There is a meadow hidden below the center of the universe. Going north, towards the sawtoothed limestone knobs and canyons you might for the expanse of sky miss entirely, a burnt bog curves in unison with the river. To the eye water is held distinct from vegetation by a 10 foot band of cobbles. The pine corpses and elk-high undergrowth hide the capillaries that peel off and return, inevitably, to the river. The meadow in turn hugs the bog, 6 feet taller, flat and dry, built of tight, tough grass knitting together ancestral cobbles. That grass runs a few hundred yards, north and south, and a third of that east and west, between the bog and the steeper bank, spangled with fireweed and riven with elk paths, that leads to the center of the universe. Humans might never know about the meadow, hidden as it is between their likely paths, but the elk, deer, and moose are well acquianted. Judging by their scat.
I’d prefer to die about 60 years hence. Ideally M and I will both stop in our sleep, simultaneously, never having known an adult moment apart. I’d prefer to be buried in the meadow, in the shallowest grave imaginable, my limbs, head, and torso mangled and scattered, for the birds, coyotes, and whatever bears might still be awake on the idealized cusp of winter. I need to discuss the desirability, logistics, and legality with my wife, who may not share the depth of my passion with it, and eventually with our sons, who assuming health and fitness will be the natural choices to haul us back that far. Or perhaps, in a violation of laws for which I’d preemptively ask trespass, they could swoop low and let us slip from an aircraft. The questions, when the next or third or seventh spring flood hence finally swept our bones downriver, would be good ones.
My assuming that it will still look the same more than half a century from now is deeply problematic.
The center of the universe is what it is, beyond anything else, because it is so far from anything. You can get there in a day, once the trailheads have melted out completely and with a considerable amount of effort. But it is deep enough to not fit easily into civilized schedules. A bit ago, while amidst one of the those simple trips which take a day to nibble at the fatty edges of the landscape, it struck me that it had been years since I last stood foot on the center. And once that thought took hold I really did not have a choice; I had to go, as soon as possible.
Little boats make getting to the center more digestible and more pleasant. They are also how I made my first visit, a decade ago. Water drops fast this time of year, and the window of sufficient flow was already almost closed.
So I decided to do something unreasonable. Our loop 6 years ago took us a solid, if not hurried, three days. If I woke very early I had a day and almost a full half. So I brought my heavy boat, whose additional flotation would make shallow streams faster. I brought lots of snacks, but no stove, and the simplest sleep system around, with the ideal of hiking late, and sleeping little. I woke before 5, got on the trail before 7, and blew up my boat at Danaher Creek before noon. The first miles of Danaher began the revelation that my years long absence from these particular stretches had in my perception sent time appropriately forward. The constant water, presumably focused in the massive late spring flood of 2018, had sent the channel moving trees. Larger creeks, entrenched in low gradient spruce, are generally good (read: convenient) floating while they stay in equilibrium. Historically aberrant surges sharpen and elongate the outside of bends, and often send many large trees across the whole channel. Danaher had several new, complex portages which had not existed between 2010 and 2016. Particularly big surges, and the particularly big log jams they occasionally cause, occasionally use enough force that they persuade the creek to take an entirely new channel, barreling straight across an established meander, undercutting trees and disappearing under the resulting ladder of logs and branches. Danaher did this once, presumably two years ago, and has subsequently partially recovered the original course, splitting the flow in a way whose depth did not well serve my needs.
Lower Danaher was familiar, easy for me to become lost in memories, tied to that run, in which I caught fish, and that gravel bar, where we slept. The upper South Fork was the same, but moreso, and I pulled over at the innocuous gravel bar where I stopped for the first night of that first trip, 9 years and 11 months ago, so soaked with novelty I worried I might melt into the ground and cease to be. On this trip I was also damp, with the more mundane creeping cold of splashy packrafting and wearing too few clothes for how long and well the cloud cover persisted. Like the second day of that first trip, which dawned rainy and stayed cold, and on which I first pulled over at the center of the universe, the at that time feathered and steep gravel fans where the White flows into the South Fork, I relished at last finding sun to stand, full in the face.
The center of the center is the triangle flat between the rivers, built high and well by history, and currently standing flat and monolithic, almost beyond mature ponderosa pines, spare knee high grass, a trail arcing through. Towards the north end, as the bank heaves and drops, a stand of larch takes over. My presence was quick, steady strides held in reserve so I could dry out from the float, look at all I could without tripping, and get psyched for big miles into the dark. Unlike 8 or 7 years ago I don’t have foot power to burn, so I followed the dirt gradually to the horizon, almost making the crest by full night. I did have enough fitness, from the current year of fun, to keep momentum on even the steepest stretches, and kept my mind intact until fatigue and the nervous descent of dark. Hiking by headlamp in deep summer subalpine is not wise in Grizzly country, and after an hour I let ambition give way to instinct, and crawled into the lumpy grass under a spruce 20 yards off the trail, laid my bag atop my deflated boat, and fell asleep quickly.
Something like 45 miles in 18 hours made for a pleasing tally.
The next day I cruised over White River Pass in the dawn cool, wearing all my clothes well down to treeline. In one of the grown in avalanche paths I heard the now familiar XXL-squirrel scratching of Black Bear cubs being sent up a tree. Fortunately, with their mother still further off the trail. My calves were getting dead by the creek crossing at the bottom of the hill, but by then the finale of the trip was easily understood. A flat mile, some slow floating, and the final 5 very gradually up hill. The floating, on the West Fork of the Sun, ended up being very slow indeed, ~450 cfs downstream at the gauge, things close to evenly split between the West and South fork of South, is enough to make progress and more than enough to see the valley as only floating allows, but not enough for packrafting to be faster than hiking. Neither my feet nor my eyes minded.
That final 5 was the culminating opportunity to take some of the nostalgia I had picked up the previous day and incarnate it as experience. My feet were tired, a few blisters forming (due to a shoe experiment finally failing), but with a mind flexible in the face of adversity and obdurate of the inevitable progress of walking, the routine, boring, horse-poked trail felt short. And I sat in the shade of the tailgate the drank a beer with my shoes off, just after noon. Some things do not change with the passing of a decade.