Updated: Sep 20, 2021
“Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” -Gen 4:9
Smells from the high-desert brought a wave of excitement filled with fond memories. I paused to relish, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the scent of warming sage. The smooth, powerful water kneaded slowly under our raft, slapping each pontoon on a time and rhythm entirely its own. This was my first dose of medicine, merely minutes into an weeklong backcountry float hunt. The John Day River flows northward through the central high country of Oregon, carving exaggerated loops of steep and rugged canyons until it eventually connects with the Columbia and then out into the Pacific. The morning sun on the ridges ahead brought a smile as I strapped a dry bag into place. The scenery changes constantly, enticing the senses in ways most would only dream.
On the oars was A.J., my cousin-once-removed, from Oregon. He was raised playing in the outdoors, fishing these mighty rivers, ripping motorcycles and camping with his family in the vast tracts of public land this beautiful state offers. My mom’s side lives along the west coast, and early on, our families didn’t see much of each other. The summer I flew out to guide rafting trips for a college program changed everything. That was 16 years ago, I was in my early twenties. AJ hadn’t yet hit double-digits, and called me “Uncle Drew” for lack of a better title. It was the same era he and his friends would laugh all-out at my jokes and Michigan accent, pulling at their little league hats and covering their faces. Since then, there’ve been return trips, and we’ve spent many days chasing trout together on the Deschutes. It’s a privilege to know him as an adult, and today, A.J. is just as quick to light up a room with his big laugh as he was then. There’s a genuine curiosity in him I admire, and we get along well, a pre-requisite for a float trip like ours.
A couple was waiving near the launch upstream, their silhouettes fading gradually into the background. Instead of turning our 14-foot Cataraft, loaded to-the-gills with dry bags, rifles, and camping gear, we twisted in our seats, craning to wave back. Studying his parents, now loading up the white jeep and empty trailer to run our shuttle, something occurred to me. I now more clearly acknowledged the measure of their blessing. As a father of three, I knew of the quiet assurances being recited between John and Chris, as their oldest drifted into rugged wilderness with no services, guardrails, or guarantees. It’s no small thing. Parents, no matter if our kids are five, and headed into preschool, or 25 and building a life of their own, offer everything. Everything, and then some. AJ’s a fully capable adult, but as the initiator of this epic ordeal, and on a river system new to both of us, I fastened whatever extra responsibility there was onto my shoulders. I live for these moments, when ambitions are big, bold, and fully engaging. Despite all of the planning, adventures force us into areas unrehearsed. They make us grow. I knew I needed this, he needed this, and our prospective families needed us to return home safely. These shoulders were itching to be load-tested again.
While waving heroes farewell, our floating procession jolted on an unseen gravel bar. For almost six months, we knew about the low water and the rocks, just not about this one. We laughed. I jumped out and pushed our raft off the first of what would be many, many hang-ups. We had scoured maps, combed through pages of game unit data, acquired tags through a lottery, and arranged all the logistics for this trifecta: a big-game hunt, wilderness camping trip and river float all-in-one. With rumors of excellent smallmouth fishing on top of all else, it came as no surprise, our excitement was palpable.
Roles for navigating this water developed within the first couple river miles. Typically, an oarsman is to read water and make as few strokes as possible, gently backing away from obstructions ahead of time. However, in October low water levels peel open the riverbed in ways that somewhat resemble a minefield. Small canoes and kayaks can pass through. For larger boats like ours, carrying gear, the traditional approach gave way to a full-steam-ahead, push-like-hell on the forward row into each obstruction, and bounce-up-and-down in the captain’s chair, technique. We grimaced often at the sound of Hypalon being dragged overtop rocks and gravel, stuffing away any thoughts of puncture or tear, or of being stranded. The job of the pusher, was to jump out of this Beverly Hillbilly barge and drive hard with their legs until the boat was freed and then, like the final man in the bobsled, jump back onto the stern as the river plunges back to regular depth. Despite the frequency of these rock gardens, and the energy it required, neither of us complained. It was simply the cost of admission into a spectacular landscape.
The only buck spotted was on day one, and it was a definite shooter. The hunting party a few hundred yards around the bend had seen it, too, and had an edge on the situation. Before we could make a plan, a string of rifle shots rang out into the hillside towards the deer. As they blasted away, chunks of rock and shale sprayed around the tall-tined buck and several does, all scattering unscathed. Like a fire drill, we tore open our dry bags and put on blaze orange, a sobering reminder we weren’t the only ones enjoying this public stretch of land. The few other boaters and hunters dissipated throughout the week, and we enjoyed every minute of vast wilderness together. Breathtaking scenery around every corner. Amplified colors, like the astonishingly blue sky, offered a hard contrast to hills on the horizon, covered in rocks and browse. The rust-colored columnar basalt enveloped the river in such a way that in a moment’s time, vast, wide-open views funneled into amazing high walls, hovering over our little boat like twin skyscrapers and teasing the senses into claustrophobia.
We camped in rustic wilderness fashion, not once needing rain flies. Each morning began with strenuous uphill work, well-before dawn. With headlamps dimmed and rifles slung to our backs, we set out for elevated cover, settle in, and wait for the show to start. Through binoculars, fingers of warmth crawled across the hills, gently returning life into the canyon. Our primary focus was on the springs and drainages, travel corridors offering cover and nourishment to this body of land, and the species that call it home. Mergansers were often the first to move, pumping hard with their wings and cruising the river in tightly-held patterns. In addition, we saw many does, coyotes, river otters, and bighorn sheep, both the Californian and Rocky Mountain variety – a nod to the success to Oregon’s ongoing conservation efforts. Many species were observed this way, in the cool morning, before we returned to cook, break camp, load the boat, and shove off down river to our next spot. A few miles downstream, we’d repeat the process, but in an entirely new setting. Time afield was admittedly less than we anticipated, but there was so much to take in, we didn’t feel slighted.
As advertised, the smallmouth fishing was phenomenal. Stripping wet flies with the 8 wt. produced on nearly every cast. In fact, we caught so man fish we resorted to timed-contests to see who could land more in a 30 minute stretch. The winning tally was ridiculous by anyone’s account, 13 fish in-hand, not to mention takes and chases. We lived the week as we pleased, ate when hungry, napped when tired, hunted, fished and slept like babies. On one particularly hot midday push downstream, we drifted upon a rocky ledge jutting out over a deep hole. We couldn’t resist and climbed up the sun baked basalt to launch ourselves like a couple teen-aged daredevils into the cool hole below. After each evening hunt, we’d work together to make dinner: spaghetti, stuffed peppers, fresh blackened smallmouth on a bed of teriyaki rice. Our dinner game was on-point.
After cleaning up camp and filtering water for the day ahead, we’d stretch out fireside and lazily drag on cigars in the cool night air. These were some of my favorite moments. AJ brought his mini acoustic, picking softly though his favorite Tyler Childers song. Something unique to this trip was that we each brought a Bible along, combing through scripture regularly, daily even. Once, amidst the backdrop of sage and smoke and desert-night-sky, tracing a dusty finger along Psalm 19, we read aloud the words of King David, “The heavens declare the Glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” To do this with my cousin, under an honest edge-to-edge panoramic star scape, was an unforgettable experience. It was sacred. The Spirit of God moves in moments like these.
Whether it was the setting, the timing, or the relational equity built throughout the years, those five days in the wilderness brought our ongoing discussion of faith to a new level. It teased something out of A.J.. It had been on his mind all day, if not longer. He wanted to talk in-depth about sin. I waited for a few seconds. An invitation into this type of conversation takes vulnerability and trust. Rather than ease into it, or dance around it – I went full-send with the Gospel, sharing with him the integral components of the Christian faith, including God’s incredible plan of redemption for his people through Jesus. I started with the biblical construct of sin, and how it reaches all of us. I shared examples of my own sin and struggles. With a no-bones approach, he fired away at some of the biggest questions any of us could ask, believer or non-believer. Creation, sin, evil, heaven and hell, salvation only through Jesus, baptism. We touched on all of it. On the last day, we shared laughs and visited many of these very points. Shoving off to complete the final two miles of our trip, he urged me to consider doing for others exactly what we had just done and spoke towards his generation needing to hear what he heard, while doing what we did.
Our time on the river was a smattering of everything I love dearly: family, adventure, risk, reward, obstacles, hunting, fishing, nature, relationships, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was pure, authentic, and deeply impactful. I can hardly wait to do it again.
The quote at the beginning of this post is about two brothers, Cain and Abel, and comes from Genesis, the first book in the Bible. Where we read their interaction with the Lord, is through sacrifice offerings. Abel’s offering is one of lifeblood and fat. It’s messy, awful and gruesome. God considered it holy and pleasing. Cain’s offering, grain, is neat, tidy, clean, yet, rejected by God. Cain grows increasingly angry and jealous and murders his brother. When confronted by God, Cain conceals his sin, puts on a mask, and attempts to skirt responsibility in front of a God who knows all. We learn so much from this.
It’s packed full of details on the nature of sin, the plight of mankind, and characteristics of a perfectly just God. Ultimately it’s part of a theme in scripture which points to the need for a Savior. The part I zeroed in on for this story comes from Cain’s response when God asks about Abel’s whereabouts. Are we called to be responsible for our brothers and sisters? Through the lens of scripture, the answer is resoundingly YES. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, look after orphans and widows, and to be on the look out for trouble, to protect one another and ultimately protect his bride, the Church. If the Cain and Abel story teaches us anything, it’s never to turn away from what God calls us to do.
It’s been said vocational calling is reached when our purpose intersects our passion. A few years ago, when God brought me into ministry through a church in Grand Rapids, it brought clarity to my life’s purpose – which is to walk alongside others. What’s interesting is, the trip with my cousin revealed how this purpose fits so incredibly well with my passion for outdoor adventure, it can’t be ignored. I know what it is, and at the writing of this piece, I’ve pulled-all-the-stops. I’m going “all in” on Adventure Deficit. My calling feels big, it can be scary at times, and it involves risk, but it’s exactly where I find purpose and passion – leading others to explore the grandeur of God’s natural world. Why? Because you are my brother, and my sister, and my cousin – and yes, I am my cousin’s keeper!
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