Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Clear and Pleasant Danger - part 2

Words by Greg
Photos by Greg and Trina

Part 1 here

The drizzle faded away. The wind died down. The sky lightened. We paddled under the angled brace of a fallen tree. Into a straight stretch of creek. A slight widening of the canyon. And there on the grassy bankside, a trickle of water was pouring downward toward a bouldery beach. With just a hint of steam coming off that trickling flow? We beached the boats and stuck fingers into a boulder-lined pool. Hot! We'd made it. Trina was almost immediately grading the temperatures of the several shallow pools until she found one with the right mix of hot spring water and river water. She slithered in and laid her head back onto a smooth stone and closed her eyes, lost in a small piece of heaven.

I leashed the dogs and we explored the immediate neighborhood. A decaying cabin and some rusty machinery moldered next to a small tree-lined meadow. A perfect spot for our tent. The pack trail crossed the slope above, heading upstream, where we'd return, and downstream. The dogs and I wandered down and found more hot springs. Steaming water rolled down the hill and poured off rough, mineralized cliffs into creekside pools. Showers too hot to stand under. Pools too shallow to soak in. Though some toads were enjoying a mix of creek water and mineral warmth.

We were almost back to the boats when Sprocket, the red Assyrian Moth Hound, gave his warning bark. This usually means some sort of dangerous intruder, seen or smelled, violating his dog-sense of our private realm. We scanned in the direction he was aimed and saw a small furry creature on the hillside. Marmot? But no. Lower, flatter. Stripes. A badger. I'd only gotten a fleeting glimpse of one of them, ever. Trina had seen a pair, once. So a rare sighting for us. But what surprised us was that somehow Sprocket had been able to distinguish, at a distance, between a small furry creature he'd like to chase, and a small furry predator that he needed to warn us about. We don't know how he knew, but we are definitely glad that he knows.

The badger wandered off and we tucked the dogs under the trees with the gear since it was drizzling again. Then Trina and I headed for the shallow pools where we lay half submerged. Cold river water and hot spring water mixed and surged around our lower selves. Light rain tickled across our upper selves. The softest of breezes dried the rain from our exposed skin almost as fast as it fell. In all, a dazzling sensory experience. We sprawled, half aquatic, half awake, half melting, half evaporating into silence, until the light began to fade from the sky.

We emerged and fell to the comfortable rituals of camp. Dogs fed. Tent up. Bags unfurled. Food cooked and enjoyed. Wet gear slung in trees. During this, another warning bark from Sprocket. This time it was a pair of hikers. Two young men. One hale and fit, carrying enough gear for two. The other, tired and struggling to smile, carrying almost nothing at all. We chatted briefly as they filtered drinking water. Then they hiked onward. These, the only people we'd see over the two days of our trip.

Darkness fell. And shortly after, rain fell, pattering on the thin skin of the tent where we lay snuggled with dogs. Blind dark outside. We slid into a shallow stream of sleep between waves of rain and the softer shushing of the nearby creek. But later in the night our small meadow and the crowding trees were lit by blue-white constellations in a clearing sky.

Morning light limped slowly into the canyon behind a scrim of pale fire-smoke. Oregon was burning. Closer, the chill air was filled with steam rising from the hot spring. Pine trees spiked the rough grey rock and pale slopes of the canyon. Leafy trees and bushes gathered along the blue flow of the creek. The rich dark smell of wet earth pressed upward from our morning footsteps. Sharp, clear cries of unfamiliar birds winged through the nearby branches. Clearly this was a setting that called for a strong sense of leisure. To which we resigned ourselves. With enthusiasm.

We brewed morning beverages. Languished in the soft warmth of hot pools. Strolled with exquisite slowness along moisture-muffled trails. And let our minds wander through the calm air. Quietly alert to the silence that was never quite silent. To the stillness that never quite stopped moving. To the unknown around us that could never quite be known.

Eventually we fed ourselves and the dogs. Eventually the weak sunshine pulled most of the rain from our gear. Eventually the packs were loaded. Eventually we realized that we were about as spring-soaked and relaxed as we were ever going to be. Time to move onward into a new unknown.

We let the languor follow us along the trail. One foot in front of the other. Miles to go… But no hurry. The day before we'd been pushed along by the rushing insistence of the creek. But the trail was smooth and made few demands. Leaving curiosity free to leap to fresh bear scratch. To the sweet tang of thimble berries and raspberries. To fire-blackened trees. To unusual flowers. To red burn-scars on lichen-blackened scree fields. To signs of the small quiet lives that played out in the canyon. To…

Warning bark! All eyes to Sprocket, who was pointing across the canyon, across the creek, to the opposite canyon slope. Across… there… nothing… Then motion. A thick black shape. A bear. Moving upward over brush and boulder. Then stopping to look over its shoulder at us. The dogs, intense and agitated. Sprocket -- warning us, but maybe also warning the bear that it had best keep moving. Zeek - fool of a Jack Russell, probably wanting to show the bear a thing or two about the predator/prey relationship. But we kept the dogs to hand. Happy to observe, briefly, from a safe distance. Then we moved onward to allow the bear to get back to the more normal business of being a bear.

Most of the trail was cut into the slope a little way above the creek. And from that higher perspective, the creek looked… small. Probably too small to entice any respectable paddler to think about floating. Certainly too small to account for all the thrash and dash of the day before. What had we been thinking? But we remembered back and knew what we had been thinking.

There. Floating forward. The pull of the creek beneath us. Looking toward the next bend. Not knowing what was about to come into view. We had been thinking -- with anticipation, with excitement, with a hint (at least) of caution -- that we really, really wanted to know. Wanted to find out. Wanted to round that bend and face what was there. Smiling as best we could. Hanging on as best we were able.

By mid afternoon we had finished the hike. We were off the creekside trail. Back to the truck. Gear strewn and thoroughly dried. Tea and naps attended to. The boats and gear re-packed. Then we jumped in the truck, turned it around, and headed down the dusty road. Headed off into the hazy light of a sky fading toward smokey sunset. Headed off into the rest of Idaho. Into the rest of our lives. Looking for the next unknown.