Wednesday, September 21, 2011

We Follow the River

   It is the last week of summer:  not only by the calendar, but also by the weather forecast.  A high pressure ridge is building in over Cascadia, and sunny, even hot days are forecast this week.  It feels like a last hurrah of the season...

   I decided to follow one of my wild hairs.  I confess that I get them frequently, and take turns cajoling, coercing or luring various friends and relatives into coming along. My wild chase today is the Black River.

I grew up less than a mile from the Deschutes river; it is the largest river in Thurston county, and I have come to know it well.  The Black River is more of an enigma:  it arises from some obscure wetlands south of Black Lake, and drains the high country of the Black Hills as it moves south, meandering 25 miles, heading for the confluence of the Chehalis river in south county.  The Deschutes river  cuts through the heart of our cities (Olympia and Tumwater), behaving like a “real river” with falls, with rapids, with scouring floods and concurrent fire hose velocity. In contrast the Black River shifts and shimmers, seemingly without a current, finding its way south by guess and by golly.  There are no cataracts, no surging rapids, no roaring deluges.  There are sometimes huge floods in winter, when the Chehalis backs up into all its tributaries, including the Black.  In these events, the waters of this river rise and seep, soft water fingers parting pasture grasses and tickling into backwater sloughs.  This is a dream of a river.

     This river was an important highway for the Coast Salish peoples on their trade routes.  Here is what they say:    “The waterways were our highways, and our people traveled extensively along them, as far north as Vancouver Island and south along the Pacific Coast. As our ancestors traveled by canoe, they listened the elders tell stories that were passed down through many generations and taught important lessons about life.
     Our ancestors also traveled the extensive trade routes of the North American continent, taking  well-established trails across the Cascades into Yakama Country, the Columbia River Basin and far beyond. One familiar route ran from the Pacific Ocean, up the Chehalis River, into Black Lake and across the Black Hills to Steh-Chass at the head of Budd Inlet and Squi-Aitl at the head of Eld Inlet. Many of today's highways were built along existing trail routes, worn deep by years of continuous use.”

    And the European-American perspective:  “ The Hudson's Bay men knew the waterways well (thanks to  Native American guides). As early as 1824 an expedition left Astoria for the Puget Sound country. Led by James McMillan, it made its way by canoe and portage from the Columbia River to Grays Harbor. Through a dark and tangled wilderness, it paddled its way through November rains up the Chehalis River to the Black River, up the Black River to its headwaters in Black Lake, just west of the present site of Olympia. From there the men portaged to Eld Inlet and made their way up Puget Sound to the Fraser River” 

       Now some 187 years later, I make my first stop along the Black River at  123rd Avenue, north of Littlerock.  This is the southern end of the  Black River Unit of the National Wildlife Refuge.  In the last 20 years,  organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the Capitol Land Trust and State Fish & Wildlife,  and the National Wildlife Refuge system, among others, have been scrambling to save the land along this river.  So far they are doing an excellent job. Here at 123rd, you can pull off by the bridge and get a beautiful overview of the valley.  When the Black River floods in winter, these fields  fill with over wintering ducks, finding rich sources of food.  In the spring, the willow trees along the edges of the river provide fabulous nectar and pollen to the early native pollinators.  And now, in late September, we see (and hear) the occasional loud slap of the tails of spawning salmon, returning to their ancestral breeding grounds, and the fallen leaves of summer, floating on the river, giving their nutrients back to the earth.

      I poke along, heading south on the Gate road, trying to find the river wherever I can.   I stop where Moon Road crosses the river (previously the Gate wagon road).  The thing I’m really struck by in today’s explorations is that it doesn’t seem as if it has changed much. Here is a picture from 1898, taken by Alfred Waite on the Gate wagon road.  Today I found the same bridge  (now modernized for cars) and looking north, the same viewpoint.  Some big trees are gone, but otherwise, it looks pretty similar.  Time seems to stand still on this river.

      I spend some time on the Moon Road bridge, now looking south.  I feel the last of the summer’s sun warming my back and overhead, the piercing calls of flocks of swallows, migrating south down the river to their wintering grounds in Central America.  The river flows beneath me, a quiet, nearly imperceptible current, pulling the summer away and gone.  

     There are some lines from a favorite poem from my youth that come to mind:

     “In a wonderland they lie
      Dreaming as the days go by
      Dreaming as the summers die:

      Ever drifting down the stream
      Lingering in a golden gleam
     Life, what is it but a dream?”

     Lewis Carroll says it best.

Janet Partlow
•  Black Hills photo by Nancy Partlow
•  Alfred Waite photo from 1898
•  Gordon Newell’s book: So Fair A Dwelling Place
•  Poem by Lewis Carroll

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    Just read your article on the Black River and how little it seems, in some places, to have changed over the years.

    Another perspective of traveling the river is from George Colvocoresses. In August 1841, as an officer of the US Navy's US Exploring Expedition, he joined another officer, Henry Eld, Naturalist William Brackenridge, Marine Sergeant Simeon Stearns and five others to travel and map the route from Eld Inlet to Black Lake and then down the river to its confluence with the Chehalis then out to Grays Harbor and on to the Columbia.

    His experiences are recorded in the book "Four Years With the US Exploring Expedtion"