Thousands of snow geese whirled above us, like a white river of birds, flowing from the northwest, eddying above us, and continuing until they disappeared into the cloud bank of the North Cascades.
We see snow geese in the lower Skagit Valley every winter, but we had never seen anything like this. On our way north a couple of weeks ago, we'd realized that this was no ordinary trip to the Skagit. Even before we reached the valley, we looked up and saw the sky filled with geese heading south, all flying in the same plane, grouped not in one large V but in many small ones, creating a long herringbone of birds across the sky.
Is this the way European Americans first saw the Pacific Northwest, when the sheer abundance of nature seemed staggering even by the standards of the early 19th century? It wasn't just the presence of big fish, big trees, and big birds that impressed them, but the stupendous numbers. When Lewis and Clark reached the Columbia River in the fall of 1805, thousands of salmon were swimming upstream to spawn, and the natives were drying them on scaffolding and rocks. The explorers had never seen anything like it. "(T)he number of dead Salmon . . . is incredible," Clark wrote. Forty-two years later, the artist Paul Kane saw the fish arrive at Kettle Falls in "one continuous body. . . more resembling a flock of birds than anything else in their extraordinary leap up the falls, beginning at sunrise and ceasing at the approach of night."
Some settlers realized early on that this Northwest abundance was more tenuous, more fragile than it looked. In 1884, C.W. Young, acting manager of the Port Blakely Mill Company, which operated perhaps the world's largest sawmill, not only saw the handwriting on the wall but sounded an early warning. In a letter to the home office in San Francisco, he wrote: "The timber contiguous to (Puget) Sound is nearly exhausted." Young wasn't speaking in absolute terms. He was talking about the finest straight-grained timber, the trees that were, by the elevated standards of the time, considered suitable for flooring. There were still a lot of trees. But they were the dregs. "The part remaining is such as was passed by in prior years."
By then, observers who focused on reality, rather than frontier illusion, saw that men fishing from rowboats in the Columbia River's broad estuary were starting to deplete the world's greatest chinook salmon runs. In the 1880s, a regional magazine observed that on the Columbia, the "large pack and the fact that the run of fish in July was very great are pointed to as evidences that the supply of salmon in the river is not becoming exhausted." However, "(t)o achieve this result a greater number of boats, larger nets and more assiduous fishing were necessary, and it is pretty certain that the proportion of salmon running in April, May and June, the ones which go to the headwaters and become the chief propagators, that escaped the miles of meshes spread for them, was very small. (I)n spite of the increase in the size of nets, the number of boats and the skill of the fishermen, the average caught by each boat has largely decreased."
Well into the 20th century, some people were still unaccountably surprised by what they had wrought. William Kittredge, who grew up on a ranch in central Oregon's Warner Valley in the 1930s and 1940s, has written that he and his family drained swamps, diked fields, and irrigated dry soil, turning the natural landscape into productive farmland. In their own minds, "we were doing God's labor and creating a good place on earth, living the pastoral yeoman dream. ... And then it all went dead, over years, but swiftly. You can imagine our surprise and despair, our sense of having been profoundly cheated. . . . We felt enormously betrayed. For so many years, through endless efforts, we had proceeded in good faith, and it turned out we had wrecked all we had not left untouched. The beloved migratory rafts of waterbirds, the green-headed mallards and the redheads and canvasbacks, the cinnamon teal and the great Canadian honkers, were mostly gone along with their swampland habitat."
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!