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by Jack Nisbet
Jack Nisbet is the author of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple Flat Top, Singing Grass, Burning Sage and Visible Bones. His newest, The Collector, is due out in October.
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.
On the right side of the photograph, the Okanogan River joins the mass of the mother Columbia, smooth as glass but already carrying all the waters of the Rocky Mountain’s west slope toward the Pacific. The man in the canoe must stay aware of that immense force moving past his back, but he handles any fear with the easy posture of a traveler who has been to the river’s mouth and back on many trips, for many different reasons.
The boat itself is elegantly carved, long and surprisingly slender. A flat and slightly widened deck seat at the stern allows the paddler to take a comfortable sidesaddle position, and his weight tilts the bow of his perfectly balanced craft up just enough that a ray of light glistens off its thickened shovel nose. It looks as though he has reached a point of equilibrium between paddle and current that allows him to hang in the water, suspended in both place and time.
The year of this photograph is 1914, on the eve of World War I, but the scene is no different than one described by George Gibbs working for the International Boundary Commission in 1860. David Douglas would have seen the same kind of dugout as he searched for grouse leks around Fort Okanagan in 1826; so would Alexander Ross and translator Michel Boulard when they arrived to establish the original fur trade post under the flagpole. It is impossible to tell how much farther back in time the canoe and man might extend – cottonwoods have lined the Okanogan River since the last glacial lobe receded around 13,000 years ago, and there is evidence for people living along the river banks almost as long.
The paddler of the long dugout is Long Jim, an Okanogan man of some repute who wears a calico shirt and confident expression. In other photographs, taken by other photographers, Long Jim ferries saddles and horse tack across the same river or angles his dugout against the current to bend a group of swimming horses toward the opposite shore. He uses a thick-handled, workman-like paddle, and must be a master of his craft.
The photographer is Asahel Curtis, a skillful practitioner in his own right. Born in Minnesota in 1874, Asahel (pronounced `A-shul) traveled west in a familiar family sequence of that era. His father and older brother Edward went first, wandering to western Washington and setting up a business in Port Orchard. The teenaged Asahel and his mother arrived just in time to watch Mr. Curtis pass away, and had to scramble to make ends meet.
Brother Edward set up a photography shop in Seattle, which at the time was profiting from its position as the main supply station for the Alaska gold fields. Not surprisingly, his little brother joined him in the shop in 1895, and two years later Edward dispatched 21-year-old Asahel north to take pictures. Within a year a magazine called the Century Illustrated Monthly published an article about Alaska written by Edward, with his credit on photographs that had been shot by Asahel. This action led to a brotherly spat that never quite healed, and while Edward spent the next few decades building a large reputation based on his dramatic posed pictures of North American Indians, Asahel quietly set up his own photography shop in Seattle with the aim of making a living. He got married, fathered four kids, and began to take part in whatever new ventures his adapted state had to offer.
Asahel, who looked like a slimmed-down version of Alfred Hitchcock and wore a suit and tie wherever he went, seemed like an unlikely outdoorsman, but no one ever tackled Washington’s wonders with more enthusiasm. Both a joiner and a leader, he at one time or another participated in the Washington State Good Roads Association, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the State Tax Commission, the Mountaineers, the Mount Rainier Guides Association, and the state’s Irrigation Districts. In 1906 he purchased a farm near Yakima, and from then on logged plenty of time on the east side of the Cascades, including frequent trips to Spokane and Stevens counties.
Asahel’s vision of boundless growth for his adapted state included wonderfully composed landscapes that remain epics of the period, including a single farmer with a two-horse plow working through a vast tract of sagebrush and huge horse teams harvesting wheat that are epics of the period. He made publicity shots of orchardists opening up irrigation ditches to flood the desert and grapes magnified to baseball size; he captured cattle kicking up dust in the Pasco Basin and sheep pouring across the Yakima Valley. To him such images promised endless possibilities; today it is easy to see in them steady degradation of the shrub-steppe and the limits of practical growth.
Asahel the mountain guide led mass ascents up Mount Rainier, but also lobbied for more roads through National Park; he actively fought against expansion of Olympic National Park and the establishment of North Cascades National Park because he thought they would restrict the business of logging. His daughter Betty summed up such contradictions when she later recalled, “He wanted to open up the mountains to the average man. But as soon as he’d opened it, he’d never go there again because it had too many people. If you could drive there – forget it!”
As a man of his time, Asahel always maintained a wonderful feel for what was going on and who was doing it, recording the logging, fishing, coal mining, railroad, agricultural, and construction industries with great empathy for the men and women who were doing the work. He put the same attention on all his subjects, so that when he applied his focus to tribal subjects – among them Makah whalers, Yakima hop workers, and Colvile root diggers – they carried as much weight and dignity as ironworkers building a skyscraper in downtown Seattle.
During his long career, Asahel Curtis took over 60,000 hand-numbered negatives on glass plates or nitrate film. His studio produced many hand-tinted prints and oversized murals, over 200 studio albums with titles like “Farms” or “Roads and Highways,” and a spiffy wooden box of lantern slides depicting scenes of natural wonder from all over the state. Over 30,000 of his negatives – including some of the Alaska ones that show Asahel’s name written over his brother Edward’s false claim that he took the picture – reside in the archives of the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma.
Long Jim’s glass plate, numbered 30,111, was taken at about the midpoint of Asahel’s life work. The photographer remains perfectly invisible, so that all the focus falls on Long Jim and his position on the Okanogan. A man and his canoe, the river and an entire culture, somehow fall instantly into their unique place over time.
When a viewer looks at a photograph by Asahel’s big brother Edward Curtis, they see the work of an acknowledged artist, with every studied decision of light and dress on display, and every element dripping with symbolism. When a viewer looks at the best work of Asahel, they see people making their way, with little fuss, through the glow of everyday life.
Illustration: Long Jim, by Asahel Curtis. Courtesy Washington State Historical Society.
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