Magruder Ranger Station
Early November, 1937
Charlie Engbretzon and Stewart hunted all day up the little no-name creek that cascaded out of the sky in the time it takes a Clark’s Nutcracker to fly from the creek’s headwaters to its mouth with some pine nuts in her craw, dropping three thousand feet in less than a mile, more a crack in the landscape than a creek and it had a big cave at the top for a bonus. Other than that, Charlie and Stewart had no luck.
They came down off of the bench above the little canyon to the river and as they looked across the churning Selway from Charlie’s parked Ford they spotted a mule deer, a buck! Charlie helped the boy aim and shoot, then fired a shot to finish it off. Then they waded the river, whose waters were low enough with the Fall to do so, to retrieve the animal, pulled it back across and loaded the it into the back of Charlie’s Ford. Maybe a few representatives of the last free runs of Selway steelhead and steelhead brushed past their knees.
It was only Saturday when he and Charlie shot the Mulie buck on the banks of the Selway and they still had another day to fill their other tags, so they were feeling jubilant. Charlie turned to the boy.
“Y’know”, he said to Stewart, “this creek doesn’t have a name. Let’s call it Stewart Creek”.
Now all that was left to do was a triumphant drive back down the new Paradise Road toward Deep Creek Ranger Station (now called Magruder) in the dusk and on up to the CCC camp where they planned to bed down for the night and then hunt some more in the morning.
The next year, the Army Corps flooded the Columbia River Gorge to a depth of sixty feet to form the brand new geographic feature that, in what would become their characteristic flair for dark irony, dub Lake Bonneville. After that was done they built seven more dams along the mainstems of the Columbia and Snake Rivers between the Pacific and the little no-name creek.
Inevitably there would be art critics, whom the Army Corps’ military officers and civilian engineers described as “fish enthusiasts” if they happened to be white, and “Indians” if they weren’t. But they also recognized the politics of the thing and agreed to design and install what would be their first rudimentary—and expensive!—fish ladder at Bonneville, declaring that these structures would adequately address what the Interior Department described as the “perceived fish problem”. To the colonels and generals of the Corps, this was nothing less than the magnanimous gesture they deemed it to be, given the horrid expense of the ladders.
They feathered their magnanimity, though, with a warning that there would be no turning back for the fish, for the dams or for civilization. Epic rivers and ancient prerogatives notwithstanding, the wild runs of anadromous fish who had enjoyed unobstructed access from the ocean to the no-name creeks of the upper Selway or anywhere else for millions of years before God invented humans were now declared both obsolete and in need of their “help”, and this, as anyone paying attention knew, was no idle threat. It was demonstrable even then that of all the human behemoths throughout our specie’s brief history who’ve swallowed such embarrassing amounts of verbal hubris and then survived to get heartburn from their diet choices, the Army Corps of Engineers is the sickest.
The record is clear on this: they knew perfectly well that their dams were going to create such problems for the fish that they would probably kill them outright, so they spent billions of taxpayer dollars covering their butts, with fish ladders, hatcheries and other non-sustainable substitutes for ancient freedoms.
It’s interesting to note that in late 1937, when Charlie and young Stewart were wading across the river to get Stewart’s first deer, the Corps, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries and the Oregon Fish Commission were finishing their first round of observations regarding the effectiveness of their new fish ladder at Cascade Locks. Frank T. Bell (U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries) put the whole thing into crystal-clear perspective for everyone when he observed that Chinook salmon were climbing the Bonneville fish ladder with “…far less effort than their forbearers that fought upstream through the swirling rapids that were now to be buried beneath fifty feet of water”.
The Oregon Fish Commission put its own exclamation point on the matter when it chirped in that the fishways were a “howling success”.
It’s also worth noting, for those of us who love those beautiful arcs of irony that sometimes serve as halos for such statements, that Bell’s agency had just hired RachelCarson, future author of “Silent Spring”, a couple years before to write scripts for the Bureau’s weekly radio broadcast titled “Romance Under the Water”. There’s no denying it; when you talk about dams, you’re talking about epic, beautiful disconnects that goes back to the world’s first honkies: the Greeks.
But try putting your finger on that disconnect now. It squirms away from you just as fast as a Salmon fry in a hatchery tank, a treaty with the Dakota People, or any other easy promise made and then broken just as easy. Reverend Parker laid the first moral foundation for the Corp’s “benevolent designs” to “render the deserts, both naturally and morally (into) the garden of the Lord”. Then the Corps came along and actually accomplished the feat only recently-understood to be Zeitgeist (the Spirit of the Times), not natural, and not prone to revisionism. The notion of developing the treasures of the West strictly for its resources is a core tenet of both classic American literature and of “Manifest Destiny”. It’s only one of them, but this notion is embedded in our national soul, inextricable it seems, and even if we call it progress, we can’t call it natural.
Pharaohs will ever be part of a species capable of building pyramids, dams and (talk about phrases that conjure up ridiculous images if you give them a moment’s thought) “fish ladders”. Didn’t Bonneville Dam put hungry people to work during a time of great economic need, the Pharaohs will ask. And weren’t families starving for lack of work, suffering for lack of light and wasn’t Woody Guthrie writing songs praising dams? And especially now in our Global Warming times, isn’t hydropower considered “clean energy”, even by certain key “environmentalists”?
These are questions that will always resonate, and the Army Corps’ attitude was right on target for the Depression, and even for later, when people weren’t so hungry. Resonance is a matter of habit, a taste in a certain genre of music, if nothing else. Words like “disconnect” and “environmentalist” weren’t even words in 1937. Nobody used them, not even future environmentalists. You just can’t put your finger on it, and you can’t fairly blame the Corps or anyone else, at least not much, because no one else except Rachel Carson and a few others were interested in such words at all at the time.
Like almost everywhere else, many of the Selway’s pieces are now gone, recently extinct albeit not entirely forgotten. The wild fish runs are extinct, of course, except for a few derelict genes rubbing against the rough cement sides of hatchery ponds. These were built on the banks of the drowned canyons as consolation prizes to those prehistoric anadromous beings who could cling to archaic spatial memories that nature gifted their race, but apparently not ours.Making Nature better has always been the frame within which we have related to Her, and we still tolerate people talking about Her in that now-ubiquitous bureaucratic dialect —probably pioneered in 1937—when modern specialists who had better things to do wished to declare how they had gone the extra mile in helping mere fish and other such mere things.
There’s one thing about the Selway, though. A lot of its pieces are still here and relatively intact, thanks to the Wilderness Law. People who know it recognize it as part of the biggest contiguous wilderness area in the lower forty-eight states, and then they take that fact for granted. Most of us who are lucky enough to love the Selway (or at least can afford to float it and then learn to love it later) hardly notice the little lessons anymore because it’s such a relief to find such a big hunk of unroaded mountains anywhere in the world now. The little lessons are too hard to see, let alone the big ones that that are there every day, that the Land still gives.
Maybe her biggest lesson is that the remnants of this place remain in their nominally intact condition because of a few things that you can’t quite put your finger on. Maybe one of those things is that you can’t judge the past by simply remembering it. You need context, the grounded kind, the kind that only a relatively-intact piece of Land gives.
What’s fair to say about the Selway country is that everything is as steep as a cow’s face, including the learning curves of her lessons, which tend toward randomness, which is what actually saved it. It was the CCC boys who were called away to the war and to the good-paying defense jobs on the coast that gave the Land the reprieve it needed to be worth saving again, and again, and yet again. It’s certainly not nostalgia that saves big places like the Selway. It’s things like war, steepness, and a couple of other things.
There will always be dam boosters, just like there will always be art critics and pharaohs, and in 1941, after it was found that Bonneville’s turbines were killing the anadromous fingerlings trying to get past them on their way to the sea, the art critics started gaining their stride and the U.S. House Committee on Rivers and Harbors held a hearing on the status of migratory fish and the dams in the Pacific Northwest. Congressmen, acting within their ecological niche, were pushing for more dams, and they wanted reassurances. They brought in General Thomas Robins of the Corps to testify before their committee on the ticklish issue of the dying fingerlings. The Corps by this time had modified the turbines that were killing the fish by the millions just enough to say that they had done so, and General Robins got right to the point. He claimed that a mule could now safely pass through the turbines if it were outfitted with an oxygen tank, and that it has now been proven conclusively that the turbines were incapable of hurting the fish. Fish runs upstream at Bonneville, he further pointed out, had been the largest in thirty years. Congressman Homer Angell from The Dalles, where the next dam would eventually be built, wanted to help the colonel along, and he piped in that “the fish took to the ladders like a duck does to water.”The engineers, Angell declared, had “solved the problem”.
General Robins, whose intriguing challenge about scuba-diving mules making their way through dam turbines is still being studied by top-notch civil engineers around the world, did not disagree with the Congressman’s analogy, but he did finally offer the Committee his succinct, romantic observationin one perfectly symmetrical statementthat has stood the test of time:
“We have done all that could be done to take care of the fish. If they disappear it will be because of civilization and not because of the dam.”
Or Lake Bonneville, he could have added.
Two weeks after Charlie and Stewart gave the Lantzes a ride over into the Bitterroot, Charlie held true to his promise to the boy. He had a CCC kid paint the name “Stewart Creek” on a board, then had it nailed to a tree where the little creek poured into the culvert under the road.
“By god!” Stewart exclaimed, still surprised at how such little things stick while such big ones get away. “It got named Stewart Creek on the maps!”
And this is how Stewart Brandborg, the last surviving architect of the Wilderness Law, explained to anyone who asks why he spent so many decades in the swamps of Washington D.C., away from his beloved mountains, fighting the Fight in the old-time way his father had taught him.
“The imprint of that wonderful life. You don’t get over that.”
[i]Pinchot, Gifford, “The Use of the National Forest”, 1907
[ii]From a 4/25/16 conversation with Stewart M. Brandborg. Whether or not it was actually a Packard hasn’t been researched any further by the author.
[iv]Bundy, American Stewards, American Lands Council, etc.
[v]Fred Swanson, “The Bitterroot and Mr. Brandborg”