August 24, 2023

Reflections from the River

userBy Gwen Dildine user0 Comment

The Trip of a Lifetime

Twenty-eight years ago, a young gal from Texas had a life-changing opportunity to raft the Snake River. This experience resulted in a 2,000 mile move to the northwest. Of course, this young gal was me. Trading the pine tree lined backroads of the greater Houston area for big open skies was such a stark change that even a somewhat cranky teenager couldn’t deny its breathtaking beauty.

Other than the fact that my mom mentioned we were moving near the Tri-Cities and I heard Twin Cities, I adjusted to the fact that we did not live in Minnesota. I also accepted that “y’all,” although a perfectly reasonable contraction, would conjure up giggles and confusion for decades to come.

My trip down the Snake River marked a reboot. As our oldest approached the end of his elementary school journey, the idea of rafting the Snake River at the same age that I did was intriguing. What better place to connect as a family than the country’s deepest canyon, totally isolated from all the disruptive signals of our daily lives. We couldn’t even check the Astros score, but, surprisingly, we made it.

We lost our biggest Astros fan, my grandfather, in May. Perhaps second only to the Astros was his love of bird watching. Most of my childhood memories exploring the southwest include binoculars. While his favorite bird remained the Scissortail Flycatcher, the elusive Dipper kept his binoculars at the ready. Despite the Texas heat, we spent summers bailing hay, finding tadpoles, swimming, building tree houses, and all the other miscellaneous chores required of turning a landfill into a farm. As my great, great, double-half uncle by marriage would say (definitely another story), “it’s a good tired,” at the end of a hard day’s work. I strive to feel like that every day.

Snake River Campsite, Night One (Photo Credit: Gwen Dildine)

The first day on the river was incredible. With two class IV rapids on the agenda and canyon walls extending further than the eye can see, it is hard to stop for the night. Actually, once in camp with a belly full of culinary deliciousness, it is easy to stop. There is no better place on the planet to pitch a tent.

Outfitters Change Lives

If you haven’t checked out our Outfitters section, please do. There are some passionate, knowledgeable people in our area. Lottie and Grant Richie are two of those people. They own the Minam Store. Thanks to their quality, reliable gear, our family rafts a section of the Wallowa and Grande Ronde Rivers annually. This tradition usually occurs the week after school ends, so it gives us a chance to reconnect.

As an aside, when I set off to college my plan was to double major in business with a focus on entrepreneurship as well as recreation & tourism. I was going to own a rafting company, having only floated the Snake River once at the end of fifth grade. Convinced it is a life-changing trip yet?

Learning about rafting from the amazing folks at the Minam Store and feeling more confident on the river feels like I am fulfilling a piece of that dream, and I am extremely thankful for that. Fast forward to this century, I sent an email to Grant to start planning our trip down the Snake River. The loop was starting to close on my full circle moment returning with my family almost three decades later.

There is no way to sugar coat that it was a rough year for so many reasons. I set unrealistic expectations on the trip. We were going to have five days in what I would argue the most beautiful spot in the world to figure out the meaning of life. If not that, at least an epiphany or two would really help things along.

Snake River Campsite, Night Two (Photo Credit: Gwen Dildine)

What a difference a little elevation gain makes. It is pretty on the river. It is gorgeous next to the river. How do you even begin to describe this view? We called this bend home for a night. The evening was filled with fishing, bird watching, and more excellent food.

Way Outside Walla Walla

We launched on a moody Monday in our rain gear with the two biggest rapids on the agenda for the day. Never fear, our guides were a 100 on a scale of one to ten. I knew before we left that we were in good hands. Other folks putting in the river that morning kept asking them what they would do at various rapids, where to camp, etc. Those are the guides you want at the oars! Not to mention, upon meeting them I was handed a cold brew coffee, so we were on the same page from the start.

Words cannot express the joy and immense weight that was lifted after five days on the river. The landscape changed so much over the week, each day revealing new beauty. On our drive home, we listed over thirty different birds, reptiles, and animals observed. By the third night, we ditched our tents and opted for cots under the stars. Did I mention the food? Our guides managed to prepare a more advanced culinary experience than my best efforts around the holidays. I still can’t figure out how you make Brussels sprouts taste that good after four days in a cooler; I basically just hovered over the kitchen and picked every last one of those suckers off the pan.

This trip sounds way outside Walla Walla, but as the eagle flies and as any recreation enthusiast will attest, sometimes it takes a journey to get to the journey. Take a box of granola bars, load up on gummy bears (our strange river tradition/ thank you The Market by Andy’s bulk bin), and bring the car bingo, there is one guarantee with this trip—somehow it will change your life. While I could list off all the fun things we did and saw, I think the lasting memories are how we felt and how much fun we had together. Life can get so crazy and weird and stressful. It sometimes takes escaping to the bottom of a canyon to block out all the outside noise.

Snake River Campsite, Night Three (Photo Credit: Gwen Dildine)

The landscape changes dramatically on day three. This lovely campsite was a gift. We caught a few fish; the kids splashed around in the water (which probably didn’t help the fishing); and I actually relaxed. We opted to sleep on cots outside. Stargazing does wonders for the soul.

Getting the Message

By day five, I was starting to wonder if perhaps the meaning of life was spelled out on a bulletin board at the boat ramp in the event I didn’t figured it out for myself. That in no way takes away from the absolute blast everyone experienced, but it speaks to my occasional unrealistic expectations.

Rafting 80 miles requires breaks to stretch the land legs. On one excursion, we bouldered our way up a small gulch, throwing the kids on top of large rocks that had tried their hardest to make a giant splash in the river below. Nevertheless, they found themselves wedged for foreseeable geologic time. These boulders created the most magical place for water to collect and trees to establish. We went from Hells Canyon to a secret garden.

One of our guides pointed out a bird cleverly tucked behind a waterfall. It was an elusive Dipper. As it turns out, once I stopped searching, I found exactly what I was looking for. I love all the reminders of my grandfather that I find in unsuspecting places. A major reason our family loves the outdoors is all the time it gives us together. Quality time. Uninterrupted time. Thankfully, there is no Wi-Fi on the river. It feels like the better the signal, the more the message is lost.

Snake River Campsite, Night Four (Photo Credit: Gwen Dildine)

If perfect was a place its location is this beach. Our hosts were a herd of big horn sheep who grazed the mountainside behind us. Another night on cots watching the moon rise was the perfect way to close out the trip.

Launching Outdoor Recreation

Outdoor recreation is scalable. It is in town, and it is off grid. It is on a trail or down a river. It can last an hour when it’s convenient, and it can be intentional, planned years in advance. I’m so thankful to everyone at the Minam Store for making this trip possible. I keep correcting myself when I describe it as once-in-a-lifetime; it was life changing. Everyone we have encountered in the recreation space genuinely wants to help others enjoy the outdoors.

For example, our local bike shops share their favorite road and gravel routes. Adventure Fit rents kayaks and paddleboards, offering a unique way to explore the land of many waters. Even our winemakers opt outside, partnering with outfitters to bring the fruits of our valley back outside. While I could eat those Brussels sprouts all day, Minam Store’s Wine & Food on the River tour sounds like a perfect pairing.

Five years have passed since launching Outside Walla Walla. We continue to build this resource in hopes of helping others create memories, be together, play, move, challenge themselves, and get dirty. Time marches on, but I hold onto my binoculars for when I need a little help seeing clearly.

A quick search (now that my Wi-Fi is restored) yielded the following quote by Emma Smith: Life is like the river, sometimes it sweeps you gently along and sometimes the rapids come out of nowhere. To which I would add—keep in the current and make a splash!