Cascade One

(One because I sense more coming)

Harry Drabik

Grand Portage waterfall.

Cascade is seen frequently in geographic description, but is a different thing when it smacked me in the face. Victim (narrowly surviving) for tenth grade sport, I was approached by the physics and advanced math department. That was one woman, Eleanor Matsis, asking, “Want to see the Cascades with me?” I said “yes” sensing the invite was more command than request.

Age fifty or so, Mat (her familiar moniker) was fore sure more woman than I was man. Twenty-one, I was a dried chicken wishbone compared to Mat. So, not wishing to be snapped in half, of course I squeaked “yes.” One of the smartest dumb things I ever did.  

Could have been mere convenience Mat thinking my Land Rover a wise choice for the Partridge Falls road, at the time built heavily of lurches and boulders. If you’ve ever been in a Series Land Rover you know the full-body massage involved. Her 17-foot standard Grumman moved from Rover to me, we headed off.

But wait. Why not take pictures (Mat’s idea) of the canoe by the falls? Two thirds of my body weight bravely ‘n barely held overhead, I was directed this way and that in well-worn Red Wings at what I felt was perilously near a watery brink. A mere fifty foot drop looked worse churned frothy from recent rain when a guy’s wearing near a hundred pounds of aircraft-grade aluminum overhead.  

But I did it. Had to, didn’t I, considering whatever standing I had needed to be affirmed. Affirm I did when I gust bore down the river. Normal way to portage is with canoe parallel to earth, but not photographic enough for Mat who wanted the canoe pointed up like I was aiming a Katushka rocket. The gust, thank God for physics which I was experiencing with more direct knowledge than Mat, spun me like a weather vane, except in my case nimble Red Wings danced me away from the edge of disaster. Mat saw it too, “Enough pictures. Let’s go.” Part of my manhood in my throat, I happily obeyed.  

It’s a relatively short paddle from Partridge (poor lower landing as I recall) to Pigeon Cascades, especially speedy with Mat as a two-armed Johnson five horse driving us powerfully forward as she complained about our trim. About that she was right. But had I ate both lunches I’d have still been too light, though going with the current having flat trim was a trivial matter, a rumination I kept under my hat.  

A worthy fall, the Cascades were heard before seen and gave good reason to head in to land. Neither of us having been there before, the Pigeon Cascades were a grand explanation for why an eight-mile portage (called Grand) existed. If you try, as I did recently, to find the Cascades in a search, you likely won’t succeed. Again, the easy-researchers got to High Falls and stopped there contented with their labors. On-their-ass reviewers didn’t bother making it to the Cascades to see OMG (in my day Holy Balls) a challenge bigger than the Fur Trade. With most of the logging dam in place it was impossible to judge the natural drop, but I’d guess twice that of Partridge where some of my wits stayed afluttering.  

But it’s not just the falls that daunted the Fur Trade and balk the canoeist; it’s the canyon and rapids below that go on and ON - Holly Gee Whiz! At the somewhat similar Kakabeka Fall on the Kam natives and traders went up and around in one shot. In comparison the Cascade was that plus more, too much more or that would have been the route. But let me go on. You’ll see.  

The Cascade makes a plunge that turns the Pigeon ninety southward in a deep canyon filled with rapids enough to make you glad to be where you are and not down there. My young-adult awe matched that of middle-aged Mat walking with me on our side of the rugged gorge. Some things are known, shared unvoiced in faces.

Overcome, I was uncharacteristically lost for words. While I was known to gab too much Mat wasn’t. Her familiar eight word expression sums her nicely. “Say what you mean. Mean what you say.” Motto, worthy of a good life but apparently lethal to politicians, more to our sorrow. But drop that.

More important was the natural spectacle of the Cascade and gorge. Rock hopping the rim of an 80 to hundred (good guesses I hope) sheer drop to watery turmoil, I was glad I wasn’t wearing an aluminum hat that might topple me into the great nowhere. Taking in the natural drama I was also experiencing the tip of a scary human story. Scary? Damn right scary!

Remnants of log ladders fastened to and going down the canyon walls was more than plenty for churning my gut with fear.   Raw fear rose thinking of the lives of unknown workers doing river drives to get logs down the Pigeon. Sometime later Palmer, a local with a colorful sense of expertise, told of being on the last drive in the late 1930s. Obviously, the canyon ladders weren’t fit for use by this guy thinking to self how glad he was to never need facing that sort of challenge for a modest wage.

But, looking further, going down vertical ladders to face roaring water and pike-pole jammed logs into the flow was done, else the ladders wouldn’t be there. Nor would, as I began to understand scene and scope the shaping of one rapid near the waterfall base or the addition of huge iron sheets at the 90 bend to prevent logs sticking there. How much does iron plate weigh? How do you horse and maneuver iron sheets into a gorge while dealing with the flow of a substantial river? On-the-ground facts impressed, but wait.

Stopped after walking the gorge rim, I looked back. There we were, near where we’d begun because the Cascade is an actual hairpin bend. As said, there has to be a Cascade Two.