Twenty-one and a half miles

This river will remain nameless. Its title and location are not important. In a time when wild places are so often trampled and loved to death, some things remain secret. May this river always be a back of beyond, a wild enclave somewhere in the forest.

Day One: Red-winged Blackbird

The air is filled with birds. Swallows swerve and dive above the water in a frenzy of insectivorous delight. Calls ring out from hidden corners of the river’s marshy banks, and no call is more prominent than that of the red-winged blackbird. They are ubiquitous in this riparian environment, calling and singing as they fly among the sedges and grasses near our canoes.

We are embarking on a three-day trip down this river, and it quickly becomes clear that these blackbirds are the mascot of our first day. As we push off into the current, it is the blackbird that seems to follow us more than any other species. The swallows stay behind. The cinnamon teals rush away as we round a bend. The nuthatches call out occasionally from the forest but they remain concealed among the trunks and branches. It is only the blackbirds that continually reveal themselves, visually and audibly.

We paddle a mere 1.5 miles today. We had a late start, and we happen upon a prime campsite early so we pull the boats ashore and set up. The river was calm to this point, tranquilly flowing through the pines, its placid surface broken only once by a log just barely underwater. The canoes scrape on the submerged wood, but soon we are all across and cooking dinner in the fading light. The chorus frogs warm up their voices and replace the birdsongs with melodies of their own as the stars come out overhead.

The International Space Station arcs above the dark forest. What are the souls up there doing at this moment? Have they just dined as we did? Do they miss the calls of birds and frogs, the sounds of water in motion, the chill of a dry evening in late spring? We are on two very different adventures, but surely we share a mutual admiration for this spectacular night sky.

Day Two: Spotted Sandpiper

The new day begins cool and dewy with a layer of mist rising from the water. I have dawn to myself: everyone else is still asleep. Larkspurs are blooming in the river’s marshy corners, and the very first rays of sunlight set the ponderosas aglow overhead. All is peaceful, verdant, and wonderful here. I can register no complaint.

Downriver we go, quickly seeing a creature we only heard yesterday. A sandhill crane is rather perturbed by our presence, and it soon becomes clear why she’s so upset: her nest sits on a grassy island mid-stream. Two baseball-sized eggs rest in the sun while mother takes flight and wheels around waiting for us to depart. We leave quickly, wishing no ill will to her or her coming brood.

A few hours into our day’s journey, we realize how slow we’re going. It’s been easy to let the river do the work for us, but we have our eyes on spots farther downstream. We consult our maps and then get to paddling. Soon, the river becomes more lively. Riffles and rapids give us a chance to test our mettle and hone our skills. There is no guide to this stream. Each corner hides the unknown as the river continually reveals itself to us in realtime. Round the bends we go, through the runs, riffles, and short mazes of rocks and vegetation.

It is pure joy to be in this current, exploring and wondering as we go. I am constantly rendered jealous of the explorers and indigenous peoples who had the northwest open to them and unmapped by satellites and GPS. I am getting a feeble view of life for the Paiutes, the Snakes, the Klamaths, the Nez Perce, Lewis and Clark, Thompson, Douglas, Fremont, and their contemporaries. The wonder of the wild is nothing short of enthralling here, and I revel in its beauty.

Spotted sandpipers meet us frequently along this day’s 13-mile journey. Their high weet calls ring out through the pines and they frequently zoom up the open river corridor as we pass by. The blackbirds are apparently less keen on this stretch of river. They have ceded this day to the shorebirds.

A riverside spring gives us a chance to refill our water jugs. Cold, clear water rushes down over mossy rocks and mingles with the brown, sediment-laden river. After just a minute at the spring, unnamed and unmarked on our maps, it is clear what its name should be: Mosquito Spring. In haste, we fill up and move on. Soon we are at camp two. Night falls again, but the choir of frogs is absent. Instead, a single chorus frog sings an inspired solo to the stars.

Day Three: Olive-sided Flycatcher

All morning long, a three-note song whistles over camp. The simple melody belongs to an olive-sided flycatcher that has decided to be the soundtrack to breakfast here on the riverbank. Camas blooms on the fringes of the forest, adding color to our final day alongside sand lilies and more larkspur. This is the scene as we pack our boats one last time and rejoin the current, bound for the take out.

The river has saved its best for now, with a series of class ones and twos in rather quick succession. Precise maneuvering is required to skirt the rocks and emerge in the flatwater below unscathed. Again, the joy of exploration is gloriously evident: round the bend, see what lies ahead, then run it. These rapids are tame and the stakes are low, but the thrill is still there.

Beyond the final rapid, the river returns to its tranquil meandering. The walls that had flanked us open up to big skies and flat meadows. Lazy curves swing around vegetated islands and shallows, areas that won’t be inundated by water for much longer. Summer will come and the river will drop. It will reduce its flow and wait patiently for winter snows to recharge it once more.

The take out approaches. The blackbirds have returned to see us off. As the current carries us ever nearer to this trip’s conclusion, one thought repeats in my mind: when can I do this again? Once home, I’ll sit with my maps and look for rivers ripe for similar adventures. I’ll plot put ins and take outs, chart a course downstream, and daydream of paddling through rapids and runs. Now, though, I pull myself back. Why look ahead? There is still this river, and it’s not done yet. With blue skies overhead, warm sun on the water, and time left in this current, I look around, paddle ahead, and smile.

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