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.
Reprints of articles which have appeared in The Monthly are available by either email or snail mail for a modest fee.
A partial list of articles follows:
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.
Carpenter Ants on the Wing and in the Wood
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 Molar, Many Bones
Camp Flying Squirrel
Paddling with Long Jim
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