And always, in this search, a person might find that she is already there, at the center of the world. It may be a broken world, but it is glorious nonetheless. – Linda K. Hogan
Our task is to enter the dream of Nature and interpret the symbols. – E.L. Grant Watson
THIS CANYON does not abide a trail.
The steepness of its walls and the scree that covers them suggests downward movement, toward the river. But we are going up, toward the base of massive limestone cliffs.
The dogs have an easier time of it. My partner Caleb and I scramble and slide, reach for sage and ninebark as handholds. What trails exist are likely made by deer and elk coming down from their ridgetop refuges to drink from Allison Creek. I make my way to a flat section and catch my breath. From here it is a matter of guesswork. The way to Redfish Cave is not marked. It is not on a map. The entrance cannot be seen from below. Rumor and vague directions are our guides. Two false starts lead us nowhere, on the third, we walk a narrow precipice, squeeze through a shrub and find ourselves at the entrance.
I wrap my fingers around the steel bars that are cemented into the mouth of the cave and press my face into the darkness, eyes searching as if a prisoner might walk into view. The day is cool and rainy, the metal cold against my face. When my eyes finally adjust, I see it. At the far end of entrance to Redfish Cave, in an area called the Twilight Zone, an ochre pictograph of a salmon.
The air escaping the cave smells like the earth when rain first touches it. Petrichor. My eyes become adjusted to the darkness and I see the fine soil, cave dust, and the loose rocks and leaves that cover the floor. I am eager to go in. Desperate to sit in the place where the artist sat. To look closely at the dots, each no bigger than a fingerprint, in the form of a salmon. I want to touch the fingerprints, made of blood and plant, as if I am touching the past, as if I can somehow connect to the history I carry in my own blood. A need to connect with this Plateau artist moves my own Indigenous fingers toward the salmon. I reach out to the salmon; my arm a bridge over which only my understanding passes.
We carefully make our way down from Redfish Cave, down Allison Creek, and finally to the Snake River, to the murky, dam-stilled waters. When we reach the reservoir, the salmon takes over my thoughts. The pictograph is about a quarter mile above the channel where the Snake River once flowed free. For hundreds, probably thousands of years, this canyon was home to the Nez Perce. Now it is a National Recreation Site and designated wilderness. The recent titles provide protection for the area and places like Redfish Cave, but came after the damming of the river and the subsequent burial of similar sites, other art. Nearly all traces of Indigenous occupation are buried under 200 feet of water and layers of silt and debris. Salmon have not swum these waters since 1967.
From 1956 through 1967, three dams were built in succession along this part of the Snake: Brownlee, Oxbow, and Hells Canyon. Idaho Power, the company commissioned to build them, agreed to create and maintain a viable way in which salmon and steelhead would be able to by-pass the dams and continue their natural migration to their natal waters, some as far as 300 miles upstream.
In the fall of 1958, near the completion of the Oxbow Dam, the company’s attempt to trap and transport the salmon fifteen miles upriver past Brownlee Dam, failed. Four-thousand fish died in splash pools below the dam and 7,000 more in transport. Eleven-thousand salmon. Two and a half times the human population of the town I live in.
The disaster, dubbed the Oxbow Incident, resulted in a federal investigation, but no successful remedy could be found, outside a promise by Idaho Power for a handful of hatcheries. No attempt was made for fish passage at Hells Canyon Dam. In 1967, when the entire three-dam project was completed, thousands of years of salmon migration ended. The Snake River has seen its last run. The only salmon remaining above Hells Canyon Dam is painted in Redfish Cave.
Caleb and return to Hells Canyon every spring. We escape the deep snow at our cabin in McCall and embrace spring at this lower elevation. Trailing our camper behind the truck, we exchange our dichromatic backdrop of pine green and white, for one painted with yellow arrowleaf, pink cherry blossoms, and bluebird song. Our camp is alive with sound and color. Parked next to the reservoir that serves as the border between Idaho and Oregon, we slip our canoe into the Snake and row across the water and hike up Spring Creek where we eventually gain a ridgetop.
From atop the canyon wall, we can barely make out the green dot that is our canoe. Around and above us, an endless panorama of buckskin and blue. Across the river we can see the 9,000-foot peaks of the Seven Devils, and behind us are the two million acres of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Our feet rest on a ledge, soles facing the deepest gorge in the United States and the 36 miles of reservoir. We eat our lunch among wolf tracks and elk droppings. I pull out my notebook and try to capture, in a few words, the vastness of it all. But, like the camera lens, it is impossible to frame it. I cross out what I have written and pocket the notebook. Cumulus clouds pile in from the south and the air darkens and tosses the dogs’ ears. We hike back down to the canoe moments ahead of the rain.
I LIE IN BED that evening and stare out across the water to a knob of land we have named Bone Island. It’s not fair to call it an island as it is part of the bar that the dams have stranded. It is also unfair to give it such an ominous name, but there is a lot of unfair naming in this region. The name Hells Canyon, for example, is certainly not apropos for an area that holds so much beauty, so much life. The Seven Devils that guard the canyon may seem wicked to those who attempt their summits, but the name belies their Teton-like grandeur. Who chose these names and why? How do we begin to explain the complexity and exquisiteness of such a landscape with just a name? What did the Natives of this landscape call the bony prominences that hold the last light of evening? What words explained this canyon to them? I think of how I might rename it and falter, tripped by my need to tell everything I know about the canyon in a couple of words. Frustrated with the task, I roll over and go to sleep.
We wake to rain falling on the metal roof, so I decide to stay in the camper and write. Outside, geese honk and make their loud landings onto the murky water. Swans float by. Ducks call from the shore of the island. Inside, I make little progress.
Like before, on the ridge, I discard lines as soon as they are written. I have a poem in mind, a piece that I can see and sense, but I cannot bring it to paper. The words feel forced, planned. Rather than giving the image control, in this case the image of the river, I am trying to control it. Force it into my own idea, tossing in erudition and clever enjambment so that before it is fully born I have pushed it back into the dark. The aluminum roof thrums with the rain. I put away my writing and reach for The Norton Anthology of Poetry and thumb the pages for inspiration. Instead, I find myself analyzing technique.
I pace the short length of the camper reading aloud. Midway through a Wallace Stevens poem, I close the book and trade it for a thick volume of theory. I hope that by understanding the construction, methods, and terminology used to make poetry I will find the instruction I need to complete the poem. I am searching for a formula, a blueprint. I look at the lines I have written; they’re solid, intelligent, fit the definition of a poem, but they are flat on the page and read as a whole the piece lacks heart, lacks wildness, is given over to too much management, like an animal caged and tamed. Outside, the rain trembles the dammed waters, gentle thunder echoes through the canyon. I put away the poem and the books, and pull on my raincoat. We will drive to the end of the road. We will drive to dam itself.
Inside the truck, below the dam, we stare at the massive cement wall that holds back the Snake River. A single outlet is open and spews water 150 feet before it crashes into the pool beneath. The dam, from this vantage, looks at the same time like both a castle and a prison. Wires that run from the parapet could as easily be gossamer as razor wire, yet they are neither, merely cables carrying as much as 391 megawatts of electricity. I cannot begin to understand how much power that is or how the river was managed to create it. But I can see the art in the craftsmanship of the dam. The almost impossibility of it. And I am aware this art, this feat of engineering, was championed as a source of renewable energy. It is genius and it is deadly and I am unable to forget the cost of this structure: the thousands of salmon that died, the drowned cultural resources, the river’s freedom. It is true I have become dependent on electricity, on this structure, but true also that I depend on wildness to power my imagination. As the sun breaks from the clouds, rainbows rise from the cascading water. This very place is both the end of the line for spawning salmon and the source for energy that lights our home. Across the river a mountain goat ascends the steep canyon wall. A snow-white kid follows at her hooves.
THE NEXT MORNING is bright and dry so we decide to go climbing. Climbing requires such focus, either top-roping or as belayer, that the mind can think about little more than handholds and footholds and safety of self and climber. In this way it becomes meditation, ceremony. I am new to the sport and still fear falling, still fear letting go, yet climbing exhausts and it rejuvenates. I feel my way along the limestone wall for edges where just my fingertips or soles of my climbing shoes may gain purchase. My progress is slow but purposeful. When I reach the final anchors, I exhale and lay my cheek to the warm rock.
As we are packing up our gear, a young man in a new, pickle-green US Forest Service uniform approaches us looking for Redfish Cave. We point at a bush twenty or so feet below us and warn him about the narrow ledge that leads to the opening. He tells us that his supervisor told him about the cave and he wonders aloud why someone would hike all the way up here to paint a fish.
Why paint a fish, he asks. Was it a symbol of a certain family or clan? He wonders if the slashes mark the years that the artist spent fishing here. We cannot answer him, and because he does not seem to be asking us as much as he is asking the canyon, so we do not try to answer.
The Nez Perce, unlike many other tribes, did not rely on specific drawings for communication. When they painted, it was spontaneous, unplanned, and often went unexplained to even the closest family members. The meaning of the art in the cave would always be left open to the interpreter to guess at, to dream about, to wonder. Since learning this I have given up trying to find meaning for what I see on the smooth wall of Redfish Cave, and instead try to understand what it makes me feel. In that way, I find this artistry the most democratic and freest. The most inspiring. The most like nature itself.
What about the gate, the young man asks, why is it there? It protects the fish, I tell him, though I am only being half honest. Caleb tells him the gate also protects the formations that are still growing in the back of the cave. The young man asks why. He is not being unkind or insensitive. He is new to the area, from Kentucky, he tells us. He is just learning the history of Hells Canyon. We show him the routes bolted to the limestone and explain the popularity of the area, the danger of vandalism, the already broken stalactites. He puts his hands in his pockets and looks down towards his pickup and tells us about the two graves he just finished cutting the grass around. In quiet voice he says, this place is really sacred. Contemporary researchers have collected points that date occupation of the area back thousands of years.
The two graves are those of Archibald Ritchie and Dave Eckles, early settlers to the Hells Canyon area who planted an orchard and large gardens on Big Bar where we are camped. The Eckles Ranch, as it was called, provided most of the fruit and vegetables to the mining camps in the Seven Devils and the surrounding area. Their trees still line the terraces that serve as the campground. The fruit they bear is a free refreshment in the summer when temperatures in the canyon go well above 90 degrees. A sign, placed by the Forest Service, explains the history of the men and the ranch in detail. No mention is made of the people that lived here prior to Ritchie and Eckles. To understand the Indigenous history of Big Bar, one must do their own research.
Pre-dam photographs show Big Bar as a grassy, meadow-like slope, where archaeologists found artifacts suggesting hundreds of years of Indian encampment. From places like Big Bar, and throughout the drainage, it is presumed that n
ative people fished for salmon and hunted deer and elk and mountain goats. In our own explorations, Caleb and I have found the hollows of pit houses, but most of the art, shelters, and lithic scatter were destroyed, collected, or now lie under the turbid water. The archaeologists’ reports, black and white photos, and the artifacts they found are locked away in a steel cabinet in urban offices throughout Idaho and Oregon. I can’t help seeing the irony in this as well. Why not just leave the items where they lay and let the water cover them? Why does the government presume the right to possess the canyon’s arrowheads and tattered parfleches? Shouldn’t they belong to the descendants of this region? I am not the first to ask this.
That evening, Caleb and I sit beside a campfire and ponder a pre-dam Hells Canyon. On a warm night such as this, would the canyon walls echo the sound of song and laughter of Nez Perce celebrating the coming spring? Would we hear the guttural words of their language as stories were passed along the shores? No, we realize. Though their fires might light the walls, little would be heard over the constant roar of the river. Quiet and darkness, smoke and firelight frame us. I stare toward the water and imagine the sound and force of the undammed river. I cannot. I wonder instead about the day the river was dammed and the animals that must have fled from its rising. I see deer and rabbits, snakes, and crickets ascending the steep canyon walls as the water follows them. I imagine the silence that fills the canyon and a sound not unlike putting your head under water. A sound something like drowning. A feeling something like death.
WE WAKE EARLY to clear skies and a light breeze that drops pure white apple blossoms around our camp. We decide to make the longest of the mapped hikes in the region. A loop that will take us through three major drainages, over five ridges, and finally funnel us out with Eckles Creek a mile or so from where we are camped. Point-to-point the hike is about 15 miles. We begin the first two miles from the camper, beside the reservoir, on the road. The sun is not quite over the eastern ridge.
A mile into the walk we hear the honk of a goose. But it is somehow different. It is shrill. Agitated. We see it above us, its slender body cutting the brightening blue. It is not alone. Something is catching up to it. Often I see raptors being chased by smaller birds protecting their nests, but this is not that. It is a predator behind the goose, a bird almost as big as the goose itself. Its white chest and head give it away. A bald eagle. I pull in my breath and say no softly as I put my hand on Caleb’s arm. I am whispering, come on goose, come on. I want the goose to prevail, to escape the eagle, but it makes no sense. This is nature, this is the impulse of survival and the reason that we come to these wild places, this is the art and the wild, even when it is difficult to watch. One wingbeat and the eagle is a length away from the goose. Two more and the eagle grabs for the goose, but the goose dives and, for a moment, escapes. In seconds the eagle overcomes it and the sky and canyon quiet.
We watch the eagle carry its prey to the other side of the reservoir where it and lands on a boulder. I let go the breath I’d been holding. I want to cry. I want to celebrate. Neither of us speak. Caleb and I stand at the guardrail and look to the rock where the eagle has landed. After a few moments we continue to the trailhead.
As we hike the switchbacks to the ridge above Kinney Creek I jot down questions in my notebook. Why had I wanted to the goose to escape? To spare myself the pain of watching it die? Because it is my nature to want the underdog to prevail? What is it in me that craves this wildness, but also fears it? To allow it to be without my interference, without my expectation? When I let the questions go, I begin to write lines to a new poem. I write what comes to mind. I write my reactions. I cross out nothing. By the time we reach the summit above Kinney Creek I have filled four pages.
We sit with our backs to a pine and my eyes drift down to the reservoir. Before the dams, the water rose and fell with snowmelt and rain. Thousands of salmon spawned up the Snake to rivers and streams far beyond. After spawning, their deaths would have provided food for grizzly, birds, insects, and eventually the trees and shrubs that grow in the riparian space along the river’s edge. The dams not only ended migrations, but also led to the loss of other species upstream. Fishermen, both Native and white, could no longer count on salmon for food. In Stanley, Idaho, 200 miles upstream, the residents found that without the salmon the river had gone quiet; lifeless, as if the spirit of the river was an exchange for electricity. I look out across the ridgetops through the air shared with elk and wolves and to the rugged and open landscape that pours out in front of me. I feel an ache in my heart and I cannot tell if it is regret or love.
Here, in the wildness of Hells Canyon, lies also the result of man’s vast and brilliant imagination. Behind me, a largely untouched wilderness with some of the most rugged terrain in the Pacific Northwest, while below me a display of human ingenuity that has buried millions of years of history. The power of the Snake River is transmuted into electricity that brings light to back porches and refrigerates milk as far away as Montana. I want to block out one to see the other more clearly, but know they must remain together in my view. I want to love the wilderness and lose the dam. Embrace the Native history without condoning the present. Forgive the bald eagle, even as it grabs the goose from the sky, but I do not know how to begin.
Who teaches us about these things? How to be thankful for the reading light while honoring the salmon? How to want to protect the fish in the cave while still participating in a sport that means we must drill holes in the granite to place our bolts? How to explore a hillside without needing a trail? Here in this country, where human and wildness collide, I try to come to terms with the split that exists between my Native and non-Native blood, between my desire to write freely and to use formal structures. And to even attempt to answer the question that is being asked by many in the West: how to love a place and live in it while still protecting and preserving it. I want the answer to be in some book, to be in the blueprints of the dam, to be on the historical sign, but it is not. It is the definition, the explanation, of poetry itself—be it the poetry of living or the poetry created by the living, it is a sum greater than all its parts.
We move quietly across the hilltops and through the meadows that form the hips of the Snake River. We take our time as we search the aspen for deer rubs, glass hillsides, and hope to stumble upon a shed antler. We descend from the trail slowly, moving through the last light of day, through the liminal space that will take our vision outward to inward. I tell Caleb that in the morning I want to paddle across the river to the place the eagle took the goose. It is my nature to want to touch something that was so powerful and so dreamlike. It is my desire to reach into that place of mystery and wildness, to see for myself, and to stand in, if only momentarily, that place of life and death. In the camper, by the light of a lantern, I pick up my pen and write. I feel something like forgiveness, like the rupture of a dam, like the goose captured in the moment.
IT IS OUR LAST morning in the canyon. We move slowly as we make breakfast and pack lunch. Even the dogs seem to resist the inevitable—the leaving of a place that has come, in just a few days, to be familiar. None of us bounds out of the camper, and when we put the canoe in the glassy water, we do it so gently that the pair of ducks swimming just off the bank remain within reach as we float by them. The morning is brilliant even though the sun has barely crested the eastern horizon. We watch deer as they feed across a sunlit slope. From somewhere behind us we hear quail call chi-ka-go. A canyon wren frames the scene with a loud cascade of song. We find the boulder the eagle landed on and beach the canoe upstream.
I don’t know what I was expecting. A bright orange foot? A beak? Carnage the likes of roadkill? What awaited us was none of that. There, amidst the black lichen, on granite surrounded by encroaching blackberry vines, lay a perfect pile of snow white goose down. A thin breeze lifts then settles the feathers, as if sighing. I kneel and take two feathers from the pile. I will keep one for myself, the other will become a gift.
We paddle back across the reservoir in silence. I do not look to the canyon walls or sky, but down to the smooth surface of water, so calm it is as if we are floating on a mirror. The pale blue of the sky, the varying green shades of sage and pine, and the gray of limestone are repeated on the water’s surface. The carp, now the dominant species in the reservoir, lounge close to the surface, warming in the morning sun. We float within inches before they break stillness and dive into darkness. I try to follow one of their shapes into the depths. I marvel at the adaptability of the carp and mourn the absence of the native salmon. Somewhere beneath me, in waters dammed, history is erased and eroded. And made. I want this canoe to float us back in time so just once I might hear the roar of the river in spring, see its wildness crash from boulder to boulder. I want to hear the drums, watch the artist climb the slope to the cave, and smell the old fires. I want to touch the history of Hells Canyon. I reach to the water and touch my own reflection.
If you go past the gate guarding Redfish Cave, past the ochre salmon forever swimming upstream, you will come to two panels of art that cannot be seen from the entrance. Stop for a moment and wonder at what you see. Is it a pregnant woman? A man who swallowed the sun? Is the figure beside it a mountain goat? A dog? Does it matter? Do not mind the shiny black millipede crawling on the damp ceiling above you and do not touch the art. To your right is a tunnel that your body can barely squeeze through. Get on your belly. Ignore the spiders and the rat droppings. Pull yourself carefully through the passage and into the dark womb of Redfish Cave where formations are tens of thousands of years old. You will need light to see them, but again, you cannot touch them; they look stable, but like many things solid, are fragile. If you break one, millions of years of creation will be lost. Now turn off your headlamp, douse the light. Become friendly with the darkness. And before you leave, before you return to the bright world, to your duties, to your thoughts, look for the pack rat that lives in this room. Her large black eyes will regard you with wonder. She’ll have a white feather in her midden. When you emerge from the cave it will take your eyes a few minutes to adjust. When they do try to see everything as it is and as it was in the canyon before you.
An Indigenous daughter of the West, Cindy Fuhrman was born in Colorado and has lived in rural towns all along the Rocky Mountains. A recipient of the Burns Award for poetry, Cindy has earned degrees in exercise physiology, English, and American Indian Studies, and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Idaho, where she teaches Native American Literature and edits Fugue, a poetry journal. Cindy’s writing has been featured in Broadsided Press’s #NoDapl compilation, two anthologies, and in Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, and the Taos Journal of International Poetry and Art. Fellowships include Centrum at Port Townsend and Fishtrap at Lake Wallowa. Cindy is co-editor of a forthcoming anthology of Indigenous poetics for Tupelo Press. She divides her time between Moscow and McCall, Idaho.