September 10, 2010

Coyote the Trickster

  I have written about the mindset of a solo trip on numerous occasions. A solo trip is such a different way of experiencing the wilderness that I've never been able to relate the experience sufficiently, either in writing, or otherwise. What follows tries to speak to the same thing, but in as bazaar a way as I've ever experienced. I've never considered myself a superstitious person, but this is the closest brush with the supernatural that I've experienced. I would hope that my story doesn't quite carry the same meaning as coming off a solo trip claiming that Bigfoot is real. Arguably, the level of crazy is pretty close, but I assure you the following is a true story.

This year I have completed three, week long, solo ranger patrols through Deso. Before a solo trip there is usually a palpable anxiety. If a mistake is made during a solo endeavor the likelihood of the mistake becoming disastrous is pretty high. I felt pretty good about this particular trip. I just finished a trip that I was pretty complacent in preparing for so my attention was focused on not making a mistake again. The pre-trip went well and I didn't forget anything. After a couple days on the river I saw my first group of floaters at Cedar Ridge. We spent a half-hour or so chatting about various things. During our talk I suggested they stop at the museum in Price. I asked them which way they were going home. I was referring to when they finished the river trip. They thought I was referring to the float so they naturally looked confused and said downriver. We had a laugh about the not so elegant miscommunication, and the possibility of going upriver, then parted company.
I went downstream about a mile to just above what I call the 3rd of July camp. It looked good for a solo camp so I unloaded the boat and set up. Later in the evening I decided there wasn't really a reason to set up a tent so I would sleep on the bare ground with no shelter. During the night I woke to weird dreams, and to Cassiopeia looking down on me from her chair. When I woke in the morning I opened my eyes without moving my body and could see the raft. I was glad to see the boat, and thought about the strange dreams I had during the night. I lay still for several minutes, in futile effort, trying to recall the dreams. I got up, made coffee, and sat in my chair, when I noticed some tracks on top of my tracks from the night before. I stood up to investigate. With a quick look around I discovered that a coyote had visited me during the night. It's tracks indicated that it came from upstream, fully investigated my camp arrangement, circled my sleeping position within inches of me, and continued downstream. I returned to my chair to drink coffee and contemplate what this visit meant. The first thing I thought about was the western Native American legend that coyote is either the trickster or the creator. It occurred to me that Coyote visiting me during the night was the reason for the strange dreams. My mind immediately went into overdrive with questions. Why did he visit me instead of going onto the bench behind where I was? Did he have a message for me? If so, was the message contained in the dreams that I couldn't recall? Did he see the patrol boat and feel like his authority was being challenged? Was he just playing a trick on me, trying to freak me out? Did Cassiopeia know the answer? If so, I knew her vain arrogance would never let her tell me. As I thought of these things a poem came to me, which I copied into my journal.
Coyote of Deso
steps over my bed
Cassiopeia watches
and says "go ahead"
go ahead haunt the dreams
of the ranger on shore
tell him Coyote
is really whos in charge
Cassiopeia and how she must gleam
when Coyote the trickster
makes the river flow
After I wrote about it I felt better and continued on with the day. After breakfast I went for a short hike then loaded the boat and floated away. Part of a ranger patrol is to visit most of the campsites to do, at least, a quick monitoring stop. When I stopped into the next campsite I noticed the tracks of a single coyote, in the sand, going downstream. Again and again, day after day, I noticed the same tracking in almost all the campsites I stopped into leading me downstream. I started to become haunted by Coyote; I knew I had to figure out the meaning of his visit.
A few weeks prior to this trip I completed a solo patrol at a similar low water flow of around 2500cfs. When I rowed Cowswim rapid I thought it was getting to the point that it could be run without scouting it. Cowswim has gained infamy over the past couple years, becoming known as a terrible rapid as a result of a big debris flow that carried huge boulders into the river in August of 2008. It certainly is a respectable place that without complete attention could result in disaster at any water level. With low water it becomes very different and arguably, easier to run. I had never run it without scouting it since the debris flow of 2008.
As I approached Cowswim I wanted to row it without a scout, but I started to chicken out. I sat still on the raft in the slow placid water above the rapid in the heat of the afternoon. I could hear the base vibrato of Cowswim getting more pronounced as I drifted closer. I let my mind cover all the bases of why I shouldn't do it. I told myself that maybe I should let my first un-scouted running of this devil be on a later trip with someone else along. I decided that running it without a scout was perfectly legitimate, and the reason I was starting to chicken out was because I was scared of Coyotes trick. I told myself that I was freaking out; I was being superstitious. About 100 yards above the entrance to Cowswim the answer, and reason for Coyotes visit came to me as clear as a bell. I decided the reason for Coyotes visit was to challenge my superstition and my stability in solitude. He wanted to know if, when presented with superstition, I would freak out while on the river by myself; sort of a test of bravery. If I were brave, and wise, Coyote would be proud of my judgment and be my friend. If I were unwise, or not brave, then I would succumb to Coyotes trick and not be a reliable decision maker when in the wilderness by myself.  Coyote would be indifferent to how I made my decision, but he would willingly be my friend or my foe.
I pushed hard on the oars and moved the patrol boat into the fast water leading into Cowswim. I discovered that Coyote was my friend, and not my foe. I never did see Coyote.
I camped on Swaseys beach the final night of that trip. I set up the firepan, started some coals, and cooked a dinner of sausages, onions, and zuccuni. After the food was cooked I put a few sticks of pinon pine on the coals. The wood immediately smoked, filling my imagination with wonder at the journey that wood must’ve made to get to my fire. It caught fire and burned quiet and clean. I watched the last of the orange glow of another summer sun set behind Gunnison Butte. I sat up until late in the night by the little fire watching the moon and stars. I drank too much whiskey and was unsteady as I walked to my tent. Coyote laughed at me. Cassiopeia said nothing.

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