Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Snake and Hoback

Driving up the Snake River valley from idaho and into Wyoming, suddenly you realize it's not summer anymore. It's cold, rainy, and cloudy, and the leaves on the aspen and maple have started to turn bright fall colors.

When I set out on this long roadtrip out West, in mid-August, it was still high summer. I drove through the Utah and Nevada deserts in 100 degree sunny heat. I drove up the Pacific coast as the autumn fogs began to roll in off the ocean, chilling everything. Now, the days I am here in Idaho and Wyoming are the days of the fall equinox, in late September, and autumn has already begun.

Clouds layer above the road like strata in the mountains. The past few days of travel have mostly been rainy, dreary, and depressing. From the ocean at the mouth of the Columbia, through Portland, east up the Columbia River gorge into eastern Oregon, along the Snake River valley till you turn on Hwy. 20 to go across the plain to Craters and beyond, to Idaho Falls, then on now to Wyoming, driving again up the Snake River valley, it's been more rain than not. You haven't seen the sun in days, long days and nights of driving in sometimes torrential downpours, sometimes light mist.

The Snake River here forms a canyon once you reach the Wyoming border. In Idaho, there's a wide floodplain, and a manmade reservoir lake made by damming the river. On the Wyoming side, the canyon walls steepen, and the river becomes white and wild, bounding over rapids at every turn, green instead of blue or brown, the green of churned waters.

The Snake is one of my favorite rivers in North America. It's a long, winding river, changing through many moods and terrains. It's headwaters are at the foot of the Grand Tetons, my favorite mountain range. It empties into the Columbia where the borders of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon all meet, at the twin cities of Lewiston and Clarkston, named for the famed explorers. The river itself is part of the Lewis & Clark Trail, as are the highways that track it.

The Snake feels wild, even when it flows across the vast volcanic plain of south central Idaho, where it has carved a deep wide canyon into the flowstone, with towering basalt cliffs overlooking its curves. Its own canyon now keeps it locked into its channel, deepening without widening as it passes through the volcanic zone. The Snake feels wild. There's a lot of whitewater rafting upstream.

Where the Hoback River flows into the Snake is a place called Hoback Junction. Before turning north to pass through Jackson, WY, and proceed on to the Tetons, and then on to Yellowstone, I pause for awhile to go up the Hoback River road, and a few miles into the Hoback Canyon.

Willow Creek, tributary of the Hoback River, entering just below the Canyon

When I was 18 years old, I spent the entire summer here, right here: my first summer away from home, and my first college course, Geology 106: Geology taught in the field at the University of Michigan geological field station at Hoback Junction. The course was taught by three geology professors, a sedimentologist, a vulcanologist, and a geomorphologist. I had a real knack for the coursework. We learned in the field by driving up to outcrops and putting our noses to the rock itself. Rock hammers and magnifying glasses as necklaces were standard gear, along with sturdy clothing and rugged boots. We climbed up into the hills right here above the Hoback, to spend a day on various outcrops. Some other students and I climbed the hills behind the camp, going up high, able to see the southern edge of Tetons from the summit of the hills behind camp. I saw my first moose, placidly feeding on long grass across a meadow, below us to the north. I had never been out West before. This was the start of my love affair with the Rocky Mountains, with Wyoming in particular, which remains a favorite place of mine on the planet. I returned to Michigan after the summer of geology, tanned, fit, a little fringe of young man's beard, having done very well in class and deciding to pursue geology as my career, at least for awhile.

That line of silver buildings is the field station where I lived that summer, and from which we worked. The hills behind are the hills we climbed to see the Tetons from, and on the other side is where we saw the moose grazing.

Driving here again, spending time remembering. The time we went skinnydipping in Willow Creek, right where it flowed into the Hoback, a mile's walk from camp. The time we went up the canyon to do a field study of erosion and deposition on the canyon's north-facing side. The time we all drove up the Canyon for an evening at a local bar, getting drunk, playing pool. And the ride I took back to camp on the back of a motorcycle, racing too fast down the canyon, bending with the wind and the curves in the road. Exhilarating and terrifying both.

Today it's fall along the Hoback River. The aspens are turning golden. The maples are turning fire red. The pines and cedars, evergreen, everlasting, stoic in their emerald shrouds, kneel down to accept the coming of rain, the coming of snow, the weight of winter and the surge of melte to come, next spring. Returning home. The day I spend here feels like coming home. It was a good time in my life. It's a joy to see what has not changed, since then.

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