It was—and is—spectacular

On Wednesday before Thanksgiving I rode with friends from Joseph to Portland. I sat in the back seat and spent time just looking. Leaving the Wallowa Valley along the Wallowa River is always a treat; the canyon always changes with weather and seasons. And then emerging out of it and into the Grande Ronde Valley, with rolling fields and patches of timber. Up into the Blue Mountains on the Tollgate road, where a big winter snowpack is promised by the Highway Department’s high orange stakes that will soon be keeping snowplows on the road.

The Blues dip to high desert, now planted in grain, but once home to Indian ponies, and before and after the horse, the place where the deer and the antelope, elk, cougar, bear, and buffalo roamed. Yes, buffalo in Eastern Oregon. My friend Ralph has a huge running notebook on bison sightings and killings in Eastern Oregon. He knows several places where bones have been unearthed, and thinks there was a “buffalo jump” in the north end of what is now Wallowa County. Ralph thinks the last Oregon buffalo was killed about 1840 somewhere near where Farewell Bend now sits.

When you sit in the back seat you can think about these things, imagine the past. Imagine buffalo and purple fields of camas. Imagine Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Umatilla and maybe northern neighbors from Yakima and southern neighbors from the Great Basin meeting to race and trade. Imagine the canoe traffic on the Big River that we call Columbia. The Nez Perce helped Lewis and Clark build dugout canoes to travel the Big River. Bob Chenowith, who used to work at the Nez Perce National Historical Park and did a long study on dugout canoes, said that some of those canoes had to have been 50 feet long to accommodate all of the Corps of Discovery members and their gear. Bob also found that Nez Perce traveled from near present-day Lewiston to Celilo in six days.

Celilo. What a place that must have been. The biggest fresh water fishery in the world, some say. And a place for people from the coast to the Rockies, from the Columbia River headwaters to the Great Basin to meet and trade stories and renew gene pools. The last people to see the falls before they were flooded by the dam are in their 70s and 80s now. A friend said his father drove him from Portland in 1956 to see it before it became a lake.

I asked my traveling companions whether they had seen the wonderful musical produced by Marv Ross, Tom Hampson, and Thomas Morning Owl some years ago. “Ghosts of Celilo” wrapped the dam’s appearance—with “ghosts” of the main actors in its building alongside tribal leaders “under” the water, telling their stories in word and song—around a story of a boarding school romance. It revived once in Portland, and there were rumors of its going East. I wish they’d revive it now, when stories of dams and salmon, climate and tribal sovereignty are in regional and national news.

Maybe. Meanwhile, before and after the Dalles we came to the flood-gouged walls of the Big River channel that look to me like elephant skin. I love watching them change with seasons.

The Portland visit was good, with plenty of food and family—and not much rain! But driving home, in my new Honda Element (rescued from my granddaughter’s yard), I breathed easier when I hit the Dalles and the dry air and bright sun of the Eastern part of our magnificent state. I’ve seen the coast and the big timber, the wide fields in the Willamette Valley, and I’ve enjoyed the man-made attractions of the more urban half of the state.

But I am home now, in the Wallowa. It’s 9:00 on a Saturday morning, and the sun off of white snow is bright enough to make one squint. The temperature has not climbed past 10 degrees, and I am about to bundle up and take the dog on a walk. We’ll go east just enough to get clear views of the Seven Devils in Idaho, and to look back on the Wallowa Mountains. They were once called the Eagle Mountains, I think now as I remember a group of bald eagles feasting on a carcass we saw earlier this week on the same walk.

Will they still be there, finishing the job? Or what other spectacles will there be? It’s all a spectacular place, and on days like today it’s hard not to pinch myself at my good fortune in living here. Even while I remember to thank and praise the Native people who kept this place for millennia before its Anglo-American invasion. They say the songs they sing in the longhouse are the sounds given them here by the creator before their removal.

# # #

Leave a Reply