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1. BONNEVILLE DAM
ON A CLEAR, COOL MORNING in early spring, I'm heading into the deepest cleft of the Columbia River Gorge, the only place where a river breaches the Cascades. Outside my car window, massive evergreen mountainsides ascend to a flawless sky and the wide pewter river - the largest on the west coast of North America - rolls along. I'm thirty miles upriver from Portland and just downstream from the first of fourteen dams that stop the river's tumble. Bonneville Dam, a strip of blond concrete that spans the river, is incongruous in this green land.
You'd be hard-pressed to overstate the importance of the Columbia River to the Pacific Northwest. The river is thoroughly entwined with the region's lore; it has always occupied a central psychological space here. The Indians revered the river. They told stories about its rapids and about the bounties of salmon that returned each year to sustain their culture. They told of mammoth bridges and jealous mountain gods who hurled stones at each other from either side of the river's walls.
European explorers were frightened by the river, intimidated by its wildness. Those who attempted entry by sea had to grapple with a terrible maelstrom where Columbia waters push up against Pacific waves. Americans had a similar impression; following the river from east to west meant reckoning with epic rapids, sheer walls, and withering winds. Lewis and Clark made arduous portages around Celilo and Cascade falls, as did the British and American trappers who followed them. Later, Oregon Trail overlanders had to pick their poison: follow the river or cross the up-and-down Cascade Mountains that form a snowy hackle up the spine of Washington and Oregon. Most chose the mountains.
As I approach the dam, I'm thinking of the Indians, about those explorers and adventurers, about what the river has become. But I'm thinking of another fellow as well, someone who saw the wild Columbia for the first time just sixty-seven years ago, and was profoundly moved by the experience. I'm thinking of the American folk singer Woody Guthrie. Guthrie, improbably enough, played a prominent role in the shackling of the Columbia, even though he never poured a single bucket of concrete.
In the spring of 1941, the newly formed Bonneville Power Administration was looking for ways to convince a skeptical public to buy into a system of publicly financed dams along the Columbia that would provide cheap electricity to the Northwest. They decided to make a movie, a bit of agitprop, that would champion dams for their power generation, and also for their ability to control the river's floods and to irrigate the desert that lies east of the Cascades. They wanted a folk singer to write and perform songs for the movie, someone who could connect with the workadays of the region.
Stephen Kahn, the Bonneville Power Administration's first public relations specialist, asked Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress if he knew anybody. Lomax, the authority on American roots music, told Kahn he knew just the man. Guthrie needed a job. He was twenty-eight and broke and living hand to mouth in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, failing to provide for a wife and three young children. The BPA put him on the payroll for thirty days, an emergency appointment that paid $266.66. Kahn knew Guthrie's politics - Guthrie had contributed more than 250 columns to American Communist Party newspapers - and he knew Guthrie would fail a background check. No check was needed for an emergency appointment.
The most fertile month in the annals of American music ensued. Guthrie toured the Columbia country on the government's dime and threw himself into his work with a fervor that suggests he wasn't burdened in the least by concern that the dams would be anything but good. He wrote twenty-six songs in those thirty days. He wrote about the grandeur of the river and the terror of the river and the promise of the river's power and the splendor of the river's salmon. He wrote about the needs of the common folk who lived near the river. He wrote all about how wonderful those dams would be and nothing about how those dams would turn the wild Columbia's headlong rush into a staircase of stagnant pools.
The salmon are hugely diminished now. Those that remain rely on human artifice to keep them this side of oblivion: when they go upriver to spawn they shimmy through fish ladders to get around the dams; juveniles heading the other direction catch rides in the bellies of barges that motor them down through the slack water to the sea. The rapids are gone. They've all been drowned by the dams.
As I gaze upon the dam, I can't help wondering: What would Guthrie think if he could see what the Columbia River has become?
I CAME TO WOODY GUTHRIE in much the same fashion that Woody Guthrie came to the Northwest: following a circuitous, rambling route. I remember, as a fourth grader, singing "This Land Is Your Land" in music class, but years would pass before I learned much more about Guthrie. I found him nonetheless, walking backward, following musical touchstones - Joe Strummer of The Clash, Bob Dylan, and others. I liked Woody Guthrie - liked his music, liked his fearlessness in the face of convention.
When I finally found my way to his Columbia River songs, I was both delighted and dismayed. Much of Guthrie's best work was behind him by the time he went up the Columbia River. This period marked a renaissance, a regaining of the creative powers that would eventually secure his spot among the most important of the nation's artistic malcontents. In those songs, many imbued with his finest lyrical power, Guthrie somehow managed to project the tremendous desires, contradictions, and foibles that have characterized European Americans' relationship with the Columbia River and the Northwest. Somewhere in those songs, between the rollicking guitar lines and the drawling talking blues and the twangy lyrics, lies an explanation of how this wild river came to be so conquered, so despoiled.
There's no written record of where, exactly, Guthrie traveled during his whirlwind month in the Northwest. There are two good sources, though. One is the lyrical testimony of the songs themselves, which brim over with place names and descriptions. The other is Elmer Buehler.
In 1941, Buehler, a Northwest native and a Bonneville Power Administration employee, was given the task of driving Guthrie around the Northwest in a shiny new Hudson Hornet. Buehler is ninety-seven now (a year older than Guthrie would have been, had he not died of Huntington's Disease in 1967). He lives in Portland and is still quick of mind and happy to return my phone call one morning, just before he heads out to tend his vegetable garden. Buehler can't recall every road they traveled, every stop they made, but he does remember that Guthrie "always sat in the back seat of the Hornet and never engaged in conversation while I was driving because he always was playing on his guitar."
When they visited Bonneville Dam, it was the only federal dam operating on the Columbia, construction having begun in 1933 and been completed four years later. Grand Coulee Dam, 450 miles upriver, was under construction. Guthrie stood in the middle of the Columbia River Gorge, just as I do now, and looked out across the water to the concrete of Bonneville. He saw a massive plug in the river flanked on both sides by the steep evergreen forests of the high Cascades.
Then he wrote these lines:
There at Bonneville on the river is a green and beautiful sight
See the Bonneville Dam a-rising in the sun so clear and white;
While the leaping salmon play along the ladder and the rocks
There's a steamboat load of gasoline a-whistling in the locks.
Wild salmon and man-made dams. Natural beauty and the whistle of commerce. Surely the mighty Columbia was big enough to give anyone anything they could possibly want from a river.
In the twirling waters below the point where I stand with my wife and two sons, I spot a gleaming mammal head - a sea lion, which has traveled 146 river miles from the ocean. Its species has learned that all salmon heading up the Columbia to spawn must eventually pass through the fish ladder here. So the sea lions help themselves, thank you very much, and the humans who made the feast possible consider ways to dissuade the sea lions from partaking.
We go to the visitors center, take a long escalator down to a walkway beside the fish ladder. Then we walk into a dark room with a leaky ceiling and peer through picture windows that look out on the murky green Columbia River water. A large mural in the room shows salmon leaping over falls as they make their heroic journey, ascending a decidedly undammed river. Snowy mountains rise in the background. My family and I sat for an hour in the empty room and saw only one steelhead.
2. THE DALLES DAM
I NEVER SAW CELILO FALLS. For anyone under the age of fifty, or who came to the Northwest after March 10, 1957, the falls live on only in photographs and lore.
The photographs are sad remembrances of what the Columbia River once was. They show Indian men in workshirts and flat-brimmed hats standing atop precarious wooden platforms. The mad river froths and boils all around them. The men hold nets out from their perches, nets that look like they were made for giants. The salmon in those old photographs are thirty-, forty-, fifty-pounders, hurtling through the spray and into the nets.
The Indians knew Celilo as "Sound of Water upon the Rocks." Those who were around before the Dalles Dam drowned them say you could hear the falls from many miles away in that open landscape on the dry, treeless side of the Cascades. It was an unwavering roar. Five times as much water tumbled over those falls during periods of high water than spills over Niagara on a typical day. Somewhere between 10 million and 16 million salmon coursed up the river before the dams were built. Now, in a typical year, only a million or so make it through the fish ladder at Bonneville Dam.
Celilo Falls was a center, perhaps the center, of Indian life in the Pacific Northwest. Before Europeans arrived, many tribes gathered here from throughout the West to trade goods for salmon. The river smells mingled with the smell of fish and the smell of sage, and all those mixed together with the smell of smoke from fires built to dry and cure the salmon.
Guthrie and Buehler spent a good four hours at the desert falls one day - a long time by the truncated standards of Guthrie's Columbia River month.
In 1941, the falls still had sixteen years of life ahead of them. The tribal culture persisted. Tourists stopped by, to be sure, and people drove cars, and the nets were often manufactured rather than hand-fashioned - but the falls roared on. Guthrie insisted on shimmying his unbathed, sinewy frame out onto one of those fishing platforms. "I was nervous," Buehler tells me. "I made sure there were a couple of strong fellas out there with him. I didn't want him to fall in. He would've been a goner."
Buehler says Guthrie felt sympathy for the Indians: "He looked upon those people as being deprived of their full rights as Native Americans." Such sentiment surely would have followed from Guthrie's socialist sympathies. If ever there was a champion of the underdog, it was Woody Guthrie. But the dams that Guthrie championed caught up with the Indians. Hundreds watched the day the water backed up and the falls fell silent. Many cried. A few turned their backs and never returned.
At Celilo Park, I look out across the fifty-year-old reservoir called Lake Celilo. The lake is a popular spot for windsurfers who relish the near-constant breeze that blows through the gorge. But this early in spring the wind is cold and biting. The park is empty. Little waves lap against algae-covered cobbles, making quick little splishing sounds.
There's a small interpretive sign nearby with an image of the falls, the Indians, and the leaping salmon. There are leaping salmon depicted everywhere along this river, just as there are leaping salmon all through Guthrie's Columbia River songs. A few miles down from Celilo, near The Dalles, an overpass on I-84 is festooned with brushed-steel silhouettes of leaping salmon.
From Celilo Park I drive back beneath the interstate and bump across a train track that has no gate. I turn right onto a little gravel way and enter Celilo Village, a collection of about sixty people crammed into trailers and unpainted houses pinched between the lake, the interstate, the railroad tracks, and the rocky bluff.
At the far end of town I see a half-sheet of plyboard bearing the words SMOKE SALMON FOR SALE. I park the car and get out. No one is around. On the other side of the street, behind an array of junk, I find two Indian kids tossing aluminum cans into a pile. I ask if any salmon is available. They both get up and leave without a word. One of the kids, a teenager in droopy basketball shorts and a tank top, slips into a shambly trailer. Five minutes pass. A woman, fiftyish, emerges. I point to the sign and ask if there's any salmon. She looks past me, out toward the reservoir, out toward where Celilo once roared. She speaks in a soft mumble. She doesn't smile at me and doesn't glare at me.
"No," she says. "I don't think anybody has salmon now.
We had some, but we all sold out a couple weeks back, during the ceremonies."
"Oh, yeah," I say. "The fiftieth anniversary of the dam. I read about that."
"Everybody bought all the salmon then," she says. "You might try again when you come back through."
She goes back to her trailer. I return to my car and drive back toward the interstate, stopping to wait for a train that rolls past without slowing down. That's the roar that the residents of Celilo Village hear now - about every hour or so.
GUTHRIE WAS SMITTEN by the place names of the Northwest. He couldn't help himself. He had to put those names to song.
He named the tributaries to the Columbia:
Other great rivers add power to you,
Yakima, Snake and the Klickitat, too.
He named the river's rapids:
At the Umatilla Rapids at the Dalles and at Cascades,
Mighty men have carved a history of the sacrifices made.
He drawled the names of the places on the Columbia where dams should be:
The big Grand Coulee and the Bonneville Dam,
Gonna need lots more of 'em scattered all over the land . . .
Need dams in Umatilla Rapids, Dalles, and Foster Creek and Arlington and Chelan.
I especially like the way he said that last word, Chelan. In the song "Talking Columbia," he pronounced it "SHEEEEE-lan." As if he'd been saying it all his life.
It seems Guthrie fell in love with the Northwest during his month's stay. You don't learn the names like that if your heart's not in it. And you don't pen couplets like these two if you don't at the very least suffer from a serious infatuation:
There's a great and peaceful river in a land that's fair to see,
Where the Douglas-fir tree whispers to the snow-capped mountain breeze.
The cliffs are solid granite and the valley's always green,
This is just as close to heaven as my travelin' feet have been.
I have a keen sympathy for a flatlander who sees the Northwest for the first time and is blown away. I remember how quickly I committed to memory the names of the Cascade peaks I could see from my adopted home of Stanwood, Washington, after moving there as a thirteen-year-old kid from Iowa.
Pilchuck. Whitehorse. Jumbo. Three Fingers.
"How do you know all those names?" one Stanwood kid asked me. "You're not from here." You had to be from somewhere else to understand.
Something about the Northwest makes you want to grasp the scale of the place, to get your arms around it, to dive into all that country and scenery, to immerse yourself in it and try to comprehend its power and its scope. When you're an outsider - when you're unaccustomed to such sights, to the immensity of scenery - there are two natural reactions. One is to be humbled, to stand silently and take it all in with a sense of awe. The other is to be challenged, to view the landscape as an invitation to contest, humanity against wilderness. During Guthrie's era, many European Americans held both views simultaneously. It never dawned on them that one might be contradictory to the other.
The Columbia River songs capture the spirit of a time when at least one value was shared by all Americans, a value that superseded political differences, one that united industrialists and socialists, artists and engineers. Americans of all stripes believed in the notion of Progress. A principal component of that belief was a sense that the nation's tremendous natural resources could be garnered for the benefit of all, that there was plenty to go around. It was a time of national bravado. Guthrie's songs are replete with the stuff.
In "Roll, Columbia, Roll," Guthrie wrote this:
Now river you can ramble where the sun sets in the sea,
But while you're rambling, river, you can do some work for me.
I understand the allure of the dams. They are the physical manifestation of the desire to take this untamed, unkempt, out-of-proportion landscape and bring it down to a more human scale. Or rather, they are a way of meeting that sublime landscape halfway. Make the river a little smaller, make the works of man a little bigger. Both would be better for the effort - or at least humanity would be better and the landscape none the worse, really. The word environmentalism had not entered the popular lexicon in 1941.
3. JOHN DAY DAM
JOHN DAY DAM is adorned by a large American flag on the Oregon side; on the Washington side sits a huge aluminum factory. Aluminum production requires great quantities of electricity, and nowhere was the electricity cheaper or more plentiful than here. (As a newcomer in 1979, I remember my parents marveling about how low their monthly power bills were.)
Buehler tells me that he and Guthrie spent a night in Arlington, Oregon. From across the river, I see a large "A" scratched into the side of a bluff above the little town. This is empty, lonely land. Mount Hood has faded into the atmosphere to the west. The Columbia is wide and still. Across the water the traffic of I-84 drones along. There are railroad tracks on either side, with cars loaded with sawdust. A barge plods its way upriver.
The dams opened the interior of the Northwest - the Inland Empire, as chamber of commerce boosters still like to call it - to the rest of the world. Suddenly, little settlements along the Columbia, dry and desolate places like Lewiston and Pasco and Umatilla, were able to hang the words "Port of . . ." in front of their names. City fathers basked in the glow of the river's beneficence. Their crops could now be transported to the world.
A barge is never too far from sight on the lower Columbia. Neither is a power line. They march from the dams and away over the hills and mountains. They part the forest and they dwarf the desert. They are held aloft by tall metal towers with shruggy shoulders and dainty arms that delicately hoist the lines against their narrow hips. "Skirt-lifters," I call them.
Those who knew Guthrie best say he truly believed the government's Columbia River dam project would prove beneficial. He saw the project as, in essence, a socialist venture: people coming together under the umbrella of government to do something that bettered everyone, especially the poor and dispossessed. The dams would help the little people. Guthrie's people.
In contrast, everything on the river now is big. The irrigation pipes are big, the fields of alfalfa are big, the orchards, the factories, the barges, the trains. The sprawling Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where plutonium for the world's first nuclear bomb was refined, occupies nearly six hundred square miles of desert on the west bank a few miles upriver. But the people are few. In "Columbia's Waters" Guthrie sings about buying a forty-acre tract of land and farming it - an idyll of all the dams could do for the little guy. A forty-acre homestead here, though, would qualify only as a hobby farm. Agribusiness and absentee ownership reign over the landscape.
Everything here seems bound for someplace else. The grain goes down the river, the trains speed through the little towns, the interstate highway is full of long-haulers and out-of-state license plates. The electricity is going somewhere else, too: the skirt-lifters make beelines for the factories and the big cities. The eleven dams on the Columbia River below the Canadian border - six run by the federal government and five by local utilities - produce enough electricity to light twenty million homes. Sixty percent of the West Coast's hydroelectric power comes from the Columbia.
Above the John Day Dam there is McNary Dam, Priest Rapids Dam, Wanapum Dam, then Rock Island Dam, then Rocky Reach and Wells and Chief Joseph. Dam after dam after dam.
Upriver from Priest Rapids I drive out of the canyon and onto the flat Columbia plateau. Before the dams were built, this land was scabrous sage country. I drive north from the town of George, Washington, through a familiar landscape of irrigation canals and irrigated green circles to the town of Quincy. I spent part of a summer here once, working nights as a foreman in the pea harvest in the irrigated fields between the Saddle Mountains and the Grand Coulee. The sign at the edge of town still says: "Quincy - Opportunities Unlimited."
This is red country now, but it's not Guthrie's red. This is talk-radio country, 68 percent for George W. Bush country, no new taxes country. The artificially moist soil of the Columbia plateau is a desert in which Woody Guthrie's socialism would find no purchase whatsoever. The fact that all those crops spring from a massive government public works project - the fact that the fortunes of those dryland capitalists are firmly hitched to governmental largesse that was once derided as creeping communism - is one of the richer ironies of this dam-altered land.
Outside of Quincy, on the slope leading back down to the Columbia, I'm passed by a beat-up Chevy pickup truck. Puffs of blue smoke emerge from the tailpipe; the engine's about had it. The driver wears a red plaid work shirt and a Fu Manchu mustache and a mesh ball cap. On the tailgate are two stickers. One is the United States flag with the phrase "These colors don't run" under it. The other says, "Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?"
4. GRAND COULEE DAM
THE GRAND COULEE DAM suffers from the same affliction as Mount Rushmore - for all its size, for all its hubris, the landscape is even bigger. It's more impressive topside. I remember that from my last visit here, fifteen years ago. I can't get out there this time. There are gates and lengths of razor wire and law enforcement vehicles. September 11, you know.
So we go to the Visitors Center. "You can't bring that purse in here!" barks one of the Bureau of Reclamation greeters to my wife, then he goes back to gabbing at his coworker, who has a book perched on his belly. The purse goes back in the car. Inside the center, most of the displays are devoted to the dam's construction and to its utility to the region and to the nation. There's a nook that briefly explains Guthrie's association with the Columbia dams and invites visitors to bang out the melody of "Roll on Columbia" on a xylophone. Slightly more space is given to the salmon that once swam in the river, and to how the river used to be.
Guthrie didn't spend much time at Grand Coulee, only half a day or so, according to Buehler. They were due in Spokane later in the day and they had to hit the road. "We got up there about eleven o'clock in the morning," Buehler tells me. "One of the superintendents took Woody around to different places." Grand Coulee Dam may have been the end of the line for Guthrie, but in fact more than half the Columbia lies beyond. The Columbia is 1,243 miles long; the dam sits on river mile 597. Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake, formed by the dam, stretches 151 miles up to the Canadian border. Beyond the border, there are yet three more dams.
Grand Coulee Dam's casualties include Kettle Falls, which was second only to Celilo in importance as an Indian fishery and gathering point. The dam's plans did not include fish ladders. For salmon, this wall of concrete was truly the end of the line.
Guthrie saw the dam in a state of mid-completion, when all those workers, happy for a paycheck, were giving it their best. The project they were working on, he predicted, would be "the biggest thing that man has ever done." He was impressed by the scale of the venture, by the audacity of it all. As I stand at the base of the dam, I have a hard time appreciating how big it really is. I know the statistics - it's a mile across and 550 feet tall. It's still the biggest electric power producer in the United States. All the pyramids of Giza could fit inside it. Damn big thing.
But this is big country. The canyon walls are even bigger than the dam. Go around the bend and the thing slips from view just like that.
I've yet to find an odder place in the Northwest. Below the dam, on the south shore of the river, sits a collection of tidy wooden bungalows separated by perfect lawns and perfect sidewalks. The houses all date from the mid-1930s; many were built within months of each other. It's like a little biopsy of wartime suburbia sliced from someplace far away and placed in hardscrabble coulee country to see if it could possibly take root. This is known as Engineer's Town. Here lived the minds that figured out how to build such a thing.
Across the bridge, on the other side of the Columbia, is the Colville Indian Reservation. There's a dreary movie theater and a dreary café and a dreary casino. A tribe member in a pressed white shirt and black slacks opens the door for me at ten o'clock in the morning. Inside is a room of stagnant dimness, reeking of cigarette smoke and occupied by a dozen or so souls who pour their hopes into slot machines. At the edge of the Indian town there is an odd butte with barren slopes that rest at perfect angles of repose. It's all sand, 12 million cubic yards of it, left over from the dam's construction. The engineers ordered too much of the stuff when they were mixing up all that concrete.
The skirt-lifters are here, marching south over the granite bluffs, taking away the electricity. It all goes off to the promised land, to the favored pastures of plenty and to the teeming cities.
Not much of the water sticks around either. A good deal of it is pumped from Roosevelt Lake up and over the bluffs, through a system of massive metal pipes that look like the fingers of a monstrous robotic hand raking across the top of the canyon. When it departs those pipes the water is 275 feet higher than where it started. It pours out and forms Banks Lake, which is held in check by dams on both sides of the basalt-walled formation that gives the Grand Coulee Dam its name. From there the water awaits circulation through ever-smaller pipes and channels that lace across the "reclaimed" farmland of the Columbia plateau. It seems fitting here, at the last and largest of the nation's Columbia dams, that there would be a town of engineers. It would take a fair number of the breed to run this place, to run this river.
Woody Guthrie used the language of poetry to describe the Columbia and the dams that so captured his fancy during his Northwest month. The engineers who control this river use a language that isn't poetic in the least. To them, a reservoir is hardly a lake, it's a "forebay" - or at least that's what they call the water immediately above the dam. When a reservoir is filled to capacity, they say it's at "full pool." The engineers don't use the word "river" to describe the brief stretch of water that flows freely below a dam. Such a stretch is a "tailbay," or a "tailrace."
The engineers also have a term for the difference between the elevation of a dam's forebay and the elevation of its tailbay - that is, the distance that water falls over, or through, a dam. The term is "net operating head." Grand Coulee's net operating head is 330 feet. When Roosevelt Lake is at full pool, its surface elevation is 1,290 feet, meaning that the total possible net operating head of the whole river from the Canadian line to the Pacific Ocean is 1,290 feet. I totaled up the net operating heads of all eleven dams in between - Bonneville, Dalles, John Day, McNary, Priest Rapids, Wanapum, Wells, Rocky Reach, Rock Island, Chief Joseph, and Grand Coulee - and came up with something in the neighborhood of 1,150 feet. The engineers haven't let much of this river go to waste.
As purple clouds slide over Grand Coulee country from the west, I take a stroll with my family through Engineer's Town. Through windows with open curtains we see gray-haired denizens going about their nightly routines. We walk down to a small park at the edge of the Grand Coulee Dam's tailrace.
I consider that dam. Floodlights illuminate the big concrete facade and reflect against the surface of the flat waters that eddy past.
Guthrie's songs are in my head. The lyrics are full of river sounds, river motions. He sings of "the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windward spray." He sings about the river's "rippling waters, sparklin' so bright." He sings about "the river's wild flight." He sings about leaping salmon, about rapids, about falls. In Guthrie's songs, the Columbia River rambles, the Columbia River rumbles, the Columbia River rolls.
I stand there with my wife and two sons and I'm struck not by the spectacle of the dam in front of us, but rather by the silence. I can hear the soft chatter of a kingfisher from somewhere far away. I can hear the bushes rustle where a marmot roots about near the water's edge. I can hear the cars plying the bridge between Engineer's Town and the reservation. But except for the slightest swish coming from a thin strand of water that emerges from an orifice halfway down the dam's otherwise dry spillway, the night is devoid of the sound of water. This river doesn't make any music anymore.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Matt Rasmussen. All rights reserved.
The author and Orion Magazine invite Menda City readers to join the ongoing DISCUSSION regarding this essay and its topics.