options: toilet, sink, or shower. All of which are easily used by turning around in a skimpy three and a half foot wide area. I’m sure you could use all three fixtures at once, if you were pressed for time.
The food is excellent and plentiful, and available at three meals for the crew, and a make your own snacks all day long, providing you don’t get in the galley crew’s way. Coffee, Cappuccino, and other beverages are readily available as well. The coffee is terrific and helps keep you going during your long shift. My current shift has me eating a small breakfast at about 10 am, and then attending crew lunch at 11:30. I could wait, but I like to start my mornings with breakfast food.

My first insight is that it’s going to be an interesting dynamic between living and working on a boat. As I’m going to be onboard most of the time, I’m going to have to get used to the fact that while I’m traveling and seeing new territory, I’m more or less on a fixed position moving around the globe. It remains to be seen how I get used to doing my work, then shutting down and enjoying my “me” time. So far, it hasn’t been a problem, but I’m only on my first week. The other cool part about being a deckhand is that, when you are on, you’re on, and when you are off, your off, nobody is going to ask you to work other than attending the weekly emergency drills. In addition, everyone knows when you are off, and so they give you some breathing room, and let you do your thing.

I’ve seen some cool things so far while on the ship. There is a lot of river traffic on the river, and a long series of locks to navigate through. I’ve taken part in tying off the vessel, by either calling bollard distances for the pilot, or actually making the toss and securing the vessel on the bollard. Then we rise or fall depending if we are heading upstream or down, the gates open, and we are on our merry way.

I really like making the rounds at night. I love the way the moonlight shimmers on the near glassy water of the Columbia and the Snake Rivers. The night starts with deep cool blue, which in time deepens to the dark of night. While walking the decks, I feel the beautiful solitude that lone deckhands on the watch have felt since sailing began. There is something about it, that’s hard to describe. Maybe it’s just wanderlust realized, embraced, and lived, combined with a changing natural environment.

“So it goes”, the river, life, and the ship. Therefore, I will as well.

Posted by Rhombus 02:12 Archived in USA Tagged boats rivers cruises oceans jobs philosophy Comments (2)

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