Category Archives: Life on the Skagit River

Dreams of Ambrosia

When spring rains cease and school adjourns,
we’ll take an old tin pail and swing it by the bail.
With Peggy-Dog at our heels, we’ll race
through the gate and down the path
to the river bottom pasture, where
cottonwood catkins drift as snow.

We’ll scamper and pick and eat our share
of little wild strawberries, woodland berries,
growing in the sand-covered moss where
beetle-bugs hide, as we dream of baking powder
biscuits piled high with God’s own fruit—
delicate and gritty, smothered in thick new cream.
North Cascade Mountains, Washington

Gyppo Logger

When the 20th century was was young and timber claims new, Tom Porter split shingle bolts and sled them to the river. At high water, he floated them to mills on the Puget Sound. He felled the old growth firs, selected prime logs. The rest nursed hemlock and maple. Steam-spewing engines tugged and strained mainlines onto drums, skidding each log through underbrush and loading it onto hard-tired trucks on pole roads.

The War is over, now. This quarter section is Dad’s, to grub, to claim, hopefully, to farm.

I’m fourteen, my brother’s ten. We’re gyppo loggers, two boys and their dad, ignoring age and safety laws—equipment scrounged from scrap heaps and abandoned sites.

Valley fog is thick, freezes our limbs and evergreen foliage. We chop and clear decades of roots and decay smothering long butts to salvage one short log. On hands and knees, then bellies, ignoring mud and ice-encrusted clothes, we burrow like jackrabbits until we can stick one arm under a log. With all the strength two kids can muster, we tug on the haulback line, pulling slack in the mainline, trying to get it closer to our log. I unshackle a choker from the buttrigging between mainline and haulback. My soaked gloves stick to the icy steel.

We throw a choker over the log. Push its knob-end into its bell. It slips in my fumbling fingers. We slide the cable a half-turn on the log. Shackle it to the buttrigging.

I climb on the log, stretch to my tiptoes. Signal “Go Ahead!” to Dad standing on a donkey skid at the landing.

He fires up the little Model A engine, shifts into first gear, slowly tightens the mainline. We hold our breath. The log rolls free, inches towards the landing. There’s very little lift from a bullblock halfway up a spar tree.

There’s no romance, no money, no future in gyppo logging. There must be a better job in February.

Devil’s Club Walking Stick

Some say that when you find a topic that catches your eye, you will write about it in different ways once, twice, thrice, maybe nine! Here’s one I’ve written as prose and now as poetry. Each time, it is the memory that I wish to convey.

An elder speaks in solemn tones:

In spring when leaves are full
and bark slips away,
select a stalk of devil’s club.

Cut it to fit your grip.

Carefully peel the evil thorns.

For a season, cure the naked staff.           


Use a shoulder blade of a deer,

to bone it smooth and dense.

Wrap your handhold with rawhide,

string amulets of beads and hips.


Quietly, take your walking stick

through the river’s shadowy thickets.

Listen as the inner spirit speaks.

Feel your walking stick’s magic

as the evil spirits steal away.


Quelcid, S’Klallam Elder, Teaches Us

As it appears in the Winter 2012 edition of Clover: A Literary Rag.

Quelcid, S’Klallam elder, teaches us to make walking sticks. She beats her deerskin drum and sings: Pick a devil’s club, peeled andcured, that fits your stature. Bone it with a table knife, as my ancestors boned it with a deer’s shoulder blade. Wrap the grip with rawhide. Hang on it amulets of rosehips and beads.

To touch diabolical “devil’s
clubs,” Oplopanax horridum causes me to shudder. With each stroke of the table knife, I remember horse-logging with Dad and my brother Jim on the back of our place in the Upper Skagit River Valley. I remember “swamping out” trails through devil’s club and vine maple before each tree was felled, and whacking out horse trails to drag the logs out to the truck.

I remember Jim bending the green devil’sclub stem, then letting go as I swung my ax. Up it would spring, slapping thorns into each of us, driving them through our worn-out gloves. Always, as we were pulling thorns out of our hands, dad and the team would show up, impatient and disgusted at his teenage helpers.From Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound to Vancouver Island and the Puget Sound, indigenous people have for centuries, burnt, carved, ground, mixed, painted, plastered, rubbed, steamed, tattooed, and infused roots, stems, inner bark, and berries of this genus of ginseng, sometimes with thistles, black hawthorn, prince’s pine, cascara, and bear grease, for medicine, magic, and fishing lures.

And now to the beat of her drum, Quelcid sings: Take your walking stick. Go quietly through shadowy thickets to the river’s edge. Listen for its inner spirit speaking to a shaman, his face painted with bear grease and ash. Evil spirits know the magic, they will sneak away.

Winter Chores During WWII

     This is one anecdote in an anecdotal childhood. No overarching meaning or underlying theme, no fatherson conflict, no prepubescence struggle; it is just an incident that if aggregated with those of similar youths, becomes a picture of growing up in the time and place.
     This barn was built be Tom Porter in 1912; the field is the one I crossed to go home when the fences were split cedar posts and barbed wire; and we had an excessive snow storm in Dec.-Jan., 1944-45.

                          Winter Chores During WWII

Six animals in their stanchions. Mangers filled. Freshly bedded. Gutter emptied. Shit-splattered floor scraped clean.

It’s a warm, moist, bovine world in this old barn. Temp will drop to ten tonight.

A pale moon, almost white, rises over Porter Mountain, cast the barn’s long shadow over its yard, down the bank, and onto the field below.

High above Sauk Mountain, Queen Cassiopeia and “Big Bear” dance around North Star.

Snow covers ground. Path through the field packed. Been there a week. No rain. A miracle.. No slush. Splashing girls at school is fun, splashing in the barnyard, not.

When the Skagit is high, the meadow swales in the old river bed pond. When a northeaster blows, enough ice freezes for kids to play. Don’t let Mom or Dad find out, or fall in.

Crystalline droplets glisten on straw poking through crusty snow. Ice settling on swale slopes crack. I’ll follow a fencerow home. I can almost see it from here.

William Stafford Tribute, 2013

In my introductory remarks at the William Stafford Tribute, I noted that Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen and Jack Kerouac spent summers in the Upper Skagit River Valley working for the US Forest Service as fire lookouts, and that Robert Sund lived most of his life in the lower valley. I don’t know how long William Stafford lingered in the valley; his footprint is mostly in the Methow River Valley on the eastern slope of the North Cascades.

Did I meet them? No. I moved with my parents to a primitive cabin on the banks of the Cascade River in 1935; lived there for a few months before moving to Rockport, then across the river. I left the upper valley after graduating from high school in 1951, before any of these men arrived.

I read the following at the tribute at Village Books in Fairhaven, Bellingham, WA, on January 17.


“I like to live in the sound of water,

in the feel of mountain air. A sharp

reminder hits me: this world still is alive;

it stretches out there shivering toward it own

creation, and I’m a part of it. …”

—William Stafford, Time for Serenity, Anyone?


            
            Born in Ice

Born in ice melts and trickling creeks,

the Skagit rushes out of Canada

through gorges, faults, breached ice-age

moraines and magma,

grows in voice and spirit

as it flows to the Sound.

Raven, salmon, eagle and The-People-of-The-River

were one in word

before King-George-People and their books,

sought to make The-River their own.

With magnanimity,

The-River has borne evils

of ditches, dikes, and dams.

When leaves rustle golden,

it calls Wind-Spirit and Rain-Spirit

to return Valley-Spirit;

and when creeks quicken and fawns drop,

it calls Shaman Spirit

 to awaken from dreaming-sleep

and return The-Valley

to days before the world changed.

Skagit River, B.C.-WA

On April 28, 1996, I read “How This Eagle Came To Be” during the ceremony when an eagle carved in cedar was presented to the North Cascades National Park in memory of my mother’s friend, Marge Martin Emmons, a member of the Upper Skagit Tribe. It was dedicated in the North Cascades Interpretive Center, Newhalem, WA, a few hundred yards from her birthplace on the Skagit River. Born in July when twinflowers were blooming, she was a lifelong nurse, dying when winter’s darkness was leaving the valley.

 

How This Eagle Came To Be

 for  Marge Martin Emmons, Upper Skagit Tribe

 July 21, 1914-April 22, 1995.

 

A long time ago—

The Skagit splashed on rocks where wild goats fed,

Eagles rested in cottonwoods by quiet waters.

All beings spoke one tongue.

First-People and animals lived in harmony.

 

One day, Creator came to this place—

Sun was smiling.  Clouds were sleeping.

Wind was touching twinflowers, tasting berries.

An eaglet danced in her virgin feathers.

 

Creator sang—

This eagle will soar over clouds,

Sing a caring song for all people,

Follow prophets to far mountains and rivers.

Gentle and wise, mindful of righteous paths,

She will see beyond horizons and tiny stones.

My spirit will be in her.


Then Creator said—

In the days when darkness leaves this valley,

When rain dances on the snow

And forget-me-nots are kissed by the dew,

This eagle will fly to her cedar tree,

To a totem crowned for eternity.

Her spirit will be forever free.

North Cascades Mountains

     Newhalem, WA


Never Been in a Canoe

“Get in!”

Marcus hollers over a deafening river.

“We’re goin’ wid’out chuh.”

“Hurry up, chicken shit,” Frank yells!

 

Marcus, fourteen, staggers

to keep his footing in the canoe bow,

leans on the pole he thrust into shallows

until it bends, holding the canoe in place.

 

Frank, thirteen, in the stern,

teeters in a wobbly balance,

pushes his pole downward

to steady the cedar shell.

 

I wade into water slapping

my knees. Grab the gunnel.

I’m almost nine, never been in a canoe.

“’Not chicken shit,” I whimper.

 

I glance at the river—

an uprooted cottonwood is diving,

rolling in the current,

coming right at us.

I look down. Shiver.

Blurt,

“It’s not yours! You

dragged it out of the brush.”

 

“Damn it, chicken shit.

Get in!”

                    Upper Skagit River

          Rockport, WA


        Summer Shower

I lay here in the semi-light of our cabin’s loft,

dreaming to the rhythm of a summer shower

raining on moss-chinked cedar shakes,

collecting in rivulets coursing the pitch,

dropping softly on June roses,

drumming rhubarb leaves.


If it stops, Dad will call me

to the pasture to auger holes

for hand-split posts replacing

those homesteaders planted,

now rotted in the ground,

no longer defending hay meadows

with rusting, sagging, barbed wire.

    South side of the Skagit River

             Rockport, WA


Summer Shower

          
Which form works best: lined or prose?


  
Summer Shower

I lay here in the semi-light of our cabin’s loft,

dreaming to the rhythm of a summer shower

raining on moss-chinked cedar shakes,

collecting in rivulets coursing the pitch,

dropping softly on June roses,

drumming elephantine rhubarb.


If it stops, Dad will call me
to the pasture
to auger holes
for hand-split posts to
replace
those homesteaders planted,

now rotted in the ground,

no longer defending hay meadows

with rusting, sagging, barbed wire.

             South side of the Skagit River

                      Rockport, WA

Summer Shower

I lay here in the semi-light of our cabin’s loft, dreaming to the rhythm of a summer shower raining on moss-chinked cedar shakes, collecting in rivulets coursing the pitch, dropping softly on June roses, drumming elephantine rhubarb.

If it stops, Dad will call me to the pasture to auger holes for hand-split posts replacing those homesteaders planted, now rotted to the ground, no longer defending the hay meadows with rusting, sagging barbed wire.
                                                                               South side of Skagit River
                                                                                             Rockport, WA

Midstream (Chapbook)


Midstream
on the upper Skagit River, a Wild and Scenic River

Richard Lee “Dick” Harris

You surmised correctly. I am a poet of place, grounded in the Upper Skagit River Valley in the Cascade Mountains of Northwest Washington State who appreciates the grandeur of nature. I did enjoy fishing and owned a boat—an aluminum canoe with a quarter-horse electric trolling motor. Two years at Boy Scout camp and still I could only swim a few strokes. The boys who taunted me pulled me from a river backwater as I was drowning.

As you interact with my words you will learn that my growing up in log cabins without electricity, indoor plumbing, or running water, in an isolated culture of backwoods loggers and Native Americans in the Upper Skagit River Valley shaped my perceptions and language; and from this valley, I wandered through much of the world observing the significance and uniqueness of ordinary experiences, their relationship to the natural world, and clash of cultures.

******

Born in ice melts and trickling creeks, the Skagit River rushes through gorges, faults, breached ice age moraines and magma, growing in voice and spirit as it flows to the Sound. Raven, salmon, eagles and The-People-of-The-River were one in word and spirit before Chechacos, King-George-People, and their books, sought to make The-River their own.

With magnanimity, The-River has borne the evils of their ditches, dikes, and dams. When leaves rustle golden, it calls Wind-Spirit and Rain-Spirit to return Valley-Spirit; and when creeks quicken and fawns drop, it calls Shaman Spirit to awaken from dreaming-sleep and restore the The-Valley to days before the world changed.

******

In the season of advent, in the days of long nights, storms sweep our valley with moisture laden clouds streaming fog and mist over sandbars and sloughs and lifting their disgorged masses over the North Cascades. Eroded windfalls and flotsam careen and crash in the river’s turbulence. Leafless cottonwoods and shallow-rooted hemlocks torn from saturated earth and duff-laden sponge dive and bob in undulating arrhythmia. Roots skeletonized into filigreed tendrils spew frothy wakes of dirt and rocks.

These storms happened when The-People-of-the-River spoke many tongues and the river ran both ways. And, they will happen again.

******         

 

This River Sings


Snow, avalanche, and scree;

creeks, ponds, and seeps,

collect in reverberating rush,

cascade in mountain pools,

eddies glazed undercurrents.

 

Mosquitoes and deerflies,

humorless protein,

psalmic multitudes,

survive winter’s minus.

Spring, tempered and wet,

its creeks quicken and swirl.

Tawny duff and flecks of sun

conceal newly dropped fawns.

 

Eagle, salmon, and raven

sing this river’s song—

sing as it flows—

            dammed,

        tunneled,

               diverted!


This river sings as it

sprays cool mist,

splashes rocks with

syncopated rim-shots.


Cottonwoods rustle in tenor,

maples in baritone,

as softly this river sings

through mist and fog.

 

Softly, its spirits sing


of a mountain’s ashes

rising in evening drafts.

 

Wild and free, this river sings.

******

Chak-Chak, the Skagit Bald Eagle


Perched in an old-growth forest,

Chak-Chak rouses. In morning light,

Scans the river with piercing eyes,

Searches sandy bars for dying chum.


Chak-Chak
breaks silence,

Soars from Sauk Mountain,

Drifts Washington Eddy;

Glides the river’s course.


Chak-Chak
skims shimmering water,

Clutches a floundering salmon,

Settles on a backwash beach,

Feeds on his catch.


Perched in barren cottonwoods,

On the south bank where the wild Skagit bends,

Chak-Chak, in stoic dignity,

Basks in warm afternoon sun.


Chak-Chak
calls his mate.

Wings extended, talons interlocked

In descending flight, they tumble,

Somersaulting earthward, breaking skyward.


Before evening shadows deepen,

Purple hues of dusk chase the day.

Chak-Chak catches an ascending draft

To his nightly roost—and slips away.

******



Insensitive that I can’t swim

or my parents’ orders,

my peers taunt me,

“Damn it, chicken shit.

Get in!”

With adolescent derring-do,

they defy undercurrents

to swim eddies.

I look down in humility,

count pebbles in the gravel

and dream of elsewhere.

******



I drive into the North Cascades
following scenic Skagit River past civilization’s blight to celebrate its wildness. I gaze in awe this fleeting moment at snowy ridges and glacial slopes, alpine lakes and hanging valleys, traces of ice from eons ago. I see barren hills stripped of hemlock, cedar and fir, dammed rivers, meadows without life, mountains raped for gold.

Others, too, have seen this blind greed and wanton scarring, destroying the spirit of this beloved land.

******

 Eagle Feathers and Rainbow

Looking at you now, Imogene, in your
cradle of lasting years, I see you in
our picture on the steps of Rockport School,
two rooms at the foot of your family’s

sacred mountain by the river of your
tribe, so many years ago. You are
the pumpkin-faced first grader wearing
a simple wash-dress in the first row,

                                                                                  

so sober under your freshly combed hair

and new barrette, Imogene. I’m a second-

grader behind you, all frowns and ears sticking

out, my hair slicked-down. I loved your name,


Imogene … Imogene. You see,

I still sing it. In minutes now, elders

will carry you away, to lower you

into an earthly bed under boughs of


cedar and snow on your sacred

mountain. As darkness hovers, Imogene,

your spirit will rise, an eagle passing

through a rainbow above the river.

******



Quelcid, Native American elder, teaches us to make
walking sticks.  She beats her deerskin drum and sings: Pick a devil’s club, peeled andcured, that fits your stature.  Bone it with a table knife, as my ancestors boned it with a deer’s shoulder blade.  Wrap the grip with rawhide.  Hang on it amulets of rosehips and beads.

To touch diabolical “devil’s
clubs,” Oplopanax horridum causes me to shudder.  With each stroke of the table knife, I remember horse-logging with Dad and my brother Jim on the back of our place.  I remember “swamping out” trails through devil’s club and vine maple before each tree was felled, and whacking out horse trails to drag the logs out to the truck.

I remember Jim bending the green stem, then letting go as I swung my ax. Up it would spring, slapping thorns into each of us, driving them through our worn-out gloves. Always, as we were pulling thorns out of our hands, dad and the team would show up, impatient and disgusted at his teenage helpers.From Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound to Vancouver Island and the Puget Sound, indigenous people have for centuries, burnt, carved, ground, mixed, painted, plastered, rubbed, steamed, tattooed, and infused roots, stems, inner bark, and berries of this genus of ginseng, sometimes with thistles, black hawthorn, prince’s pine, cascara, and bear grease, for medicine, magic, and fishing lures.

 And now to the beat of her drum, Quelcid sings: Take your walking stick.  Go quietly through shadowy thickets to the river’s edge.  Listen for its inner spirit speaking to a shaman, his face painted with bear grease and ash.  Evil spirits know its magic, they will sneak away.

******

Decades later, a thousand miles north, I walk along a River Road and the tidelands as the Chilkat River melds into Lynn Canal and the afternoon shadows of the Chilkat Range. I stroll past dandelions in multiple bouquets and remnants of snow in the off ditch decorated with florescent swamp lanterns, my winter coat over my shoulder.

Lunch is freshly caught trout and newly picked beach greens; dessert, spring’s first rhubarb.

Politics are with the crew at the Main Street intersection where the temperature is 57 degrees, Fahrenheit, filling chuckholes and replacing collapsing sewers. God is in the pantheist totem on the path between Mountain Market and the town library celebrating “where they go to learn by themselves.”

Only the eagle sees beyond the glaciers.

******




Endnotes

Skagit is pronounced SKAJ-it.

“Cheechako paddling shovel-nosed canoe, midstream Skagit River near Rockport ferry crossing” (Cover photo, circa 1920, from family collection).

Cheechako is Chinook Jargon combining Lower Chinook “right away” and Nootka “come” into “new comer.”

Born in ice melts and trickling ….” See “When the River Ran Both Ways,” Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009, (2010).

In the season of advent, in the days of long nights ….” See “Signs of Winter,” Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009, (2010).

“This River Sings” came to mind while I was sitting on the banks of the Skagit River at Rockport waiting for the celebration of life for my brother Marvin L. “Jim” Harris, 1937-2009, to begin. Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (2010); Phrasings In Word and Dance 2010 (spoken and dance); Chuckanut Sandstone Review, 2010; www.skagitriverjournal.com.

 “Chak-Chak, The Skagit Bald Eagle.” See backstory, Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (2010); p. 20, Concrete Herald, May 2010. Pencil sketch by Helen Harris.

“Eagle Feathers and Rainbow” is dedicated to Imogene Washington Bowen, 1935-2007, elder, Upper Skagit Tribe. Imogene is pronounced ΄Īm-ŭ-‘jēn. Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (2010).

“Quelcid, Native American elder, ….” Photo by Helen Harris.

“Decades later, a thousand miles north, ….” “Chilkat Range in the Morning” photo by RLH.

Collins, June McCormick. Valley of the Spirits: The Upper Skagit Indians of Western Washington (1974).

Hilbert, Vi, Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound. (1985).

Midstream was drafted in Generating & Editing Poems for Publication, an Iowa Summer Writing Festival workshop, June 9-15, 2012, led by Richard Jackson, UT Chattanooga.

Bedtime reading

    My bedtime reading has always been kind of a ritual. Currently, I read a poem, if it is a page or shorter, followed by a couple pages of prose. That is, if I don’t fall asleep first. Right now I am rereading William Stafford’s ‘Even in Quiet Places,’ poems collected from several chapbooks that his son Kim and several associates made after Stafford’s death. I’m particularly attracted to ‘The Methow River Poems.’ For prose, I’m rereading ‘In Pharaoh’s Army,’ Tobias Wolff’s memoir of the Viet Nam War.
    Both of these writers share my valley, the Upper Skagit, with me. Stafford wrote some of his last poems at the request of two forest rangers as he traveled over the North Cascade Highway; and Wolff is an alumnus of my high school, Concrete HS. Two cautions: He came about 20 years after me and ‘This Boy’s Life’ is a highly imaginative memoir and the movie even more so.
    What is on your bed stand?