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,
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—
This river sings as it
sprays cool mist,
splashes rocks with
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.
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.
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.