|The North Columbia Monthly Home||
Jack Nisbet is the author of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple Flat Top, Singing Grass, Burning Sage, Visible Bones, and The Collector.
Amphibians & Reptiles:
Boundary Commission 1860:
Ice Age natural history & mammoths:
Insects & Arachnids:
Miscellaneous Natural History:
Tribal biographies, food, and ethnography:
Range of Tiger Salamanders
In the middle 1950s, Tom Burke's parents moved to a house on the west side road outside of Colville. Tom, always a curious kid, soon discovered there was a salamander down in the basement. He was already familiar with the slender shape of the locally common Long-toed Salamanders--the greenish line drawn down their backs, the tiny points of white that lit their darker sides. But the creature sharing his basement was large and robust, with a broad head and big yellow-green splotches bordered in India ink. He identified it as a Tiger Salamander, and lived with it for several years. The tiger made an elusive guest, sometimes disappearing for weeks at a time, and Tom figured that a big floor drain in the middle of the basement formed a major part of its world.
Journey of Henry James Warre, 1845-46
Early 1845 was a time of crucial historic significance for the Pacific Northwest. After more than five decades of posturing and exploration, England and the United States still shared the territory between the northern Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Since 1827, the two countries had shared the region under a vague agreement of joint occupation. Now U.S. emigration along the Oregon Trail was growing at an explosive rate, and the sensitive boundary issue had to be resolved. Many British politicians thought that 38 years of active fur trade in the Columbia District had given them claim to all of what is now Washington, the Idaho Panhandle, and northwestern Montana. Yet in the United States, James K. Polk had just been elected president of the U.S. under the campaign slogan “54º 40) or Fight,” pushing for a boundary line that would have effectively ended Canada at the Continental Divide. Diplomatic relations were decidedly strained, and two British ships of the line had sailed for the mouth of the Columbia.
and Spirit in the Snow
-Journal of David Thompson from Kootanae House, at the source lakes of the Columbia River, winter 1808
In December of 1812, David Thompson was settling into a new country house outside of Montreal with his wife and five children. Yet he had just finished 27 years of field work in the fur trade between Hudson's Bay and the Pacific Ocean, and during the previous winter he had tromped from Missoula to Flathead Lake to Kettle Falls. His mind must have still been reliving those long marches through the north country, because he took two days off from his mapwork to pen a pleasant article about snowshoeing for the Montreal Herald.
Several years ago, the Stolo tribes of southwestern British Columbia received a collection of artifacts from a retired schoolteacher. The relics, gathered along the middle and lower Fraser River, included projectile points, scrapers, and knives fashioned from two types of stone. The tribal archaeologist identified their styles as belonging to a time before European contact, and a pair of the pieces were of a sort associated with traditional burial sites. Present in the array was a circular stone marked with the imprint of what looked to be a small fossil.
Beside the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in the late summer of1845, a British army officer and artist named Henry James Warre met Father Pierre-Jean De Smet. Warre noted in his journal that the Jesuit priest provided “a great deal of information about the Columbia Country,” and corrected several misconceptions he had about the unfamiliar land. Their brief meeting left a lasting impression on the artist, who labeled the priest... the most intellligent Man I have met with in the Country & with fewer prejudices...” A few weeks later, as Warre made his way down the Columbia to the coast, a rumor caught up with him that De Smet had been killed on his trip to the Plains.
Towards the end of winter, 1806, Meriwether Lewis compiled an account of the birds he had spotted during his time at the mouth of the Columbia River. While the list shows off his considerable skills as an observer, including species that ranged from brown towhee to California condor, Steller's jay to Trumpeter swan, there was one shorebird he had been expecting that never did appear: “I have not seen the large brown Curloo so common to the plains of the Missouri, but I believe that it is an inhabitant of this country during the summer from Indian information and their attempts to mimic the notes of this fowl.”
Every spring in the Columbia country, seed plants of every kind release their pollen, a mass of microspores that usually appear to us as fine particles drifting through the air to settle on picnic tables, car windshields, and nasal passages. When May rains raise mud puddles along our back roads, they are decorated with yellow-green swirls of pine pollen that raise questions from kids all around, until the colors fade and are forgotten in the more substantial dust of a dry summer.
in the Backyard
Many of the first white visitors to come into the Columbia country expressed astonishment over the lack of big game in our region. By big game they meant buffalo, or bison, that most abundant resource of the Great Plains. None of the visitors could figure out how the millions of animals they saw east of the Continental Divide could utterly disappear on the west side. But were bison entirely absent from this drainage? David Thompson, while crossing the Rocky Mountains in the fall of 1808, actually walked a small group of buffalo across the Divide and shot two of them in the headwaters of the Columbia River.
Russia, Eastern Washington
In 1975, the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa released a film called “Dersu Uzala,” which mesmerized crowds with its dreamy account of the Siberian taiga. Now, Dersu the Trapper, A True Account,” written and illustrated by V.K. Arseniev, has been reissued as part of McPherson & Company's “Recovered Classics” series. Arseniev was a Russian geographer and naturalist who between 1902 and 1908 made three expeditions into the taiga north of Vladivostok, where it touches the Sea of Japan. Dersu was a local native who occasionally served as Arseniev's guide.
From source to mouth, over an immense span of time, the Columbia River sturgeon (Acipenser montanus, also known as white sturgeon) has served as a ghostly totem for the entire Pacific Northwest. In 1805, Meriwether Lewis gaped at a 10-footer stranded on an Oregon beach; only two years later, David Thompson bartered for a little sturgeon oil” with some Lower Kootenais at the Columbia's source lakes in what is now southeastern B. C. These long-lived fish continue to grow throughout their existence, and high-end weights have been recorded from Astoria (1,287 pounds), the lower Snake River (1,500 pounds), and the lower Fraser River (1,800 pounds). Fishermen's stories hint at specimens far larger than that, monsters who overpower whatever force is trying to land them and slide back into the murky depths.
In the late summer of 2000, Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist Neal Hedges went into the field to check out a report about some odd frogs around a small pond in the hills above Wenatchee. He timed his excursion just right, and walked in on hundreds of recently transformed Pacific tree frogs hopping around the edges of the pond, as well as smaller numbers of western toads and spotted frogs. Hedges is a fan of amphibians, and there is always something magic about happening upon so many at one time.
Lord, Grouse Man
James Keast Lord was an English veterinarian and classic gadabout whose checkered career engaged him in his trade from the copper mines of Ontario to limestone hills in Arkansas; from the war-torn Crimea to the African shore of the Red Sea; from surveyor for the viceroy of Egypt to first manager of the Brighton Aquarium back in England. But the place he really made his mark, and apparently felt most at home, was right here: at the age of 40, J.K. Lord signed on as horse doctor and assistant naturalist for the British North American Boundary Commission.
Alien in the Garden
The garden is always a good place for testing boundaries, for rediscovering how tenuous the walls of life really are. Vegetables cross-pollinate; insect populations explode from nowhere; weeds penetrate the most sinister barriers. And sometimes it gets much stranger than that. Many people in the Northwest will remember summer 2004 as the year that yellow blobs bubbled up in their mulching bark.
for Wild Carrots
In June of 1811, the Canadian surveyor David Thompson reached the headwaters of the Colville River in what is now northeastern Washington. Following a tribal road, he traced the stream forty miles north through a pleasant valley until it spilled into the Columbia River just below the great salmon fishery at Kettle Falls. Along the way, he encountered several French-Canadians who were trapping in the area. One of them guided Thompson's party across a handy ford and introduced them to a native man who traded the hungry explorers “1 1/4 sacks of roots.” Later that day, other members of the same unnamed tribe provided Thompson with some more roots and a few trout in exchange for a foot of spun tobacco.
Charles Pickering was born in Pennsylvania in 1805, and raised in Massachusetts by his Revolutionary War-hero grandfather. Young Pickering's first love was natural history, and after graduating from Harvard Medical School he set up practice in Philadelphia so he could spend his off hours at the Academy of Natural Sciences. It was there, while in his mid-thirties, that he was offered a position as naturalist with the United States Exploring Expedition under the command U.S. Army officer Lieutenant John Wilkes. Pickering jumped at the chance, sailing from Norfolk, Virginia, in 1838 with some of the eminent scientists of the day. Together they spent the next four years traveling clear around the world, taking the measure of all they saw.
a Wound, Starting a Fire
Anyone who wanders in the woods has seen bracket fungi, those odd banded shelves that grow in arcs from standing snags and deadfall trunks. Most of them belong to the family of Polypores, whose members are composed of thousands of tiny tubes growing tight together on a vertical plane. The fungi hang on to dead or dying wood through a network of parasitic, thread-like roots called rhizomes that slowly work to decompose their host. Like any mushroom, the brackets emerge as soft, spongy masses. Many are edible, and they shed millions of microscopic spores during their fruiting time. But usually by the time people notice polypores they are tough and woody, often harder than the log they are attached to.
During December's long cold nights, the stories people tell have a way of drifting back to a time when the land that was even darker and more frigid. The wind always blew then; great walls of ice loomed to the north; animals of great size roamed the valleys. This spectral setting, magnetically attractive to listeners of all ages, was a reality in the same Columbia River drainage where we live today. The scattered puzzle pieces left behind provide only fragments of a plot line, and often raise just as many questions as they answer.
and People in the Upper Columbia
The response to last month's mammoth column provided me with a reminder that the turning of geological epochs, the life history of ancient elephants, and the swirl of climate change can't hold a candle to the intrigue of possible face-to-face meetings between mammoths and humans. Such interaction is well documented in Europe and Asia in cave paintings, carved ivory, and Siberian winter huts constructed of cleverly piled mammoth bones, all dating roughly from between 30,000 to 10,000 years before the present. In North America, where archaeological sites older than 10,000 years are much rarer, a petroglyph pecked into sandstones on the Colorado River Plateau clearly depicts a trumpeting mammoth.
In the Chewelah City Museum there is a wooden box a little
larger than a businessman's briefcase. Inside the box lies a large bone
that looks like it came from somewhere along the spinal column of a
large –- make that very large –- animal. The disc on this
backbone is almost square and surprisingly flat, only a little more
than an inch thick. It measures about nine inches on each side. The
bone processes on the sides of this square reach out to two tips; one
is broken off, but originally they would have measured close to 18 inches
across. On top, the bone curves around a large and elegant hole typical
of a cervical vertebra –- that part of the spinal column related
to the neck. The bone varies from amber to ivory in color, and the face
of the disc shows a wobbly stain that still smells of rancid blubber.
There is a tag in the box, typed on an old-fashioned upright typewriter,
There was a long period of time, when I was in my 30s, that I felt like I had something alive and growing in my stomach. In the late afternoon my insides would often start to agitate like a washing machine before settling into a vise grip of pain that appeared to be focused on my duodenum, the outlet from the stomach to the small intestine. As with many people living in the north Columbia country, my source for household water was a roughly improved spring, and local talk soon convinced me that I was hosting an intestinal parasite known at Giardia lamblia, which was associated with wild animal scat and produced a range of symptoms and responses that sort of matched my own.
and the Boundaries of Light
Anyone who lives in the North Columbia country has seen glimmers of aurora borealis, or northern lights. Many residents have stood in the wilds away from city lights and been dazzled by phenomenal curtains and swirls, the incandescence of light playing in the sky. Some speak of the way that the aurora can appear to overwhelm their senses, so that sound and touch seem to leak into the visual experience. Psychologists refer to such an overlap in sensory pathways as synesthesia.
When David Douglas made his foray up the Columbia to Fort Colvile in 1826, he watched tribal fishermen using sophisticated nets to capture salmon. The nets were made entirely of plant fibers and Douglas, a curious botanist, studied them closely, impressed with both their efficiency of design and quality of materials. “"The rope of the net is made from the bark of a species of Salix, some of Thuya,"” Douglas wrote, recognizing stout lines of willow and cedar bark. The actual netting, however, was fashioned from “"the cord of Apocynum piscatorium a gigantic species peculiar to that country, which affords a great quantity of flax."” Douglas kept an eye out for this material, noting its many uses as cordage, and later collected “"... an Indian bag, of curious workmanship, made of Indian Hemp, a species of Apocynum."
If you are driving south of Colville along Route 395 and turn west at Addy, you face an island of bedded stone cliffs. The road curves around them to the cyclone fence that marks the property of the former Alcoa plant, passing an old borrow pit backed by steep outcrops and scattered pines. The Addy outcrops are composed mostly of hard quartzite rock, uplifted at a jarring angle. From a distance they resemble the weathered cliffs that rise east of Highway 395, and in fact ring much of the Colville Valley. The difference is that this quartzite, and layers of brown shale interspersed within it, contain the fossils of several small creatures that lived long ago: brachiopods, sponges, hyolithids, and especially trilobites.
Chokecherry is one of the signature plants of the North Columbia country, a small green tree that lines many of our dirt roads. Its white bottlebrush flowers splash across spring in abundance, and its bitter fruit served the tribes and early white visitors as nutritious food both fresh and dried. Yet as the fresh green of chokecherry leaves begins to fade with summer's heat, there is something else to see in the structure of the plant: small bumps and wrinkles that are not so easy to explain. In some seemingly random trees, patches of leaves are marked with pointy growths. The soft nipples that bulge off their top sides might number in the dozens on one individual leaf, and along a row of trees can affect thousands of them.
Early fur trade journals from the North Columbia country do not often describe the recreations of the workers, but music was woven into the French-Canadian culture of the trade. In daybooks kept by North West Company agent David Thompson and many of his cohorts from the Prairies and Canadian Shield, there was usually someone around the trade house who could help to pass the long winter nights with fiddle music, and mentions of “"frolics,"” or dances were often held at the beginning and end of the seasonal chores. During Thompson's years on the Plateau (1807-1812), his journals contain no indication that any of the Columbia crewmen were fiddlers. But the community at his first wintering post called Kootanae House, at the source lakes of the Columbia, did not go without music entirely, because Thompson transported a simple barrel organ across the Divide.
Late summer means low water in the upper Columbia region, a time when kids can wade out into formerly rushing watercourses to play on sand bars, wriggle toes in gravel, and look for hidden treasures. One of the first things they pick up are freshwater mussels or clams - bivalves familiar from the ocean, living here as animals comfortably adapted to the inland world. Explorers of the water's edge find piles of empty mussel shells along the shoreline, shucked and eaten by muskrats, river otters, raccoons, and ducks such as goldeneyes. Although not many people think of eating them now, mussel shells gathered, processed, and then discarded by humans appear in many archaeological digs on the Columbia Plateau. The life of these mollusks has been intimately connected to communities here for as long as salmon, deer, or camas.
This fall I took a class to some caves along the lower Pend Oreille River. It was a dry day, but even from the bottom of the climb up to its entrance we all caught damp, fetid, almost sweet odor that told us we weren't the only ones interested in the cave.
by an Earthquake
This month marks the 133rd anniversary of one of the signature events in the history of the Columbia country. On December 14, 1872, according to a letter written by the Honorable W.P. Winans of Colville and published in the Walla Walla Union,
Consider the contradictions of the fisher. It’s a member of the weasel, or mustelid, family, but does not put out much of the kind of trademark musk deployed by mink and skunks. In size the fisher fits between its close relatives the marten and the river otter, with a decided difference between the sexes; while a big male fisher might reach four feet with a tail half again that length, and weigh almost fifteen pounds, a petite female can be mistaken for a marten. Fisher pelage varies both with the season and among individuals, ranging from light brown to almost ebony, and can be made even more confusing by frosty golden areas on the face, head, and back.
Almost 300 different kinds of pigeons and doves live in temperate and tropical regions all around the globe. Since many of these are not shy and eat grain, they have been closely associated with humans since the earliest times. Stories rooted in actual physical or behavioral traits of the birds – such as their soft cooing sounds, the way they nod their heads when they walk, their unusual ability to drink water without raising their bills, and their astonishing navigational skills – appear in the myths and legends of many different cultures.
On the first humid afternoon of May this spring I was walking along the lower Spokane River with my daughter Emily when she suddenly stopped me and pointed at the ground just behind my left foot. That I had almost stepped on a snake as it lay on the rocks was one thing; that the serpent remained right where it was, stretched out to its full length in the sun, was quite another. No rattler, racer, gopher, or garter snake that lives in our world would stay still while a human bent down to have a look. This snake’s tail was blunt, and its body heavy compared to a slender garter or racer of similar length. Its color was a glossy deep unbroken brown, as rich and comfortable as a well-worn, well-shined cordovan shoe.
The Boundaries column that ran in NCM this past February focused on what was perhaps the first recorded case of minor surgery in the North Columbia country. In the early summer of 1807, near what is now Golden, British Columbia, a French-Canadian voyageur called Beaulieu who had been incapacitated with stomach pains showed a peculiar burr near his stomach to the fur agent and explorer David Thompson. When Thompson used a lancet to slice into Beaulieu “mid of the left side under the second rib,” a porcupine quill popped out. The obviously delighted Thompson recalled a supper of boiled dog eaten ten days earlier and guessed that the animal must have been riddled with quills. He marveled at the different appearance of the quills on various parts of a porcupine’s body, and studied a peculiar hard core of infection on the quill he held before him before turning back to the business of establishing a fur trade network west of the Divide. But what became of the patient who was responsible for Thompson’s ruminations?
Ivory-billed & Pileated Woodpeckers
Of the many foreign visitors who filtered into the north Columbia country with the coming of the fur trade, none had more a more lasting cultural influence than the Iroquois. Members of this Eastern Woodlands tribe first appear in the fur trade journals of the North West and Hudson’s Bay fur companies, which provide the only written records for the Intermountain West during the early period of contact.
In his instructions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Thomas Jefferson made it very clear that his captains should take note of everything -- every single little thing -- that they saw on their journey west. So when the Corps of Discovery laid over at the three forks of the Missouri for a few days at the end of July, 1805, Meriwether Lewis kept his eyes open and his nose to the ground, listing a cornucopia of birds, wildlife, plants, and some much smaller things.
Charles Wilson's Two Winters
In 1858, the British team of the North American Boundary Commission appointed a 22-year old Royal Engineers lieutenant named Charles William Wilson to be their secretary in British Columbia. An active, sporting gentleman from Liverpool, Wilson used his position to explore the Pacific Northwest, moving inland with the survey and overseeing pack trains of supplies from Fort Walla Walla north to survey crews along the 49th parallel. Along the way he commented on familiar fur trade landmarks around the Spokane River, Lake Pend Oreille, and the Kootenai country into Canada. He also spent two entire winters at Fort Colvile, the fading Hudson's Bay Company trading post located at Kettle Falls.
The Longest Journey
In the fall of 1902, Willamette Valley farmer Ellis Hughes was cutting wood near the present town of West Linn when lunchtime came around. "I sat down on the rock," Hughes later recalled. "It was about 1 1/2 ft above the ground and very flat."
Once upon a time there lived many different kinds of creatures, all of them animals. One day two of them, Eel and Sucker Fish, challenged each other at the stick game.
"Now we'll play. Don't let anyone interfere. Only two of us will play the stick game."
Then they played, Sucker Fish on one side and Eel on the other. They played almost the whole night long. Eventually Sucker Fish defeated Eel.
He won from him everything he had, and Eel was left without even his scales. That's why Eel has no scales.
After Eel had lost everything, he told Sucker, "I'm going to bunch up as many bones as I have."
And so Eel bid his bones and began gambling again. They continued playing, and by the time the sun was rising, Eel had lost all of his bones. This is why Eel has no bones, no scales, nor anything. He lost them all to Sucker in the stick game.
When the British team of the Northwest Boundary Survey hired naturalist James Keast Lord in 1858, they assigned him to collect bird and animal specimens along the 49th parallel from the lower Fraser to the Continental Divide. Lord took to his duties with relish, sending home an impressive sampling of whatever living creatures came within range of his shotgun. He was at Fort Colvile in June of 1860, watching common nighthawks -- one of the last spring migrants to arrive in the north Columbia country -- swoop and boom through the dusk of sunny evenings. When Mr. Lord procured one of the birds (which he called goatsuckers) for his collection, he penetrated deeper into the food web of the North Columbia country that he could ever have imagined.
The Army of Cecrops
For anyone who grew up in the Southeast, as I did, summer nights provided a sensual overload of lightning bugs, cicada racket, and the warm velvety wings of wild silk moths. Luna moths, Io moths, the giant Polyphemus, all these magical creatures came alive on hot sticky evenings around the well house, or could be found glued motionless to big oak trees just after dawn. From the first time I ever leaned close to stroke the plump maroon body of a female Cecropia moth and caught a whiff of its musky odor, they became my favorite.
The Professional: How to Throw an Atlatl
The atlatl marked a key innovation in the development of human hunting. Sometimes spelled atl-atl and usually pronounced more like ot lotl, it is a spear-throwing device that allowed a hunter to throw a weapon at a target with great force from an impressive distance. Atlatls have been recovered from archaeological sites on all inhabited continents and take many forms; the common element is a shaft around the length of a human forearm with a grip on one end and a catch, spur, cup, or pin on the other. Hunters rested the butt of their spear against the catch, fingered the shaft of the spear parallel to the atlatl, and combined a wheel of the upper arm with a shift of body weight and flick of the wrist that finished in a powerful leg drive. If you have ever wielded a lacrosse stick, watched a surf caster throw a weighted hook impossibly far out to sea, or flipped off a springy diving board, you have experimented with the physics that provide an atlatl's powerful addition to a simple spear toss.
The Future of Stone Rose
Many residents of Upper Columbia country have experienced the wonders of Stone Rose, a fossil site located above downtown Republic. Young and old, we have split pieces of the bedded rock that spills out of the road cut and seen the jumble of sticks, seeds, leaves, and odder imprints trapped inside. We have heard about the Eocene Epoch, around 50 million years before the present, and listened to helpful interpreters explain the warm upland climate and rich forest that once covered our landscape. We have tried to imagine how parts of that forest filtered down to the bottom of an ancient lakebed, to be covered with fine silt and volcanic ash, then over time pressed into the colorful shale we are cracking open. We have stood in the interpretive room to have our discoveries identified and watched school children, curious travelers, and fossil enthusiasts from all over the world gawk at the astonishing displays on the wall.
One of the great characters of the early fur trade days in the Columbia District was Finan McDonald, whose 20-year career here began at initial contact and ended just after Fort Colvile was established at Kettle Falls. Because McDonald never rose above the level of a company clerk, today we know him mostly through other people's terse trade journal entries and romanticized reminiscences, which make it hard to get a clear idea of what the man might actually have been like. But Finan could wield a pen himself, and a handful of remarkably misspelled letters plus one turn at a house journal reveal aspects of someone who has to be included on any list of early shapers of the North Columbia country.
Another Dose of Finan McDonald: the Buffalo Stomp
In his classic book on the early fur trade days called The Columbia River, fur clerk Ross Cox included a few blustery paragraphs that describe Finan McDonald as a mythic force in the tradition of Paul Bunyan. Cox counts off Finan's many postings during his tenure in the Columbia District and pokes fun at his spluttering attempts to express himself, but can't hide his affections for a local hero.
A close friend of mine passed away last year. She really liked plants, and each fall we used to travel up into the mountains above the Pend Oreille Valley to revisit some of her favorite places. We would poke around Bunchgrass Meadows to check out the purple stems of beargrass, or muck through a muddy spring searching for a medicinal plant that smelled like celery. She was especially fond of North Baldy, where we could look way down on Priest Lake to the east, and way down on the Pend Oreille River to the west. The juniper up there smelled especially strong to her.
David Thompson's Eyes
Throughout the days of his long productive life, fur agent and north Columbia explorer David Thompson spent time watching the landscape, observing wildlife, aiming a musket to bring down game, sawing and sewing wood in the course of various building projects, peering through a sextant or telescope to determine where he was on the planet, performing neat mathematical calculations on unlined paper, reading, and, especially, writing. Since each of these activities involve clear vision, it comes as somewhat of a shock to realize that, from the age of 19 onward, Thompson managed to accomplish them with only one eye. Could he have been exaggerating a little bit when he stated that he lost the sight in his right eye during the winter of 1789-90? Did anyone else ever comment on the state of David Thompson's vision?
Spots in the Snow
Even though January is supposed to represent the dead of winter, weather seldom follows the straight line of expectation. The phenomena of "January thaw" was happily welcomed by old timers long before any rumblings of global warming surfaced, and early fur trade journals record wild swings in temperature that would reduce a firm base of winter snow, perfect for dog sledding, to an impossible glush within two day's time. Such periods of warm weather bring out oddly familiar phenomena of their own, natural occurrences that are easily forgotten from year to year. Two centuries ago, North West Company agent David Thompson puzzled over one of them long enough to tie his mind in knots.
A few seasons ago (The North Columbia Monthly, June 2004), a Boundaries column peered into the winter habits of sharp-tailed grouse at Fort Colvile, the original Hudson's Bay Company trading post above Kettle Falls. A peripatetic veterinarian and naturalist named James Keast Lord, who worked for the British team of the International Boundary Commission from 1858-62, not only dined on sharp-taileds often, but also took time to note the birds' habits: their manner of huddling in the stubble of the trading posts' grain fields; the way their thickly feathered feet allowed them to run easily atop crusted snow; the remarkable fitness and stable body fat of grouse he shot at thirty degrees below zero.
David Douglas, the son of a Scottish stonemason, was born in a village outside Perth in 1799. As a boy, his inquisitive, but easily distracted, nature conflicted with the rigors of school, and at age ten he was sent to the gardener of the local manor house to begin a seven year apprenticeship. The lad was good with plants, and a dozen years later his energy, field expertise, and unquenchable enthusiasm won him a job as a horticultural collector for the London Botanical Society.
As Scottish horticulturist David Douglas padded around Kettle Falls in the spring of 1826, he was delighted to find western white trillium blooming in moist peaty soils beneath a copse of birch trees. The site was quite possibly on lower Pinkney Creek, where the flower, also called wake-robin because of its early appearance, may still be found today. Douglas certainly agreed with legendary Missoula naturalist Klaus Lackschewitz, who called the plant "perhaps the most elegant spring wildflower in our area."
The 1900 Washington State census lists William Morley Manning as a 23-year-old assayer in Stevens County. Manning had been born in Ontario, Canada, but by 1897, at the tender age of 20, he had filed U.S. citizenship papers in Idaho County, Idaho. The following year he enrolled in the University of Toronto's program for mining engineers, although there is no evidence that he ever received any kind of degree.
This April, the Stonerose Center in Republic celebrated its 20th anniversary as a community interpretive and research facility. Stonerose's focus is a deposit of fossil bearing shale exposed by a roadcut just beyond the town's main street, but its reach extends far beyond the city limits. For this event, scientists from as far away as Georgia converged on Republic to visit schools, lead tours of fossil sites, sift through mystery specimens in the center's basement museum, and participate in a symposium at the county fairgrounds. Their talks, presented to an enthusiastic crowd of local fossil fans, opened up a universe of recent knowledge and clear perspective on Stonerose's place in the world.
In the spring of 1822, Finan McDonald kept the journal for the Spokane House trading post, just downstream from the present city of Spokane. During much of April tribal people gathered along the river for an early fish run, but toward the end of the month they began to slip away.
Dog Days I
Daniel Harmon, the son of Vermont innkeepers, chafed at the restrictions of small-town life. In 1800, at 21 years of age, he signed on with the North West Company in Montreal as a fur trade clerk. Over the next 16 years he worked at numerous posts in the Prairies, the Peace River country, and the New Caledonia District of the upper Fraser River. Although he never rose to any position of command, Harmon kept a meticulous personal journal during all those years. In it he included details of food consumption, tribal ethnography, social practices, and his company's stuttered expansion over the Rocky Mountains. All of these traits make him a natural fountain of dog stories, and an excellent lead-in for anyone curious about this month's Boundary question: What was it like to be a dog in the north Columbia country two centuries ago?
Dogs and humans have been tied up in a complex and confusing relationship for a very long time. Many scientists believe DNA studies will eventually shed clear light on that relationship, but for now the information floating around on the web and in a raft of dog history books seems full of contradictions.
On a June morning some years ago I sat above a very isolated pothole lake on the Columbia National Wildife Refuge outside of Othello. The tiny lake, no more than a hundred feet across, was situated in a deep hole surrounded by basalt cliffs and scree slopes; the faint breeze that blew did not reach its surface at all. And yet the top of water appeared to be cooking at a slow simmer.
We now learned that the spearing of the Salmon was attended with many ceremonies . . .
The 1840s and 50s saw wrenching upheaval in the North Columbia country. British fur trade culture, which had been the most visible organizing factor in the region for four decades, began to wane after the 1846 treaty that established the 49th parallel as the international boundary. Two years later, a virulent measles epidemic decimated tribal populations on the southern Plateau and led to the destruction of Marcus Whitman's mission at Walla Walla. Before anyone had recovered from that, gold-seeking prospectors flooded north from the California gold fields into the upper Columbia. By 1853, teams of surveyors began to probe the mountains for possible railroad routes, and in 1855 newly appointed territorial governor Isaac Stevens made his whirlwind tour of treaty negotiations, which stirred up controversy on all fronts. These culture clashes led to skirmishes between tribal people and encroaching settlers, followed eventually by Colonel George Wright's destructive swing through the Palouse and Spokane country in 1858.
One Tooth, Many Bones
During the early days of Chewelah’s Northwest Magnesite Company, just after World War I, a worker at the Red Marble Quarry picked up a strange object about the size of a large human foot. Among chunks of marbleized dolomite, it felt like real ivory. Composed of sixteen rectangular plates sandwiched together, the curiosity was worn to the base on one end and to the fourth plate on the other. When the discoverer showed it around to his fellow workmen, someone recognized it as a mammoth molar, and by 1920 the tooth had been donated to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, where it has resided ever since. All by itself, this artifact proved that at some point in past mammoths cavorted in the Colville Valley, and so played a major role in inspiring the Keith Powell-David Govedere mural the graces the Chewelah city hall today.
Winter is a state of mind, a story that people tell in their own way. Each cold season has a signature, but each one also shows many different aspects. Compressed by memory, they layer up like striations in a glacier, with snows from long ago crystallized into the blue ice of lore.
Camp Flying Squirrel
Alexander Caulfield Anderson was a veteran of the Hudson’s Bay Company when he was posted to Fort Colvile for three years beginning in 1848. He had served at just about every trade house in the Columbia and New Caledonia Districts, and seemed to know everyone. Anderson was also a good letter writer who paid attention to people and places, and had already penned magazine articles describing his experiences in the western fur trade. At Kettle Falls he gathered more information, and after he retired published a guide to the Interior gold country. He capped that off in 1872 with a volume on the Columbia and Fraser River country entitled The Dominion at the West; a brief description of the Province of British Columbia, its climate and resources. In a way Anderson was our first recognized travel writer, introducing white settlers from far away to the attractions of this place.
Now that spring is here, there is no better place to watch the rebirth of our region than the source lakes of the Columbia River – those twin long narrow wetland seeps that stretch north from Canal Flats to Invermere, British Columbia. In the middle of dry juniper and grassland, they sit like sponges in the Rocky Mountain Trench, swelling a seam that hinges the whole North American continent. Each April, as green lines of sedges, rushes, and cattails begin to peek up through the mirrored sheet of Columbia Lake, migrating waterfowl spread across its surface, their gabbles and honks drowning out the long-awaited sound of water leaking into another new season. But even now, it is hard to forget the tight lock of winter on these source lakes, and feel the power of the frozen stories they have spread across the Columbia country for untold generations.
Looking for Crossbills
Red crossbills do not appear to play by the same rules that govern other living things. In fact, the more a person looks at this odd bird, the more every aspect of their being begins to wobble out of focus. Crossbill songs, plumage, habits, and even head profile change from forest to forest. Many show no fear at all of people, and their colors look far too bright and varied for the far north. Crossbill nesting behavior is not in synch with other birds, which makes it impossible to draw a map of their distribution – flocks drift around like clouds on a weather map. And although these finches used to be one of the most abundant members of the North Columbia community, many birders can’t seem to find them any more.
Paddling with Long Jim
The cottonwood dugout canoe glides silently upstream on the Okanogan. It is late afternoon, and the summer shadows that are beginning to creep onto the water make each long ripple crawl like an oily snake from boat to shore. The Okanogan’s current is slow and relaxed on the surface, but there is power beneath as the river slides past the last low finger of land at its mouth. Willow and hawthorn sprout from the spit in a loose tangle that grows thicker at the point. The skeletons of what might have been a cottonwood clump mark the left side of the photograph, and a strange single flagpole rises from the middle of the spit, centering the entire picture. This flagpole marks the location of the original Fort Okanagan, a trading post established by the Pacific Fur Company in the summer of 1811.
In the fall of 1810, New York businessman John Jacob Astor set a scheme into motion that would challenge Great Britain’s North West and Hudson’s Bay companies for fur trade dominance in the Pacific Northwest. Calling his outfit the Pacific Fur Company, Astor dispatched a team of experienced Scottish agents and voyageurs aboard the vessel Tonquin from New York City; their orders called for them to sail around the Horn to the mouth of the Columbia River, establish a trading post, and then push into the interior to expand their business. It was a bold plan, and Astor was even then negotiating with the North West Company to divvy up the profits of the region. But it’s a long way from New York City to the North Columbia country, and Astor’s well-laid plans led to a tangled web of unintended consequences. One of the most intriguing was the way the voyage of the Tonquin set the stage for the arrival of Hawaiians in our part of the world, and the far-reaching effects of those distant immigrants.
Over the past century, nothing in the Columbia Basin has changed so much as the movement of water and the mixture of fish. Commercial fishing pressure downstream reached gigantic proportions in the late 1800s, with the annual harvest of lamprey, sturgeon, and five species of salmon measured in the thousands of tons. All of these are anadromous fish that feed in the ocean, then spawn in fresh water. Their ranges extend far upstream, along the whole length of the Columbia, but there are only scanty historical records available to help judge the impact of fish wheels and related structures on the inland fisheries.
How History Looks Now: A Kalispel Encampment, 2009
This fall marks the 200th anniversary of Kullyspel House, the first trading post built by North West Company fur agent and surveyor David Thompson in what is now the U.S.A. If you figure the period of European contact as beginning with the 1780-81 smallpox pandemic of that swept across the North Columbia Country, and ending with the 1846 boundary settlement that severed the traditional ranges of the Okanagan, Lakes, Kalispel, and Kootenai tribes, Thompson’s initial circle of trade houses falls right in the middle of that tumultuous period. Native cultures see little to celebrate in such an event, but certainly recognize the coming of the fur business as a moment that changed their history forever.
David Douglas at Play
Scottish naturalist David Douglas, whose name is forever attached not only to the Douglas fir but also to several dozen other Pacific Northwest plants, birds, and animals, spent most of the decade between 1824-34 collecting specimens from New York to Brazil to Hawaii. The bulk of his work took place in the Columbia country, where his every movement had to be approved by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The fur trade business dominated our region so completely back then that when Douglas arrived in 1825, he was the only white person in the entire Columbia district who was not on the company’s payroll.
Last fall (in August and September 2008), Boundaries explored the ancient relationship between dogs and people in the New World. Certain stories seem to emphasize odd turns in that relationship, and it's hard not to think about the movement from wild wolves to cuddly pets when the naturalist David Douglas passed through our region in 1826. Instead of looking on dogs as a convenient meal, like many of the fur trade agents of the time, Douglas left behind journal entries that describe always sleeping with both a faithful dog and a musket beside his bedroll. But the dog-human relationship continues to evolve, and at least one modern researcher has rediscovered the finely-tuned sensory skills of certain canines on a level that probably reflects back to the reason tribal people of old adapted them in the first place.
David Douglas at Timerline
Scottish naturalist David Douglas, usually known as a prolific collector and scientific namer -- see Douglas's squirrel, Douglas's onion, Douglas's iris, and Douglas fir, among many others -- was also a mountain climber of some ambition. On his first run up the Columbia from Fort Vancouver in the summer of 1825, he hired the brother of a local tribal headman to lead him onto the rugged slopes of Table Mountain above what is now Bonneville Dam. After a three-day trip that required another full day's recuperation, the collector ascended high enough on the Mount Hood side of the river to collect cones from the elegant noble fir.
A World Swimming with Fish
Fish work to tell the story of anyone's life. The single image of my Uncle John Ed, with his meaty forearms and oddly humped shoulder, casting his favorite green and red Hula Popper plug out over the muddy water of a South Carolina pond brings back my own entire youth: the way the popper landed between the roots of an upturned sunken stump in exactly the right position to be reeled in without a snag; the moment the lips of a largemouthed bass accordianed around the plug's skittering bright colors; the strength of that monster's scaly girth to my tentative hands, the greasy delight of its white flesh rolled in corn meal and frying in a hot skillet; the dense humidity of a July evening; the shrill rasps of cicadas masking our greedy bites.
Northern Flying Squirrels
Some winters ago, I held the key to an old brick school building, so I could come in early before classes to catch up on work. One dark morning I slipped in through the side entrance and hopped up to the long hall that fronted all the classrooms, headed for my desk in the library. But instead of an empty corridor, I found myself face to face with a flying squirrel, not much larger than a mouse, sitting in the middle of the maple floor. It was the huge dark eyes and velvety fur that gave the little rodent away.
Duke of First Thought Mine
It takes a world of time and many twists and turns to form a body of ore. During the Eocene period, around 50 million years ago, islands of terrain docking onto the edge of the North American continent pushed up what we call the Okanogan Highlands. As the deep subduction of these plates opened volcanic vents within the Sanpoil drainage, surges of heat and magma shot through veins to reach the surface, altering the chemistry of ancient rock. It was a tumultuous process interrupted by long periods of relative stability, when a warmer, wetter climate created rich habitats. The list of Eocene flora of Ferry and Stevens County mimics modern hardwood forests of the American South and coniferous stands in China: maple, beech, witch hazel, mulberry, and sassafras; dawn redwood, umbrella pine, and Asian larch. The fossil treasures that school kids crack out of Republic's Stone Rose quarry serve as hard evidence of those leafy green stands.
The decade of the 1850s saw the beginning of Washington State as we know it today, but it was always not a pretty sight. As the new United States government slowly pushed the British Hudson's Bay Company regime out of the Northwest, local residents experienced pestilence in the form of smallpox and measles, crippling greed as gold fever spread north, political squabbles under ambitious new governor Isaac Stevens, outright war over tribal treaties and removal, and finally the tracing of an international boundary line that tore the entire region in half. Somehow a New Yorker named George Gibbs not only witnessed the entire process, but also used his wide range of personal interests to preserve some aspects of cultures that were slated for destruction. His work across the gamut of human and natural history marks Gibbs as the Northwest's first cultural anthropologist.
Every plant tells a story, and the ones that present food in different forms, that are adaptable, that somehow travel to cut across cultures and continents, end up telling many more than one. Chenopodium is a genus of weedy plants that originated in Eurasia. The Latin name comes from the Greek words cheno for goose and podos for foot, and indeed the roughly triangular leaves of several of its species do resemble geese tracks. Chenopodium album adds the Latin word for the color white because tiny scales give the leaves and stems of mature plants a dappled grayish-white appearance.
Crossing the Bar
The Columbia River is about 1250 miles long, and drains an immense area of the Intermountain West. For somewhere around 13 thousand years, between the end of the last Ice Age and the beginning of the dam building era in the early 20th century, the Columbia flowed steadily from its source lakes to the sea. It never had a smooth ride, however, as local geology slowed and twisted its course all the way along: from Dalles de Mort to Kettle Falls, from Priest Rapids to Celilo through the Dalles, tribal travelers named and portaged these difficult barriers. The first white visitors who had to deal with our now-drowned local rapids worked for the fur trade, and with tribal help they made an art out of getting around the rocks. The fact that occasional reports of battered bateaus, lost goods, and tragic drownings filtered into fur trade journal entries was considered a necessary part of the business.
One on One
The first time anyone goes to the Stonerose fossil site in Republic, they grab a slab of 50-million year old Eocene shale, crack it open with a hammer, and stare in amazement at the figures embossed on each freshly-exposed surface. They touch the blackened compressed images of what a Stonerose veteran patiently explains to be sticks or charcoal fragments. The newcomer tosses that aside, cracks open a second sample, and looks again. This time, or the next, or the next, something new leaps out of the stone. One viewer's eye might catch the regular geometry of a tiny seed or the line of a needle from a coniferous tree; another's brain might register the clear veins of a familiar leaf or a delicate insect wing. The search is on, and anyone who has ever dragged a kid kicking and screaming from the Republic rubble at sunset on a hot summer day knows that there is some real emotional attraction about seeing such instant photographs of the deep past.
In 2002, many visitors to the new Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture Small Towns exhibit found themselves stopping in front of a singular glass case. Inside it hung the painting of a spaghetti-legged rodeo clown who had just wrapped his red blanket around a snorting brahma bull. The back of the animal's muscular neck, colored like an angry bruise, snaked down from its shoulder hump toward eyes and nostrils that glowed like angry coals. In front of the painting rested a small terra cotta dory, glazed in beige and ocean blue. The boat was occupied by two fishermen outfitted in foul-weather gear; while one rowed hard, the other turned to blow his signal horn.
As the nights cool down in the North Columbia country,
summer's swarms of insects gradually disappear. The bees that followed
all the blooms of the season -- honeybees, sweat bees, carpenter bees,
cuckoo bees, digger bees, leafcutter bees, solitary bees, parasitic
wasps and flies that mimic bees -- fade away with the heat, and the
air seems suddenly empty. Yet many flowers, both of the wild and garden
variety, hang on till the hard frosts, and on warm September afternoons
it's not unusual to find a bumblebee working its way through a field
of asters in a mountain meadow, or knapweed in some fading pasture,
or late zinnias that border a city sidewalk.
VIEW FROM WASHINGTON ROCK
Each spring, as the snow wears off hillsides throughout our region, ropes of wet soil emerge that slither across the slopes like cryptic runes. This writing represents the collapsed cores of pocket gopher tunnels, pushed up as the rodents work through their busy routines, day and night, in every month of the year. These gophers, common from alluvial soils along the river’s edge clear up to steep stoney meadows in the high country, never seem to stop digging.
Is there time for one more long winter walk? This past season’s La Niña made for some really good late snow in the high county, the kind that collapses time back to days when lynx bounded after snowshoe hares, when woodland caribou formed a keystone of Kalispel and Lakes (Sinixt) tribal culture, and when fur trade brigades depended on a tight conditions lasting through April and early May so they could pack their season’s pelts across Athabasca Pass.
The seismic history of the Inland Northwest has yet to be clearly described. Yet anyone who has felt or heard some of the numerous small earthquakes that have shaken eastern Washington over the past few years, or has delved into the history of the 1872 earthquake centered near Lake Chelan (see the Boundaries column for December 2005) has to be curious about what might be going on beneath our feet. In the long run, there is obviously much to learn about the relationship between our own moderate fault zones and practical matters such as landscape history, local building codes, water sources that include the Spokane aquifer, and (gulp) the storage of atomic waste. It is the last of these items that brings people out of their chairs, and inextricably links us, even in what we think of as our remote corner of the world, with the three calamities that northeast Japan has had to endure since March.
It was June 17, 1811, when North West Company fur agent David Thompson began the first of his many treks up what he called the Ilthkoyape Road. The road started at the confluence of the Spokane and Little Spokane Rivers, where the previous summer Thompson’s crew had constructed the Spokane House post. After sending off gifts of tobacco to potential trading partners in Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce country, Thompson followed a Kalispel guide north along an ancient tribal trail that led to Kettle Falls. Mosquitos bothered his small crew all day, and poor hunting meant that they had to kill an old horse for supper at their first encampment.
In January of 1827, caught in the middle of a long winter at Fort Vancouver on the lower Columbia, naturalist David Douglas apparently felt the strain of too many rainy days. “To pass away the time,” he wrote, “I copied some notes of the Chenook tribe of Indians.” That’s odd, I thought, when I recently chanced upon his remark. In writing a book about Douglas’s stay in the Pacific Northwest, my wife and I had looked through a wide variety of his papers, and lately had done it all again while thinking about objects that might be part of a museum exhibit focused on his work here. None of them contained any separate discussion of Chinook or Coastal culture.
Late summer in our part of the world is weed time, and in the hot dry weather, many people struggle with the toadflaxes, thistles, buglosses, goatweeds, and their kin that in many places overwhelm the fragile beauty of native wildflowers. To some residents, members of the genus Centaurea—I’m talking about knapweed here—are particularly obnoxious, and often lead to frenzies of apparently fruitless pulling, spraying, mowing, and goat husbandry. For several consecutive years, I watched in dismay as three different kinds of knapweeds spread relentlessly up my driveway and across some of my most sacred flower havens. Then a friend introduced me to an elderly gentleman named Klaus Lackshewitz.
Educators all over the country are receiving flyers announcing October 9-15 as National Earth Science Week, leading up to a National Fossil Day on the weekend. Lucky for us, the North Columbia Country’s own Stonerose Interpretive Center in Republic has responded with a wide range of activities that celebrate the rich geologic and biologic past of the Okanogan Highlands (See the schedule in this month's What's Happening or go to www.stonerosefossil.org/ for details).
One of the great characters of early Northwest history was Antoine Plante, who worked as a trapper, guide, translator, gold miner, horse trader, and ferryman throughout the Interior Salish country from the middle of the fur trade era to the tail end of the 19th century. Family oral history has it that Antoine (whose descendents pronounce his name An-twine) was born in British Columbia around 1812, the son of a French-Canadian trader who came west with the Astorians; his mother was said to be a Gros Ventre woman from east of the Continental Divide.
Time, especially during December’s short days, seems to be a very elusive concept. Something like the change from Daylight to Standard time should be completely arbitrary, yet people walk around for weeks afterward complaining about mental lag. Satellites and GPS units connect what appear to be ever more exact measurements of time with ever more precise locations of place, even as any kind of deep knowledge regarding where we are on the planet slips further from our grasp. The time line that stretches back to the past, marked with familiar dates pegged to events we think created the Northwest as we know it, keeps getting tweaked in ways that upset our sense of how things moved from yesterday to today. It all brings to mind the moment when intrepid fur agent David Thompson, pulling into a Saskatchewan River trade house after a long haul east from the Columbia country, noted without too much fuss that while he had marked his current journal entry as “Tuesday,” the gentlemen at the post made it out to be “Wednesday.”
A hundred and fifty years ago, the Inland Northwest was in the midst of a profound transition. The Canadian fur trade economy that had dominated the region for half a century was giving way to the new government Washington Territory, but the change had not quite taken hold. The old Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Colvile, located near the tribal fishery and village at Kettle Falls, continued to do business under the command of chief trader Angus McDonald. The American government had established their own Fort Colville, spelled with an additional “l”, near the site of the modern town. Some American settlers were beginning to join the mixed blood fur trade families who had been farming in the Colville Valley for four decades and more.
The life of Alexander Caulfield Anderson spanned most of the 19th century, from 1812-1884. Smack in the middle of it he served as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief trader at Fort Colvile, (1848-53), insinuating himself into the history of the North Columbia during a crucial period of change. He remained there long enough both to earn the respect of his company superiors and to acquire a Salish nickname, “S’gath poose,” from the local people. This will come as no surprise to anyone who reads a new book from Heritage House Press, titled The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West, which explores the full sweep of his career. To say that A. C. spent time as a clerk, fur trader, trail blazer, watercolorist, map-maker, farmer, postmaster, customs inspector, Indian reserves administrator, writer, historian, and fisheries bureau agent only hints at the transformations he experienced during his lifetime.
Sketching the New World: The Art of Alfred Downing
The early 1880s marked a key period of transition in Northwest history, especially in the Interior. As white settlers began to move up the Columbia and the territory stuttered toward official statehood, tribal people were supposed to relocate to lands roughly laid out by treaties signed (or not signed) in the 1850s, even though the boundaries of several reservations seemed to change from day to day.
Molasses & Archy's Map
In her January 2011 Monthly column, Eileen Pearkes focused on Archibald McDonald’s decade as chief trader and then chief factor at Fort Colvile, 1835-44. At a time when our region was beginning to shift from an economy based on beaver pelts to the coming rush for gold and other mineral wealth, the complex Archy (often referred to by his nickname to separate him from the numerous other McDonalds in the fur trade), for better and worse, was the face of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was McDonald who expanded farmland around the fort and kick-started the sawmill at Meyer’s Falls; in 1844, it was Archy reported on the Kootenay Lake silver deposits that later bloomed into the Bluebell Mine.
Dice Box, Fritillaries in the Columbia Country
The cover of last month’s North Columbia Monthly (June 2012) featured a photograph of a fritillary butterfly. Fritillaries make up a large group, all characterized by attractive orange-shaded wings. The upper pair of fritillary wings comes decorated with coarse black spots, while the lowers are highlighted by bright silver reflective eyes. Counting these spots and eyes is a game that butterfly enthusiasts play to identify closely related species. The marks remind some people of the spots on dice, with their many but definite combinations.
THE GIFT: George Barnston and Life Beyond the Fur Trade
Lords of the Air: Condors in the Pacific Northwest, Then and Now
One of the first creatures that Scottish naturalist David Douglas looked for when he arrived on the Northwest in 1825 was what Captain William Clark had called “the Beautiful Buzzard of the Columbia”—the bird we now call California condor. Douglas knew that the Corps of Discovery had delivered a skin of this huge carrion eater back to Philadelphia, and was eager both to observe the bird’s behavior and to procure a specimen for British science.
Governor Stevens at War
As Washington Territory’s first Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, then their first representative to the U.S. Congress, Isaac Ingalls Stevens spent most the 1850s cutting a sometimes contentious swath through the Northwest’s early history. His meetings and treaty agreements with multiple tribes from the Coast to the Rocky Mountains exemplified his headstrong approach. Natives like Spokane Garry and trusted Stevens aides like George Gibbs (see Boundaries April 2010) became openly critical of the governor’s methods of coercing tribes to sign these blanket documents. It wasn’t long before the treaties led to such general unrest between tribal groups and white settlers that Stevens declared martial law. In the face of this radical attempt to gain control of a difficult situation, several of Stevens’s former political allies encouraged a suit to get the declaration lifted.
To Build a House
When North West Company agent David Thompson crossed the Rocky Mountains and began to explore the upper Columbia River in 1807, he introduced the British method of fur trading to the Inland Northwest. Their companies, centered on Hudson Bay and in Montreal, had built trade houses across all of Canada that included separate structures for living quarters, storage, and carrying out business. With posts in place, the companies then encouraged local tribes to trap beaver and bring the pelts in for trade.
Kennewick Man on the Cusp
In the summer of 1846, the Canadian artist Paul Kane executed a quick watercolor sketch of sand dunes in the Columbia Basin. For Kane, the wind-swept dunes represented an utterly hostile trek that he barely survived, but his painting feels strangely calm, with delicate shrubs rendered in faint washes of sage green. A viewer can almost understand how resourceful people might move around in such a landscape, gathering all they found necessary for their lives.
Inside the Witch's Broom
Like many visitors to the Columbia River’s Interior who haled from Europe or eastern North America, Scottish naturalist David Douglas was mightily impressed by the forests he saw here. “Delightful undulating country,” Douglas wrote in his daybook for May 1826 as he traveled around Fort Colvile. “The scenery is picturesque in the extreme.” What he and other visitors seemed to like best was the way that centuries of intentional burning by local tribes had established pleasant open stands of ponderosa pine. “This part of the Columbia is by far the most beautiful that I have seen,” Douglas said. “Very varied, extensive plains, with groups of pine-trees, like an English lawn.”
COMING AND GOING
Even if winter has only begun to relax its grip, March marks the beginning of migration in the North Columbia country. Resonant bugles rain down from the evening sky, proclaiming that dozens of tundra swans will soon appear on flooded or snow-covered fields. The eerie rattles of sandhill cranes send chills down spines as the birds mill northward from the irrigated farm country of the Columbia Basin. Rails whinny from deep in the cattails, and snipe winnow through wild aerial displays above wetlands. All kinds of ducks and geese follow freshly opened lakes and ponds with the migratory restlessness known to Germans as zugunruhe, that anxious desire to move felt by every living thing.
APRIL’S MISPLACED PLANT
The Journeys of Mary Marchand 1927 - 2013
From the moment that the first fur traders appeared in northeastern Washington and southeastern British Columbia a little over two centuries ago, the history of white and Native American relationships has traced a complex, intertwined path. While confusion and misunderstanding often colored the larger interactions, individual families and communities adapted to waves of different newcomers and managed to carry on. Many say they accomplished this by maintaining the spiritual and cultural values that had sustained them for untold generations.
Anyone who has ever taken a peek at written histories of the early 19th century—or of any century, for that matter—soon realizes that women are almost entirely absent from the accounts that have come down to us in books. As that gap has begun to be filled over the past few decades, the story of the fur trade in the Interior Northwest has gone through some striking changes. On both sides of the international border, a handful of female historians have succeeded in expanding the narrative from a succession of hairy white men slogging through the snow to sagas of mixed-blood families that can be traced from far back in time to modern towns and reservations. Much remains to be done, and a host of current students have taken up the cause of tracing genealogies, altering old myths, and connecting people to a landscape that remains alive.
Out Of Place
Washington Highway 172 runs a straight east-to-west line across the Waterville Plateau for a little more than 20 miles, not far south of the Columbia River. The tableland on its eastern end almost looks down on Grand Coulee; after its western T intersection, the road begins to slide down McNeil Canyon to the Columbia’s southern turn and Lake Chelan. During the lingering end of the last Ice Age, the long finger of the Okanogan glacial lobe pushed south across this part of the plateau, blocking the Columbia’s flow and helping to create the spectacular water-carved channels of both Moses and Grand Coulees. As the thousand-foot thick ice retreated in the face of a warming climate, it deposited car-sized basalt rocks, called erratics, across the landscape as far as the eye can see.
Out Of Place
One century ago, the order of the familiar world teetered on the brink of drastic change. As European powers collapsed towards the human catastrophe of World War One, the mining industry around southeastern British Columbia and northeastern Washington stirred into new phases of production. Many precious metal operations from the 1890 and 1900s, which had been reeling due to played-out claims, market setbacks, and forest wildfires that had consumed all kinds of key infrastructure, attempted to get back in the game. But it was an ore body that had confused local prospectors for more than 25 years that began to produce just in time first to provide an essential war resource, then to support an entire community for the next two generations.
Inside the Ice Box
The Interior Columbia landscape we experience today was shaped by the forces of either ice or floodwaters. Wonderful maps (such as this one at http://www.iafi.org/floods.html) show how during the last Ice Age, a great Cordilleran ice sheet descended across British Columbia and sent cold fingers down our river valleys from the Okanogan and San Poil to the Colville, Pend Oreille, and Kootenai. These lobes of ice, moving in a repeated slow dance of advance and retreat over vast stretches of time, were thick enough to bury everything except the tallest bald mountain peaks around us.
MR. HUDSON’S RIB
When James C. Hudson died in Pullman, Washington, in the fall of 1922, members of the local Masonic lodge, where Hudson had been a member for many years, presided over the funeral services at the Presbyterian Church. The obituary in the local Herald stated that Mr. Hudson had been widely known, and left many friends behind to mourn his death. In addition to those friends, J. C. Hudson also appears to have behind an oversized rib that carries a story all its own.
Looking for a Story
The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture—otherwise known as the Cheney Cowles Museum, the Eastern Washington Historical Society, or the MAC—has been open in Spokane for almost a century now. Like many older institutions, it has all kinds of strange things in the basement, and from time to time assembles an exhibit composed of their seldom-seen objects. Hidden artifacts the MAC intends to display this winter include an 8-foot curved tusk and a mandible, or lower jawbone, about the size of a toaster oven. Very different in color and texture, these items appear to have belonged to separate mammoths during the last Ice Age.
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