Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Skagit River - from Source to Sea

The first trickle of the mighty Skagit River -  Dallas Betz
A large drop of water fell on my leg. Then another on my arm. A deep boom of thunder reverberated through the mountain peaks. Rain drops began to pour down on us. Onto the trees and shrubs, cascading onto the ground, and feeding, right there at our feet, into the tiny creek that was the source of the mighty Skagit River. These drops of rain falling on us would eventually make their way 160 miles down the length of the Skagit River, through Ross, Diablo, and Gorge Lakes and their respective dams, through a tunnel dug two miles into a mountain toward Newhalem, where it resumed its natural state as a river in an undammed riverbed, winding through protected Wild and Scenic areas, and joining up with the Sauk and Baker rivers before making its way through fertile farmlands of Skagit Valley into Skagit Bay.

Over the next 9 days, I’d be hiking, canoeing, rafting, and sea kayaking that entire stretch, minus a few miles of the tunnel through the mountain, and adding on a few more miles to finish where I spent the first 18 years of my life in the small town of Bay View on Padilla Bay.

The adventure begins at Allison Pass - Dallas Betz
Finding the source of the Skagit was surprisingly easy. And surprisingly well defined. The Crowsnest Highway in BC follows the river up to Allison Pass. The drainage on the east side goes into the Similkimeen, and the west side, into the Skagit. We explored around the pass, looking at the features of the mountains to gauge where the furthest source might be, but it turned out it was almost right under our noses.

We hiked along the highway, following the tiny stream until it finally opened up into a marsh, and then into a dry gully. Then nothing. So there it was, the moment the Skagit River starts its epic journey. An actual location where it goes from nothing to something. I’m no expert on finding the sources of rivers, but this was much more definitive than I expected. And in spite of the roaring highway behind us, there was a profound sense of intimacy, witnessing this great river’s birth.

Our first 22 miles on foot followed the path of the river through a surprisingly diverse range of forests. Dense old growth cedar groves, arid pine forests, and classic douglas fir stands. It was clear there was a huge range of rainfall and micro-climates around here. The river was energetic and raw. Already gaining power but still just a toddler in the life of this river.

After picking up a few tributaries, the river gains momentum - Dallas Betz

We’d been warned about the prolific bear population around here. And although they rarely made an appearance, there were a few grizzlies in the area as well. We talked, clapped, wore a bear bell, and kept a canister of bear spray ready. But we didn’t see a single bear on the hike. That would come later in the trip.

Star Gazing at Silver Tip Campground - Ryan Tabb

We spent the night at a surprisingly decent sized campground along the river about 12 miles north of Ross Lake. A 40 mile long dirt road from Hope provides access to the campground (and Ross Lake), and our canoe shuttle met us there for the night. We ate well, fished a little, and watched the stars.

My adventure buddy Ryan Tabb, leading the way down the dusty road - Dallas Betz

The next day we decided to hike the dirt road down to Ross Lake as opposed to the trail. The road was closer to the river and a couple miles shorter. We made good time, getting to the border park in three hours.

Morning reflection on Ross Lake at Cougar Island - Dallas Betz

Ross Lake is not actually a lake. It’s a reservoir formed by Ross Dam, the most recent and largest of the three dams on the Skagit River. In the early 1900’s, Seattle City Light Superintendent JD Ross dreamed up a vision of publicly owned hydroelectric system situated on the Skagit River that could cheaply and reliably power the city. Over the next 50 years, Ross made that vision a reality. Ross reservoir is long and slender, stretching 24 miles through the heart of the North Cascades following the path of the Skagit River and at full pool in the summer months, crossing the border roughly a mile into southern BC.

We loaded our gear into a canoe our friend had dropped off and got on the water just as a wall of wind and whitecaps stormed up the lake. This would be the pattern for the next 8 days - calm mornings and windy afternoons. The wind, of course, was always in our face.

We talked about waiting it out, but we weren’t too keen on sitting around for hours when there was no guarantee it’d stop before dark. We hugged the shore and took breaks at each protected point, bracing ourselves for the next blast of wind and whitecaps. As the sun’s intensity began to fade in the late afternoon, it cast a warm glow across the mountains and the wind quieted down.

As we ventured away from the shore, we spotted something in the middle of the lake, maybe a half mile away. We figured it was probably a log, but curiosity drove us to investigate. As we made our way toward it, it appeared to change directions. Strange. Yes, clearly, this thing was moving. Our ideas about what it was evolved as we got closer. A bird? A deer? A cougar? It’s a bear! A sunbleached black bear was making the roughly mile wide crossing of the lake slowly and steadily by itself. We got within a stone’s throw of the animal, listening to it’s deep exhales and feeling its powerful strokes. It didn’t acknowledge our presence, but we gave it plenty of distance, knowing that it probably was feeling vulnerable and it wouldn’t take much for it to knock us over. Neither of us were too keen on swimming with a bear. We snapped pictures while keeping one hand on our paddles, ready to paddle away in a moment if necessary. It was a majestic scene, witnessing this powerful animal determinedly crossing the lake.

Warning: Bear Crossing! - Dallas Betz

We paddled the majority of the lake the next day, getting started on a glassy surface and finding ourselves sucked into the meditative state of this dreamy setting in the mountains. Though we knew the afternoon wind was inevitable, we couldn’t resist taking our time, stopping for snacks, lunch, swimming, and fishing breaks. Again, just after 1:00pm, a line of whitecaps appeared on the horizon and raced toward us. Again, we focused on incremental progress, pausing at each protected point before battling through the next wind-battered open stretch. After a half-day of this, we found a protected dock and waited out the wind, content to swim, eat, and relax until it died down.

Devil's Canyon magic - Ryan Tabb

As dusk settled, we made our way to our campsite for the night, sharing an island with a group of adventurous retired women. They welcomed us and cooked up some fire-roasted steak which we inhaled.

We paddled the remaining two miles of the lake in the morning, hitching a shuttle truck around Ross Dam to the base of the dam where the greenish crystal waters of the Skagit are absorbed into the milky turquoise of Diablo’s other main tributary, Thunder Creek. In the morning calm, we made good time and rounded the corner into Thunder Arm just as the wind picked up. For the first time on the trip (and only time for the rest of it) we had the wind at our back. We took advantage of it and let the wind do the work, carrying us to where our shuttle would meet us at Colonial Creek Campground.

Diablo Lake's turquoise waters - Dallas Betz

From here, the river would follow the highway through towns with growing frequency all the way to the mouth. This was the section of the river famous for steelhead fishing, for bald eagle tours, and that wound through Sedro-Woolley, Burlington, and Mount Vernon. It felt like the end of remoteness. But it also marked the least explored section of the river for me. I’d been to Ross and Diablo lakes numerous times, and while I’d raft guided many times on the Skagit from Newhalem nine miles downriver, I’d never been on most of the last 70 miles of the river to Skagit Bay - ironically, the area closest to where I’d spent the first 18 years of my life. I was eager to start this stretch of the river and see the world I’d grown up in from a different viewpoint.

My wife Jamie picked us up with our canoe and shuttled us to Goodell Creek Campground in Newhalem, where the river pops out of the two-mile long tunnel through the mountain at the Gorge Powerhouse. We sorted food and gear, pumped up the raft, set up the oar frame, made dinner, and set up our tents.

Gorge Powerhouse and Ladder Creek Falls light show - Ryan TAbb

As we wrapped up dinner, some friends that knew about our journey stopped by our campsite and took us on an adventure to the Gorge Powerhouse at night. What a sight. A trail next to Gorge Powerhouse led us up a few sets of stairs, following Ladder Creek Falls. Various colored spotlights shone on the numerous waterfalls and pools, giving it a surreal, almost theme park feel. This little publicized feature revived by Seattle City Light captures a piece of the grandiose history of the once magnificent dam tours. JD Ross was not only a visionary, he was an entertainer, and he was intent on showing tax paying citizens of Seattle a good time. This magnificent light show was only part of the scene. There were exotic gardens, extravagant meals, and even a zoo. He had monkeys placed on an island in Diablo Lake for the boat tours to see. Guests would park in Rockport and ride a steam train (now viewable in Newhalem) up to the dams, fed and entertained the whole time. Hundreds of people each weekend would fill the bunkhouses. Their cars would be washed when they returned. It was a huge attraction. And one they wouldn’t forget.

Morning on the river - Dallas Betz

The morning sun filtered a dappled light through the trees as Jamie and I got on the river the next morning. This was the real thing. The real river, flowing free and naturally. And as stunning as the dammed lakes are, it felt good to reconnect with the river in its native form.

The raft portion begins - Ryan Tabb

The first nine miles were comfortably familiar. Most of the same logs, riffles, and rapids in place that had been here the last time I guided five years ago. One of the benefits of being dam controlled is that there’s not as big a fluctuation in the river level as there are on most. The highs are not as high, and the lows are not as low. While the rest of the rafting world takes a break as the late summer snow melts taper off, the Skagit draws boaters with its steady flow.

Shovelspur - Dallas Betz

There’s really just one significant rapid on the Skagit. It goes by various names: Shovelspur, the Portage, and the S-Bends. You hear it before you see it. At the end of a long straight, narrow section of the river, the water makes a horizon line where the river below is no longer visible except for an occasional splash of water tossed up. Jamie held on as I rowed us through the heart of the wave trains, trying to get Jamie as wet as possible in the bow of the boat, driving away from the rocks on the right bank, dodging the reversal, and keeping our boat away from the rocks at the bottom of the rapid. We were dumped out into the bubbling pool of flat water at the bottom and spun around as the river tried to figure out where to go next. Jamie was soaked and had a giant grin on her face. I felt the same grin on my face. We laughed and immediately began debriefing our experience of the rapid, both of us thinking one of the waves on the second wave train had grown since we’d last rafted here. We were both relieved and at the same time wanted to do it again.

Dallas and Jamie in the S-Bends - Ryan Tabb

The river turned placid, relaxedly flowing as a single entity over the rounded river rocks below us. We relaxed, ate, and floated down for another couple of miles until we got to the place where we normally take out as guides. But this time, we didn’t take out. This marked the beginning of new territory. New territory on the way home.

Once again, the wind picked up in the afternoon. In spite of the current helping us in our cause, the wind made for a long afternoon of rowing as we tried to cover 24 miles to where Jamie would be picked up.

We made it to Rockport and said our farewells. We’d see each other in two days when she would drop off a pair of kayaks, gear, and my sea kayaking partner. Until then, I’d be flying solo for my first time on the trip.

Dream State - Dallas Betz

That night was warm, clear and quiet. A moderate breeze drove ripples of water up the river. I set up a tripod at the river’s edge and lost myself in trying to capture the dusky light...the water and sky divided by the silhouette of the mountains...the moon filtering through the swaying trees, its reflection broken in the waves of the river. The leaves whispered in the wind. I was witnessing an intimate dance. It was a dream state.

Moonlight reflection on the Skagit - Dallas Betz

The next day I remained in that dream, losing my “self” to the rhythms of the water, the trees, the birds, and the occasional splash of giant salmon jumping. This is why I return to natural places. To simultaneously lose myself and find myself. To feel small but also connected to something much bigger -  the elements of my environment and the forces that shape us. In this state of connection, I’m on the same frequency as my environment. The distinction between everything diminishes, all of it part of the same fabric.

The connection began to fade as the day wore on. Hunger and fatigue grew, and the wind picked up, relentlessly this time. Even trying to keep up with the current was a chore. I finally reached the sandbar I’d hoped to camp at. I was wiped out. I pulled up the boat, sat on the sand, and tried to eat, but the wind blew sand into everything: my eyes, ears, gear, and food. I tried to use the boat as a windbreak, but could still barely open my eyes with the wind blowing sand everywhere. There was no protection and no shade. Eventually I got back into the boat and huddled into a corner, trying to find some protection from the elements.

Post-wind calm on the sandbar - Dallas Betz

The wind died down with enough daylight for me to cook dinner. I pulled out the camera and tripod again to snap some photos of another amazing sunset and dusk, the raft dark against the river with the mountains in the background. As I settled into my sleeping bag, I realized I missed my friends and family. It had been a powerful solo experience over the last day, but I was worn out and ready to share the experience with someone, that reflection feeling like an essential part of human experience.

I woke in the morning soaked with dew, a chill in the air. I recalled the cries of a pack of coyotes throughout the night, wondering what they’d scored. I packed up hastily, ate a granola bar, and drove the boat downstream, keeping an eye out for the Hamilton boat launch, in the town that floods almost every year.

I pulled my boat up the launch. Nobody was there, but they were on their way with breakfast. I unloaded and cleaned all the gear: the cooler, the dryboxes, drybags, oars, oar frame, straps, and got it all ready to load up in the car. When they arrived we took another two hours trying to figure out what to bring and how to fit it in our boats. Going from a raft to a kayak is like going from an RV to a bike, and took some serious paring down of equipment. The weather called for hot, dry conditions, so we unloaded most of our clothes, and kept the essentials: food, gear, and whiskey.

I’d expected this section of the river to be calm, flat, and simple, but it wasn’t exactly that. Almost immediately we encountered a small wave train around a bend, followed by a 3-way split in the river with logs in every channel.  We were in sea kayaks on a river. Long and straight, our boats were great for going long distances efficiently, typically in a pretty straight line. On the river we were trying to make quick turns and paddle in short bursts. I’d actually never been on a river in a kayak. I hadn’t realized how hard it would be to see what is approaching from the water level view of a kayak compared to the relative birds-eye view from a raft. Still, it was really fun, and kept things exciting. And it was nice to share the river with an old buddy.

Signs of civilization became more frequent. We passed through Sedro-Woolley, then under highway 9 bridge and railroad tracks. Our destination for the night was a friend’s home in the Skagit farmlands between Sedro-Woolley and Burlington. Her kids stood on the dike and waved flags so we’d know where to pull out. The river presented its last challenge for the day, breaking up into four channels, all of which had log jams. We took the clearest path and had to ferry upstream to an eddy to take out. With our boats loaded, the steep rocky bank posed a tough challenge for us at the end of a long day of paddling. We stumbled up the dike, somehow keeping our boats intact.

Lafayette Gardens - Dallas Betz

The hike to their house turned out to be longer than expected, another hour of carrying our loaded boats across fields to reach it. But it was worth the wait. A garden oasis in the midst of the farmland. I took my first shower in a week, shedding the dirt and sweat accumulated from 135 miles of hiking, paddling, camping, swimming, and rowing on river. I snapped photos of their beautiful garden of sunflowers, roses, and lilies in the warm glow of sunset. They fed us barbequed burgers, juice, and dessert. We felt like kings.

We set out our sleeping bags under a pergola alive with creeping vines. The cool late August air had hints of fall just around the corner. I slept a deep, dreamless sleep, waking rested and ready for the day.

This was my last day on the river. The remaining 18 miles were the setting of the first 18 years of my life. I’d passed by or crossed this river countless times throughout those years. The river that formed a boundary separating rival towns of Burlington and Mount Vernon. The river that shaped the valley and brought tremendously rich nutrients to the world famous farmland known for its tulips, potatoes, berries, and seeds. The river that formed a highway for world famous steelhead runs. Livelihoods and the local economy depended on this river; the third largest river on the West Coast, and I’d barely touched its surface in my backyard.

Today, that would change.

Our hosts told us to throw our boats in the back of their pickup truck, and we gladly obliged. We sat in back and watched the fields recede as we drove through a neighborhood to the boat launch. We gave hugs and thanks, and got back on the water. We passed under the recently infamous I-5 collapsing bridge, past the Wal-Mart and the Anacortes water treatment plant (ironically, Anacortes gets its drinking water from the Skagit River in Mount Vernon, while Mount Vernon and Burlington do not), and approached old town Mount Vernon. My dad had worked here since I was born, with his first office right on the revetment. The old town shops had changed over the years, but the buildings were essentially the same as they were 40 years ago.

The river color and texture changed, and we realized we’d entered the tidal zone. Soon after, we reached a fork in the river. The south fork leading through Conway then splitting further into a series of fingers to the river delta. We’d be taking the north fork, through an old hippie art community called Fish Town and emptying out near La Conner.

We kept our momentum going, riding the dropping tide and hoping to avoid the afternoon winds. Other than the towns, the river seemed deserted. We hadn’t seen another boat on the river in two days. Apparently fishing season was not open yet. We began to get whiffs of salty sea air. We started hearing seabirds and seeing the landscape shift to grassy mudflats and rocky island cliffs. As we made the official entrance to the Skagit Bay, a bald eagle witnessed our conclusion to the river trip. It felt symbolic, and it watched us exit the river without leaving its perch next to the river.

The mouth of the Skagit - Dallas Betz

We took a break on a sandy beach created by the jetty built to keep the shipping channel clear of silt from the river. A narrow opening called the “hole-in-the-wall” allowed fish a pathway to and from the river, and also allowed kayakers a channel through the jetty. We caught it at low tide, so after lunch, we carried our boats through the opening and launched on the other side officially in the salt water. The transition was undeniably complete. Yachts paraded up and down the Swinomish Channel, on their way to and from La Conner and who knows where else. We felt a bit of culture shock, but embraced it. Riding the flooding current, we cruised under Rainbow Bridge into LaConner, found a dock to tie up on between a couple of 80 foot yachts, and stepped out of the blazing sun into the nearest bar.

Yachts, wakes, and culture shock in La Conner - Dallas Betz

We didn’t know where we were going to camp for the night, our best options already behind us. We put feelers out to some locals for places to camp on the Channel, half-thinking that one might offer a deck or yard to set up our sleeping bag. We eventually heard about a spot about ½ mile up the Channel - some sandy beaches past the marina. We loaded up and headed there, finding a perfect sandy spot between the Channel and the farmlands. The harvest was on, and we heard the constant hum of tractors nearby. It was peaceful, and the feeling of home in my bones. The smells and sounds, bringing up such strong connections to my childhood, the house where I grew up only a couple miles away.

Dusk, farmland, and the feeling of home in my bones - Dallas Betz

I thought about the trip and why I’d done it. What appealed about this adventure over the endless possibilities out there. I thought about my upcoming 40th birthday and my own journey to midlife. While it wasn’t the only factor, it certainly played a role in this trip. Or maybe more than midlife, it was fatherhood. I became a dad two years ago, and while I didn’t notice any profound shift in myself when my son was born, I’m certain I’ve changed more in the past two years than I had in the previous twenty. Part of this evolution has been a stronger awareness of and connection with my own story... childhood, parents and how they showed up for me as a kid, siblings, the space I grew up in. It’s almost like for the first 38 years of my life I’d had the telephoto lens on and was constantly zoomed in on details and specifics. The last two years, though, feels like I’ve been panning back into a wide angle. Seeing more of the big picture and how it all fits together. My place in the myriad of stories going on, how the pieces all fit together and giving more context to things that happened, things that didn’t. Following the Skagit River was a way for me to understand the forces that shaped the world I grew up in, and in the process, understand myself.

Sunset on the Swinomish Slough - Dallas Betz

As we set off in the morning, the darkness just beginning to give way to dawn, I felt the circle closing. The story coming to its conclusion. The stillness, the the bright pink eastern skyline silhouetting the farmland, the quiet dip of our paddle blades into the water… all of it rich with significance. Each piece a component in the story. We passed under the highway 20 bridge and around a grassy island, our boats just grazing the mud flats below that in a few minutes would be exposed.

The last day at dawn on the Swinomish Slough - Dallas Betz

The end of our trip was a mile across the bay. We could just make it out now, almost lost in the glare of the sun as it crested the mountains in the distance. The mountains where our story began nine days ago, those raindrops falling to become the source of it all.

Coming home - Dallas Betz

The bay was glass. The tide was slack. And the air was still. Our welcoming party wasn’t expecting us for another hour. There was no rush, no urgency. Just us, paddling methodically, absorbed in the magic of the place and the moment.

We neared the beach, the conclusion to this adventure just a few paddle strokes away. I paused, not ready for this journey to end. I looked around, trying to soak it all up. Trying to hold onto this deep connection to where my story began, where it was shaped, and where, today, the story of this adventure ends. The circle was closing. I felt the gravity of it all, that wide-angle perspective on my life, how it all fits together with various generations in my family, the most recent addition, my son. Deep emotions welled up in me. I felt compelled forward, inertia carrying me to the shore.

We carried our boats from the beach up onto the grass and began unloading our gear. We made our last breakfast of the trip. Family began to show up, wanting to hear all about it. I struggled to figure out how I could describe this trip, how it could possibly be translated into words. I was only gone for 9 days, but I felt like I’d been to another world, and needed time to acclimate.

I saw our white station wagon pull up. I left the group in mid-discussion, half-running to the car. My wife stepped out of the car, immediately walking around to open up the back door. I could see his head in the rear seat, trying to see me just as I was trying to see him. She unbuckled and pulled him out. I couldn’t believe how much he’d grown in those nine days, and I wondered if he recognized me. I strode toward him, picking him up and holding him, overcome and trembling with emotion, tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t let go. The three of us held onto each other for minutes. Tears, then laughing, then more tears.

Reflection - Dallas Betz

I couldn’t help but think about the cycles of life, the stories involved. My parents, 40 years ago, moving to this place. The stories they brought with them shaping me and my siblings. Now, my parents in their 70’s, taking the place of the elder generation, leaving me and my siblings to step into what seemed like a permanent role for my parents when I was a kid. And this new generation filling our role. Just like the river, the story relentlessly moving forward. From those raindrops into a trickle of a stream at the very start, to the wild and energetic youth of the river through the mountains, to the slow and steady contemplative river entering the bay, the river continuing the cycle, over and over through time.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A French Open Prediction for Federer

I think it's time I got back to tennis talk.

With the French Open's first round starting later on today, there's a lot to talk about. Namely, Roger Federer.

Roger Federer on the red clay of the French Open last year

Let me give you some background on the topic. Roger Federer, holder of the most major trophies (17) in the history of men's tennis in the open era (when tournaments became open to professional players, in 1968), has a less than remarkable record at the French Open for being arguably the most well-rounded player of all time. Well, that's what conventional wisdom and the majority of sports analysts say. However, in spite of only having one win at the French, his record there holds its own against just about any other player in history there outside the likes of Nadal and Borg, especially when you look at who his losses came against.

Lets look at some numbers. Over the last eight years, Roger has been in the final five times (won once). Every single time he lost in the final, it was to Rafa Nadal, who is unquestionably the greatest clay court player of all time (he's won the tournament seven times and he is only 26). The one time Roger won the tournament, he didn't have to go through Rafa (Rafa's only loss at the French was in the 4th round to Robin Soderling). The three times Roger didn't make it to the final, he lost to Rafa, Djokovic, and Soderling, who are all among the best clay court players ever.

There is a point to all of this that is relevant to the tournament which is about to begin. But not yet.

Roger is 31, relatively ancient for a tennis player trying to be a contender in majors (majors are also referred to as grand slams, though technically, a grand slam is the term used when a player wins all four of the majors in a single season, an extremely rare feat). He hasn't won a tournament so far this season, and he's slipping down the rankings as Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray continue to fight for the top spot. His playing has lost its consistency, and we see many more unforced errors than the Federer of years past. He's beginning to thin out his playing calendar, trying to focus on longevity and winning bigger tournaments rather than overworking himself. He's got a wife and twin daughters. He'll be 32 in August. What I'm getting at is that he may not be around on the ATP tour much longer. AND, he's a long shot for winning the French Open this year.

However... this may be one of the best shots he's had at the tournament in the last 10 years. First off, there is very little pressure on him. He's not expected to win. Rafa is expected to win for an 8th time, and Djokovic is feeling hungry to win his first French after a heartbreaking loss to Rafa last year. Second, is the draw. Roger has a relatively easy half of the draw. With Andy Murray out with a back injury, and Juan Martin Del Potro out as well, Roger's half of the draw looks very manageable for him, and does not contain Rafa or Djokovic, the two most dominant players right now. Those two will likely hammer it out against each other in the semi-final of the other half of the draw, with the winner quite possibly facing Roger in the final.

Here's my hope (and hesitant prediction): we see Roger and Rafa in the French Open Final. One last time. Roger shakes off the many losses to his opponent and plays as if his life depended on it. Roger can only beat Rafa when he is playing his absolute best, but this time, Roger brings it. The nailbiter match goes to the fifth set and Roger wins, reminiscent of the Wimbledon 2008 final with Nadal (arguably the best match of all time). Roger wins the French Open through Nadal, a feat nobody thought possible, even Federer, except on this day. Those still hesitant to proclaim him the greatest player of all time (typically because of his losses to Rafa on clay) quiet down and let the champion savor his greatest win of all time.

Roger Federer wins his first French Open against Robin Soderling in 2009

Friday, May 3, 2013

Why is this blog titled "My Gurnal" you ask?

I've been getting thousands of messages asking why I named this blog "My Gurnal." Whoa, people! Relax. Jeez. I think your doctor prescribed a chill pill...

Hmm. Where were we? Oh, yes, why "My Gurnal" you ask? Well, the answer is unsettlingly profound, so be warned. Check out this clip from a documentary about a summer camp called Wet Hot American Summer*:

You should also know that much thought went into how to actually spell that word. As most smart people know, journal is spelled with an "ou" after the "j", as you can see earlier in this sentence when I spelled journal. However, when you start it with a "g," it throws off the rest of the word and when I saw gournal written out it just didn't look like it was supposed to sound. It looked more like gow-r-null, or gore-null (like gourd). So after much deliberation with myself, I went with what I felt was a more phonetic spelling that you find here: Gurnal. 

There you have it. I hope that answers everyone's questions so I can get back to watching informative and educational documentaries.

* If you use Rotten Tomatoes, the giveaway that this is indeed a special movie is that critics gave it 31/100, and audiences gave it 79/100, and if you know how to add fractions, you only add the top numbers, so the final score for this movie is 110/100. Unprecedented. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Canyon Country Hangover

Leaving Utah, I could already sense there was going to be a lot of processing about my adventures there. It was one of the most deeply and profoundly impacting experiences of my life. And as I was driving away I felt like I had only barely begun to understand its impact on me. Things were brewing deeper in me, and I knew that given some time to consciously and subconsciously let things settle, I'd have some realizations about my time there, and of course, myself.

But I wasn't just leaving Utah. I was leaving the West. I was heading Northeast, to a new home. And getting on the road toward the rising sun, in addition to beginning to process my trip, I felt a mixture of excitement and uncertainty about the life ahead of me and deep sentimentality about what I was leaving behind.

Bellingham had been home for the previous 15 years, and other than a couple brief stints, Northwest Washington had been home for my entire life. I loved it there. It was in my bones. The evergreens, the mountains pressing right up to the sound, the cleansing rains, the perfect summers.

But we felt we hadn't quite experienced the world as much as we'd dreamed of. Jamie and I had talked about our desire to experience living in different places, experiencing new perspectives and cultures. We loved travelling and the feeling of returning home and seeing our community with new eyes, fresh perspectives, and typically, a greater appreciation of the place. We'd always envisioned that we'd live overseas, but when Jamie received a job offer from upstate New York, we decided to jump at the opportunity.

I had a seemingly endless amount of time to think on my drive alone across the continent. My thoughts wandered between processing my time in Utah and wrapping my head around an array of issues surrounding our move to upstate New York. For one, I hadn't seen Jamie for a month. That was by far the longest period of time we'd spent apart from each other. I really missed her. She was my best friend. In this sense, I did feel like I was returning home, and I was relieved to be back in that familiar place.

I was also grappling with career direction; an issue that had been a consistent thorn in my side for as long as I could remember. I'd always had a lot of interest in many different areas, and had a hard time narrowing the focus down to one thing at the expense of the rest of the world of opportunities out there. Yes, I was often referred to as a jack-of-all-trades, but the other side of that coin was also equally accurate: master-of-none. I thrived in situations where I was able to learn new skills, but once I got to a point where I had a good grasp of it, I felt anxious to move on and hungry to learn something else. The result was that I knew a little about a lot of things, and had a moderate level of skills in many areas, while not being an expert in any one area.

I'd told myself that once on the East Coast I was going to do some deep digging about this. I wanted to find out what really motivated me and if it was possible to support a family in a way that was in line with my own values and that invigorated and inspired me. I didn't know how I would start that process, but I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

I also daydreamed about what life would be like on the East Coast, and how it would be to start from scratch, knowing nobody. Over the years, Jamie and I had slowly built up an amazing friend group in Bellingham, and felt like invested members of the Bellingham community. It was intimidating to think about starting that process over again. I worried that our love for Bellingham would keep us from fully investing ourselves in this new place.

While my thoughts on the drive during the day cycled through memories of the desert and thoughts about the transition to the East Coast, at night, my subconscious returned to the canyons. Whether I was in a cheap motel or a tent, every night as I drove across the country, I'd wake up in the middle of the night thinking I was in a canyon. Street lights through a curtain became moonlight on the canyon wall. A chair in the corner was a boulder in the wash.

I've woken up disoriented before, and it can sometimes be scary trying to make sense of your surroundings. But these nights, as I drove across the country and settled into my new world on the East Coast, I never felt scared. I'd slowly take it all in, knowing something wasn't right but still taking comfort in feeling wrapped up and protected by the canyon walls, safe in this sacred space.

This routine continued for another week after I made it to our new home. In all, I was immersed in the world of canyons every single night for two weeks. During the day I'd sense it in the background, behind the curtains of consciousness. But at night I'd return to the canyon. I felt like I was hovering in-between worlds, resistant to let go of the desert. It was as if the place opened up an awareness in me, a portal to another reality.

On that drive, I spent a lot of time filtering through memories of my time in the desert, replaying scenes from the trip, the images still fresh in my mind. Early on there was already a very special feel to these memories. I knew this was the trip of a lifetime, and that the magic of the experience would stay with me for a long time. While some of the lessons and perceptions remained a bit cloudy, some became clearer on that drive.

Something that kept surfacing was the way I felt protected on some of our hikes - like there were eyes on us, or an awareness of our presence. A sense of cautious trust that grew over time. At times I felt we were being looked out for by the desert and it's inhabitants.

On our very first hike in the desert, my hiking buddy and I started the 40 mile traverse with some anxiety about what lay ahead. Neither of us had spent much time in canyon country, and we'd been repeatedly and profusely warned of the danger of flash floods. It's true, ultimately, we were at the whim of nature. If there was a thunderstorm a hundred miles away in mountains we couldn't even see, we could get washed away.

As we stood in the middle of the river, with the canyon walls arm-width apart and towering hundreds of feet above, we could see the high water marks from previous flash floods. Brush, branches, and trees were deposited on shelves fifty feet above our heads. We wouldn't have a chance. But we'd done our research, we'd kept an eye on the weather, and were relatively confident that we would be safe. Light rain was forecast, but no thunderstorms.

Still, entering the canyon had a finality to it. We'd left our car at the opposite end of the canyon, 40 miles away, and gotten a shuttle to the start. The only way out of this was through to the confluence with the Colorado River. There was no communication with the outside world. Cell phones were useless.

As we approached the narrowing of the canyon walls, a duck flew down and landed in the river in front of us. It felt a bit out of place, almost humorous. We watched it land and then look back, as if waiting for us, inviting us to follow. As we got closer, the duck flew to the next bend in the canyon, looked back and maintained its place in the river, waiting for us. This happened again, and again, with each bend in the canyon for the entire afternoon - just myself, my hiking partner, the duck, and the canyon, with the duck leading the way.

We walked silently through that narrowest stretch of the canyon, in awe of the scene and the sounds, with the duck right there as our guide. Sounds of the trickling river reverberating off the canyon walls, the dropping sun casting shadows, the walls still radiating a warm glow. We soaked it up.

Five hours later, we found a sandy shelf to set up our camp. The duck continued to wait for us at the next bend, but we weren't going anywhere until morning. Grateful for its company and support, we thanked it and hoped it'd be there in the morning, but it was gone by the time we got started the next day.

I'm not an especially spiritual person, but I am certain that this duck was acting in some sort of protective way, as it guided us through the canyon. It felt like a gesture confirming that the path was safe and that we were welcome in this place. And not only that we were physically welcome but that we could have access to the place on a deeper, spiritual level. We had gained its trust and were allowed to experience the most intimate parts, the depths, of the canyon.


I tossed these thoughts and images around my head on the drive, already beginning to wonder if it all really happened. The further I got from Utah, the more I felt myself slowly slipping back into the modern version of the "real world." The one with work and roles and responsibilities and pretenses and cities and traffic and global warming. The one with little room for mystery or magic.

I reached our new home in the Northeast and started the process of settling in. I unpacked my bags and put away my camping gear. I washed the desert out of my clothes and put my guidebook back on the shelf. On the surface, I was saying goodbye to the desert.

In the past, I'd mostly been attracted to hikes that ended at mountain tops or ridges where you earn a good view after an elevation gain. And I'll always love a good vista. However, I feel drawn to canyons on a deeper level than I can quite understand. There is some dichotomy there involving fear counter-balanced by intrigue, curiosity, mystery, wonder.

The fear feels deep seated but subtle, like a distant voice which I can't quite make out with my conscious mind. Like there is something ominous down in the canyon but it has cast a spell on me creating a powerful sense of curiosity and wonder which ultimately will get the best of me.

Part of the fear may be the claustrophobia, and part of it likely has to do with the threat of flash flood. But there is more to it than that. The shadows and darkness, the depth, the feeling that this is an intimate place, deep inside the earth. It feels like I'm a visitor in a place where I shouldn't be.

But after a while in a canyon, I feel that the canyon begins to understand me and me it, and I feel not only welcomed but also protected, that there is an intimate sense of trust that we have developed. Maybe even love.

All told, I was in Utah's canyon country for two weeks. While I was there, I was often in a state of awe and wonder. Even so, I didn't realize how deeply I had been impacted by this trip. My subconscious was processing it long after I'd left the canyons behind. Much of it was played out in my dreams and accessed by me in the space between waking and sleeping. My conscious mind can only really guess at what it all means. I'm sad that I now wake up knowing I'm in my apartment. I miss that feeling of being wrapped up in and protected by the canyon.

I'm looking forward to my next canyon county hangover.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

On how I became a tennis junkie

Note: there is no moral or inspirational message contained in this post. It is simply a recitation of how I came to fall in in love with tennis. This will set the foundation for what will likely be many future posts on the topic. You have been warned.

This Monday I'm heading to Palm Springs to watch a pro tennis tournament. Most Americans probably have not heard of it, because most Americans don't pay attention to tennis*, but it's called the BNP Paribas Open, and typically referred to by folks that go there as Indian Wells. It's classified as a Masters 1000 tournament, of which there are nine per season. They are one step down from the four major tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open), and feature all of the top pro players in the world. The 1000 refers to the amount of points that the winner of the tournament receives, which goes into his/her points total to determine ranking, and therefore seeding at tournaments.

I started playing tennis as a freshman in highschool because I didn’t know what else to do. I wasn’t into team or contact sports and running was boring, so tennis was the only sport left. I played poorly (but loved it) for three years and worked my way up to number one on the JV team. I would play and go to practice, and then go home and not think about tennis. It was like recess for me: a fun break from the monotony of school. I never watched tennis matches on TV, or read books, or sought out lessons, but I did love it while I was playing. My senior year forced me to play on the varsity team. That team felt way less fun and much more serious, so I decided to start a band instead and quit the tennis team.

Fast forward to January, 2011 (16 years later. I had casually picked up a racquet about five times in this span). Some friends that have maybe even less tennis in their blood than I do mention an epic tennis match they recently watched online. I'm not sure how they found it, but it might have to do with a David Foster Wallace article they'd come across which may have inspired more research into the subject of that article: Roger Federer.* That is speculation, of course. (This article, by the way, may be the most eloquent article ever written about Federer or tennis ever, and is a perfect example of the effect Federer seems to have on anyone that watches him play [which is something between falling madly and dumbly in love and dropping to your knees in reverence to a god]. I highly recommend reading Wallace's article to do full justice to the topic). The video was none other than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal's epic 2008 Wimbledon final - a match that many consider the greatest match of all time. There is indeed even a full book written about this single match by L. John Wertheim (which I also highly recommend reading). This was a rematch of the previous year's final, which was a rematch of the previous year's final (they met in the finals at Wimbledon in both 2006 and 2007, with Federer winning both of them).

The enthusiasm with which my friends spoke of this epic match convinced me that this was indeed worth watching. So one January night, I sat down at our kitchen table, looked it up on YouTube, and proceeded to be blown away by what I saw for the next five hours (again, I highly recommend watching this video on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Or right now. But plan on not going anywhere or getting anything done for five hours. I guarantee you will not be able to leave until it is over).

As I said, it had been about sixteen years since I paid any attention to tennis, which even at that time was mostly peripherally. In the mid 90's it was hard to miss the fact that Agassi and Sampras were two of the top players in the world, mostly because they were American. Other than that and since then, I knew exactly zero players on tour. I'd heard the name Federer, and Nadal also sounded familiar, but had honestly never seen either of them.

In that video, I learned a lot about the character and style of both of them. Federer: smooth, graceful, relaxed, elegant, finesse, fluid. He came across almost regal on that court. And some would say he had every right to act like he owned the place; he'd won the tournament the previous five consecutive years, which tied the record with Bjorn Borg for most consecutive wins at Wimbledon in the Open Era. Here he was, seeking to beat that record and further define himself as the best player in history. Federer glided around the court, moving deceptively quickly with seeming effortlessness. In spite of the intensity of it, he didn't seem to break a sweat.

Nadal seemed to be the polar opposite: powerful, intense, energetic, focused, quick, relentless. Nadal wore what looked like a white t-shirt with cutoff sleeves, bulging muscles everywhere. His energy could not be contained; he paced, fidgeted, fiddled with his shorts, his hair, his shirt. When he paced, he avoided lines, so he seemed almost like a wild animal in a cage. Even while sitting his feet continued to tap intensely. Nadal's tennis strokes seemed to be composed of everything he had, and as he swung he'd grunt louder with each hit, sweat would fly, his whole body would convulse, and his forehand would finish high above his head, imparting extreme spin and speed on the ball at the same time. It looked almost painful. Some understandably compared him to a raging bull.

In spite of these seemingly stark visual contrasts, Nadal could place his shots as elegantly as Federer, and Federer could rip a forehand as powerfully as Nadal. While their appearances and style were in many ways opposite, they both had such well rounded games that it seemed there was nothing that either of them couldn't do on a tennis court.

Watching this match, it felt like every other point would have a rally where one would hit a shot that was undoubtedly a winner, but the other one would some how retrieve it and not only get it back over but return it as a winner. Sometimes this would happen multiple times in one rally.

Well, needless to say, I was transfixed. Jamie came in about halfway through, and she was sucked in as well. We watched the rest of it laughing, taking the lord's name in vain, and generally ooohhh-ing and aahhh-ing in disbelief at what we were seeing. This was a completely different level of tennis than I had previously been able to comprehend. I was inspired. Tennis re-entered my life.

Two months later, Jamie and I are getting away for a week to Palm Springs to escape the endless clouds and rain of the Pacific Northwest. We touch down at the airport, head into the baggage claim area, and decide to stop at the visitor's booth to see what we can do while in town. The elderly woman at the desk asks if we're here to see the tennis tournament. No, we say, we didn't know there was a tennis tournament. Oh, yes, she says, it's a pretty big deal here. Cool, we say, figuring this is expensive or sold out or something distant and unreachable for us poor kids in this wealthy place. We pick up some info about things to do locally, and go to pick up our bags.

At our condo, we haven't had an opportunity to go to the grocery store yet, so we head out to look for a place to eat. We find a Mexican restaurant, have a seat and order some fajitas. I hear some people at a table next to us talking about tennis. They have lanyards around their necks with tickets on them. I ask if they went to the tennis tournament. Yes, they have.
"You guys?" they reply.
"No, we didn't even realize it was happening until we arrived today."
"You should go, it is amazing."
"Hmm. Maybe we will."
"Hey, we're done for tonight but our tickets are still good, and the tournament goes till like 11pm. You're welcome to use our tickets for the rest of the night if you want."
"Yeah, for sure."

So that was how it happened. We finished our meal and raced to the courts, which happened to be just a few blocks away. We arrived in time to see someone named Maria Sharapova beat someone else I didn't know. Seeing these women playing in person was thoroughly engaging. Seeing them alone, dealing with the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of this match, felt extremely intimate. And watching the intensity of their groundstrokes, how much energy they put into each shot, the sounds that those pure tennis strokes made gave me the chills. I was hooked. We came back the next day. And the next. And decided to come back the following year with friends, and the next as well.

Yes, that is Federer, Wawrinka, Malisse, and Dolgopolov right behind us

Since watching that tournament, I've played as much tennis as my schedule and my friends schedules will allow. I don't know exactly what switched in me to make it a different experience than it was in high school, but something changed, and I cannot get enough of the sport. I've read multiple instructional and biographical books on tennis and tennis players, I regularly watch matches online, and religiously search for news about Federer and Nadal and tennis in general.

I think it is fair to say that in some ways it has changed my life. In the past couple of years, I've learned a lot about myself through tennis. I can't think of anything to say that wouldn't sound like one of those cheesy inspirational posters, so I'll just go with it: focus, dedication, the will to never give up, letting go... especially letting go.* There'll be more on all of this later, but in a nutshell, I am a better person because of my relationship with tennis.

Needless to say, I am very excited to return to the tournament next week.

* - Will be discussed in depth in a later entry.