Montana Television Network: 22 rivers, 22 states: crossing the country by canoe

MONTANA TELEVISION NETWORK (NBC/KTVH & CBS/KPAX-TV)

By: Kasey Herman, Meteorologist/Reporter

(GREAT FALLS) Neal Moore is a writer and a freelance journalist, but he also gives himself the title of “explorer.”

From the Pacific Coast all the way to the Atlantic Coast, Neal is working his way across 22 rivers in 22 states, totaling 7,500 miles, both paddling and walking his canoe.

He has been an expatriate for years, spending time in both Asia and Africa. But he realized the greatest adventure of all might be in his own home country.

His goal for this trip is to see the different cultures that make up the United States and highlight who we are as Americans.

He started his journey in Astoria, Oregon, where he came up the Columbia River, up the Spokane River, to the Clark Fork River, then finally had to walk his canoe over the Continental Divide.

Now, he’s right here in Great Falls, where he will be going with the current on the Missouri River.

Neal says, “To come across the country in a natural way with nature all around you and then to be able to connect and listen to folks all across the country is just a really exciting idea.”

Neal previously canoed the Mississippi River in 2009 during the great recession and wrote a book of his travels. The book is called: Down the Mississippi. He will have a book reading in Fort Benton on Friday, July 13th at the Public Library from 3:30-5:00 PM.

Neal actually got the inspiration to do this trip from a gentleman from Bozeman that he met during his trip on the Mississippi in 2009. He taught Neal a lot of things, including slow down and enjoy the adventure. He taught him how to connect rivers on a journey, and if two rivers do not connect, you have land wheels on your canoe to haul it to the next water source.

You can follow his journey on Facebook and on his website.

‘Down the Mississippi’ book speech in Fort Benton, MT this Friday, July 13th

I’ll be doing a book speech about “Down the Mississippi” in FORT BENTON, MONTANA this FRIDAY, JULY 13, 2018 from 3:30PM to 5PM. The event will be hosted by the Chouteau County Library in historic Fort Benton, Montana. The library is located at 1518 Main St, Fort Benton, Montana 59442.

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The speech will include selected readings about the folks I encountered and documented on my voyage down the Mississippi and will take place at the oldest county library in Montana.  Should be fun!  If you’ll be in the vicinity it’d be great to meet up!

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2nd Place at Lawdog’s Gopher Hunt

By Neal Moore

ELLISTON, MT — I entered the half-empty bar and ordered a Bud in a bottle. There were a number of Bigfoot posters inside and when I gestured at them with my thumb the barkeep said something about an annual Bigfoot hunt and how it attracted folklorists from several counties.

A full color banner of the illusive Sasquatch was staring me down with the caption, Reigning Hide and Seek World Champion. It was all a bit weird, and the day was just too pretty, so I stepped back outside to take in the vista.

Across from U.S. 12 was a set of railroad tracks and a series of undulating green mountains that stretched right up to the Continental Divide, each dotted with larkspur and Douglas firs and lodgepole pines. There were huge rolling clouds and a bright blue sky and a succession-play of light and shadows as the clouds scuttled by along the road.

I was in Big Sky country.

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Photo by Neal Moore. Inside the Lawdog’s Saloon, home of an annual “Bigfoot” and “Gopher” hunt for the past couple decades.

Here in the parking lot was a lineup of Harley Davidsons, American flags, 4×4 ATVs and just up from where I stood, a glistening “Lawdog’s Saloon” commercial sign with a bulldog and placard lettering that spelled out Gopher Hunt.

I was wondering what that could be about when, as if on cue, a slew of laughing kids arrived. Their pickups skidded to a halt and swaggering through the dust kicked up from the road they emerged with gopher tails in hand, hauling them in through the front swinging saloon doors by the armful, in great heaps up and onto the bar.

I came back inside and in time asked one of the lads about his haul.

“Hunting is who I am,”18-year-old Cameron Johnson told me. The kid was big on smiles but you could tell that he meant it, that he meant more than the pursuit of gopher.

Cameron was soon joined by friends Bridger and Tristan. An inseparable trio — you can tell when boys complete each other’s sentences — I would soon learn had taken second place.

I asked if we could step outside for an interview, if they could tell me what the hell a gopher hunt was?

“We come to the bar to sign up,” started Cameron. “And shoot gophers all day long until five and then…”

“…Make sure you cut the tails off…” added Bridger.

“…And then, yeah, you gotta cut the tails off – that’s how they get the count,” completed Tristan.

But the boys readily admitted they’d been late on the draw.

Cameron shrugged when they brought this up. “Well, we got here at twelve and it started at eight.”

“In the morning,” said Tristan.

“Yeah, eight in the morning,” continued Cameron. “So, we were a little bit behind, but we still got second.”

I had already overheard them. The boys had won $50 plus the promotional Coors and SKYY shirts they were now wearing.  But I asked them anyway.  “How many did you shoot? Did I hear fifty?”

“Yeah,” confirmed Cameron. “We shot fifty.”

“And then you bring the tails back, onto the bar?”

“Yeah, you bring them back,” continued Cameron. “And Mike, the owner, counts them. And he tells you what kind of place you get.”

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Photo by Neal Moore. The Lawdog’s Saloon commercial sign lights up in the parking lot in preparation for a night of drinking and singing and counting gopher tails.

“So, fifty gophers – 2nd place.  Do you think if you’d have been here on time, you could have got 1st?”

All three nodded.

“Yeah, we would’ve,” settled Cameron.  “’Cause he dropped his gun on a rock, too.”

Cameron and Tristan motioned to Bridger.

As if to explain, Bridger said, “Yeah, that’s what happens.”

“He knocked his scope off,” reported Tristan. “So, we had to – it was pretty much two shooters there.”

By this time, I was desensitized to the wholesale slaughter of the local gopher population, weighing it out in my mind that here in Montana, this must be a rite of Spring. And I found myself feeling bad for the kid with the wispy beard and the aw-shucks grin. So I tried to shift the blame to the weather.

“I overheard somebody talk about the tall grass. That we’d had a lot of rain here. Tall grass,” I motioned with my hands to Bridger, demonstrating growing grass. “That interfered with the gopher hunting, right?”

“Oh yeah, definitely.”

“You couldn’t really see them too much,” said Cameron. “They ain’t much taller than the grass, so.”

“Yeah, you’re out in the field tryin’ to kill gopher, and they’re layin’ in the grass after you kill them, and you can’t see them.”

“What do you shoot gophers with?”

“Me and Tristan here, we’re shootin’ .17s and Bridger’s shootin’ a .22.”

I nodded as if I concurred, as if I knew exactly what they were talking about.

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Photo by Neal Moore. An unused entry form for the Annual Gopher Hunt, a tradition in these parts stretching years back — although this is a first for Mike Jacobson, the newly minted owner of the Lawdog’s, soon to be renamed the Spotted Dog Saloon.

“Okay – lessons learned for next year?  What would you do differently?”

The three boys hung their heads.

“Ah, show up on time,” said Cameron.

“Yeah, we’d show up on time for sure,” said Tristan.

Bridger brought his head up. “Don’t drop your gun.”

“And make sure you have plenty of ammo,” said Tristan.

“About hunting in general,” I shifted.  “It’s sort of like, from what I’ve been told, a spiritual experience. What would you say about hunting in general?”

“Hunting,” offered Cameron. “Well, it’s a great time. It’s who we are,” the boy said, bringing his me to a we. “You do it for a pastime.  Well, I almost failed school because of hunting. Like, it’s what I love to do.”

And Tristan was nodding. “It’s something you hear about, and you think, yeah, that’s cool. But then you go out and do it and it’s a totally different experience.”

“Yeah,” said Cameron. “No one really knows until they’re out there. With a bow and elk.”

Bridger was looking left out of the conversation, so I prompted him back in.

“Okay, Bridger, what would you say?”

“Well, I don’t hunt much. I rifle hunt. I’ve never been bow huntin’.  Bow huntin’s a lot different.  I don’t know, I don’t hunt a lot.”

“Okay, but today you did?”

“Yeah, I shot some gophers.”

I brought my final question back out to the group. “How would you explain how you feel when you’re out there?”

“It feels a lot different,” Cameron said, referring to his beloved elk.  “They’re a lot bigger than you. There’s way more out there than just yourself. There’s just so much more to experience. And you see the views of stuff, you know, on the internet. You see pictures of animals. But you go out there, and it’s just so much more surreal.”

“You see people in the city talkin’ about it,” said Tristan. “And they’re, you know, surrounded by concrete and steel, and once they come out here, they just can’t describe how beautiful it is.”

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Photo by Neal Moore. From left to right, 2nd place Gopher Hunt winners Cameron Johnson, Bridger Wheat and Tristan Terrell pose for a picture outside the Lawdog’s Saloon.

For Cameron, for all three of these boys, hunting and the great outdoors was their freedom, their release, their adrenaline rush.

“Until they’ve got an elk sniffin’ on their back they just don’t know what it’s like,” Cameron told me. “When you’re bow huntin’ and they’re all around you at twenty yards. It’s a little crazy. It’s intense. It gets your blood pumpin’ for sure.”

 

This story was made possible by Andre de Kock.

A Legacy of Diversity: The Finns, Norwegians and Chinese of Astoria, Oregon

By Neal Moore

ASTORIA, ORE. – It is home to the first permanent U.S., non-native settlement west of the Rockies. Astoria, Oregon, you see, is big on diversity.

In the early 1800s, this Pacific coast town at the mouth of the Columbia River was a mecca for fur trappers and loggers. And thanks to an abundance of salmon, this is where Bumble Bee Seafoods established a foothold in 1899.

The Finns and Norwegians would arrive in their greatest numbers in the early 20th century. But back in the 1880s, had you taken a stroll down one of these storied riverside streets, one in three people you would have encountered would have been Chinese.

Liisa Penner of the Clatsop County Historical Society explains that the Scandinavians could qualify for 160-acre homesteads in exchange for clearing and taming the land, the labor available to Chinese migrant laborers and immigrants was demanding in a different way. “The Chinese were brought here usually by labor contractors to staff the canneries, and unfortunately, once they were here, the work was extremely difficult.”

While the Scandinavians thrived, the population of Chinese laborers would dwindle due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which curtailed immigration, and the advent of the mechanized “iron chink”, which economized fish processing production.  And yet, while Penner explains the population of Chinese in Astoria steadily declined from 2,317 in 1880 to 139 in 1940, there are still remnants of these early settlers, who have stayed on, and are thriving today.

Flora Law, age 91, who was born in this town, represents the third generation of American-born Chinese in her family.  Her grandmother, born in 1870, hailed from Alemeda, California. And her father, Edward Yim Lee, born in 1899, and his two elder brothers, Mike and Fred, came to Astoria from neighboring Portland in the early 20th century.

The Law family, by and large, have stayed on, in Astoria and across Oregon, and as Flora told me, “have assimilated into the community with no problems”.  Her son, Robbie, 64, practices medicine and younger brother Ronnie, 60, is an engineer.  Out of Flora’s six children and seventeen grandchildren, all but one are in an interracial marriage or relationship, and all have gone to college, many with advanced degrees.

“Appropriately, salmon run in schools,” explained Robbie, who attended Stanford University and came back to open a medical practice in Astoria.  “It’s a story of the immigrant process, the immigrant experience, that we’re a part of the fabric of the community here.”

Another long-time Chinese-American family with deep roots in the community is the Lums, who run the local Toyota, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, and Ram auto dealership.

“Where else can Chinese people sell Japanese cars to a Scandinavian community?” Julie Lum quotes her father, David, who established Toyota of Astoria back in 1969 at the site of the family’s long running green-grocery.  “And you can in the United States.”  The family’s forbearer, Lum Sue, first came to the town in 1891.

Today, Julie and her sisters Pam and Lori run the auto dealership.  As I set up for my interview with these sisters, a host of locals, both young and old, came in to chuckle and to say hello, to tell tales of various business successes and to take a picture with the trio.  There is a real sense of community here – a word that would come up again and again as I interviewed various ethnicities around and about the town, all of which went by the title “Astorians.”

Jorgen Madsen, 83, a long-time Astoria resident and immigrant from Denmark, explained, “Everybody is worth something, big or little one, we all are part of the community.”

Where the town was once divided between the Swedes in Downtown, the Finns in Uniontown, the Chinese in Downtown and Uniontown, and the Norwegians in Uppertown, Sari Vedenoia-Hartman, 48, who runs a hair salon and who immigrated here in the early 1970s from Kalajoki, Finland, summed up today’s atmosphere nicely.

“The plumber lives next to the school teacher that lives next to the retired naval officer that lives next to the homemaker,” said Vedenoia-Hartman.  “So, I remember being a little girl here – and we spoke Finnish in the home, and then English in school. They didn’t have ESL programs, so the community came together to teach us English – the neighbor kids.”

When asked how the face of the American experiment was playing out here on the Pacific Coast, Liisa Penner pointed to “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, which was written in 1883 to adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty.  A poem that epitomizes the American dream, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And that the punchline of opportunity in a town like Astoria is alive and well today.

The town is a prime example of e pluribus unum, out of the many, one. There is a strength here where the word “immigration” is an affirmation.

“We have a heart for that,” explained Berit Madsen, 75, who immigrated to the U.S. from Drammen, Norway in 1963. “Because I see the positive.”

 

Interviewed on camera for this story (in order of appearance):

The Law family (left to right): Roger, 61, Flora, 91; Ron, 60, and Robbie, 64. Flora’s three sons are fourth generation Chinese Americans. Flora’s father came to Astoria in the early 20th century.

Jorgen Madsen, 83, immigrated from Denmark in 1958 and his wife, Berit Madsen, 75, immigrated from Finland in 1963.

The Lum sisters (left to right): Julie, 52, Pam, 52, and Lori, 49, are third generation Chinese Americans. Their family’s forebarer, Lum Sue, first came to Astoria in 1891.

Sari Vedenoja-Hartman, 48, immigrated to the U.S. from Kalajoki, Finland. Her family settled in Astoria, Oregon in the early 1970s.

This story was made possible by Bob & Pat Yapp.

A Community Rallying Around the ‘Other’

By Neal Moore

HOOD RIVER, Ore.

The Hood River Valley has a history of ‘others’.  The Finns of the late 19th century, the Japanese of the early to mid 20th century, and now those who identify as Hispanic and Latino. I recently spoke with a number of town leaders and bright light activists. Mainly women, both young and old, who are standing up in a unified voice of defiance. Here is a sampling of what they had to say.

Interviewed for this piece (in order of appearance):

Adriana, 23 – Adriana is “a Mexican that happens to be undocumented in the place that is really hard to be undocumented.” A student and activist, Adriana works nights as a waitress/bartender. “We’re on the verge of a revolution here,” Adriana told me. “Either jump on or get off.”

Paul Blackburn, 52 – Paul is the Mayor of Hood River, one of the few (if not only) Spanish-speaking mayors in the State of Oregon. Paul has formed the Latino Advisory Council and would like to see more Latinos on the city council and as mayor one day. He told me that “as the federal tenor and tone go the wrong way, it’s really motivated us to rally around our neighbors and friends and to work together for inclusivity in our city.”

Maria Elena Casmo, 44 – Maria Elena is a health policy analyst who immigrated with her husband Carlos, a civil engineer, from Chile. After five years in America, her status was changed from ‘non-immigrant’ to ‘immigrant’. She gained permanent residence in 2002. Regarding the current anti-immigration atmosphere in America, Maria Elena told me that people of color like herself, “Woke up. [That] they are not going to tolerate this type of speech.”

Montserrat Garrido, 16 – Montserrat, daughter of Maria Elena, is a Junior at Hood River High School who would like to become a journalist. She recently found her voice as a student activist at Hood River’s “MLK Day” rally. Montserrat has travelled back to DC for the Women’s March and for the Anti-Gun March with the students from Parkland, Florida.

Vicky Stifter – Pastor of Riverside Community Church – United Church of Christ. Vicky’s background is in the law. She has spent years on the Texas border working with immigration issues. A member of the community of Hood River for many years, Vicky tells me that if need be, her church has voted unanimously to shelter those in need as a sanctuary church.

Gladys Rivera, 28 – Gladys was born in Hood River in 1989. At the age of four, her mother (at the time six-months pregnant) was deported back to Mexico. She tells me that her mother took her by the hand and hopped back over the fence into America the very same day. While growing up, Gladys told me that she felt confused about her identity, that she “was never Mexican enough and never white enough.” Today, Gladys is an outspoken community member with Latinos en Acción (Latinos in Action) and the Latino Advisory Committee, amongst other groups. She is a mother of three.

Graciela Gomez, 47 – Gracelia arrived in America from Mexico at the age of 14. She wanted to attend school as a child, but her father told her that they were here to work. Graciela has cleaned houses, worked in fruit packing houses, and has picked cherries, pears, and apples. For the past 33 years, she has petitioned the government for a green card, which she received this past year. But she says it doesn’t mean anything when others in the community have yet to receive theirs. “If we don’t say something we are going to keep living in the dark,” Graciela told me. “And it’s time to bring a little light.”

Matt English – Matt is the Hood River County Sheriff. He tells me, “In our area, at least a third of the community is Latino, and so many of those people have some cultural differences that we need to work together to understand. And there has been a real push within this organization to build trust so that the Latino community is trusting of us.”

 

This story was made possible by Robert Coberly.

A Bend in the River

A bend in the river. And a logjam stretching the breadth of the St Regis River just behind spelled trouble. I was moving fast and paddled for the embankment to crash into it, to slow down. I hit it just before the huge cottonwood swallowed me up, tipped into the drink, and grabbed the roots and vines to pull myself to safety — as the canoe and all my gear disappeared under the obstruction. I was wet and cold and in shock.

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Fireman Chuck Anderson recovers my Bear Vault full of expedition food from a duo of fallen trees spanning the breadth of the St Regis River above the town of St Regis, Montana on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.

I scrambled for the highway and as I was walking back off the off ramp to get help from a fly fisherman I’d seen nearby, a big Dodge Ram pickup came hauling the wrong way up the off ramp directly at me. 

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Passerby Darin Boyd and his Dodge Ram pickup were on the scene before hypothermia could set in. Along I-90 near where my canoe came to a rest in the adjacent St. Regis River, Monday, June 11, 2018.

It’d been ten minutes and passerby Darin Boyd had seen the green canoe and paddles trucking upside down just downstream and was immediately looking for the canoeist to assist. Before hypothermia could set in I was in his truck with the heat full blast. 

We scouted the river and thanks to Darin’s hunting skills and binoculars he spotted the canoe stuck on a rock in swift current across the river and down a steep embankment. We got to the town of St Regis, Montana, and by the time we found the sheriff deputy, he was already looking for me. Another passerby had reported the upturned canoe and Deputy Ryan Funke had already been up and down the river a few times. We returned to the scene and the volunteer firefighter brigade soon arrived.

I changed out of my wet clothes for a fireman suit and with a wench and two sets of rope we lowered fireman Chuck Anderson down to the canoe. We recovered half my gear and the canoe itself, as seen soon after up top this fire truck.

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From left to right: Deputy Sheriff Ryan Funke of the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office, Firefighter Zack Lott, Firefighter Mark Boyett, Firefighter Chuck Anderson, Neal Moore, and Firefighter Kat Kittridge of the St Regis, Montana Fire Department. Along I-90 near where my canoe came to a rest in the adjacent St. Regis River, Monday, June 11, 2018.

Montana folks look out for each other and this day I was lucky and fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of this kindness and expertise. A big shout out to Darin Boyd, Ryan Funke and the the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office, along with Kat Kittridge, Chuck Anderson, Zack Lott, and Mark Boyett of the St Regis, Montana Fire Department. And also to Kat’s brother John who heard the town siren and answered the call. 

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A recovered map showing the section of Montana were this expedition nearly came to and end. If you look just underneath the top rock you’ll see the town of St. Regis where the St. Regis River meets the Clark Fork.

Shaken, but safe and sound, I’m safely on to Missoula, Montana, where I’m currently re-gearing up with help from friends both near and far. Stopping to catch my breath, settle my nerves, and continue forward on to the Divide and the next leg of the journey — down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to The Big Easy, New Orleans.

Note: The all-volunteer St. Regis, Montana Fire Department assist travellers like me all the time. Mineral County stretches from Lookout Pass on the Idaho-Montana border to mile marker 76 along I-90 east of Alberton, Montana — a healthy swatch of jurisdiction. With limited federal funding, these fine folks do rely on donations. If you’d like to support what they do, you can send a donation to: St. Regis Fire Dept., PO Box 9, St. Regis, MT 59866.

Wenatchee World: Canoe trip spanning 7,500 miles reaches Wenatchee

by Bridget Mire

THE WENATCHEE WORLD

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World photo/Don Seabrook
Neal Moore gets help from Carol Busjahn, Wenatchee, unloading his nine-year-old canoe at Lincoln Rock State Park on Monday. He was headed to Daroga State Park to spend the night on his journey. This canoe replaces one that was busted up while recently paddling through the Gorge. Busjahn’s family hosted Moore at their house over the weekend.

WENATCHEE — Neal Moore has had many adventures living overseas on and off for about 25 years, but an idea came to him in 2009.

I had this epiphany,” he recalled. “What if the greatest adventure of my life was in my own backyard, so to speak?”

So he paddled down the Mississippi River, ultimately producing 50 stories of how people were coming together and making it through the recession.

Now, the Los Angeles native is back in his canoe – this time, with an even bigger journey in mind. His trip as planned will span 22 waterways, 22 states and 7,500 miles.

The goal is to connect 100 stories from 100 cities and towns to tell the story of America.

From his start in Oregon, Moore arrived in Wenatchee on Friday. He had never been here before.

You’ve got the wine country, you’ve got this arid landscape with this intensely beautiful river cutting through,” he said in an interview Saturday. “(Friday) I spent the whole day walking downtown, trying to get a feel for the place. I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen with the story — or if there will be a story — but the people that I’m meeting are just incredible. People who are transplants but have been here for 20 years.”

He left Wenatchee on Monday and will travel to Idaho and Montana next.

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Neal Moore paddles near Turtle Rock on the Columbia River as he heads to Daroga State Park for the night.
World photo/Don Seabrook

Moore was out of the United States for the last six years, but he saw that everyone was paying attention to Washington, D.C., especially after the November 2016 presidential election.

But then the second question mark that I’ve observed has been, what about the rest of America?” he said. “That’s where this journey comes into play. The idea is to come from the Pacific Coast to the Continental Divide to the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes to the Statue of Liberty. … My thinking is to sort of highlight who we are as Americans – what we look like, how we tick, how the American experiment ticks — and to show the very best of us.”

Some cities are part of Moore’s plan, but he’s also discovering places for stories as he travels. He’s gotten some recommendations on people to talk to from organizations like museums and chambers of commerce.

He said he doesn’t want to create a script or put a spin on a story, but rather to listen and document what he learns.

It’s not about man against nature,” he said. “It’s not about X number of days to come across the country in record fashion. It’s more about the communities and the people. The highlight, for me, is not to turn the camera on myself so much, but to turn the camera on the communities and be able to highlight their stories.”

Moore mostly camps but sometimes stays with friends of friends.

He said he chose to canoe rather than drive to honor the country’s first peoples and first thoroughfares. It also allows him to take his time with the project, he added.

With the paddling, combined with the journalism, you feel like you’ve earned these towns,” he said. “You’re paddling, sometimes for days and days, and the story ideas are swirling around in your mind. Then you step into a town, and you’re so excited to be there, and now you’re trying to pull off a story of international consequence. It’s a challenge on top of the physical challenge.”

In addition to writing, Moore takes still photographs and videos. His ultimate plan is to turn the stories into a book.

He expects to complete his journey by December 2019.

 

A brush with the wild

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CC Fish & Wildlife Service

Here on the Columbia I’m keeping my eyes and my heart open to everything nature and natural. The river itself in all of its glory, the currents and sky and the cliffs. My days are spent observing the whirl of an eagle, the thump of a badger, the jump of a fish — the life underneath and around and above as I paddle upriver.

Just past the town of Wanapum I was aiming to make camp on a beautiful stretch of island when I startled a deer amongst the sage, sand and prickly pear cactus – the second I’d seen the very same day. I paddled myself on and shortly thereafter just under the dense and jungle-like trees and laid out on top of a patch of tall grass was a broad snout and large nose pad and a small set of ears pointed straight up. The beast was substantial — larger than the coyotes I was raised around in the foothills of Southern California. I believe it was a Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) – the very first I’ve ever encountered in the wild. It sat up and stared, watching me intently. It never did flinch and the moment was amazing. We locked eyes as I paddled slowly past and I knew that this island belonged to him.

I made camp on a nearby sandbar and late into the night came the Call of the Wild. A solitary wolf singing up to the vault of heaven and night sky. It’s moments like this that I wish I could share with you. But the fact is I never did reach for my camera or attempt to capture audio. It would have spoiled the moment. What excites me more than anything is the promise of more wildlife to come. As I begin to enter genuine backcountry into north-east Washington, Idaho and Montana. As I begin to feel wild myself.

The Undercurrent of America

By NEAL MOORE

Along the COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, OREGON and WASHINGTON

I knew that traversing this nation’s first waterways in a canoe would be a challenge, along with the hope of a tribute to the first people who for millennia have called America home.

The word tribute is a great word because it’s a river word.  Rivers that flow into larger rivers are called tributaries. Where they meet is the confluence. And their source point is the headwaters.

And if you scratch the surface by taking a canoe out and onto the water, and take a good long look all about you, and listen, and most importantly, feel, you’ll find the undercurrent, the rhyme and reason of the journey.

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The Columbia River today with a replaced Celilo Indian Village seen on the left, and the Oregon Trunk Rail Bridge further downstream. Photo by Neal Moore.

There’s a stretch of the Columbia River Gorge where people still speak about the village that once was, before it was washed away by the construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957. The place was called Celilo Falls, where a cascade of high-current whitewater gave way to platform scaffolds and fishermen and the giant chinook salmon that swam up through the rapids and jumped over the falls.

If Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, is celebrated as the first U.S. settlement west of the Rockies (founded in 1811), it is important to note that Celilo Falls stretches back quite a spell further. For 15,000 years, Celilo was a gathering place for the Native American people, the oldest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent, and a mecca for traders who came for the salmon from far and wide.

“I remember the sound of that river and of those falls,” Wilbur Slockish, Jr. told me. Slockish, who was raised on these waters, is the chief of the Klickitat people, a Native American tribe of the Pacific Northwest. “I used to make money by packing one or two fish – the fish were bigger in those days. And I packed them up for the fishermen so that they could fish and I would struggle up there. And that’s where I got my strength, for that was my exercise.”

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Original previously unpublished photograph of Celilo Falls in the 1950s by Chet Coats showing the falls that are now submerged by the damed up river. Although inaccessible, it is said that the falls still flow. Courtesy the Coats family.

And Slockish was not alone. During my time on this portion of the Gorge, I visited several of the 31 native fishing in-lieu sites. I toured and met with different tribes who make up the Columbia River Indians — the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce.

Down in Cascade Locks, I met with young Nez Perce natives who were busy getting ready with their boats and their nets for their ceremonial fishing.  The first fish of the year, the spring salmon, are collected by the tribes for their ceremonial needs. Extra salmon are brought home to fill the freezers for the years ahead. Only once the quotas are met, will the tribes consider fishing commercially. Although this year’s spring salmon is late, these Columbia River fishermen were hopeful.

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Bud Herrera, 54, casts one of six poles out into the Columbia below at Rufus Native In-Lieu Fishing Site below the John Day Dam. Photo by Neal Moore.

Bud Herrera, 54, of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, fishes below the John Day Dam on the Columbia River. Bud, a Umatilla, tells me this could be one of the lowest seasons on record since 1939 for the spring chinook salmon. Bud fishes by scaffold and by line, and while this year’s catch is low, he likewise remains confident.

Bud’s cousin, Cort Herrera, 54, a Umatilla, spoke to me about how family and fishing go hand in hand. “It just goes together. You know, we catch the fish together and have good times here – make memories together on the riverbank. Just have fun, you know. That’s what it’s all about – to teach the younger generation, so they can do it when we’re not here. Just like we learned from our family relations.”

While I was documenting the Herrera family, Bud’s nephew helped his 9-year-old nephew land a spring chinook salmon. The kid’s face said it all. His gap-toothed smile was priceless.

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Cort Herrera, 54, checks his lines as the Willamette C tug pushes barges of juvenile salmon downriver, assisting their natural progression around the dams. Photo by Neal Moore.

The reason for the 31 in-lieu sites goes back to the Treaty of 1855, which Wilbur Slockish Jr.’s grandfather was a signatory of. When asked to remind us what the treaty promised the local native tribes, Slockish explained: “We were to retain our lands, certain lands, and to retain our fishing rights and our hunting rights. We were to retain all of our other food gathering activities. Places that we fished at. And we gave land to the federal government in exchange for that. We were promised adequate healthcare and they were supposed to build a hospital.”

Today, with the construction of the dams and the washing out of the villages, living conditions for the Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Yakama Native American tribes at the original in-lieu dedicated settlement sites along the Columbia River Gorge remain unsafe and unsanitary. As residents await the federal government’s decades-old promise of “adequate permanent housing” to replace their once-thriving communities washed away by the construction of the dams.

“A lot of people here,” said Slockish, “they seemed all to think that the government and the courts gave us hunting rights and fishing rights — not realizing who gave what to whom.”

There is a connection to this land and river that the native people understand. That they live and breathe and practice and teach. “That is what is important and I try to protect it,” said Slockish. “Because these are the gifts that our creator gave to us. We protect them and take care of them and in turn they will take care of us. Because we don’t own them — the future owns them … So that’s why we value them. Our bodies are made from this land and everything will return to the land – the law of the land – go back to it.  So why would you harm it?

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Wilbur Slockish, Jr., chief of the Klickitat people, at Horsethief Lake State Park, just downriver from where he fished at Celilo as a youth. Photo by Neal Moore.

“You know when people from the east came this way, they saw all of this land up by the Tri-Cities and down the Gorge and thought it was idle – Idle land, look at this. We can irrigate it. Think of the profits we can realize from it — but they didn’t think, they didn’t realize that it was our supermarket. There was deer, elk, rabbits, grouse, other birds that we ate. Medicine, roots, all within that idle land and that’s why they thought of the dams. That was in the 1920s. People from the east are always doing that — comin’ out here and altering — they altered the landscape. And our foods aren’t the same anymore. Our roots are coming earlier, our salmon are coming later. We should have already had freezers full.”

Cy Jim, 51, who identifies as a Warm Springer, fishes on the Washington side of the river just below the John Day Dam, one of four U.S. Army Corp of Engineers dams of the Columbia River Gorge. For him, it’s more than just subsistence.  It’s a way of life.

“Fishin’ just keeps us goin’,” Jim said. “This river keeps us goin’. It’s something we’ll never give up.  As long as there’s fish here, we’ll never give it up.  We’ll always do it.”

But Jim wasn’t always able to fish. His father, like Slockish’s father, turned away from fishing the Columbia following the washing away of Celilo in 1957. It was too painful, and besides that, there was frequent animosity towards native fishermen over competition for fishing rights that followed.

“I’ve been shot at, I’ve had rocks thrown at me,” Slockish said. “I’ve had boulders rolled down the hill at me, and I’ve been cursed, all over my own food.”

And then there was the “Salmon Scam” of the late 1980s. “We were blamed for 43,000 missing fish when it was aluminum plants that poured fluoride at John Day Dam. See that dam right there? There’s a big gravel bed there – there used to be 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 pound salmon spawning in that area – and with those gravel pits they built the dam and killed it and they poured fluorides in there and the salmon, they lost their sense so they just spawned in a different area, they adapted, but we got blamed for it and I went to prison for three years for it.”

Slockish laughs at the memory of his incarceration at El Reno, a medium-security United States Federal Correctional Institution for male inmates in Oklahoma. “I always called it my government sponsored vacation.

“But I’m still here. This is my homeland.”

 

This story was made possible by Syd Goldsmith.