Deep waters

December 31, 2008 12:00 am

By Chad Robert Snyder

Pilot staff writer

About five years ago I awoke on the shore of the Columbia River near Portland.

I remember distinctly how placid the water was in the early a.m. silence, how slowly the river meandered past. Birds fluttered by and gave voice to their cheery lives, lapping sounds echoed around the stillness. Low clouds shielded my eyes from the crisp sunlight of June.

The scene was utterly riveting, not for its beauty but, instead, because of its rarity. Rivers, at least in my limited observation, are generally a dynamic force, charging and carving their way toward a destination.

Later, I would write a poem about that morning, complete with lyrical descriptions of the sounds I heard: the birds, the slow and arrhythmic bonk of metal boats on the infinitesimal wake, the lapping that was so quiet as to almost avoid notice.

I carried that image of a river with me for a long time. When by chance or by design I'd encountered any other flowing body of water, the visage of the Columbia that summer morning would cloud my thoughts. Perhaps my conscious mind turned what I witnessed that day into some sort of ideal, one not readily displaced by even the most scenic, sun-dappled stream.

The Chetco has made me marvel at its beauty many times. The multitude of colors in particular are unforgettable. Its 34-mile course to the ocean slices through a wild and rugged piece of remote and wonderful America. Since I've had the pleasure of living on its shore, the river has given me many gifts – both sight and experience – but none that could compete with the misty morning quiet of my memory.

That all changed Saturday morning, though, in one instant.

I knew the water was high. The rain stood standing in little lakes around my humble home. I could hear the sounds emanating from the swift current, but they weren't such as to give me any inkling of what was to come.

As I approached the bank, the sounds grew stronger and the scent of muddy waters filled my nose. When finally the river's surface came into view, I was overcome with what I saw. Boiling brown waters teeming with massive debris on a high-speed journey to the sea. The size alone was jaw dropping, covering perhaps twice the area it had only hours prior.

Later, when I drove upriver, the power of the water was even more apparent. The current buffeted shoreline plants and tore at the footing of trees which had stood in place for decades. Relentless riffles and howling eddies dominated the surface of the generally well-behaved river.

These images now stand in stark contrast to the Columbia I found one day. Peace versus brutality, quiet against noise, civility warring with barbarism.

The battle will be waged in my mind, the spoils, the dominate image of a river in memory. One thing is beyond doubt: The swollen Chetco will enter my mind when hard rain falls.