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The McKenzie River flowed to the North of my childhood home. Past several farmer’s fields and a narrow strip of trees and brush that each year would ebb and flow as the river carved out its path from the cascades range East of Eugene Oregon to the southernmost end of the Willamette Valley.
My family lived on a street that dead-ended into the river with a boat launch made of two telephone poles a few feet apart sloping down from the street level down to the riverside. Many flat bottomed boat owners would use this launch to get their boats to the water. If the river level was high they could slide directly into the water, if it was low, the boaters would have to drag or lift their boats over the rocks to get to the coursing waterway.
The boat landing was also an access point for people who, like my father and I, wanted to wade up and down the water to fish and people wanting to sun or swim in the summer time. You never knew who you would meet at the river. Professional river guides, fellow anglers, families trying to cool down, in the icy water, the McKenzie was host to a wide array of participants from every walk of life.
After the spring thaw in the mountains and the April showers, the weather would get warmer and the water level slowly receded so the grass and brush would grow up on the riverbank sometimes making the way unpassable unless you were in the water itself. Quite often the grass would grow three feet high and as a child I recall feeling like I was walking through a tropical jungle like Indiana Jones searching for a lost treasure.
There were many ways to get down the bank of the river following rabbit trails and deer paths that would wind through the brush. On occasion my father would bring along a machete to cut down the black berry vines and brush that hung over those trails. After the start of a fishing season, after we or someone else had defined the path, we would follow these paths for the rest of the year.
After a few fishing trips into the season the path would become second nature. You would follow the path without thinking. Trekking on autopilot you knew where every gnarly root was, where the low hanging branches were, and the large patches of river grass where deer would lay down crushing the grass down leaving behind their used deer beds. These deer bed areas were popular with folks enjoying the sun having a picnic or family outing.
I would use these flattened grass areas as an imaginary home sometimes. The grass was usually higher than I was and I would bring a folding chair for furniture and pretend that this space was my “apartment".
One warm Saturday afternoon, at the later part of July, My father and I were making our way down the well-worn path that we had traversed many times that season. I was in front of my father and shuffling along at a brisk pace. My father was a bout four steps behind me and we walked in relative silence.
The weight of my backpack bounced on my shoulders. My father and I when we expected to spend the day at the river always packed a lunch or dinner; usually a package of hot dogs, a few Twinkies, and a six-pack of root beer. We would build a circle of rocks in the river that we would place the hot dogs and sodas into using the ice cold water as nature’s refrigerator.
The trail curved back and forth a few feet from the rivers shore and you basically could only see four to ten feet down the path before it would turn into a curve. I could hear the warm light breeze blowing through the trees and the calls of the local birds. The warm summer air permeated my clothes and I looked forward to reaching our fishing destination so I could cool off in the cold McKenzie River.
Suddenly, I felt my father’s hands at my face, like he was trying to both cover my eyes and my mouth. He turned me around and shoved me in the opposite direction on the trail. I moved quickly forward but glanced behind me like Lot’s wife looking back towards Sodom. Back in a clearing that I was walking into lay two sleeping college-aged girls, a natural blond, and a natural brunette.
In retrospect I realize that these two girls had natural hair color for unspeakable reasons; but for this stories sake I will just say I almost stepped directly onto two sleeping nude college girls.
I now recognize that because my father was taller than me and he was paying attention to the trail ahead unlike myself, who was blissfully ignorant to the world around me, he saw the two coeds a second before I would have ruined their afternoon and embarrassed them. As my dutiful protector, my father also was trying to keep my innocent eyes from seeing something I shouldn’t.
Luckily I was young enough and naive enough to not have cared about what I saw with my momentary glance behind me at the moment.
After the quick turnaround, my father put his arm around me, acted like nothing had transpired and nonchalantly stated “Let’s try the fishing upstream today.”
This wouldn’t be the last time my father or myself would encounter sunbathers on the McKenzie River but it was a very memorable first.