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It's finally summer, now that I've been in a river

I am already on record as saying — in all seriousness — that, for me, it really isn’t summer until I’ve been in the river.

And by river, I don’t mean one of those behemoths like the Willamette or the Columbia. Those aren’t rivers; they’re lakes without ends.

Now, while I have had amazingly great swimming experiences in the upper Molalla, the Santiam, the Clackamas, Umpqua and the Rogue, for me, nothing beats a Coast Range river, like the one that used to go by my house on its way from up past Alsea down to Waldport.A former editor for several Oregon newspapers, including the Woodburn Independent, Lake Oswego Review, Beaverton Valley Times and The Times, Mikel Kelly now works on the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune and contributes an occasional column.

From the Fourth of July to well past Labor Day, my brothers and I were in that water every day — along with neighbors, relatives and acquaintances up and down the valley.

There were a number of summertime rituals connected to the Alsea River, and the first one was always the blazing of a trail from the house, between the woodshed and the garden, past the tiny little barn (whose only job was to give me a place to shoot baskets when it rained), right out onto the bedrock, where we did our fancy diving, crawdad catching and sun-bathing.

Sometimes there was a mountain of driftwood to carve a path through, which meant my dad had to fire up his mighty McCullough chainsaw for the big logs. The rest of it — sticks, blackberries, willows and whatever had sprouted since the previous summer — we kids could handle with machetes and hatchets and grub hoes.

In our view, the trail wasn’t good enough until you could walk all the way to the water barefoot, on dirt, grass or sand, so for kids this project usually rivaled the building of the pyramids or Grand Coulee Dam.

The other non-negotiable ritual was the daily “waiting for the moms.” This entailed us and the neighbor kids sitting around in inner tubes, with our towels tied around our necks super-hero style, reading comic books and eating green apples off one of the many available trees until there was at least a minimum of two neighborhood mothers — usually our mom and Jane Jones next door — to accompany us either to our own swimming hole or to the Joneses’ next door.

Then, with that afternoon wind whipping up the valley from the ocean, shaking the devil out of the alders and willows along the river, we’d trek off to the chosen site, old inner tubes under our skinny arms, swim masks perched atop our crew-cut heads, each one of us every bit as excited for what lay ahead as our dog was when we filled her dish with the exact same dogfood for the 11,000th time in a row.

On some special occasions, there might be a trip upriver to the Hootenanny hole, to Skeeter Thissell’s place or the little sandy beach at the bottom of the Old Hellion rapids in store. But that usually meant bigger-than-usual doin’s — maybe a wiener roast with dads joining us when they got off work.

But the normal procedure was that kids would swim while moms sat on the riverbank and visited.The Kelly boys pose on the diving board above the deep part of the family swimming hole some time in the mid-1950s. They are, from left, Patrick, Robert and Mikel.

The first summer or two, before we’d learned to swim, the ritual was the same: We never strayed too far. But then, sometime in the mid-’50s, when I was 9 or 10 (meaning my brothers Pat and Bob were probably 6 to 8-ish), it was decided by the parental units that we should know how to swim. It was not safe, they decreed, for all these kids living right on the bank of a river not to be able to survive in the water.

So, we blew the better part of one summer on Red Cross swimming lessons — which, for the Kelly boys, didn’t take. We continued to entertain ourselves catching waterdogs, making wigs from the moss that grew in the shallow places and constantly setting new world records for holding our breath underwater.

But everything changed the day my dad said, “I’ll give you each a dollar as soon as you can swim across the deepest part of the river and back.”

Well, a dollar seemed like a limitless amount in the 1950s, practically a blank check when you’re surveying the soda pop and candy options at Lee Weltner’s Tidewater Store. Our eyes got as big poker chips, and I swear on all that is holy that, within a week, we had all accomplished the great feat and had stashed our dollars where none of the others could find them.

It’s true, the channel of the Alsea at our place was no more than 10 or 15 feet across, but it was deep — so deep it was that almost-black shade of green that Toyota Camrys used to come in. And we were pretty sure it was swarming with sturgeon, shark and barricuda — just down deep enough where you couldn’t see them with your normal dime-store swim mask.

We already were aware that trout, shad and eels called the river home, and it was spooky enough knowing those creatures were sneaking beneath our spindly legs.

Considering my opening premise, then, hear me now and think about it later: The summer of 2013 arrived last weekend. I’m not especially proud of the fact that it was past the mid-August mark when swimmin’ season finally got here — but that’s the way it was.

The other person who lives at our house (who also grew up on the Alsea, but a little more than a dozen miles upriver from me) and I did some “rafting” on the river. And I can tell you that rafting on the Alsea in August amounts to floating through the deep holes at exactly the same speed a slug crawls, then walking the raft through the shallow riffles to avoid getting your butt banged up on the rocks.

But we were in the river. We smelled the summer dying all around us and saw the occasional leaves and water skippers and little globs of air bubbles making their way to the sea while the hot sun microwaved our pale shoulders and knees.

I can now face another eight or nine months of cloudiness, drizzle, cold and fog because, finally, we had our summer.

A former editor for several Oregon newspapers, including the Woodburn Independent, Lake Oswego Review, Beaverton Valley Times and The Times, Mikel Kelly now works on the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune and contributes an occasional column.



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