Notes from Windward: #55

The river: before and after

One of the recurring questions that people ask us about Windward is "What do you believe in?" That's a hard one to answer since the people who make up this continuing adventure come from a wide range of backgrounds and have a variety of reasons for being here. But, regardless of what people believe in when they come, if they wind up staying, one thing that they come to believe in very strongly is the supremacy of nature.

City life rarely has to take the natural world into consideration. Out here, not only is nature part of almost everything we do, at times it's central and inescapable. Folk who only encounter nature on PBS documentaries or in city parks have no real conception of what nature is all about. While the beauty is real enough, nature's awesome destructive power is very real as well.

We all bring presumptions to our interactions with nature, but that's our problem because nature doesn't care what we think. Man proposes but nature disposes, and how man feels about that process doesn't figure into the equation. All we can do is to learn about nature and take appropriate precautions, or pay the price for our presumption. Sometimes that price is cheap, and somethings it wipes you out.

Our most recent object lesson regarding our place in nature's scheme of things came last winter when a series of weather events sent the Klickitat River into flood. Now that summer's here and the river is back to it's usual placid self, it's hard to remember what it was like during the crush of last winter's storm. This shot shows the Klickitat meandering its way to meet the Columbia, and it's a beautiful sight to see. But, notice the tree growing out of the side of the bank well above the river level. Now notice the debris that was washed up around its base by the flood, and you'll get an idea of just how serious the flooding was.

Today, the Columbia River has been transformed by a series of hydro-electric dams into a broad, stately river that is more like a slow moving lake than the dashing and dangerous passage that took so many lives during the days of the Oregon Trail. Now, it's become a plaything for windsurfers, but once it wasn't that way at all. As one of Washington State's few remaining wild rivers, the Klickitat is a good reminder of what things used to be like.

People come for all over the Pacific Northwest to fish and raft the Klickitat. For much of the river's run, it travels through majestic canyons without even a road to spoil the view. Still, as inviting as it appears, there is always an element of danger. That was brought home to young Tamara when an 8 year-old classmate drowned in the river a few years back. It isn't so much that the river is dangerous, it's just that it is very unforgiving of those who fail to take adequate precautions. Last year, one of the Tribal Peace Officers drowned when he lost control of his motorcycle and went into the water. On average, more than one person a year is lost to the river, and in most instances, alcohol is involved.

During the flood, I took some pictures; this spring, I went back and took comparative shots from the same places. Here you can see that the river is scouring out and washing away the road bed just upstream of the town of Klickitat.

These two shots were taken from that same location, but facing upstream. If you look close, you can see a pickup truck that got trapped by the rising water, which will give you an idea of how high the water rose above the road bed.

Once the flood waters were gone, almost four miles of road bed had to be reconstructed and it was months before traffic could pass through directly to Windward. During that time, we had to use a series of back roads and detours which made getting in and out take an hour longer than usual, and for the first month or so, it was strictly a four-wheel drive affair. The County hired three separate road companies to do the work, and given the degree of damage, we were impressed with how quickly they accomplished the rework. In places, the roadbed had to be built up some fifteen feet!

So, the flood of '96 is behind us, most of the damage has been repaired and life is back to normal in the Klickitat River valley. Now, the only question concerns what the winter of '97 has in store for us.

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