Aunt Mary was locally famous for her beer-battered onion rings… and for the way she could tell a story, delivered in a compelling style with her booming, near-baritone voice (it sounded as if she was a bar-owning smoker). There was the time her fishing boat, motor and trailer went missing, stolen from the parking lot between the tavern and her house. About a week later, she noticed the equipment hitched to the back of a truck that was parked in the lot in front of the bar. Apparently, the thieves were drunk enough at the time of the robbery that they had forgotten where they had stolen the boat from… and now, they were throwing-back a few beers served by the very person from whom they had stolen it. Mary quietly called the police, the boat burglars were apprehended, and she had only to walk out the front door to retrieve her property.
Mary’s small house and bar were situated just across the road from the Lewis River. On one day, during our short visit, I wanted to cross the road and do some fishing; there were steelhead in The Lewis… a much more sporting fish than the catfish in the Red River back home. My mom was reluctant to give her permission, fearing for my safety. But she caved-in, eventually, after both dad and Aunt Mary convinced her it would be okay.
I climbed over the floodwall and started down the bank. Willing to get my shoes and pant legs wet, I was able to make my way out to one of two large rock formations in the middle of the river. The scene was breathtaking. Here was the crisp, rushing rapids and mountainous backdrop the likes of which I had only seen in an Outdoor Life magazine… and I was sitting in the middle of it all! I could see clear to the bottom of a 12 or 14 foot-deep eddy beneath the island. And although my gear was intended for spinning, I was able to catch one of those storied steelhead. Excited to share my success with everyone, I decided to run back to the house with my trophy!
But as I looked toward the riverbank where I had walked across the rocks, I realized that the rock formation I was standing on had now become an island. Unaware of my surroundings while I fished, the water had risen more than a couple of feet, covering the path I had taken to the rocks in the middle of the river. What was a gentle rapids only an hour or so earlier had become an angry, thunderous flow… powerful enough that anyone would be swept away who tried to cross it. I was half scared, half excited; this was exactly the kind of adventure many a young boy dreams of but few experience. How long would it be before my parents might notice I was overdue, and come to find me stranded in the middle of the raging river? Would the water that swallowed my path rise even further, submerging the island where I was stranded? If swept into the water, how far downstream would I be carried before my swimming brought me to shore?
I sat for a while, both fretting the danger and admiring the adventure I now faced. But as they say, all good things--even epic adventures like this--must come to an end. Less than an hour later, the river had receded, again exposing the route across the rocks that would take me safely to the shoreline. I gathered my fishing tackle and ran back to the house, eager to tell everyone of the thrill I had survived! The same story brought horror to the face of my mom (who would agree that she was always just a tad protective) brought a grin of admiration to the face of my dad (he could picture himself living the adventure).
And without pause, the recounting of my adventure drew an out-loud, belly-deep laugh from Aunt Mary. She explained that an old logger’s dam about ten miles upstream was opened up almost every day about the time I was stranded. (I was later told the actual name of the site is Merwin Dam.) She knew the rise in water was both predictable… and far from life-threatening. But she held back just enough of her knowledge about the managed flow of the river to let me retain the adventure of my new childhood memory.
This past fall, my company sent me on an assignment that involved working in both Seattle and Portland. To save expenses, I flew in an out of SeaTac, and rented a car for the Portland part of the trip. Driving back around six in the evening, I decided to pull off Interstate 5 to see if I could find the old haunt. Somehow, without an address or map to work with, I drove immediately to the site of the Riverside Inn & Tavern… not one wrong turn.
The place had run down a bit. It was lined with posters of 1980’s-era tv stars and pin-up models. And there was a “for sale” sign out front. The current owner was hoping to sell it and use the money for retirement, knowing both the house and tavern would likely be razed, and replaced by a McDonald’s, Starbuck’s, or some such ubiquitous establishment. Mary had sold the bar back around 1980--it has changed hands more than a few times since--and she passed away in 1983. The surrounding area has been developed into rows of condos and townhomes, in numbers sufficient to remind us that humanity is drawn to beautiful places along the river, and that a beautiful place can lose some of its natural serenity as a result.
Knowing this was likely to be my last trip to the Riverside Inn and Tavern as it now stands, I ordered a cheeseburger and onion rings. Even though the rings now come from the local Sam’s Club, they were sufficient to let me imagine Mary’s famous beer-batter coating. I convinced the proprietor to sell me a few shot glasses, that I might have something tangible to remember The Riverside by, even after the wooden walls and stone chimney are gone.
Then, I walked across the road, climbed over the floodwall, and sat by the Lewis River for a few moments. The Merwin Dam must be less active now; trees and shrubs have grown from the rock formations where I fished as a boy. But the waterway was no less spectacular than I remember.
Before walking back to the car for the drive north to catch my flight, I noticed a few bags of fast food trash sitting near the road… presumably tossed from cars traveling the road that is adjacent to the river.
I picked them up. In honor of Aunt Mary… and memories.
© 2008, 2009 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.
© 2008, 2009 Mike D. Anderson, Crystal, MN.