by Jason Rackley
The phone rang on a Wednesday night. It was Dan Coyle.
We were both living in Corvallis at the time, and it had been raining a lot; just about everything was running.
"Let's run Swift Creek." Dan said. "It's down in the North Umpqua drainage. It's steep and I don't think it's been run. Gabe (Flock) and I scouted it a long time ago but never got around to doing it.."
"Sounds good." I replied. "See you Saturday morning.. early.."
Dan rolled up to my place very early the following Saturday morning in an ancient, big-wheeled Ford Ranger, riding shotgun with 'Easy', his enormous, eternally happy, slobberific Rottwieler.
"I bought this truck last week for two hundred bucks!" Dan said proudly. "Nice, huh?"
Before I get too far into this story, there's something you should know about Dan. Besides being one of the best kayakers Oregon has ever produced, he is also something of a mechanical genius. He delights in taking ancient, tottering vehicles and squeezing the last possible bit of life out of them. He has been known to pop an engine out, take it completely apart, and rebuild it from scratch. Now, that is something that most people would find very intimidating, but not Dan. I think this drive to make vehicles last for inordinately long periods of time stems from Dan's strong conservation ethic, but it may also be... well.. I also think he does it because he CAN.
"Umm. Shouldn't we take my car?" I asked, eyeing his rig doubtfully. It looked like it was on it's last legs 100,000 miles ago. "No way!" Dan replied with a grin. "I just tuned it up, it runs fine!"
"Hm. Ok.." I said, still not entirely convinced the truck was going to make it to the freeway, much less the three-plus hours down into the North Umpqua drainage.
We loaded the boats in the back of the truck, and my bike for shuttle.
Once we had all the gear piled in the truck, I walked around to the cab, where I was greeted with lots of affectionate, slobbery doggy-lovin' from Easy. Much to my dismay, the cab was bursting with all manner of kayaking and camping gear, mixed in with lots of other stuff generally classified as 'Dan Gear'.
"Where am I going to sit?" I asked, though I was afraid I already knew the answer.
"Just squeeze in next to Easy." Dan said. "Or he can ride on your lap.."
...RIDE ON MY LAP ?!?   DID HE JUST SAY THIS HUGE DOG CAN RIDE ON MY LAP ?!?
I let that one go.
A three hour drive, with a hundred pound Rott, on my lap. Hoo boy. Little did I know, this was to become a minor footnote in a weekend of craziness that should have sent me running in fear for the house..
Too late. An hour later we were roaring down Interstate 5 on four extremely bald tires, music playing, swapping stories. The day always seems a little brighter, the sky a little bluer, when I am on a road trip, setting off into the unknown, with a kayak. There really isn't anything like it.
I was hungry, so I dug around and grabbed some cheese and chips. Easy immediately perked up, but Dan said: "Don't give Easy any food, I already fed him, and he's on a diet."
Easier said than done. Under Easy's intense supervision, I unwrapped some cheese and when I brought it up to my mouth Easy snapped it out of my hand, swallowing it without chewing. Bye-bye cheese. I tried Potato Chips next, and I found that if I ate really fast, I could get about half of the chips to my mouth because Easy would get distracted by the chip explosion every time he snatched one out of my hand and was too busy rooting around in my lap for tidbits to notice if I snuck a few by him.
Another hour. Now we were well up into the mountains. We had decided to try and take the 'short cut' down into the North Umpqua River drainage, which involves crossing the mountains to the north. The only tricky thing is, if the snow isn't completely melted, you have to backtrack many miles and take the usual route.
The road turned to gravel and went up, up, up as we plunged into the the trackless national forest that spans Oregon's mighty Cascade mountains. We encountered a couple of trees down across the road, but luckily Dan had a hand saw and we managed to cut, trim, and squeeze our way past each of them. A couple of them were tricky, and involved easing under ton of shattered pine logs spanning the road.
Around another corner, and after skidding across several sketchy patches we arrived at the dreaded 'Final 100', the last 100 feet of snow that frustrates so many paddlers, year after year. This little sliver of snow is sheltered by the hillside and clings tenaciously to life for unpredictable lengths of time each season.
We had struck out.
"Well, hell." I said.
Back down the road. Teetering past all of the logs. Back out of the mountains, to the highway, and many more miles of highway until we reached the North Umpqua drainage.
Swift Creek is located approximately two miles south of the middle of nowhere, and after several hours of back-tracking we plunged back into the wilderness. Now, we weren't sure if anyone had ever run this creek, all we knew is that it was steep and remote. We arrived at the take-out bridge it was getting late but there was enough water to paddle the creek. That said, the levels were dropping fast after the last big rainstorm, so it was decision time. Now or never.
"Let's do it." I said. Dan just nodded. I think he would have run it by himself if I would have wanted to wait until the next day.
We put on a couple of miles upstream where a log was down, blocking the creek. Not necessarily a good sign.. Below us the creek churned away out of sight, around a corner. No eddies. Are you kidding? This was Northwest exploratory at it's most harrowing.. scary, hang-on-for-your-life kind of stuff..
Dan The Man Coyle at the put-in for Swift Creek.
After three miles of portages around logs, ducking under logs, running rapids formed by piles of logs, and too many sketchy moves to count, we arrived at the take-out. "More wood in the creek than the forest." I said. "You know you're on a crappy creek when all of the best rapids are formed by logs."
"You're even dumber than I am when it comes to wood." Dan replied. That's like a compliment, I think.
Oh well, cross Swift Creek off the list, I guess.. sometimes its like that.
At the take-out, I hopped on my bike and started back up the road. It was fairly easy going at first, but then the road started going steeply uphill, and the tires were spinning in the gravel, which was exhausting. Sweat started pouring off of me and my lungs were on fire, so I gave up and started walking the bike. No chance of hitching a ride, we were a million miles from anywhere..
Two miles up the hill I heard a car coming up the road behind me. I stopped, and was amazed to see a late-model white sedan come cruising around the corner. Before my tired brain could register what a car like that was doing on a road like this, the car went past me, and I saw that there were two young, attractive ladies in the front, and Dan's unshaven, tousled mug in the back, grinning like an ape and fogging up the window as they disappeared around the corner. ( I think he stuck his tongue out at me, but I'm not sure.. )
"You gotta be kidding me." I muttered. "I did NOT just see Dan in the car with two hot women.."
Nevertheless, I was now energized and I redoubled my efforts to reach the put-in, arriving a few minutes after Dan. When I arrived I met two young German female tourists, who were hopelessly lost in the mountains until they saw Dan standing in the road. Dan had traded directions for a ride to the put-in, and so it went. After chatting for awhile ( I think they were as amazed to see us as we were to see them ) the ladies drove out of sight.
After the rains of the previous week, the levels were dropping fast and our hopes of running any of the 'classic' creeks nearby were slim to none. We decided to drive out to the main road and cruise the nearby creeks, to see if any of them had water. We loaded the boats in the back of Dan's truck, then tied my bike on the back of the boats, so if we found anything to run it would be easy to drop the bike at the bottom of the creek.
Once we reached the main road, our hopes evaporated as we crossed Fish Creek, Copeland, and others, finding them too low to run. We kept driving, and as we did a misty rain started falling. Suddenly the truck started lurching and a very disturbing sound came from under the hood. It sounded like something was dying in there. I couldn't help thinking that we were a three-hour drive from home, on a mountain highway, with no cell phone and very little money. Suddenly our water level problems faded away and we were faced with the very real possibility that we might be stranded in the middle of nowhere with a large, hungry dog.
Dan started driving faster. There was a gas station somewhere up ahead, and if we could just make it there.. After a few nerve-wracking minutes, we rounded the corner and pulled into the gas station. Luckily it was on a hill, so we had a nice downhill pitch in case the truck wouldn't start after we shut it off.
While Dan popped the hood to take a look, I wandered off, looking for something to eat. Finally, after ten or fifteen minutes of cryptic muttering and tinkering with the engine, Dan pronounced that it was "READY TO GO" and we were on the road again.
Now, Dan sometimes drives kind of like he kayaks, which is fast and aggressive, and it can be a little sketchy at times, especially when the tires are bald and the road is wet. To this day I don't remember exactly where it happened, I think we were about five miles west of Steamboat lodge.
We were going fast. REALLY fast. We hit a corner, fresh rain on the road, bald tires, and the truck fishtailed and started spinning, and all I remember is the blaring of a horn as an 18-passenger ford van bore down on us in the oncoming lane, I didn't have time to do anything when we did two lightning-fast 360's, missed the van ( or they missed us, who knows? ) and we shot off the road, backwards, crashing the back of the truck into the rock cliff face.
"Oh shit.. my BIKE!!" I said, jumping out of the truck. ( My mountain bike had been tied to the back of the kayaks, which were sticking out of the back of the truck! )
One look and my worst fears were confirmed: My bike was wrapped around the back of the kayaks, bent frame, tires, you name it. Done. Finished. Over.
Dan arrived gave the bike a quick once-over. "I can fix this." He announced, while I gaped at him incredulously. "No problem. Don't worry about it.."
Dan tried to start the truck, and a horrible noise emanated from under the hood.. kind of like two weasels fighting or something.. it sounded bad.
Popped the hood.. some kind of liquid had blown all over inside of the engine, all over the hood.. not good. Even Dan was confused. "I wonder what this is." He said, sniffing the mystery liquid suspiciously. "Hmmmmm.."
By this time the guys in the 18-passenger van had arrived, and they were remarkably helpful in spite of the fact that we had recently tried to kill them. And ourselves. No matter, they jumped right in and helped us push the truck out of the ditch and push-start it, because the truck could no longer start under it's own power..
So we get the truck going, and Dan takes off down the road, engine-weasels screeching at full volume, and disappears around the corner.
The guys in the van took off shortly after that, and I was alone.
It started raining harder.
About ten minutes later I heard the engine-weasels coming, sounding angrier than ever, and then Dan came tearing by, hanging out of the window, yelling:"I CAN'T STOP THE TRUCK OR IT'LL DIE!!!! I'LL TRY AND GET IT TURNED AROUND.. YOU'LL HAVE TO JUMP INNNNNnnnn!!" as he disappeared around the bend in the other direction..
A few minutes later, I heard him coming back the other direction, and he appeared again, the screeching louder than ever, and then the passenger side door swung open a-la Dukes of Hazzard and I was sprinting along side the truck, hoping I didn't trip and get run over.. ( does it hurt less if the tires are bald ?!?! ) I never had a chance to find out, because my first leap was successful and I was in the cab, launching myself into a scene straight out of a Mad Max movie..
Dan was yelling, Easy was barking, and the engine-weasels had moved on to killing the engine-howler monkeys. I have really never heard a sound like that come from an engine, it was just flat-out wrong. Dan had the key cranked all the way to the START position with one hand, was steering with the other, and yelled over the horrendous screeching coming from the engine: "I CAN'T TURN THE KEY OFF OR IT'LL DIE!! I CAN'T SHIFT!! YOU'LL HAVE TO SHIFT FOR ME!!!!"
The next five miles were pure mayhem, as Dan would rev the engine, yell "SHIFT SHIFT SHIIIIIIFTT!!!" and I would frantically try to jam the gear shift into place, all the time he had the key jammed in the 'ON' position to keep the engine going (which is ordinarily really, really bad for the starter, but I think that was all that was keeping the engine going at that point.. ) It was Madness. Pure mayhem.
Finally, the truck gave a huge lurch, lunged, sputtered, howled one last time, and died. We rolled to a stop, and the silence was deafening. We were now stranded on the side of the highway, 2.5 hours from home, darkness falling, and the rain starting in earnest..
"We need a tow truck." Dan said. "I'll jog back to Steamboat and call one."
"Ok." I said, still trying to adjust to the sudden silence. "I'll hang out here with Easy."
Dan loped off into the darkness, and I settled down for the wait. It was ten miles round-trip, assuming he couldn't hitch a ride, so I expected a long wait.
It had been a long day, and I thought Easy might be hungry, so I dug around in the back and pulled out the bag of dog food and a water bottle. I poured some dog food into my hand, added some water, and held it out to Easy, who wolfed it down without chewing and then looking at me adoringly, begging for more, so I gave him another handful, and another, and another..
Half a bag of dog food later Easy was showing no signs of stopping, and I was starting to get a little concerned. I never knew a dog could eat so much. Finally, I stopped feeding him and climbed down to the river to wash my hands.
Well, it was dark at this point, and wet. The bank consisted of a steep, jagged pile of highway rock, and I had dog slobber all over my hands. I guess I'll use that as an excuse for what happened next, because I ended up slipping on a wet rock in the dark falling in the river!
I hit the water with a yell and just managed to keep my head from going under, and an onlooker would probably have been amazed and called it a miracle because I absolutely levitated from the water and back onto the rocks, cursing profusely at my bad luck.
Back up on the road, and the rain was really coming down. There was no sign of Dan, and I was definitely getting cold now. Finally, about a half hour later, Dan materialized out of the rain, announcing that "I hitched a ride. A tow truck is on it's way.."
A little while later, Dan noticed the half-empty bag of dog food.
"You didn't feed Easy, did you?!?" he said.
"Uhh.. yeah, I did.. he seemed kind of hungry.."
"Oh no." Dan replied, and before I could get him to elaborate, the tow-truck pulled up, lights flashing.
The tow-truck driver was a jolly fellow who quickly had Dan's truck hooked up we were soon on the road. The closest town where we knew anyone was Eugene, which was over two hours away.
"How much money do you have?" I whispered to Dan.
"About two dollars and some change." Dan replied.
"Well, I've got two twenties and a credit card." I said, not liking where this was going..
"Do you take credit cards?" I asked the driver. "Sure, no problem." He replied cheerfully.
I tried not to think about how much this was going to cost..
"Hmmm, heh heh, let's see, that'll be three hundred dollars to tow your two hundred dollar truck.. thank you very much, how 'bout I give you a poke in the eye and take away your birthday while I'm at it, ok, there you go.. have a nice day.. heh heh."
The long, very expensive drive to Eugene was actually remarkably entertaining. The tow truck driver was a retired teacher, very friendly, and we regaled each other with tales and jokes from the river and the tow-truck trade. By the time we rolled into Eugene at 2 a.m., we had made a new friend.
The driver unloaded the truck and I felt dread as I reluctantly pulled out my wallet and said: "So, how much is that gonna be?!?"
"How much cash do you have?" The driver asked, with a twinkle in his eye.
"Mmmm.. about forty three dollars and some lint." I said. Is lint redeemable for cash in Roseburg? I hoped so.
"That should cover it." The driver replied. He then took the cash from my stunned hands and was gone in a flash, eager to start the long haul back home..
"Wow." I thought. "So Santa Claus drives a tow-truck in the off-season. Who'dve known?"
"So, Dan, whose house is this, anyway?" I asked as we plodded up to the door. It was now almost 2:30 in the morning, and we were exhausted.
"Umm, a friend." Dan said.
"Not for long." I muttered under my breath..
After a lot of very loud knocking, the door cracked open and a woman's voice said "Dan?" then: "What are you doing here? What's going on?"
Fifteen minutes later we were racked out in our sleeping bags on her living room floor, and just as we were about to drift off to sleep I heard a horrible choking, gurgling sound from the corner of the living room.
I sat bolt upright and whispered: "Dan! What the hell was that?!?"
"Easy is throwing up." Dan said, sounding very tired and a little annoyed. "You overfed him.."
Well, I guess half a bag of dog food was a bit too much, because we spent the rest of the night listening to Easy vomit at regular intervals, all over our friendly host's living room carpet.
I would never have believed that one dog (even one so large as Easy) could produce such a large volume of matter from his stomach, it was truly remarkable when we surveyed the mess the next morning.. and the smell..
Did I mention the smell?