A Day Not Wasted
Fathers and Sons on the Winchester Wasteway
PHOTOS BY AARON SCHMIDT
STORY BY DAVE SHIVELY
With driftwood bazookas and laser cannons made from spare aluminum paddles, the four boys chase one another down the sage-covered steppe. The open desert around our camp gives them room to roam and empty space to fill with their imaginations. They woke early, wasting no time on their first full day in the wild. The laughter, screams and sound effects hint that they are engaged in some freeform version of battle-tag.
“I’m coming after you with my raisins of death!” Will, 9, announces as whips through the camp chairs still circling the smoldering fire.
Connor, 10 (“almost 11”), bobs the other way as the other weapon-wielding boys catch up, responding with the only card he’s got in his deck: “Growing power: Activate!”
“Hey, put down the poop shovel!” Steve, Will’s father, yells toward the boys, reeling them back in. Steve and the other boys’ fathers are huddled over the Coleman two-burner, waiting on the second round of coffee as the sun begins to warm a cool March morning in the central Washington middle of nowhere.
It is somewhere though. And something special to Alan Schmidt, who for decades has seen the Winchester Wasteway as the perfect end-of-winter paddling escape from his log home on the higher, colder eastern flanks of the Cascade Mountains. Not too far, not too buggy, and not too crazy: an extended weekend canoe trip down the Wasteway became a near-annual tradition for Alan and his son, Aaron.
This year, Alan pitched it to his friends at the Chelan County Department of Natural Resources, and the idea of another return trip “just kind of snowballed when they all wanted to include their sons too.” Four of Schmidt’s co-workers and friends plus their young sons were immediately on board.
The pull of that first canoe trip with your son was just too irresistible. When the Schmidts extended me the invitation, I was especially helpless to resist, realizing that I, at 33, had never been on an overnight canoe trip with my own dad. And my father, John, was just as quick to oblige when I pointed out this simple fact. How had we never canoed together? Recently retired, he booked a flight out from Colorado just so we wouldn’t miss this first best chance to fill what suddenly seemed like a strange and neglected omission in our lives.
It wasn’t until we turned south off I-90, leaving behind the feedlots of Quincy, Wash., that we started asking any real questions, starting with, “What is a wasteway and why are paddling it?”
Alan explained how the expansive wheat fields are only a result of the Columbia Basin Project, the massive reclamation effort which pumps water from the Grand Coulee Dam through a vast network of irrigation canals. The excess runoff follows a meandering southeast path out as it drains the otherwise arid basin into the Potholes Reservoir. Not exactly a creek. Not exactly a bayou. Not exactly a swamp.
“You don’t need a map,” Alan says before we pull into the brown and nondescript put-in, “just a sense of humor.”
“The first time Alan brought me here, I thought he was trying to kill me,” Steve jokes, responding to my obviously skeptical look as we begin rigging canoes in the current-less roadside bog.
The six dads and six sons load up and head out. Though it’s tough to make sense of the lonesome grayish sepia-toned surroundings and hard to determine exactly what kind of body of water we’re floating on, one thing is certain: river time is setting in. The din of trucks flying by on the county road disappears as the sound of carp splashing and a pair of eagles flapping tune in the senses. The boys quiet as the boats slide apart and they realize how they must paddle, and must converse with their dads instead of each other. By the time the sun fades, with tents set up and stomachs filled with heated chili, the boys are fast to sleep before the coyotes begin to howl.
With the morning’s battle-tag games complete, we pack up camp and return to the canoes for a full day on the water. The Wasteway becomes much more channelized. A current even emerges as we snake our way through the sinuous gauntlet of cattails, hawthorns, and thick head-high stands of phragmites reed grass.
As the current builds, one truth becomes clear: To stay out of the thorny trees, off the sandbars, and in the swift water, you must work with your old man. The two of us begin to work out unspoken strokes as the bends become second nature and our conversation drifts from observations gleaned staight our surroundings to catching up about our family – conversations we’d never have over the phone.
Still, the obvious surroundings are a challenge to ignore. Today marks the first day of spring as little sprigs of green poke from the sand. A mule deer darts as we round the bend of dune.
Dad turns around and says: “I can’t decide if this is really really cool, or really really ugly.”
Alan floats by and points out a lighter gray line cut across the drab banks and says, “That’s 1980,” referring to the layer of ash left from the Mount Saint Helens eruption.
We find drier flats above the marshy reeds and clear the tumbleweed brush for our night’s camp. And after we unload the gear in a long fire-line, the boys gravitate right to the tiny clumps of ash. I get pulled into the chalky snowball fight as I try to hang my wet gear on a giant Russian olive. To redirect the ash-ball melee, the dads organize a hike over to the largest dunes.
The boys race up the sandy windswept peak. Lee shows them how to make the leap from the dune’s edge, and the boys jump, roll, repeat, down the slope. The dads stand atop to gaze across the barren expanse, making plans for the next day. A lot is gauging the amount of time to make it through the thickest, most unpredictable sections of the ever-shifting wasteway course that Alan has dubbed The Maze and Dead Beaver Pass. But mostly, they’re talking about their next canoe trip.
As the sun lowers behind us, crisp wind dying as we wander back quietly to camp, dad puts his hand on my shoulder, thinks for a second, and then just says what’s on his mind: “I’m just glad to be here with you.”
We share a couple final cold beers as the boys scour for tinder to start the fire construction. As we settle back into the camp chairs, the age gap disappears as the main interests of the boys still capture the attention of everyone around the same fire: knives and knots, stars and s’mores, astronauts, ghosts, Alan’s tales of legendary hidden gold caches. The fire fades as the thoughts turn from the infinite to immediate sleeping bags and a warm, dry end to a full day gone too fast.