Monday, February 24, 2014

Salmon River Journal


At the bank of the Salmon the river’s mind is evident. So too is its subtlety. Boulders attend the shores and hunker in the current, carving the water into channels, into deep green pools where trout hide and pebbles are smoothed. Moss on the larger rocks holds wildflower seeds safe until spring. The stripped boles of trees lie across the stream, or jut from the brush out over the water, and holding it all is the white-noise voice of the current itself, come down from the mountains with soft syllables that sneak up on you when pronounced. For a few minutes I stand in silence – not a true silence, but the silence of my own kind – and listen. It helps to think like water, constantly moving, never settling, exploring every stone and every hole and every eddy, every pool, every little rapid now contributing to the conversation taking place, and it takes time to sort them all out.

I don’t know if I can.


I haven’t listened much to rivers lately. My thoughts tend towards mountains, towards alpine meadows and tiny tarns, towards heather and bent fir, and ridges between glaciers. Towards the source. But down here, in valleys thick with ancient trees and ancient communities and truly wild growth, there’s wisdom more fecund and more creative and more entrenched than that of the seasonal blush of the windy heights. The wildflowers of glacial till and volcanic ash are beautiful and strong, but their tenuous grip is diminutive and sentimental, compared to the deep rooted hold of cedar and mycelia and rhizomes, among the mushrooms and the ferns.

But I can’t compare. Sentimentality is just an emotion I assign, unconnected to reality in the way these mossy Doug firs and red cedars are. There are bear and cougar in the shadows that don’t care about my sentimentality. The river itself would drown me if I let it. Voles that never come down from the top branches don’t care where I step, and if I step on a fawn lily will the fawn lily care? The trees have seen many people like me stop and look up at the wild light filtering through the boughs. But every lily on the floor is unique.
Life down here by the river has been at it for centuries, promised in the soil and stream, and angling for the sky, rain, and snow, trying again and again. Life at the tree-line may be equally as old – skeletons of white pine and rings of lichen on the hardest outcrops, growing an inch every hundred years – but it is as rarified as the air, perched upon an arĂȘte where chance landed it and gave it a single summer to make it or die.
How comforting, then, to see this shrine survive in such a transient perch. I clasp my hands before it, say “Delightful is the place where the sprits dwell” five times, and like the river, I flow on to another rocky beach, where the wet stones are the product of a different sort of sentience, one that investigates river and mountains thoroughly.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Spirit of Winter: The Benson Bridge Closure

“For many summers the white water has dropped
from the cliff into the pool below. Sometimes in winter
the spirit of the brave and beautiful maiden comes back
to see the waterfall. Dressed in white, she stands
among the trees at one side of Multnomah Falls.
There she looks upon the place where she made
her great sacrifice and thus saved her lover
and her people from death.”

Ella Clark, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest
Here’s something you can’t get to right now: the splash-pool on the first drop at Multnomah Falls, as seen from the Benson Bridge.

A few weeks ago, rock-fall damaged the iconic bridge, and it has been closed since. It could be Memorial Day before the bridge is repaired and hikers can easily access the multitude of trails above the falls, which include the popular Multnomah-to-Wahkeena Loop, the Elevator Shaft, Benson Plateau, and the Larch Mountain Trail. Except for the loop, these trails aren’t closed, but access is more difficult. As a hiker, I find the lengthy repair incredibly frustrating. As an Oregonian, I consider it an affront. 
The Benson Bridge is a major tourist attraction, and a crown jewel of Oregon. It belongs to the people, and its repair should be a priority.

Frankly, I don’t understand why it isn't. The reason must lie in bureaucracy, and the red tape always attached to regulations governing maintenance and repair of historic landmarks. And while the Benson Bridge is perhaps Oregon’s most recognizable architecture, it’s also made from concrete and rebar. Once the red tape is cleared away, the actual fix should be straightforward and quick. The damage is to the rail and part of the walking surface, and the structural integrity of the bridge is intact and undamaged.

Aside from reopening access to the area’s trails, there are other good reasons to hasten the repair. Two and a half million reasons, in fact. Multnomah Falls is Oregon’s most visited natural attraction, drawing more people than Crater Lake. Not being able to walk up to the bridge is like going to the natural history museum and finding out the dinosaur exhibit is closed. Sure, there’s still a lot of cool stuff to look at. But there are no dinosaurs.

On the other side of the bridge, the trail climbs to a viewing platform at the top of the nation’s second highest waterfall, at 620ft. That trail and viewing platform are effectively closed, unless you hike several miles and descend from trails above the falls.

Yet, the thing that probably irks me the most is the fact that Simon Benson, a lumber baron and philanthropist, donated the land and the falls to the people and state of Oregon more than a century ago. The bridge was built in 1914. That means this is the 100th anniversary of the Benson Bridge, and it will likely be closed for almost half of the year.

Ella Clark, in Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, relates the story of a Multnomah wedding feast stricken by plague, and saved only through the sacrifice of the bride, after she discovers plague marks on her lover’s face. It’s a beautiful story befitting one of Oregon’s natural treasures, and it resonates all the more now because part of that treasure is denied to us. When the maiden stood at the top of the cliff, preparing to leap, she said to the Great Spirit, “If you will accept me as a sacrifice for my people, let some token hang in the sky.” Just then, the moon rose, and she leapt.

There’s snow in the forecast this week, and the maiden in white will stand again at the side of the falls. What will she think of that silent bridge hanging broken in the sky?