In literature, rivers metaphorically mark the passage of time. I sat through a seminar once in which a PhD student endlessly remarked on every reference to time, every reference to the river and focused it all through a tiring novel about the history of a river. See, it’s circular, round and round, like a clock. Even describing it bores me.
The professor finally saved us by pointedly asking if she had a point, and she said her goal was to illustrate the use of the river as a marker for time.
“You need a new goal,” he said.
We all had to bite our faces to stop laughing.
Recently, I spent a day on the Smith River and two days on the Chetco with families who live there, people who grow many of their own fruits and vegetables, source their own water and generate their electricity. They have septic systems as well.
When you leave a municipality, you have to become your own municipality, and that’s not for everybody.
When driving to the store for something you forgot – or simply need – takes a half an hour or more, you store what you need or grow it.
Time runs differently on the river. Slower and more peacefully. But retirement there is not like retirement in town. The people I met on the river grew into their life there, and those who had retired had transitioned into a river-retirement that came with many responsibilities and as much work as some jobs.
I spent some time on the South Fork of the Smith River with Rick McClendon, who grew up on the river with his aunt and uncle on property that has been in the family since 1936. His uncle Collins once used the property to process chromium from nearby mines.
“He was a surveyor by trade,” McClendon said, “but a miner by passion.”
McClendon lives on the river full time with his wife Kaye.
On the Chetco River, I went to Wilderness Retreat and met Dallas and Linda Ettinger and Lorie and Dave Botnen. The Ettingers bought their land and an unfinished cabin 20 years ago and slowly cleared and remodeled and made the place into their full-time residence. Dallas is retired now, but Linda still works.
The Botnens bought in Wilderness Retreat so they would have a summer spot for their camper and a place to vacation with their children.
“We bought it with the trash on it – junk cars, junk trailers and vines everywhere,” Lorie said. “But we wanted a place to camp on the river away from the bars. People were driving through Redwood Bar drunk and in the dark. It became too dangerous.”
Like the Ettingers, they slowly cleared and remodeled and built their property into a two-cabin vacation spot complete with game areas, a fire pit and hammocks.
McClendon’s land slowly developed as well. There are multiple barns and building and an apartment for his brother. Orchards and gardens surround the buildings, and the house has been rebuilt and expanded.
McClendon said he loves the place for the isolation. “No neighbors,” he said. “Well, some. But good neighbors.”
Dallas and I toured the yard while Linda was canning inside; his respect for his place surrounded him: beehives and gardens, mourning doves and hummingbirds, and the river below.
He pointed upriver to lands where he once ran bear with dogs.
“I love to hunt,” he said, “but I was also one of the first people to ask for regulations on the bears.”
McClendon is the canner in the family, a skill he learned from his aunt Carol, Collin’s wife. The couple raised McClendon after his mother died.
The Botnens played with their dog and headed down to the river in flip-flops as I left.
Living on the Smith
McClendon’s ranch stretches 160 acres along the river and includes a camp on the Smith near a ripple. He uses hydro and solar to generate power, catches his water from a stream and is currently redoing his septic system – putting in a grinder.
The house sits on the site of his uncle’s old, mining laboratory, a deck reaches out over the river and the water burbles over rocks below.
He was going out to cut firewood for the winter over the next week, and Kaye was picking beans.
The orchard held plums, pears, peaches, apples and hazelnuts.
McClendon worked as a lawyer for years, but on the ranch, he seemed happy to work the land and enjoy the solitude. It was clear he had been raised here; it held him like family.
“I learned to operate a D7 (a Caterpillar bulldozer first produced in 1938) at 15 years old,” he said. “We built logging and mining roads. For a while I had my own logging project at Boulder Creek.”
Living on the Chetco
“I love the weather,” Linda Ettinger said. “There is no fog and dampness up here. It’s warm and sunny and you can grow fruit and vegetables.”
I was sipping a glass of her vegetable juice when she said this. I wondered if she and Dallas would adopt me. I could live in a tent in the yard, right?
Dallas clearly loves the weather and the gardening. Linda says he works harder there than he did when he had a job, and he agreed but said it was stress-free work.
He has an outdoor shower above the river tucked back under a grape arbor and in front of the doors to his storage cellar — a repurposed shipping container built into the ground and full of canned food and juices and holding enough food for a year, according to Dallas. He uses the shower like a swimming pool to cool him off in the summer.
He bunked there, below ground, during the fire, patrolled the neighborhood and helped firefighters put pumps into the river below his place.
He poured me a glass of grape juice and walked me to the porch for a plate of vegetables and fruit.
Dallas said he hunts and fishes for wild meat and goes to the store for dairy and some things, “but Linda butchers game, fillets fish and grinds her own cornmeal.”
He was planning a trip out to cut firewood with friends. “I’m the kid now,” he said. “I’m only 72.”
The Chetco as resort
The Botnens said they built their cabins with friends and they went up like a barn-raising.
Dave built the interiors and added huge screened porches so they could sit outside where it is peaceful and with no mosquitoes.
Dave and Lorie head to their cabins on the weekends and any time they can, and they intend to retire there and travel.
They have wood stoves for heat, propane refrigerators, use the community water and generate their own power.
“You have to be self-sufficient out here,” Lorie said. “And it’s isolated, but our neighbor-watch is awesome.”
People used to call Wilderness Retreat “Poverty Flats” or “Meth Hill,” according to Lorie.
“There used to be a lot of junk properties and drugs,” she said. “But then good people started buying lots and that stuff got pushed out.”
According to the Botnens, their kids can come out and be kids.
They come up now year round and enjoy sitting next to a wood stove and listening to the rain on a metal roof.
Time slows along a river.
Reach Boyd C. Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org