To grow up in Oregon is to grow up in nature. The peaks of Mount Hood, the tributaries of the Willamette, the vast and ancient forests that traverse our state all offer their bounties to our earnest youth. Theoretically.
That was not my childhood. I've never snowboarded or been to a swimming hole. I've been camping twice. The second time, I cut myself with a pocket knife before we even left Portland. No, I spent my formative years engaged with our more anthropic civil institutions, in front of the D&D shelf at Powell's and in the graphic novels section of various Washington County Cooperative Library System locations.
However, as an adult who thinks less about concepts like the geopolitics of the Star Wars extended universe, and more about my mental health, it has come to my attention that the outdoors offer numerous excuses to "just kind of chill in the sun." Tubing, I am told, is one of the most relaxing ways to do just that.
But on a recent attempt to tube down the Clackamas River with my buddy, I failed. Or to put it in terms more familiar to my cohort, I rolled a natural one. Turns out, chilling in the sun takes a fair amount of planning. Here's some stuff I learned. To quote an underrated Magic: The Gathering card, "My greatest hope is that you will surpass me in every way."
1. Nobody actually sells inner tubes anymore. Tubing is named after the flotation device in question: the inner tube of a tire. Beginning this project, I envisioned floating down the river, sun on my pasty skin, Vitamin R in hand. But we live in a world of recursive simulacra, where references reference references until the referred to disappears. Rainier is actually brewed in California, and tires don't really use inner tubes anymore—as a tatted and bemused employee of one of Powell Boulevard's finer tire stores informed me.
But, as is always the case, Walmart has stepped in to compensate for the self-destructive nature of industry. For about $20, you can buy two (2), Ozark Trail floating tubes, replete with cupholders and headrests. Will they pop at the slightest touch of a branch? Maybe. But nobody makes anything like they used to because, really, nobody makes anything—except YouTube videos of themselves watching YouTube videos.
2. Know where you are going and how you are getting there. I planned my trip by looking at the Clackamas River on Google Maps and tracing its length until I found the two close-together green spaces near my home in Southeast. They happened to be Riverside County Park in Clackamas and Cross Park in Gladstone, and are about three miles apart.
It was a good start, but lacked a little planning. In the Walmart parking lot, my buddy and I realized when we were done tubing, we would either have to walk for an hour back to where we parked or take two cars and park one at each end. We opted for the latter, the idea of trudging along I-205 in a pair of soggy gym shorts being wildly unappealing to the both of us.
When we arrived at Cross Park to drop off one of our cars, two more indications of my horrendous lack of planning were there to greet us. A touching tribute to our state's most caustic Californian imports, the Gypsy Jokers Motorcycle Club, was spray-painted on a maintenance shed in the park. Below this lay the Clackamas River, breaking into low-grade rapids around several rocks.
I'm confident my route would work, providing you don't mind risking getting mutilated by either rocks or tweaked-out bikers. But, according to conventional wisdom (the Internet), there are several other, superior routes.
3. Be strategic about your substance use. On the road from Cross Park to Riverside County Park, we drove behind an SUV with both an NRA bumper sticker and one that read, "Unleash the military: GIVE WAR A CHANCE," and we passed our first Utilikilt-clad guy of the day. Our second Utilikilter was packing up a kayak at Riverside when we pulled in. My tube buddy, ever the sensible one, ambled over and asked "Uh, is it safe to float here?"
As Utilikilt began a nuanced explanation of hydrodynamics, a shirtless dude with some splotchy tattoos approached us. We were probably fine, he explained, as long as we, unlike him, stayed close to sober. He began laughing. "It's just funny to me that you asked," he said. "I've lived in this shit-sphere my whole life."
Utilikilt was quick to remind his friend that the Clackamas River counts as "public," and drinking in "public" is, y'know, a crime. But, if one were to hypothetically go tubing in the world of The Purge, where All Crime Is Legal, and were also wont to keep one's fermented and distilled libations hidden from Purgers, tying a small cooler—or even an individual drink, if you're a handy knot-tier—to your raft at around the waterline would behoove you. It would also behoove you to moderate your consumption to stay vigilant for Purgers and treacherous water.
4. But seriously, think about the water. Once his mildly inebriated friend backed off, Utilikilt did some explaining. The water was around 50 degrees, which was capable of lowering our core body temperatures quickly enough that, if we somehow ended up fully immersed in water for around an hour, we could pass out and die. Furthermore, as it had rained fairly heavily recently, our final moments would be spent inhaling doo-doo water.
Which brings us to an important point: Tubing is an activity best left for the later parts of the summer, when the river is less snowpack and more rainfall, and the air is, y'know, warm. And even if it is warm, you might want to invest in a paddle or two if you're concerned about steering your flotilla or the speed of the water.
"Hey, uh, if I'm not back in like…," my buddy, on the phone to his roommate paused, glancing at me, "two hours, can you call the cops? I'll probably be dead." Despite Utilikilt's warning, we decided to press on, dragging our Walmart floaties to the dock.
But when my ass touched the frigid water, I had a realization: This is not how I go out.
I've survived missile tests in the South China Sea, the brakes going out on my tour van in Grants Pass and several protests during North Face Iron-jacketed reign of Ted "Too Fast for Love" Wheeler. Dying from my own lack of planning amid the excrement of Clackamassians is beneath me. We went home, untubed, but not uneducated.