Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Out of the Dark Tunnel Camp - March 2013

The winters aren't bad in the Northwest, really...
They just make you slowly, slowly crazy.  It's like entering a refrigerated wet tunnel for the winter.
Moss grows on things, is the season of the fern and the fungus.
There may be some of you, immune to the natural rhythm of the Earth, cocooned up in perpetual cubicles under ice-sickle lights, breathing recycled air and prepackaged lunch.  I must confess, I lived among you for many years, although I never could understand that sort of waking slumber.
But for the farmer, or the poet, or the lover of God's great creation, the temporary separation from our beloved's embrace is almost unbearable.
Once the housecat starts answering back, it's time to get out of the house.

Along the Clackamas, poised for springtime like a sprinter

Early March.
  Spring has begun in the Willamette Valley and elsewhere, popping daffodils and crocus from the green earth.  But, up in the cold Cascades it is still winter.

Camping in a campground, or visiting a crowded state park is akin to a Walmart parking lot.  I don't like it.

However, in the winter you really can't be too picky: 20 feet of snow blocks most roads over 2000' until well into spring and the Great Thaw.
Some years, spring comes early.  But not this year.  A planned camp at Cot Creek is cancelled; the snow is too deep.  The Forest Service does keep a couple of Clackamas River camps open throughout the winter - free of charge, pack it out.  As long as you don't mind the highway noise and the hypothermia, the views can't be beat.  
Close to town, the Clackamas Canyon can't be considered wilderness anymore, despite its history.  The old maps show a roadless land of boundless forest.  What a world.

In the summertime, these camps are expensive and overcrowded, operated by a concessionaire from a remote distance, oblivious to the foul stench of the vault toilets as they collect their $20 a night.  But winter changes all of this.  The camps all close after Labor Day as we all put on our plastic pants and brace for the long night.  Perhaps solitude can still be found in these places.

Armstrong Camp is one of these places.  On a busy state highway, it was once a wild and remote place, trail less and on the wrong side of the river.  Not until railroads and later roads came did this unimproved flat along a churning river hold any value.

I am up and out the door early this fine March morning, eager to spend some time under open skies and giant trees swaying green.
After an easy drive, I pull into empty Armstrong Camp glowing lovely in the rich sunlight.  It is a vision of heaven, and without hesitation I decide to stay.  What a beautiful morning!  I am grateful to be alive.

I am not expecting Jasan and Mike until tomorrow, so I have a whole day to myself to explore under these golden skies.

And then
the maniacs start to arrive.

Granted, I am not used to camping around other people, as I seek out the places with the greatest solitude.
But it becomes quickly evident that Armstrong Camp is no winter temple.  It is equal parts insane asylum, homeless camp, and boater heaven.
I am approached by well meaning moochers begging Rolling Rock, wild eyed hoboes babbling nonsense, and wild haired whitewater boaters fresh from Columbia and telling tales of civil war and tropical rivers.
What the hell is going on here!!??!  And the cars continue to arrive, as the sun sets and the cold night wind begins to howl down the canyon, alive and wild as freedom itself.

As the night begins to fall, so does the rain.  I huddle around a smokey fire and look forward to morning.

An icy morning does arrive, eventually, after a sleepless night of imagined hobo murder.
I hang up the Volks Camp hubcap so the guys can find me in this madhouse.

It is certainly a fine morning to avoid all the weirdos, and try to peel back some of the layers of history.
Although these places are no longer wild, they are sure to hold some secrets under the thick moss.  Despite all the asphalt, perhaps there is still something left.
1938, with Armstrong just an unused flat along the river

Obviously, highway 224 didn't start out that way.  It was once a whitewater riverbank, churning silently in its deep canyon.  Native Peoples built a trail along the banks 10,000 years ago or so; in the 1920s, this same trail became a railroad, pulling giant trees from the sky and building vast hydro power facilities.  The railroad itself died of purpose in the 1930s, and State Highway 224 was the final rigor mortis of this wild country, buried deep under tar and the rolling rubber of generations of automobiles.

In those days, all the action was on the north side of the river, until the 1960s when a couple sections of narrow and dangerous road were bypassed.  This left the old sections to rot and revert to nature.
What is left?

I am quite surprised to see that the old roadbed is still intact, although giant trees have fallen randomly along its length.  It's a short section, but it is still there, wondering what happened to all the steam locomotives and bustle.
But it is no longer a road.  Somehow, the moss and mushrooms have absorbed all of the expelled energy of humanity.  The rain and clouds have nurtured the civilization of nature along this once busy stretch, remaking the old into the new, which is really the Ancient all along.  How confusing!

 A nervous newt trying to hide

 An entire wall of mossy waterfall

As I continue along this ruinous route, the unmistakable smell of death fills the air.

turkey vulture sunning his wings between meals

Is the wild returning?  Will the condors be back some day?

It is time to head back to crazy camp and wait for my friends.

What a relief to see familiar faces!  Without someone to share it with, wilderness can be diminished.
 This of course doesn't stop the fleet of maniacs, renewed by the early spring sun like insects.  But I am no longer alone.

 Mike, excited to see a Douglas fir

 Makin' chips fly the old way

 Yet the Clackamas flows on eternally, ever free of the tarnish of the imagination.  It is simply incapable of giving a shit.

I hope some of that sentiment rubs off.

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