The River at Dawn

It will be a long day indoors. Before the sun shakes out its hot wool blanket over the entire Northwest, I am risen to seek what fresh air may be found.

In the 5am dark, we drive east on a faint blue path, a crack of light between black, enclosing trees. Just inside the borders of the Mt. Hood National Forest, we pull up by the side of the Clackamas River. Pink mare’s tails brush the sky, sweeping a scent like celery on the wind. We’re not alone here – on the way in, we’ve seen a dozen silent tents beside the river. But if I close my eyes, we are the only two, standing inside the river’s rolling rush.


The trail is a cool benediction in the greylight. It’s flat at first, and wide enough to share. Out on a side path, the breeze glides up from the water, flaps its wings at woods’ edge, ruffles the ferns. Whitewater rattles below, heard long before seen. Twenty steps away, I feel indoors. Venerable air exhales slowly from the forest floor. River-breeze and water-shout flutter past the threshold, excitement muffled by timber walls.  

Neither width nor grade is bound to last. In the few miles we traverse, we learn the Clackamas River Trail’s essential character: it is made for solitude, and quiet. In high summer, the narrow path throngs with fireweed and Queen Anne’s lace at shoulder-height, thimbleberries brush my waist, and along a weeping wall, the generous hands of maidenhair ferns reach out to cup my elbow in a slippery spot. The track climbs continually, either up or down, winding along the bouldery face of the hill before plunging in three quick switchbacks to the water. The forest is open; there’s been a burn here in the past few years. Tree trunks are scarred black, some have fallen. Small slides crumble down the steeps. Grabby poison oak, already crimsoning toward fall, snags my ankles. My footing demands my full attention.


The coming warmth is like a stormfront on its way – I can smell it, but it has not broken here. Its hot grass scent gallops in on a wind as cool as the Clackamas River itself, and I have to stop (poison oak, slides) to enjoy it, plant myself in its path and breathe it in. On the slope west, the sun pours gold on the close-ranked conifers. I don’t walk very far, sometimes. I get stuck watching the day slide down from high ridges.

The river arrests my progress, too. I need so much to watch it, to listen, that I give up standing and find a seat for the concert, among tumbled rocks open to the sky. An entire choir bells out around me: tenor voice of a white rapid upstream, alto riffle counterpoint below my moss-cluttered outcrop. Occasional bass notes ring out and then swallow themselves whole – stones, perhaps, turning over underwater.


The water lies in shade, but the sunstruck hills above reflect autumn-bronze. I watch the sweep of ruffled river and forest edge, and struggle for the names of things. The movement of wind over grey-green water has no special word I know. Nor does the way unbroken riffles flake into curious angular facets, like someone knapping obsidian in liquid form. Nor does the wind itself: its weight, its flavor, its direction must mark it something distinct from our generic word wind. But I cannot find it. The only redress I can make is to cease description, to give myself over and observe.


There is pleasure in moving steadily along this rolling trail, pushing up and picking downwards, shifting my gaze in a loose rhythm from boots to slope to path to river and back. I’m listening to my breath and the braided streams of my thought; conversation here is a nuisance to maintain.

But today I am curiously tired, and the turnfoot talus tumbled across the path encourages me to be still and watch instead. There are nearly 16 miles of there-and-back-again for the walking, and I barely recognize the woman who shrugs her shoulders and turns around at two miles out. I do forgive her, though. Weekday life gives and it takes; mine has taken enormous amounts of energy of late. What’s left has pushed me upstream this morning, swimming against a current of tricky footing, latent warm air, and this strange lassitude that speaks to me so eloquently of rest, I cannot even be impatient with it.

I go out to the wild to put one foot in front of the other. And sometimes I learn that’s not what I’m doing out here at all. Some days, the gift I can accept from a wild place is not the longwalk I think I want. It’s the scented wind on a high path, requiring my stillness.



The Clackamas River Trail runs between two campgrounds called Fish Creek and Indian Henry. You’ll find both on OR 224, out past Estacada into the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. It’s just under 8 miles one way, a moderately difficult hike with some careful walking required on narrow and crumbling path. There is a $5 fee to park at Fish Creek; your Northwest Forest Pass will also pay your way.





2 thoughts on “The River at Dawn

  1. I like your description of sounds. Appears this path is one I will enjoy through your writing, not my boots on the ground.


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