The quintessence of the river was overwhelming. Calling it a river was at once myopic, comparing something 20 feet wide and barely ankle deep to much more immense and imperturbable bodies, and a deep acknowledgement of context. I was 36 hours into riding the very crack of a catchment that enveloped vast canyoned furls on either side, and ran over a hundred miles up to plateaus whose snow was responsible for the bare runnels I could only just hold my boat to. Any lapse in attention, to look around, grab a snack, or even scratch and ear, got me stuck on a sandbar 3 of every 4 tries. This wandering, seemingly fickle waterway wasn’t the heart of this area. For over a decade of episodic visits I’d been witness to more signs of wildlife and far more precious beauty in the surrounding canyons, especially the upper branches and their perennial springs. There rock sills reliably wrung a few drops an hour, every day of the year, from each square inch of stone, leaving the walls draped in fern and moss, and the damp sand spangled with deer and bighorn tracks. Rather the river was evidence, laid out in mile after mile of exquisite plainness, of just how small and thin the everything of the whole surrounding area was. This was all the water it had to give, the riverside grasses dyed taupe by the winter winds all the life it could sustain.
There were no cottonwood trees. None, not a single one along the river, for over twenty miles. Packrafting is and should be a quiet and almost stifling meditative activity, done on rivers and creeks far from roads, off the most common flyways, and mostly away from people. Without the actual noise of human footfalls and the virtual noise of human trail construction floating is generally absolutely silent, save the caress of water and whisper of greenery. But this river was eerie, deafening, in it’s silence. The water was laden with silt, but lacked the gradient or flow to hiss with urgency as flooding waters do. Rather it bubbled subtly when it moved at all, languishing and torpid. But it was, I finally realized, the lack of trees that moved my mind to foreign territory. In winter cottonwoods are silent, stripped of leaves and static with branches against the sky. But their not being present caused a peculiar void that no quantity of quiet could fill. Between this deviation from the norm, a 60 mile route that was for me all new, the creeping and omnipresent cold, and the frequent bowknot meanders, emerging back onto the plateau and shortly thereafter civilization in the form of my truck and then a burger and fries was ruder than it had been in a number of years. Ruder than I thought this particular outing could be, for me with my years of time in similar places.
It’s good to be surprised, even when you expect it.
When you know a place will be good, your first visit needs to be undertaken with respect, delicacy, and planning. You can always go back, but never for the first time, and that initial experience can stamp your brain more potently than any other. So, I was naturally pleased that this route (quite new in my knowledge) worked out so well, and was so hard. Difficulty can always be created by artifice, but being prepared, having a good plan, and still only just having the hours necessary to make it through is the ideal outcome. It is an outcome my often paranoid brain plans well into submission. I’ll return, soon I think, and often. I want to understand why their are no trees along the river when the side canyons have plenty, and begin to link together the places in my mind. But it is highly likely that this trip will always be the best I’ll have there, and I’m content I came close enough to fulfilling that promise.