Brisk is an understatement, the wind is literally pulling the clothes off my body. I readjust a long woolen scarf for the third time and wonder idly how long it will take them to discover my frozen carcass in the reeds. At Hartman Pond, the only witnesses are herons.
I’m here, freezing my
fingers ass will to live face off, because Oregon decided to go all Early Santa on us and make the state parks free on Black Friday. A serious shopper, I hit every single one in the Columbia River National Gorge Scenic Area I haven’t been to yet. It just about offsets the cost of gas to get there.In a spectacular and rare moment of head-up-ass-ness, I do not check the weather report. It looks nice out, but forty and sunny in Portland means pants and Polartec; forty and sunny in the Gorge means nose amputation when you add the windchill.
The upside of inclement weather being that it culls the hiking herd on peak days. However, I forgot this was Portland, where men wear Utilikilts in February and women don’t use umbrellas to protect their coiffures. Conclusion: There are approximately 1.3 gajillion people lined up at Multnomah Falls listening to their nipples freeze. And they brought their kids. All of them.Which is why I’m here at Benson State Park, the exit just before Multnomah Falls. The only other person in attendance is a heron and he lifted up in great, heaving wing beats when he saw me and moved over to the other side of the lake. I respect that. I’m standing on a small floating dock, leaning into 35 miles per hour of sheer Arctic agony, trying to hold the camera still for a memory of Mist Falls.In summer, Mist Falls sends a tiny creek over a precipice so high that by the time the water gets half way down, it turns into…you guessed it. The effect is ethereal in June. Today, it’s an awkward ice cube maker. I burrow my chin into the scarf and head back to the truck, pausing to admire giant mushrooms that have recently erupted only to freeze solid like cement lawn ornaments.Heater vents blasting, it takes a few minutes for the pinching pain to subside in my extremities. I take off my gloves and count: All but four fingers are numb, I can still hold a fried chicken sandwich. I chew and brainstorm a rating system for the day.
Benson State Park: Six Frozen Phalanges
I cast serious side-eye upon the Multnomah Falls Entertainment Complex on my way up the highway. (When you add a lodge, a restaurant, a bar, a snack bar, a gift shop, a U.S. Forest Service visitor center, a cacophonous public restroom, and a coffee cart, you cross over from “natural wonder” to the Dark Side.) The main parking lot is jammed, the side lots are jammed, the roads leading up to the side lots are jammed, and even parking areas a quarter mile away from that are stuffed full of SUVs, their owners shuffling slowly towards the waterfall as their testicles fold up into their groins like genital origami.
I pull over at Ainsworth State Park but it’s reduced to a tiny parking area now that the campground is closed for winter. Someday, I will return here to explore my greatest spiritual fascination in the Gorge, Katanai Rock and St. Peter’s Dome, but right now I’m worshiping heater vents.
Ainsworth State Park: Zero Frozen Phalanges
Twenty-one miles upriver and over the tracks is Viento State Park. Viento is Spanish for “wind” but historians say that’s just a coincidence. They lie. The lower day use area has a rock beach so exposed to the elements you’d think Mother Nature was trying to blow out your pilot light through your ear. Eighteen torturous minutes and two panoramic compilations later and I’m scurrying back into the windbreak of alders so the blood in my forehead can turn liquid again.
Viento State Park: 8 Frozen Phalanges
That’s all the state parks left on my bucket list but it’s still light out. The thing about a sunny winter day in Oregon is that it’s as rare as leftover party booze: You don’t want to waste it. So, I pull over on the way home to investigate a beautiful rocky area I’ve always wondered about.
It’s unimaginatively labeled Government Cove on the map, but I dub it Cootie Cove. You’ll see why in a minute.
The perfection of the place is unbelievable, every inch is arranged like a Japanese garden. Moss, boulders, cliffs, trees–it never ceases to amaze me how effortlessly and incomparably nature tops everything we manage to put together. I want to linger but I can’t feel my lips.There is no one here, which thrills me to the bone, and the trail is dry. (Frozen is a kind of dry.) It curves gently along the shore, weaving in and out of golden alders lit up like neon lights in the late afternoon sun. I can smell the sweet must of their fallen leaves. On the leeward side, the hill blocks the wind completely and the sun feels damned good.I desperately want to lay down in the dry grass and soak up the ambiance but I’m getting tired and the rest of that chicken sandwich is all the way back in the truck. Starvation and a 25-degree wind chill is a recipe for infamy on the evening news: “Her body was completely frozen by the time rescue crews arrived. They used chisels to separate her ass from the ground.”
So, I shuffle back towards the warm embrace of a v8 engine with 6 heater vents going full bore. The frigid Columbia River is laying sloppy wet kisses of ice all over the boulders along the shore. I check for seals but my binoculars pick up something far more bizarre.
There is a gigantic, writhing mass of American Coots bobbing out there in the surf. Thousands upon thousands are packed together butt to beak like Oreos in a box, cute little black bodies in a moving flotilla so large that I must take six photos to capture half the flock. (Click twice for cooties.)
The avian raft is constantly moving and morphing like an oil slick. It flows with the wind, the river, and the social implications of birdy rush hour. A random section of individuals is always taking to the air, flapping around spastically, and settling down on top of somebody else. Then, that group has to renegotiate seating.This makes it impossible to take an accurate count without methamphetamines and a clicker but I tally a section and multiply it by the length of the formation. That can’t be right; I count again. And again. Holy crap, there are over 3000 birds out there, minus half a dozen civilly disobedient mallards. That’s a serious case of cooties.The wind is too high to pick out their calls but I imagine it sounds something like this, times 3000. I stand there for awhile trying to make out just one squawk over the roar of air. Then, I sit in a warm truck with the window rolled down, still listening. Then, I roll the window up and aim the heaters at my cheeks. Then, I get pieces of fried chicken on my scarf and drive home without feeling the steering wheel for several miles.
Cootie Cove: 10 Frozen Phalanges
November 27, 2015