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 will be herons.
I’m here, freezing my
ass fingers 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 before leaving. It looks nice out, but forty and sunny in Portland just means pants and Polartec. Forty and sunny in the Gorge can mean excruciating pain, just add windchill.
The upside of inclement weather being that it culls 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 perms. Conclusion: There are approximately 1.3 million billion people lined up at Multnomah Falls listening to 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 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 facial agony, trying to hold the camera still to capture 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 a raging ice cube maker. I burrow my chin down into my scarf and head back to the truck, pausing only 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 only glance 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 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 remarkable feats of 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 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 that. So, I pull over on the way home to investigate a beautiful rocky area I’ve always wondered about.
On the map, it’s labeled without imagination, so I dub it Cootie Cove. You’ll see why in a minute.
Holy crap, the perfection of this place is unbelievable! Every inch is arranged like a pristine Japanese garden. Moss, boulders, cliffs, trees, and little meadows are all playing off of one another. It never ceases to amaze me how incomparably nature tops everything we manage to create. I want to linger but I can’t feel my lips.There is no one here, which thrills me to the bone. The user trail is clean and “dry.” Frozen is a kind of dry. The trail 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 under my feet. On the leeward side, the hill blocks the wind completely and that 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 15 minutes of 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 rock.”
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 trail. I check for seals but my binoculars pick up something far more bizarre.
There is a gigantic, writhing mass of American Coots out in the surf. Thousands upon thousands are packed together butt to beak like Oreos in a box, cute little bodies in a flotilla 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. It flows with the wind, the river, and the social implications of birdy 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 three Red Bulls 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 meteorology. 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