The year was 1984. Along with four friends and a guide I was on my first river trip. We were on inflatable kayaks on the Klamath River out of Happy Camp, CA for a three-day, two-night float. The second morning out we’d finished breakfast, geared up and were ready to launch. I happened to be the first on the river and rounding the first curve found myself alone. A perfect morning, weather cool and crisp. Deep green foliage and pale blue sky reflected in the smooth (for now) river. I rested my paddle across my lap and let the current carry me through the thin layer of fog laying just above the surface of the water. I remember thinking This is what I hope heaven is like.
Rounding the second bend I saw what I first thought to be a black boulder midstream. Soon I realized that it was a huge black bear standing belly deep in the current looking downstream. Shortly she swung her cinder block head around and immediately saw me. I was 75-80 yards away. I could see her moving her head trying to see or scent whether this strange thing floating towards her was a threat. The slight upstream breeze carried my scent away from her and hers towards me. The warm, musky scent mixed with the crystalline air was intoxicating.
As I drifted slowly towards her I had two thoughts. The first being that if one of us didn’t do something the current was going to bounce my little balloon of a craft into her massive flank and secondly that I had the clearly insane desire to bury my face in that lush fur. Perhaps foolishly, I felt no fear, only awe and gratitude. I drifted to within 25 yards of her and decided that was close enough. I raised my paddle over my head and quietly said Hello bear.
With a tremendous splash she spun, bounded twice and was out of the river thundering up the nearly vertical bank through what looked to me to be impenetrable undergrowth. Within seconds there was dead silence and small ripples dispersing downstream were the only evidence that she had ever been there. I let out a breath that I didn’t realize I’d been holding and felt my heart pounding. I had a waterproof camera hanging from my vest and hadn’t thought to take a picture. I’ve always been oddly glad of that.
As I said, that was my first river running experience. The first of many. Of all the subsequent trips, that memory is one of the most profound and one that I take out and enjoy most often. I’m seventy now and the take-out may not be in sight but it’s getting closer. I don’t know how many more runs I have left to me but I will take and cherish each one. It’s one of the very few things that as I’m doing it I don’t feel like there’s something else I should be doing. On the river, I’m never thinking about the next thing; I am right where I’m supposed to be doing exactly what I should be doing. I owe that bear a lot.