Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Paddling the San Jacinto River

Three years ago I gave up my motorcycle because riding had become to dangerous.

It seems I may have to give up Seeker's Fate for the same reason. For some reason she seems to lead us into dangerous situations...

The plan was to paddle the San Jacinto River from McDade park (just off hwy. 2854) southwest of Conroe down to hwy 59 by Humble, TX. And we would have made it too if the lightning hadn't begun hitting around us.

Rain storms had been pummeling the area almost daily for weeks. The San Jacinto's flow rate had been fluctuating in and out of an acceptable depth. The river is supposedly paddlable between 50 cfs and 3,000 cfs. Last Friday night it was around 300cfs but falling fast. More rain was predicted for Saturday so Clark and I figured we'd have plenty of water.

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Ready to launch.

As you can see, the rain stopped and the river's water pretty much disappeared overnight. Be hardy adventures, the lack of water didn't stop us.

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Merriwether and Clark's remake of "The African Queen" (without the leeches)!

We were hoping that all the small tributaries feeding the San Jacinto would still be bringing in water, making it deep enough to actually ride in the canoe rather than drag it. Suprisingly enough, if the river had been any deeper we would have been stuck less than a third of a mile into the trip.

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Big, big pipe.

Portaging around the pipe would have been extremely difficult. Luckily, the lack of water allowed us to squeeze Seeker's Fate under the big pipe.

Four hours into the trip we had dragged the canoe a lot more than paddled it. It was getting to be a bit frustrating. On the plus side, seemingly tons of petrified wood lay exposed. My addiction to collecting probably did not help the level of water needed for Seeker's Fate to float.

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Several pounds of petrified wood and a nice oolite ( the red spotted rock)

We had started grumbling about the trip and cursing the rain gods for playing such a mean trick on us. Which meant that five minutes later we were crouched on the bank huddling from the blinding rain as lightning struck all around us.

I should know by now not to curse the gods. They really don't like that.

It was terrifying. Have you heard lightning hit nearby while you are stand outside wet to the bone caught between tall trees, an aluminum canoe, and a quickly-rising river? Being Catholic, I was seriously wondering if confessing sins to a non-priest would cover me incase I actually did die. Clark and I stood far away from each other on the thought that maybe a lightning strike wouldn't take out both of us.

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Self portrait, in storm.

We were stuck there for an hour, then later on almost another hour when a second storm blew in. On the plus side, the river rose really fast. Fast enough to be a little scary. There were a fair number of downed trees across the river and with a fast current made flipping a real possibility if we hit one wrong. In most cases we were either able to get around or over the trees safely. There was only one major tree jam that we had to portage around between Conroe and I-45. We probably could have shoved Seeker's Fate over the jam as per our usual technique. However, a water moccasin as thick as my arm convinced us to go around the jam. WAY around the jam.

The next portage occurred at the railway bridge just downstream of I-45. Years of flooding had built up a log jam five feet high and close to ten feet thick across the length of the river.
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Log jam under I-45.

This took some doing to get around as we had to carry the canoe over large, loose rocks on the north bank of the river. The water directly on the far side of this jam was utterly filthy and suprisingly deep. Of course, I discovered this by plunging neck deep as I carried the canoe into the brown, murky water.

Luckily it didn't take long to get back to beautiful nature. Once around the bend from the freeway it became gorgeous again. This part of the river is very different from upstream of I-45. Upstream the river was narrow and trees made a dense canopy above offering cool shade. Downstream from the freeway the San Jacinto broadened out into wide river. It was rushing now as the runoff entered the river and we had to shoot several small rapids.

I'm going to stop here because I'm currently going cold turkey off my caffiene addiction and I have a headache so bad I may vomit. I know, too much detail. Those of you waiting for the next part of the Wendigo story will have to wait a little bit longer. Sorry about that, I'll try to make it worth your while.

I'll also be putting up a list of put-in/take-out spots for the San Jacinto as well as GPS coordinates of the major log jams, pipelines and other points of interest along the river.

Adventure! Excitement! Exploration!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Crow River, Part 2: Beginnings

Part 1 Here

My grandfather's farm was two miles south of town. The second time he died it was in the same bedroom he had been born in almost ninty years earlier. His grandfather was one of the original settlers of this place and from him the truth of the Crow River has been passed down through the generations.

Now I mentioned that even though the land was good the Native Americans avoided this place. When the first white men, trappers by trade, were mapping this area the nearest tribe gave the river's name as "Marauder of Newly Turned Earth". Not understanding the true meaning, the trappers labelled it "Crow River" assuming the Indians were talking about the big, black birds raiding freshly planted crops. The trappers made a note on the map that the river and the land around it was good land. It was fertile and settlers would not have to displace the natives to take it. This map eventually made it back East and triggered the migration of several German, Dutch, and Danish families.

They arrived and set to work building the new town. The land was as good and fertile as the map had said. The first summer was hot, but plentiful rains led to a grand harvest. The small town gathered that Thankgiving to praise the Lord for this heaven on Earth. The loss of four settlers, strangely all due to drownings, was the only source of sadness.

But the next year it was eight drownings and the year after that, eight more. That third year the river was low enough to walk across yet an entire family was lost to it. Their dismembered remains scattered the river banks for miles downstream. The travellng priest who serviced this community declared the river cursed and performed an exorcism. Standing knee deep in the water he tried to cast out the evil spirit. Halfway through the prayer he screamed and fell backwards, smashing his head open on a rock. According to records of the event, the bloody stumps of his legs thrashed above the surface of the water, then he sank out of sight.

Two days later his right hand was found. The fingers were missing except for the one bearing the signet ring of his holy order. Nothing else of him was ever found.

The church blamed death on coyotes and sent a new priest out on the circuit. It was winter by the time he arrived. At least that's when he was scheduled to arrive. As he crossed the frozen river a crack opened up beneath him. The arm on which he had wrapped his rosary was found sticking up through the ice a few days later. Only the arm, nothing else.

After that few priests went near the river.

The grandfather of my grandfather made a decision. If his God couldn't handle the river then maybe earlier gods could. My family's history says that he broached the subject after Christmas mass and by the end of the day everyone for miles hated him a as a blasphemer.

He was strong and stubborn though, and knew something had to be done. That winter's night he left his family and headed North. His goal was the Indian reservation along the shore of Lake Milaca, one hundred and fifty miles away.

Nothing is known of his trip other than on the last day of January he stumbled, emanciated and feverish, into the lodge of a Medicine Man on the frozen shore of Lake Milaca. The Medicine Man's wife screamed "Wendigo" and fled in terror from the lodge. My ancestor collapsed.

He babbled for three days and ate every morsal set before him, including the bones of squirrels and rabbits. On the fourth day the fever broke. He was lucky as the chief, fearing that this white skeleton really was a Wendigo, had ordered him killed at sundown.

Regaining his senses, my grandfather's grandfather explained his mission to the Indians (yes, I know that word offends some, but I'm telling this history as it was told to me). Halfway through the tale the Medicine Man stopped my ancestor. The holy Indian explained he knew of the river and what was bound in it.

The Medicine Man spoke.
In the long darks when wolves grow thin and snow covers all, no creatures are born except the bear cub in it's lair. But the bear is our brother and his spirit is fierce but good. Only one other thing enters the land during the cold nights and it spirit is also fierce, but it is not good even though it may be our brother.

When the food is gone but the winter still holds, a person may change. They crave food, they crave meat. Their empty belly drives them mad, tortures them beyond reason. In their madness the
Wendigo is born and suffering follows. The Wendigo's hunger can not be satiated, even as it feasts on the bodies of it brothers. With this act the transformation is complete. The man is lost and a monster comes. It becomes a giant of frost and snow. It's fingers are knives and its teeth are as spikes. The more it eats the larger it gets. To see a Wendigo is die in its maw.

The Medicine Man talked all night long and he told what happened in the river of the marauder of newly turned earth.
Long ago a tribe lived on the banks of that river. They were prosperous under the guidance of a wise Medicine Man but their chief was known to be greedy. One year winter fell early and lasted too long. The tribe's stockpile of food began disappearing and soon it became obvious that unless something happened many of the tribe would starve before Spring came. At first the chief alone seemed immune to the starvation that chewed on the others. But as the Spring stayed away even he began to grow thin. The food that he had stolen earlier was gone and hunger burned his belly. In the dark of night he slipped away from camp to where a lone brave sat fishing through the river's ice. The chief sprung upon the brave and tore out his throat, then began feasting on the body. As morning approached the chief's madness subsided and, realizing what he had done, forced the remains of the brave through the hole in the ice and fled back to the village. There he told his tribe that their brother had been killed by wolves. No one had the strength left to check this out and the chief's words were believed.

Spring broke soon after and the food, so long denied to the tribe, seemed to appear as if by magic. The tribe became fat on the wild harvests, but none as fat as the chief. His appetite seemed to grow larger than his body no matter how fat he became. Worse, he found himself craving more than just the berries, fish and deer. He craved the taste of human flesh.

For two years he hid this obscene hunger. But that didn't mean he went without human meat. This tribe's custom when a member died was to bury the body in plot of ground along the river bank. The first to be buried there after that hard winter was a young girl who died from the bite of a water moccasin. She was placed in her grave and the soil was piled on top of her.

She laid dead in the ground but the chief could here her calling him. She teased him with glimpses of her delicious body, made plump by the wonderful bounty of Spring. For two days the chief hid in his lodge, sweating as the girl danced before him. On the night of the second day he sneaked down to the grave and fell upon it in a frenzy. He tore through the soil to the body. By now it had begun to fester and bloat but he saw it as a feast, and he ravaged it. That morning others found the sundered grave and were distressed. Running back to the tribe they spread the news. As braves gathered to return to the site a mighty storm broke upon them. It rained for a week and the river flooded, washing away all sign of the chief's crime.

This continued for two years. Every time someone was buried the grave would be desecrated. When the tribe sent out to hunt the beast some storm or sickness would appear, forcing them to stop.

The chief took this as a sign that he was blessed by the gods. That his cravings were not wrong. He began to set his braves to war against other tribes in hopes the hopes of bodies. His battle plans seemed divinely guided and his braves slaughtered many. With each battle his dementia grew, his hunger grew. At last, several tribes joined against the tribe by the river and in this bloody battle the chief made the final change.

The chief, covered in blood and gore, slayed a brave then instead of turning to his next enemy, the chief began feasting. Before startled eyes the chief's skin began to stretch and split. After finishing one corpse the chief-thing moved to a next. With each bite he grew bigger and bigger. His skin tore away as he stood and faced the four tribes worth of warriors before him.


To be continued...

Monday, June 04, 2007

Crow River: Part 1

wanna see something really scary?
-Dan Ackroyd in Twilight Zone: The Movie

I grew up in a tiny town in central Minnesota. To the north and east of this town was the forest, thick dark and old. On the south and west the Great Plains started and rolled on for hundreds of empty miles. The town had been settled well over one hundred years earlier. The original settlers picked this spot mainly because the local Native Americans didn't.

The town sat on a river which formed the boundry between ancient forest and empty prairie. The land around this river was dark, sweet and rich. Crops seemed to leap from the ground just days after planting. The original settlers saw that this land held great promise for them. The soil supplied them with food, acres of grain and vegetables. The river powered a mill to grind the grain. The river supplied them with fish from the water, cool breaks from the summer heat, a source of ice cut in the heart of winter and packed in sawdust through the summer.

All it asked in return was the occasional meal.

The settlers loved the land, loved their town. In the early 1880's they began building a beautiful church in which to give thanks and praise. Almost a hundred years later this gothic realm of stained glass and gold leaf would still be home for hundreds of worshippers. The town grew some in those hundred years, but not much, really. A little over 2000 souls lived in the town and maybe several dozen more around it. The mayor also worked in the butcher shop. My math teacher lived across the street. The volunteer fire/rescue team was made up of the parents of friends. The firehouse was just down the street from us and whenever the whistle blew on the watertower telling the vounteers to assemble I'd race to the window in hopes of seeing the big red trucks with their flashing lights and loud sirens blast past.

The whistle on the watertower had four tones. One called the fire and rescue crew to fight a fire, one warned a tornado was approaching (scary!), and one marked noon. The last whistle called the rescue crew to the river.

I remember hot Saturday afternoons sitting in mass. During the summer Saturday mass was usually filled so people could spend all day Sunday fishing, playing or farming. The priest would be talking but it was to hot to hear him. There was no air conditioning. It'd get so hot the statues of saints would begin to sway. I remember the feeling of my sweat on my back and in my armpits. I remember the air seeming to be all gold gilt and colored glass as the sun poured in through the stain glass windows.

I remember the fourth tone sounding from the watertower. I remember the murmer running through the parishioners. I remember the priest stopping to glare at us. He hated that fourth tone even more than town elders. He hated the one word that passed through lips as people looked away from him and looked at each other.

Wendigo.

He hated that word. He hated hearing his flock whisper it to one another in the church. To him the word was an afront to God and it was blasphemy to say it, to believe it in his church. In God's church.

He would stand up front and glare down at the congregation until the murmers stopped. He'd glare at the backs of the rescue team as they excused themselves from the pews and left the church. He hated knowing that as soon as mass was ended everyone would head down to the river.

He hated that everyone had such a strong belief in some damned indian ghost story but questioned God.

He wasn't from the town.

It's not unusual for people to drown on a river. Dozens of people would drown across Minnesota every summer. Almost as many would break through thin ice in the winter. Death by water is very popular in Minnesota. In all these cases the body would be found within hours or days. The gases formed as the bodies decomposed would cause them to rise to the surface, bloated and swollen.

Everywhere but our town's patch of river. The rescue crew would go out in boats and search the river with long poles and grappling hooks on ropes. They'd cross back and forth, poking and dragging the river bottom. A crowd would gather on the shore and watch. Newcomers to the town would ask why divers weren't set in. Most old timers would just ignore the question, but once I heard the perpetually drunk Mr. Lemison murmer, "Wasn't two days, weren't four victims" in response to the question. Someone else knocked him in the sholder before he could say more.

He was right, though. If four people drowned the divers would go in looking for the bodies. If it were three or less they'd stay in the boats.

The usual situation was two canoers or fishermen (not from town) would accidently flip their boat as they passed by the ruins of the town's old mill. Even with life preservers they'd go down. Maybe surface once or twice screaming, then disappear. On shore others would see the people floundering and dive in to rescue them. They too would disappear. No matter how much searching was done, the remains wouldn't be found for two days.

Remains. Not full, intact bodies. They would be missing an arm, sometimes a leg. Often the head was the missing piece.

But no one ever talked about that. The remains would be turned over to the families. The town would go back to ignoring the thing in the river. It had fed. It wouldn't be hungry again for quite a while. Sometimes a whole year would go by before the forth whistle tone sounded again.

The summer I turned twelve, the whistle sounded over and over. It was the summer the Wendigo seemed insatiable. It was the summer we fought back. It was the summer we killed the Wendigo.

To be continued...