Table of Contents


General Introduction


Impressions of the North Cascades
Essays about a Northwest Landscape

Part II: Landscapes of Experience

Beaver Is Greedy

The beaver, well known for altering the land, has changed the dynamics of many a watershed. As a boy I remember pulling my canoe over beaver dams of aspen and birch limbs, cursing some that were 6 feet high or more. I preferred the tumbling waters to the placid pond behind the dams, but I admired the beaver for his human-like achievements. The beaver also has a very attractive fur which, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was the fashion rage in Europe, especially for making hats. The desire for beaver fur lured independent men to the mountains of the American West to trap them which, in those years, fueled a competitive commerce between the British and Americans. In the early nineteenth century, the British fur posts trapped out all the beaver, especially in the Snake River country, to try to discourage Americans from coming to the area.

After the beaver were gone, gold enticed thousands of men into the mountains in the hopes of "striking it rich." The early Euro-American history of the upper Skagit River is chiefly a story of the gold rush during the 1870s, when thousands of miners made the arduous trek up river, negotiating rapids and precipitous trail through such places as Damnation Creek, Devil's Corner, and Nightmare Camp to reach Ruby and Thunder Creeks, where the gold was supposed to be. That the land's mineral resources could be exploited by the first who could claim it as theirs was the ethos precipitating the stampede of gold seekers.

Very little gold was mined, however, and during the first two decades of the twentieth century, after most of the miners had left, the Skagit River's hydroelectric potential began to dominate discussions about the development of the river. Competition between those interested in the river for hydroelectric development played itself out among several private companies, such as The Skagit Power Company, North Coast Mining and Milling Company, and the Thunder Creek Transportation and Smelting Company. The United States Forest Service did give The Skagit Power Company permission to build a dam in 1914, but because of the magnitude of the project and the financial and political capital needed to fund it—which proved beyond their means—they had to abandon the idea. By 1917 the other companies had lost interest or were out-maneuvered by James Delmage Ross, who obtained a permit that year from the Forest Service to build a series of hydroelectric dams on the river for Seattle City Light. Ross had great expectations that the "blank page" of the upper Skagit River could be transformed into a productive resource for the citizens of Seattle.

The Skagit is the second-largest river in Washington State, its watershed draining the western slope of the North Cascades. The Columbia River and its tributaries, however, drain Idaho and most of Oregon and Washington State, including the eastern slope of the North Cascades, as well as parts of Montana, Wyoming, British Columbia, and Alberta. The Columbia is one of the mighty rivers of the world—1,200 miles long—looming larger than the Skagit in our collective imaginations. The salmon run on the Columbia was once the largest in the world, but today more than 95 percent of the wild salmon are gone—blocked by more than 50 dams in the Columbia River Basin. My understanding of dams and their significance to interpreting the landscapes of the Northwest began one day several years ago on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River at Wishram, about 10 miles upstream of The Dalles Dam. I stood with two Columbia River Indian elders as we watched wind surfers skim across the lake that now covers Celilo Falls, once the largest Indian fishery in North America. The day was exceptionally clear, and to the southwest, glistening in the sun, was the 11,234-foot, snow-capped peak of Mount Hood, or "Patu" as Selam called it in his native Sahaptin. His long, silver hair blowing in the wind, James Selam told me that during his youth he used to fish at Celilo Falls every year until he went off to fight in World War II. Born a few miles upstream in a tule mat lodge in 1919, Selam spoke about the River Spirit, about how the Columbia River was created, how Coyote brought salmon to the River People, and shared stories that mirrored events of the twentieth century that have dramatically changed the river. As he talked, Selam pointed to landmarks and told me a little bit of the significance of each.

Below the train trestle spanning the river, Selam indicated where, on the Washington state side, he grew up in the Indian community of Skin. As a boy, during certain seasons when the river level fluctuated because of snowmelt or drought, he had to walk carefully across the narrow railroad trestle above the roaring falls to reach the Oregon shore and the fishing sites that were accessible. Selam pointed to sites, now under water, where he and his family would fish for salmon. The type of fishing done at each site would be determined by the time of year and water level. When the water was high and the salmon would attempt to bypass the falls along the Washington state shore, the Indians would gillnet; at other times of year they would catch the salmon in a dipnet dragged through the water or held to catch salmon as they tried to leap the torrent rushing over the precipitous drop; at certain water levels, the salmon were speared or gaffed as they waited in the eddies before attempting to leap the watery slides.

Selam pointed to the Oregon shore and indicated the Indian village of Celilo. I could see the new longhouse not far from the interstate highway. He spoke of the islands near there that were claimed as fishing sites by certain families, such as "Albert's Island" and "Chief Tommie Thompson's Island." Thompson was the Salmon Chief at Celilo Falls until it was flooded in 1957 by the waters backing up from The Dalles Dam. The larger islands were used communally by the River People for drying fish. Each of the places had an Indian name that Selam would say in his native language and then explain in English: walawála (high water fishing site near the sandy beach below the village of Skin); Sapawilatatatpamá (at the lip of the falls near the Washington state shore where the fishermen dipnet to catch the leaping salmon); tayxaytpamá (where shiny stones and clear water facilitate spearing the salmon); and near the Oregon shore were islands that had to be reached by canoe or swimming, qíyakawas (a good place to gaff salmon); awaxanáycas (where men would stand and sweep their dipnets through the current); and swáycas (could only be reached by swimming, where the dipnet poles had to be over 20 feet long to reach the current). [1]

When the first salmon arrived in early spring with the return of the swallows, Selam said that the people of Skin would have a ceremony celebrating the salmon's arrival and its journey from the ocean. In earlier times the village would have been out of food, Selam said, and the salmon's arrival would also indicate the coming months of plenty. A strong swimmer would swim well upstream above Celilo Falls and place, in the middle of the river as deep as he could dive, the remains of the first salmon taken.

Snow patch along Sunrise Mine Trail

During the heady days of summer fishing when a year's supply of food could be caught in a short period of time, Selam explained that the Salmon Chief, different from the village chief, would close the fishing, usually during the night and during times of mourning and religious ceremony, to allow the salmon to migrate past the falls to other fishing sites and to other native people farther up river—to Kettle Falls and the upper Columbia River extending into Canada and to the Snake River watershed in Idaho, a major tributary of the Columbia.

Also with me that day was Selam's nephew, Johnny Jackson, Chief of the Cascade Tribe, who told us that, based on the journals of Lewis and Clark and other early explorers and traders to the region, the Columbia River Indian fisheries had been estimated at over 20 million pounds of salmon a year. By 1995, on the other hand, the entire harvest had plummeted to just over 1 million pounds. If the dams on the Columbia River hadn't been built, the river's fishery would probably still be the largest in the world and worth billions of dollars. During the 1940s and 1950s, however, politicians often touted electricity over salmon, predicting that the revenue produced from electricity would far surpass that of salmon.

Today there are 14 hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River and another 14 dams on its major tributaries, most notably the upper, middle, and lower forks of the Snake River. Chief Jackson and many other Columbia River Indians cling to a way of life along the river that is little noticed by hundreds of wind surfers who now park their cars every weekend near his plywood shack. The River People, as they call themselves, never signed away their right to the land nor have they felt that the compensation—a few in lieu fishing sites—were adequate. By allowing the damming of the river and the destruction of the salmon runs, fishing sites, and communities like Skin, Jackson believes the government has violated their treaty rights.

Spending three days with Selam and Jackson listening to their stories of growing up on the Columbia River transported me back to 1974 when my interest in the impacts of hydroelectric dams innocently began. With five others, I canoed 500 miles of the Eastmain River, flowing from north-central Quebec westward into James Bay. Most of us were college students, and we spent that summer and fall exploring the Eastmain River before it was dammed and diverted 200 miles north to feed into a colossal series of dams destined to be the largest project of its kind in North America—the James Bay Hydroelectric Project. Engineers designed the James Bay Project to create a lake the combined size of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, to produce electricity for eastern Canada and for export to the urban areas of the Atlantic seaboard from Boston to Washington, D.C. Public utilities from these American cities supplied much of the funding for the project.

As young romantics with a love for adventure, we wanted to explore this pristine country before it was inundated, before the roaring canyons and cataracts—some more than 3 miles long—were silenced. We wanted to experience the feel of wilderness and what it takes to hunt and fish for your food. The Eastmain River country was home to trout, char and northern pike, ducks and geese, rabbits, beaver, moose, and herds of inland caribou. It was also home to more than 6,000 Cree Indians. During our three months of canoeing the river we occasionally passed hunting camps where Cree subsisted almost exclusively on the wildlife. A "hidden" cost of the power project during the ten-year construction period was that most of the wildlife couldn't escape the rising waters; moreover, the project destroyed the anadromous fish runs and displaced the Cree from their land.

The Cree respected us for canoeing the river, and we were in awe of their bush and woodcraft skills. We would stop at their camps to say hello or to ask about what lay downstream. We liked to inspect the many skins of beaver, mink, caribou, and wolf that the Cree were drying and tanning. They taught us to respect the animals we hunted. Their rituals for honoring the taking of life, such as a bear's skull wrapped in birch bark or the long and sinuous vocal chords from geese placed in the top branches of a spruce tree (symbolically returning the voice of the geese to the sky from where they came, or so it seemed to me), captured my imagination.

We would ask questions of the Cree. Why did they pluck the down feathers from a duck's breast after they had shot it and place the feathers back in the water? Why did they wrap a bear's skull in birch bark? Or why did they hang those honker vocal chords in a tree? They would answer us enigmatically, "Because that's the way it's done." We talked mostly with the younger Cree who learned English from attending schools in southern Quebec and Ontario. The elders spoke a different language which we didn't know. I have been interested in the indigenous languages of North America ever since. I studied Athapaskan intensively when I was in college in the hopes of understanding, if only superficially, the social memories and natural history knowledge that these elders used to interpret the landscape. At the time of my visit in the mid-1970s, I was dumb to their land, an interested stranger passing through.

After three months we reached the mouth of the Eastmain River at James Bay, boarded a deHavilland prop plane, and left. In the years following, I often thought of the Eastmain River and the Cree, but I never was able to return. I followed in books and magazines the building of the dams and the consequences. I had trouble coping with my feelings of powerlessness, and I often wished I could just wave a wand and stop the destruction. Standing with Selam and Jackson, overlooking the inundated Celilo Falls, resurrected these submerged and discordant feelings. Why does my cultural tradition view the land differently than Selam and Jackson? I left Celilo thinking that I needed to use the dams as a window "to see" and to interpret the landscape.

Two hundred miles upstream from where I was standing with Selam and Jackson is the largest dam on the Columbia River and the biggest producer of electricity in the world—Grand Coulee Dam. Built in the 1930s, it is a marvel of monolithic construction, its architecture of a scale and design ahead of its time. I am moved by the sheer wonder of so much concrete piled so high. The base of the dam rests on the riverbed, and a network of over 20,000 steel trestles, 1,700 miles worth, give the concrete its strength. On May 25, 1939, 41,900 tons of concrete (still a world record) were poured in a single day!

One of the political reasons for building the dam during the Depression Era was for jobs to get the people of this country working again through public works projects. Other major considerations were flood control and irrigation. The latter has transformed the scablands of eastern Washington into a major producer of fruits and vegetables. The salmon runs were destroyed when the decision was made not to build ladders for the migrating fish. Today, with our increased ecological understanding, I doubt that such an obviously flawed decision could be made.

Grand Coulee Dam is run by the Bureau of Reclamation. When you enter the Bureau's Visitor Center in Coulee City, the first display that greets you begins: "In the Columbia River Basin man and nature work closely together to redistribute nature's gifts." Though the language seems dated, I wonder who spoke for nature and if nature can be consulted, as is implied by the phrase "man and nature work closely together." I doubt that the Bureau of Reclamation thinks the river has rights and interests. More likely it believes that to "work with nature" means analyzing a project according to cost-benefit perspectives. On the other hand, maybe the river does speak to us but we cannot hear or understand its language.

The mythological stories we have from the local Indians, who have lived along the Columbia River for 9,000 years, maybe the best communication device we have for articulating and understanding nature's wishes. However, because the dam was built in a time of national emergency preceding World War II, the protests of the indigenous people went unheeded even though the land on the north and west sides of the river belonged to the Confederated Colville Tribes. These tribes are a collection of Salish- and Sahaptian-speaking peoples who, before the treaties of the 1850s, inhabited the land stretching from the North Cascades to the northern Rockies. One Coyote story of the Okanogan Salish relates how five sisters blocked the migrating salmon with a rock dam. Coyote turned himself into a baby and floated down the river on a cradle board which hung up at the dam and was discovered by the sisters who took Coyote in, believing he was a baby. The next day, when the sisters went off to dig camas and other roots, Coyote turned himself back to his real self and began working to tear down the dam. When the sisters returned each evening he would change himself back to a baby. This went on for four days, and on the fifth day, when the sisters were digging, one of their digging sticks broke and they took it as an omen that something was wrong with the baby. They rushed back to their homesite to find Coyote working feverishly to destroy the dam. The sisters attacked Coyote, but it was too late. He had freed enough of the dam that the force of the water surged through, destroying the rest of it and allowing the salmon to swim upriver. The sisters were turned into sandpipers and return each spring to announce the arrival of the salmon. Could this story from the distant past be a Salish interpretation of the river's wishes?

One day in summer 1995 while visiting Coulee City and Grand Coulee Dam, I met Andy Joseph, an Okanogan/Colville Indian and director of the Colville Tribal Museum. Joseph is a fluent speaker of interior Salish and has written a dictionary of the language. We took a drive up the western side of Lake Roosevelt, the body of water behind Grand Coulee Dam, to visit the national park at Kettle Falls. Before Coulee Dam was built, and 100 miles upstream of present-day Coulee City, Kettle Falls—Shonotkwu in the native Salish—was the second-largest fishery on the Columbia River. In the early nineteenth century, explorers like David Thompson wrote of a village at Kettle Falls crowded with over 1,000 Indians. Joseph told me that his family fished at the falls until 1941 when it was inundated by water backing up from Grand Coulee Dam. He also told me the story of Coyote and the sandpiper sisters. "My ancestral village is buried under the water. When the waters backed up, it threatened our school, churches, and other buildings. The government said they would relocate our village, but they never did; we had to save what we could at the last minute."

The upper Columbia River watershed, including what is now Lake Roosevelt, was land given to the Confederated Colville Tribes by executive order in April 1872. I asked Joseph what he thought about the future of the river, implying in my question how he had reconciled the loss of his village, fishing, and other cultural sites by the building of Grand Coulee Dam. After a pause he said, "The dam has been here for only fifty years. Our stories have been here for thousands. Maybe time's on our side."

Since 1972 and the completion of the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20), you can now approach the Skagit River Valley from the eastern side. Leaving Andy Joseph at Coulee City I drove through the Okanogan and Methow River Valleys, past the towns of Twisp, Winthrop, and Mazama to Rainy Pass, the east-west divide separating the Skagit watershed from the Columbia's. As I descended from Rainy, the highway followed Granite Creek, a tributary of Ruby Creek loudly pouring into the Skagit Basin.

In 1906, the first generator erected on Ruby Creek began supplying electricity to the gold mines in the Ruby Basin. Ruby Creek also caught the imagination of James Delmage Ross, Seattle City Light's superintendent and the person with the strongest political will to see the Skagit River developed for hydroelectricity. Ross first investigated Ruby Creek as a potential dam site in the early 1900s.

The glaciers that carved Ruby Creek and the Skagit River, and where Ross Dam now sits, stopped at Rip Raps—the lip of what used to be a thundering canyon—just downstream from where Ruby Creek joins the Skagit. Stopping my car at an overlook above Ross Dam, I saw to the east and immediately below me the flooded basin of Ruby Creek, and Ross Lake stretching to the north for many miles. The flooded Skagit Basin is also named after the superintendent. Another Ross, Alexander Ross, a British fur trader and explorer, first "discovered" this impassable canyon when he canoed down the Skagit River in the early 1800s. A few miles further west of this overlook is a trail to Ross Dam, a short, descending mile through hemlock, fir, and lodgepole pine. I hiked to the dam in less than an hour.

The journey to this spot at the turn of the century from LaConner and Mount Vernon, the way the miners and Ross had to come, was a dangerous and difficult trek that took many days, if not weeks. People frequently lost their lives crossing the river or negotiating many precipitous trails. Though Seattle City Light built a railroad from Rockport to Newhalem to facilitate the dam building, a road was not built to Newhalem, the town that housed and supported the construction workers, until 1939. The first dam was built at Gorge Creek, which began generating electricity to Seattle in September 1923. Initially, Seattle City Light planned to build a fish hatchery to compensate for the disrupted salmon runs, but the hatchery never materialized. The second dam, Diablo, named after the canyon where the Skagit rushed over steep drops between narrow stone walls, was dedicated in August 1930. At the time, Superintendent Ross crowed that soon the Skagit would be completely tamed.

Ross's prediction is now fact, and the place names coined by the miners—Devil's Corner, Diablo Canyon, and the like—conjure a culturally derived relationship with wilderness, labeling it as evil. The names imply that what got in their way—steep rock, fast rivers, big trees—was the work of the devil, to be tamed. It also implies that wilderness was an evil force that stood in the way of their desire: gold.

Twentieth-century America is a culture of inanimate things: concrete and steel, plastic and neon. On the Skagit and Columbia, and along other wild rivers of North America, we substitute nonliving objects for the living things of nature. I worry about the loss of this indigenous and natural language. These ancient languages, like Sanskrit, contain a vocabulary of our genetic, primordial, and mythological past, a knowledge worth saving. I worry that we force the fish and animals to abandon the land. Does the language of the river have to be sacrificed too, dumbing thousands of years of what was alive and singing? I have an emotional interest in this ancient speech; it reinforces my humility before the Creator. When we replace a rivers voice with an object of steel and concrete, are we worshipping a golden calf and not the language of God?

These were some of my thoughts as I stood on top of Ross Dam and felt the wind and rain in my face. The last of the three dams on the Skagit River to be built, and finished in the late 1940s, Ross Dam provides flood protection for the lower valley as well as additional electricity for a growing Seattle. Visitors today can take a two-hour tour that visits both Diablo and Ross Dams, and on the Alice Ross, a boat named after Superintendent Ross's wife, cruise for fifteen minutes on the milky-green water of Diablo Lake over a canyon that seventy-five years ago roared with the heady speech of the river.

My friend Larry Campbell, who grew up in Concrete, met me recently at Diablo Lake Dam. Campbell has spent his entire life living near the river, and his Samish, Upper Skagit, Colville and Swinomish bloodlines reveal that his ancestors have lived in either the Skagit or Columbia watersheds since the retreat of the glaciers 7,000 years ago. As we talked Campbell told me that his biological rhythms mirror the life cycle of the salmon. He fishes from May to December and at the end of the salmon cycle, when ceremonies take place in the smokehouse from December through April, his attention turns to spiritual concerns. The idea that we are genetically tied to our occupations and a particular landscape rings true to me. It was not too long ago, just 5,000 years or so, that all our ancestors were hunters and gatherers and most likely our biological rhythms, even today, are tied genetically like an umbilical cord to the land.

Snags by the Nooksack River

As we leaned over the downstream side of Diablo Dam and remarked on the steepness and closeness of the canyon walls, a good place to build a dam, Campbell explained that the smokehouse ceremonies, in part, are for insuring the return of the salmon each spring. Campbell smiled and said, "During the first salmon ceremonies the elders would go down to the water and look at some of the salmon passing by and would indicate that such-and-such run of Chinook salmon should be allowed to swim upriver, unmolested, that these salmon were meant for Native people living farther upstream."

Like the salmon chief at Celilo Falls, Campbell's elders were teaching that the rivers resources should be shared with everyone living on the river. Are the modern beavers who built the dams sharing the resource equitably? Or maybe Seattle City Light and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are like the beaver in the Northwest Coast Indian myth as interpreted by Northwest poet David Wagoner in "How Raven Stole Beaver's Pond."

Raven said, "The Beaver is rich, he has many crayfish,
His pond is filled with trout, he has berries
Weighing their branches down into his mouth,
And frogs wait at his lodge door to be eaten."

So Raven dressed himself in his poorest feathers
And went to Beaver's lodge. He said, "I am poor,
I am your brother, we had the same father,
Show me your rich pond, we must eat together."

And Beaver took him to the water's edge
Where alder and cottonwood, maple and willow
Grew in young groves and peeled him the inner bark,
Bit off the pale-green shoots of waterlilies.

While Beaver gnawed at them, he said, "Good brother,
Why do you hide your hands under those feathers?
Your feet look crooked and sore. Your two black teeth
Look old and hollow. I must chew these for you."

When Raven saw those crayfish and trout and frogs
Swimming beyond him, the ripest berries hanging
Over the water where he could not reach them,
He scowled at the sticks and twigs heaped for his dinner.

He shouted, "Beaver is greedy! Beaver is no brother!
Yellow Teeth cannot fly! He is fat and muddy!"
He folded that pond together like a blanket
And carried it in his beak to a high fir tree. [2]

As a wild river the Skagit had a certain energy that the three dams have changed. How important is that change in the river's character? If, like Larry Campbell, we are genetically and spiritually programmed to regulate our lives according to certain natural energies and rhythms, how much turmoil in our inner life can be attributed to the changes in our natural landscapes? And since these changes have occurred quite recently, what genetic and spiritual changes in our relationship to the land are they precipitating?

Just a smooth sheen of water flows over the spillway at Diablo Dam, and the canyon downstream is quiet and empty, filled with boulders. Campbell told me that the spirit of the river is still there. "The dams and power stations have interrupted or made it more difficult for us to communicate with this spirit, and as the land has changed, our ceremonies have changed to reflect this. We no longer can go to the vision-questing spots near where the dams were built, or to the vision sites near the power stations—for one thing, the electrical current buzzing through the power lines interferes with our ability to hear what the river spirits are saying. Our elders say that the spirits are still there, but just harder to find. Some elders say, though, that the spirits are leaving like the salmon. I wonder," Campbell mused, "if I'll have to leave, too, when the salmon are gone."

CHARLES LUCKMANN has worked as an archaeologist, Outward Bound instructor and program director, high school and college teacher, naturalist, technical writer, and editor. Since 1992 he has developed educational programs for the North Cascades Institute. A resident of Bellingham, he is also the editor of the Journal of Experiential Education.

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North Cascades Conservation Council
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Seattle, WA 98145-2980