Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shake and Bake

Well, you knew it had to happen. The little vacation I've been having in my head, writing about the San Juan, just came to a screeching halt, courtesy of being on call. Been doing a lot of that lately; one of the other local clinics - with whom we share our on-call duties - is having construction in front of their clinic. The access road is closed nightly from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. Call me crazy, but that doesn't seem especially conducive to emergency calls. "Yes, the road is closed in front of the clinic, so park as near as you can - in a ditch somewhere if you have to - and carry your pet the last mile to the clinic. If it's a dog over 40#, you might want to bring a friend." I can't blame them for wanting to trade on-call days... but due to the unavailability of any of the other doctors at my clinic to take some of the overflow, it has meant that I've been on call three times in the last week. Nowadays that seems like a lot. It used to be (back in the dark ages) that I was on call a week at a time, every third week - and how I survived that, I'll never know, since that means essentially that you could end up working 24 hours a day, if you have a rough week on call. In real life, if something like that happened for more than 2 days, another doc would spell you so you could sleep at least one night... but it DID make for some pretty gruelling weeks. My worst stretch was when both my bosses were out of town for 12 days in a row, leaving ALL the on-call in my lap. For a few days we had a relief vet, but the one boss was stranded in Dutch Harbor - weathered in - and was many days overdue. The relief vet had another gig (and did no on-call in any case), so from then on I was flying solo, 24/7. I was pretty tired by the end of that. In light of that, three days in a week seems paltry - but it's more than I'm used to, any more.

Tonight I get a call from one of our own clients. She has a dog who has been pawing at and foaming at the mouth, and is holding her neck stiffly. She has puppies that are 4 weeks old, but they seem fine, and she's had diarrhea for the last 2 or 3 days.

Hm. Pawing at the mouth (and foaming) are sometimes signs of having a foreign body lodged between the teeth (although there are many other possible causes); has the owner looked in the dog's mouth? Nope, but she can do it right now.... no, nothing wedged between the teeth.

"Do you think she'd be all right til morning?" the owner asks me.

"I can't say," I tell her. "There are too many possible causes of her signs to guess. I'd have to have a look at her to know."

"Okay... we'll bring her in, then," the client decides, telling me she can be at the clinic in 40 minutes. I put on shoes and go out into the cool, rainy evening. As I drive to the clinic, I sift through the possibilities.... meningitis, toxins, rabies, chemical irritation, electrical cord bites - the list is extensive. Rabies is the least likely, since (apart from one recent imported case in Anchorage) there has not been a case of terrestrial rabies in South Central Alaska for over 35 years. I'm not sure how much over 35 years, but at least that long. The one Anchorage case was in a dog that was shipped (by a rescue group) to Anchorage from a village out in the bush. The dog came from a dog yard that had been afflicted with rabies. Now, I understand wanting to get a dog out of that situation, but really: Given that it came from a group of dogs in which rabies had already killed several dogs, doesn't it make sense to quarantine the dog and ascertain that it does not itself have rabies, before you decide to ship it to a highly populated city? Seven people were exposed and required treatment. Luckily there were no bite incidents - just contact events - and no other animals were exposed to this dog. But still... imagine the disaster that MIGHT have been, had they adopted the dog out - or had it broken with transmissible virus while in flight on a commercial airline. At any rate, while that is WAY too close for comfort, given the fatal nature of the disease, it is unlikely in this particular emergency case: the owner is a musher, and her dogs do not roam loose. Apart from that, they're all current on rabies vaccine, as required in order to race. Not only would she have to have had a vaccine break, but something rabid would also have to have come on her property to make that a possibility, and given the dearth of rabies in the area, I'm back-burnering that.

I beat the owner to the clinic, and wait for her to arrive. Meanwhile two more calls come in simultaneously; I am calling the first one back (a chicken with diarrhea) when the owner of the drooling dog comes in. Her husband, a strapping young man, is carrying the dog, who is unable to walk on her own. I motion him to deposit the dog on the treatment table, still telling the chicken owner what to do for nursing care (as I don't treat chickens, and can't see this one right now in any case, having a more pressing emergency right in front of me.) The dog is tremoring, her muscles bouncing and jittering in a fine, continuous fasiculation, something the owner did not mention on the phone. My suspicions immediately veer into a new channel. While detailing quarantine instructions to the chicken owner, phone pinched between ear and shoulder, I take the dog's temp: 105.9 F, and the dog is hot as a just-fired pistol under my hands.

"I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to see this emergency now," I tell the chicken owner.

"BUT - should I give coccidia medication?" she says, ignoring that.

"You certainly can, as the chicken's symptoms are consistent with that as a possible cause - and it's not going to do any harm. But I'd advise you see someone in the morning who DOES treat birds. I really have to go treat this dog now," I say again.

"Well, I wanted to ask more about the nursing care," says the owner.

"I'd be happy to call you back, but I need to go to this dog right now," I say. "She needs my help right this second, so I'm going to have to end this call. Shall I call you back when I'm done?"

"No... don't bother," says the chicken owner, evidently put out that I am more willing to focus on a dog who is at imminent risk of death and is right in front of me, than a chicken who I would not normally treat in any case, who I can't physically see, and who is not dying right this minute. Okay, then.

I snap the cell shut and say to the owner, "How many puppies does she have?"

"Twelve," the owner says.

Yikes. "Okay. She looks like she has eclampsia," I tell her. I'd love to check her calcium levels to be sure, but there isn't time; that will take over an hour and in that time the dog will have overheated to the point of permanent brain damage or fatality.

Eclampsia is a low-calcium state encountered primarily in lactating animals. The most usual causes are inadequate nutrition (not in this case, as the bitch has been on a growth and lactation diet for 2 months and is being given extra calcium supplements as well); short-legged dogs with smaller body-wide calcium stores, consequent to not really having any long bones to draw from; and excessive litter size. Left untreated, this is a fatal condition, and even with treatment there are risks: heat stroke, emboli, cardiac arrest, DIC. I see no reason to frighten the owner with all this, and in any case, time is of the essence here, so I cut to the chase. "We need to get some calcium into her, " I tell the owners. "Fastest route is IV, but since we need about 5 more hands than I have, I'll need you to help me." The owners nod, both of them squaring their shoulders and looking alert and focused, ready to leap into the fray in whatever manner I dictate. We get a body weight and I calculate her calcium dose: somewhere between 2400 and 3200 milligrams is our target range, although if we can control her tremors before that level, we'll stop at a lower dose. Too high is as dangerous as too low when it comes to calcium, especially if we're mainlining it IV.

Back in the treatment area the husband deposits our patient on the table, where she is unable even to recline on her chest, but lays flat out, shaking and panting. I hunt up our calcium. Well, crap. It's 5 milligrams per ml, which means I'll need.... way the hell more than I have. I have about half of a 100 ml bottle, which means I have maybe 300 milligrams.


Well, some is better than none, so I set a butterfly catheter, tape it in and draw up 20 cc's. With one hand I push the meds, using the other to hold a stethoscope to the dog's quivering chest, trying to sort her heartbeat out of all the juddering noise of her twitching muscles. One owner is keeping the dog from shuddering herself over the edge of the table while the other is bathing the dog's feet with alcohol to bring her temperature down. I am racking my brains about where I might lay my hands on some more calcium; I have some at the farm, I recall; if worse comes to worst I can zoom out there, maybe, and get it back to the clinic in 35 minutes or so.... but first I should see if I need it. When I have to refill my syringe I have the dog-holding owner pinch off my butterfly line so that we neither exsanguinate the dog all over the table nor get air in the line, and I draw up more calcium, and more again. Well, that's the last of the bottle, and we're nowhere near done.

Luckily my boss is in the clinic, getting packed for Kotzebue (where he flies three or four times a year to do a remote clinic), and he knows where a secret stash of calcium gluconate is. Hallelujah. We're back in business.

I get an ice pack for the dog's belly (as we're still at 104.5 degrees from the intense, unremitting muscle contractions) and we keep on with the slow IV push. If I run the calcium too fast I'll stop her heart; if I run it too slow I risk hyperthermia and stress arrhythmias, strokes and DIC, a severe and life-threatening coagulation disorder. So I push it slow, and listen and push more. Suddenly her pounding heart takes a stuttering beat and I stop my push, my own heart leaping on the spur of adrenaline.

"I have to wait a minute," I tell the owner. "Her heart is reacting." We wait, using the interval to slide the dog toward the faucet on the treatment table and run cool water over her flanks and belly, inside her thighs where the big vessels run near the surface of the skin, on her feet. Inside my head I also take advantage of the pause to second-guess myself; the dog is tremoring as hard as ever and I've just caused an arrhythmia with my treatment; have I misdiagnosed her? I was sure of my diagnosis when I made it, but I'm not seeing any positive response, only side effects. If I keep going will I kill her? But the part of me that believes in my medical skill is stronger than the part that second-guesses. I can't make another disease make sense with her presentation - in another climate, snail-bait poisoning would be a real possibility, but no one up here has any need to have that around. If I chicken out I could kill her as well - and there still isn't time to take an hour to run blood work. I have to make a decision. I go with my well-educated gut which knows I am right, and says: push more calcium. I'll just slow it down, so that I can stop the second I hear anything I don't like.

This all whips through my brain in about 2 seconds, in the usual manner of adrenaline-driven thinking: from certainty to doubt and back in no time flat, spurred on by the pressing need to act now. I listen again; she's steady on now, her big strong sled dog heart rallying and picking up its rhythm once more. I fill another syringe and resume my push, slower now, because we're over 700 mg to the good and I don't want to overshoot. Then, a gift from my patient: I think it's my imagination at first, but no - the muscle fasiculations are decreasing now, and I can hear her heart more easily amongst the jumbled noises of her chest. I ease it off, pushing slower still.

Her heart takes and abrupt dive in rate, bradying down by a third in a matter of a few seconds and developing a marked irregularity. I stop my push, waiting her out; it's hot in the treatment area, and the surgery light is shining on my head, and I am sweating both actually and metaphorically. (This is not helped by the fact that my boss is standing at the head of the treatment table, silently watching.) But after a minute she picks up her rhythm again, and I breathe.

Gotta love those sled dog hearts.

Still, I'm done pushing this one. The rest will have to go intraperitoneal. Meanwhile I recheck her temp: 102.8. My own heart rate starts to level out now. I give a big injection into the abdomen (carefully palpating to be sure I'm not hitting her spleen when I go in). We wait a minute, two, five. The powerful muscles in her thighs are quiet now, and the fine tremors in her shoulders and face are smoothing out.

"Looks like you've got it under control; I'm going to go," says my boss.

"Okay - and thanks for finding the extra calcium stash," I tell him. "This would really have sucked if we didn't have the reserve bottle."

"Yeah - that's something that maybe should go on the ordering list," he agrees.

Our patient is starting to look around her now for the first time. I sponge her tongue - hanging out of the side of her panting mouth for the at least the last hour, and who knows how long before then - and she pulls it back between her teeth in surprise and sits up sternal. Well, alrighty, then. We are now on the winning team.

I pull up two further 20-cc syringes of calcium for the owners to take home, just in case she has a recurrence. I tell them that they need to wean the puppies - a little premature, but the bitch's life depends on it. Because she is a devoted mother, she will try to let them nurse again, so I advise them either separately penning the bitch from the pups, or completely covering her mammary chain so that the pups can't nurse, but can still socialize with her; some of their most important early training is gained from the mother's corrections and examples, so if they can provide the social time without the nursing time, the pups will benefit without harming the mother. I am explaining all of this to one owner, and I glance over at the other to include him in, and realize that my patient is now on her feet having a good look around and making a bid to come off the table.

Well. Isn't THAT a pretty sight. Just a few minutes ago she was trying to die, and now she wants to hop off the table and have a look around.

The owners thank me profusely for coming in. "I was afraid she wasn't even going to make it to the clinic," the wife tells me. "We thought she might die on the way in."

"Well, not to be scary," I tell her, "but that was a real risk - and if you hadn't been willing to bring her in tonight, she WOULD have died. So I'm glad you decided to let me have a look at her."

We detail after-care instructions - I tell the owner to keep the calcium supplementation going until after the bitch dries up, and to allow the litter to interact with, but not nurse off of, their mother. I instruct them on how and when (and whether) to give the other calcium injections, and tell her to call me back if she is in doubt. The owners, relieved, are bubbly and cheerful now. I thank them for being my extra hands and commend them on their good teamwork. They nod earnestly, solemn in the awareness that without all three of us taking appropriate action, the dog would most certainly be dead. I watch the dog trot out at their side, her easy, mile-eating gait restored - a different dog than the collapsing, quivering, overheated train wreck that was carried in an hour or so ago.

I love it when a plan comes together.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rafting the San Juan: River's End

The longer we went down the river, the deeper the canyon became. This was not an entirely uniform process; there were dips and rises at the surface of the land tabled above us. But gradually, the walls grew higher, and time less meaningful. We stopped when we were hungry, or if there was something interesting to see. MT and T had taken their data already, so there was nothing to do but be on the river. We drifted past the sandy crescents of tiny beaches, populated with tufty grasses, shrubs and small trees, and strait sheer walls of rock that dropped strait into the water. Here and there we encountered other rafters, but we had long stretches of the San Juan to ourselves.

Our last campsite was the one I loved the best. It was on a broad, sandy beach which rose in a gentle slope to the canyon wall. The bottom of the wall had been undercut eons ago by the previous course of the river, making a deep bench under the massive weight of the canyon wall. The bench was maybe 100 feet long and cut maybe 12 feet into the foot of the cliff, and was perhaps 6 feet high and floored with extremely fine sand. As MT and T-and-family pitched their tents in the sudden breeze that presaged a storm, I unrolled my Thermarest in this declivity, feeling cozy and snug there, holed up in the flank of the canyon.

As the rain started to patter down sporadically, MT came up and asked if I minded sharing my snug-hole with her.

"Nope," I said. "Pull up some sleeping bag." So we lounged there under the rock, watching the rain come. At first it fell lightly, but we could see the bellies of the clouds above the cliff-top, 80 feet above us, and they were dark and heavy with rain. Pretty soon it was pelting down hard, with stinging force. The water ran down the cliff face and dripped in a thin curtain at the edge of my snug, but we were dry and cozy, nestled into the amazingly soft sand, cushioned by Thermarest and sleeping bag. For some reason, we started laughing about something - I have not the slightest recollection what - and after that we could not stop. Everything we said was incredibly funny, to us at least, and for 40 minutes or more we giggled and howled and chortled as the storm pounded down around us. We lay there in the fresh sweet storm-washed air, listening to the thunder roll down the canyon, watching the rain pock the smooth surface of the river, and we laughed and laughed. We laughed until we cried, and still we did not stop.

After a while, the storm started to ease up, and with it our laughter, subsiding to chuckles and hiccups and silly grins. L and T and LS emerged from their tent.

"Well, you sounded like you were having fun; what was so funny?" L asked us. MT and I looked at each other.

"We don't know," we said, and started laughing again. Maybe it was the ozone from the storm, or the fresh clean air or some magic of canyon or river, but L and T started laughing with us.

The next day I woke early, watching the light creep across the sky from under my rocky outcrop. The cliff wall opposite me grew slowly lighter, revealing the varnish marks - a trailing patina of dark streaks strafed down the rock from mineral washing down over the centuries - and the contours of the rock itself. This was our last day on the river; a thought that I could barely make sense of. The rest of my life - school, my house, my responsibilities - all seemed so strangely distant, oddly two-dimensional, like something I'd seen in a movie. Even as we packed up our kitchen for the last time, as we loaded our boats, as MT unshipped her oars and I shoved off from the bank and hopped into the boat, I could not shake that sense: that the rest of life wasn't really real, that this was the only reality under the sun.

The San Juan feeds into Lake Powell, a man-made lake created by damming - although some would say damning - the Colorado River with the Glen Canyon dam. Unknown beauties are lost now under the water, drifted in with silt, buried and perhaps destroyed. I never saw it before the dam was built - that was before my time, begun years before I was born - but as we floated the last leg of our trip, I could not help but wonder what lay beneath us, lost forever to our view.

The river here develops more of a laminar flow, a deceptively slow-moving surface underlain by a powerful current. It also begins to broaden out, its muddy back starting to verge out into what will eventually be Lake Powell. Our take-out was before the lake itself; MT hung back, back-rowing to give T time to land his Avon. More experienced than she, he would be able to drive the boat into the shore hard and neatly enough that his wife could grab mooring and hold the boat while he hopped out and stood ready on the bank to help bring us in. I soon saw why this was necessary: as MT put her back into it, hauling hard on the oars, digging them deep and sharp into the water, I suddenly saw just how much faster we were moving now than we had been upstream. This was a common take-out site, and there were other parties lined up along perhaps a hundred yards of river bank, pulling out boats and unloading gear, backing up trailers and loading boats up - but all with half an eye to the river, lest someone need help. I had maybe three seconds to realize that should we miss our landing, there were other hands downstream to try to pull us in before we went entirely past our take-out; but then I saw T splashing quickly along the river's edge from his boat - nestled amongst some vegetation, to which L was holding fast - to a clear area where there was room for us to try to land our boat. It was MT's job to aim us in, and she did it well; it was mine to fling the coiled line to T, a task I'd never performed before. But somehow it went perfectly, the coiled loops of rope unfurling in a flat graceful spiral, right into T's strong hands. He planted his feet and hauled back hard against the river's pull, reeling us in as MT laid on the oars, the two of them pirouetting our Avon in a smooth parabola into the bank.

Then it was just a matter of doing as everyone else was, hauling our boat out of the water, loading things up, getting in the truck for the drive back to Moab. It's maybe a good thing we had the drive ahead of us; it allowed a little time to transition back to the present, something that might have been terribly jarring otherwise. But gradually as we drove I started to feel the mantle of my everyday life begin to settle, gently, upon my shoulders again. By the time we got to Moab and decided to end our trip with really excellent pizza in one of the local restaurants, I was almost back to the present. Almost... but not quite. The world seemed just a bit different now, in some way indefinable, but both subtle and profound. And I can feel that still, all these years later: that sense that I was different, now, that I fit into the world in a way not quite like I had, before the river. Looking back at it, through the filter of time, I wonder if I was aware, then, of that small half-step to the side, that change of perspective; I wonder if I knew, then, that it would live in me, ready to be called up at any time.

Really have to dig that journal out, one of these days.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rafting the San Juan: Deep in the Canyon

The second night after our "auxiliary" companions left us, I was pitching my tent, and suddenly I thought: Why? MT had her tent; T and L and LS had theirs. With our smaller company, there was plenty of space in the campsite. I wasn't invading their privacy, and they wouldn't be treading on mine. So I slid my still-rolled tent back into its bag and instead laid out my Thermarest and my sleeping bag, slipped some folded clothes into the sleeping bag's stuff-sack for a pillow, and made my bed under the open sky.

There's something about sleeping in the open like that that is satisfying in a sort of visceral, atavistic way. I don't know what it is; maybe the light play of the night breezes over your face, maybe the sense of openness that even the thin wall of a tent shuts down. Maybe it's the unmuffled whispers of the wild, the small sounds of insects and tiny night-dwellers going about their nocturnal business. But... there's something about it.

One morning I woke up with the coming dawn; in the canyon, the sunlight doesn't strike your face, but the sky is light above you, calling you gently to the waking day. The murmur of the river was soft in my ears, and a cool, fresh breeze played lightly over my face, flirting with my hair. I lay nestled into the soft breast of the sandy earth, my body warm and my face cool with the fading night, and I noticed, on the riverward side of me, tracks. I leaned up on one elbow, frowning at them, trying to decipher them. They came in a line from the river, spreading paw prints bracketing the thin, broken line of a tail-drag, delicate and graceful as a brush stroke. Looking close, I could see the sharp tics of claws, the print of a broad pad, the marks of toes. The tracks were muddled and trodden-over by my head; they circled above me like a halo, knotting together again at the left side of where my head had lain; then they arced back above me and angled away, back toward the river's bank. I narrowed my eyes speculatively at the river, wondering what denizen had come from its waters, paused to peer at me from my right, circled to inspect me again from my left, and then gone on about its business. Clearly a mammal, and the tail stroke looks too thin for a beaver. Foxes have more upright feet, their tracks more dog-like in appearance, not so broad; and coyotes ditto, and much larger than these prints.

Otter, maybe?

This puts a little smile on my face. I was born in the otter moon. Otters have always enchanted me; a juxtaposition of opposites: Playful, yet fiercely protective of their young, sleek yet muscular, equally at home on land on water, in summer and winter. Somehow it pleases me to think that, at least for a few minutes, I might have been as interesting to one of them as they are to me.

I sit in my puddled sleeping bag, looking at the morning coming on, writing now and then in my journal. After a while MT stirs, emerging sleepy and smiling from her tent.

"Look at this," I say, pointing at my little nimbus of tracks.

"Otter," she says, without hesitation, and then, looking at the pattern, she laughs. "It must have come right up to you; I bet it had its face not six inches from yours. You didn't hear it?"

"Not a thing," I said, laughing with her. T and L are stirring now and come to see what we're laughing at. T grins, his teeth white in the dark thicket of his beard.

"Sneaky little buggers," he says, going off cheerfully to start the coleman stove for breakfast.

Somewhere later along the river we come to the hanging gardens. You have to walk up a little side-canyon to see them; at river's edge you'd never know they were there. But if you know where it is, there is a tiny tributary stream feeding the San Juan from a narrow canyon. If you hike up a bit, you come to a place where a series of descending pools gather on flat pans, dropping in little waterfalls from one level to the next. Most of the pools are relatively shallow; some are warm, heated by sun and rock; many are populated with the fry of what will one day be much larger river fish. Some of the falls are only a matter of a foot or two; some drop eight or ten feet. Especially wonderful are the ones where a lip of overhanging rock pours the water down to the next level. Under the overhanging shelter of the previous level, guarded by the thin, narrow veil of the falling water, grow miraculous little aqua-gardens made of ferns and moss and other water-loving plants, astonishing to find here in the arid heat of southern Utah. Its very unexpectedness makes it a gift of enchantment, a thing of magic. It is tempting to sit in the cool shade behind the falling water and lose one's self in timelessness; but there are other wonders to discover, and the river awaits.

Much of the San Juan is relatively flat, with long, roundabout ox-bows that take three miles to move you one as the crow flies. Here and there there are underwater sand dunes that make "sand waves", little dips and gullies in the water, small, gentle bumps in the ride. But our course will take us through Government Rapids, a class-three rapid. On the day we arrive there, T and MT row over and tie off; we all get out and hike downstream, up a rocky outcrop overlooking the rapids, so that the boat pilots can scout the water. The water flows thick and glassy-smooth over a tongue of rock, flanked on one side by a tall boulder and on the other by the wall of a cliff. I've had cause to wonder if that's where the rapid gets its name: you're between a rock and a hard spot. Just over the falls there's a boiling pit of water, spray flying and water roiling. T and MT engage in a serious, intent conversation about how the water is running and where to aim the boats; T has many years of practice on this and other rivers, and he knows his job. The conversation woud make me nervous elsewhere, but even here it lights a small spark of disquiet; they are spending a long time discussing how not to get in the hole, where the boat can be swamped or flipped, and how to keep off the rock so as not to spin the boat sideways over the drop. MT is frowning in concentration and there is a line of tension in her posture and the set of her shoulders, something that surprises me; she has been so causally competent all along that I'd forgotten that she has only been doing this for a year or so.

After a longish conversation about the best way to shoot the rapids, we hike back to the boats.

"Where do you want me?" I ask MT.

"Right up front, and hang on," she says. "You're going to get wet."

Okay, then. I wriggle down amongst the dry bags and grab the lines on either side of the prow, getting a solid grip. MT rows us out into the current, hauling hard on one oar to turn us nose-on to the rapids, back-rowing to control our pace, digging in light and quick with the opposite oar to straiten us out. We watch T pilot his boat over the drop, catching a glimpse of the tossing Avon as he leaps back up from the water pit, and then we are at the rapid. MT hits it perfectly, strait in, digging her oars to turn a perfectly-executed pirouette around the flank of the boulder, spilling us down the river-race on the center of the wave. We hit the churning cauldron below and bound up like a leaping seal, the sturdy Avon flexing and buoyant, and MT is right: I am soaked by the slap of the waves, shocking cold against my sun-heated skin, and I am laughing hard.

"Okay up there?" MT asks.

"That was perfect!" I crow. "Let's portage back up and do it again!" MT laughs with me, pleased, and well she should be. It was perfect execution, maximum ride and no mistakes. Damn good at what she does, that girl.

[Next: The River's End.]

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rafting the San Juan: In The Water

Once the boats hit the water, a new world opened up to me.

A lifelong victim of earaches - sometimes caused in childhood by swimming, and eventually resulting in a ruptured eardrum - I am not by and large what I'd consider a water person. But it didn't take long before I started to see the allure of a float trip. MT captained one boat - with me, and a majority of gear, on board - and her Boss T piloted the other, larger boat, with his wife L, their son LS and another couple with a child. Also along was a young woman in a canoe, paddling along beside us, and laden with her own gear.

The San Juan is an easy river, dropping only about 8 feet per mile (although it does have some class-III rapids, and occasional sand waves that occur unexpectedly along its course.) Early on, the river was smooth and quiet, a medium silty brown as we drifted on its gleaming back. There was a moderate amount of river traffic apart from us; it wasn't what I'd call crowded, but our little convoy was one of several that we glimpsed here and there. We drifted along pleasantly, rowing over and tying up to the shore for lunches, when we excavated in the cooler for roast beef and avocado sandwiches, bottled water and juice. In the evenings we tied up and pulled the kitchen gear out of the boats - lugging what seemed an outrageous amount of stuff back and forth, until you realized that it contained tables that cleverly folded up into tight cylindrical bundles, a four-burner Coleman stove, lamps, and a full assortment of cooking gear - not to mention food unlike any I've ever had on a camping trip. We had steaks, we had spaghetti and meatballs, we had chicken cacciatore - not a bit of it freeze-dried, dehydrated, reconstituted or otherwise robbed of flavor or texture. We had wine and beer and sodas. We had sour cream and fresh tomatoes and salad and sliced turkey and fresh bread and mayonnaise. It was like a magic act, every time the cooler was opened: what amazing thing would emerge from it next?

We'd pitch our tents in the evenings - me in my tent, MT in hers, T and L and LS in one, the other couple in another, the lone canoeist on her own. After dinner and clean-up, we'd lounge around, chatting, watching the night creep across the sky, waiting for the bats to come out in the twilight, along with the stars, and start their nightly hunt. We would talk and laugh and tell stories, and I would write in my journal and soak up the peace.

After the first two nights, the first take-out came up at Mexican Hat, a name I'd long known from Tony Hillerman novels. The canoeist and the couple with the young child departed and we continued on, just MT and I in one boat, and T, L, and LS in the other. Much of the weekender traffic on the river departed at the same site, and the river grew distinctly quieter. I lay back against the padded side of the boat, wriggling my rump down comfortably amongst the dry bags, letting my head lay back on the warm grey rubber of the Avon.

"There," MT said quietly. I looked around at her.

"There, what?" I asked, wondering if she'd seen some wildlife I'd missed by lounging.

"I've been waiting for that - the moment you finally relaxed. I knew it'd come, but sometimes it takes a few days."

"What do you mean?" I asked her, half-laughing. "I've been having a great time."

"Yeah - but just now you relaxed. All the way. You just put down the rest of your life and came to live on the river."

I looked at her for a moment, and a small smile started somewhere in my chest and emerged onto my lips. "So I did," I said softly, and laid my head back against the warm flank of the boat once more, smiling at the deep fathomless turquoise sky.

Now, many years down the line, I've come to recognize that as the cardinal sign of a really great vacation: that moment when you surrender yourself completely to it, letting go of your "regular" life so completely that you start to lose track of time; that all the world is Now. No past; no future. Just Now. Just what is right here in this moment, both timeless and eternal, completely sufficient unto itself.

Somewhere along the line (Sand Island?) we stopped at a Kachina panel, petroglyphs made by the Anasazi or other ancient cultures. This panel rises high above a rock bench; there are footholds carved into the flank of the bench, shallow dents that were somehow sufficient ladder for the artists to surmount the hump of the rock and gain access to the cliff face where they made their art. The panel rises impossibly high - too high for a person to reach - and there are, carved into the sandstone wall, holes where I guessed that some kind of scaffolding was once butted into the rock, allowing the artists more scope for their work.

Somewhere else along the way we stopped at River House, a small cliff dwelling. The river was faster and higher there, and tying up a bit tricky; there wasn't much bank, and we were moving relatively fast. MT rowed us hard toward the bank, and I managed to grab hold of some vegetation and, hauling hard, pull us in toward the poking, tangled branches of some trees that were half-submerged at the river's edge. T, having already secured his own boat, splashed over and caught the line I threw him, heaving back once with the skill of long practice, and effectively snugging our boat into a safe tie-down.

The walk to River House was extremely hot; we crossed a silty flat - striped here and there with unexpected slimy gullies of standing water, and thick with resillient, shrubby growth - assaulted in equal measure by the sun and a plague of small, stinging black flies. The air was completely still, hard as a brick wall with the heat. Once clear of the wiry thickets of undergrowth, the flat silty pan was easier going - but not much, as we struggled through the shifting sand and the oppressive glare of the baking sun. River House rose ahead of us, halfway up a cliff wall. The climb up the cliff was easier and more pleasant than the slog across the flats to get there, and once there, the wisdom of the Anasazi becomes immediately apparent: the dwelling is situated in such as way that it is bathed in a cool, pleasant breeze, one that is completely absent directly below us on the canyon floor. The breath of the canyon lifts our sweaty hair off our necks and soothes or hot skin, and we drop into timelessness once more.

River House is small, maybe 7 or 8 dwellings, but surprisingly snug. The houses have been built close under the overhanging mass of the cliff above, floored by a soft, fine silt and roofed by the masive weight or rock overhead. I poke my head into one dwelling and see, on its ceiling, paintings. A handprint, made in some white substance. The unknown artist has then drawn wavy finger-lines down the palm. There are two or three such handprints there; and for a moment I imagine the reflected light of fire against the stone, the shine of eyes watching as this warm hand traces these lines on the rock, never realizing that a thousand years hence other eyes will see it, and think of the artist so long gone... and wonder.

Higher on the belly of the overhanging rock there are a few small petroglyphs... a snake, some bits of patterns I do not completely recall. Here and there on ledges of tumbled stone, where some of the dwellings have begun to crumble, people have placed tiny potsherds that they have found over the years in the dwelling: Some plain, some with fragments of patterning on them. Here too are bits of bone or flint, maybe part of some tool; here a feather, there the tiny skull of some animal, offerings of rememberance to a vanished people.

For a while we have River House to ourselves, but from our aerie I can see other people walking across the pan. Soon we are joined by others, smiling and friendly, but somehow hushed up here, as if this were a cathedral of some kind. And perhaps it is.

After a while we make our way back down the cliff and across the hot flats, even more oppressive now, with the memory of the cool, sighing breeze of River House. We battle our way back through the scrub and to our boats, now flanked by the boats of others. We pile in, untie our moorings and push off, down the river.

[Next: Deep in the Canyon.]

Monday, July 20, 2009

Rafting the San Juan: The Beginning

So the last post reminded me, forcibly, of an altogether different wilderness trip I took, lo these many years ago, when I was in vet school. I thought about it with nostalgic smiles and a sort of vague, sweet longing; but it won't go away, so I'm bringing forth its ghost onto the blog to see what it looks like in the light of day.

I started vet school on the heels of my Master's Degree in Wildlife Biology, earned at the same University. In my Graduate School days I had a friend and compatriot, MT, who was a "Fish Head" - a grad student majoring in the Fisheries half of the Fisheries and Wildlife Biology department. We mammal-chasers were, by contrast, "Bunny Huggers", and there were our near cousins, the "Tree Huggers" (Forestry majors). At any rate, we formed a loosely-knit cadre of students; to some degree we were all in this together - as we all had at least oral exams to deal with, and some form of dissertation - but in other ways we were not: Some had doctoral exams to deal with, some had field work, some had advisor conflicts, others had TA-ships, and all of us had completely different projects upon which to work. As a result we were not nearly so cohesive a group as, say, my vet school class. In vet school, for the first two years we were almost without exception in the same classes exactly as all the other vet students (there being only a few elective options to the core curriculum for freshman and sophomore year); and while we diverged slightly more in Junior and Senior years, we had another reason to bond, and bond tightly: My class was the first of the vaunted but as-yet untried New Curriculum, a re-tooled course of study that my University had spent several years and a great deal of money and effort to create. We knew the eyes of the entire School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science were upon us, staff and student both, and we pulled together as a team: backing each other up and helping each other out, keen to prove that the education we were getting was better than what came before it, and that we were worthy of the doctorates eventually bestowed upon us, honestly earned and rightfully ours.

But I digress.

Despite something of a natural divide between the Fish Heads and the Bunny Huggers - us not sharing a great many classes in common - and an equally natural divide in terms of experience and personality, MT and I hit it off, finding in each other some kind of kinship of spirit that I, at least, enjoyed in both warmth and humor. MT was in many ways unlike me - but there was something about how her mind worked that I liked, and she had a forthrightness to her that I appreciate even now, though we many years ago lost touch. I'll always feel a kindness towards her, wherever she may be and whatever she may be doing. An interesting girl, and a good person, I think.

MT graduated from her Master's program before I did, and went off to Utah to work. But we stayed in touch as I fought my way through vet school, and she invited me, one summer, to raft the San Juan with her and her boss - plus his family, and some other people. This was to be partly a working trip - MT and her boss would be doing some measurements and gathering data along the river - but it was partly also for fun. Because the trip was a working gig, the State of Utah provided the boats (Avon self-bailers) and the gear. MT and her boss T provided the expertise, and the group of rafters provided the food. Luckily for me, my main job was to show up in Moab with my sleeping bag and basic camping gear; no need for a camp stove or a canteen or any of that: The State of Utah had better than I did, and there was no need to double up.

Moab is beautiful, in an arid sand-stony way; it's not for everyone, but having cut my Graduate School teeth on the works of Edward Abbey and Tony Hillerman, and having lived in semi-arid Colorado most of my life, I found it enchanting. Not everyone would appreciate the dry, red silty soil, speckled in little green knots of sage and other scrub, scantily shaded here and there by desert pinon and other scruffy, stunted trees; but I defy anyone not to catch their breath at the stunning skies, the deep intense blue of turquoise, punctuated with towering cumulo-nimbus formations, achingly white in sun, turning a deep glowering slatey purple when they were ready to break with rain.

There is a smell to the desert; dry and spicy, made of sage and pine and heat, underlain with the scent of oily resins baked hot in the sun. But I read somewhere, once (I wish I could remember where), a quote by a Native child, perhaps Navajo, maybe Hopi: Someone asked him what the desert smelled like. He said, "It smells like rain." I loved that idea... and certainly in our case it was at least at times true, as we did get rain there, in the desert: shocking downpours, sometimes, or quick spats; and other times we could see rain falling in the distance, a wispy veil descending from the belly of a storm cloud, dissipating before it hit the baking earth. And then, it's true: you can smell it in the air, taste it on the breeze: rain. The desert DOES smell like rain.

One thing I didn't have for camping was a tent. But as it happens, the State would sometimes go buy lots of used camping equipment off of some of the commercial rafting outfits who were retiring and replacing gear. MT, having been sent on such an errand, had sorted through one such lot, keeping what the State could use for its workers, retiring again what it could not. From that second-retirement lot I bought (for $10, exactly what it had cost the State) a used 2-man tent: a bit gritty with river silt, slightly battered in the tent pegs, but with a serviceable rain fly and more than roomy enough for me. The State provided her with a dry bag, so I used hers. I had my ever-handy supply of bug dope, sun screen, and film; my trusty Minolta (which later would be stolen by a roommate, and later still replaced as a graduation present); water shoes and lightweight hikers and sunglasses and hat and bandanna; toothbrush and castille soap and a journal. Clothes, including rain gear. My sleeping bag and therma-rest pad. The usual sundries of camping, but not pared down as far as normal: MT had coached me that rafting was not really like camping in that respect: You might have to carry your gear from boat to camp site and back, but in between the boat does the carrying for you.

In Moab, we did some shopping, and I "helped" gather and pack the gear for the trip. By this I mean I mainly watched MT and T do it, efficient and skilled in their comfortable teamwork. I lifted a few things, fetched and carried a little, but mainly just stayed out of their way. We gathered gear and people, and took everything to the put-in. Then we made the shuttle to the take-out sites, where we would of course need vehicles to return us home again. Because there were several people only coming along for the first few days, there were two take-outs, the near one needed only a vehicle, the far one had to have the boat trailer as well.

It was a long day, driving the shuttles; I, introvert child that I am, sat in the back of the vehicle and let the conversation flow over me, letting my eye wander over the ruddy landscape, letting my mind cast itself loose and fly along beside us as we drove. Sometimes MT would sing; she has a beautiful voice, clear and sweet. We had Bonie Raitt, Eric Clapton, 10,000 Maniacs to keep us company, though by and large all we needed was the landscape through which we drove and the easy camaraderie in the vehicle.

[Next up: we hit the water.]

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Going Around in Circles

So yesterday I had to take sheep feed out to the farm. I arrived there, limp and tired, after a crazy day at work. But somehow, time at the farm is like a little tiny vacation. I have only to step out of my truck and hear the thin, nasal bleating of the goats, underlain and punctuated by the deeper counterpoint of the sheep, and the coils of the day start to loosen and fall away. Suddenly my spine straitens just a little and I draw a deeper breath, and the shuttered prospect of my world opens up a little, giving a larger vista; a little perspective.

S and R are on the deck, leaning back in lounge chairs, basking in the Alaskan sun. I am immediately mobbed by their farm dogs - two adult Aussies and a Border collie pup, who is completely charming in the way of Border collie pups. An addict of the breed myself, I am of course enchanted by this one, and I pause for a minute to cuddle and pet her, admiring the way her ears have gone from silly to ridiculous. They have not decided which way they want to go - up, down, tipped, folded, sideways - and trade off frequently at this stage. Nothing could be cuter or more engaging, except for the rest of the puppy. She's a lovely thing, leggy and coltish right now, with a long slender head and an alert eye which misses nothing.

R comes around to be sure I've noticed they are out on the deck, and mentions that S is in need of another Mike's Hard Pomegranate, and hopes I'll help her by keeping her company. Well, all righty then. That sounds just peachy. R has a meeting, but makes sure we're well-supplied before taking off.

I make myself comfortable in a deck chair, opening my drink and feeling my shoulders loosen and my heart slow just a little. The dogs - the Wildwood three, plus Pepper - are nosing around on the deck. Pepper is inclined to stare intently at the parrot (out on the deck in its cage for a bit of sun and a change of scenery), but before long she has located a moose bone under the deck and takes charge of it. S and R have been on a horse-packing trip (with S's oldest daughter, up from college); the tack, tents and other gear, recently scrubbed, are basking on the deck with us, drying in the sun. I ask how the trip was.

"Amazing," says S, and tells me this story.

They went to a place called Horse Pasture Pass - which, although up a little in elevation, is (unsurprisingly) like a big horse pasture at the top of the pass. They had been seeing caribou here and there - little clumps, twos and threes - but in the pass, all of a sudden there are more like three hundred. The caribou come running towards them; the riders hold their mounts, who are alert and slightly tense, but not alarmed. The caribou veer around the riders, then circle them, flowing around them like the ox-bow of a river. The riders can hear the soft muffled thump of their hooves on the springy tundra, see the liquid gleam of their eyes, hear the soft snorting breaths of their effort, their grunting calls. The entire herd swirls about them counterclockwise, looping them almost completely before veering off to the right and continuing on their way, intent on caribou business that somehow has included a little roundup of a handful of women mounted on horses.

After this rather astonishing event, the riders continue on. There is a storm now ringing the meadow, low above their heads, with thunder rolling. But there is no lighting overhead, so rather than taking cover, they ride. When it begins to rain, it is with a vengeance. In seconds they are soaked to the skin, their rain gear failing, no match for the torrential downpour. It is like having someone empty bucket after bucket over their heads. They return to camp, where the nearby stream is swollen and rough with runoff; but they judge that it is low enough and far enough away that they elect not to move camp. They crawl into their tents, stripping out of wet clothes, every stitch drenched and sodden.

After perhaps an hour's rest, with the rain abated, Susan hears her daughter, C, and a companion stirring out of their tents. Suddenly there is swearing and cries of alarm. Everyone bails out of their tents; the stream has broken loose of its banks and is flooding; their campsite is now an island. A milk crate full of beers, secured in the shallows of the river for cooling, has broken loose of its moorings and is drifting down stream; other gear is in peril. The women start to scramble; only a small rivulet, almost narrow enough to step across, divides them from drier ground on one side. They start pitching gear across this, yanking up stakes and casting the tents across like fishing nets, gathering jumbles of gear and rescuing it from the waters. The ground, of course, is muddy, but they set camp again as the water starts to recede a little. Meanwhile one of the women goes out and starts picking up fish. Because fish are just laying there, startled and flopping, brought ashore by the flood and stranded by its retreat.

Well, if the waters cast you fish, you should not ignore the bounty.

So that night they feast upon grayling and trout, handed to them by the storm. One of the company has a fascination with fire (an easy thing to be fascinated with). Not content to merely stare at and tend the campfire, she has put her boots near it to dry. I gather that this sometimes pretty much takes the form of putting her boots IN it to dry, and has resulted in the untimely demise of more than one set of foot gear. But fascination is like that, drawing one back over and over to the source, coaxing one to play (in this case literally) with fire. With the not unexpected result that there are soon burns to contend with.

S, an accomplished outdoorswoman (and holder of a medical degree), suggests brewing a tea of cinquefoil to soothe the burns. This is quickly done, as cinquefoil is readily to hand, growing wild nearby. The burns are quickly (and successfully) treated with the astringent tea - but what to do with the rest of it?

Well, that should be obvious, think the assembled riders: We should all bathe our feet in it.

So, while R laughs and shakes her head at this silliness, the rest of the crew bathes their feet - one foot (or sometimes only part of one foot) at a time, as the pan is quite small. I don't know if it helped, but hey: It's not going to do any harm, so it's probably worth a try. I'd've done it, if only to say that I had.

Back on the deck at Wildwood with a cold drink in my hand, I am thinking in circles - the circling caribou, the stormy crown like a halo overhead, the encompassing flood ringing around their camp -and my mind circles back to camping trips and hikes of days gone by for me: Times I've been caught out in storms, places I slept under the stars, people I laughed with until I cried, for no real reason that I can remember - because what has remained with me was not the reason for our laughter, but the joy of it. I am smiling at S's story, picturing it, feeling for a moment the spring of the turfy ground under my feet, the grit of riverbank silt on my skin, the cold trickle of rain over my scalp after it has penetrated the thickets of my hair and made it down to flesh. I am thinking of my fantasy horse (and of the fantasy money which would allow me to support it), and of going on such a ride next summer....

Well. A girl can dream, can't she?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Mists of Time

It's a cool misty day here in the Greatland. That in itself is a blessing - we've been BLAZING hot up here for weeks, and half the state is on fire. It's been so hazy with trapped humidity and smoke for the last 2 weeks that there have been days on end where not even the dusky ghosts of the mountains have been visible - and this is somewhat remarkable, since I am nearly surrounded by mountains, two ranges of which are quite near by. Some mornings on my way to work it looked more like the Great Smokies than Alaska, the moist nightly expirations of the plants rising mistily from narrow alleys of marsh fingering in between the ramparts of the trees. The scent of fire has been hanging in the air, faintly ominous, for more than a week. Fire danger is high all over, and nary a bit of rain. One night this week when I drove home from work it was 89 degrees, and as muggy as ever the East coast was when I lived there, struggling under the paired yokes of heat and humidity.

WHY did I move to Alaska, again?

Oh, yeah. Because I love it here.

Today it's deliciously cool - 55 degrees at 5 a.m. when I got up and looked at the thermometer - and the low overcast is scattering the light into a diffuse pearly glow that seems to come both from nowhere, and from everywhere at once. The air is soft and tender and sweet, without the edgy bite of wildfire. Soft veils of fog hover 20 feet above the ground, and mist is rising off the lake to meet them. The water is glassy-calm, inert and heavy as mercury in the still morning. Ducks paddle gently along, dragging sliver-edged wakes behind them. I can hear the loons, shrouded invisibly in the mist, their voices eerie and beautiful, haunting the morning.

Nearer by, and more prosaically, the magpies are squabbling vociferously over something. As I tend to leave my back yard door open at night- the yard is fenced to discourage wandering wildlife, and if that does not suffice, five dogs in the house usually DO - I am pleased the magpies have something to interest them in the yard. It has not occurred to me until this morning, but the magpies could quite easily swoop on in through my open door and wreak havoc in my kitchen. They're noisy, messy, inquisitive birds, like all the corvids, and between boldness, greed and curiosity, God only knows what might tempt them indoors. As it happens, I have an absolute plethora of them this year; it appears I have a nest on my property, as there are mornings when I can count at least 5 fledgelings in the trees along my driveway, all hopping wildly into the trees as I drive by them, not quite fully-flighted yet.

This morning I have a parvo puppy in the clinic to go attend to, so when I wake up at 5:00, I get up and do the dog chores. I try to nap a little - it's far too early to call the client and update them, and treatments aren't due til 8:00 - but in the end I can do no better than doze, so I get up and go to the clinic. The roads are deserted at 6:40 on a Sunday morning, and it's a beautiful drive in; closer to town there are small breaks in the mist, and the sun is peering through a lacy crenellation of clouds, shedding angel slides broad and deep into the Valley. These are tinged in peach and rose and gold, perhaps due to the early hour, perhaps a gift of the smoke.

My parvo puppy is slightly better this morning - she is wagging her tail and has been drinking enough to stay hydrated, which is a good thing since she has removed her IV catheter all by herself. I clean her cage and offer food, in which she is not yet interested. I let her play on the floor of the isolation ward while I clean up after her, and then I sit and cuddle her for a while - she's lonely all by herself, and as it is Sunday and we're closed, there are no other puppies coming in that I can contaminate with virus. Before I leave today I will launder my clinic coat so that I am not a walking disease vector come Monday morning.

So now I am here in the clinic, deserted but for me, Pepper and the parvo pup, updating my blog. I have other treatments to do later for the pup, and rather than drive back and forth all day, I've elected to camp here for the moment. You've all been more than patient and kind about waiting for me to get back to the blogging - I'll apologize for my protracted absence, but life has been conspiring to keep me a bit overwhelmed of late. But since I am here at work, there are no household chores calling; and since we are closed, I have no appointments to see or call-backs to make. I have only the one in-hospital case, so I had before me an hour, maybe two, of un-scheduled time in which to catch up, make amends, and rekindle the habit of blogging.

I hope you'll all forgive me my lapses. There's more to the story, of course, but I'll save that for later.

You didn't think you'd get off THAT easy, did you?