It's that blissful oasis reached only by pushing off from terra firma, leaping board a raft, kayak, or canoe, and leaving the real world behind. Preferably for more than an afternoon. In the West, this generally is accomplished by heading for the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Green, the Selway, or the Lochsa rivers. For those truly lucky souls, it means putting in from Lee's Ferry onto the Colorado River for two or more weeks of riverine solitude in Grand Canyon National Park.
It has taken my wife, Lynn, nine years of annually renewing herself on a National Park Service waiting list to secure a private permit to run the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, and in that time I have gone from a lean, mean, forty-seven-year-old light-heavyweight to an oleaginous fifty-six-year-old cruiser-weight with bad nerves. Although I've only had one serious wreck in fifteen years of river running (flipping on the Dolores River in the particularly poisonous and mean-spirited rapid called Snaggletooth), the Colorado has many Snaggleteeth on its menu, plus a few dozen rotten molars, and my bad dreams on the tarmac at Lee's Ferry are of maelstroms like Unkar, Hance, Sockdolager, Grapevine, Horn, Hermit, Granite, Crystal Deubendorff, and Lava. Martin Litton, the founder and former owner of Grand Canyon Dories, used to comfort anxious passengers who asked about the severity of any given rapid by rolling his eyes and intoning, "Horrible. Just terrifying."
So writes Page Stegner in his latest book, Adios Amigos: Tales of Sustenance and Purification in the American West. A collection of essays Mr. Stegner has written over the course of a quarter-century of river running and which are now forever preserved in an anthology, Adios Amigos is a must-read for any self-respecting (and self-deprecating) river rat. Within its pages the author captures those moments on a river that are both nerve-wracking and soul-satisfying.
After I track down Mr. Stegner in New Mexico, we swap white-water experiences, me from my days as a guide on the Cheat and New rivers of West Virginia, he from his sojourns throughout the West and Southwest. We agree that river-running has changed from our first respective introductions to white water.
"It’s not, I guess, an evil, but it’s an inevitable fact. When I started running rivers, you could just practically go and put on," he tells me. "In fact you could -- I think I remember this correctly -- you could just go to the ranger district, wherever it was then, Blanding, say, 'We’re going to run the San Juan,' and go do it. There just weren’t that many people doing it.
"Now, one of the reasons I don’t run rivers any more is the absolute, not impossibility, but the difficulty in getting a permit. You have to have six or seven people who are all up for the trip and they all put in for the permit and maybe one of them hits. It’s so iffy now that I just don’t do it.”
Once you do land a permit, you often run into what I dub the "Rubbermaid Convoy," a scenario in which you're backed up at the top of a rapid by a group in the middle of running the rapid while behind you approaches another group.
“Just in terms of the solitude, no," Mr. Stegner replies when I ask if today's river-running experience is the same as that of two or three or more decades ago. "On the Grand Canyon you run into motor trips all day long. Two or three decades ago you didn’t see anybody for 13 days. So sure, the usage has compromised that sense of a real wilderness experience. On the Yampa (in Dinosaur National Monument) you have camps where four or five trips, four at least, ... share space. And they’re (the campsites) always full because the runnable season for the Yampa is so short.”
Though that creeping lack of solitude perhaps is lamentable by folks who have run rivers without crowds, that is not a reason to avoid river running, for those you do come upon going downstream more often than not share your sense of adventure, joy, and simple pleasure in being on the water and surrounded by canyons, forests and friends.
In turning the pages of Adios Amigos you gain that sense of solitude as you read of Mr. Stegner's exploits on the Owyhee, the Colorado, the San Juan, the upper Missouri and other Western rivers. Not only does he unfold the landscape in a way that almost makes you feel you were there, but at times adds historic perspective, such as on the upper Missouri where he refers to Lewis and Clark and even Thomas Jefferson's decision as president to seal the deal on the Louisiana Purchase.
Jefferson had long contemplated the inevitable expansion of American settlement beyond the Mississippi, and he had long intended to send an expedition across that territory in spite of the fact that until 1803 it was alternately the possession of France, Spain, and then again France. Indeed, after his election to the presidency in 1801, Jefferson appointed Captain Meriwether Lewis as his private secretary, explaining in his offer to the twenty-seven-year-old army officer, 'Your knolege of the Western country, of the army and all it's interests & relations has rendered it desireable for public as well as private purposes that you should be engaged in [this] office.
But U.S. history is not the reason to buy this book. Rather, it's to read Mr. Stegner's take on running rivers, such as the following nugget from the title selection, which involves a float down the normally sedate Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon that turns out not to be as placid nor as humdrum as advertised.
Having watched the river flow rise from an expected 1,000-4,000 cubic feet per second to well over 12,000 cfs thanks to the rapid melting of a late-season snowfall, Mr. Stegner, his wife Lynn, and friend Bud find themselves in a predicament created by a rapid the author calls "Septic Tank" (names changed to protect the innocent, he explains) after having seemingly made it safely through, wet but alive.
And then things grow strangely calm. I hear cheering topside. "Yeaaa. We made it Alright." Cautiously I poke my head up and peer over the thwart tube at my jubilant crew, Bud included. "How'd you get back?" I say.
"Don't know," he says. "What goes around, comes around. One minute I'm out, next minute I'm in. No thanks to you, by the way."
"Listen, man, about my yelling at you like that, most inconsiderate, please accept my ..." But before the apology leaves my mouth the front of the raft abruptly departs from view, there is a violent shudder from beneath, as if Moby Dick has just rammed the Pequod, and then the bow reappears, high overhead, with Bud and Lynn pasted desperately to tubes that have suddenly been folded in half by the force of a back-curling, standing wave. For a moment they stick there like gnats on flypaper; then the old tub miraculously punches through the keeper, the tubes catapult back, and they are popcorned into the river. Highly comedic, this, until the stern whipsnaps over the wave and I am similarly ejected. We all take a short, postprandial dip, washing out in an eddy 100 yards downstream, along with the boat and a decomposed mule deer. "Nice run," Bud wheezes. "Smooth."
It's a quick, intoxicating read, Adios Amigos. Shame it's only available in hardcover. A softback version would be much more conducive to river running.