Going Places: Floating the Middle Fork

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Floating the Middle Fork

The river has over 100 tributaries, 30 different rapids with a Class 3 or higher rating, and all the energy typical of the young, which these mountains are. As the river descends from it's headwaters at 7000 feet, it passes through a varied, changing terrain. High in it's course it is heavily forested, mostly Doug Fir. Midway down it dries up considerably and gets little snow in winter. The airy Lodgepole pine and it's bigger brother, the Ponderosa, lend an aura of dignity to these austere environs. Nearing its confluence with the main stem Salmon, sagebrush appears as the river takes in a notch at the belt to pass through towering canyon walls.

We sat down to a fresh blue tablecloth set with silverware, candlelight, and wine glasses our last night in the canyon. After an excellent meal we pulled our camp chairs around a crackling pine fire under a brilliant bank of stars. Theater night with an old west flavor, the staff is dressed up in bow ties and clean faces, with their ever present sunglasses suspended de regeur behind their necks from colorful Chums and Croakies. While the rest of us settle into the sand with our drinks, Lieb and a couple of other guides deliver a fresh recital of the Robert Service epic: 'The Cremation of Sam McGee'. As I sat, listening, I could feel the camaraderie among the staff. From the early days of Woody Hinton to the legendary Helfrich family of Rogue and Umpqua fame, the legacy of river guides on this river is a rich and time honored one.

I hitched a ride aboard the sweep our last morning out. Steep-walled canyons lay ahead of us with rapids and narrow chutes and cool, moist air. An enigmatic young Australian and veteran sweep driver named Peter Spiers, directed me to a corner of the boat where I would be out of his way. The boat is an enormous (probably 25 X 15) black, Hypalon pontoon affair with canvas skirting running the perimeter. It has a gang plank for swampers to haul cargo in and out and plywood decking over storage compartments below. Loaded down, trimmed out and buttoned up it was rather like a floating cabinet laid on it's back.

Easy to imagine on a river like the Mississippi, I had to wonder how it managed on a river like the Middle Fork. They have a long history on the river, Peter tells me, as he stands amidships, one foot forward, his shoulder facing downstream, the handle of a long ashen rudder in each hand.

Sitting atop the swiftest part of the water column, the sweeps act like rudders against the slower level. It was the Portagee method without oars. Riding the currents was one thing, getting out into them was another. Peter actually pushed the boat broadside to the current to inch our way to center channel where we quickly drifted from sight. The sense of the thing did not jump right out at me, I confess, but when Peter let me have a hand at the wheel it suddenly not only made sense, but oh how quickly the poetry, the physicality of the boat came across. Standing on the steering platform with the sweeps in my hands I felt an old, deep, and strangely familiar sense of connection. I remembered that when I ran drift boats on Oregon rivers, I had a similar feeling when I would stand at the oars and feel the sweep of the river beneath my feet. More interesting than even the sweep boat though, was its driver.

Imagine a cross between Lewis Merriwether and a monk, or John Wesley Powell and a monk, or hell, just old Han Shan himself, and you have Peter Spiers. Peter is a guy with a foot in the best of two worlds, a travel loving, adventure seeking bhikku. No less rugged or challenged than the older school of sportsman, a Peter Spiers of this generation might be inclined to sit a moment in meditation along the river come cocktail hour preceding a large, dead thing dinner. In the off season Peter travels in Europe and Asia, running rivers and visiting Buddhist centers. As of this writing Lieb tells me Peter is living in a monastery in Italy. When I asked Peter his plans for the off season (only hours away), he tells me India, maybe Nepal, a favorite ashram.

By Goat Creek our conversation had become more a subliminal confirmation of shared perspective than an exchange of ideas. During the Battle of the Bulge during the second World War, German commandos slipped behind Allied lines, posing as American troops and driving Allied vehicles. When the Allies caught on they set up roadblocks where they grilled everyone who approached with questions like: Who was Mickey Mouse's girlfriend? Talking with Peter that afternoon in the cool shadow of the lower canyon was like that, a means of identifying kindred souls.

One of us would say: 'Simple-consciousness is what the animals have, you know. Self-consciousness is the illusion you have of waking up and thinking you're separate from everything'."

And the other might answer: 'Yeah, and language originated at that first moment, you know, at that first shift of consciousness, that first Aha ."

And: 'Then when you finally figure out that nothing is separate from anything and never could have been in the first place, you go onto the next stage and end up like the animals again, but different.

We discussed the magical, beguiling nature of reality as we drifted the swift waters of the lower river that afternoon and I think we were both renewed by the engagement. In a man like Peter Spiers, quite frankly, I find the reassurement of our race.

Before long we could see the main stem Salmon shining through the canyon ahead and talk drifted again to the mundane. Peter ferried us across the broader flow like the ferryman with an outbound Siddhartha. He let me off at the ramp against the far bank, then steered on down to Cache Bar and the take-out. It had been a fine time, for all of us that week, journeying together down the Middle Fork. I've never seen a more pristine, fecund fishery than along this spanking young river. It's reassuring to know, too, that both the canyon, the river and the well adjusted trout are safely out of reach of the long arm of human aggrandizement for generations to follow.

Robert Lyon is a writer and expeditionary who lives in the San Juan Islands of Washington.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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