Category Archives: Natural Disaster

The Customary Celebration on Lower Crab Creek

The remains of Oscar Danielson's irrigation pipes lead to his fields and ditches from the site of the Danielson dam.

The remains of Oscar Danielson’s irrigation pipes lead to his fields and ditches from the site of the Danielson dam.

In a previous post I published a photograph of swimmers perched on the top rail of the irrigation dam Oscar Danielson built to draw water out of the community canal. This canal redirected some of the flow from Crab Creek towards a number of farms or orchards west of the watercourse. Around 1920 Oscar purchased surplus wire-wrapped wooden water pipes from the city of Seattle to tap into the canal, pumping water from the reservoir behind his wooden dam. His single-stroke gas engine is still hidden in the weeds near the ranch he later occupied on the banks of Lower Crab Creek.

Oscar Danielson on his Crab Creek farm in Grant County, WA, circa 1920

Oscar Danielson mows hay in a field watered by the pipes leading from the Danielson dam. The photograph is probably from the latter half of the 1920s.

The swimmers were part of a larger crowd gathered at the dam for a Fourth of July celebration. It was a custom amongst the farmers and ranchers Continue reading

The Day the Mountain Came to Town

The view of Mount Saint Helens from the summit of Mount Adams on July 4, 1976.

The view of Mount Saint Helens from the summit of Mount Adams on July 4, 1976.

On the 200th anniversary of our country’s birth my cousin Dale and I joined one of the last mass climbs of Mount Adams in south-central Washington. I left from work on the Friday afternoon, drove to Yakima to pick him up, and we went to a campground outside Trout Lake to spend the night. Of course the excitement and the noise of all the other campers kept us awake all night. I don’t remember getting any sleep at all.

We were rousted out for the climb around 3:00 in the morning. We received some orientation and instructions and lined up to begin the climb. One of the instructions was to stay in line and not to pass those ahead of us. We were young and strong. Many of those ahead of us were neither, so the temptation  to violate that rule was strong.

We reached tree-line just before dawn, and that morning provided one of the most spectacular views I will ever see. We watched the ghostly pale peak of Mount Saint Helens emerge from the night, turning raspberry pink, then dazzling white. Before it erupted, Saint Helens was nearly perfectly symmetrical. As we strapped on our crampons and struggled to keep our places in line, we watched Mount Saint Helens in the distance, a graceful and beautiful mountain that later proved to be powerful and dangerous. Continue reading

All the Warning We’ll Get

The Saddle Mountain Fault scenario envisions an 87-mile long failure of the fault.

The Saddle Mountain Fault scenario envisions an 87-mile long failure of the fault.

There was a small earthquake centered on Frenchman Hill one day around 1972. When an earthquake scientist from the University of Washington called Othello High School to look for a reliable  student to tend to a helicorder they were setting up at the epicenter, they ended up talking to my mother, the counselor. I was 16, and I had just gotten my driver’s license. She told them she had a perfect match for them.

So my second job off the home place (the first one was changing sprinklers for my neighbor) was visiting a tiny trailer parked next to a plowed field overlooking the Lower Crab Creek valley and the ancient massive slide on the north face of Saddle Mountain. Six seismographs fed streams of data to a series of heated needles that recorded every tremble of the earth around the trailer. I had to changed the waxed paper they burned their message onto once a day and then put in a phone call to Colorado to calibrate the clock with the National Bureau of Standards.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this must have been a heady period for earthquake scientists in the Northwest. Endorsement of the theory of plate tectonics was in its infancy. Continue reading

Landslide

Sandhill cranes frolic in the fields of the Danielson farm, with the Saddle Mountain cliffs looming over it. Photograph by Phyllis Danielson.

Sandhill cranes frolic in the fields of the Danielson farm, with the Saddle Mountain cliffs looming over it. Photograph by Phyllis Danielson.

The communities of Oso and Darrington were devastated by the recent landslide, in which around fifty houses and more than thirty people were annihilated in the space of a couple of minutes. It will be a long time before life can return to anything like it used to be, with Darrington’s main artery to the rest of the world cut off. Now commuters from Darrington have to head north, past our Sauk River cabin, to get to their jobs, shops and supplies. It takes a lot of time and gas. My son’s scout troop raised cash and supplies that we took to Darrington last weekend, and I’ve been watching the news about the landslide daily.

Pictures of the Oso landslide reminded me very much of the landslide my family and I used to climb around on when I was a kid. One of our favorite hikes was to the cliffs at the top of Saddle Mountain, where you can climb down to a ledge where sandstone exposures have been carved by the winds and graffito-ed by generations of local visitors. Continue reading

Then & Now

I published this photograph of the Lower Crab Creek Valley as viewed from the Taunton townsite in “Another Flood.” On a recent visit to the same spot I took the following photograph.

This summer I took a hurried trip through Eastern Washington, photographing sites I have written about. In this article I try to post old photographs alongside more recent ones. In some cases I have also provided views of places previously mentioned in my posts, although no older photographs are available to compare them to.

A view of the Lower Crab Creek Valley in 2012, more than fifty years after the previous photograph was taken, reveals the changing ecology of the formerly arid landscape. Irrigation and invasive species have radically altered the local habitat.

There is definitely an article to be written concerning the environmental changes that have taken place in the Lower Crab Creek Valley over Continue reading

The Parting of the Waters

The shattered remains of a bison leg bone, found in a bulldozer tailing near the Milwaukee tracks at Taunton. Fossil animal remains from this area are typically severely broken and disjointed.

Recently I acquired Bruce Bjornstad’s guidebook to the Ice Age Floods of Eastern Washington, On the Trail of the Ice Age Floods (Keokee Books, 2006). In fact I’ve been carrying it around in my briefcase and using it to fill in odd moments when I’m waiting for my son to finish his Jazz Band practice or to get out of school. It’s about time an interpretive tour guide like this was published! Because of the immensity of the subject, this book is a field guide only to a truncated rectangle of curious flood features in the Mid-Columbia Basin. But it is rich in detail and information. This year, Bjornstad published a second volume focusing on the northern landscapes where the flood began through the Mid-Columbia. He presumably plans to follow the water through to its eventual mixing with the sea.

An amateur only (have I ever made that completely clear?), I was excited to see that scientists had actually taken time to study the area I’ve been writing about. That gigantic landslide I mentioned in my post The Five Mile Slide actually has a name, quite logically the Corfu Slide…although it stretches from Taunton on the east to Corfu on the west. Bjornstad’s book spends a couple of chapters explaining the mechanisms that allowed the flood to create such a variety of unusual landscapes. The hummocky surface of this landslide had always seemed mysterious to me, but his book details precisely how the original topography slumped away in successive wedges. The feature I refer to as Column Crevice in my post To the Cliffs and Beyond appears to be one of the cracks in the earth where a landslide was developing, left exposed at the end of the flood, a landslide frozen in time. In fact a hike across this landscape would reveal successive events in the process of the collapse of the northern slope of Saddle Mountain.

And I was touched to see that Bjornstad refers to what locals around Othello refer to as The Bench has been named Parting of the Waters. Continue reading

Crab Creek Homestead

Elmquists and Danielsons near Seattle, ca. 1914 Oscar F. Danielson holds baby Walter, front right. Edla stands near him, wearing the dark skirt.

In an earlier post to this blog (Illegal Immigrants) I introduced my grandfather, Oscar Fritiof Danielson. In this entry, I will sketch out the history of his farm on Lower Crab Creek. But first, a little about his background.

Oscar was born in a small town called Slatthog in southern Sweden in April 1885. A number of his brothers seem to have left the area, and Oscar followed. His arrival in America is shrouded in mystery. I found what appears to be his name on the 1910 census, as a boarder in a lumber camp at Avondale in King County. He is listed as a lumber worker, 29 years old. Continue reading

Gloom and Doom Report

When I considered doing this article I had a flashback to doing book reports in what we called Junior High, when I was a teenager. I remember in particular the seventh-grade English teacher with a mangled middle finger who started off the year telling each class his chilling tale. It seems that Mr. B had a terrible problem with anger. He carried sixteen penny nails with him to chew on when he got really upset, which was his anger management technique…it kept him from physically destroying the human object of his anger. Evidently, a student made him angry one day when he had run out of nails. To avoid bloody homicide, Mr. B claims, he shoved his own finger into his teeth. It left him with this mangled finger that he used every year to convince his students to treat him nicely.

So, on with the book report. Mr. B would want me to compare and contrast these books on a similar theme. The books I recently finished reading are two that deal with ways in which humankind deals with natural disasters and the natural rhythms of our world. In the order in which I read them, the first is Cascadia’s Fault, by Canadian journalist Jerry Thompson, and the second, Brian Fagan’s The Long Summer. What links the two books in my mind must be their common theme of the role that forces of nature play in determining human history. Continue reading

To The Cliffs and Beyond

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. Continue reading

The Five Mile Slide

Smyrna Canyon from the old shoreline on Saddle Mountain

Imagine, if you will (to paraphrase Rod Serling), standing on the peak of this range one day nearly twelve thousand years ago. Below, you look out over a grassy plain with a gentle creek flowing between ancient canyon walls. The events that are about to take place have occurred repeatedly dozens of times, but for you, those canyons hold no evidence of the disaster that is about to strike. On this day, the sun feels pleasantly warm. You have left the other members of your band camped on the edge of the creek while you climb the peaks looking for small prey.

You begin to notice a steady rumbling sound, something that began almost imperceptibly, but that persists and even grows. Wondering what it is, you look to the northeast. There is a strange haze in the distance. Perhaps it is something to do with the tremendous fields of ice that rim that edge of your world. But as you watch it seems to grow, to convulse as it consumes the horizon.

Then the earth begins to quiver. A blast of air strikes you, driving dust that blinds you as you struggle to watch. The shuddering intensifies, and you fall to the ground in fear. A rumble fills your ears, growing into a roar as you clap your hands over them to quell the pain of the noise. In a few moments your view of the peaceful waterways to the north are effaced by a cloud of dust kicked up by the sudden ferocious wind. You cover your ears to protect them from the roar, but the sound is nearly unbearable.

It is the sound of disaster: the crash of sudden rivers striking against the mountain you are clinging to. Beneath you, nothing but murk. The sky itself has turned brown with clouds of dust driven by the wind that precedes the flood. It is a flood unlike anything you could ever have imagined. Continue reading