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30 August, 2009

Land of Wind and Wheat (and Water?)

(Photo: Sunset with Rainier and Power Lines)

Once upon a time, an agency had an adamant opinion about a historic place they had never seen, and were not interested in visiting. And so, on the Monday following a vacation in which I drove the family 800 miles around eastern Washington, I met with the agency experts ensconced in their Olympian fastness, and then got in a car to drive to the eastern end of the state. Blame my stubborn empiricism.

(Photo: Rolling Wheat Land Near Spokane)

People from the verdant, cosmopolitan Puget Basin tend to regard the land east of the Cascades with freely expressed condescension and fairly repressed apprehension. Dry open spaces where black turtlenecks and soul patches not only look foolish, but may get your ass kicked. Diners where quinoa would be sacrilege if people knew what it was (this is wheat country, dammit) and roads where a Prius is the stunted runt apt to be kicked aside for the buzzards.

(Photo: West Medical Lake, No Dam Required)

One of the false stereotypes concerns the climate. Sure, it can be hot and dry enough to reduce west-side hipsters to dusty husks, but the aridity is only in comparison to the moss-clothed Puget Basin. Instead of falling from the hundred kinds of clouds we have in the west, the water wells up under blue skies in pothole lakes and springs, it flows from the mountains and abounds in the impounds, along the Columbia and other dammed rivers of the region.

The dams are a dilemma. They disrupted natural systems, but also form massive settling basins, which is why the amount of toxic sediments entering the lower Columbia from the Washigton side is far lower than from the less damned Oregon rivers. They just about killed the native population, cutting off the annual upstream flows of fish, but they irrigate crops. [The dam pictured is the Chief Joseph; is naming the dam for him and finally--after years of lawsuits--coughing up some of the revenue to the tribes fair compensation for rendering salmon homeless and tribes hungry?] They drowned some settlements, but power millions of homes without burning an ounce of fossil fuel. So ambiguity may be the cost of my aging and society's 'progress.' When I read The Monkey Wrench Gang years ago, it seemed obviously righteous to go blow up some damns, but am I willing to unleash a flood of toxic mud and kill off agriculture and enable coal-firers?

(Photo: They Took My Land and Fish, and All I Got Was a Dam)

Now the talk is of wind, which eastern Washington has in even more abundance than water. Besides the generally wind-swept vastness, there are places where the Cascade passes funnel the flow, making ideal ground for wind farms. Instead of paying for water, fertilizer, and fuel to eke out a living, a farmer can kick back and collect rent from wind farmers while the land itself recovers (or maybe is grazed by cattle). Meanwhile, there's a cheap flow of electricity to the city; sounds as glorious and free as hydro-electric did when it arrived on the scene. But don't worry, the powers that be will find a way to wreak some havoc and cheat some Indians. (News that already this year two golden eagles have been killed by windmills jibes the near-future scenario in Sherman Alexie's story "Green World" in June's Harpers.

Between these musings, I did get to the work at hand, and found the historic resource to be less than met the remote eye. Will that affect the bureaucratic judgement? Maybe not. Walked a lake shore and found an old orchard, but no trace of more ancient habitation (which is not to say that it didn't happen, just that they didn't modify the land enough or create sufficient junk for me to see). Explored an abandoned dairy farm that was part of the state hospital established "for the feeble minded." Saw a fishing osprey, skulking coyote, and hordes of fowl. Smelled ammonia fertilizer, dust, and pond scum between blasts of fresh air. Drove until my clavicles ached.

22 August, 2009

Last Day on Cypress

Awakened on this final day by the sub-sonic slurp of a deeply ebbing tide, mud-sirens singing me shoreward and beyond. The captain headed out to pick up another intern, and I ambled down to map a dike laid down in the 1870s--positively ancient by Washington history standards--during the frenzy of Euro-men wresting ag land from the Skagit River and surrounding Sound.

Not much to show except a berm, so no plane table and alidade, just a notebook and a GPS. Biding my time and watching the tide pull further and further back. Taking photos general and detailed. Noting the alterations and silly attempts to foil the water's appetite for land. Concrete in one sea wall encompasses the archaeological history: shell midden, cut bone from a Europeanish table, and a can of WD-40.
Vast expanses of mud not exposed, I was free to strike out in search of sites and artifacts. 19th and 20th century detritus showed up here and there, and I also found a stone chopper that could have been made any time between 15,000 BP and the birth of the barnacle stuck to it.

Pilings rotted down to mud level showed the foundations of vacation cabins that had been depicted on land on the only map that ever depicted them, eliminating confusion that could only interest the geekiest reader. Seriously, is anyone still following this? Back away from the computer and do something worthwhile.

I've got some important daydreaming to do about the shoes I need to fabricate to help with mud-flat survey. I know I said they'd be like snowshoes, but now I'm thinking they ought to be modeled on heron feet: yew toes, woven webbing of otter hide strips, maybe even stilted to give me a higher perspective. Later, maybe. Right now the family is waking up and I ought to do something productive. You too. Adios.

09 August, 2009

Counter-Clockwise Again, But Not So Far, Followed By Much Hiking

Another cloudy morning dawns, and another counter-clockwise run embarking from Secret Harbor. First stop: Cypress Head. Great place to camp if you can get there. It’s connected to the main island by a TOMBOLO, the most ZAMBONI-esque of geographic terms. I paced all over looking for a site. Like middens, tombolos have plenty of shell, but it’s pretty much impossible to tell whether people had a role. Some shell and plenty of charcoal and ash on the uplands, but it’s a campsite, and nothing there to clue me into a truly old site. In good human habitat, and absent stable or growing soils, humans erase their sites.

Then on to Pelican Beach. This is where most people camp. More crowded, tents parked on the beach crest instead of dispersed in the trees. Why would anyone go here instead of Cypress Head? We rowed ashore to deliver biomass to the composting toilets (in a nature preserrve, don’t encourage people to toss in local leaves, and ignore the irony of importing bales of animal bedding).

Then the captain and I headed inland to cross the island on foot, bound for Smugglers Cove. The day before, passing the place on the water, it made no sense to me why a smuggler would choose a wide-open bight instead of the hidden fastness of Secret or Eagle Harbors. From land, though, you realize that the view from the shore is wide, and provides plenty of warning should someone be trying to sneak up on you (plus a bonus: line of sight to Eagle Cliff, where a lookout's view opens to 360). Revenuers headed toward you? Tuck into the woods and hide the goods, returning to shore to greet them empty-handed. Rare is the gummint worker that’s going to traipse through the woods and be able to track down the hooch. In Secret Harbor, by the time they rounded the bend, you were a sitting duck, which probably explains the moonshiners there resorting to the simple expedient of getting the agents drunk. Oral histories say the coast guard guys would drink for while and dump their fuel to make it seem they were on patrol. I seriously doubt that depression bootleggers would let fuel go anywhere but in their spare tanks.

The beach here has some serpentine outcrops glassy as obsidian, but there ain’t no flaking this stuff. And you probably shouldn’t try, because the same fibrous structure that thwarts knapping also demonstrates the asbestos-ness of this stone. Another threat to archaeological lungs.

So then back up over the island, but hanging a left at the top of the pass to reach Eagle Cliffs (Salish name supposedly means “Bloody Stump,” referring to the dead, red mossy balds in summer, resembling the decapitated neck of a duck). Incredible panorama from up there, especially in this nicely clarified afternoon. Eventually decided that something we were looking for would probably remain hidden, lead us on a wild (maybe headless) goose chase, drop us off a cliff, or commence an endless late-afternoon bush-whacking hike. So we opted for the shorter trek back to the trail and descent to Pelican. It felt like a long walk by then, but the whole thing couldn’t have been more than 3-4 miles with a max elevation gain of 600 feet, and the sight of retirees ascending as we neared shore put things back in perspective.

So, back down the hill and it was matter of a short row back to the boat. I’d pulled it off in the morning, and being born southern and raised Baptist [Holy Crap! MS Word auto-capitalized the denomination], macho guilt had kicked in sufficiently for me to volunteer on the afternoon row as well.

Thank Evolution that my life doesn't depend much on rowing, because that 30 meters or so was one of the most schadenfreudish shows of ineptitude I have ever performed. Disclaimer/Excuse: rowing across a swift current, two of us crammed in a 6-foot dingy so that oars constantly hit our knees, may not be the easiest pull. But I’m pretty sure it took me a half hour to get there. Gaining a little, losing a little, unable to catch enough of a rhythm to do more than break even, dislodging oarlocks. The final route, traced on a map, would be a giant question mark, the serif tip being a final desperate lunge, hand on the launch and toes hooked to the dingy.

Then the bliss of engine-powered swiftness back to Secret Harbor. No spaghetti sauce that night, so leftovers sustained us. I’d held back, and now produced the pack of cookies. I learned long ago that chewy cookies are a fine thing after a few days of fieldwork. Instead of Chewy Chips Ahoy (which taste plastic in town, but are fine for isolated shores), I’d upgraded to some northwest brand with a bold working class heroine on the package, and it turned out to be a good choice.

Then to bed, a bit sore, but feeling strong and happy, earning the rest more than I could in a few weeks of cubicle days.

Counter-clockwise on Cypress, and a Surprise Sojourn to Lummi

The next morning dawned foggy and cool, but as the sky inched toward brightness, the captain took off to pick up the honcho in Anacortes. I checked email; neither of us can fathom how an island with no phone line gets internet, and I failed to let the office know of my connectivity, because that kind of mundane BS would anger the gods who had delivered me to this island refuge. Nor did I spend undue time on personal email or follow facebook links, because the tide was falling, already below normal low, and such times are dear to aquatic archaeologists.

Among the assortment of field footwear, I’d brought some muck boots, waterproof and insulated. But being mortal and base, I cursed my busy life, which had prevented me from fabricating mud-shoes, which are like snow-shoes, but for walking on mud-flats. Indians had them, and even if they could be bought in stores, I would want a pair fashioned by my own hands. Steam-bent cedar rims and a complex web of otter hide that would leave a trail of beautiful prints to entertain the crows and baffle whatever clam-digger might pass before flowing tides swallowed the fleeting image.

But I digress. I walked the tidelands, discovering fire-cracked rock here, bottle frags there, an odd concentration of rocks…the things that make sub-sea-level archaeology so much fun. Oh, and deflated jellyfish of an enchanting hue. I wondered if they revivify when the tide comes in.

So the boat came in from Anacortes, and we three talked about the island, its sites, its characters, and the fairly vast remembrances of a honcho who worked his way up from the bottom over a generation. Especially in a place where ‘civilization’ ebbed long ago, it is the caretakers who know about a piece of land. Well, the poachers and pot-growers, too, but I don’t know them yet.

Then off we went, exiting Secret Harbor and hanging left until we reached the opposite side of the island. Honcho piloted, while we sat outside and watched the shore pass us by, jacketed against the cool and life-jacketed against the Bellingham Channel, then Rosario Strait.

Our destination, the eponymous island in Strawberry Bay, was where members of Vancouver’s expedition landed in May, 1792, and feasted on, you guessed it, strawberries. And onions. Both of which suggest a landscape considerably less forested than what we found on this day. Tribes used to burn land to maintain open forest and meadows (locally termed ‘prairies,’ although any self-respecting Midwesterner would balk at applying the term to tiny enclaves amidst vast forests). This fostered growth of root and berry foods, as well as allure sure to bring in the deer and other meaty treats. A funny thing: the nice canoe landing where we pulled in turns out to be an artifact of the Honcho, who years ago remedied the absence of one by bringing in a road crew to blast the offending boulders to smithereens, leaving the welcoming gravel beach we see today.

More suspicion and circumstantial evidence here than an actual site, and when I looked at what an archaeologist had thought might be a site close to 20 years ago, I saw less than met his eye. Still, a very cool island: bird-covered rock at the south, kelp beds on the fringes, lovely madrona trees (which prove that beauty is situational—the same pealing red epidermis revealing greenish mesodermis on a human would be hideous and infected burn), and glacially sculpted bedrock. I indulged in some crazy cliff exploration without mishap, and shot photos galore of everything except archaeology. Then we all sat together on an eastern cliff to compare the bay now with the bay on photos taken more than a century ago of a fish-trap, trying to figure out where it must have been.

Then we motored over and he dropped us two off on the shore to look for fish-trap remnants. The trap was basically a row of pilings extending from shore well into a known salmon run, strung with net to force them into a spot where the fishermen would net them (‘Brailing’ is the term used for the harvest on one of the blurry action photos). Version 1 set out straight from shore, but did not work, at which point the boss man nailed a chair to a piling and watched the fish, then decided that a dogleg back to the south would work, which it did. Purse-seiner boats often waited beyond the end of the trap to scoop up the smart fish. Traps were outlawed generations ago, after people noticed that stocks had been decimated.

So anyway, our survey, still yet benefitting from low tide, turned up nothing by way of fish-trap v1.0 or 1.1. But I did find a couple of semi-circular walls of stone where cobble beach gave way to sand. These are probably old-time clam gardens: low stone walls exposed at low tide and submerged at high, formed of stone cleared from the muck to improve clam habitat and define a family’s harvest area.

Our work done here, the spontaneous consensus was to head to Lummi, eponymous island of the Lummi Tribe, where our agency manages a piece of land. Beautiful arcs betwixt islands, the boat performing a stately hula until throttling down in a small bay, one of the only landings on a cliff-bound coast.

And not far off an odd site. Midden almost entirely of clam at a place where digging for them would be difficult or fruitless. Steep land, the only fresh water a pitiful seep. I think I know why people still came here, but I sure as hell ain’t telling the internet.

Then back to Secret Harbor, sweeping white wakes under a sunny sky. Fish jumping, birds diving, currents ripping.

Now, the common misconception is that a state worker landing at 4 or 5 PM would call it quits. But no, daylight on an island is too precious. Honcho took off in his boat, while us two hydrated at the field station, then readied for a walk to the south shore. She got a tank of elixir sure to slay alien thistle, and I my same old 30-pound pack of archaeo-gear. There we found the homestead of Nedrow, inventor of some sort of saw, as well as an old olivine mine. Homes cut into hillsides and mines more massively cut into hills are easy pickin’s, archaeologically speaking, and the waning afternoon for me was a matter of walking the beach and clicking off GPS points and photos as I found stuff.

The thistle-slayer tank empty, the sites recorded, we headed back. I fashioned chicken chili verde with squash, and we supped. I put off writing this and read Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which is excellent. Fell asleep and dreamt of falling into a dreamless sleep.

08 August, 2009

Cypress Journal August 3

The Getting There

Having gathered maps, reports, site forms, and rolled up the archaeocratic paper trail at work on Friday, there was preparedness aplenty for me to fall into the familiar and lovely rhythm of procrastination through the weekend, only starting to pack after 10:00 Sunday night when the kids were quiet. As usual, I managed to stay up ‘til 1:00 in the AM, cooking field-meals the whole time.

Assembling the gear of the poorly-funded 21st Century archaeologist: GPS, camera, notebook, pens, bags (I hardly ever collect any artifacts, but you never know, and the bags always come in handy somehow), compass, tape measures (metric, because that’s what confuses the amateurs and makes me a professional, dammit), shovels, T-probe (if you don’t know, I ain’t telling you), boots for all conditions, and so on. Plus, since Cypress is a restaurant-less island: squash-beans-tomatoes from the garden, a kilo of primo sunflower seeds, various dried stuff, a chicken and batch of spaghetti sauce. Turned out I forgot the sauce, though, because I have to forget something.

Instead of up before dawn to beat Seattle rush hour, I’d planned the harbor rendezvous for noon, so this trip began at a leisurely 9:00, which inevitably became a hurried 9:20, but somehow I made up the lag. And by somehow, I mean washing down a fistful of pseudophedrine with a pot of coffee, then blasting Camper Van Beethoven. Which got me to Exit 164B just in time to pull into the Filson store as they opened for the morning; they being manufacturers of outdoor wear that is fine, but would stomp milque-toasts like Bauer and Bean eight days a week. I had a hat made by them through the early Hawaii years, and wore it until nothing remained but the wire brim and the boar’s tooth I’d tucked into the band. Across the street is a liquor store, but of course I did not go there, because I was in a state truck. Yep.

So then back on the highway, later recycling the coffee at a rest area featuring a humongous cedar stump. (Decided to use the toilet instead of the stump, figuring the oldsters and tourists just wouldn’t understand, but now I am bitter at the lost opportunity, and vow to return one day with a taut bladder to do that giant justice.) Swept up to the dock in Anacortes just a few minutes after noon.

On Cypress Island at Last
Weather was fair and the seas subdued, and we were at Secret Harbor before 1:00. Hauled gear to the field station (the mansion where I stayed last year is gone, but the humbler place suits and functions better). We talked over the plans, and after sorting through maps and a trove of historic photos headed out to Eagle Harbor, where yachties and sail-powered salts moor and disturb each other. First we dropped off the kid who makes a grand $70/week to maintain composting toilets and toil at trail maintenance and everything else; “carcass removal” is part of the job description.

Some illiterate was tied up to our clearly labeled “administrative” mooring buoy, but we don’t stand on formality, and moved on to the spot with a shorter row ashore. Being gallant, I let the captain also row the dingy, because our agency has fierce and able women who don’t need to be patronized, especially by land lubbers like myself who could not out-row a one-armed retiree.

So on shore she did her stuff (delivering bulk organics to the composting toilet; and yes, I was again chivalrous in my refusal to interfere), and I set to checking out an archaeological site that was recorded many decades ago, recommended for annual monitoring fewer decades ago, and since left to its own devices. Rising sea levels, storms, and boat wakes may have taken their toll, but some of the site remains, and now that it has been measured in the metric system and photographed digitally, we can all be proud.

By now, it was late, and time to get back. At the field station, I discovered that I’d forgotten the spaghetti sauce, and we opted for the steaks she’d brought instead of naked pasta. Again, my unflinching respect for the fairer sex prevented me from lifting a finger.

03 August, 2009

Cypress Bound!

Cypress Island lies at the eastern and of the San Juans, and 95% or so is owned by the state and managed as a natural area. It's one of those places like Nualolo, Kaluakoi, or Kona that hooked me, and will reel me back in from time to time for the rest of my life. A generation ago, I figured I'd travel all over the world, but instead I go visit the same few patches again and again. This is my happy fate: a life tethered to a few of earth's finest places.
Vancouver's expedition stopped here and picked strawberries in the 1790s, naming the place Cypress despite their being a botanist aboard and absence of cypress ashore. Then in the 1860s or so, white guys started showing up to stay, a couple managing to drown before a minor wave of Scandanavian-Americans married women from local tribes and managed to learn how to live the local way. The population never got beyond a grew dozen, and although the place has been logged, mined, and farmed, the unschooled eye can mistake recovering nature for undisturbed nature. Nobody lives there now, and the mansion we stayed in last year was razed ahead of environmental restoration. Now there's a comfy little house.

Scary earthquakes thrust this chunk of mantle rock to the surface long ago, and I'm banking on the process not repeating over the next week of surveying, checking in on archaeology unvisited for decades, and spending some time on a kayak looking for underwater sites. The water's too cold and I'm too chicken to dive, so just the upper fathom or three is all I'll see, but that ought to be enough to break the archaeolgical record of this place outside its ridiculous land-locked cage.
The photos are both from a trip last year. August could be sunny and hot, foggy and cool, but always good.