In pre-contact days our nature was stable, clean and nurturing…
Finally, it’s getting decently hot in Oregon! This is the time of the year when our landscape begins to burn up around us. So far this year we’ve been blessed by a remarkable lack of wildfires and uncontrolled forest conflagrations, but for that very reason it might be good to remind us all of what it was like in bygone years.
Perhaps you’re of the opinion that during those “idyllic” pre-contact days our Kalapuyan, Clatsop, Clatskanie and Chinook predecessors enjoyed a state of nature that was stable, clean and nurturing.
No doubt the last of these was generally true to the extent that the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River provided these inhabitants with diverse and nutritious protein, in the form of fish, venison and abundant berries.
As to “stable”, it appears from the archaeological record that this region was beset by numerous violent changes in the configuration of the earth’s crust – enough to bury whole villages and to sink or lift portions of the coastal plain above or below the sea level – playing havoc with our coastline and natural subsistence patterns. Imagine how you would feel if one morning you awoke to find that the entire lower Columbia estuary, including the Portland area was inundated! Sea levels once rose to levels almost 100 feet above their present levels…and before that they were so low that Vancouver Island was connected to the mainland.
Indeed it is thought that the earliest migration of peoples into North America (around 16,000 years ago) may have occurred along the edge of the Pacific Ocean, as early explorers edged along the unfrozen fringe of our glacial continent. Because the glaciers locked up so much moisture in their gigantic frosty blankets, the sea levels were significantly lower than they are today. Thus it is very possible that the clues to support theories of coastal migration lie almost 100 feet below today’s sea level.
But with the melting of the glaciers came an onslaught of water rising deep into what is now the interior of the West Coast. But even that eventually receded to “stabilize” at our present-day sea levels. But if melting glaciers caused this inundation in the first place, what should we expect with the accelerated melting we’re experiencing today? Should we expect many of the coastal plains around Astoria, and Cannon Beach to be submerged?
August days in the western valleys of Oregon and Washington were hazy and smoke-filled. Theodore Winthrop, the noted Civil War era journalist, noted in his 1853 descriptions of traveling across Puget Spund and the Cascades, The Canoe and the Saddle, “in the breezeless days of August, smoke from burning forests falls and envelopes all the world of land and water. In such strange chaos, voyaging without a compass is impossible. Canoes are often detained for days, waiting for the smoke to lift“.
Not only did the natural forest fires fueled by lightning strikes burn unabated through out the coastal and Cascade ranges, but the Indians themselves contributed by burning swathes of open ground into the impenetrable forest blankets that threatened to smother the burgeoning populations of elk and deer. These artificial clearings were repeatedly burned to ensure riparian areas for the animals to graze and the Indians to hunt. They even burned the west-facing slopes to permit huckleberries to establish themselves in the disturbed ground left behind after the conflagrations. And in the Willamette Valley the Kalapuyans were masters of the pyrotechnical tool. They burned extensive areas of the Willamette Valley to replenish the growth of grasses, whose seeds they collected. They burned the plains to clear the ground for oaks and filbert trees, whose nuts they valued. In short, the beautiful savannah lands dotted with copses of old oak trees that we admire as we drive down the valley – these are all the results of yearly fires that filled the region with hazy August smoke that would panic today’s asthma sufferers.
And more recently, Oregon’s North Coast history is dominated by the huge Tillamook Burn fires that consumed so much wood from the 1930’s into the 1950’s.
Ten thousand of the best men that ever wore calks could never have done as we did..
The great Tillamook Burn of 1933 has received a lot of attention, but it is often forgotten that during that same year another fire, the Wolf Creek Fire burned a total of 47,000 acres of timber and reduced Camp McGregor to a heap of smoldering ashes. It is thought that the fire broke out in some unburned slashing on the East-side Logging Company property in the late afternoon of August 24th, 1933. Men and equipment were rushed by train from Vernonia to the scene, but a rapid change of wind direction and an increasing velocity of wind soon caused the fire to jump beyond the firefighter’s lines. The wind rising to gale proportions soon whipped the inferno into a frenzy. During the late afternoon of August 26th, the wind suddenly reversed direction and began to blow at near-hurricane strength – directly threatening Camp McGregor itself. The firefighters rallied and initially thought that they could save the community, but the force of the wind and the fire that it drove before it was unstoppable – especially after a fallen tree broke the pipeline that supplied water to the community.
Judd Greenman recalled the scene in the book, The Oregon -American Lumber Company: Ain’t no more, “this fire crowned whole sections of timber; it spotted ahead as much as two miles at one jump and it burned downhill and against the wind, so you know it did an enormous amount of damage. We never had a chance. Ten thousand of the best men that ever wore calks could never have done as we did – stood and watched her go.”
One 17 year boy recounted how he was forced to snatch 2 mattresses from the bunkhouses and after quickly soaking them in the pond, he lay sandwiched between them while the fire raged over him.
As the authorities realized that saving Camp McGregor was hopeless they ordered the residents and the CCC crews to evacuate by train. But the CCC boys, being mostly from urban eastern locales, panicked and tried to force the families off the train until it was made clear that there was room enough for everyone. Within one hour the entire Camp was engulfed in flames and burned to the ground – the walkways that connected the houses caught fire like a fuse leading the conflagration from one cabin to the next! The fires didn’t burn out until September 5th when the rains finally arrived.
So when the heat of August begins to fry your pelt, and the humidity drops to dangerously dry conditions remember the “hazy August days” of Oregon’s bygone days…