|PO Box 207|
1241 Illinois River Rd
Selma, OR 97538
Phone: (541) 597-8530
Fax: (541) 597-8533
Contact: Siskiyou Field Institute
Hours: 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., Monday-Friday
Within the Darkness of the River
by John Noland
She seemed to rise out of the early evening darkness like a ghost or a spirit. Wearing a dark cape with a hood, she looked like a bird with black wings. Like one of the black-crowned night herons who fly the river at dusk. It seemed a strange outfit to wear in summer on a trail by the river. In the darkening light, I tried to see her face. She looked Indian and young. A teenager, perhaps. Or a link to something I had felt but not seen here on the trail above the Link River.
The Link River is appropriately named, for it connects Lake Ewauna to Upper Klamath Lake near Klamath Falls, Oregon. But I have found that the river, and the trail that follows its short length, also provides connections to the natural and human communities which wander its banks.
I discovered the Link River by serendipity, one of those fortunate accidents which give mysterious meanings to our lives. My wife, daughter and I were tired of the cold coastal summer where we live so we decided to visit Klamath Falls – a place we had never been, but which we had heard was warm and sunny.
It was more than warm; it was hot. Very hot. We decided to escape the heat by seeking out the river, and, thus, we discovered the Link River Trail. That first afternoon we were treated to the gamboling of a river otter and its young. They approached to within a few feet of us, and their play was made even more magical as we saw them through the eyes of our seven year-old daughter. The water was cool and rippled with river music that still calls us back again and again.
I like to bird this area in the summer because the heat and the long dusks remind me of my boyhood in Kansas, and the birds are different enough from coastal birds to keep my attention, especially birds like white pelicans, lazuli buntings and black-billed magpies. At dusk, I have had deer approach within a few feet of me. It is as if, in the dusk, they drop their natural caution in order to get to water.
People I have met on the trail seem friendlier too. Since some wild or feral food is usually ripe at the time I visit, I meet many foragers. On my last trip I encountered a bearded, middle-aged man standing on a light aluminum ladder picking blackberries. A teenaged boy, looking bored, had propped himself against the ladder to hold it. A tall, lank German shepherd dog seemed to be standing guard. The dog stepped up to sniff me.
“Nice dog,” I said hopefully. “He’s just a pup. Eats like a horse. Name’s Brutus. I don’t think he’ll hurt you,” the man said. Hoping that what the man didn’t think was indeed true, I gingerly patted Brutus’ head. He drooled at me. “He’s going to be a big dog,” I said, as he jumped up on me, his head almost as high as mine. Carefully I pushed him down and changed the subject. “This is a great trail. I’m from out of town. What all is there to harvest here?”
The man shoved his cap back and grinned. His teeth were yellow. “Blackberries, choke cherries, crabapples, apples, wild plums – three kinds – elderberries and rose hips. It’s a great place to live off the land. Course it ain’t what it was before outsiders started movin’ in, but it’s still good.” We chatted for a bit, then I walked on. “Goliath,” I heard him shout. “Hold that ladder steady.”
Soon I was talking to a young woman and her son whose eyes had almost disappeared beneath his Mariners baseball cap. “You have to watch out for the cougar,” she said. “It’s eaten several pets in town, and several people have seen it here at dusk.” “Yeah, and it’s big!” the boy said. I thanked her for the warning and wandered on, marveling at how many times I’ve been warned about cougars. They’re always cougars glimpsed by someone other than the storyteller, and they’re usually seen at dusk, that time when twilight makes almost anything possible.
Another afternoon I fought my way down one of the paths leading to the river. It was steep and slick, overgrown with hanging branches and arced over by blackberry brambles. Near the river bank, floods had washed away most of the bushes, though the area was still shaded by a canopy of trees. Mosquitoes swarmed around me. A muddy, torn quilt lay near the charred remains of a campfire that had obviously been built with green wood that did not burn well. A dirty pair of white pants lay nearby. Half covered by the pants was a plastic shopping bag with a box of saltines in it. Alongside the saltines was a large pasteboard sign with the words, “Woman will work Please help God bless this place” scrawled on it. Face down on the saltines was a small, green new testament. No one was around. I listened to the river. It seemed to be telling me a story I had heard before, but could never quite understand.
Now when I think of the Link River, I think of the community of dusk when shapes change and change again, and the night creatures come out to live in the dark world that protects them. It is then that the black-crowned night herons fly up and down the river looking for their roosts. It is then, too, that something else seems to rise from the river – a breath or a further darkness, something of the mystery that brings us back to moving water and the stories it tells, stories of dark birds moving through the rivers of time when what we were and what we are become one in answer to our thirst for the spirit of the river, a spirit like a girl perhaps, a girl who is almost a dark bird in the twilight. A dream or memory caught in river music that calls us back again and again, awakening us to the undercurrents of waters and to the old, dark ways linking us to rivers.
John Noland is a regular contributor to Mountains & Rivers and teaches at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay, OR. He has published poetry and fiction in numerous literary journals, and thinks deeply about the relationship between people and nature.