It looked bad.
It felt bad, smelt bad, sounded bad, tasted bad.
Maybe we were just snakebit.
The carefree blue sky of the morning was getting run over by an invasion of all-too-familiar clouds, the sky on the south side of the pass a steel curtain. Here, at the end — we think – of an eight-month winter, once again, it looked like snow. But the trucks were loaded, the kids were loaded, the gear was loaded and there was no turning back.
We forget sometimes that, outside of our secluded valley, at lower elevations there are other types of weather besides wind and driving snow, and as we descended, it seemed like we snuck under the worst of the front and left it behind. The steel curtain was where it belonged: in the rear-view mirror.
“Bad” is just something to be made better.
Still, the clouds kept coming, a mix of swirling, towering winter blobs and the organized armada-like rows of summer monsoon, collectively casting a cool shadow, necessitating a winter hat for the little one.
The boats were inflated and rigged and the shuttle to the take-out undertaken with a studied ignoring of the sky, extra layers at the ready. There is a special energy at river put-ins, poised at the edge of a leap of faith, where normal rules are left behind and only one rule counts: the rule of the river.
Today, this meant pulling away from the bushes adjacent to the ramp at the put-in without running into the bridge abutment immediately downstream and ducking to make sure to not get clocked by the bridge overhead, with not a heap of clearance, the river high and rising. Then shooting the gap between protruding branches on either bank to join the main channel, easily managed, but a heads-up that lack of diligence would be punished. All scratches, pokes and headaches were avoided and we were on our way, the air fresh, water cold, spirits high.
We’d had a taste of strong current on the Chama a few weeks back, so the first few strokes weren’t a surprise, just a gauge of the river’s push, today on the healthy side. Which made our job easy: With minimal maneuvers on our part the river would do all the work. Now about these clouds; we didn’t come down here for gray skies. We’ve spent enough time on the river in rain, sleet and snow; it’s all good fun, but the other way would be a pleasure. The gray didn’t look so bad, though, maybe even a tiny bit bluer, when a swivel around a surprise rock afforded a view back upstream at the pass, the heavens turning the color of my true love’s hair: black, black, black.
So back to the task at hand, settling into a rhythm of avoiding rocks and logs, choosing channels, reading the water, enjoying the motion of our craft and each other’s company, a feeling of lightness, of freedom, a breeze through the shoreside willows, chatter and laughter, birdsong and river music.
Houses presented themselves along the banks, from trophy cabins — over-sized, un-lived in and sterile — to hillbilly heavens, all car parts, pit bulls and junky sheds. Most places were in-between: modest and cozy, little slices of heaven, tidy yards with lilac bushes, flowers in pots, rocking chairs side by side on verandas looking over the river, old folks waving contentedly. Their yards backed up to the water, some a little too close for comfort to the level of the stream. With peak runoff approaching, there might prove to be a market for sandbags.
A low-slung footbridge required a ferry to river right and a duck under; if the river rose a bit more, the span’s cables would become a tricky river-wide garrote. After this obstacle, we returned to pleasant daydreaming, then something happened: Winter clouds turned to summer clouds aligned in rows, then the rows drew apart, revealing thin strips of clear sky. Rounding a bend, the pie-slice of sky to the south under the far edge of the cloud cover was blue-on-blue and headed our way, arriving in due course.
Layers were shed, winter hats traded for baseball caps and visors. Beers and sodas raised for a toast, arms raised to the warmth of the sun. Sweet redemption. If pagan worship is the praise of earthly things — the sun, the trees bursting with life, the river in turns exciting and soothing — then color us pagan. Forget all that other stuff.
The water turned silver and shining; the river bulged, doming in the middle. We rode the afternoon pulse, water working its way into the reeds and small trees at river’s edge, rising not so slowly up the banks. Through town with us then, the normal ledge-y surf spots flooded, the current pushy, driving us through a tunnel of cottonwoods. One final drop with a good hole and we were done.
We dawdled at the take-out, loading gear in a golden sun. Paddle boarders, a kayaker and a guy with a surfboard worked the hole. It was decided that pizza in the park would be most delightful for dinner and while we ate, the small ones, with happy pizza sauce clown smiles, played hide and seek in the tall grass. The last hour of light was used to meander back into the hills and home. There is something to be said for following the sun.
Sean can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.