I was born to water. Not the ocean—though there’s a primal pull to the ocean, something akin to how we’re drawn to flames, it holds no power for me personally—but freshwater: from the sky, in a lake, coursing through a river. That’s the water that calls to me.
This winter was wet, in Portland and through much of the West, rain falling like a benediction through a parched and dry landscape. You could feel the earth opening up, even in the valley, where we’re always saturated. It swallowed the sky whole as it fell, so grateful for the grace you could almost hear a soft hissing sound as the ground sucked in each droplet. It made most of our rivers fat and wide, it kept the rolling undulations of our hills green far past spring, it kept the Mountain wearing a magnificent white cloak into the summer. It was long, but it was glorious.
I couldn’t help but think of the water coming down as we rode the John Day for miles on our annual floats. It was high water, in stark contrast to the steep and dusty tan of the canyon walls, and it was clearer—these trips more than any other—how much the river is the life of the land: blood, breath and muscle. One morning, we climbed the ridge behind our camp to see if we could get a hawk’s eye view of the river. It was hot already, our hands swelling almost immediately into paws and our lungs scrabbling at thin air, but our legs didn’t fail us. To the top, where a cairn marked one of the only human touches on this place we’d seen in days. Beyond us stretched the land, rippling out from our feet as if our bodies were thrown stones. The water carved a sinuous line through hundreds of ridgelines just like ours, confident in its course towards the greatest water of them all. Here and now though we could see clearly: it shapes and sustains every living thing for miles.
We counted ourselves in that number, prayed to the water as our only god. We began river-ing in earnest: pulling slick bass from the depths, baptizing ourselves in the water as the sun began its merciless ascent, and retreating at night to sit along the shore and let it sing us to sleep. We said the word so often it became like an incantation: river, river, river, river. It echoed through our days and haunted our nights, we watched it and judged our lines and felt it tug at the corners of our minds as we shed our land selves and were made brand new.
On our last night out, as we finished a sublime dinner and started making our way down to the water for our evening ritual, a group passed in a bright red raft. Fire, they said, and it tore around camp as if the word itself were dangerous. Fire, fire, fire. The great fear of the West. A plume of smoke rose lazily just beyond the ridge we’d walked earlier that day, and suddenly the river came to mean, in one quiet moment, so much more to us. It was refuge now, safe haven. My Dad retraced our steps up the ridge to see what he could see—the raft said it was on the other side of the river, but still—and I found myself throwing a stick repeatedly into the water for the dogs to keep them from chasing after him. We could afford no casualties. The threat of one was enough to knot the pit of my stomach into a tight ball of anxiety—the waiting an eternity as the others packed whatever wasn’t strictly necessary into the boats for a quick exit—while I threw the stick automatically, watching as the dogs tore through the surface of the water with a violence that made me feel sick. It was a golden night made gossamer by the smoke, the sky laced with the sun’s fire as it set.
It wasn’t long until my Dad returned, reassuring the rest of us that the fire was on the other side and not big enough to make the jump. We’re all right. But the feeling lingered, especially as we sat at the edge of camp and watched the edge of the fire crest the ridge across from us and start its slow crawl down the slope, that beyond us lay a savior. A line of crackling destruction licking the ground to dust and I kept turning to see the water, oiling and black now in the darkness. That river, a revelation.