Brisk is an understatement, the wind is literally pulling the clothes off my body. I readjust a long woolen scarf across my shoulders for the third time and wonder idly how long it will take them to discover my frozen corpse in the reeds. At Hartman Pond, the only witnesses are herons.
I’m here, freezing my 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 decide to hit every single one in the Columbia River National Gorge Scenic Area that I haven’t seen yet. It just about offsets the cost of gas to get there.In a spectacular moment of head-up-ass-ness, I do not check the weather report before coming. It looks nice out, but forty and sunny in Portland only means long pants and some Polartec. Forty and sunny in the Gorge can mean everything sticking out after ten minutes will be in pain–you have to add the windchill.
The upside of inclement weather is that it tends to cull the hiking herd on peak days. But I forgot this was Portland, where men wear Utilikilts in February and women don’t use umbrellas to protect their coiffures. There are approximately 1.3 million billion people lined up at Multnomah Falls to watch their nipples freeze. And they all brought their kids.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 to move 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 facial agony, trying to hold the camera still to capture a decent memory of Mist Falls.In early summer, Mist Falls sends a small creek of water 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 a glorified ice cube maker. I tuck my chin into my scarf and head back to the truck, pausing only to admire giant mushrooms that have recently erupted in the rainy season and frozen solid today 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 glance disinterestedly over at 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 noisy 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 are stuffed full of Audis and SUVs, their owners herding slowly towards the waterfall as their testicles fold up into their groins in remarkable feats of genital origami.
I pull over at Ainsworth State Park but it’s reduced to a tiny parking area when the campground is closed. Someday, I will get up close and personal with my greatest unexplored curiosities in the Gorge, Katanai Rock and St. Peter’s Dome, but today I stay in the car.
Ainsworth State Park: Zero Frozen Phalanges
Twenty-one miles upriver and over the tracks is Viento State Park. Viento is Spanish for “wind” but they say that’s just a coincidence. They lie. The lower day use area sports 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, 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, especially on your day off. So, I pull over on the way home to investigate a beautiful rocky area I’ve always wondered about.
The perfection of this oasis is almost unbelievable. It never ceases to amaze me how effortlessly and incomparably nature’s design skills top everything we manage to create. Every inch of the place is arranged like a pristine Japanese garden. Moss, boulders, rock outcroppings, trees, and little meadows are all balancing and playing off of one another’s visual strengths. I want to linger at every turn but I can’t feel my lips.There is no one here, which sends this place straight up into heaven-status for moi. The user trail is clean and dry. Frozen is a kind of dry. It curves gently around the perimeter shore, weaving in and out of golden alders ablaze in the late afternoon sun. On the leeward side, the hill blocks the wind completely and that solar massage feels damned good.I desperately want to lay down in the dry grass and soak up the ambiance for an hour or so like I usually do but I’m getting tired and the rest of that chicken sandwich is all the way back in the truck. Exhaustion, hunger, and a 25-degree wind chill is a recipe for an unhappy 15 minutes of fame on the evening news: “Her body was completely frozen by the time rescue crews arrived. They used chisels to remove her ass from the rock.”
I mentally plan multiple return trips next summer as 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 below. I check for seals but my binoculars pick up something better.
There is a gigantic, writhing mass of American Coots out there in the surf. Thousands upon thousands are packed together butt to beak like Oreos in a box, a flotilla of cute little bodies so large that I must take six photos to capture just half the flock. (Zoom in below twice to find da cooties.)
This avian raft is constantly moving and morphing like an oil slick in the rain. It flows with the wind, the river, and the social implications of rush hour. A random section of individuals is constantly 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 Red Bull 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. My god, 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 the wind. Then, I sit in a warm truck with the window rolled down, listening. Then, I roll the window up. 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