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Steep Trails, by John Muir (1918)

Chapter 23
The Rivers of Oregon

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Turning from the woods and their inhabitants to the rivers, we find that while the former are rarely seen by travelers beyond the immediate borders of the settlements, the great river of Oregon draws crowds of enthusiastic admirers to sound its praises. Every summer since the completion of the first overland railroad, tourists have been coming to it in ever increasing numbers, showing that in general estimation the Columbia is one of the chief attractions of the Pacific Coast. And well it deserves the admiration so heartily bestowed upon it. The beauty and majesty of its waters, and the variety and grandeur of the scenery through which it flows, lead many to regard it as the most interesting of all the great rivers of the continent, notwithstanding the claims of the other members of the family to which it belongs and which nobody can measure — the Fraser, McKenzie, Saskatchewan, the Missouri, Yellowstone, Platte, and the Colorado, with their glacier and geyser fountains, their famous canyons, lakes, forests, and vast flowery prairies and plains. These great rivers and the Columbia are intimately related. All draw their upper waters from the same high fountains on the broad, rugged uplift of the Rocky Mountains, their branches interlacing like the branches of trees. They sing their first songs together on the heights; then, collecting their tributaries, they set out on their grand journey to the Atlantic, Pacific, or Arctic Ocean.

The Columbia, viewed as one from the sea to the mountains, is like a rugged, broad-topped, picturesque old oak about six hundred miles long and nearly a thousand miles wide measured across the spread of its upper branches, the main limbs gnarled and swollen with lakes and lakelike expansions, while innumerable smaller lakes shine like fruit among the smaller branches. The main trunk extends back through the Coast and Cascade Mountains in a general easterly direction for three hundred miles, when it divides abruptly into two grand branches which bend off to the northeastward and southeastward.

The south branch, the longer of the two, called the Snake, or Lewis, River, extends into the Rocky Mountains as far as the Yellowstone National Park, where its head tributaries interlace with those of the Colorado, Missouri, and Yellowstone. The north branch, still called the Columbia, extends through Washington far into British territory, its highest tributaries reaching back through long parallel spurs of the Rockies between and beyond the headwaters of the Fraser, Athabasca, and Saskatchewan. Each of these main branches, dividing again and again, spreads a network of channels over the vast complicated mass of the great range throughout a section nearly a thousand miles in length, searching every fountain, however small or great, and gathering a glorious harvest of crystal water to be rolled through forest and plain in one majestic flood to the sea, reinforced on the way by tributaries that drain the Blue Mountains and more than two hundred miles of the Cascade and Coast Ranges. Though less than half as long as the Mississippi, it is said to carry as much water. The amount of its discharge at different seasons, however, has never been exactly measured, but in time of flood its current is sufficiently massive and powerful to penetrate the sea to a distance of fifty or sixty miles from shore, its waters being easily recognized by the difference in color and by the drift of leaves, berries, pine cones, branches, and trunks of trees that they carry.

That so large a river as the Columbia, making a telling current so far from shore, should remain undiscovered while one exploring expedition after another sailed past seems remarkable, even after due allowance is made for the cloudy weather that prevails hereabouts and the broad fence of breakers drawn across the bar. During the last few centuries, when the maps of the world were in great part blank, the search for new worlds was fashionable business, and when such large game was no longer to be found, islands lying unclaimed in the great oceans, inhabited by useful and profitable people to be converted or enslaved, became attractive objects; also new ways to India, seas, straits, El Dorados, fountains of youth, and rivers that flowed over golden sands.

Those early explorers and adventurers were mostly brave, enterprising, and, after their fashion, pious men. In their clumsy sailing vessels they dared to go where no chart or lighthouse showed the way, where the set of the currents, the location of sunken outlying rocks and shoals, were all unknown, facing fate and weather, undaunted however dark the signs, heaving the lead and thrashing the men to their duty and trusting to Providence. When a new shore was found on which they could land, they said their prayers with superb audacity, fought the natives if they cared to fight, erected crosses, and took possession in the names of their sovereigns, establishing claims, such as they were, to everything in sight and beyond, to be quarreled for and battled for, and passed from hand to hand in treaties and settlements made during the intermissions of war.

The branch of the river that bears the name of Columbia all the way to its head takes its rise in two lakes about ten miles in length that lie between the Selkirk and main ranges of the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, about eighty miles beyond the boundary line. They are called the Upper and Lower Columbia Lakes. Issuing from these, the young river holds a nearly straight course for a hundred and seventy miles in a northwesterly direction to a plain called “Boat Encampment,” receiving many beautiful affluents by the way from the Selkirk and main ranges, among which are the Beaver-Foot, Blackberry, Spill-e-Mee-Chene, and Gold Rivers. At Boat Encampment it receives two large tributaries, the Canoe River from the northwest, a stream about a hundred and twenty miles long; and the Whirlpool River from the north, about a hundred and forty miles in length.

The Whirlpool River takes its rise near the summit of the main axis of the range on the fifty-fourth parallel, and is the northmost of all the Columbia waters. About thirty miles above its confluence with the Columbia it flows through a lake called the Punch-Bowl, and thence it passes between Mounts Hooker and Brown, said to be fifteen thousand and sixteen thousand feet high, making magnificent scenery; though the height of the mountains thereabouts has been considerably overestimated. From Boat Encampment the river, now a large, clear stream, said to be nearly a third of a mile in width, doubles back on its original course and flows southward as far as its confluence with the Spokane in Washington, a distance of nearly three hundred miles in a direct line, most of the way through a wild, rocky, picturesque mass of mountains, charmingly forested with pine and spruce — though the trees seem strangely small, like second growth saplings, to one familiar with the western forests of Washington, Oregon, and California.

About forty-five miles below Boat Encampment are the Upper Dalles, or Dalles de Mort, and thirty miles farther the Lower Dalles, where the river makes a magnificent uproar and interrupts navigation. About thirty miles below the Lower Dalles the river expands into Upper Arrow Lake, a beautiful sheet of water forty miles long and five miles wide, straight as an arrow and with the beautiful forests of the Selkirk range rising from its east shore, and those of the Gold range from the west. At the foot of the lake are the Narrows, a few miles in length, and after these rapids are passed, the river enters Lower Arrow Lake, which is like the Upper Arrow, but is even longer and not so straight.

A short distance below the Lower Arrow the Columbia receives the Kootenay River, the largest affluent thus far on its course and said to be navigable for small steamers for a hundred and fifty miles. It is an exceedingly crooked stream, heading beyond the upper Columbia lakes, and, in its mazy course, flowing to all points of the compass, it seems lost and baffled in the tangle of mountain spurs and ridges it drains. Measured around its loops and bends, it is probably more than five hundred miles in length. It is also rich in lakes, the largest, Kootenay Lake, being upwards of seventy miles in length with an average width of five miles. A short distance below the confluence of the Kootenay, near the boundary line between Washington and British Columbia, another large stream comes in from the east, Clarke’s Fork, or the Flathead River. Its upper sources are near those of the Missouri and South Saskatchewan, and in its course it flows through two large and beautiful lakes, the Flathead and the Pend d’Oreille. All the lakes we have noticed thus far would make charming places of summer resort; but Pend d’Oreille, besides being surpassingly beautiful, has the advantage of being easily accessible, since it is on the main line of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the Territory of Idaho. In the purity of its waters it reminds one of Tahoe, while its many picturesque islands crowned with evergreens, and its winding shores forming an endless variety of bays and promontories lavishly crowded with spiry spruce and cedar, recall some of the best of the island scenery of Alaska.

About thirty-five miles below the mouth of Clark’s Fork the Columbia is joined by the Ne-whoi-al-pit-ku River from the northwest. Here too are the great Chaudiere, or Kettle, Falls on the main river, with a total descent of about fifty feet. Fifty miles farther down, the Spokane River, a clear, dashing stream, comes in from the east. It is about one hundred and twenty miles long, and takes its rise in the beautiful Lake Coeur d’Alene, in Idaho, which receives the drainage of nearly a hundred miles of the western slopes of the Bitter Root Mountains, through the St. Joseph and Coeur d’Alene Rivers. The lake is about twenty miles long, set in the midst of charming scenery, and, like Pend d’Oreille, is easy of access and is already attracting attention as a summer place for enjoyment, rest, and health.

The famous Spokane Falls are in Washington, about thirty miles below the lake, where the river is outspread and divided and makes a grand descent from a level basaltic plateau, giving rise to one of the most beautiful as well as one of the greatest and most available of water-powers in the State. The city of the same name is built on the plateau along both sides of the series of cascades and falls, which, rushing and sounding through the midst, give singular beauty and animation. The young city is also rushing and booming. It is founded on a rock, leveled and prepared for it, and its streets require no grading or paving. As a power to whirl the machinery of a great city and at the same time to train the people to a love of the sublime and beautiful as displayed in living water, the Spokane Falls are unrivaled, at least as far as my observation has reached. Nowhere else have I seen such lessons given by a river in the streets of a city, such a glad, exulting, abounding outgush, crisp and clear from the mountains, dividing, falling, displaying its wealth, calling aloud in the midst of the busy throng, and making glorious offerings for every use of utility or adornment.

From the mouth of the Spokane the Columbia, now out of the woods, flows to the westward with a broad, stately current for a hundred and twenty miles to receive the Okinagan, a large, generous tributary a hundred and sixty miles long, coming from the north and drawing some of its waters from the Cascade Range. More than half its course is through a chain of lakes, the largest of which at the head of the river is over sixty miles in length. From its confluence with the Okinagan the river pursues a southerly course for a hundred and fifty miles, most of the way through a dreary, treeless, parched plain to meet the great south fork. The Lewis, or Snake, River is nearly a thousand miles long and drains nearly the whole of Idaho, a territory rich in scenery, gold mines, flowery, grassy valleys, and deserts, while some of the highest tributaries reach into Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. Throughout a great part of its course it is countersunk in a black lava plain and shut in by mural precipices a thousand feet high, gloomy, forbidding, and unapproachable, although the gloominess of its canyon is relieved in some manner by its many falls and springs, some of the springs being large enough to appear as the outlets of subterranean rivers. They gush out from the faces of the sheer black walls and descend foaming with brave roar and beauty to swell the flood below.

From where the river skirts the base of the Blue Mountains its surroundings are less forbidding. Much of the country is fertile, but its canyon is everywhere deep and almost inaccessible. Steamers make their way up as far as Lewiston, a hundred and fifty miles, and receive cargoes of wheat at different points through chutes that extend down from the tops of the bluffs. But though the Hudson’s Bay Company navigated the north fork to its sources, they depended altogether on pack animals for the transportation of supplies and furs between the Columbia and Fort Hall on the head of the south fork, which shows how desperately unmanageable a river it must be.

A few miles above the mouth of the Snake the Yakima, which drains a considerable portion of the Cascade Range, enters from the northwest. It is about a hundred and fifty miles long, but carries comparatively little water, a great part of what it sets out with from the base of the mountains being consumed in irrigated fields and meadows in passing through the settlements along its course, and by evaporation on the parched desert plains. The grand flood of the Columbia, now from half a mile to a mile wide, sweeps on to the westward, holding a nearly direct course until it reaches the mouth of the Willamette, where it turns to the northward and flows fifty miles along the main valley between the Coast and Cascade Ranges ere it again resumes its westward course to the sea. In all its course from the mouth of the Yakima to the sea, a distance of three hundred miles, the only considerable affluent from the northward is the Cowlitz, which heads in the glaciers of Mount Rainier.

From the south and east it receives the Walla-Walla and Umatilla, rather short and dreary-looking streams, though the plains they pass through have proved fertile, and their upper tributaries in the Blue Mountains, shaded with tall pines, firs, spruces, and the beautiful Oregon larch (Larix brevifolia), lead into a delightful region. The John Day River also heads in the Blue Mountains, and flows into the Columbia sixty miles below the mouth of the Umatilla. Its valley is in great part fertile, and is noted for the interesting fossils discovered in it by Professor Condon in sections cut by the river through the overlying lava beds.

The Deschutes River comes in from the south about twenty miles below the John Day. It is a large, boisterous stream, draining the eastern slope of the Cascade Range for nearly two hundred miles, and from the great number of falls on the main trunk, as well as on its many mountain tributaries, well deserves its name. It enters the Columbia with a grand roar of falls and rapids, and at times seems almost to rival the main stream in the volume of water it carries. Near the mouth of the Deschutes are the Falls of the Columbia, where the river passes a rough bar of lava. The descent is not great, but the immense volume of water makes a grand display. During the flood season the falls are obliterated and skillful boatmen pass over them is safety; while the Dalles, some six or eight miles below, may be passed during low water but are utterly impassable in flood time. At the Dalles the vast river is jammed together into a long, narrow slot of unknown depth cut sheer down in the basalt.

This slot, or trough, is about a mile and a half long and about sixty yards wide at the narrowest place. At ordinary times the river seems to be set on edge and runs swiftly but without much noisy surging with a descent of about twenty feet to the mile. But when the snow is melting on the mountains the river rises here sixty feet, or even more during extraordinary freshets, and spreads out over a great breadth of massive rocks through which have been cut several other gorges running parallel with the one usually occupied. All these inferior gorges now come into use, and the huge, roaring torrent, still rising and spreading, at length overwhelms the high jagged rock walls between them, making a tremendous display of chafing, surging, shattered currents, counter-currents, and hollow whirls that no words can be made to describe. A few miles below the Dalles the storm-tossed river gets itself together again, looks like water, becomes silent, and with stately, tranquil deliberation goes on its way, out of the gray region of sage and sand into the Oregon woods. Thirty-five or forty miles below the Dalles are the Cascades of the Columbia, where the river in passing through the mountains makes another magnificent display of foaming, surging rapids, which form the first obstruction to navigation from the ocean, a hundred and twenty miles distant. This obstruction is to be overcome by locks, which are now being made.

Between the Dalles and the Cascades the river is like a lake a mile or two wide, lying in a valley, or canyon, about three thousand feet deep. The walls of the canyon lean well back in most places, and leave here and there small strips, or bays, of level ground along the water’s edge. But towards the Cascades, and for some distance below the, the immediate banks are guarded by walls of columnar basalt, which are worn in many places into a great variety of bold and picturesque forms, such as the Castle Rock, the Rooster Rock, the Pillars of Hercules, Cape Horn, etc., while back of these rise the sublime mountain walls, forest-crowned and fringed more or less from top to base with pine, spruce, and shaggy underbrush, especially in the narrow gorges and ravines, where innumerable small streams come dancing and drifting down, misty and white, to join the mighty river. Many of these falls on both sides of the canyon of the Columbia are far larger and more interesting in every way than would be guessed from the slight glimpses one gets of them while sailing past on the river, or from the car windows. The Multnomah Falls are particularly interesting, and occupy fern-lined gorges of marvelous beauty in the basalt. They are said to be about eight hundred feet in height and, at times of high water when the mountain snows are melting, are well worthy of a place beside the famous falls of Yosemite Valley.

According to an Indian tradition, the river of the Cascades once flowed through the basalt beneath a natural bridge that was broken down during a mountain war, when the old volcanoes, Hood and St. Helen’s, on opposite sides of the river, hurled rocks at each other, thus forming a dam. That the river has been dammed here to some extent, and within a comparatively short period, seems probable, to say the least, since great numbers of submerged trees standing erect may be found along both shores, while, as we have seen, the whole river for thirty miles above the Cascades looks like a lake or mill-pond. On the other hand, it is held by some that the submerged groves were carried into their places by immense landslides.

Much of interest in the connection must necessarily be omitted for want of space. About forty miles below the Cascades the river receives the Willamette, the last of its great tributaries. It is navigable for ocean vessels as far as Portland, ten miles above its mouth, and for river steamers a hundred miles farther. The Falls of the Willamette are fifteen miles above Portland, where the river, coming out of dense woods, breaks its way across a bar of black basalt and falls forty feet in a passion of snowy foam, showing to fine advantage against its background of evergreens.

Of the fertility and beauty of the Willamette all the world has heard. It lies between the Cascade and Coast Ranges, and is bounded on the south by the Calapooya Mountains, a cross-spur that separates it from the valley of the Umpqua.

It was here the first settlements for agriculture were made and a provisional government organized, while the settlers, isolated in the far wilderness, numbered only a few thousand and were laboring under the opposition of the British Government and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Eager desire in the acquisition of territory on the part of these pioneer state-builders was more truly boundless than the wilderness they were in, and their unconscionable patriotism was equaled only by their belligerence. For here, while negotiations were pending for the location of the northern boundary, originated the celebrated “Fifty-four forty or fight,” about as reasonable a war-cry as the “North Pole or fight.” Yet sad was the day that brought the news of the signing of the treaty fixing their boundary along the forty-ninth parallel, thus leaving the little land-hungry settlement only a mere quarter-million of miles!

As the Willamette is one of the most foodful of valleys, so is the Columbia one of the most foodful of rivers. During the fisher’s harvest time salmon from the sea come in countless millions, urging their way against falls, rapids, and shallows, up into the very heart of the Rocky Mountains, supplying everybody by the way with most bountiful masses of delicious food, weighing from twenty to eighty pounds each, plump and smooth like loaves of bread ready for the oven. The supply seems inexhaustible, as well it might. Large quantities were used by the Indians as fuel, and by the Hudson’s Bay people as manure for their gardens at the forts. Used, wasted, canned and sent in shiploads to all the world, a grand harvest was reaped every year while nobody sowed. Of late, however, the salmon crop has begun to fail, and millions of young fry are now sown like wheat in the river every year, from hatching establishments belonging to the Government.

All of the Oregon waters that win their way to the sea are a tributary to the Columbia, save the short streams of the immediate coast, and the Umpqua and Rogue Rivers in southern Oregon. These both head in the Cascade Mountains and find their way to the sea through gaps in the Coast Range, and both drain large and fertile and beautiful valleys. Rogue River Valley is peculiarly attractive. With a fine climate, and kindly, productive soil, the scenery is delightful. About the main, central open portion of the basin, dotted with picturesque groves of oak, there are many smaller valleys charmingly environed, the whole surrounded in the distance by the Siskiyou, Coast, Umpqua, and Cascade Mountains. Besides the cereals nearly every sort of fruit flourishes here, and large areas are being devoted to peach, apricot, nectarine, and vine culture. To me it seems above all others the garden valley of Oregon and the most delightful place for a home. On the eastern rim of the valley, in the Cascade Mountains, about sixty miles from Medford in a direct line, is the remarkable Crater Lake, usually regarded as the one grand wonder of the region. It lies in a deep, sheer-walled basin about seven thousand feet above the level of the sea, supposed to be the crater of an extinct volcano.

Oregon as it is today is a very young country, though most of it seems old. Contemplating the Columbia sweeping from forest to forest, across plain and desert, one is led to say of it, as did Byron of the ocean, —

“Such as Creation’s dawn beheld, thou rollest now.”

How ancient appear the crumbling basaltic monuments along its banks, and the gray plains to the east of the Cascades! Nevertheless, the river as well as its basin in anything like their present condition are comparatively but of yesterday. Looming no further back in the geological records than the Tertiary Period, the Oregon of that time looks altogether strange in the few suggestive glimpses we may get of it — forests in which palm trees wave their royal crowns, and strange animals roaming beneath them or about the reedy margins of lakes, the oreodon, the lophiodon, and several extinct species of the horse, the camel, and other animals.

Then came the fire period with its darkening showers of ashes and cinders and its vast floods of molten lava, making quite another Oregon from the fair and fertile land of the preceding era. And again, while yet the volcanic fires show signs of action in the smoke and flame of the higher mountains, the whole region passes under the dominion of ice, and from the frost and darkness and death of the Glacial Period, Oregon has but recently emerged to the kindly warmth and life of today.

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