Tag Archives: Washington State

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

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Home Alone

The badger snarled at the approaching truck.

The badger snarled at the approaching truck.

As the youngest of six children, I was rarely offered the opportunity to be by myself when I was growing up. It wasn’t until my older brothers and sisters began college that our little house started to provide nooks or rooms where I could be alone. For time alone, I hiked, but that wasn’t alone time either: the dog always had to come along. That I didn’t mind.

I wasn’t necessarily anti-social, I just liked to curl up in silence with a good book sometimes. Sometimes I wanted to be able to watch whatever I really wanted to watch on the television. Whatever KHQ in Spokane offered, that is. I was 16 years old before I got the chance to really be alone.

In August of 1970 my parents decided to take a brief a vacation. I don’t recall what the occasion was, maybe one of those trips they made to Seattle so they could attend a Seattle Symphony performance. One of the difficulties they faced in doing things like that is that someone still had to change the water, feed the horse and chickens, collect the eggs and water the garden. On this particular occasion I hastened to volunteer to take care of the place. I was 14, and I was the only child left at home. Somehow, my parents agreed that I should mind the farm all by myself.

How can I portray the boundless joy it gave me to be the master of my own farm? As I watched the station wagon leave a trail of drifting dust behind it, as it signaled left and headed west on Highway 26, I was filled with glee. There was nobody here to tell me what to do, to spy on me and to criticize me.

There had been, over the previous weeks, a few mysterious haystack fires that summer. An activist union calling itself the National Farmers Organization had been attempting to raise the price of hay. Some of the more militant activists among them targeted haystacks and hay trucks with sabotage or fire. The one word of advice my father had for me as he left was to keep an eye on our haystack. It was a wall of hay twenty feet high running along the lower edge of our alfalfa field, right next to the highway. My father’s admonition made me feel important, and I climbed into the 1948 Ford pickup to check on the haystack several times that day.

I checked the last time after darkness fell. The headlights of the truck cast a cone of visibility on the ruts of the access road. Tall grass grew right up to the edge of the road and the wheel ruts had a strip of grass between them, shorn to a constant height by the undercarriage of the pickup. As I wheeled onto this road the lights revealed a dark shape filling one of the ruts ahead of me. It moved. As I approached the badger turned to face me, a devilish face full of snarling teeth and white stripes at oblique angles. For a moment it looked like the badger intended to attack my truck, but then it turned to flee. Being a teenager, I did the most humane thing I could think of: I sped up and chased that badger down the ruts. It had no exit for a while, with dense walls of unbroken grass on both sides. The fat beast wobbled back and forth, glancing over its shoulder as I kept my distance from it. Finally it plunged into the ditch on the left side of the road. All was clear at the haystack.

That night was perhaps the spookiest night I ever spent. In the house alone, with total darkness beyond the plate glass windows, I heard every creak and pop of the dead wood as it cooled in the night. A breath of wind found gaps in the window frames, chilling the back of my neck. It was just me, the dog and the television in the dark. And on that television, Psycho. I squirmed in my seat. Suddenly the bathroom, across the dark hallway, seemed far too far away. The only light in the house was in the room I was in. I didn’t even want to raid the freezer for the ice cream I had planned on eating. Our freezer stood in the damp, cob-webbed basement, too much like a Hitchcock set to allow me to be brave. In fact, I didn’t move from the couch through the entire movie. And when it was over, time to go to bed, I developed a strategy for turning on lights in the next room before turning off the ones in the room I was leaving behind.

Well and good. Lights out in the living room and the television was off. I had the lights on in the bathroom. I closed and locked the door, although there was nobody else in the house. I peeled down my pants and sat down on the toilet. Instantly there was a deafening, inhuman shriek outside the window, the only lighted window in the house. I found myself screaming, squirming face down on the tiles of the floor. I scrambled into my parents’ room and snatched up my grandfather’s Winchester. In my haste, I left it unloaded. Trembling with fear I barricaded myself in the bathroom, slowly getting my breath back. I came up with a satisfactory explanation for the scream: my actions must have startled a visiting coyote. Still, I knew what terror there was in darkness. I had just watched Psycho.

I slept soundly in spite of the incident. But when I rose in the morning and looked out the dining room window I was stunned to count at least nine columns of smoke rising from various places to the north in Grant County. I rushed outside to look at our haystack. No smoke, but there was a silver pickup parked on the edge of the highway close to the stack. I waited for it to leave before driving our old green pickup out to the haystack. I searched around the haystack but found nothing alarming.

As I fried up some eggs and bacon I realized I was looking forward to my parents’ return later that day.

Cora Blake Endures

The wreck of the Cora Blake lies beneath the shallow waters of this Lake Whatcom bay.

The wreck of the Cora Blake lies beneath the shallow waters of this Lake Whatcom bay.

I have one of the most beautiful commutes in the country, I’m pretty sure. My drive is around fifteen miles long, winding through precipitous hills clad in dark and overgrown forests of hemlock, Douglas fir and Bigleaf Maple. Most of the route follows the south shore of Lake Whatcom on a road that is thinly traveled. The drive I make is a relatively recent road, though.

Since American settlers first visited this lake in the mid-1800s, boats were the favored mode of transportation. Native Americans taught the earliest settlers how to build shovel-nosed canoes made of a single hollowed-out cedar log. Row boats followed, then sailboats. The first of the steam-powered boats was launched in the late 1800s, and it contributed its muscle to burgeoning industries of coal-mining and the lumber trade.

By the early 1900s several steamboats traveled the twelve-mile length of Lake Whatcom, visiting docks of settlers and nascent communities along the way. Other steamboats dragged barges loaded with coal or with train cars loaded with coal. Still others nudged rafts of huge logs toward several lumber and shake mills that dotted the perimeter of the north end of the lake. 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

Beneath Our Feet

This giant Palouse Earthworm was found on Paradise Ridge near Moscow, Idaho, on March 20, 2010. Photo by Karl Umiker of the University of Idaho. Courtesy of HistoryLink.org.

This Giant Palouse Earthworm was found on Paradise Ridge near Moscow, Idaho, on March 20, 2010. Photo by Karl Umiker of the University of Idaho. Courtesy of HistoryLink.org.

Soon after Washington State College opened at Pullman in 1892, the Washington State Agricultural Experiment Station kicked into gear under its auspices. Rennie Wilson Doane was appointed Assistant Zoologist. He began research on pests that were killing local sugar beets, gathering enough data that by 1900 he was able to publish a report identifying a new species of root lice, Pemphigus betae Doane, and he researched the use of large Atlantic oysters in the waters of Willapa Bay. His marriage in 1898 to Miss Elnora Cooper at McMinnville, Oregon, was front page news in the Pullman Herald.

Doane’s work kept him moving. As he followed country roads to farms and fields around Pullman, he began to notice what looked like the burrows of gigantic worms, sometimes fifteen to twenty feet down from the surface of hills sliced open by road cuts. Intrigued, he dug up several specimens of a huge earthworm, pickled them in alcohol and sent them to the nation’s leading earthworm expert, Frank Smith, a zoologist teaching at the University of Illinois. He assured Smith that the worms were abundant in the area.

While Smith admitted that Doane’s specimens seemed incomplete, he believed there was enough physical evidence to conclude that the giant earthworms represented a previously undiscovered creature, a giant earthworm. In a paper published in March of 1897 in The American Naturalist,  Smith announced the discovery of the worm he named Megascolides americanus. The name was meant to establish a somewhat sketchy connection between the Giant Palouse Earthworm and some truly immense worms from Australia. Continue reading

In the Wind

An upwind neighbor, 16 miles from my childhood home, N-reactor not only contributed to atmospheric releases, but dumped radioactive strontium-90 into the Columbia River at rates up to 1000 times safe drinking water standards.

An upwind neighbor, 16 miles from my childhood home, N-reactor not only contributed to atmospheric releases, but dumped radioactive strontium-90 into the Columbia River at rates up to 1000 times safe drinking water standards. It operated until 1987, the last of the plutonium producing reactors.

This image is a work of a United States Department of Energy (or predecessor organization) employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Growing up near Othello in the 1960s, we developed a macabre pride over being so near an important target for Soviet missiles. We knew that something vast and threatening was happening just over the hill from our home—it was only eleven miles from our house to the nearest of Hanford’s nuclear plants. But we didn’t live with fear. Like Richland High School, whose football team was called The Bombers, and whose helmets sported a mushroom cloud, we took pride in having the world’s largest plutonium factory in our back yard. Truth to be told, we were even a bit jealous of the fact that most of the workers at Hanford lived in places like the Tri Cities and Sunnyside. On the other hand, rumor on the playground at Lutacaga Elementary School was that, if the Russians took out McChord Airforce Base, Othello’s radar station would be in command of the entire west coast. Continue reading

The Swedish Loggers

A logging crew from Angermanland poses before the camera of an unknown but expert photographer.

A logging crew from Angermanland poses before the camera of an unknown but expert photographer.

They strike a pose in front of a cluster of tiny log huts, horses collared and chained to sleds for dragging logs out of the woods. One man slings an ax over his shoulder, another reclines on the ground, peering at the camera between the legs of his companions. Although they try to look heroic, there are those amongst them who can’t cover their smirks and laughter. Two teenagers prove their maturity by puffing on pipes. These are workers. The only shirt that boasts a collar out of the whole bunch belongs to a dandy with an upturned mustache and a watch on a heavy strap tucked into the breast pocket of his striped shirt. He also sports new suspenders.

It’s the man in front, with a fixed steely glare, who stands out. He clutches a rifle in the hand that doesn’t hold a braided leash. His open coat drapes over a six-button vest with a watch on a chain tucked into its pocket, reminiscent of Wild Bill Hickok. Continue reading