On the Snake and Other Rivers

On Christmas Day, Betty and I ventured south of Boise down to the Snake River Canyon for photography and a look at the wigeons and goldeneyes, the sheep grazing in the snow covered sage, and the river.

The Snake is a long river that starts in Idaho with major contributions to its flow rising in Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon. By taming the Snake, engineers in the early 20th Century set the table for an agricultural explosion on the Snake River Plain, a region of harsh winters and summers and little precipitation.

Snake River Plain Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

Where I live, the Snake offers, among other things, recreation, wildlife habitat, electrical power, irrigation water and photographic opportunities. Idaho’s famous spuds rely on the waters of the Snake.

I think we often take rivers for granted. I know I do, assuming that they are there to offer up the varieties of satisfaction I require at any particular moment. Need a cold drink of water further chilled by chunks of ice? Check. Need to turn on the lights in the backyard so I can cipher what is making all that racket? Check. Need a photo op? A sturgeon? A view of some flashy male wood ducks? Check. Check. Check. Need a fresh spud?

Here in Boise we have the Boise River running right through downtown, and the Snake, the Jarbidge, the Bruneau, the Owyhee, the Malheur and the Payette aren’t far away. Most of the time I don’t even think about them unless there is something I want to do along a riverbank or I start fearing that they may flood.

When I was a kid on southern Arizona we lived in the middle of what had been at one time the Santa Cruz River which flowed from the mountains on the US-Mexican border and then hung a left turn at Tucson and headed west-northwest for the Gila River. My grandmother told me that when she was young, around 1900, the Santa Cruz carried steamboats from the Phoenix area to Tucson, that there were critters in the river, fish and otters and such. By the time I was born, there was nothing left of the Santa Cruz but sandy places in the dirt roads that ran out through the country. Here and there a bridge went over a low spot which had at some point been part of a river conduit. There was a Santa Cruz County and a Santa Cruz high school and names of old Santa Cruz River channels on maps, but until the wild rains occasionally showed, the Santa Cruz River was only a rumor.

Boise River Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

In the summer of 1964 it got up with a fury that was startling. Three of my friends and I went out driving to look at all the WATER in that desert and alas got stuck in the mighty flow of the Santa Cruz. We could see Francisco Grande, where the major league San Francisco Giants practiced some spring training. One friend and I decided to walk over there and call some friends to come pull us out. What, under normal circumstances, would have been a short evening walk turned out to be an ordeal: bobbing over our heads down surprising channels, dirty water in our mouths, our eyes, our noses, having to use greasewood to pull ourselves across places that wanted to pummel us downstream. Besides the threat of shattered bones or drowning, we didn’t even think about all the critters displaced by the flood: raccoons, skunks, coyotes, badgers, all with the capability of clawing and gnawing had we been unfortunate enough to encounter them. And I don’t even want to think, these some forty-nine years later, about the snakes; side winders and diamond backs and tiger rattlers and Mojave rattlers and coral snakes abused by the assault of muddy waters in their dens and that had to climb up into the foliage that we used to help us navigate the entire maelstrom. Ouch!

Not far from my hometown were the San Pedro, the Salt, the Verde, the Hassayampa, the Agua Fria and the Gila which are all dammed and don’t allow much flow. But in the ferocious times, like the storms of September 1984, they can roar ten miles wide and destroy everything in their paths. Back then, the rivers cut the state of Arizona into blocks where it often took a plane or helicopter ride to get from one place to another. Roads were pretty useless.

When I domiciled in Vietnam, there were big rivers everywhere. Right after I arrived, a Seabee drowned on the Song Vu Ghia in Quang Nam Province, and they helicoptered Second Platoon of Bravo Company, 1/26, out to a sand bar in that river. We landed in a hail of sand and rifle fire, the snap of AK-47 rounds pinging our ears and white sand dancing at our feet. We got on line and assaulted a paltry row of trees, but alas, the enemy had evaporated right before our eyes. We saw nothing of the drowned Seabee.

Later, at Khe Sanh, we crossed the Song Rao Quan in the summer of 1967. I was the first to cross to the south bank on a patrol Second Platoon ran in support of First Platoon which were ambushed on Route Nine which runs parallel to the river. We spent a soggy night on a hill further south of the river. I remember that my fingers looked like the wrinkled digits of fishermen as we set in, waiting for an attack that never came. The only thing that came was the incessant rain. The next day we headed back to Route Nine. But instead of a shin-deep, quiet flow, the river was hissing in anger. But we were Marines with a mission, so we crossed the river. A Jarhead swam across with the end of a thick rope. He secured the rope to a big tree and we began to hazard the battering of the water.

One of our radiomen lost his footing and his hold on the rope and went floating towards Quang Tri, twenty-five or thirty miles downstream. His feet were in the air, and he pedaled, as if on a bike, as if that might save him. He reminded me of a beetle when you turn it over on its back. The furious kicking of the legs. As if that would save it from death. Someone went downstream and waded into the river and brought him across. That happened three or four times to different Marines. Some of us could not swim at all. Some of us swam well. We all made it and climbed up onto the road and then up a hill. I walked point, sure that the enemy had set in on the high ground we’d occupied before we went south across the river. But they had not. No booby traps, no sign.

Snake River Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

When Betty and I lived in New Mexico, we homesteaded near the Rio Peñasco which in many places you could step across. But why not, New Mexico is a dry land with scant rivers. I heard tell that the Mescalero Apaches spoke of a time when the only place to get a drink of water was the Rio Grande or the Rio Pecos. The space in between is a mighty distance. You would die of thirst if you had to traverse the desert and the mountains and the plains between without a taste of water.

When Betty and I lived in Sonoma County, it was the Russian which was a docile rio until the winter rains lifted it over its banks, ruining houses and farms and vineyards. And it was the same with the nearby Eel and Gualala and Napa and Petaluma Rivers as they belched their muddy waters into the Pacific Ocean or San Pablo Bay.

And here we are now in southwestern Idaho, a parched land with lots of rivers. We often take them for granted.

Skywalker Ranch Redux

Tonight Betty and I and a few other people, mostly the employees of Skywalker Ranch, will view our film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, at Skywalker Ranch in the redwood country of West Marin county, northern California. Last month we mixed the film there and now we return not as a client, but in a different role, the role of presenter. What is particularly gratifying is that Skywalker Sound invited us to do the screening.

It is very warm here in Sonoma County. Too warm for our pleasure, but it is not unusual for a heat wave to bubble up this time of the year in this piece of geography. At night the peepers crowd the air with their warm melodies and the scent of harvest sweetens the air—apples, grapes. The bounty of the normally fine climate.

We showed the film on Sunday afternoon in Santa Rosa to our donors, old friends and acquaintances, new friends and acquaintances. Betty and I were nervous. Would they like it? We think they liked it. People seem to look at us with a different kind of regard now. We are gratified.

One of the unforeseen results of folks viewing the movie is that they borrow the pathos of the film and apply it to their own losses. A mother dies and her surviving children and spouse draw on and gain solace from the wisdom of wounded warriors. Tonight’s Skywalker Ranch crowd should be younger and for the major part, they will not know us and to boot, they will be folks affiliated with the craft and latest technology of filmmaking in this eleventh year of the new millennium. What will they think of these age-old stories and the way we’ve employed them in the movie? Some of the techniques we have used for the wedding of sound and interview are unusual and we wonder if we will hear some “You can’t get away with that,” or even some complaints.

We are a little nervous.

Traffic

For twelve days over the last two weeks, Betty and I crisscrossed parts of northern California visiting family, old friends, new friends, birthday partying, reading poems, looking at art and working on our movie. Since we moved from the region in 2005, some things have not changed. One of the most obvious is the traffic.

During rush hours commuter cars jostle and crawl like ancient beetles thronged on a lemming-like quest. Horns honk, brakes squeak, plastic lids to coffee bought at Starbucks fly out windows and careen around like flying saucers. There are cell phones jammed up against ear lobes even though it’s against the law to jabber on those things while driving. People shoot you the finger and stick out their tongues and flap their arms like great speckled birds turned angry at intervening species who alter a migratory flight plan. Ouch, it’s California.

And it’s not just California; it’s Detroit and Denver and Phoenix, oh my, it’s definitely Phoenix, it’s D C. Even little old Boise has its moments acting like its big sisters surrounded by the claws of suburbanism, choking the roads at 7 A M and 4 P M.

But California is like a big winter freeze at those hours, every little bump and grind on the freeway causing people to slam on the brakes in fear? Shock? They gawk and brake lights rule the day the way they blare. Bright red eruptions like the hints of death and maiming that lurk beneath the tires and the hedgerows of nerium oleader that choke the roadsides.

In Sonoma County the roads are either battered like last year’s black-necked stilt nest or are under renovation in a decades late acquiescence that there are more cars than roads. All the 15 years Betty and I domiciled in Sonoma County, we railed about the inadequate roads. My northern California friends cooly reminded me that better roads, more roads, brought more people. I felt as if I was a seer lost in the wilderness as I saw the county grow and swell with folk as the roads stayed static. Like air corridors in the Pacific flyway crammed with geese and passerines, the early morning rides of forty miles often took two hours. Ditto at nightfall and of course all that rapid-fire brake light mania. The roads didn’t grow at all but the population did. Everyone looking for the cheaper, securer nest.

Between the Sierra foothills and Sacramento, four lanes wide, rarely does anyone move along in the HOV lane. Car after car after car with only one occupant. If I had to hazard a thirty-mile drive five days a week into the mouth of that monster, I think I’d find someone who wanted to ride with me. Save money, save time. But we are curious creatures , us Yanks, with our desires…no, our demands…to keep our flimsy independence in tow. As if sitting single behind the wheel of the car is the best way to manifest our independence.

But then again, don’t get me wrong, I love to drive, and will do so even in the teeth of evidence that flight or rail makes more sense. Like my fellow road warriors, don’t tell me what to do.

And driving does have its joys. Discovery, discovery, discovery. Mossy oaks on a spiny ridge, redwoods creating a cathedral over the road, a glimpse of the Pacific behind a spray of mustard colored gorse. A wild, four-wheel-drive slide down the cold side, boring through snow banks. A herd of three hundred elk, thundering across a frost-covered sage brush flat. Spires of Saguaro cacti raised to the sun in supplication. Once, back in 1985, Betty and I were on our way from Sacramento to Salt Lake. At one of the big I-80 bends between Lovelock and Winnemucca, a herd of wild horses  frolicked in the cold eye of a February noon. Black clouds hovered to the north. The herd threw a high column of dust behind that got caught in a southeaster and trailed out behind. They were colored funky, white and brown and black and kicked up their fetlocks as they ran, ran, ran across the sagebrush plain. As I watched them something inside me got up and somersaulted and for just a moment I understood some things about horse, horse and man, and their long and strangled and joyous relationship. But now I cannot articulate what I understood then.

Now back on the road to anywhere from Sacramento at 4 P M, the light rain creates an added hazard and magnifies the eruptions of the brake lights. They remind me of howitzer reports hammering a monsoon afternoon. (Nothing escapes my memories of war, and so my metaphor veers like mourning dove on the first day of hunting season.) Blare, bash, kazoom, crash. Traffic.