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Wild River (August 13, 1997)

Jerry puffed on his Marlboro. A raven swooshed down from behind, alighting on an old fir stump maybe 50 yards across the tiny meadow. The bird shook its sleek, jet wings, drawing them along its body like someone pulling up the covers against a chill. Jerry moved carefully to the trunk of the car, keeping his eyes all the while the bird. It paid him no mind. He winced at the squeak as the lid swung up. The bird remained where it was, preening in the bright sun.

The rifle was hot, riding just over the muffler. The sigh gave him a little raspberry under his right eye and he winced again. Taking his time, he traced up the iridescent back of the bird to its head, big as a sheep’s in the crosshairs. He found the bird’s eyes, closed steadily on its black and staring pupil.

It’s head atomized in a spectral puff of red, the animal thrashed around in the blackberries for a moment, but then was quickly still.

“CRACK. Crack. crack.” The echo was clean, out over the canyon.

Jerry took a second puff on the cigarette, laying the rifle precisely where it has been beside the ammo box filled with lengths of old chain and wedges. Just one, two, three cartridges left in the box, he noted absently, slamming the lid.

Hands on his hips, he stood filled with silence. It wasn’t often that Jerry stopped like this. As it was, UPS wouldn’t be in with the new engine housing for maybe an hour and a half. Not much to do ‘til then. He ground the cigarette underfoot and pulled the drill case form his shirt pocket, crowded with the Marlboros. Smoke a joint, drink a beer. Drive your truck in second gear. He smiled sourly, remembering the old song and staring balefully at the ratty old Checker, all he had ‘til he had time to weld the frame on his flatbed.

Picture the vulture cruising a thousand feet overhead, out across the river. Jerry is of no more interest to this great soaring bird than a bottle cap. The raven becomes the center of great silent circles high above. Death and — in this case — hunger, as someone said, concentrates the attention wonderfully.

The muffled sound of a rockfall catches Jerry’s attention. He searches the bare slope across the river for its source, finding it at the head of a small seep well up on the oddly naked face of the cliff. A wispy and evanescent puff of dust marks the place, and the canyon immediately relapses into silence. The vulture, patient as ever, has vanished tracelessly into the blue afternoon.

The slope Jerry so dispassionately regards on this late summer afternoon is but the top of a slump extending all the way down to the rocky bank of the river, unseen and unheard from his position at the top, a vertical distance of maybe 300 feet of dead scrubby trees canted here and there at odd and lethal angles on a pitch of maybe 70°. It is mostly a forbidding barrenness, a shadeless and naked scar of crumbling stone and sterile dirt. Unlike Jerry, it does not belong here. It is a landscape out of place, more at home, perhaps, in the Sonoran desert than bordering the Eel River.

Looked at with knowing and historical eyes, any terrain discloses its past, how it has come to be as it is. There are places within a half-mile of this slump where black oak and redwoods six feet across issue from serpentine bedrock like tough and ancient daydreams. Even now, after all that has happened here, otters are present: quick, graceful, outlandish rodents. Through the long summer, the water is clear to the emerald bottoms of pools sometimes at 20 feet deep. Osprey guard their places jealously.

Beneath the winter’s great cyclonic storms, the river can rise here maybe 20 or 25 feet: it’s hard to tell. Oddly, perhaps, when the river’s up this high, what you tend to notice is its speed, and not its height. Your eye is always swept down, downstream with the clumps of willow, the occasional tire, and the trees which have collapsed into the torrent as a bank collapsed maybe miles upstream. Maybe not. The roar is overwhelming, felt in the way you can feel the turbines at Shasta Dam or Hoover, through the soles of your feet, alarming all the pressure points. Typically, the torrent after eight or ten inches of Biblical downpour will be about the color of cafe au lait. At flood, the Eel has the highest siltation rate of any river in the world; more than the Yukon, the Amazon, the Yangtze, and its is cold enough to numb in seconds.

If they are not borne shoreward on aerial tsunamis from the South Pacific, these billions of gallons of storm water ride in on cold fronts spun like afterthoughts out of the Gulf of Alaska. The jumble of coastal mountains wrings a 100 or so inches of rain out of the sodden sky in an average year, yet leaves enough to bury the Sierras in sometimes 20 feet of snow with enough left to do the same to the distant Rockies.

Most of the logging impacts hereabouts didn’t begin until the late 40s, so almost all of what has happened has been accomplished in the past 50 years. The details have been fairly exhaustively laid-out elsewhere, but the short version is that the integrity, the wholeness of the land was violated and, as a consequence, it is proving to be much less able to absorb the pounding than it used to be. The huge slump across the canyon from Jerry is what results.

It took just a minute or so for most of it to come down at about five minutes past four in the morning on the second of January, the eighth straight day of rain: eight inches in the four days after Christmas, then almost a foot on the last two days of the year; four-and-a-half inches on New Year’s Day. The ground was so saturated it became nearly liquid itself. Swollen was the way it seemed. Every drop that hit was instant runoff.

From the height and angle of the rock berm which the river cut almost immediately across the bottom of the slide, it is probably that the slumpage had at least the potential to block the river. That it did not, at this place, is likely a measure of its immense size and velocity; the canyon is marginally narrower here than a mile or so downstream.

At this place, three of four bends and a mile or so downriver from Jerry, enough debris did collapse into the river to dam it about three hours later. It is hard to believe that the events are unrelated. Somehow, it was the relative quiet following the blockage that was the spookiest. As the river filled in behind the dam, it became preternaturally hushed, the only sound the drum of the incessant rain and the rush from every falling watercourse. The Eel itself was pond-placid and rising for a couple of miles behind the dam maybe 20 feet above its already-swollen crest.

At about 8:15am the mud-and-debris dam gave way so gently the people in Leggett, maybe three miles downstream, never noticed the surge. It took perhaps ten minutes for the river to drop back to its pre-slide level, the same ten minutes to find its voice again. Mud slumps the size of Buicks continued to wash into the river off the big slides for days.

Seven months later, Jerry has by now moved onto the stump where the raven had perched. Taking off his shirt, he regards for a moment the black and blood-spattered lump of feathers at the foot of the stump, already attracting hornets and shiny flies the size of bumblebees. It is hot in the full sun; no breeze. Three vultures now cruise in wide silent circles. Barely, he can hear the river below, can even see it when he stands. Much of the rock which came off the great slump in front of him in January has sloughed downstream 100, 200 feet, creating rapids and dry moraines where none had been for as long as anybody could remember. There was always a good salmon pool, swimming hole — he stands up to see — there, just downstream where the ravine came down, now mostly filled in with thousands of tons and yards of rock, from this height looking flat across the narrow canyon.

Jerry knows the river better than he knows most anything. It is as much a fact of life for him as air or food. He started playing along it when he was ten months old, then graduated to its shallows and later fished and hunted pigs and deer and bobcats and ‘coons for 15 miles north and south and hiked and cut burls and once even ram-pumped water from it to irrigate some dope on a flat above Grizzly Creek. For all the days of his life, the river’s been just the way the world looked, and right now and right here on this stump, Jerry’s not much impressed with what he sees.

An imperceptible shift in the late-afternoon breeze carries the faint beeping of a faraway dozer’s reverse-alarm. Caltrans is moving rock again from the huge slide a couple of miles south on 101. The pissed-off squawks of a pair of Stellar’s jays, the growl of the distant Cat…

Jerry jumps feline-like off the stump, idly poking at the blasted raven with his boot before moving quickly back to the Checker, headed for the market to meet UPS. He touches some spit on his cheek to cool the sting from the sight.

Out of nowhere, it seems, the vulture begins its descent, calling its kind.

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