Lunch Break

 Searching memory might be compared to throwing the beam of a strong light, from your hilltop campsite, back over the road you traveled by day. Only a few of the objects you passed are clearly illuminated; countless others are hidden behind them, screened from the rays. There is bound to be some vagueness and distortion in the distance. But memory has advantages that compensate for its failings. By eliminating detail, it clarifies the picture as a whole. Like an artist’s brush, it finds higher value in life’s essence than in its photographic intricacy. – Charles A. Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis

Spring break, 1978, and The Logging Road Cyclist, just completing his penultimate term at UC Berkeley, was looking forward to what he thought was his imminent escape from academia (huh). His post-baccalaureate plan was simple: go boating with Heathcote and see where the chips fell. In the short term, the plan was to hitchhike up to Santa Rosa where his boating gear was stored at his parent’s house and then hook up with Heathcote for ten days of boating up north, out of his ’56 VW bus.

At this point, TLRC was a grizzled veteran with six boating years under his belt. For the past four of them he had abandoned kayaks in favor of C-1’s, fully decked canoes with their own special set of problems. Heathcote was a relative novice and still looked up to TLRC as the “Insane Master”, a point of view reinforced by an ancient black and white photo of TLRC en canoe on a winter high water Mark West Cr. run, wearing only a helmet, i.e.. no life- or paddle-jacket. That day, Heathcote got hammered and swam several times while TLRC didn’t get his face wet. This balance of skill lasted perhaps another 18 months as Heathcote rocketed past TLRC to become the world famous guy that he did, while TLRC reached the plateau he maintained for the next 30 years.

TLRC and Heathcote had been paddling together for a couple of years by this point, and Heathcote had made great strides. In his late teens, Heathcote looked like a year-and-a-half old puppy, with gangly limbs and big hands and feet, the latter emphasized by the high-water pants he invariably wore. Then, one summer, he went off boating to Idaho, and climbing in between, and came back huge, and a lot more skilled to boot. The two shared a passion for boating and exploring and would spend hours together in TLRC’s father’s garage office pouring over his collection of 7.5-minute quadrangles that covered most parts of Northern California with interesting streams. They feverishly measured gradients and exclaimed when something interesting with an unthinkable gradient of 150 feet per mile turned up (e.g.. the New River). In short, they got along.

This was to be their first real Tour together, and it set the pattern for all those to follow. Ignoring the warning of master paddler John Googins that “It’s still Winter up there”, they were determined to head up to the Northern Coast Range and Klamaths. Dick Schwind’s guidebook to the area had been published a few years before and they had nearly committed it to memory. (And speaking of memory, this account is bolstered by marginal notes in the copy TLRC has to this day). One picture in particular had inspired TLRC, the one of a Bauer brother threading the needle in a technical class IV on the Swinging Bridge run of the Mad River, in April, according to the caption. For some reason this captured TLRC’s imagination and the notion of dancing down a rocky stream on an early spring day in those mountains is still compelling to him. Northwards they would head, winter or no.

Finals finished, TLRC joined up with Heathcote and they crawled up Highway 101 in Heathcote’s slow bus, first stop Swinging Bridge on the Mad, on Friday. Heathcote ran the big rapid, a chaotic mix of huge boulders of red chert and blue schist, while TLRC walked the first half. They picked up Heathcote’s friend T and on Saturday ran the incredible NF Smith, whose deep crystalline pools gave one the sense of flying, sometimes past unearthly clumps of carnivorous pitcher plants. That afternoon, Heathcote, TLRC and T continued down the Middle fork to the top of Oregon Hole. For Sunday, they did the Patrick Creek run higher up and leapfrogged down to Oregon hole itself, the heavy water and claustrophobic gorge quite the thrill for TLRC in his C-1.

In ’78 the Gasquet-Orleans Road was still just a controversy, and would have been snowbound at any rate, so they dropped off T in Arcata and headed the long way around to the Salmon.

All they knew about the Nordheimer run on the Main they had learned from Schwind, who learned about it from Steve Sanders, who ran it at 500 cfs. They estimated the flow that cold, clear Monday morning at 2 or 3 thousand, and the entrance drop (nowadays called Bloomers) was too intimidating to consider. They walked. This was the run where TLRC started to feel his limits in the C-1, and struggled in the heavy water. They made four portages that day, some of them difficult. The experience was otherworldly, the river seemed so difficult, incised in its successive sets of intimidating gorges. TLRC recalls little of what the river looked like to him on that first run, so overpowered was he by the rush of beauty, heavy water, big rapids and fear.

About midday, they found themselves in a calm spot between rapids, floating and recovering, TLRC in the lead by about 100 feet. A rocky spur ran down into the river on the right side, and suddenly two dogs appeared over its crest, playing with a stick. They tossed it around, stole it back and forth, tails high, broadcasting a joy that contrasted with the sense of doom TLRC was fighting off. Rounding the spur, TLRC saw a beach, and on the beach, on a rock in the bright sun, sat a woman, legs spread wide, head thrown back in ecstasy as a kneeling man gave her oral pleasure, apparently with great success. Stunned, TLRC turned silently to alert his friend with whom he wished to share this compelling sight, when one of the dogs suddenly became aware of them and started barking. At this the woman jerked upright and screamed, now in alarm, as her partner, hands still high on her thighs, turned his head, and over his shoulder gave the paddlers an unforgettable look of shock. They froze thusly for an instant, and then all four started to laugh hysterically as TLRC and Heathcote drifted back to their task.

They managed to avoid the huge ledge hole at Butler’s Flat, about which they knew nothing, and headed into the lower gorge. Finally, they reached the takeout and found themselves embracing and jumping around in circles, so happy were they to have gotten through it. About this point, a guy in a pickup pulled up and offered them a ride back to the bus.

On the ride back, their patron peppered them with questions about the run as TLRC and Heathcote tried to match up what they could see from the road with what had gone on on the river. In between, TLRC, remembering his manners, politely asked the driver who he was, where he came from and how he happened to be on the Salmon, rather a remote spot. He was from the east and had followed a woman out west, but that hadn’t worked out, he said. He was obsessed with kayaking, and having spied them had followed TLRC and Heathcote all day, watching them where he could along the run.

At some point, TLRC thought he spotted the lunchtime beach, about which he had forgotten under the stress of the run. With great excitement, he recalled the erotic scene and described it to the driver. “What did she look like?” asked the driver. After hearing her description, he fell silent for most of the rest of the ride.

On Tuesday morning they put in on the North Fork at the Little North Fork. Schwind had no information about this section, but it looked fantastic. A very cold day. TLRC wore his usual winter gear: 1/4 inch farmer john (homemade), the heavy wool sweater his mother had knitted for him years ago and a waterproof pullover with elastic neck and cuffs that wrestlers used to lose weight, purchased at Jim Davis on Telegraph Ave. The beautiful continuous class III-IV boulder fields that characterize the run followed one another. TLRC and Heathcote were becoming stunned with the beauty and quality of the whitewater they were hitting day after day, and had never done anything like it. This was beyond their dreams, like going to a heaven they never imagined.

Where the river takes on the “villainous appearance” described in modern guidebooks, there is a big and complex class V rapid. They got out to scout, TLRC pulling his black Hahn C-1 (glass, my children) up on a little beach. As they were scouting, the boat appeared, drifting above the main drop. It ran it all alone, most likely better than it would have done with TLRC driving, and then headed off downstream. Without hesitation, TLRC dove into the river to save it. Boats cost, and he was poor. After a short chase, he got it and hauled it ashore, where he nearly succumbed to hypothermia. TLRC eventually warmed up, but the boat needed 10 feet or so of duct tape to get it going again.

This early in the year, what passed for a store in Forks was closed so they drove to Cecilville and bought cookies and milk on which they gorged themselves trying to get their blood sugar back to normal. They eyed the supposedly unrunnable Mathews Cr. section of the South Fork and made plans for the future.

The next morning they hiked their boats several miles up the trail along the North Fork way above Sawyer’s Bar and ran back to that hamlet. By this point, the last two fingers on TLRC’s right hand, the one that held the paddle shaft, had blistered and burst several times, and he resorted to electrical tape during the day to keep going. The fingers had swollen to nearly double size and were so stiff in the morning that he had to bend them to fit around the paddle before applying the tape. They took weeks to heal.

The next morning, Thursday, found them over the divide at the Kelsey Cr. put in on the Scott River, another one of Schwind’s nightmare runs. They found it surprisingly reasonable and fun, and it had warmed up enough for TLRC to bask in the sun at Scott Bar while Heathcote went to get the bus. He arrived some time later looking vague and slightly confused. A local hippie girl had given him a ride and a smoke. They headed over Highway 3 to the Trinity.

Coming down the south side of the divide above the lake, they saw the upper part of the Trinity had lots of water. Feeling left out, TLRC had a smoke of his own, and they headed off through some woods to put in near Tangle Blue Cr. Deeply inhabiting in his own mind, TLRC climbed into his boat in a small eddy and pulled out without really looking downstream, and much to his surprise, found himself in the middle of a class IV rapid. Shocked, he struggled to shore, took stock of both himself and the river, and got through it. Below here the run was thrilling and fun, the high water creating long, continuous wave trains. Correctly or not, TLRC recalls a river so shallow that the troughs of the 4-5 foot waves were only a foot or so deep. This seemed remarkable to him at the time.

In a thrift shop some time before, Heathcote had stumbled upon a set of maps and profiles of the North Fork of the Trinity. These were part of the documentation for a dam proposed on this most beautiful of rivers. The profiles in particular were fascinating and were done at a scale that allowed one to see individual drops as small as ten feet or so. But what was most impressive was the overall gradient: almost constant at 98 feet/mile for 14 miles. In 1978, this was quite a river, and both of them had become mildly obsessed with it. They passed through Weaverville, bought a cheap jug of wine and headed up to Hobo Gulch in an evening full of threatening and cold weather.

Hobo Gulch was like the inside of a cave that night. They rested and drank their wine. In the morning, the cold, the rain, the intimidating first rapid, and, for TLRC, the prospect of 14 miles of that in a glass C-1 deterred them. They took a rest day. A month later, Heathcote and Gunter Hemmersbach returned and did the run. When TLRC did it the next year, in an unbreakable Hollowform (finally having seen the light on the issue of C-1’s), he knew he had made the correct decision. It would have been a disaster.

Finally, on April Fools day, they stumbled their way down the main Trinity from North Fork to Big Bar on a freezing cold day. They were exhausted, worn out. TLRC could hardly hold onto his paddle with his swollen, bloody fingers and both of them came close to swimming several times. The trip was over. On the way home, they laid eyes for the first time on the New River Gorge and knew their lives had changed. The true Spring beckoned.