The truck drove through the depths of the night and outside the range of the headlights the silohette of the cascade range loomed and the Columbia river shimmered in the moonlight. It had been 8 months since I had been graced by a river and now sought just that. Slowly the morning twilight was broken by the twinkling street lights of Hood River. We traveled in our chariot manifested in the form of 1 ton truck laden with four creek boats, four playboats, and four hungry paddlers. Amidst the quaint downtown we found a lush lawn beside a local windsurf shop to unabashedly lay out and sleep for the remainder of the morning. In the dew filled morning, we sleepily found breakfast and mounted our chariot headed for the city of White Salmon and met with Brian, who had newly migrated from Minnesota to White Salmon.
After gathering our senses and putting together our gear we made way for our first endeavor... the Wind River. Putting on I was unaware what to expect from the river nor myself. My left pinky finger was fitted with a plastic brace as it was only marginally healed from it's recent fracture. Two rapids in and already rolled, I pealed into an eddy and tore of the brace... it was impeding my paddling. The sun shone down on us, as rapid by rapid, we pounded out the winter's rust.
We left the river satisfied and arriving at our lodgings we celebrated our adventures. Guitar and song rang out in a warm garage amongst ample beer, good cheer, and new friends. When morning arrived we mustered a run on the middle stretch of the White Salmon for a tame warm up and were disappointed to find Husum Falls choked with a unfriendly log in the land zone. We chilled by the riverside and awaited another long time Midwestern friend, Andy McMurray, to arrive. Our intent was to tackle the farmlands section of the White Salmon. Admittedly I knew little about the run other than it was mostly class IV in nature. As Andy arrived and shuttle was rapidly set we sped for the put in. With Mt Adams looming in the distant background I was surprised to find that the White Salmon River slowly dropping into once lava tube. I quick seal launch into the river found me walled in amongst dark igneous rock. The daylight was waining and what was left was dim amongst the low ceiling of clouds. We picked out way through drops carefully aware of dangerous logs wedged in river.
The gorge walls continued to rise up and soon we were locked in. The river maintained it's class IV character but the was becoming less friendly to any mistakes. With Andy in the lead and myself close behind we pounded through a bit of a hole and eddied out awaiting the rest of the group. Unfortunately the next of our group paddled into the hole and stern ended and flipped. After attempting to roll, he was out of his boat. I laid chase to his gear as Andy ferried our companion to what little of a rocky perch could be obtained in the gorge. I desperately grabbed his paddle and threw it ashore. We off for the boat with Andy right behind me. As I rounded a corner my eyes grew wide. There ahead the river dived under a large log and had a deathly character. Andy belted out unintelligible words as I battled for a must make eddy. For a small instant I though I might miss the eddy, but threw every I had into my strokes and sighed as found solace in the small eddy. The boat washed downstream meanwhile our paddler stood helplessly on a small parcel of rock. He picked his way up the moss drenched rock face and we found relief when his face poked out from the gorge's rim. But alas his paddle remained stranded as the rest of us paddle downstream pressed for time.We each rolled under a log barely passable and when the gorge finally ended we promptly hiked ourselves out in paddlers walk of shame. It was oddly metaphorical as we walked across a charred and blacked field still smoking to the roadside. We chuckled at our own ridiculousness and the boondoggle that had just ensued.
Unfortunately on way our back to our lodgings, we mourned the loss of our companions boat and paddle... his trip was seemily over. The next morning we gather up some climbing gear and prepare to rappel into the gorge to recover the paddle. As I was harnessed and ready tying off my anchor with rope readied to rappel, when a white truck pulled up. I disgruntled farmer sternly exclaimed, no one is going into that gorge on my property! I didn't argue as anger raged inside me. We sulked back to our lodgings and salvaged the day with a joyful playboat run on the Hood River finished off by burgers, beer, and a splash of whiskey.
The next morning Brian and I went back up to the Farmlands section and with Nate Herbeck to lead the way as we paddled into the dark gorge again, intent upon our companions forsaken gear. When we reached it, awaiting at the gorge rim he tossed a rope down. We tied off the paddle and he happily retrieved it.
We made our way through the gorge without incident and as the gorge waned we rounded a corner to see an orange kayak stranded on a gravel shoal. Elated we towed our companions boat and were excited to recover what had been lost. The river had mercy on us.
The morning after retrieving the boat we cut our losses and said goodbye to Hood River and pointed our beast of a truck eastward. We stopped along the way home to bathe our kayaks in the waters of both the South Fork of the Clear Water and the Lochsa before returning homeward.
It was the beginning of a season of water and the initial baptism of the spring season proved harsh and yet refreshing. And driving home with the horizon the beartooth mountains beside me, I felt the anticipation. So much yet to be explored and a new home for my kayaking.
Many Thanks to Brian O'Neil, Andy McMurray, Nate & Heather Herbeck, and Jo Kemper for making us welcome in Hood!