Chapter 3: the Santiam
But first we had to go to church and have the Reverend Spalding tell us all about sin. I was fine with that, determined that he should talk all he wanted, and sure it was going to be a treat. Truthfully I could not fathom why my parents would be interested in such hijinks, but apparently it was settled. There had been some conversation leading up to this part of the expedition, sometimes louder that trailed off when I came in the room.
The thing is, we had a sort of a star arisen in our midst; the legendary apostle Reverend Henry Spalding having arrived the previous year and settled out in Brownsville, along with his wife Eliza, and his four kids. Of course the poor people were a spectacle because of the tragedy at Waiilatpu, and what had happened to the Whitman’s, and how the Spalding girl was one of the only survivors, but nothing could be done about that. (My mother did have to remind me not to stare, that first Sunday we’d heard Rev. Spalding preach.) Spalding was circuit riding now, we’d heard, and due to bring the gospel this very Easter Sunday at the Methodist’s great meeting tent there in Buena Vista.
And Easter it was, so when they had found out about Reverend Spalding being scheduled to preach, and Buena Vista just a four hour float down the Santiam, the grownups hatched a plot to go ahead and load up the bateau for the Oregon City run, but to include a tent big enough for the women too, and an outsized food box, and to make this first trip be the shakedown cruise, and the first leg of the larger trip, and of course a golden opportunity for both families to hear the Reverend, and connect with the wide world, and share Easter with other Christians. Jimbob had instructions to ride Rufus to Buena Vista so Mrs. Pickering, and my mother would have a ride home, and when we left that Saturday morning in the rain, you know, I thought it was all going to be so easy.
The day before, Jimbob and his cousin and me loaded the whiskey into the boat. Mr. Jefferson packed his satchel for the trip, with his nice braces, and flat-brimmed Sunday hat. Mother packed just for the weekend, including her best Sunday bonnet and shawl, but Saturday morning the both of them, and the Pickerings, Kalapuya John, and me, and Jimbob too, were all in everyday work-clothes and oilskins, assembled there in a light rain on the bank above the river, looking at our boat riding on the water, loaded with kegs and ready to go. The day before we had slid the bateau down the ways easy enough with all of us on the ropes. The boat had sat high at first, tied off at both ends, but later that day, me and the men had rolled keg after white-oak keg up a plank to be stowed two-high behind the pink cedar hull, and roped down tight. Now the boat sank lower, showing two feet of freeboard above glinting dark water. It was early, not six o’ clock, and cold, and I had the butterflies in my stomach.
The river looked simply huge with its spring load of snowmelt, huge, greybrown, fast, bending and sluicing up and over the willows and alders on its bank. Mr. Pickering stood at the front of the boat and untied the front rope (I mean bow line) and scrambled over the front, the bow, that is, managing to not quite get wet; though Jimbob was soon right up to his chest in the shallows, pushing us off into the swift current under lowering gray skies, and drizzle, but not, amen, not blowing. We had sweeps, paddles, poles, a rope, an anchor; three men and myself, my mother, and Mrs. Pickering. Right away the Santiam was finding our length and heft and we were finding it, and the first thing it tried with us was that without touching a paddle, we were turned completely around in an eddy just minutes after we launched, which gave me a start, and provoked a few muffled gasps from our party. Paddles did seem to work the best to get us pointed right into the middle, and we applied them at first gingerly and then briskly, and headed out into the current and downstream.
A very few minutes after the eddy and at about a swift walk we came up on an island. Now I hadn’t mapped the river down to Buena Vista let alone to Oregon City, but I did expect the island and the choice of the two channels around it, both narrow. Pa had the big handle-thing for the rudder at the stern and had it pushed over hard right to start the boat down the left hand channel, and it occurred to me right then, for the first time, that I had never asked him how he thought he knew how to handle a boat. The thing was, of course, was that I had it firmly fixed in my head that my father could do anything. Anything. I will admit that first morning on the river nudged my faith.
We came around the head of the little island and got pointed right down a narrow chute of water, and you could see the rocks and the white waves they made. I was thinking how I might try one or two different approaches when I sort of grasped it that the river was taking us where it would, right down the middle. “Paddle hard boys to help me steer!” said my father, and we paddled hard, learning it quickly, how the handle had to be angled to get the blade right, and how when I got it wrong the paddle would bump back against the boat hard and sometimes hard against my knuckles until I got the hang of it, and all the time watching the big black wet rocks sticking out of white waves at us, right next to us as we slid by, and the boat rocking up and down and around and getting splashed a little, and just as bad, the big green slabs of rock almost coming out of the water that we just barely slid over. “Like the Allegheny,” said Pa, and I looked back at him. His face was bright. “When we took the raft down to Pittsburgh,” he said, and I wondered what any of that meant, and then we were out of the rapids, gliding on the grey fast center of the Santiam, and I discovered I was breathing fast and scanning the river ahead. My mother spoke up, “Mr. Smith,” she said calmly, “Are we still believing this to be safe?”
“Rest your paddling, men,” said my father. I looked back at him as he regarded my mother. “Are you uncomfortable, Katie?” he asked gently. There was a moment, and then Mrs. Pickering said, “Well I nearly burst my britches back there! But now… I... I suppose I am whole, and in one piece. Mr. Smith, is there much more like what we just saw?” “Well,” said my father, “I have been by muleback alongside this river many times to Buena Vista…” and here he paused. “John…” he said, “You are the waterman; this is your river. Perhaps you should be steering? What do you say?” He said this and Kalapuya John seemed to be watching the drops of water run off his paddle, and the steely-grey Santiam run below. “Not my river, anymore,” he said, and then, “We are heavy in the water, Mr. Jeff,” he said, and put his paddle in the water and turned the bow some. “The river is fast. You steer good. I think we make it to Buena Vista.” Mr. Pickering said, “I also have looked at this river, in high water and low. It’s a damn’ sight different here than from a-horseback on the bank! I beg pardon, ma’am,” he added, glancing at my mother, “It’s just that the river… uh, the river has caught my attention.” “Yes, Mr. Pickering,” my mother said, “The river has caught all of our attention, which prompts me to ask, Mr. Smith: do you like that left chute or right chute, around that island there up ahead?”
And at that we all turned back to our paddling; paddling fast and hard and also scooping water out of the bottom of the boat where it splashed and gathered. That, father called “bailing” and it answered my question why one of the last things he’d stowed before climbing aboard that morning had been an unsecured wooden bucket. I hadn’t thought that through, was what came to mind, and I was not the only one. The whole bottom of the boat was awash, in fact several inches deep, and we were wet through and through before the next hour was up, and still about two to go to the ferry landing at Buena Vista. So we bailed, and we shivered, and the women took a turn to paddle, (and to exercise and warm up); and no one complained, and we made it, spotting the cookfires and tents on the bluff at Buena Vista without further incident.
It was not yet noon when we got there, and I was amazed at how tired I was, when a man on the bank with one suspender holding up his pants and a fishing pole in his hand looked up and saw us drifting in. “Ho, the mariners!” he said, in a loud and jovial voice. “Ho yourself, man,” replied my father, “Can you take a line?” And Kalapuya John tossed him a coil, and the man took a turn about a stump and we warped in to a little beach just downstream of the ferry, and splashed stiffly out. The man looked us over pretty good. “That’s quite a cargo you’re bringing to church,” he said, meaning the whiskey I think. “It’s going to Oregon City,” said my dad shortly. “We’re going to church.” “Welcome,” said the man, “Praise the Lord. You, and your cargo, are most welcome,” and he watched us lash up a sort of a carrier thing there with the paddles, and put the food and clothes and tent bundle on it and watched us pick it up. “It’s muddy and steep here friends, let me help you carry that.” “Thank you friend,” Pa said, then, “John,” he said, “We’re going to go find a camping spot. Stay with the boat. We will send you hot food, and spell you.” “I might fish,” said John.
The ferry slip had a slant corduroy track angling up the bank, and our contraption with our luggage hung together, and the man helped us. He introduced himself as Wilson Lee, and lent a good hand, and we trudged up in good order, though I suspect we looked pretty raggle-taggle when we got up to the village and looked around and got our bearings. Besides the ferry, Buena Vista was just a handful of houses and sheds, mostly just the John Wood farm; now surrounded by a gathered busy-ness of at least a dozen covered wagons, with hobbled horses and mules everywhere, tents, and lean-tos, and more people than I could ever remember seeing in one place; all busy in the light drizzle fetching water and wood, minding fires with dutch ovens, and making lunch it appeared, which all of a sudden seemed like a very good idea to me. Next: Chapter 4: Reverend Spalding