What I didn’t know was that I couldn’t know the land until I got to know her waters. It was the river that showed me the world I was living in—canyon walls etched with upheaval, harboring secrets of tropical rainforests and long-dead fish, the soft undulations of sagebrush rolling out to meet the horizon on either side of you and the boat, the patches of red, iron-rich dirt baring themselves in a lusty riot of color. We drink in steep cathedral walls stopped forever on their hurry to tumble down, we see marks of other places here in our own soil. What is Oregon is also Montana, is also a volcano and a glacier, and maybe a flood. For a place I thought I knew well, a piece of country I’ve walked and stared at and seen lots of, the river revealed I knew nothing at all.
We get on it not suspecting what awaits us, how it will make you feel. We had three boats out there—a pristine, blue and white cooler-laden beauty carrying my Mom, sister, Dad and our dogs, a little red rubber raft Darren paddled me around in and a forest-green pontoon boat that was affectionately, and honestly, nicknamed the Garbage Barge. We weren’t on the water for ten minutes before that poor boat started taking on trash, like magnets to a pole. We had a high time out there, can’t you picture it? All of us in hats and sunscreen and burning anyway, breaking rods and competing to see who could catch the most fish. Not much dignified, but certainly jovial.
For all the gentle carousing, there were mostly quiet times—our little chain of boats would break up so we’d each be in our own worlds, settling into the rhythm of the river. Awe was more our undercurrent than water itself as each bend brought us a new glimpse back in time, when we saw what we hadn’t seen or know before. I fish a little, finding deep, still pools to flick the edge of my pole towards and wait to feel the otherworldly tug on the other end of the line. I take my turn on the sticks and feel the muscles in my back stretch out in protest against a long-forgotten motion, but when I find the rhythm I am endlessly comforted by the routine of effort against the water. I watch for birds, pointing them out to Darren as soon as I spot them, osprey and turkey buzzards and more swifts than my eye can behold in one frame—they move so fast, they register mostly as blurs, or not at all if they’re against the cliff.
We spend our first night sleeping underneath pine trees at a campsite a short hike from the water, and yet the sound of it stays in my ears so all night I hear the water, as if it has replaced my blood. When I wake up, I find my family already near the edge of the water—drawn to it, it seems, as I am—to watch dawn trickle in golden over the river, to be near the movement. From the moment the first boat launched, we became creatures not ourselves. Taken out of time and place by the water we are let loose from the obligations that bound us on dry land, by who we are when we are walking.
There is something in the water, in the movement, that engages the body in a conversation in a way that I haven’t known a forest or a mountain or a wide open plain, to do. I have come to know that a river talks. Being on the river is a participatory act, so that when one is on the water it’s as if we’re doing something entirely new, we’re out there rivering. I’ve heard it called floating, but that’s not quite right—floating is too passive of a word, as if you were no more than a leaf on the current. I am sure that if you know how to ask a straight, clean line through rapids might just appear, a long stretch of water will go quickly, and the river will carry you home.
We hike up above our campsite one night, fighting the current to land the boat upstream on the opposite shore, and we scramble up a slope too steep for comfort and then over to where we can look down at the camp. Everything, from that vantage point, looked like toys bobbing in the current. But I was also gripped suddenly to see the land from here, to see it rolling out and shimmering the last light of day, to see the river wind through so delicately—to see where we’d been. From here I could see the river snaking through the land and I was filled with a fullness from the familiarity of it, the constant in so much change. I waved to it, from above, as if I was greeting an old friend.