When I’m climbing in the hills above the Columbia River I often stop to gaze down to the river and try to imagine what it looked like before contact with the European cultures.
Most people’s preconception of what America looked like when the First People ruled the roost is of a vast wilderness dotted here and there with small bands of Indians that wandered about sporadically in pursuit of food or occasionally to trade with other Indians. But in fact, we would have been astounded by what we would have seen as recently as 1750 had we watched the sun rise over what the Indians referred to as the Wapato Valley. If you will let me take you there, imagine yourself on the heights above Scappoose looking eastwards on a warm summer morning.
From over the shoulder of WyEast brilliant shafts of light pierce the blanket of clouds that straddle the Columbia River. The early morning light illuminates the puffy underbellies of the clouds in lurid splashes of crimson light. Way below the clouds the grey-green river valley remains shrouded in the morning mists. As our eyes follow the dark molten ribbon we spot twisting columns of wood smoke that rise lazily up from the foggy river to the encroaching brilliance overhead. While it is too murky to spot, we know that the smoke is issuing forth from scores of plank houses clustered densely along the banks of this mighty river.
The Densest Population in North America:
Around 1750, no less than 16 Clackamas and Multnomah villages inhabited the “Wapato Valley”, a stretch of the lower Columbia River extending from the Gorge, down to Cowlitz River. It is estimated that prior to the first huge epidemics the Pacific Northwest was home to more than 300,000 Indians of which more than 40,000 people lived in the Wapato Valley – likely the highest population concentration in North America at that time. This population density of nearly 3.1 people per square miles was particularly remarkable given the fact that most of the population was located along the banks of the river and that this was a hunter-gather society that had no organized agriculture.
How was it possible to sustain that many people without any significant agricultural efforts? The answer lay in the remarkable fecundity of the Columbia River basin. It was home to elk, bear, deer, beaver, ducks, geese, sturgeon, salmon, smelt, wapato, camas onions, and a profusion of grass seeds and berries. It is estimated that historically, the Columbia River may have been the richest river in the world disgorging between 11 and 16 million salmon per year. And the Indians are estimated to have caught more than one fish in three!
From our perch overlooking the lower reaches of the Willamette River, we can easily see wood smoke rising from numerous plank houses clustered along the river. Even this early in the morning there’s activity stirring around the villages. Dogs wander in and out of the lodges, unheedful that their final destination could be in the stew pot.
We see women emerging from the small round entrances at the front of the plank houses. Even from this distance we can tell them apart from the men, because they’re wearing “kalawatee” a short skirt made from the silky fibers found on the inside of cedar trees. Due to the chilly temperatures early in the morning the older women are draped in animal skins. The men, however, will go about entirely naked throughout the warmer season. The are now women fanning out along the porous shoreline where marshy inlets and small tributaries enter the river. As they begin to penetrate these quiet by-waters, flocks of geese and ducks rise into the air issuing a loud and raucous chorus of complaint. Later in the day the boys will come along to hunt them, but for now the women are just checking the overnight catches in the many fish weirs and fish baskets all along the river’s shallows.
On the beach in front of the plank houses everyone is working on their fishing gear and getting ready to cast the seine nets into the river’s currents. On a short knoll a short distance from the shoreline, we spot a group of women carefully gathering plants growing on the sandy soil. Judging from the delicacy of how they handle the plants it’s clear they’re standing in the middle of a nettle patch! Despite its unpleasant reputation the Indians know that this the best plant from which to make strong and silky lines which are ideal for fishing lines, and nets – and are essential to repairing the seine nets that are presently laid out on the beach.
Of dogs, children and economy
The Indians of the Lower Columbia had little use for horses, as the forests were far too dense to traverse with the cumbersome horse, and besides their highways were the rivers and streams of the coastal range where narrow footpaths shared by man and beast alike were the only solution. But instead of horses they did accumulate a race of husky-like dogs whose only purpose it appeared was to alert the village of unknown intruders. According to some, these dogs were not eaten, but we do know that Lewis and Clark had acquired a taste for dog meat by the time they reached the Columbia. Presumably they learned the habit of eating dogs from the Indians along the way. It is recorded that throughout their journey they ate at least 263 dogs.
Somewhere down in the same lower reaches of Indian society were the pot-bellied little children that scampered around the camps and buried themselves in the ragged hides inside the lodges. These little urchins had the run of the camps and were left mostly unattended with a resulting high mortality rate. They grew up with the dogs, were fed and clothed with whatever came to hand. As soon as they could run, they commenced to hunt and fish. With the enthusiasm for mayhem that children are apt to display, they would be known to frequent the spawning streams and slaughter the migrating salmon until they were weary, and then abandon their spoils on the rocks to rot. By thirteen or fourteen the boys would begin to seriously hunt.
In the early 1800’s when the old Queen Anne muskets were becoming more common among the Indians, these youths would carefully load a single charge alongside the shot (these both being expensive) and then go out to hunt. But the cost of the powder and the ball were such that it was only economical if you could shoot more than one animal per shot! So these enterprising Indian kids would float on their one-man canoes covering themselves with ” green boughs so that it would appear to be a mere floating heap of brushwood, and lying in ambush under this the hunter would patiently wait for hours for the birds to come near or for a favoring winds to float him into their midst.” This really appealed to these kids – “the stealthiness, and the ease of it, and because it meant many birds with one shot”.*
One young fourteen-year old is said to have observed a big cougar preparing to cross a creek on a log. Rather than shoot the cat as it passed broadside to him, the youth snuck up the side of the ravine and positioned himself at the other end of the log so that the cougar would walk right up to the end of his muzzle. Commenting on the resulting coup, he is proudly boasted that he,”blowed a hole in that cougar that a bull bat could a’flew through without ‘tetching’ his wings on either side.” When the settler pointed out the notorious unreliability of the old Queen Anne rifle, and asked why he would take on such a huge danger. The boy is reported to have replied that his own life was the cheapest of his possessions – he had paid nothing for it, but the cougar of immeasurable value in honor, in reward and status.
Camas and Wapato:
A group of men and women seem to be assembling on the beach in front of the largest plank house. They are carrying conical baskets on their backs and wielding wooden digging sticks with handles made of antlers. They appeared to be headed south along the Willamette River intent on reaching the open savannahs beyond the falls. As they cross over the embankment they pass near the nettle-gatherers and we hear someone call, “Kah mika klatawa?” (Where are you going?) and someone replies, “k’laps quamash” and we understand that they are going south to harvest “quamash”, or what we call the “Camas lily”.
The Camas Lily is by far the most important vegetable in the Indians’ diet. The Indians in this area maintained clearly established growing areas that had been handed down from generation to generation. In August, after the lilies had bloomed, whole family groups would leave their villages to travel to their harvesting sites to gather and process vast quantities of these onions.
The family group we’ve been watching is leaving to visit their hereditary camas harvesting sites. Over the years the Indians would have cleared rocks, brush, and weedy vegetation away from these patches. They would take care to harvest the bulbs only after the seeds were produced. And in the summer they would conduct periodic field burning to expose cleared growing areas for the lilies. In some cases they even practiced selective breeding by transplanting “better” bulbs to their beds. They also made sure to remove any nearby “death camas” bulbs (Zigadenus venenosus), so they wouldn’t accidentally be mistaken for the edible camas bulbs.
To harvest the onion bulbs they would lift out a whole sections of turf and carefully extract the larger bulbs using a pointed digging stick. In some cases the bulbs would be broken up and replanted to further enrich the site. Afterwards having harvested enough bulbs the gathering party would then cook the onions in large pit ovens lined with porous rocks before shaping them into large cakes for easier handling, storage or trade. This process could take some time, so it was likely that this party would be out for many weeks, if not months. They won’t return to their plank houses until the latter part of September.
While this sophisticated management of the wild camas beds may not technically have met anthropologists’ definition of “active agriculture” it is clear that the Indians were practicing sustainable harvesting to ensure sufficient production to sustain their families and tribal groups estimated by contemporary sources that it took about 12 acres of camas plants to feed a family of five. Today the camas lilies are hard to find in the Willamette Valley, having been plowed under by the industrial land management processes employed today. But not so long ago when camas was in bloom in the wet meadows, the flowers grew so thickly that they looked like a blue lake.
Later in the summer we might have spotted another group of women walking into the interior of Sauvie Island. They each would have shouldered a small canoe as they threaded their way through the tall grass and occasional vine maple thickets that surround the waters of Sturgeon Lake. From our lofty vantage point we would just barely have see them amongst the tall cat-tails as they waded out into the water. Gingerly they would have edged out into the shallow lake, feeling the muddy bottom with their feet. At this point we might have noticed how one of the women paused as she hooked her toes around the stem of a wapato plant lodged in the muck. With a practiced tug she would have dislodged the plant and it would soon have floated to the surface, its long aquatic stem and leaves spreading out along the surface of the tranquil pond. As we continue to watch, we might have seen the woman pluck the plant out of the water and deftly toss it into the little canoe that is floating alongside her. Clustered around her the other women would also have been searching the muddy bottom and plucking up these delicacies with their toes, and then depositing them in their floating wheelbarrows. Wapato could be eaten raw, but it was better after being cooked or boiled. And some were dried and kept for use during the winter. But above all else wapato was a much valued delicacy that attracted Indians from all over, especially older Indians since it was meant to be especially good for the aged.
Back at the village, the men are now emerging from the plank houses. The older men have otter skin robes flung over their torsos, but many of the younger Indians are devoid of any clothing as they stand around leaning on their paddles. These are clearly Chinook Indians because their oars exhibit the typical Chinook paddle design – a triangular scoop ending in a flat straight-edged end. They wait as some of their group finishes stringing new bowstrings on their yew bows. Lined up in the sand below the men are a line of sinewy Chinook canoes that will eventually transport these hunters to their destinations.
The Chinook Canoe
The Chinook Canoe was a craft of extraordinary beauty and was as much their home as it was the outward expression of their graceful relationship with the life-force that sustained them, the Columbia River. These canoes came in all sizes and shapes, from one-man hunting canoes, hand held canoes for gathering Wapato, or the large cruising canoes that could hold thirty to forty people and all their equipment. The abrupt vertical cliff at the stern stood in contrast with the extended curve of the prow, and between, the barely visible waterlines swept the length of the canoe to unify its sense of grace and purpose.
It took years of work to fashion such a canoe. At first it was hollowed out using fire, flint and beaver-tooth chisels. Then it was filled with steaming water and stretched into shape with stretchers sewn into place until the desired proportion had been achieved. The resulting craft was sleek and seaworthy even in the tempestuous Northwest swells.
But it had an Achilles heel. Where the tree was cut across the grain to square off the stern or cut the advanced edge of the curvaceous bow – there the grain was exposed. It was at either end of these graceful craft, that the strains and stresses of the ocean squeezed the hardest. In a heavy seaway the canoe could twist and split from end to end. Many tragedies at sea resulted from this fatal flaw. While the Chinook courageously paddled their craft the entire length of the Pacific coast from Alaska to California, the old Indians often told of clinging to the split canoe, for hours and days until the surf finally rolled them ashore.
Eventually, the hunters drag the canoes down to the water and after a boisterous send-off they commence paddling down a small channel that separates Wapato Island from the western shore. At first the Indians paddle furiously, beating the water into froth as they steer the canoe into the side channel. But this soon gives way to a listless progress as the Indians in the boat engage in animated conversation and forgetting their erstwhile eagerness. Soon the canoe is drifting downstream at its own pace, as the conversation overwhelms them. A few minutes later they take up the paddles as if some evil magic were on their tail, only to be interrupted by more on-board hilarity that causes the canoe to again float aimlessly downstream until the next paroxysm of paddling befalls them. About a mile down what we now call the “Multnomah Channel” the canoes begin to work their way into the smaller side channels that penetrate westwards. Eventually, part of the canoe’s crew disembarks onto a shoulder of solid ground that abuts the meandering waterways.
Before they part we hear more high-spirited teasing of the erstwhile hunters – no doubt, deprecating their chances of bagging anything more significant than a skunk. These are the same fellows we saw stringing their bows earlier, and apparently they’re now headed up country to hunt for deer or elk. They must be following a well-trod trail across the open grasslands, because we can hardly see their heads bobbing above the tall ryegrass.
But these Chinook hunters were remarkable. Early settlers that had the opportunity to watch them hunt were astounded. For hours the Indian hunter would go uphill and downhill, and along the slopes following a particular elk. The Indian would spot a pebble overturned with the moister side exposed, or a fresh hoof print, or even a twig recently snapped and other signs too faint for the normal person to spot. All these anomalies created a trail of tiny anomalies lined up like glowing points leading to the animal.
No dog ever followed a track more persistently, than these Indians who singled out a specific elk and tracked that beast through the waist-deep Oregon Grape and Vine Maple thickets for hours until at last the track became clearer and the quarry closer. Now we would see the pursuers getting more excited as they felt themselves closing in. Step by step the hunter would increase the pace, and one by one he would drop his clothes and accessories along the way, so that at the end it was just one naked man opposite that huge Roosevelt Elk – up close. And so good was his woodcraft that when he backtracked to gather his belongings, not an item was lost.
On observing this intense pursuit, it would only be logical to assume that the Indians could actually smell their prey, but the Indians were the first to deny this. No, it was their knowledge of the terrain and the animal patterns that helped the Indian know what was guiding the elk’s peregrinations. When the elk were grazing it was particularly hard to follow them since they had no intended destination, but the Indians knew their prey almost as well as they knew the landscape. Putting both together they were able to track the elk through the toughest vegetation because they knew where the elk was headed. They knew that the elk would follow the bare ridge lines, that they would traverse the steep slopes rather than climb up them and they knew those especially well hidden corners where the elk were likely to hide.
On ordinary forest floors the track of the elk could be easily discerned and on any dry rocky ground there was always enough dust or vegetation to reveal the passing of so huge a beast to the sharp eyes of the Indian tracker. The final stages of the stalking were impressive to watch. Eons of history with the bow and arrow had bred into the Indian the preference to get up close to his victim. The introduction of the gun made no difference in his desire to come face-to-face with his prey.
Crouching his body so low that it seemed to slide over the uneven forest floor like a bronzed serpent, placing each step with noiseless purpose, and squeezing through the underbrush as silently as a fish, the feline stealth of the Indian hunter increased as he closed in on the object of his chase. And in the end he would creep right up to his prey and kill it before it even realized it was in danger!
This was a consummate hunter who frequented those parts of the forest where deer and elk congregated, who travelled up the streams and along some prairies as well as the known trails from the Puget Sound down the Siskiyous. But the forest itself was avoided except where it was hunted. Despite their familiarity with the landscape, there were parts of the forest that were unknown, avoided and invested with ghosts – just in case you didn’t get the message. Partly this was due to the density of the forests, and the vastness of the forested landscape. The forests were so thick and vast in the Lower Columbia that they seemed abandoned by even the ground animals. So little grew in this semi-darkness that most of the smaller creatures migrated to the edges of the forest where the young shoots, the green plants and flowers grew in profusion. It was common for the early explorers to travel through these forests for many days without ever seeing anything more than a squirrel. And even today, one can pass through remote silent dells whose exposure to light or animal passage is but a distant memory.
But by early summer the ryegrasses will have returned, and the tarweeds will be growing in profusion. Amongst the tall grasses the hunters would be barely visible. As the slope increases the hunters enter the forests that hold sway along the slopes of the Coastal Range.
If we had the eagle eyes to recognize the trees into which the hunters were climbing, we would see that the composition of these forest differed markedly from today’s forests. Like today’s forests, the ground would be uniformly covered in the oregon grape, salal and vine maple. Stands of douglas fir, grand fir and Spruce would grace the slopes. But there the similarity would end, because the western hemlock that grows on these slopes today would have been largely missing. Noticeably absent would also have been the western red cedar trees, most of which would have been concentrated further up the Willamette River, near present-day Portland. Liberally, mixed into forest, we would find elegant ponderosa pines and even some madrone trees – largely absent from today’s tree cover. Overall, the forest would have been dramatically more diverse providing effective habitat for a much greater variety of wildlife, including more cougars, wolves and even majestic elk that dwarfed their modern day descendants.
Even as we examined the forest composition the hunters have slipped into the trees. But we know they’re climbing one of the oldest trails in the Columbia River valley. The path they’re following has been trodden smooth by the bare feet of generations of Chinook and Calapooyan hunters, foragers and travellers crossing the “Cha-aloko weimefu,” or as we know them, the Tualatin mountains. On the sunny western slopes this ancient trail would slip down the ridgelines studded with prized huckleberries patches to finally spill out into the Calapooyan village of “Chakontweiftei” or literally “the place where the trail emerges.” There in the territory of the Calapooyan Indians the trail, we now call Logie Trail, entered the great savannahs of the Willamette valley that provided access all the way to the foothills of the Siskyou Mountains.
A little further on, south of present day St. Johns Bridge another trail ascended the Tualatin Range and passed through the western slopes as it descended into the Tualatin Plains. This track served the Multnomahs and Chinooks that lived along the Willamette River as the most direct route to cross into the Tualatin plains where they could tend to their patches of camas lilies, or reach the lake near Gaston to feast on the abundant wapato plants. The Calapooyans that lived in the Tualatin plain also had a reason to travel back and forth. The Tualatin River that sustained the plains to the west of present-day Portland, was too warm to sustain native salmon runs, so the Calapooyans had to cross the hills to reach the Columbia River if they wanted salmon for dinner. In those distant days, it would have been likely that travellers crossing the Tualatin Range would have come across many of the older Calapooyan women that spent their July days rummaging along the warm westward-facing slopes gleaning huckleberries from their prized bushes that grew bountifully in the warm afternoon sunlight. Near the riverside terminus of this trail the Chinook Indian chief Caseno, is said to have maintained his principal residence so it’s likely that the Springville road was built over this ancient footpath.
Of course there were other trails that crossed the dense forests covering most the northern coastal range between the Columbia River and the Pacific Coast. These smaller, less travelled routes split off from what would later be called “Logie Trail”. Heading north along the height of land narrow tracks cut through the Salal and Oregon grape and detoured around massive fallen tree trunks. What began as a labyrinth of muddy elk trails was linked and joined by the purposeful striding of people trying to reach distant destinations. One such trail amongst the myriad tracks led north from Logie Trail through the huckleberry thickets and climbed the slope of Buck Mountain.
Buck Mountain: the watershed peak
As unimpressive as this forested peak may have seemed, it hide a significance that was much larger than its gentle slope might suggest. Peering westwards from the thick forest that topped the crown of this overblown hillock one would see that a small valley separates Buck Mountain from its nameless twin to the west. In that fold, the first dribbles of moisture flow together and coalesce into the headwaters of South Scappoose Creek draining around the southern face and dropping down into what was later called Dutch Canyon before eventually flowing into the Columbia River. But looking a bit further , we would see that another stream drawing sustenance from the north slope of Buck Mountain fed a marshy pond that emptied into Panther Creek, one of the highest tributaries of Dairy Creek. Dairy Creek eventually flows down into the Tualatin valley near North Plains and from there flows past Wapato Lake, where the Atfalati band of Calapooyan Indians congregated.
Looking northwards a low ridge spans the foreground. This height of land holds a series of small misty ponds (know to us as “Gunners Lakes”) that catch the seepage from these perennially damp forests. Small streams escape from these shallow pools and cascade in miniature rivulets over beaver dams and through boggy glens to reach the Nehalem River which flows into the Pacific ocean just north of Tillamook.
Buck Mountain for all it woodsy ordinariness remains a special place because it marks the separation of three watersheds. It marks the junction of the watersheds that drain the western slopes of the Columbia River basin, the northernmost reach of the Tualatin River basin, and the easternmost reach of the coastal watershed.
Had we come here two centuries ago, we would have reached the northern limits of the Atfalati’s hunting grounds. To the east the Kiersinno band of Chinookan Indians held sway. And to the north the Athabascan villages of the Klatskanie Indians hunted the mountains and taxed the river traffic along the Columbia river.
This was as finite a border as we can imagine with trading patterns, hunting rights and transportation tolls firmly established. For instance, it is reported that the Calapooyans, locally known as the Atfalati, were granted the right to hunt seals in the Columbia River, in exchange for which the Klickitats, who lived on the north side of the Columbia, were allowed to hunt the game-filled forests above Washington County. Unlike their coastal neighbors the Salish speaking Clatsops, or the river-based Chinookans , the northern Atfalati from the Forest Grove area were known to be active hunters, since their access to fishing was seasonally limited to when high water levels introduced more fish into their interior streams. The Atfalati even penetrated the Coastal Range to trade with the Tillamooks and the Clatsops for fish, whale meat and abalone shells. And they traded berries and game with the more affluent Chinook Indians along the Lower Columbia. But fishing in the Columbia remained exclusively the right of the Chinook River Indians that lived along the banks of the “Wimahl” (big river).
Throughout this area trails crossed the Tualatin Range to connect the Tualatin valley based Atfalati with the river-side Chinook Indians. The best-know of these trails was the Logie Trail that connected Washington County to Sauvie Island. From Sauvie Island it was possible to swim the main stem of the Columbia to reach the northern bank and from there one might even travel north to the Puget Sound region, or east to the lands dominated by the Klickitat. The Logie trail is the remnant of the original north-south trail system that probably dates to the earliest human settlement in the area around 12,000 years ago.
Understanding this geography gives us new appreciation for this humble peak. From Buck Mountain it is possible to peer West into the multiple green folds of the Coast range and spot the telltale shape of Saddle Mountain the peak of which marked the interior boundary of the inhabited coastal strip. To the east one can just discern Multnomah Falls and the beginning of the Gorge that marks the transition from the dense wet arboreal region to the dry plains of the interior Indians – derisively referred to as the “shoshones” by the Willamette Valley Indians. The view from Buck Mountain was “world-spanning” in that it allowed the intrepid viewer to see both extremities of his world – the gateway to the deserts of the interior and the coastal jungle that thrived in the wet climate along the Pacific Ocean. Even today this remote divide of waters, peoples and cultures conjures up deep forces of spatial power. Had druids lived in these parts, they would have anointed this hill with a crown of stones. Though uncrowned and unrecognized, this remote hillock still exudes a sense of place that helps to ground me every time I peer out from its tree-lined brow. Tarry a while and let it soothe your soul…
Were we to continue northwards from Buck Mountain into the thickly forested slopes that fed the Nehalem River, we would have been encroaching upon territory mainly trafficed by the pugnacious Clatskanie Indians that lived further downstream on the Columbia.
The Clatskanie originally lived on the flat lands beside the Chehalis River in Washington State. But as game became scarce, they headed south, and finding more elk on the southern side of the river they took up residence there – where the Columbia River makes its final turn towards the Pacific Coast. These Indians had a reputation for extorting “tolls” from all those that passed through their territory on their way to or from the coast. Even Lewis and Clark had their run-ins with these tough characters, and it was only the intervention of the Clatsops that saved them from an attack by the disappointed Clatskanie. Of particular interest to us, is the fact that it was the Clatskanie Indians that managed to penetrate the interior of the Coast Range and settle in the fertile valleys along the upper reaches of the Nehalem River.
For 100 miles the Nehalem River curves through the dense forests of Oregon’s Northwest corner. Its name signifies a “place where people live.” And like a giant horseshoe it sweeps through the North Coast Mountains carving a tenuous passage through this otherwise impenetrable landscape. In the 1750’s before the arrival of the Europeans, this twisting river was a sparkling ribbon of clear water cascading down a series of chutes and rapids, pooling into lazy eddies and racing over long wide stretches where it spread out to reveal the smooth river rocks below its shallow surface. The hills around it were covered in stands of huge douglas fir trees, western cedar, hemlock, yew trees, sitka spruce, big leaf maples and red alders. White-tailed deer, roosevelt elk, cougars, raccoons, wolves, and black bears found cover among the profusion of elderberries, the tangle of vinemaple, the hazel and hawthorne bushes, towering patches of rhododendrons, and marshes filled with skunk cabbage. Unlike the Columbia River Basin or the Willamette Valley, this valley was not subject to annual burning by the Indians making it nearly impossible to penetrate, had it not been for the streamside trail that ran alongside the river.
Asked by the Europeans how they described the stream along which they lived the Indians in this vicinity replied “Clatskanie”, meaning that it was a swiftly flowing stream. But, in fact, they used this term to designate any swiftly flowing stream along which they maintained a trail whether it was Clatskanie Creek, the Nehalem River, or even a stream flowing into Young’s Bay near Astoria. This is why we find two rivers on the lower Columbia: one called “Clatskanie” and the other “Klaskanine” – both adopting the Chinook term for any generic streamside trail.
The Columbia River Basin:
By contrast the Columbia River basin is surprisingly open and accessible. Tall stands of Black Cottonwood trees grow in unruly processions along the shorelines. But vast areas are clear including many riparian areas immediately around the clustered plank houses –resulting from the constant harvesting of firewood. Away from the villages and especially on the many islands spread across the constantly shifting river, cottonwoods and willows grow in rich, if somewhat precarious, profusion. Away from the tree-lined corridors lining the myriad waterways White Oaks stand in solitary copses across an otherwise open landscape dominated by lush grasses. These trees were naturally resistant to the quick blazes that scorched their environs, but they were also prized and protected by the Indians for their acorns and the resulting ability to attract deer.
Even the shoreline would have been unrecognizable to modern eyes. Gone were the well-defined riverbanks and instead we would have seen endless streams and inlets piercing the riverbanks and shallow bayou’s along the river’s edge where fish swam into the myriad inlets, streams and shallow ponds. Throughout this swampy landscape we would have seen the handiwork of the Indian fish trappers. The little streams would have been crisscrossed with wooden weirs, studded with strategically placed basket traps and wooden fishing platforms. The eastern shore of Sauvie Island had the recognizable beaches, but all along the length of the island small streams breached the shoreline feeding shallow channels that penetrated deep into the interior of the island.
And everywhere, we would have seen the smoke rising from the hundreds of plank houses scattered across the landscape. Footpaths leading from these villages trace lines up into the berry gathering grounds on the western facing slopes that caught the warm afternoon sun. Beyond the open savannahs created by the annual conflagrations, trails ascended westwards into the Tualatin Hills and eastwards into the foothills of the Cascades. These trails climbed to the crests, where hunters torched the enormous stands of virgin timber to create artificial clearings. It was in these riparian areas that game would emerge from the gloom of the forest to enjoy the young vegetation that grew there. And it was there the hunters would go to hunt the huge elk whose meet was dried and traded to the tribes that came to the annual rendezvous at Celilo Falls.
In August the Indian women will torch this plain reducing these rich grasslands to a moonscape dotted with copses of charred oaks, scorched Hawthorne bushes, and patches of roasted tarweed husks. With the exception of these survivors, the entire valley floor will be cleared of the vegetation. Only the banks of the waterways will be spared the annual burning producing well-defined corridors of willows, poplars and cottonwoods clustered along the water’s edge.
It is late summer as we peruse this pastoral scene, and already the haze is starting to accumulate. From down the Willamette Valley the smoke from early fires is seeping up the valley. In a month the air will be so dense with smoke from the Siskiyou Mountains right up into the Puget Sound that it will be impossible to see but a few feet. Boatmen on the sound will hug the shoreline, lest they get lost in the murk. Riders in the Willamette Valley will search in vain for their grazing mounts as the landscape dissolves into uniform greyness, and the smell of burning grass pervades everything. Along the entire valley and western slopes of the Cascades a pall of smoke would hang heavy from late July into late September.
The Lower Willamette River:
A large pasture that occasionally hosted Indian gatherings dominated the area of present day Portland, but it was not a well-frequented area due to the lack of salmon in the small creeks trickling down from the Tualatin Hills. Native populations of trout lived in these shallow intermittent streams, but in the native food chain they were a trivial resource that could not sustain any permanent population for long. Even the berry bushes were marginal in this area, as the slopes faced east and missed the essential afternoon sun.
It was across the river at the mouth of the Clackamas that the Indians congregated to collect their harvest of salmon. Willamette Falls was another source of food. Early in the summer lamprey eels would congregate in huge numbers at the base of the falls. This would attract the Indians who would wade into the writhing masses. Pinching the eels just behind the head, the Indians would snap their necks. The more daring Indians were known to simply bite their heads off before tossing them on the rocks. There the children would compete with flocks of eagles and giant Columbia River condors to snatch the wriggling eel bodies from the rocks.
The long ago observer of this region would have been impressed by the pervasiveness of human activity. Viewing this riverine landscape the industriousness of the Indian fishermen was visible all across the river, and deep into the bayous alongside the Columbia. Weirs and fish baskets dotted the waters, villages clustered along the river’s edge catching as much as one third the total volume of fish that descended the great Columbia River. Trails snaked out into the grasslands and up into the forests. And everywhere canoes were plying the great watery highway fishing and trading as part of the complex system that enabled the survival of such an intense concentration of people in such a small area.
On the horizon our erstwhile observer would have been able to spot the snow-dusted hills that mark the lower slopes of Cascade Mountains. No doubt our long-ago observer would have taken reassurance from the abiding presence of the majestic peaks of Tahoma (Mt. Rainier), Loo-Wit (St. Helens), Klickitat (Mt. Adams), and WyEast (Mt. Hood), which had stood guard over this richly endowed region since the Indians’ arrival nearly 19 thousand years ago. Unfortunately, the next two centuries would bring the demise of their heretofore-sustainable lifestyle.