Tag Archives: Paul Steinberg

Phall if you but will, rise you must.




There was turtle.
Turtle was alone and swam in the deeps of the sea.
And none know what Turtle found there.
And turtle is silent.

Turtle grew tired.
Floating on the surface of the sea, he slept.
And turtle dreamed a great dream
and out of this dream came Bear and Raven.

Bear was solid and serious,
but Raven was wily and loved to laugh.
He’d laugh at the sun and the moon and the stars,
but most of all, he’d laugh at Bear.

Now Bear had been busy creating all things.
He created salmon and deer and birds and clams.
But Bear wanted to make things that loved.
Raven thought this was Bear’s funniest notion ever.

So Bear collected some things that he made – little frogs.
He taught them how to stand, to talk and to dream.
And he told them about love.
And they ran off into the world on Turtle’s back.

Now Raven had watched Bear closely,
he asked him, “Oh Bear, what is the secret of love?”
“Time,” said Bear. “Each little frog is meant for one other only.
So it is important that they run off together.”

“Oh,” said Raven, “You are wise Bear.”
But Raven was laughing under his wing.
Now when Bear had left on serious Bear business,
Raven shuffled the little frogs around.

Bear came back and sat down with the little frogs.
He taught them how to stand and talk and dream.
He told them about love and they ran off into the world.
Bear wondered why Raven was snickering.

Soon the little frogs were hopping around,
talking and running and dreaming like crazy.
And they hopped around looking for the other right little frog,
when that right little frog was not yet born or already dead or with another little frog.

And bear scratched his great furry head
and pondered long and hard
and wrote poems about the mystery of love.
But Raven laughed and laughing, flew off to join the little frogs.


Frog by Travis Neel


The Word Known to all Men

The summer of 2013 was supposed to be my kayaking summer. I made plans to prepare for a BCU 4 assessment in the Fall, to get through ACA training with Tim Mattson and company, to go on some long kayaking journeys, to amp up my involvement on the OOPS board, to help plan for and teach at SSTIKS.

Yet, instead of all that, I found myself  leading a project at work that entailed training 500 young students at three universities how to become application developers. My team and I were to spend two weeks at each of the universities, teaching two shifts of students for 8 hours a day.

Our first engagement was in Phoenix, Arizona. The temperature never got much below 110° F, day and night. We carried out our student engagement as hackathons, a kind of wild and wooly unschooling experience that is surprisingly effective way to enable students to teach themselves.

The students fell in love with the program and we fell in love with them. The days were grueling: we had two sets of 75 students per day, but the connection with them made it seem somehow lighter. In fact, there were three sets of students – those two we were leading in the hackathon and a third, which we had brought with us as mentors for the Arizona students. Also with us was an old friend and colleague of mine, Professor Tom, a college professor from California. Tom has a huge personality; he is a force of nature with an infectious enthusiasm and huge love for teaching.

Tom, a white, Celtic, Catholic guy from San Francisco, teaches at a college in a very tough part of the world. So tough, that it can be a nerve-wracking experience wandering through his campus at night. Tom has an amazing rapport with the students there, almost all of whom have had a rough time and are often mistrustful of those outside their community. He is the genuine thing and their mistrust melts away as they connect with him. Typically, after speaking for a few moments with a student, Tom will look at him and say, “You are now my student forever.” He means it. They know. That is all.

Did I mention that I love Tom? I do. He is that kind of person. Once you know him, you have to love him.

“What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross.”

– Ezra Pound, Pisan Cantos, LXXXI

All right. Have we seen a theme develop here? Love? There it is. That is the theme of this blog post.

Why love in a kayak blog?

We say we love kayaking, but what do we mean by that? Is love that which you cannot bear to be without? Well I abandoned my kayak love this summer for another, but I do not love it any less.

Glacier Point Apron, Yosemite

The Author, Glacier Point, Yosemite, Days of Yore.

Is love forever? I used to love to rock climb, but I no longer do it. In fact, I can’t. Too old and did not keep it up enough for my body to accept the considerable strains it places on one, at least at the level at which I was accustomed to climb. I love the memory of climbing, but I don’t think I love it any longer. There it is. Lost love.

Some love never leaves.  A child’s love. A parent’s Love. First love. New love. They remain deep within us but can become difficult to reach.  They must often be rediscovered, rewritten and renewed.

I began this blog a few years ago with that well-known quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy – Midway through Life’s journey, I found myself in a dark place . . .

And, come to think of it, I almost immediately referenced both climbing and kayaking, just as I have done now.

So how do you rediscover those things, which remain? How do you shine a light on those kernels of truth in our love? Must you enter a dark place first? Can a kayak take you there?

Lost in the Stars


One night during the Arizona hackathon we stopped the van, which we affectionately called the Great White Whale, in the middle of the desert at night. The task at hand was to see stars. We piled out of the van into the warm desert darkness and looked upward into swarms of stars. They seemed oddly close, as if a stern flick of the hand could swipe them from the sky like bright little gnats. At the same time, they were far and cold and distant – alien pinpricks in a void.

Of course they were neither gnats nor pinpricks, but rather impossibly huge balls of mostly hydrogen burning with such a flame that they were being converted into something new – Helium. Flame turning to inert gas and flaring light, and heat and radiation beyond what we can bear.
Moreover, these gnats, these pinpricks, these stars may no longer exist; they could have disappeared ten million years ago, and we’d be none the wiser, standing at that moment, there, in the desert.

But the light from those stars illuminated us and we felt ourselves taken up off that road, away from the tasks we were pursuing, to another place.

After some time looking up, I glanced down and saw, of all things, a beautiful creature, like a fox. The light of the stars glinted off the fox’s eyes as they pierced mine. At the same time, I felt the years slough off of me. Like an old snake shedding its skin and finding itself renewed, so I stood. Newborn. Can such a thing happen? Can there be a connection like that between a man and a creature like a fox? Yes. I know, for it happened to me. In that place, bathed in starlight.



Denise & Peatrick

On an early August day, Peatrick, Beatrice and I set out to explore the area between Arch Cape and Manzanita. Though only about six nautical miles in length, it is famous for its sea caves and we were looking forward to exploring them. The conditions were typical for August, a low swell, and though there was a long period, wave energy was negligible.

Peatrick and I have paddled together for years.  He has something of a reputation as a daredevil. This is not true actually.  Peatrick in not a daredevil, but rather an explorer.  He challenges the unknown places and boundaries in his self as well as on the  water.  He is an elegant paddler.

A short walk led down to a sandy beach. I geared up quickly and was ready to get going. I felt, indeed, I knew that today I was going to be invulnerable. Why? Because of the impossible, fox-like creature I had seen in the desert. You cannot encounter something like that without a change – for good or bad. Today was good and I was anxious to set out.

Just as I was ready to launch, Peatrick came running up, a look between humor and embarrassment on his face. It seems that he had forgotten his PFD and now, what should he do? It only took a few minutes for him to decide to launch anyway. Dangerous? Maybe, but on this day it was obvious that this was not a bad idea.


I launched first, and though conditions were low, I had to work hard to get outside the breakers. There was enough wave energy to push me back, even side-surf me a few times. Finally outside, Beatrice joined me, but where was Peatrick? Beatrice wandered off as is her wont, but I stuck around waiting for Peatrick, who I felt might be vulnerable without his PFD.

The day was glorious; the sunlight sparkled on the water and there was just enough ocean swell to bring the sea into your heart. Whilst on the waves, I thought about that beautiful fox-like creature I had met in the desert. Where was she now? I say she, for I know it is a she.


I began to talk to her – “See fox-like creature? See the beauty of this glorious day? See the sparkle of the sun on the sea? See the energy of the wave approach from somewhere deep and far, feel it lift the boat? Watch, fox-like creature, as the water rebounds from the cliff faces and creates such patterns as these”. I was actually speaking these things aloud, so it is good that there was no one nearby to witness my madness.


After a while, both Peatrick and Beatrice showed up, carried by the swell, the pattern of wind-generated waves, from the North. Mounting the waves, we rode them effortlessly south. We paddled towards Cape Falcon, content to be together on the beautiful sea, on such a glorious day, surrounded by the everyday magic of our coast.




“Pay close attention now to how I travel
Through this passage to the truth you long for,
So that you’ll learn to cross the ford alone.”

Paradiso, Canto II, 125

Sea Cave , Cape Falcon, OR

As we neared Cape Falcon, we could see the opening of the caves in the cliffs. From a distance, they seemed like mere niches in the rock or small alcoves. Coming closer, they open rather suddenly into imposing entrances with water surging into the broken yellow brown black of the basalt cliff.

All caves are problematic. The earth is solid, or so we think, and the idea of a hole in it is disturbing. How was it formed? How is it maintained? And more importantly, what is down there? Ogres, dragons, Hell itself?

I do not like caves on land; they are scary and unpleasant. One reason I loved climbing, was the exposure. I loved that empty feeling you get in the soles of your feet, when you are on a sheer face, a thousand feet above the ground with fields of vertical granite stretching in all directions; a feeling akin, it is clear now, to being on the open seas. I hate the claustrophobic feeling of worming into a small hole, to feel the immense weight of the earth above, to imagine a collapse or getting stuck, wedged in a small place. A horrible way to die. Trapped and inaccessible. Lonely.

But sea caves are different. Scary sometimes, to be sure, but the water flowing in and out gives you a sense that you can leave if you desire. And they are full of life, at least near the entrance; the shelter the cave gives makes them home to a plethora of starfish and gooseneck barnacles, anemones, snails and mollusks of all sorts.

In our Oregon setting, basaltic lava dominates everything. Our caves are often formed from weak point in the lava walls, where water has eroded and eaten away the basalt structure. Sometimes, the openings lead to lava tubes formed millennia ago when hot, liquid lava flowed through a more viscous matrix and created tunnels, thousands of feet, even miles in length.

Once inside, every cave is different but the same. The particular shape and form of the cavity causes the water to move uniquely, but it always moves, reflecting and refracting off the sides, hissing and moaning through cracks, steaming sometimes when the flowing water is atomized after being forced through a crack and expelled suddenly in a puff.

The backroom


I ventured gingerly forward into the first cave we approached and, paddling past the starfish encrusted entrance, I found myself in a deep room. It seemed almost circular – complete – like the inside of a stony igloo. As I paddled back, I saw that the back wall was actually broken and, during a low point in the surge, another room was revealed. Dare I try to make that back room? What would I find beyond that low ceiling, in the darkness?

At the back, the ceiling was cut away. If I could time the surge correctly and duck, I could make it through.

If I mistimed, if the surge increased, it could fill the room with water and smash me against the roof. Crazy.

Without thinking much or planning, I leaned forward and stroked hard just as a swell was starting to recede. Ducking, I made it under the low ceiling, but just barely, and moreover the sickening scrape crunch of the paddle against the roof let me know that this was a stupid move indeed.

I was through though. I rode up and down on the familiar swell, alone in this old place. Each time the swell receded a diffuse blue light would fill the cave from the light outside. On the rise though, blackness returned. Blue. Black. Blue. Black. Like the stuttering light of a film projector or a slow strobe – blink on, blink off.

I can’t remember how we first went out. I mean, I remember our first night out, but I do not remember how I asked her. It must have been me asking her – I think. I remember we had sushi. She was a vegetarian and had cucumber roll.
After dinner, we went to a playground and rode on swings.  She sat up on the swing, I leaned forward and we kissed for the first time. It was small revelation of softness and sweet resistance.

I am not sure we did more than that. I gave her some flowers the next day and a note, “Thank you for complicating my life.” She did not know how to interpret that.

I remember kissing and kissing and kissing some more. After such an evening, I remember that light-headed feeling as, intoxicated by love, I’d traipse back to my room in Lothlorien, the co-op I Lived in at UC Berkeley, floating. I remember Randy, my roommate, looking at me when I came into the room and how he smiled; we both knew that feeling.

“Can there be a moment more important than this? Can there be someone whom I love more than you?”  I asked.
“You are my sweetest dearest boy.  I will never love anyone more than you.” she said.


Ride the surge down to a sweet place. 


Long gone now.


If only.  No.


There is no return.

The sudden surge of a big set sets my boat spinning into a brighter blue light and back into a longer, deeper black.
Blue blue fades to black.


All is dark again.
I must leave.

I have to time things correctly, but to my surprise, going out is much easier than going in.  I wait for a deep surge and push off down into the space under the roof.  I ride the rising wave of the swell up effortlessly into the bright sun and see Beatrice, all smiles, waiting for me at the entrance.

“Yay Paul,” she says, characteristically accepting and applauding

Peatrick though is a bit stern; He looks displeased.   “Dude, are you nuts?  Are you trying to be more me than me?”  he says.


The beetling walls above us, though mostly dark grey basalt are not uniform in color or texture. At places where the original lava cracked, new flows have filled the spaces, creating dikes and intrusions. The grey-black basalt is often over-layered or intermingled with swaths of yellow sandstone lending a birthday cake, layered feel to the cliff faces.

Cliff2BWThe constant, driving winter rains have drawn black water stains, which weave into an icing of white streaks – melted guano from thousands of generations of Western Gull, Common Murre, Pelagic and Double-Crested Cormorant, Pigeon Guillemot & Tufted Puffin which call these walls their home.  The Ammonia smell of their waste is a constant a companion in these environs.

Often, when we approach a cliff face, the birds fly off en masse. It can be startling; you enter a sea cave, absorbed by the task of navigating in such a perilous place and all of a sudden a rush of wings and a squawking cry means that you have flushed a nesting guillemot who had been hunkered down on her roost.

Beatrice is a lover of birds and spends many evenings counting owls in the thick forests, which pour down our hillsides to the sea. She is able to identify the birds, which fly panic-stricken out of the caves we enter. She is in many ways birdlike herself, with her slight frame, light gait and constant, ever-present smile and laugh. She flits across the water and is as undaunted by the churning seas as a tern skimming the top of wind-driven waves.

Peatrick is nowhere to be seen, when Beatrice and I come to a new opening in the cliff face. Another cave. I enter. Inside, I find not one room, nor even one passage, but many. It is a game of mazes now, following the branching, flooded lava tubes around pillars, chamber into chambers, sometimes popping back out into our seas, sometimes branching deeper and deeper.

SnowstormTurnerSuddenly and unexpectedly, I come out of the darkness into a bright space.  The roof of the chamber I have entered has collapsed flooding it with light; the reflection off the water creates a blinding flurry of whiteness – the streets are covered with snow, the sky is full of swirling flakes, the street light casts its yellow flame through the blizzard.

I shuffle my feet, and though the world is snow, I am not cold, or more precisely, I do not feel anything – neither cold nor warmth.  I am gripped with numbness in this mad swirling snowflake universe.   The city of Cambridge is utterly silent save for the low rumble of snow-plows working off in the scaleless distance; they sound like distant waves breaking onto an unseen shore.

GladDayThat morning, my daughter was born.

I, a father? I do not understand.

Yet somehow, in a manner beyond any design, plan or control of my own, I am flooded by a deep chthonic love. What to do? How to comprehend this? I stand in the snow, close to tears.

“No matter what,” I vow, “I will be true to this love. I will do what it takes to provide and care for and to nurture this being that is love.”


I depart and wander through the streets. The storm flakes are huge, they swirl like a billion tropical butterflies blown by some miracle to Boston. It is so quiet that I hear the whisper of the snowflakes as they jostle each other before settling with a sigh on the bodies of their predecessors.  My feet kick up little flights of powder, which rise from each step like specks of sea-foam. I walk home, my tracks already obscure.

With a sigh, I slip back from the dazzling room into a dark tunnel. Beatrice is waiting. The tunnel is long. Far at the end, I glimpse a tiny half circle of light. The exit is there.

The tunnel is utterly black and though I can trace the wave form of the swell for a few feet, what happens in the blackness? Will this uniform roof betray me and bulge down? I do not hear anything like the crash of the wave against a feature, but you can never be sure. And even if the roof is true, what of the floor; can I depend on it? Will it stay true and provide my boat the depth it needs to pass through without disaster.

Beatrice and I discuss the way forward for a moment and then decide that the tunnel is the way we must take. I am somewhat grim, but she laughs.

I set out paddling and am swept into a deep blackness. I am acutely aware of the swell we are riding; I surrender to its motion and surf forward. I keep my head low and rudder with my paddle to track straight. The half circle of light grows until I see the open sea beyond. I am thrust forth into an arena of rock walls and boiling distorted clapotis. Beatrice emerges with a shout and we find Peatrick already there? How did he know where we would emerge? Another small mystery on this strange day.

Dear Reader. I have lived more than fifty years and maybe it seems to you at this point that it will take me at least that long to finish this story. I can almost hear your cry, “Enough already! Do you really have anything more to say?”
Do not worry. This journey is almost complete. Just one or two more stops on the way. Patience please.



The Fall

We have been paddling some hours now and though kayaking is a pleasure, sometimes the greater pleasure is to stop. How nice to get out of the cramped cockpit, away from all that blasted water and to free yourself, at least for a while, from the strangled confines of the dry-suit.

Beatrice, who lives on this part of the coast and paddles the area constantly, knows a take out where we can sit in the in the sun and enjoy our lunch. Soon we are at rest on the sand. Out of my kayak, I lay back expecting to relax, but find I cannot.

The clear blue sky above me seems empty. Where are the stars? Have they disappeared forever?  Reaching down, I grasp a handful of dry sand. So many grains, uncountable. They run through my fingers and are lost amongst a million, million others – so futile.

All day, I have been thinking of that fox-like creature. But what to make of it all?  How long can this connection last?  Might the fox already have bounded away to wherever such creatures go? Could this have been just a fluke of timing? Would I ever see such a creature again? Trying to subdue the rising tide of anxiety, I head out to sea.

Our plan is to continue along the coast, round the corner of Cape Falcon and then make our way to Manzanita. The final corner of the Cape juts out into the ocean like the broken prow of a ship. This prominence concentrates much of the wave energy and the features here are beset with angry wreaths of foam and the crash of sucking waves.

I paddle south, still dwelling on the bleak thoughts, which had beset me on the beach. Just ahead of me, two paths diverge under the grey-yellow cliffs. On the left a narrow passage to open seas. On the right, another cave or maybe a tunnel; from my vantage point, I cannot know its dénouement. Which way to take? All day I felt a certainty of purpose, but now, a rising tremolo of doubt. I stop to consider. The cave feels threatening, a black maw, like the open mouth of a panther.

A voice from afar murmured, “The cave is too dark, you are tired, it is dangerous.”

I remember the bright eyes of the fox-like creature. But – the darkness. What might I face?

Haeckel_CirripediaPutting thoughts of the Fox-like creature aside, I opt for the easier way; I will take the open passage and eschew the unknown peril of the cave. As I pause for a moment to plan my route through the arch, I realize that the way is not trivial. Swell flows through the arch from directly in front of me; I will have to plan carefully so that I am not carried out of control backwards. To make matters more complex, the entering water rebounds from features behind me forming a counter wave flowing back through the arch and rebounds against the incoming waves to creating a tohu and bohu of confusion.

Still, if I am careful.

I wait to try to time my passage with the pattern of the swell, but as I launch, I realize that I have made a mistake.

Almost immediately,

I am surfing down

the steep side of the incoming wave.

I am out of control.

I try to edge away from the incoming wall.


It does no good at all.

He was dud.


With a resounding hollow – tonnerronntuonn! - the nose of my kayak impacts the wall.

I hold steady for a moment of a moment then slowly,
like a late winter day, fall.

I try to roll too quickly in the turmoil under the arch and fail.



I lie still, upside down, under the boat. I feel the pulse of the ocean. A gentle rocking – a child – rock me gently. To stay here like this.  Forever.  Peaceful.

I set up, and roll easily.

Passing through the arch, I meet Beatrice.

“Can you look at my boat?”  I ask, “Is it OK?”  She looks at the bow and I see her grimace a bit.  “It is a bit chipped,” she says.  Peatrick comes up and looks carefully at the impact area.  “I dunno, dude,” he says.  “Might be a crack or something.”

As I stare forward, I see a thin white line arching across the bow just in front of the forward hatch.  It is a pressure crack caused by the impact of the blow.  I notice that the black seam, which binds the deck with the hull, is in tatters. My boat is broken.

Tears of shame and defeat well up in my eyes.  Worthless.  Finally after all this.  Worthless.  What a stupid thing to do.

I feel the gaze of the fox recede. Her eyes extinguished. She lopes off into the night. What have I done?

The stars fade and blackness descends on me.  Peatrick is voiceless, brought down by my foul mood.
We paddle in silence.

The Green Glow

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true.

Beatrice is not so easily quelled.  She insists we visit one last feature.  Paddling around the corner, we see it – a tunnel shaped like a heart.

Reader, I can hear you already.   “This can’t be,” you’ll say.  “You are making this up in order to finish your blog post with a clever ending.  A tunnel shaped like a heart!  Give me a break.”

But dear reader, my dear friend, indeed, you whom I love most – you with whom I have shared these most intimate thoughts.  It is true.  There in front of us is a tunnel whose edges bow out at the top and then narrow, with a feminine curve, to the bottom. And at its apex  – a tongue of rock.  It is indeed a heart of stone or rather, a heart of air and light, for the rock only forms the outline of the heart rather than the heart itself.

And as the air and light and wind stream through the heart, I feel the black bile of despair ebb, never, perhaps, to disappear, but at least to be submerged by this light and held at bay.

As we near the tunnel  . . . of love.  I mean, what else can I call it? As we near the Tunnel of Love, Beatrice becomes more excited and animated, she seems to be waiting for something, or anticipating something, but she will not tell us what it is.

Passing through the heart, we come into a basalt chamber.  The water is . . .   Grey yellow walls surround us.  The water is  . . .  Purple and orange starfish adorn the water line; they creep sloth-like over the fields of barnacles and blue-black mussels.  The water . . . Gulls and murres cry and then swoop in grand circles from the walls.  The water.

“The Green Glow,” Beatrice says, laughing.

The water is a livid, living, glowing green.  Like the water bathing a nuclear pile. And the glow increases at the edge of the chamber.  Bright neon fading to pea green in the center fading to blue back at the outer-most edge.  We are floating on green light.

The walls of the chamber, which are solid above the water, are pierced below; the sun light entering, at just the right angle, ignites the green glow.

I sit in thought. My kayak had taken me to sources of joy and deep pain. In darkness I had found love, but love had brought me to a deep darkness. 

Now in this place filled with light, I feel lost again. Has my journey by kayak reached an end?





“By that hidden way
My guide and I did enter, to return
To the fair world: and heedless of repose
We climbed, he first, I following his steps,
Till on our view the beautiful lights of heav’n
Dawn, through a circular opening in the cave:
Thus issuing we again beheld the stars.”

Inferno, Canto XXXIV, 135


I look for my two companions and find that they are no longer by my side.

Beatrice sits still in her boat, the light of this place illuminating her ever-present smile till she becomes the smile. I look away and then back, but she is gone.

Peatrick is still nearby, but in a moment he turns. Quietly and quickly, he leaves the green light. I see him paddle away.  An explorer; a shade returning to dark water.

For the first time, I am alone.

The first thing I do is abandon my wounded boat.  I love it but no longer need it.

I slip out of the kayak.  It seems glad to be rid of me and rides high and empty in the water.

I let go of my paddle. That blue staff, which has supported me through wave and wind.

I discard the spray skirt and watch it slip away.  Next the PFD – I am glad to be rid of its bulk.  Next, of course, the dry-suit–that yoke of safety that burdens us so much.  I slip it off, wresting my head free from its suffocating embrace.  Next, my now soggy insulation.  Free at last to feel the liquid green wash over me.  Light and freedom.

Somewhere ahead, on the other side of the arch, the fox-like creature runs through a green field. The field is dotted with tiny flowers, sprinkled like stars in a grassy sky. I must find her. We are driven by love to pursue love.  We have no choice.

I dive into the glow under the arch.  I feel the cold grip me. I swim down lost in the brilliance of refracted light.  I cannot make out the path ahead.   I will swim in the green till I find my way.




Once upon a time, there were two little frogs.

The first little frog was just beginning to hop,
the second had been hopping for some time.

The first frog’s hops, though still tentative, were becoming higher and more powerful.

The second frog could not hop nearly so high as he used to and sometimes, could not hop at all.

One day, they began to hop together. To their surprise, they hopped higher than each could alone.

As they hopped, the first frog began to pull ahead;
she bounded over the world like a bird in flight.

The second frog’s hops, though powerful, were ponderous and slow, like a lumbering bear.

The night sky opens in song, incandescent fusion merges all into one, we are lost together, out here in the stars.







Eulachon: A Ghost Story

A Windstorm in the Sierra – John Muir

“Most people like to look at mountain rivers, and bear them in mind; but few care to look at the wind, though far more beautiful and sublime, and though they become at times about as visible as flowing water.”

The Mountains of California, by John Muir (1894)


There are a number of folk etymologies for the word, Oregon. Two of the most intriguing are centered on the Columbia River, that great waterway that sits on the northern edge of our state but resides so much at the center of our identity.

The Eulachon in Meriwether Lewis’ journal.

One is that the word Oregon is a corruption of the the Native American Chinookan word Eulachon or  candlefish (Thaleichthys pacificus )  which migrated up the Columbia and our other rivers, in great quantities.1  I say “our rivers” though at those times, before the fish and the native peoples who relied on them were decimated, they were not our rivers at all. They were in fact, most decidedly, their rivers; they used them as highways, routes for trade, marriage and war, source of food and sustenance, keeper of myth and meaning. Now, for better or for worse, they are our rivers and like everything else in this land, have been touched and changed profoundly.

Eulachon Squeezeoil Woman. ca.1884

The Eulachon was called the candlefish because the oil content in the dried fish was so high that, when lit, they burned like candles. That oil was health and energy, full of fatty acids and raw power. It was plentiful but precious; it was poured over many other dishes to give them savor and it provided the inner fires to thrive during cold, northern winters.

The Eulachon were dipped in boxes and nets, caught in weirs, rakes and traps and then dried on racks. During a potlatch, a particularly rich family might  pour a massive red cedar box of eulachon oil on the fire, the billowing black clouds representing the careless plenty of their life.

Another etymon for Oregon is said to come from a corruption of the French word ouragan. Ouragan, meaning hurricane in French, was the name French traders and trappers supposedly gave to the Columbia River, down which they sailed as the vanguard of European invasion, in search of furs, gold and new land.  And hurricane is still an appropriate name; despite the changes wrought to the River and it environs, the wind persists.

A group of five of us set out on a Saturday in mid-December to try to catch a wind run from Viento Park, to Cascade Locks. Cascade Locks, is named after the old canal and  locks which enabled boats to bypass Cascade Rapids, now inundated by Bonneville Dam.  Parts of the old locks still remain in the Maritime Park.

This is to be a one-way run with the wind at our backs; paddling against the wind and the current be at best onerous and at worst, if the wind kicked up, impossible.  We leave two of the cars at the Locks and drive up to Viento Park to our launch.

The forecast for the day is for 16 MPH winds from the East, but the weather on the river has a dynamic of its own and we know that this can easily rise by a factor of two or more on the water.  Driving the ten or so miles down to the put in, we can see just how variable the winds affect on the river is. Sheltered areas are  calm, but the more exposed locations are already showing fields of whitecaps.

At the put in, the wind is blowing steadily and it is cold.  We walk the 1/4 mile down to the water’s edge through dried and dead leaves crumbling over grey river stones.  There is no one on the river.   We set out paddling for a small Island, a quarter-mile or so down river of the launch.

We reach the small islet without incident and begin the crossing to the northern, Washington, shore about a mile distant.

Anticipating wind, I have left behind the Sterling Illusion in favor of the NDK Explorer, feeling that it will be advantageous to have a longer boat on a wind run.   As we cross, leaving the sheltering shore, the wind starts to build and the waves kick-up.  With the wind at my back I feel like I am starting to sail. The seas are cresting with long waves and many whitecaps.  The Explorer is fast.  I  struggle to hold it back and stay with the rest of the group.

As we pass into the center of the river, the power of the wind moves off the water and into my body.  I feel the it begin to take hold, pushing the boat forward so that it careens down the waves, almost out of control. Like an ocean wave breaking.   Slide, brace.  Tail slip, slide.  Fast. What if I went over? Wait.

Wind Mountain

Looking back, I see the rest of the team, clawing with their paddles, scraping forward across the grey water. Behind them looms Wind Mountain, crouched on the Washington shore.

On a time, this mountain was a sacred site. And even now, its talus gouged face is sill pockmarked with the pits in which young native men spent sleepless days and nights on vision quests seeking their spirit guardians which would define their life’s journey.  None pursue vison quests now, but the pits remain,  degrading under the relentless but slow force of gravity induced talus shift and the somewhat quicker erosion caused by the legions of hikers from amongst us who have come after.

Maybe its just a trick of geography, but when we paddle into sight of the Mountain, the wind, already strong, seems to redouble in force.  Tumbling like a cascade down the broken talus, it comes screaming at us.  Damn.   You better brace now boy.

It is so cold now and I am lost in a field of waves.  The wind bores into the paddle and runs shivering into my veins. My fingers bright and red as salmon roe; hard as stones.

Now. The wind rips the crest from the top of the waves and it blows as a horizontal rain across the storming river. The wind is my partner and I must cede to it. Slippery as an eel, the Explorer digs its nose in the oily waters and tries to broach. As I slide out of alignment with the waves, water comes surging over my bow and pools in the lap of my tuilik. Brace hard. Edge. Sweep. Stern rudder. Paddle! Extend. Slide.

And the wave crests now become flags.  The wind shear rips away the foam and it sails in long tendrils over the storm-tossed murk of the Columbia.
How can I paddle through this?

Wind Mountain

I came to a place mute of all light,
that bellows like a tempestuous sea, buffeted by warring winds.
The hellish storm that never ceases drives the spirits with its force, whirling and striking, it molests them.

 Dante, Inferno: Canto V


I feel my blood congeal like black pudding.   And the water too is black.  Slip, brace, slide.  I realize with a start that the river stinks of fish.  The  splash on my tuilik is thick and scented of fish.

 ta-máh-no-u! ta-máh-no-u! hyas wind, mesachie wind ta chuck  e-éh  mam’-ook is’-ic pa’-pa ten-as, skoo’-kum, mem’-a-loost

It is eulachon oil.  A miracle.  נס גדול היה שם Oil to feed the multitudes.

Thick oil drips over me. The eulachon are pressed and I slip through a chasm.  And I see my friends have  stopped paddling.  One is raging in the oil. And one is mired is old fish guts blown up by the wind.  And one is no longer paddling, but crying. And the wind is walking on the water.

The wind reaches its crescendo and strips away the color from the water and it runs clear at last and I see every fish that has ever swum down  from the source  to the sea.  Coho Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, Chinook, Sturgeon, Squawfish, Black Crappie, White Crappie, Mountain Whitefish, Burbot, Smelt, Lamprey, Carp, Tench, Mountain sucker,Prickly Sculpin, Channel Catfish, Bullhead, Three-spine Stickleback, Longnose Dace, Cutthroat Trout.

Goggle eyed, they glare.  Why are you here?

How can this happen? It cannot.  Not oil now but blood.  Cold cough from ages dead now. Phthisis and tubercles and pox.  The wind comes up and my blade cuts through the river of blood.  Longhouses full of the dying.  Gone in a cough. Out, damned spot! Out, I say!

I wash my hands of this.

Through the horizontal rain we reach the far shore; we find there is no shelter and the wind is if anything stronger. In shallow waters, the wind-driven waves rise up.  There are many small islands, but battered by the storm,  we are still in a bad spot. There are tears in my eyes and they stream down my face washing away the glutinous oil and smoking, black blood.

We duck behind the islands seeking shelter.  I look up to see Jay,  still in mid-current. He sails by, out of control.  Dan’s eyes are wide.  Could he roll if he capsized?  probably not.  This is not good.   Wake up!  This is now.  I feel some of the cold drain from my veins.  Are the others OK? Dennis paddles up to me.  It is good to see him.

Between the roaring of the wind and the driving rain, we have to shout to be heard.
“I ain’t no pussy,” he shouts, “but we need to get the hell out of here!”

“The blood”  I scream.  “Did you see the blood?”

“What the hell are you talking about? This wind is dangerous. We gotta bug out of here.”

“Yes,” I say. “You are right.”

It takes a while to collect the others. I am still shivering when we leave the river. We’ll have to hitch to our cars.  It’s going to be a long afternoon.

Hauling the boats up to the road, the last thing I see is Wind Mountain.  The trees are in motion.  The wind flows like water and the trees sway.


  1. Habitat loss and degradation threaten eulachon, particularly in the Columbia River basin. Hydroelectric dams block access to historical eulachon spawning grounds and affect the quality of spawning substrates through flow management, altered delivery of coarse sediments, and siltation. The release of fine sediments from behind a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sediment retention structure on the Toutle River has been negatively correlated with Cowlitz River eulachon returns 3 to 4 years later and is thus implicated in harming eulachon in this river system, though the exact cause of the effect is undetermined. Dredging activities in the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers during spawning runs may entrain and kill fish or otherwise result in decreased spawning success.

    Eulachon have been shown to carry high levels of chemical pollutants, and although it has not been demonstrated that high contaminant loads in eulachon result in increased mortality or reduced reproductive success, such effects have been shown in other fish species. Eulachon harvest has been curtailed significantly in response to population declines. However, existing regulatory mechanisms may be inadequate to recover eulachon stocks. []

A Near Perfect Day, Surfing Cape Kiwanda, Oregon. November, 2011

What constitutes a perfect day on the water? Hard to say. Sometimes it is an epic survived, sometimes it is glass and stillness and silence. Sometimes it is the company we keep.

Today was, if not perfect, very close. Beautiful Fall weather, an almost empty beach, swell and waves just right, not too low and not too high . No fear, just fun in the waves.

The Illusion loves this water.

No crowds, nice swell, hot showers courtesy of Pelican Pub.  Is anything more needed? I don’t think so.

Lumpy Waters 2011 – Pt. 1

Pelican Pub

Lumpy Waters is a yearly kayak gathering sponsored by Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe. It is held on the Oregon Coast at Pacific City.  The event occurs in the fall and takes its name from the unsettled, but still manageable, state of the sea, which has usually just started to rise from its (relative) summer calm. Lumpy waters is one of the premier sea kayak gatherings on the West Coast – I can unreservedly recommend the event to anyone who has ambitions to take their paddling from flat water to the sea.  It brings some of the world’s best coaches and teachers together with a great set of ambitious students.  There are classes for every skill level, but to really get the most out of this event, you should have decent control over your boat, have the beginnings of a roll or other self-rescue and a bit of ambition.

For those who may be unfamiliar with it, the Oregon coast is typified by multiple lines of breaking, dumpy surf.  It is a challenging area in which to learn to paddle, but once you have mastered the surf, it opens up one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.  Lumpy can help jump-start your ability to handle surf and moving water in a relatively safe and controlled context. That said, hosting large groups of mixed skill paddlers on the Oregon coast does open up avenues to danger.  A miscalculation by instructor or student can have potentially severe consequences for themselves and those around them.

I arrived early to Lumpy on Thursday night October 13, 2011.  The event is hosted at a campground just across the street from Cape Kiwanda and, more importantly perhaps, from the Pelican Pub which brews some very excellent beers.  I had arranged to meet Steve Hufstadter, an old college friend of mine at the cabin, but upon arrival, found he was not yet in. I repaired to the Pelican for a glass of their excellent IPA.

At the Pelican I recognized faces and friends from last year’s session as well as from other recent kayak gatherings. I was particularly happy to see John Schlesinger, a Kayaker from Coos Bay Oregon with whom I had become friends in 2010.  It’s always great to witness the family of kayakers at an event like this.  At Lumpy, as at SSTIKS and other events, I felt like I was coming home.

Swimming the Bar – Learning the Hard Way on the Columbia River

“Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from exercising poor judgment.”  – Reg Lake

When we kayak rough waters, the mantra, never come out of the boat, never swim, is one we must repeat and to which we must strive to adhere.  Unfortunately, reality has a way of confounding our plans. This story will describe an incident, happily not serious, though it could have been, where that dictum and others were violated.  The lessons I learned will hopefully be useful to others as well.

It was a late July weekend in 2011.  I was on a paddling trip on the Columbia River estuary out towards Cape Disappointment and the Columbia River Bar.   The entire trip would be about 10 miles out and back.   My companion and I planned to spend our time investigating the nooks and crannies of the rocky coast.  The Bar, though a possible destination, was not part of the day’s itinerary.

Columbia Bar, National Weather Service Portland

Columbia Bar, National Weather Service Portland

The Columbia Bar is notoriously rough.  Unlike many rivers that have a wide delta, absorbing the energy where they enter the sea, the Columbia enters the Pacific Ocean like a shotgun fired between Oregon and Washington. The enormous volume of water flowing over the sediment dumped at this point creates a series of bars and shoals notorious for rough water and horrible conditions.  The Coast Guard maintains a station at this area just to respond to ships in trouble.  Since records have been kept at the turn of the 19th century, over 2000 ships have gone down there.

My companion for the day was a seasoned and expert kayaker. I am neither.  My two-year paddling anniversary came up in October 2011.  That said, I have done my best to fast-track my skills, taking classes and seminars and hanging out, when I can, with paddlers far better than myself.  I am in my early fifties and though still fit, my energy reserves become depleted much quicker than they did when I was in my thirties or even my forties.

From the moment I began kayaking, the skill I desired above all was rolling.  Rolling, I felt, would make me safe and let me venture into the kind of environments I was pining for-rough water, open sea and rocky coasts.

I went through the usual stages while learning to roll: Stage 1 -“Ah, I’ll never get this.” Stage 2 – “Hey, I just rolled!”  Stage 3 – “But I rolled just last week.  Really!” Stage 4 – “No pool can conquer me now!”  Stage 5 – “Yeah, rolling in the surf ain’t so bad, the waves help you.”

Even though I have hit stage 5, truthfully, it’s not 100% consistent. I still can flub a roll when I am submerged in chaotic water and sometimes come out of the boat.  Not often, but it happens.  On a beach, if you have picked a sane day, it’s really not such a big deal.  Sometimes it’s a long swim, but surf tends to push you back in.

Ilwaco and the Columbia River Bar

The trip began great.  We paddled west from A Jetty towards Waikiki Beach, playing in the rocks and caves. The caves were fantastic, one in particular, in Dead Man’s cove (itself lovely), was long, narrow and apparently had a dragon huffing and puffing at the end.  I did quite a few practice rolls in Dead Man’s Cove and was feeling solid.

I say we played in the rocks, but really, I spent a lot of time observing.  I thought I could do what my partner was doing, but I was not sure. I kept back and would fool around when I felt it looked reasonable (i.e. easy).  This is called common sense; it is a good thing.

The day was quite calm, so my companion suggested we venture out past the long jetty to look at, and perhaps even paddle through, the Bar.  “Not many people get a chance to do that,” he said.

Even from Waikiki, I could see that the bar, calm though the day was, had agitated and active water. Breaking waves were clearly visible and given the distance we still were from the end of the Jetty, I knew that they must be large.

When we finally got to the end of the Jetty, I could see that things on the Bar were indeed rough. Large waves were breaking in different directions – it looked hairy to me.  Even so, the most violent area was quite small.  Past the end of the Jetty, there was large swell and the odd breaking wave, but it looked well within my comfort level; if I just bypassed the chaotic area, I thought, I will be fine.

My companion charged right into the breaking waves, the heart of the maelström.  I followed.  Why?  I don’t really know. I was content to watch the rock hopping when it looked too technical for me. Why did I follow here?  Common sense breakdown.  My first, and worst, mistake.

It was difficult knowing what to do as waves were coming from many directions, but I was managing.  Suddenly, I saw a large swell rise, crest and break right in front of me.  I remember thinking, “I will not be able to cope with this one.”  A rolling foam and water wall hit me hard in my chest and face.  I went over and was swirled and spun underwater by the wave. I tried to set up for a roll but could not get positioned right.  I have been in similar situations before.  You wait it out.  Eventually, you’ll float up and you can roll.  I knew this.

Nonetheless, I did not wait. I tried to roll too quickly while the wave was still working me. The roll failed and I thought, “I better come up.”   I was not panicked.  If I felt anything, perhaps it was discouragement.  It was the old, “Ahh, this will never work” feeling that I remember when rolling still felt impossible.  I pulled the spray skirt and wet-exited.

As soon as my head broke the surface, I knew that I had made a mistake.  I was in the midst of many waves, some quite steep and tall.  The end of the Jetty was not far off; that could be a danger.  Still, I was not scared.   I thought, rightly or wrongly, that I could always abandon my boat and swim.  I am in reasonably good shape, a good swimmer and dressed for immersion.

My first, most childish, fear was looking like an idiot in front of my companion.   Worse was the thought of having the Coast Guard, who I knew were poised nearby, come charging in.

My partner yelled, “Do a reentry and roll!”  Unfortunately, at the time, I had never attempted this let alone learned it. I do have a very strong paddle outrigger reentry, having practiced this numerous times.  I paddle with a very buoyant Greenland stick and it makes this maneuver surprisingly solid, though I had never tried it in conditions approaching what I was in now.

I flipped my boat upright, jammed the paddle in the deck rigging behind the cockpit and pulled up onto the back deck.  I wiggled towards the stern, keeping my center of gravity as low as I could to the deck.   As I grabbed the rigging to pull myself into position to slide my legs into the cockpit, I felt something grab and hang at my chest.  What was it?! I raised my body up a bit to try to free myself.  Immediate disaster, the boat flipped and I was in the water again.  I looked up to see I was on the wrong side of the kayak with another wave barreling down.  I ducked underneath the kayak just as the wave careened it towards my head. Yikes!

I tried again a moment later. I scrambled up on the deck and then got stuck again.  This time I looked down and saw that it was the antenna on my radio, which I keep in my PFD chest pocket.  Irony!  I wrenched the antenna aside and actually got into the seat.  The cockpit was completely flooded, however, and I was very tired.  I managed a few strokes and then went over again. This time I was determined to roll.  I stayed in the flooded boat and rolled up.  Yes!  But the boat was still awash and unstable and I was running out of steam.   And the waves, oh the waves. The first one to hit me, Bang! in the drink again.

I was now very tired.   I yelled out something along the lines of, “Can you steady the boat?”  My partner charged in and grabbed my deck lines. This was dangerous for both of us as we were sliding up and down wave faces with our boats very close together.  I got in.   The kayak was still flooded and unstable.  Over again and swimming.   A few minutes later, he came in again during a break in the waves.  This time, he quickly dumped about half the water in my flooded kayak. He held the boat and I climbed in.  Success!  With some water out of the cockpit, I was able to paddle and stay upright.

“Paddle like crazy for the buoy!”  he shouted.  My arms were like lead and I was very winded. Still, I managed to limp forward, get out of the worst of it and finally get to a safe area where I could pump and fasten the spray skirt on the coaming.

It was still a long paddle back to A Jetty, but once I was out of the chaos and back in my boat, my strength returned.  The return trip was uneventful.


So what happened? What went wrong and what went right?

The first failure of judgment, the most critical one, was a failure of common sense.   It would have been easy to just go around the worst of the waves on the Bar.  Why did I respect my limits in the rocks, but ignore them in a potentially much more serious environment?   I truthfully don’t know. All I can remember thinking was that I thought I could probably handle it. It didn’t look much worse than some hairy surf launches I had done successfully in the past.

The second failure of judgment was missing the roll.  I say failure of judgment, because I know that if I had just waited, I would have floated up in position to sweep up in a standard Greenland layback roll. The roll failure was a psychological, not a technical hurdle.

The third failure was insufficient skill training.  I lacked two critical skills.  The first was a reentry and roll.  The second was that I was unable to paddle a flooded boat in conditions.  Thanks to training myself in outrigger reentry, I managed to get back into my kayak in a pretty challenging environment but it did me no good at all because I could not paddle a flooded boat! Paddling a flooded kayak is a skill that can and must be learned if you want to venture into such an environment.  You need to train for the whole rescue scenario, not just isolated components of it.

What went right?  I did not panic.  In my younger years, I spent quite a bit of time on multiday technical rock climbs.  I learned that even if you get yourself into a bad situation, a cool head will make it much more likely you’ll get out.

I remained determined to help myself.  I tried what I could think of to self-rescue.  In the end, I needed the help of my companion but I paddled out under my own steam.

The decision to delay fastening the spray-skirt was also the right one.  At that point, it was all I could do to stay upright and paddle. I was still in the thick of it.  If I had paused to fumble with the skirt, I would doubtless have been hit with another wave and capsized.

Lessons learned.

Trust your common sense, stop and listen to it.  Analyze what you are doing before you do it.  Are you putting yourself at danger?  Are you putting your companions at danger?  Ambition is good but there is no hurry.

Train for the conditions in which you want to paddle.  If you are going to learn to roll, learn to roll in the environment you’ll most need it.  I’m still going to work on my fancy Greenland rolls on flat water, but I’m also going to spend as much time as I can in breaking surf until I get the rolls I actually need down pat!  And really, the Columbia Bar is a hell of a place to try to figure out how to paddle a flooded boat or learn a reentry and roll!

The same applies to rescue.  Practice it in rough water with a full kit and practice the entire sequence.  A little thing like the antenna of the vhf radio, which I never wear in practice sessions, turned into a significant barrier to recovery.  Your strength in conditions like these is a precious and finite resource.  Every failed attempt brings you closer to a potentially serious breakdown.  This is even more true to those of us who are subject to such objective demarcators of middle age as AARP letters on the doorstep and expanding collections of medicine bottles in the bathroom.

So I swam the Columbia River Bar and lived to tell the tale.  It was a wonderful day and a bit of drama on the tail end did not diminish it.  The progression of faulty judgment, leading to a failed roll, leading to a rescue in hazardous conditions was a great if tough learning experience for me.  I hope this story may be of use to other ambitious, but still green, paddlers pushing their limits.


Since I wrote this piece back in July 2011, I have been working over-time on rolls as well as other self-rescues. There is no substitute for practice.  Those of us who want to paddle off the Oregon coast, which is both beautiful and dangerous, must be willing to put in the hours of practice.  I look forward to more trips with everyone so motivated.