Painted Hills, Oregon

River Civilization

Continuing the search for answers to the Owyhee Puzzle, I explore the River cultures of Northwest Oregon.

Above: Painted Hills, Oregon.

These notes continue from the Umpqua Dunes. They begin with the Owyhee River.

The Oregon Hotel is old, rickety and delightful, and in the geographic center of Oregon, in the smallish town of Mitchell.

Weather has me holed up here - snowstorms east, rain west - a good night's sleep eludes me. The reason, some drunk hunter in 2C is blaring his television, his violent snores wafting between pauses in the television sound.

I look for a way to fall asleep, so I turn on the television set.  The Hills Have Eyes is playing. It's 2:31 A.M., and I am being entertained by the gruesome death of a family being eaten and tortured in the New Mexico desert.

But when the movie is over, I can still hear the snores and the sounds. I try to duplicate the strange sound coming from the room above on the television set in my room, but no channel exists.

Madras, Oregon Photo

Abandoned house outside of Madras, Oregon.

I walk on the old bed and make a racket on the ceiling with my hands, but the music and snoring doesn't stop. So I go outside and sit on the hotel steps, my hands folded around my head.

The night is still and warm; a break from the icy snow storms to the east and violent showers to the west. A noise breaks the silence - a shuffling. I am surprised when I lift my eyes and see a bear - a big bear - staring at me.

I focus; he's behind a cage - a sideshow attraction for the town's gas station, but did I know that? Henry the Bear, poor sap, used to be part of an exotic collection at a school for boys gone bad. But as the school failed, no one would take Henry,* so here he sits, always awakened by passing cars and drunks.

I stare back at the bear; his sorrow makes me forget the gruesomeness of the movie I just watched, and to consider my own situation. Three years ago, my brother and I found this stone tool in the Eastern Oregon desert, and I have sought to understand the people who may have left it there so many years ago.

Flashes of snow to the east diverted me here - I had high hopes of continuing a search for more stones in the arid, rock landscape along the John Day River. This is not my first time in Mitchell. Last time, I was pursuing this stone's story as well. Last time, I ended up here too, stuck. Maybe I'm like Henry. Big dreams of the Oregon wild, but here we are.

I have sought the origin of this rock by reconstructing its history through travel. I have learned things I never imagined, about ways the very diverse Indians of Oregon lived, ate, survived and traveled. I have learned a little of their origins, but am I any closer to answers?

However you say goodbye to a bear, I don't know, but as I close the door on the old hotel, I hear him sort of groaning. I close my door, and immediately hear the strange showtunes, the snoring again. Infuriated, I extend my tripod's legs and slam them against the ceiling. Nothing helps, so again I check the television to see what channel the drunken hunter has left on. Again, the station doesn't show up.

A few minutes later, I hear someone pounding on the door above me. Then some loud arguing, and finally, cheering from different rooms. I wake at noon the next day.

Mitchell is at the southern end of the Columbia Plateau; a huge flood basalt region covering much of Northern Oregon, Southern Washington and Idaho. Through the center of this, the dividing line between Oregon and Washington, is the Pacific Northwest's largest river - the Columbia River.

While much of the history of Oregon's Indians in the places I have visited so far have been largely histories of subsistence, the Columbia River's temperate climate and bountiful resources meant the development of more complex civilization - the Chinookan people settled in small tribes along the highlands of the Columbia River, and hunted deep into the Columbia Plateau lands north and south of the river.

Wildflowers of Elk Meadows

Lupine and Indian paintbrush in wet meadows of the Cascades.

Following a tip of better weather along the Columbia River, I drive west, and north, toward the deep, wet canyon of the Columbia River Gorge. Within the Gorge contains so much of the story of the Chinookan people.

A few months ago, I met up with a small group that was learning to build traditional salmon fishing tools. They carved delicate spear tips from dogwoods along the streams that flow from the heights of Mount Hood into the Columbia. I sat with the students on the rocks of a river.

One of the students was a forty-five year old, clean-cut, muscled man who described himself as a former military pilot, and a Republican. He felt that the world, or at least North America, may be on its way to collapse, and he cited environmental and political factors that would lead to an apocolyptic America. He said, "My family doesn't listen to me about what's happening. But when it happens, they won't make it. I will, because I'm learning what it takes to survive."

The other student was much younger. He had long hair and wore muted green tones. He was between jobs, between studies, and had given up his car for a bike. "It's not just the emissions," he said. "It's all the materials that go into building cars too." The younger student seemed to be learning about native survival not for lofty ambitions of post-apocolyptic survival, but because of a fascination with the wild.

While talking with me, he had been quietly knocking two stones against each other. He was knapping one of the rocks into the shape of an ax - a technique he had been learning over the past several weeks.

The younger student took me on a walk through the dry river, finding plants along the way. "Try this," he would say, collecting miner's lettuce and other small plants. You could eat decently this way - plants in the riverbed, roots on the moist tributary slopes, berries in the mountains. And nearly every season meant salmon or steelhead.

Still, hunting and gathering techniques in the gorge would have little to do with a stone tool from Southeastern Oregon. I drive through rain, and at higher elevation, snow, but when I make it to the gorge, the sun beats down bright. I follow a road near Mosier up to the Rowena Plateau, a place so lush and adorned by by so many wildflowers that people compare it to Kauai and New Caldonia in the same breath.

From here I can see the green of the Pacific Northwest, and the arid, dry, brown of Eastern Oregon - the Rowena Plateau is a transition zone. I look down at the banks of the Columbia River and imagine longhouses, and scores of fishing canoes, nets, traps, spears, salmon on stakes and returning foragers with baskets of mountain fruits.

To learn if the Chinookan may have any impact on the origin of my stone tool, I will have to learn more about their technology, their success as a civilization, and if their trade routes would have stretched to the Indians of the Owyhee region.

And that's why tonight, after the sun sets over a million blue and yellow flowers, I have to head to Washington state to find out how.

Wildflowers of Elk Meadows

Blooming lupines on Mount Hood, Oregon

When the web started really taking shape, we imagined it as a place that would democratize the flow of information, making journalism and knowledge and information-gathering that much easier, that much more accessible and accurate.

But something about the brave new information age – hoax emails, news designed for specific subcultures of our society, incendiary blog journalism - has, in some ways, made information less informative.  For me, the idea of traveling and recording what I actually see is the anti-thesis of consuming a cornucopia of other people’s information.  Instead of reading about it, I can see it for myself, I can ask my own questions, and observe it for myself.
Is such a process fruitless?  When I first started searching for the origins of this stone tool three years ago, I realized it was important to do so through the tools of travel, not through books, libraries and computers.   

I realize that the answer to this stone tool’s origins could be delivered to me in a book.  But Carl Sagan said it best. “When you make the finding yourself - even if you’re the last person on Earth to see the light - you’ll never forget it.” And to see the light, we step out the door, and go our own way.

A view of hills beyond The Dalles from the Columbia Hills in Washington.

Grasses in the hills beyond The Dalles, seen from the Columbia Hills in Washington.

Early morning speaks with hail and snow, and I haul north up I-5 into Washington State.  I am to meet Troy, a Washington native, at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.  He had called me a couple days ago, and wanted to make sure I would meet him at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse, a reconstruction of a Columbia basin longhouse.

The refuge is covered in a thick fog, and no ceremony seems about to ensue at the plankhouse.  So I walk on the trail in the thick fog for some time.  I know these trails well; Jane and I brought our son up here several times in his first year.  We picked acorns, and like the Indians who lived among these oaks, we dried them and offered them to our guests.

My phone rings, Troy says he won't be joining me. It's the gallstones, he says.  He gives me the names of a few people I could meet.

A few hours later, I can smell a fire burning, and chatter too.  When I return to the plankhouse, the foggy pondside hilltop is aglow with movement; tribes from as far away as Neah Bay have come for this gathering.

You enter the plankhouse through a round hole at its base – I enter into a world of which, without Troy, I am immediately compleletly lost.  Families, relatives, old inter-tribal friends.

Oneonta Gorge

Oneonta Gorge in the Columbia River Gorge area.

I watch the plankhouse fill up with tribes from across the Pacific Northwest. Representatives from faraway Neah Bay even show up, and the plankhouse quiets when they begin to chant and drum.

I have been following the history of Oregon's natives for so long, that it is refreshing to see the Columbia's culture alive today: I am not a native American, and I was never particularly one of those people who was interested in the romanticism of our native past.

But, the idea of the Oregon Testament - to go out and experience Oregon's native past through the device of travel is very important to me. The reason is this: I grew up as a first-generation American. My heritage is Norwegian and German. My family made this heritage a priority for our family. I felt like a Minnesotan and a European. When I moved to California, I was ambivalent about the place I lived in, until I learned that even gray Los Angeles had a vibrant, rich history.

Common Yellowthroat, Female>

Common Yellowthroat in the reeds, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington.

Culture succeeds when its people balance the traditions of history with the dynamism of progress. As a new arrival to Oregon, I owe something to my new home - I have to absorb its history. There are a lot of ways to do this. The state has wonderful museums and absorbing history found in books. But there is no formula for culture - the idea is that when you step into a new place, you not only bring your own history and culture, but you embrace your new culture.

At the plankhouse, a man makes an announcement. He talks about the power of community, the successes of the tribes. He then says that a great plan is about to be launched. His tribe is to begin work on an authentic Columbia fishing canoe. The expertise of dozens will be put to work, and if all goes well, they hope to launch the canoe next year.

It is amazing to see these groups get together to keep their old traditions alive. But I am already thinking about the origins of those traditions. In particular, I am again drawn to the origin of the Oregon Indian's water culture. Soon, I'll be stepping on an airplane to find out more.

These notes continue in Nome, Alaska.

Explore more in Cascadia

A backpacking trip to the solitary wilderness in southwestern Washington feeds my love of campfires.

On a road trip to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, I compare Oregonian and Californian views on public lands.

On a quiet stretch of Columbia River beach, an unexpected ark sends us to discover the life of the maverick inventor who built it.

On a backpacking trip to the Olympic Peninsula's rugged Pacific coast, I explore four possible future scenarios for rural coastal areas.

Late summer backpacking in a Southwest Washington national forest ends in my terrifying rescue. Includes an interview with rescuer Lauren Dawkins.

Hiking the Oregon Coast from Bandon to Port Orford: Snowy Plovers, hipsters and cops.

On the Oregon coast, I write about my dearest subject: perpetual road travel.

Notes on traveling to Portland, Oregon, laidback capital of Cascadia -- before I moved there.

With a group of pelagic birders and a grumpy sea captain, I pursue a rare treasure.

Frozen rattlesnakes and wolf politics in the fabled setting of the Zumwalt Prairie.

Notes from Tofino, Vancouver Island on the stunning and isolated Clayoquot Sound.

Color and camoflage in nature, from the Hood River Valley area of Oregon.

An interview with a native artist on the whaling controversies and life in Neah Bay.

I travel to the Umpqua Dunes in pursuit of the answers of a mysterious stone tool.

Glowing Mushrooms, deer-meat, stone and a Portland underworld of old ways.

The Oregon Hotel is old, rickety and delightful, and in the geographic center of Oregon.

Native migrations to the Americas, tundra, gyrfalcons and summertime on the Bering Sea.

Field sketches and illustrations from my travels in the state of Oregon.

Travels by boat with a group of birdwatchers in pursuit of rare pelagic birds.

Thoughts on rough roads, carefree trails and backcountry science in Oregon's Jefferson Park.