Friday, November 9, 2007

Willamette R nr Dexter

I was reading the Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff about the story of the three men tasting a sample of vinegar. And this relates to the USGS streamflow gage? In way. It's about feelings, and anyne who finds vinegar a bad experience could relate.

I worked for the USGS in the Eugene, Oregon office from 1978-82, where I started with the USGS as a hydrologic technician. The USGS assigns field work by streamflow gaging networks. In my first year I was assigned the Middle Fork Willamette River and Mohawk River. The network had about 15 gages which were serviced every 6-8 weeks and in between based on events, such as floods.

One of those gages was the Willamette River near Dexter, the first gage below the larger reservoirs on the Middle Fork Willamette and the last tributary before merging with the Coast Fork Willamette River and flowing through Eugene. The gage was built post World War II in preparation for the three upstream reservoirs. It's on private property with a big field behind the house down the hill to the gage on the river.

We used to move the goats to the gage so they would eat the bushes while we did our normal annual maintenance work at the gage. We only had to remember to keep them from getting near the trucks as they liked to eat whatever paper and other stuff that was easily accessible to them. Remember goats aren't picky, but they sure did eat blackberry bushes very well. Ok, so why the connection to vinegar?

Well, in the winter the area was in a valley where cold air settled and the temperatures dropped well below freezing. This wasn't so much of a problem when measuring the flow from the cableway suspended over the river (which was at the gage just downstream). The measurement took just over an hour and during the whole time you were sitting in a small cable car measuring and writing everything down.

If you were there on the wrong day, the wind would blow up the river, and you could see the waves of freezing fog move toward you, usually every 5-10 minutes. The cold would go through you and chill you to the bone. And then deposit a layer of ice on the windward side of your coat, rainpants and hat. You couldn't hide from it. You couldn't even hunker down. It simple overwhelmed you, went through you, and moved onward up the river.

After the hour-plus time over the river, you would be colder than you've ever felt. You would sit in the truck with the heater going for 15-20 minutes just to start moving again before you continued the field work. It was a lesson in being. I used to really hate going there in the winter, but one time I decided to turn it around. I remembered my worst day measuring the flow, the day I was covered in ice and felt so cold I could barely move.

That became the standard, and any day after that I thought was bad, I would think if it was worse. If it wasn't I would be happy knowing I've survived worse. And if it was close, I would ask if it was a new standard, because if it was, then I've set a new standard, a new cold I could survive. It never was than the worse day at the Dexter gage, but to this day it's still there in my memory as the worst day of field work I've ever had.

The whole situation about the Dexter gage showed me the relativeness of life and the control everyone has over the perspective they have to any situation. I loved streamgaging and had a lot better days, even in the winter (another story), and looking back the worst day was still good to remind me about living and being. And walking away at the end of the day with a smile.

And I learned to always bring a really big thermos of hot coffee.

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