Eulachon: A Columbia River Ghost Story
“Most people like to look at mountain rivers, and bear them in mind; but few care to look at the wind, though far more beautiful and sublime, and though they become at times about as visible as flowing water.”
The Mountains of California, by John Muir (1894)
There are a number of folk etymologies for the word, Oregon. Two of the most intriguing are centered on the Columbia River, that great waterway that sits on the northern edge of our state but resides so much at the center of our identity.
One is that the word Oregon is a corruption of the the Native American Chinookan word eulachon or candlefish (Thaleichthys pacificus ) which migrated up the Columbia and our other rivers, in great quantities. I say our rivers though at those times, before the fish and the native peoples who relied on them were decimated, they were not our rivers at all. They were in fact, most decidedly, their rivers; they used them as highways, routes for trade, marriage, and war, source of food and sustenance, keeper of myth and meaning. Now, for better or for worse, they are our rivers and like everything else in this land, have been touched and changed profoundly.
The Eulachon was also called the candlefish because the oil content in the dried fish was so high that, when lit, they burned like candles. That oil was health and energy, full of fatty acids and raw power. The oil was plentiful but precious; it was poured over many other dishes to give them savor; it provided the inner fires to thrive during cold, northern winters.
Eulachon was dipped in boxes and nets, caught in weirs, rakes, and traps and then dried on racks. During a potlatch, a particularly rich family might pour a massive red cedar box of eulachon oil on the fire, the billowing black clouds representing the careless plenty of their life.
Another etymon for Oregon is said to come from a corruption of the French word ouragan. Ouragan, meaning hurricane in French, was the name French traders and trappers supposedly gave to the Columbia River, down which they sailed as the vanguard of European invasion, in search of furs, gold, and new land. And hurricane is still an appropriate name; despite the changes wrought to the River and it environs, the wind persists.
On a Saturday in mid-December, a group of five of us set out to catch a wind run from Viento Park to Cascade Locks on the Columbia River. Cascade Locks is named after the old canal and locks which enabled boats to bypass Cascade Rapids, now inundated by Bonneville Dam. Parts of the old locks still remain visible in the Maritime Park at riverside.
This is to be a one-way run with the wind at our backs. Paddling against the wind and the current is at best onerous and at worst, if the wind really kicks up, impossible. Traveling with the wind at your back though is exhilarating. Your body acts as a sail and, if you can manage your kayak correctly, it is possible to surf the wind generated waves on the river for miles on end.
The forecast for the day is for winds at sixteen miles per hour from the east, but the weather on the river has a dynamic of its own and we know that this can easily rise by a factor of two or more on the water. Driving the ten or so miles down to the put in, we can see just how variable the winds affect on the river is. Sheltered areas are calm, but more exposed locations are already showing fields of whitecaps.
At the put in, the wind is blowing steadily and it is cold. We walk the quarter mile down to the water’s edge through dried, dead leaves crumbling over gray river stones. There is no one on the river.
We set out paddling for a small island, a half mile or so downriver of the launch which, we reach the islet without incident and begin the crossing to the northern, Washington, shore about a mile distant.
Anticipating wind, I have left behind the short sporty Sterling Illusion kayak in favor of the longer NDK Explorer, feeling that it will be advantageous to have a longer kayak on a wind run. As we cross, leaving the sheltering shore, the wind starts to build and the waves kick up. With the wind at my back, I feel like I am starting to sail. The seas are cresting with long waves and many whitecaps. The Explorer is fast. I struggle to hold it back and stay with the rest of the group. As we pass into the center of the river, the power of the wind moves off the water and into my body. I feel it begin to take hold, pushing the boat forward so that it careens down the waves, almost out of control. Like an ocean wave breaking. Slide, brace. Tail slip, slide. Fast. What if I went over? Wait.
As we pass into the center of the river, the power of the wind moves off the water and into my body. I feel it begin to take hold, pushing the boat forward so that it careens down the waves, almost out of control. Like an ocean wave breaking. Slide, brace. Tail slip, slide. Fast. What if I went over? Wait.
Looking back, I see the rest of the team, clawing with their paddles, scraping forward across the grey water. Behind them looms Wind Mountain, crouched on the Washington shore.
On a time, this mountain was a sacred site. And even now, its talus gouged face is sill pockmarked with the pits in which young native men spent sleepless days and nights on vision quests seeking their spirit guardians which would define their life’s journey. None pursue vision quests now, but the pits remain, degrading under the relentless but slow force of gravity induced talus shift and the somewhat quicker erosion caused by the legions of hikers from those of us who have come after.
Maybe it’s just a trick of geography, but when we paddle into sight of the Mountain, the wind, already strong, seems to redouble in force. Tumbling like a cascade down the broken talus, it comes screaming at us. Damn. You better brace now boy.
It is so cold now; I am lost in a field of waves. The wind bores into the paddle and runs shivering into my veins. My fingers are bright and red as salmon roe, hard as stones.
Now. The wind rips the crest from the top of the waves and it blows as a horizontal rain across the storming river. The wind is my partner and I must cede to it. Slippery as an eel, the Explorer digs its nose in the oily waters and tries to broach. As I slide out of alignment with the waves, water comes surging over my bow and pools in the lap of my tuilik. Brace hard. Edge. Sweep. Stern rudder. Paddle! Extend. Slide.
And the wave crests now become flags. The wind shear rips away the foam and it sails in long tendrils over the storm-tossed murk of the Columbia.
How can I paddle through this?
that bellows like a tempestuous sea, buffeted by warring winds. The hellish storm that never ceases drives the spirits with its force, whirling and striking, it molests them.
Dante Alighieri, Inferno: Canto V
I feel my blood congeal like black pudding. And the water too is black. Slip, brace, slide. I realize with a start that the river stinks of fish. The splash on my tuilik is thick and scented of chum.
ta-máh-no-u! ta-máh-no-u! hyas wind, mesachie wind ta chuck e-éh mam’-ook is’-ic pa’-pa ten-as, skoo’-kum, mem’-a-loost
It is eulachon oil. A miracle. נס גדול היה שם Oil to feed the multitudes.
Thick oil drips over me. The eulachons are pressed and I slip through a chasm. I see my friends have stopped paddling. One is raging in the oil. And one is mired in fish guts blown up by the wind. And one is no longer paddling, but crying. And the wind is walking on the water.
The wind reaches its crescendo; it strips away the color from the water and as it runs clear at last. I see every fish that has ever swum down from source to sea. Coho Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, Chinook, Sturgeon, Squawfish, Black Crappie, White Crappie, Mountain Whitefish, Burbot, Smelt, Lamprey, Carp, Tench, Mountain Sucker, Prickly Sculpin, Channel Catfish, Bullhead, Three-Spine Stickleback, Longnose Dace, Cutthroat Trout.
Goggle-eyed, they glare. Why are you here?
I glimpse the far shore through the driving rain. The highway, the railroad tracks, and power lines are gone. In their place an older landscape – ancient trees, huge and hoary, dugouts spawned from them pulled up on the river’s bank. Racks for salmon nets, weirs extending out over the water.
How can this happen? It cannot.
But the water is not oil now but blood. The wind comes up and my blade cuts through the river of blood.
I see long houses, built of red cedar, full of the dying. Phthisis and tubercles and pox. A cold wet hemorrhage from years dead now. No one is left on shore. Gone. All gone. Gone in a cough. Out! Out, I say!
I wash my hands of this.
Fighting through the horizontal rain, we reach the far shore; we find there is no shelter and the wind is, if anything, stronger. In shallow waters, the wind-driven waves rise up. There are many small islands, but battered by the storm, we are still in a bad spot. There are tears in my eyes; they stream down my face washing away the glutinous oil and smoking, black blood.
We duck behind the islands seeking shelter. I look up to see Jay, still in mid-current. He sails by, out of control. Dan’s eyes are wide. Could he roll if he capsized? No. He would die. This is not good. Wake up! This is now. I feel some of the cold drain from my veins. Are the others OK? Dennis paddles up to me. I am glad to see him.
Between the roaring of the wind and the driving rain, Dennis has to shout to be heard.
“I ain’t no pussy,” he shouts, “but we need to get the hell out of here!”
“The blood,” I scream. “Did you see the blood?”
“What the hell are you talking about? This wind is dangerous. We gotta bug out of here.”
“Yes,” I say. “You are right.”
It takes a while to collect the others. I am still shivering when we leave the river. We’ll have to hitch to our cars in the rain. It’s going to be a long afternoon.
Hauling the boats up to the road, the last thing I see is Wind Mountain. The trees are in motion. The wind flows like water and the trees sway.