Saturday, January 13, 2018

1916 - Part 3 - Down the Columbia River with a Ferro

WE thought from our experience related at the end of the last installment, in which we suddenly were shot through a boiling stretch of river, that we had passed through the Umatilla Rapids, but our hopes were vain. For we had gone but a few miles farther, when suddenly I descried the genuine triangle range marks on the Oregon shore that indicated the real Umatilla Rapids, and Miller and I looked at each other and smiled sickly smiles. We afterward learned that we had mistaken the Mill Rock Rapids for the boiling Umatillas. (No longer there.)

The original b&w illustration
was the same as a color post card.

Landing on the Oregon shore to reconnoiter, Miller and I walked a mile or more along the high land, and what we saw was enough to shake the nerve of even seasoned river men unused to that water. For as far as the eye could see the mile wide Columbia boiled and heaved and tore along jagged reefs of brownish rock, battered unceasingly at fangs of stone that split the turbulent tide, or curled in deadly cockscomb waves against the rushing current. 

I looked at Miller and Miller looked at me, and I can’t say there was joy expressed on either face. That little boat of ours, heavily laden as she was, and with less than six inches of freeboard amidships, seemed pretty small and frail to us about that time.

But as we scanned the boiling waters, Miller suddenly gave a cry of surprise. and, following his pointing arm, I saw away out in the very vortex of the swirling waters, a tiny motor boat fighting bravely to reach the upper river.

Looking through the glasses, I could make out a man and two women in the little craft, and though it seemed to us that every moment might be the last for the brave little boat, the women were apparently very unconcerned over their turbulent surroundings, for they sat in the stern and seemed to be enjoying the trip immensely. I think they were discussing the fall styles.

We hurried back to our boat, hoping to get information as to the channel from the launchman when he emerged from the upper entrance to the rapids. Better than that was in store for us, however, for as soon as he got within hailing distance he shouted to us that he would return that way in about fifteen minutes and would then pilot us through the torrent.

This gave us a new idea, for with a boat to lead the way it would be possible for one of us to board it and take moving pictures of our little craft hitting the high places in the boiling rapids. I didn’t object a little bit to being the one to get in the larger boat and operate the movie camera, so as soon as our pilot returned we transferred the heavier luggage from our boat to his, lightening our craft as much as possible, so she would ride the waves.

Our pilot proved to be James Atchison of Umatilla, who not only knew his business, but proved a very courteous and pleasant acquaintance as well. Mr. Atchison uses his boat, the Ocia, in transporting supplies and men from Umatilla to the big government rock drill working at the head of the rapids, and runs this route several times a day. The Ocia is a well-built little runabout, 32 feet long and 5 feet of beam, and is powered with a 20-25 h. p. Sterling motor that gives her a speed of about 18 miles per hour. Mr. Atchison is justly proud of his Sterling motor, which he says has never
failed him for an instant. I had a very pretty demonstration of what the motor would do on the trip through, for we were constantly stopping, reversing and shooting ahead to stay with the slower boat, yet keep steerage way and avoid danger. And the motor just purred along as though on a slow speed drifting match instead of a hard grind.

I have but a confused recollection of that exciting trip through the Umatilla Rapids, for I was mighty 
busy from the time we first felt the pull of the sweeping current until we stopped in quiet water. Grinding the moving picture camera and trying to keep it pointed at Miller, careening along astern of us, was no task for a man with a weak heart, for the Ocia was plunging like a wild “bronc” with a burr under its saddle. Between turning the machine, holding my footing, and keeping the minute speck representing Miller and the boat in the camera finder, I had about all I could do.

I was just dimly conscious as we tore along of the immense billows we skirted, the big overfalls off which we dropped, and the express train speed with which we plunged on through that maelstrom of seething, tumbling waters. 

“We’ll stop here and wait for your friend,” I finally heard Atchison say, and coming out of my trance I saw that we had come about at the end of a long, sandy island in a comparatively quiet eddy, though the full flood of the bellowing Columbia tore by us on either side, to crash over a jagged reef on the south, and to pour oilily through a deep gap in this reef, the main channel, to the north. 

Miller fought his way, inch by inch, back from dangerous proximity to the reef, whither the current had carried him, to our quiet water, and the dunnage and myself were soon in the little boat again and headed down the swift chute of the main channel toward the lower river. We waved a goodbye to Atchison, already heading up through the rapids toward the rock drill, and gradually the roar of the mighty waters died away as we slipped on down stream.

The Umatillas are dangerous to the navigator quite as much from the tortuous channel through them as from the waters and rocks. You enter the rapids near the Oregon shore, in swift, smooth water running between boiling reefs and ending in a terrific cockscomb, which you skirt gingerly. As soon as the range marks on the Oregon shore are in line you fight your way diagonally across toward the Washington side, the full strength of the river all the time trying with its tremendous current to sweep you down onto a long reef just below, where it roars its challenge unceasingly.

Near a long island in midriver you again head down stream in swift, swirling, billowy water, and woe betide you if you don’t turn quickly to the right at the lower end of the island. For the river shoots straight along over another ragged reef, and the mariner must edge his way over to the opening in the channel, a hundred yards to the northward, or go to destruction over this rock-edged trap. And he has little time enough to accomplish this shift in the 9}-mile current. They say this is the most dreaded of spots on the Columbia among steamboat captains, and I can well believe it.
We felt thankful indeed that we had come through safely. 
I wonder even to this day that we did.

We camped a few miles below, on the Washington side, in a wonderfully attractive little spot among the rocks, our exertions making the camp bed very welcome indeed.
This night, for the first time since we started, we slept ashore. Miller rustled some dried-out “tumble weed,” and a large pile of this, compressed under our blankets, made a bed quite as comfortable as any pine bough mattress in northern forest.

We had scarcely gotten to bed when, not over a hundred yards away, soared up what Harry Leon Wilson calls “the flute obligato of an emotional coyote.” Immediately, from away off to the eastward, came through the cold, clear night air a similar yowl, in a higher key. And soon, from every direction, went up the coyote chorus, an old song, probably, to most up-river folk, but new and thoroughly unique to us. We enjoyed the serenade hugely, and snickered like a couple of kids at their wild efforts at “close harmony.” 
The big full moon, that had been with us every night of our trip thus far, came sailing up into the sky above us, and we slept the sleep of tired men.

The next day was Sunday, and we crossed over to Umatilla, a strictly railroad town on the Oregon shore. But we were in a hurry and didn’t stay long, and were soon under way again headed westward on what proved to be our longest day’s run, 46 miles. Only two small rapids were encountered, the Devil’s Bend and Canoe Encampment Rapids, and each of these we shot with little difficulty.

Of interesting scenery along the banks there was little, occasional lava cliffs varying the monotony of the sand and sagebrush shores. We were glad of the rest, however, and tied up in the late afternoon at the ferry landing at Arlington, a delightful little town on the Oregon
That night the Columbia rocked us to sleep, for we let the boat ride to her painter all night, streaming from the steamer pier. I laid for a half hour, near midnight, watching the flashing arc head lights of two oncoming trains, the night passengers out of Portland racing up the two banks of the river from the west. The brilliant lights and roaring trains brought weird
thoughts, and I wished I might conjure back to sudden  life the Indians, the explorers, the fur traders and the grim immigrants in their dusty caravans, that they might see these demons of the night go tearing on, piercing the darkness with their blinding eyes, awaken-
ing the echoes with their shrieking whistles, and blinking mockingly with their red tail lights as they roared away into the dusky distance up-river. A strange contrast to their day, surely. 
Nor could I help contrasting the luxurious trains, speeding like the wind, with the slowly creeping immigrant wagons, crawling over the mountains toward the coast, in the earlier days. Verily, the world has moved fast in the past generation along the valley of the Columbia. 
This is not an illustration from this article.
Monday morning saw an early start, and this day proved the most trying and the most adventurous of the entire trip. All day Sunday we had drawn closer and closer to the mountains to the westward, and this day we early left the level country and entered between
the high lands. We shot the Owyhee Rapids easily, a half hour out of Arlington, and encountered about the same time the first wind and waves of the entire trip. We had feared wind at this season of the year, and had been dutifully and dolefully promised it by many. Today we got it, all we wanted of it.

By 9 o’clock we were approaching Blalock Rapids swiftly, and before we knew it we were in a regular “jack pot” of little islands and rocks. Miller took the little boat grandly through the mess, however, though one big rock swept by within ten feet, and I’ll swear the water banked up against that rock, as it turned the corner was at a 30 degree angle. Why we didn’t slide
down the hill I don’t know but we didn’t.

Ragged lava cliffs, and later the “flat rock” formation from which the Dalles are named, slid by us on either side, and we enjoyed every foot of scenery when we weren't busy fighting the big waves that constantly battered at us. About 9:30 we ran into the worst chop of the morning, caused by the wind sweeping against the Rocky Creek Rapids, and we had our hands good and full for about ten minutes. We shipped one big comber while working our way through, and emerged drenched but smiling. 

We learned in these rapids that even the little motor could not always handle the boat in perverse currents, so in all future rapids I took one of the oars, and, watching the tiller as it swung from side to side at Miller’s bidding, helped guide the boat by means of the sweep extended aft. This proved an excellent auxiliary in the worst spots, where sudden swirls
are always to be expected.
Three miles below here is Squally Hook and Squally Hook Rapids. We had been told time and again that the wind never ceased blowing up-river at this point. And neither does it, as far as we know, for the moment we had pounded through the rapids and rounded the point to the westward we ran into the full sweep of a real wind. We sidled successfully through the big rollers coming up the river, however, and were soon hitting the bottom at Indian Rapids, though fortunately we bumped along without injury to the boat.

We knew we were due to hit the nasty John Day Rapids along in here somewhere, and had been told we would recognize them by the rock drill working at their head, where the government is making the channel better by blasting out a huge rock. Miller had a letter of introduction to the engineer in charge of the rock drill and we planned to stop and see him.
Did we stop? We did not. For when we approached that rock drill we found ourselves slipping along over a sleek, oily run of water that shot us by that drill as though we were trying for the Harmsworth trophy. We considered ourselves fortunate to be able to wave to the men as we passed, for we mighty soon had our hands and heads busy in the thick of the first John Day Rapids. The rapids take you boiling through a veritable nest of little islands. and you can imagine how hard it is to pick a course through such a melange when you are going over fifteen miles an hour. Miller decided quickly, however, and veered off to the Oregon shore. And right here things happened. A quick, upboiling overfall sent us suddenly careening sidewise. and before we could head her off on her course again the boat
 bumped lightly against a great rock rising from the swirling waters on our port side. Miller stuck out his foot and I my oar quickly enough to save a real smash, but as the boat edged along the rock the propeller struck, shearing the little pin holding it to the shaft, and the engine buzzed like a Jersey ’skeeter.

“Goodnight!” thought I,’ “we’ve lost our propeller.”

But we hadn’t. The pin had sheared, but the propeller was still on the shaft, though not revolving.  Quick maneuvering landed us on the island, and it was the work of but a few moments to unship the engine, rivet in a new propeller pin (which should always be carried as a spare), and we were on our way rejoicing. 

And even in the swirl of the following rapids I couldn’t help but bless the memory of the man who had had sense enough to pin on small propellers such as these, to save the blades that would surely have gone, had the wheel been attached with a key as on larger craft.

For fifteen minutes after the accident we went tearing through the three John Day Rapids, always on the alert to pick out the right channel, dodge the bad spots and keep off the bottom. And at fifteen miles an hour in a small boat this gives the crew something to do,
believe me.  Out of the rapids we ran into a strong northwesterly wind, and bucked a heavy sea and wind all the way to Maryhill, on the Washington shore, where we stopped to rest. 

Not an illustration original  to this article.
While we had headed squarely into a good thirty-mile blow coming down this stretch, and had climbed what seemed mountainous seas to us in that frail boat, we had shipped no solid water, for the little ship shouldered the waves like a liner. Big sheets of solid spray came hurtling over the bows full at us, however, and had we not been dressed for it, we would have been soaked to the skin.
Both sides of the river at this point edge big “sheep country,” and a flock of 500 were being ferried across the river from Oregon on the afternoon we were there. The big motor ferry boat Governor West was bringing the sheep over, taking many trips to the job.
Two miles below Maryhill, an hour’s drive against that sea, we called it a day’s journey and came to in a little rocky bay on the Washington side. tired, stiff and sore from the hard going we had encountered since early morning. We made camp in the shelter of some lava cliffs and cottonwoods and, as nearly as we could, sifted the sand out of our belongings.

 (To be continued)