Peter Shelton

Watching the River Flow

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on May 19, 2020

I was following the eddy line, paddling upstream. He was in the middle of the river hardly paddling at all, drifting downstream.

“You’re going the wrong way,” he said as we passed, a winking smile sealing the connection.

“I know,” I replied in kind. “But you’ve gotta go up before you can come down.”

We were both grateful, I believe, for the human contact. Plenty of social distance. No masks needed. Two mid-pandemic middle-aged men, balanced on our boards, riding currents that were utterly outside the news.

I saw him again a few days later, about to exit the river at what looked like a family compound, two cabins side-by-side on the grassy bank.

“You’re going the wrong way,” he said in greeting.

“You said that to me a couple of days ago.”

“I did. And you’re still wrong.”

The cabins were neatly tended, with dark wood siding and matching river-rock chimneys. The chimneys indicated old fashioned, open-hearth fireplaces, but the rounded gray stones didn’t come from the Deschutes River. Not from this upstream part of it anyway. The rock here is all black basaltic lava. Jagged. Young. Some of it only a few thousand years old, standing broken-block cliffs stopped in their tracks, mid-tumble, as the lava cracked and cooled.

A wonderfully informative sign at the Benham Falls trailhead, where I put in, tells the story. Beginning about 7,000 years ago a line of fissures erupted in sequence along the east side of the Deschutes River, moving north and culminating in what is now called Lava Butte. The last of these flows dammed the river creating a lake 17 miles long. Everything from Benham up to Sunriver and all the way up to La Pine State Park was underwater. Eventually the water broke through, at Benham Falls, and the lake drained, leaving Sunriver’s lush, flat meadows.

My “wrong way” friend’s cabin is not really old. Nothing in Sunriver is. Ranching families, led by the Vanderverts and the Shonquests, claimed the meadow in the years following the 1862 Homestead Act. The Army Corps of Engineers took over much of it in 1942 to train combat engineers who would replace wounded and killed soldiers in the European theater. The engineers practiced building bridges, and blowing up bridges. After the war ranching returned. But only until the mid-1960s, when Sunriver Resort was born, with its planned residential communities, bike paths, and golf courses.

If any remnants of the old homesteads are there, Steve Stenkamp would likely know. He’s a retired fireman with an archeologist’s soul who runs a website called Lost Oregon Ski Areas. I met him at a now on-hold weekly gathering of old timers at a Bend watering hole, a place they fondly refer to as the TFZ, the Tourist Free Zone. Most of the participants aren’t in fact all that old. But they do go back. Storytelling slides easily between early cross-country ski races and tales of the very first mountain bike trails. Many of them were there in May 1976, when the PPP, Bend’s signature Pole, Pedal, Paddle race, began its run, come snow or high water. This year, though, thanks to the virus, the PPP has had to go virtual, another casualty of the lockdown.

Back on the river, youth busied itself everywhere I looked. A whispering goose couple, worried about this strange, tall, approaching creature, kept their seven goslings tucked in close. An osprey screeched overhead and made for its nest with a fish wriggling in its grasp. I communed silently with an American mink on the bank. While I worked the paddle to keep the board hovering in place, he darted in and out of a lava-rock den, more curious than concerned, his black eyes and rich chestnut coat shining. We connected, but only so far. We don’t share words. And yet our crossing paths – same place on the planet, same moment in time – seemed intimate.

I knew it wasn’t possible – strangers these days dare only passing verbal contact – but I found myself wishing the man going downriver would invite me up onto his porch. We could sit in his bentwood chairs and drink a beer and talk about the times: lava, Lake Benham, mink coats. Paddling the wrong way.