My grandfather first climbed to the cliffs on Saddle Mountain in the 1920s. He was not the first visitor to a high ledge where soft sandstone is sandwiched between layers of black basalt. Names were carved into the soft rock, dated, gouged deeper on subsequent visits. My father, whose first visit to the cliffs must have been when he was a youngster in the 1920s, introduced the site to his children. Our first visits were made by motor vehicles. Rough trails still exist that can be followed by a truck with high suspension…not that I recommend the method of access. You miss so much when you’re trapped in metal.
My favorite route to the cliffs followed the Milwaukee Road tracks for a mile or so, then veered up the fenceline separating private cultivated land from the BLM sections. After you leave the railroad tracks you start a relentless climb, like going on foot up a mile-long stairway. First you traverse massive slopes of yellow clay, silt that precipitated out of the flood when the waters struck the mountain, slowed and diverted to the east and the west. These banks are composed of countless thin layers. In some places you can find petrified bones, usually blackened vertebrae of fish or small animals. We also found turtle shells and I keep a broken bison bone in my classroom, orange and yellow and imperfectly petrified. If you make the climb in the winter, when crystallized patches of snow cling to the steep shady sides of clay gullies, your boots collect gobs of yellow clay. You wind up carrying extra pounds of weight with you with every step.
One of the more interesting vistas on the climb is a large natural amphitheater, perfectly formed for a Greek tragedy. Stock trails have ringed the steep back slopes, leaving regular ledges like benches for the spectators. A circular brushy flat of sediment that has accumulated in the last twelve thousand years lies at the bottom of the funnel-shaped back walls. A heap of earth that was once part of the smooth mountainside blocks all egress from the “stage” area for precipitation, so the stage is lovely and flat because centuries of silt have smoothed over the remnants of the violent landslide that formed this place. The acoustics are wonderful, and I’ve ached to carry some instrument up there. When my brothers and I used to climb to the cliffs this way we could speak easily to each other even if we were quite a distance apart in different parts of the seats. You could fit a lot more paying customers into this auditorium than would fit in almost any theater I’ve ever been in, with the possible exception of the Cotton Bowl.
Climbing the rear of the Amphitheater taxes your stamina. You learn quickly to take a few upward steps, then halt until your harsh breathing evens out. To the east you catch glimpses of ragged orchard trees, their spilt leaves and rotten rejected fruit littering the cultivated grass around them. Coyotes love this place for the change in diet. While they snoop around, waiting for unwary rabbits or rodents, they munch on the fruit. Their scat, thick with peels and seeds, is scattered across the wild lands to the west.
At the top of the Amphitheater you pause to view the distant valley. Crab Creek wanders amidst the broken buttes and rutted canyons below you. Cars and trucks on Highway 26 glitter through a haze of dust and sunlight. Rows of poplar trees trace the edges of roadways on Frenchman Hill to the north, other groves frame houses or trailers where farmers and their workers live.
But more mountain looms above you. This level area is deceitful. After you cross it, the smooth eastern flank of the Five Mile Slide presents you with another vertical climb towards the summit. As you mount the slopes above you, you trace the very edge of the slide. To your left the hill is smooth and evenly sloped. A low area on the ridge, a pass called Low Gap, marks the place where the old wagon road crossed this mountain. Once in the ’60s, I was riding in the back of my uncle’s pickup as we drove along the ridge here, and a low-flying airplane (violating the Federal no-fly zone over the Hanford Reservation) slipped across the mountain just above us. If you were to walk to the east, above the orchards and homes on what the locals call The Bench, you would discover U-shaped trenches that wander back and forth in switchbacks across the face of the mountain. These were formed by decades of draft animals and the wagons they pulled behind them. On the firm clay of the mountain the trails remain, but on the south slope they soon disappear beneath drifted sand. Farms and orchards have erased the remains of the trail across the bench, but you can still discover the same trails on the flats south of Crab Creek in what is now a National Wildlife Refuge…if you get permission to hike there.
Native Americans probably used this route for centuries, as it is the shortest and easiest way to get from the waters of the Columbia River to the next waters to the north, Crab Creek. Andrew Jackson Splawn wrote about driving cattle in this area in his 1917 memoir of a youth spent amongst the Indians and pioneers in Eastern Washington, Ka-Mi-Akin. He describes how a posse chasing Chief Moses paused on this ridge and spied a campfire on Crab Creek. They rode hard and surprised the Indians at the fire, arresting Moses for harboring murderous rogues who were responsible for the slaying of a white man and his pregnant wife at Rattlesnake Springs. Those were hard times for everyone, in the 187os. White settlers were sure that Chief Joseph meant to bring his renegade Nez Perces through the area in an attempt to flee to Canada. Moses and his people just wanted to be left alone on the lands they had roamed for all times. Oregon Indians fled northward to escape the conflicts that laced the valleys south of the Columbia. Some of those renegade murderers had lost their wives and families to a gatling gun attack as they canoed across the Columbia, and they were looking for revenge when they met their white victims.
This road was used by the Hudson’s Bay Company trappers as they traveled to Fort Okanagan, by the ranchers who drove their cattle north to the gold rush miners in the Cariboo, by the army as it sought to force Indians onto reservations. Our home lays a bit east of the coulee where this trail spills off the mountain. Family lore has it that somebody crossing our property discovered an old rifle and gave it to my father. It’s a Springfield 1873 trapdoor carbine, a rifle carried by soldiers in the last quarter of the 1800s. But the original round barrel was replaced by a heavy octagonal iron barrel sometime in the past. The stock of this rifle had been broken and repaired with small nails and cloth tape: clearly it had been roughly used. My father decided to have it repaired at one point, and the gun came back to us with a thick layer of varnish that glowed like plastic. Hints of the old nail holes and the tape that bound the break together can be seen, but the character of this weapon has been lost. It was a bit of a shock to discover that the serial number on this gun falls within the range of the guns carried by Custer at his defeat, but then, perhaps it makes sense. I can well imagine that it was used heavily in the Custer battle, taken from the field as a prize, reconstructed using a heavy Henry barrel and lots of nails and tape, and traded from one tribe to another until it was abandoned in the sagebrush of the farm where I was raised.
But returning to our climb: by dint of stout exertion you have finally gained the smooth ridge at the top of Saddle Mountain. Here, if you know where to look, you can take a few steps down the breaks of the slide to find a crevice filled with basalt chunks. It must reach well down into the mountainside, for a moderate breeze issues from it in the wintertime, melting ice and snow enough to allow rattlesnakes to make a comfortable den there. These slopes are prime snake country. When the Milwaukee Road was being built, they used lots of dynamite to blast through these basalt ridges, and word is that they spent lots of time killing snakes as they leveled the tracks.
Once you reach the top, the mountain spreads out smoothly before you. Small sage brush, bunchgrass, lots of wild desert flowers, some gophers and a few anthills occupy this waste. You turn west along the ridge and soon arrive at the top of the cliffs. Here the original mountain split asunder, the north side dropping into the turbulent waters of the Ice Age floods I described in my last post. Basalt deposits are exposed for hundreds of feet, and about twenty or thirty feet from the top near the west end of these cliffs are the sandstone layers.
I didn’t bring my son on this hike this year. Instead, we parked on the old Corfu Highway near an impromptu shooting range. We climbed to the tracks and crossed them near the remains of some ruined flatcars that rusted in the sagebrush. As we climbed I told him about the little obsidian pebbles we used to collect along this side of the mountain. We called them Apache Tears, although no Apaches lived in Washington. We were about halfway to the tracks when he found one.
Above the tracks you come upon land that has been little disturbed in the centuries since the floods. Here you see a rugged land, interlaced with pits, hills, plains, trenches and valleys that make no geological sense. They are the remains of the tumbled ruins of that huge slide. One large pyramidal peak stands clear above the tracks, smooth and symmetrical, like a pyramid. My father pointed it out as a relic of the original side of the mountain, an outpost that held firm and did not collapse when the rest of the mountain sagged into the flood. When you look below from its summit you can trace the canyon ground out of lava flows along the north side of the mountain range, and you can see where the landslide collapsed into the canyon, filling it with rock and soil.
Heading south across the relative level of a bench above the railroad, there were hummocks with rocks tumbling from their peaks. Every one was marked by white streaks, indicating that birds of prey used them as perches. This benchland is rugged and tumbled, ringed in on all sides but the north by huge hillsides, cliffs or steep slopes. On one of these, a small secondary bench hangs high above this level. I once followed a clear trail, one I attribute to Indians, into the shelf made by this hanging bench. Here I found a thicket of gooseberry bushes. In my imagination I saw families of Indians pausing here for their lunch as they made their way from Coyote Rapids to Crab Creek. My son and I discovered another such trail leading to the east off the benchland. I had been taking him towards a trail I knew that led to the southeast, but this one was new to me. It rose at a steep angle, unlike stock trails, and it crossed the steep face of a hill, unlike game trails…therefore I took it to be a relic of human travelers.
This one led to a ledge of sandstone much like the one at the cliffs. I never suspected that this ledge existed, and while it was not so spectacular as the higher ledge where my father had carved his name, there were names and dates etched onto this outcropping, too. This was our gateway onto the smoother slopes that led to the top of the mountain. We marched across the old face of the ridge without difficulty, although I stopped a lot, to watch a golden eagle gambol across the sky above us. It was an easier way to reach the cliffs, and we didn’t have to walk along the old railroad, past Taunton, where the old substation is now owned by jealous neighbors who resent hikers.
As we descended, I led my son down the eastern slope of the cliffs, on the smooth ridge that remains from the original slopes of the mountain. Near the end of this descent, we came across what I had been looking for, a well-worn pathway leading from the south towards the peculiar feature my brother called Column Crevice. Here the slide split open the mountainside, but then lost its power. The crack filled in with earth, leaving a narrow gap between towering basalt pillars. In previous hikes to this place, I had discovered the ancient trail leading to it. It made me wonder whether this was a site that Native Americans once considered sacred. In my research I had found reference to their respect for places where rock pierces the surface of the earth, the places where the bones of their Mother were visible. It made sense to me that this spot would be a sacred place, since here you find yourself buried in the earth itself. I could see this as a place where a vision quest might be made, and I privately celebrated the fact that my twelve-year-old son passed through this crevice. A rite of initiation…another one.
We returned to the car from there, but there is much more to be seen on this mountain. If we had turned west, rather than east, we would eventually have reached that little semi-circular gap that forms the saddle the mountain is named for. Here the cliffs would tower over our heads. On the west side, at the top of the cliffs, the old pioneer picnic took place, and its re-enactment, too. Farther on is a missile silo that once contain Trident missiles taxed with defending Hanford from Soviet attack. If you had the wings of an eagle, you would swiftly fly westward, crossing the pioneer highway that granted access across this mountain from the railroad, a dirt road known as the Corfu switchback. Then, the slide left behind you, a broad benchland that sometimes gets farmed with dry-land barley. Below, in the Crab Creek valley, the forgotten town of Smyrna remains although virtually all the other railroad towns along this mountain have disappeared. Nearby is a tiny cabin built of driftwood logs dragged dozens of miles up the valley from the Columbia by a giant pioneer, Ben Hutchinson. He stood six-feet-ten-inches, and had trouble finding a horse he could ride. A bachelor cowhand, he kept a pet bull snake in his stove, and he mourned its demise when one of his employees killed it, thinking he was doing Ben a favor. Ben’s brother Sam stood seven-feet-ten-inches tall. He became sheriff of Yakima County when he lost a bet in a poker game.
There are places on this mountain where flinty chips are found scattered over the soil. Years ago people discovered that if you dig there, you might turn up the remains of a petrified log. Native Americans in this valley often fashioned their arrow and spear points, their scrapers and knives, out of the fancy grained petrified wood of this mountain.
People hereabouts also pick up brass shell casings from fifty-caliber machine guns mounted on World War II fighter planes. The Yakima Firing Range was extended through this area during the war. There is an old schoolhouse at Smyrna where a private museum once displayed bomb casings from pilots training for the war. My father once told me that pilots would sometimes strafe the local cattle as they passed by. When they complained to the Army, ranchers were told they needed the tail numbers of the planes to get redress for their dead animals.
At the far western end of this mountain range the north side of the ridge drops away in a near vertical bank. Barely visible if you look in the right place are the tracks of a bulldozer that was backed down the face of the mountain on a dare. Not far away, hidden at the base of a steep crush of talus, pioneers built a wooden doorframe into the mountain where an ice cave had been found. Here they could store food and it would not spoil. The cave was used when the Milwaukee Road was being built, but many years later, by the 1970s, talus had tumbled down to plug the entrance to the cave. I always wondered whether the ice that was trapped beneath that slope might actually be a hunk of ice left over from a piece of the Ice Age glaciers that once covered the northern part of our continent. In my imagination, a huge iceberg could have grounded against the mountainside and been covered with rock in a landslide. That would explain the chill that even the Native Americans had know of.
A. J. Splawn mentions that Chief Moses had a winter camp on Crab Creek a few miles away from the Columbia. The place was only steps away from the Ice Cave. Today you can access that site by way of a Department of Fish and Wildlife access road. If you visit in the late afternoon, galaxies of flint chips glitter on the surface of the soil. Pothunters have trenched the site, though, so don’t expect artifacts…even if it were legal to carry anything away with you. Most of the chips are actually not flint: they are chert, jasper, petrified wood. These stones wash down the gullies off the mountain cliffs that loom over the site.
Finally, as you fly past the old encampment, your wings will carry you over tumbling sand dunes that are now an Off Road Vehicle Park. On the slopes of the mountain above, though, you’ll find rare juniper trees growing wild. The Columbia River here is contained behind a series of hydroelectric dams. Wanapum Dam has a small museum run by the Wanapum Indians, one of the few non-treaty tribes left in our state. There is also a fish ladder, but the runs today are far from what they were when I first visited this dam as a child. Here the Columbia flows through a gap driven straight south through the wall of the Saddle Mountain Range. The Columbia was, of course, a major travel route, especially if you were headed south. When they tried to build a wagon road to those gold mines in southern British Columbia, this gap defeated them. Spectacular cliffs tower above the highway that now passes along the shoreline. But it took heavy equipment to make that highway possible. Below the gap, hummocks and gigantic ripple marks prove the story of the Ice Age floods.
I don’t think many people remember Saddle Mountain, the stories it can tell us, the history it contains. That’s one reason I write this tale. I only hope that by giving it to the world, I am not inviting careless or thoughtless people to destroy the evidence of the past I am writing about. When I was a boy I did what my father did, what my brothers did. If we found something interesting, we picked it up and carried it home. Today, when I hike these mountains, I teach my boy: leave it there. It belongs there. It is part of this country’s past, its legacy. It deserves to remain where we found it.