My kind of river flows fast and gritty brown

by Alan Kesselheim



My kind of river, the White. Near twilight, we camp at the put-in, a two-track rut into a brush-ringed clearing on the outskirts of Rangely, Colo. No ramp, no parking, no fire grates, no tables, no signs — a wide spot on the river bank just out of town, where we lean our canoes against the shrubbery and hunker surreptitiously for the night.

My kind of river. No permits, no designated campsites, no river map, no officious ranger-types, no fees or lotteries or orientation speech or protocol of any stripe. Drive up, put on, go downstream.

The White isn't much for whitewater, or water at all, most of the year. The window opens during snowmelt, when the flow is gritty brown, tearing out of the high country and across ranch land, roiling thick with topsoil, full of flotsam, if you can count the odd dead cow as flotsam. Below Rangely it dives into canyons, bumps its way through Indian country, and adds its dollop to the Green some distance south of Vernal.

The flow is questionable, the floatable window brief and unpredictable, the whitewater pretty nonexistent, and the surrounding country as gritty as the spring river. We come with a gaggle of children, a tough crew to contain within the hull of a canoe. They thrive on the mudflats and sandbars of camp, or chasing lizards across slickrock.

My kind of river, this renegade flow. The White slips the gantlet in its eroded canyons below the sight lines. Up on top the landscape is honeycombed with dirt roads leading to drilling rigs, pads, oil tanks. An unbelievable welter of bulldozed tracks, pipelines, nodding pumps. Up there, the smell of petroleum overwhelms the hint of sage in the spring air.

But the White is clear of that, another dimension entirely. Except for a bridge or two, the river pulses past. It takes climbing to the rim to glimpse the carnage. Down below, sliding around the bends under the loom of crumbly shales, the White bears our red canoes past cottonwood groves, grassy banks, alongside eroded fields of soft rocks.

The valley is home to other renegade types. A pair of wild horses stare at us from a bend. Their coats are full of burrs, patchy with winter fur. They have that feral, cagey look in the eyes, ready to rear up and run, clattering away, free.

For one entire day, headwinds pin us in camp. We try to paddle but the gusts slam the boats bank to bank, roar up the valley. The kids grip the gunwales, the boats skitter and wallow. We retreat up a dirt bank, tie the canoes to stout roots, and shelter in a thicket of scrub oak. All day the wind pounds upriver. Late afternoon, we explore up a side canyon full of cactus and lizard and cross-bed. Our hats go flying in the wind.

The boys tear around the rock walls after lizards like a pack of dogs. The next morning, at dawn, the air is still and cold. We forgo breakfast, make our escape, say nothing to jinx the calm. Even the kids are subdued. The White pulses its brown spring muscle through the sere, abused land. The river is neither benign nor malicious. Only this mass of wet molecules rolling over again and again in response to the innate request of gravity. Rolling with us on its back.

We stop mid-morning, brew coffee. The kids roam. They find a millipede under a rock that is glittering black and yellow, six inches long. It looks poisonous as hell.

For a week we do this. It feels absolutely anonymous to be here. We are unleashed from the lives we've manufactured. Unaccounted for, invisible, cheating time and savoring time. The kids have no idea. And yet, the White must be inscribed somewhere on the circuitry of memory, somewhere in the marrow and sinew of who they are. So that, when they are 22, or 40, or tottering with age, they will see a nondescript flow of water somewhere. A flow thick with spring, headlong and cold and unexpected, rambling across country, diving around a corner into the twilight of canyon.

They won't understand why, but some impulse in them will swell, some ache as fundamental as blood or hormone or love, and they will long for the hull of boat beneath them, the sidle of current, the call of canyon wren. They will, then, no matter what life has brought them, want nothing but to spend the night in some backwater thicket of shrub, and come dawn, slide a boat into the current to go where it goes.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a boater and writer in Kalispell, Montana.

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