The main stem of the Columbia River has 14 dams on it, including the largest dam in the United States. Within the entire Columbia basin, more than 400 dams generate almost half of the hydropower in the US.
Ship locks at several dams and channel dredging allow navigation from the Pacific Ocean to Lewiston, Idaho – more than 400 miles inland.
In the late 1800s, half a million salmon were caught for canning and export in one season. Today four of the 400 dams have fish ladders.
The river irrigates 670,000 acres of sagebrush desert in Washington. As many as 100 illegal dams on private property irrigate an unknown number of additional acres.
Hanford, a Cold War plutonium production site, is the most contaminated nuclear site in the US. For 27 years radioactive cooling water from the eight plutonium production reactors was released back into the Columbia River. The federal government did not disclose this information until more than a decade after the discharge ceased.
Today, an estimated 270 billion gallons of groundwater have been contaminated by high-level nuclear waste that leaked from Hanford’s storage tanks. A million-gallon plume of that radioactive groundwater is expected to hit the Columbia River within the next 10 years at the earliest and 50 years at the latest.
I took this photo in the fading evening light of a typical Columbia River day. Train tracks, carrying coal and oil trains, parallel both banks; grain and coal barges ply its waters; Interstate 84 flanks its south shore; thousands of wind turbines, just visible on the far shore, stand sentinel to the north and south; the slow, warm, slack water impounded behind another dam holds fish that can’t move downstream fast enough and can’t move upstream at all; the final ingredient in the cocktail is three decades of nuclear waste in the water and sediments. The calm water and the pastel light are a lovely façade on a tenacious, living body of water that miraculously continues to survive.
Abandoned buildings have long held intrigue for me. Who built them and why did they leave? Where did the builders come from and how did they get there – were they escaping hardship elsewhere or pursuing the dream of their own land? Did they arrive by wagon train or on foot? Where did they go? Did they die in some tragic pioneer episode – botulism or a massacre? Did the wind or the loneliness drive someone mad enough to murder their family and walk off into the winter? Perhaps a more pleasant scenario, a bachelor farmer married the love of his life and moved to town. Or the family outgrew the honeymoon house and built a new home closer to water or in a more protected location. The possibilities are endless.
Then, of course, there is Monty Python. Yes, I know this sounds like a non-sequitur. Remember in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when they arrive at the cave where the Grail’s location is written on the wall? The cave is guarded by a most horrible monster with huge teeth.
As the knights sneak up to the cave and look upon the entrance they see a rabbit quietly grazing. The knight, aghast at the idea of fearing a rabbit, berates his squire, “You bloody tit! It’s a bunny rabbit.” The assault on the cave does not go well but eventually the knights prevail, the rabbit is slain, and the final words of the dying man who wrote the location of the grail are revealed. “The holy grail is in the castle of Aaaaaaaaaaah.” Unable to complete the sentence before dying, the man merely wrote his last gasp rather than the castle’s name.
This still makes me laugh. And I still quote this movie more often than I care to admit. I mean, sometimes it’s just necessary to exclaim, “She turned me into a newt!”
Right. Abandoned buildings. I often trespass. It’s not always intentional and it’s certainly never in the form of walking up to someone’s house and peering through the windows. Unless, of course, the house happens to be abandoned.
I’m fascinated by the construction, by the things left behind, the things that have moved in, the sounds, the views through the missing windows or the leaning doors, even the smells. I’ve found whole barn owl families, pack rats, phoebes, barn swallows, cows, horses, and trees living in abandoned houses, stoves with pots on them, closets with clothes still hanging, curtains at the windows, and pantries with dishes, bottles, and tins.
As I debated whether this particular building was too far from the road for relatively unobtrusive trespassing, a pickup stopped, the driver rolled down the window and told me I was welcome to take a look. Dilemma solved.
It was built with logs and had been expanded, the stacked logs of one structure butted against the cut logs of the addition. The roof had mostly collapsed and an elderberry shrub grew in the middle of a room up through the roof joists. Shreds of wallpaper hung in a few ragged sections – it was cloth with frayed edges and a delicate, pale green leafy pattern still visible.
There was a door between the old section with the log cabin-style stacked corners and the more recent addition. Picking my way through the litter on the floor and ducking under the fallen logs, I stepped through the door and slowly turned to view the whole room, to look out of the windows, to look back into the old house.
And then I saw that I was not alone.
A shiny black bunny eye and twitchy nose were the only giveaways. Perfectly colored and absolutely still, there was no display of huge teeth or horrible monsterness. Just a bunny hanging out above a door in an abandoned house. But… how did it get there? Where did it come from? Did its family get too big and expand into this new home? Maybe it was a bachelor bunny courting a cute girl bunny in a downstairs condo. And who knew rabbits could climb walls?
I took this photo for the sheer delight – it is not often you find a rabbit watching from above a door frame. There was no evidence of rabbit viciousness but, sadly, also no scrawled note telling me who the people were or where they had gone.
It is already true that one can be dropped on any commercial strip in the USA and have no idea where they are. Each is so much the same, so not unique, that Chattanooga and Bakersfield look much the same. We have eradicated the prairies, slaughtered the forests, and filled the wetlands, must we also quash the individuality of the national monuments and make them conform to the ideals of capitalism, consumerism, and corporate expansion? What of calm, contentment, and courage to step outside of the box, to appreciate the subtle realm of time, space, and light that is not under our control? Where will we go for peace when we have used up all that is wild?
You have seen my photos over the last year. Many of those photos were taken in national monuments (including the two on this page). If you enjoyed my meager attempts at conveying the intensity of these landscapes, you will enjoy this (free ebook) photographic journey through the national monuments by exquisite landscape photographers
Each year about this time I send a review of the year in photos I’ve taken along the way to people I know and love. It’s my annual Solstice letter without all the words, short and sweet. Below is this year’s installment. I offer this with gratitude for the people I do not yet know and love but who find the energy to spend time with me here. I hope it takes you on roads you have not taken enough this year.
Walla Walla impossible green
Mount Hood through the oaks of Washington
Blue and yellow make green
Desert virga, California
Dragonfly, North Dakota
Full circle, North Dakota
Travelers: Monarch butterfly, tamarisk, and the Cimarron River, Oklahoma
Evening glow, California
Grizzly River bowl, California
Crater Lake morning, Oregon
Fire sunset, Steens Mountain, Oregon
Mars-wanna-be, the Sun, during fire season on planet Earth
In 1997 I moved from western Massachusetts to Maine. Several people asked me, “Are you going to get a gun?” I laughed. I thought this was an odd question.
When I left Maine to work in Alaska, many people told me, “You better get a gun.” I guess Alaska is a scary place relative to Maine.
After that summer in Alaska, I spent the winter in Utah. I went back to Alaska the next summer and then worked in Wyoming the following winter. I moved to Montana. Each step along the way, people said the same thing, “ You better start packin’.”
I left Montana and moved to eastern Washington State. My boyfriend at the time gave me his shotgun. It remained in the back corner of a closet until we broke up and he asked me to return it.
Now, I am leaving Washington. I have bought a camper for the bed of my pick-up and plan to spend a few months, maybe years, cruising around to the many places I haven’t had time to visit during other busy travels. And, once again, people have begun asking me if I have a gun or if I am going to get one.
I have never owned a gun. I have used them for clay pigeon shooting on occasion, I have carried one as a mandatory safety precaution in polar bear country, I shot at woodchucks when I was a teenager.
How many school shootings, mass shootings, random shootings have there been this year? How many people have been killed in the U.S. this year by a gun, self-inflicted, accidental, or intended?
I’m not anti-gun. I don’t think gun control will resolve all of the insanity of our society.
I may lead a charmed life.
I choose to step into the world unarmed. I believe that adding a gun to my travel gear will not make me safer.
Rather, I believe that choosing not to carry a gun will make the world safer.