Category Archives: Saddle Mountain

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

Written in the Earth

A soldier of Custer's regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

A soldier of Custer’s regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

When you grow up in desert heat, at least when video games and television have yet to proliferate, one of the joys of childhood is playing with the garden hose. Personally, I enjoyed digging rivers and lakes into the earth of the wire enclosure where our chickens roamed. I remember the amazement of unearthing a living frog that had burrowed into the ground for hibernation, and that had narrowly avoided the blade of my shovel.

One of my maxims about the desert landscape around Saddle Mountain is that this earth is honest. When people pass through, the traces they make remain to be read by those who come after them. As I think back on the traces we’ve discovered on our farm alone, it amazes me that so much history is written in its sand and dust.

In the early 1960s my father hooked his tractor to a battered old machine he called the rototiller. He was in the process of rooting sagebrush out of a new field, and this machine would completely destroy the plants that grew there naturally. Continue reading

The Plunge

Truth be told, I cannot vouch for the details of this tale. My father related it to me when I was too young or too disconnected to remember names or dates, but the truth of the story is etched into the face of Saddle Mountain above lower Crab Creek.

The trace of the bulldozer descent of the north face of Saddle Mountain above Crab Creek. The track is located around nine miles east of the Columbia River. This view is a telephoto image, showing only the upper section of the trace.

The trace of the bulldozer descent of the north face of Saddle Mountain above Crab Creek. The track is located around nine miles east of the Columbia River. This view is a telephoto image, showing only the upper section of the trace.

What a bulldozer was doing on top of Sentinel Peak, I cannot say. Perhaps in gouging a firebreak above the Milwaukee Road the driver found himself forced to make corrections that led him ever higher. Eventually he must have found the railroad hundreds of feet below him, a distant trace at the bottom of a precipitous drop. Did the railroad send someone to him, demanding that he bring the dozer down again? Did he refuse to drive down the face of the mountain? I would have. Continue reading

Willamette Meteorite

The meteor explosion over Russia and the unrelated but equally awe-inspiring near miss of the earth by a huge asteroid remind us of the inevitability of space objects colliding with the earth. Disaster movies are a popular genre: one of the favorite video clips in my fifth grade science classroom is one animating the ancient collision between Earth and the planet Thea (but the throbbing, powerful new-age soundtrack clearly contributes to that popularity).

A journalist for the British newspaper The Guardian published a link to a Google map with data for every known meteor strike on Earth, from 2,300 BCE to the present. He erroneously credits the US Meteorological Society for the data…I’m sure it happens all the time. The link actually takes you to the US Meteoritical Society, where I wasn’t able to locate the same map, but there was a ton of information about meteors.

Ira Hughes and his son pose on the heavy cart they constructed to move the fifteen and a half ton meteorite three quarters of a mile to their own land.

Ellis Hughes and his son pose on the heavy cart they constructed to move the fifteen and a half ton meteorite three quarters of a mile to their own land.

My favorite meteor has got to be the legendary Willamette Meteorite. At 32,000 pounds and composed mostly of iron, with a little nickel, cobalt and phosphorus, this ten-foot long, six-and-a-half foot wide, and four-and-a-quarter foot deep glob of metal balances a heat-polished oval exterior with deeply eroded chambers. But its girth isn’t the big draw. 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

Legends of the Ice Cave

Beneath this towering cliff and rubble fallen from it lie the remains of the Saddle Mountain Ice Cave.

There has been a fair amount of mystery concerning the Saddle Mountain Ice Cave. Even today you’ll find inquiries about it on internet chat sites. Over the years, locals disagreed on lots of points concerning this phenomenon. Some said it was a natural cavern, a huge chamber full of glittering perpetual ice. Others said it wasn’t really anything more than a big root cellar where people kept chunks of ice they would cut out of Crab Creek in the wintertime. Some people even doubt its existence. But it’s there.

Virtually all that’s left of the Ice Cave is a pile of old timbers and the remains of the massive wooden doorframe.

The Ice Cave is about four miles west of the end of the paving on the old Corfu Highway after you leave Smyrna, around eight miles from Beverly. It’s difficult to spot the remains from the roadway, so look for a large alkali clearing in front of it and a huge slope of tumbled rock flanking its other three sides. Continue reading

Waiting for a Train

Taunton’s red brick substation from the middle of the abandoned Milwaukee Road main line, looking west in July, 2012.

In the 1940s the Milwaukee Road provided an important means of transportation in Central Washington. Gasoline rationing meant that much travel took place by train.Whether they were traveling out of military duty or seeking work on farms or at the burgeoning Manhattan Project south of Saddle Mountain, travelers might at some point be stranded in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a train.

I grew up near the red brick substation of Taunton, a minor stop on the line. It’s hard to imagine why strangers from Virginia or Ohio might find themselves waiting for a train at Taunton. Perhaps their train had to pull onto the siding to get out of the way of another, more important train. Nonetheless, in my intimate knowledge of the Taunton substation, I knew of several occasions when stranded travelers left evidence of their visit in the form of scrawled pencil lines on the red brick.

Travelers’ graffiti that remains of the walls of Taunton’s substation is usually found on bricks that would be in shaded areas in the heat of an afternoon. With no air conditioning, it would quickly become unbearably Continue reading

The First Chelan

Although Wikipedia describes this image as the steamer John Gates navigating Priest Rapids in 1884, the locality is surely not Priest Rapids, but Rock Island Rapids where the Chelan capsized on her upriver attempt and lost her rudder on her return downriver.

I’ve struggled with where to begin the story of the first steamboat Chelan. It’s a tale with roots in the larger conflicts that made the Northwest of the 1870s such a tragic and violent place. The steamboat wouldn’t even have been built if it were not for the breakout of the Nez Percés under Chief Joseph, but it wasn’t built as a direct result of that conflict. It was a response to another attempt by Native Americans to claim their natural rights and to reclaim their freedom. Even so, that was still only an indirect cause of this steamboat’s birth. It was a result of a murder by renegade Indians, angered by the deaths of their friends and family who were cut to pieces by the gatling gun mounted on a different river steamboat. Yet Chelan wasn’t built because the Perkins died. But all of these events led to the eventual arrest of Chief Moses and the removal of his followers from their land in the Columbia Basin. It was the creation of a new reservation for the Sinkiuse Indians that inspired the army to build the Chelan. The boat was needed as a ferry for crossing the Columbia River on the trail to a newly established fort that would safeguard Moses’ Indians on their new reservation.

As far as I know, no photographs of the steamboat Chelan exist. There are photographs of a later steamboat, built in 1902, which operated on the upper stretch of the Columbia until it was retired in 1910 when freight began moving by rail. The 125 foot sternwheeler was operated by the Columbia & Okanogan Steamboat Company. It was one of four retired steamboats tied to one another at a Wenatchee mooring, that burned in a spectacular fire on July 8, 1915. Continue reading

Treasure on the Mountain

Too excited to wait for daylight, we began searching the wagon road in the early dark of an October night.

Joe and I had a plan one night in 1970. I had scraped together wages from a variety of odd jobs and mailed off for a Heathkit metal detector kit. My brother Arnold agreed to put it together for me: he always was an electronics whiz. Now it was done, and Joe and I had a plan. We threw some matches, water, weiners,  bread, pop and cookies into a couple of backpacks, tied on some sleeping bags, and I took a shovel out of the garage. Then, with the metal detector slung over a shoulder we set off up the road in the late afternoon.

The idea hatched a few weeks earlier when my Uncle Luke had piled us into the back of his Ford Econoline pickup to drive up to the cliffs. As we ground our way up the primitive dirt track we kept crossing wide ditch-like ruts leading off into the sagebrush, but we were too high up for irrigation. At the summit of the pass we stopped for a breather next to a small cairn of rounded basalt stones. There were several of those ditches leading through the gap, and my dad told me they were the ruts of a wagon road. As the ruts wore too deep into the powdery earth, succeeding travelers would break new trail parallel to the older ruts. The whole north face was interlaced with wagon trails, twisted into switchbacks. We scrambled back into the pickup to continue our trip and a low flying private plane buzzed us, sneaking over the gap in a shortcut across the forbidden airspace of the Hanford Reservation. Continue reading