Monday, June 22, 2009

Message in a Bottle

One of the guys on the weed spraying crew I was floating with on the Grande Ronde last week found a message in a bottle. An honest-to-God rolled up piece of paper stuck in a bottle, then flung in the river.

I don't care who you are, it's hard not to be interested in what's on that scroll of paper somebody took the time and trouble to send into the world by tossing it on the water.

But first, a word on weed spraying via raft. The idea is to get where you can't otherwise. We target riverbanks where no vehicle or ATV will get you, unless you're talking helicopter. So we float down, hit the bank and the weed warriors take off wearing their backpack sprayers, on the hunt for leafy spurge, dalmation toadflax, knapweed, and some others I can't recall the names of. All on the Most Wanted list for noxious weeds. They had a spare backpack one day, so I helped out as best I could, though I was most tempted to spray the obnoxious weeds I'm familiar with, rather than the noxious ones I don't have quite the history with. The weeds that raise my ire are poison ivy, those beggar's lice plants with the velcro nubs designed in Hell, and stinging nettles.

After a couple days on the river with the spray crew, it dawned on me that they look just like the Ghostbusters. Four guys carrying backpacks with hoses and wands, heading out to do battle with a nuisance that isn't supposed to be there. These guys earn their money. Aside from being around the chemicals, there are rattlesnakes out in force, plenty of ticks, poison ivy and sundry other small nuisances. They seemed to feel sorry for me when they'd come back to the boat and I would be sitting in the shade, sipping lemonade and reading a good book. I can see where they'd think I might be bored, and they nicely offered to see about getting another sprayer so I'd have something to do to pass the time. Awfully nice of them. And then they'd compare notes on how many rattlesnakes had almost bit them, how many ticks they'd found trying to burrow into their skin, and I'd glance at my icy cold bottle of lemonade and adjust my chair in the shade and try to nicely explain that I appreciated their concern for my boredom, but not to worry themselves. Somehow I'd manage.

I did pry myself out of the shade now and then to hike down the river and scout for landing spots. I found a fair amount of flotsam on those walks. Or jetsom. I can never remember which is which. Let's just call it trash. An inner tube, styrofoam blocks, a lady's compact with makeup and a mirror in it. Some plastic toys. And lots of footwear. For some reason lots of shoes in the river, washed up on the bank. A flipflop. A little girl's plastic sandal. The rubber sole to a boot. Some others. But nothing like the message in a bottle.

I'm looking at it right here. It's a clear plastic bottle, blue screw-on cap. Inside is an orange piece of paper, half of it faded, making some of the writing illegible. It was written by a young girl. Her name's at the top but I'm going with the confidentiality clause for messages in bottles. It reads like this:

My 4 Wishes

1. World Peace.

2. (Something-something) best friend forever.

3. My cat (something-something).

4. (Something-something-something).

So really I can only make out the first wish, and it's a good one, young lady.

I had plenty of time to think this over, sitting there in the raft while the other guys were off spraying. And I thought, good for her, wishing for world peace. Too bad that's not in the cards.

Before I left for that river trip, I was reading the news filled with North Korea rattling nuclear sabers, Iran and Iraq and the Holocaust museum shooting and a shocking list of unmentionable doings in Portland in the past week. It was anything but peaceful and a quick look at the headlines now, or any time, really, would seem to suggest that, no, we can't all get along.

But why not. That's rhetorical, because you and I both know why not. Politics. Money. Religious differences. Racial differences. Ad hominum infinitum et cetera carborundum and so on.

But still. Why not.

I don't want to be the one to explain to a youngster why leading off her list of wishes with world peace is silly, since it ain't never going to happen. And that's when I came up with an idea that might get us to the point where it's not so silly.

It's one of those notions that makes me think I must have heard it before, it seems so obvious. So I'm putting a disclaimer on it right now: I may have seen this on a bumper sticker, or heard it in song lyrics. Quite possible. Matter of fact, I hope it's not original, but I can't trace it if so.

Here's my proposal. Before any war is declared, we have to clear it first with a bunch of kids. The presidents, congresses, generals and prime ministers of the world draw up their invasion plans, but in order for any conflict to get the green light, the situation has to first be presented to a kindergarten class in their country, and if you can convince that group of kids that the alleged bad guy deserves a "time out," then OK. Otherwise, work out your differences.

It's naive, I know. But like I said, I had a lot of time to think down there on the river and these are the kind of things you end up with. I'm not really kidding, though. Years ago I worked as a substitute teacher in a kindergarten class in a very rough neighborhood, and those kids were still full of innocence and a good, solid sense of right and wrong. Maybe our world leaders need a schedule that includes more snack time with juice and crackers, followed by a nap.

So there's my plan for world peace. Kids as mediators. An advisory board of kindergartners. I've heard of youth leadership conferences and the like, with young adults getting involved. But it may be time for the United Nations to include and consult younger kids to help sort out our differences. If we're going to get along, that may be our best shot.

Then that wish on the message in the bottle might not be so far-fetched.

That's the kind of thinking you get with a whole afternoon of sitting on a riverbank. Maybe I should ask for a weed sprayer so I don't have that much time on my hands.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Better Fishing The Metric Way

I used to be a mediocre fisherman. Well, those days are over. Last week I witnessed a brilliant technique that improves your fishing success instantly, dramatically and easily. It’s so simple. No fooling around with learning new casting methods or studying fish behavior and boring feeding patterns. The secret shortcut to better fishing is … are you ready? The metric system. And I must say, it’s good to finally find a use for that thing.

I discovered the wonderful world of metric fishing thanks to the Enterprise High School class of 2009. I was along on their senior trip through Hells Canyon last week, rowing one of the cargo rafts. We had some big water, since Idaho Power was leaving the gates cracked pretty wide back at the dam.

We camped the second night at Salt Creek after a full day of running the big rapids. River guide Sam Macke baited the sturgeon rig with a trout and dropped that offering out in the eddy. Mike Baird grilled burgers and tubesteaks for dinner and we were having a grand time when the tip of the sturgeon rod started bouncing, then line pulled from the spool. Fish on.

I went down to look when they landed the sturgeon. A nice one. I eyeballed the length and figured we were looking at a six-footer here. If you haven’t seen a sturgeon up close, imagine a swimming dinosaur with armored plates down the spine. They’re odd creatures, for sure.

There were two exchange students among the graduating seniors, Giacomo from Italy and Esteban from Ecuador. We walked back up to camp after the sturgeon was released and I was standing there for a discussion on how big the fish was. “Two meters,” is what I heard Giacomo say. Esteban was consulted and agreed. Two meters. According to the conversion table I just consulted on the inside flap of an old Pee-Chee folder, that works out to just over six and a half feet.

Now jump forward to several days later at my house in Enterprise. Sam, the guy who caught the sturgeon, was explaining to some friends how the senior float trip went. Great, by all accounts, except for some holdups as the kids and chaperones were on their way back to the dam after waving goodbye to the Winding Waters River Expeditions crew at the Pittsburgh Landing boat ramp. The group was riding back upriver in a chartered jetboat, but a mechanical problem caused a delay and another jetboat company was called to bring another boat.

The second jetboat had something go haywire, so a third boat was called in from the bullpen. Highly unusual, and this third jetboat was considerably smaller, requiring two trips to shuttle everyone and their gear back to the dam.

The second wave of students and chaperones got on the road for home a long while since eating lunch, so I’m told that they pulled in at the Hells Canyon Inn in Oxbow, which was closed. After knocking on the door and explaining the situation, the owners fed these weary travelers and then refused payment, saying the kids had been through a long day and dinner was on the house.

So there we are out in front of my house and Sam begins to describe the sturgeon he caught, and I distinctly hear him say, “nine-footer.” I politely inquired what topic he had shifted to so abruptly, since it obviously wasn’t that sturgeon anymore. He asked how big I thought it was. With truth shining in my eyes, I replied, “six.”

“No,” Sam disagreed. And I should mention here that truth was also shining in his eyes. I can vouch for Sam as one of the most truthy persons I know. “Those exchange students,” Sam explained, “said it was three meters. Nine feet.”

And that’s when I realized the exponential beauty of fishing with the metric system. By altering just one digit, you gain so much more. By slightly bumping two into three, the same fish grows by three feet in that same instant. Marvelous. All fish have a tendency to grow by inches between the catching of them and the telling about it, but using meters just streamlines the process and I finally see how terribly useful this metric system can be. Until now it just cluttered up my toolbox with sockets I never used.

I remember when I could only cast my flyrod about forty feet. Now I’m casting flies upward of a tenth of a furlong, or well over a decameter. I don’t even know how far that is in cubits. There’s no end to the utility of this system. A two-pound fish that took a little while to land sounds infinitely better weighed in bushels and landed in something under a fortnight. Not to mention my new flyrod, which I couldn’t afford until seeing how cheap it is in shekels.

A modest proposal for more railroad storage

You can blame me if you’re not pleased about Wallowa County becoming a storage unit for train cars. Pretty sure I brought that on, not the commissioners or train committee. Last month I drove past miles and miles of parked rail cars in Idaho on my way to a rafting trip on the Salmon River. There were the miles of parked lumber cars, then an occasional gap for a driveway and you could just glimpse a house behind the wall of railroad fencing. And I thought, ‘Those poor sons-of-guns, that must be miserable, looking at that instead of the view they used to have. Glad it’s not me.’

So as soon as I got off that river trip, I opened the newspaper to read how Wallowa County would soon be storing train cars in just the same fashion. For all I know, the exact same cars in front of that house in Idaho I felt sorry for will soon be resting in front of my house. I tempted fate and lost.

I admit I’m not excited about the whole deal. And I’ve been told that I should buck up. It’s good for the county and just a temporary inconvenience. Well, allrighty. I propose that we embrace this economic community spirit by expanding our new industry of storing train equipment and also store those portable container cars in the front yards of every home in Wallowa County. I saw yards full of container cars stacked in towers last time I was in Portland and it looked like they were running out of space. So let’s get a contract to haul three or four thousand out here, put them on truck trailers and park them in front of every Wallowa County home until this economy picks up enough that the railroads need their cars and containers back. Not excited about a container sitting in front of your house? O, come on. Buck up. It brings revenue into the county and provides wages for the workers who will be backing the trailer up and dropping the container in front of your place. It’s only temporary, after all. Three years isn’t so long.

I hold no grudge against the signers of this rail car storage agreement. It’s kind of refreshing, actually, to hear the train is making some money to pay for itself. But I do sincerely want to see a container car parked in front of anyone’s house that says those living in sight of the tracks shouldn’t complain. Look into that, will you please, commissioners? I think it’s an exciting opportunity.

I might just build a spur line around my property and contract on my own to store cars. It would save me the trouble of putting a fence around my place and bring in some revenue. Might violate a fencing ordinance, but if the railroad can do it, I don’t see why I couldn’t. Rombach Railyard. Has a certain ring to it.

Last summer my family was out here visiting and we talked about how it’s tough to scrape by in this place, but, man, is it beautiful and you can see why a person would want to live here. You can’t eat the view, et cetera. But, still, just look at those mountains. I explained how I’ve thought of moving elsewhere for work, but I just never get tired of coming home and looking at that view.

The rail cars aren’t backed up to my place yet, but I’m just outside Enterprise city limits and keep watching the empty cars roll by, heading toward Joseph and waiting for them to stop. And I think when they do that maybe I will get tired of looking at that view.

If you buy a house next to an airport, you expect planes to be flying in and out. What you don’t plan on is the airport storing a blimp in front of your place that will sit there for three years.

I used to think if I sold my place, the listing would have the standard real estate language of ‘Stunning mountain views!’ or ‘Little Switzerland from your front porch!’ Now, I don’t know. Maybe, ‘Infrastructure Right In Front Of You!’ or ‘Open Your Own Hobo Bed and Breakfast!’

Maybe we can dedicate some of this rail storage money to commissioning local artists to paint landscape murals onto the cars so it looks like what it used to. We can always paint them back to their original color when it comes time for the cars to roll back out. Might be inconvenient, but think of the good it will do for the local artist economy.