Archive for the ‘history’ Tag

The Cascades III: Mount Rainier, Part 2   18 comments

Good morning Mount Rainier!  Reflection Lakes.

Good morning Mount Rainier! Reflection Lakes.

What’s in a Name?

Geographic place names are a frequent bone of contention.  In North America, we have a push-pull between those who want to retain the names for mountains, rivers and the like that were given by the first white explorers, and those who want to use the native American names.  It is really a slap in the face to native tribes that we don’t use the names of places they often regard as sacred.  But there is a strong inertia at work as well.  The U.S. Board of Geographic Names (BGN) is quite the staid, traditional organization.  The issue can get people’s blood boiling in a hurry.  And that’s not even counting all the racially-offensive place names, the Squaw Buttes of the world.

The Nisqually River Valley at Mount Rainier is filled with low clouds at dusk.

The Nisqually River Valley at Mount Rainier is filled with low clouds at dusk.

Mount Rainier in the past definitely illustrated this tension.  As mentioned in Part 1 the mountain was named for a rear admiral, a friend of Captain Vancouver (who led the first forays of white explorers up the Columbia River).  The name is typical of Cascade mountains. Many were named after the friends and backers of some of the first expeditions to explore the Pacific Northwest, others for presidents.  The Puyallup, a local native tribe, called the mountain Talol, or Tahoma (Tacoma).  This probably means “source of waters”, but also could be a general term for all snow-capped peaks.  Herein lies the problem with native American names, one reason for the BGNs reluctance to change names.  Often it is not at all clear what the meaning of a Native American name is.  Also, different tribes often use different names for the same place.

A young buck at Mount Rainier National Park.

A young buck at Mount Rainier National Park.

During the late 1800s, the city of Tacoma lobbied hard to get the nearby mountain’s name changed to Tacoma.  Seattle, then a rival, wanted to leave the name as it was.  The debate reached fever pitch in the latter years of the 19th century when the mountain was being considered for National Park status.  Tacoma’s civic leaders figured (correctly) that a name change would bring tourism, money and prestige to their small city.  Even President William McKinley, who signed the park into existence, weighed in.  Perhaps predictably, he favored keeping the name Rainier.  A president’s opinion matters, so the park was named Mount Rainier and the mountain’s name stayed the same.

A small waterfall plunges down a narrow verdant ravine at Mount Rainier.

A small waterfall plunges down a narrow verdant ravine at Mount Rainier.

Flying Saucers of Mount Rainier

In the summer of 1947, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold was flying near Mount Rainier.  He had detoured during a business trip to look for the site of a recent crash of a military transport plane (there was a $5000 reward).  Suddenly he sighted flashing lights, then discovered they were coming from several strange flying objects near the mountain.  He saw some disk- or crescent-shaped objects that were flying en echelon, darting around mountains and into valleys at high speed.

He watched them for quite some time, flying in parallel but losing ground to them fast. He calculated their speed by timing their passage between Mounts Rainier and Adams and came up with 1700 mph (2700 km/h).  This was more than three times faster than any known aircraft.  Arnold told his story to the folks at the hangar in Yakima where he landed to refuel. The word spread quickly.  When he was interviewed by journalists, and later by the Army, he came across as a very careful observer who was not exaggerating.

I too happened to have a sighting!

I too happened to have a sighting!

Arnold did not compare the flying objects’ shapes to saucers.  He actually said they looked more like half-discs, or a pie plate cut in half, convex in the rear and longer than they were wide.  He told people they flew like a saucer or disk skipping over water.  But the term flying saucer was used in newspapers and the name stuck.  This was the first documented sighting of a UFO in the modern era.  There were many sightings over the next few weeks in the same region, many from very reliable observers.

Did Arnold see craft visiting from an advanced space-faring civilization?  He didn’t think so, at least at first.  He thought they were a new top secret aircraft being developed by the military. But he soon came to doubt that.  For one thing, the speed of the turns as they dipped and weaved would not have allowed a human to survive inside.  Although he noted the possibility of their being remote-controlled, he also had estimated their size as larger than a DC4 (a very large craft to be remote-controlled).  Later investigation by the Army turned up several other witnesses (a fire lookout, a prospector) that saw similar objects in the same area at the same time.

Night Sky at Rainier:  Did a delegation come from a planet orbiting one of these stars?

Night Sky at Rainier: Did a delegation come from a planet orbiting one of these stars?

This event affected Arnold’s life significantly.  He loathed the publicity it brought.  He was both labeled a loony and contacted by many people who believed in visitors from space. He could not understand, with the amount of concern and interest among the public, why the military would not have come clean if the objects were theirs.  Ultimately he seriously entertained the possibility of them being extraterrestrial in origin.

This sighting was followed by hundreds of reports from around the world, 850 or so from that same year.  Not long after the Arnold sighting, 9 UFOs in Idaho were spotted by a crew on a United Airlines jet, and this received much more media coverage than did Arnold’s.  It was during that same summer of 1947 that the public learned of the Roswell incident, the most famous UFO incident in history.

The Milky Way is easily visible from high up on the slopes of Mount Rainier in Washington.

The Milky Way is easily visible from high up on the slopes of Mount Rainier in Washington.

Was Ken Arnold first to see the vanguard of an exploratory mission of some advanced extraterrestrial intelligence?  Did he glimpse advanced military technology? Or did his sighting simply open the floodgates of the public’s imagination, a public primed for this?  It was early in the Cold War and the technology revolution (especially in aerospace) was just then going into hyperdrive.  The sound barrier had not been broken yet, and the speed of these objects were a big part of what captured the public’s attention.  It’s interesting to think about.  But one thing is clear: if those saucers were actually extraterrestrial, then Spielberg had it wrong in Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind.  It was not Devil’s Tower that the aliens picked to visit first but Mount Rainier!

Mount Rainier in alpenglow.

Mount Rainier in alpenglow.

The Palouse III – Loess & Farming   1 comment

The classic view of the Palouse from atop Steptoe Butte in eastern Washington.

The classic view of the Palouse from atop Steptoe Butte in eastern Washington.

I just returned from a trip to southeastern Washington.  The Palouse region north of the Snake River and stretching along the Idaho border was my prime destination.  Among landscape photographers, the Palouse is justifiably famous for its unique landscape of rolling, wave-like fields of wheat.  It is a very rich farming region, primarily known for its dryland wheat.  But it’s also one of the world’s premier lentil-growing regions.

As is the case for most of our planet’s resources, where and how we take advantage of the bounty is dictated by geology and geography.  This is especially true of farming.  The Palouse bears a lot of resemblance to other rich farming regions in the world in at least two respects: it is relatively flat and it’s covered in a special kind of silt called loess.  You can pronounce loess anyway you want.  But perhaps Lois is best reserved for some women by that name.  Most people in the know pronounce it somewhere between loose and lus, sort of luhs.  Brits put an r in there right before the s.

Some of the terrain in the Palouse of eastern Washington is left golden-bare even in late spring when most everything is vibrant green.

Some of the terrain in the Palouse of eastern Washington is left golden-bare even in late spring when most everything is vibrant green.

Loess is a windblown silt found in many places throughout the world.  It is made of angular pieces of rocks and minerals somewhat finer than sand.  It forms such rich soils because the minerals in it are diverse.  This is not always the case with fine debris deposited on the earth’s surface, but loess is special.

It is a gift of the Ice Ages.  All over the world, when glaciers retreated (both after the last time 10,000 years ago and during previous retreats), the fine debris scoured from the various rocks that the ice passed over was left bare.  Winds picked up this silt and sand and deposited it downwind, often far downwind.  Natural depressions, the base of mountains, or anywhere that wind speed drops, were natural places for loess to be deposited.

In springtime, wildflowers bloom on Kamiak Butte in the Palouse.

In springtime, wildflowers bloom on Kamiak Butte in the Palouse.

In the case of the Palouse, loess from the Ringold Formation and from glacial deposits exposed to the west and south was blown in and deposited essentially in dunes.  This is a big reason for the wave-like nature of the landscape.  It accumulated during the drier and windier climates between glacial advances, and did so for over a million years.  The loess in the Palouse reaches up to 200 feet thick in places.

Two little extra features of the loess deposits found in the Palouse help to make it such a rich dryland farming region.  For one, the Cascade volcanoes to the west occasionally supplied layers of ash into the mix.  This ash not only adds to the mineralogical diversity (and thus the richness of the resulting soil) but is also very good at holding water.  The Palouse soils are famous for their ability to hold onto the modest amount of water they receive.

The wheatfields of the Palouse in eastern Washington on the north side of Kamiak Butte.

The wheatfields of the Palouse in eastern Washington on the north side of Kamiak Butte.

The second feature is another happy coincidence.  The topmost loess deposits, blown in after the last glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, also happen to be among the most diverse minerals-wise.  So they support the richest soils.  Mount Mazama in Oregon (now Crater Lake) blew its top 6700 years ago and its ash is prominently represented in these latest Palouse loess deposits.

So farmers have it good in the Palouse, growing their crops on a landscape covered in especially rich soils that hold water well.  There is one little problem though: these latest loess deposits are also the most prone to loss through erosion and poor management.  Just like so many agricultural areas in the world, this one requires careful management practices to conserve the precious soil.

Wind turbines are situated along the crest of a ridge in the Palouse, Washington.

Wind turbines are situated along the crest of a ridge in the Palouse, Washington.

The geologic story does not end here though.  The loess deposited in long wave-like dunes originally extended far to the west of where you find it today.  If you head west from the Palouse you run right out of rich dryland wheat country and into a different terrain altogether.  This is the so-called channeled scablands, spectacular result of the great Missoula Floods of the last Ice Age.  I will cover this great story in a coming post; suffice it to say these floods removed much of the region’s rich loess before human farmers ever got the chance to farm it.

A group of mergansers rides the Palouse River downstream near the town of the same name in Washington state.

A group of mergansers rides the Palouse River downstream near the town of the same name in Washington state.

People have been farming here since the late 1800s.  In the 1880s there was a land-boom after dryland wheat farming was proved valid in the previously settled Walla Walla area to the south.  In fact, the last decades of the 19th century saw far more people living here than lived in the Puget Sound region to the west.  Now of course it’s the opposite.  The Palouse is sparsely populated while the Puget Sound has Seattle, Microsoft and traffic nightmares.  There are signs of new growth here, as some people tire of the rat race and move here, expanding the suburbs of large towns like Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho into prime agricultural lands.

The empty Palouse of eastern Washington at sunrise is all wheatfields and sky.

The empty Palouse of eastern Washington at sunrise is all wheatfields and sky.

But for now the Palouse remains a quiet, peaceful place where open spaces are the rule.  Stand atop Steptoe or Kamiak Butte and look out on the endless waves, bright green in early summer and golden brown in autumn.  You’ll only see scattered farmhouses, a few barns, a few two-lane roads with little traffic.  It’s a gorgeous setting, especially at sunset when the shadows are long, bringing out the unique textures and look of the place.  I will surely be coming back.

Thanks for reading.  Stay tuned for more on eastern Washington in the next post.  Hope you enjoy the images.  Please be aware they are copyrighted and not available to download for free without my permission.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  If interested in one of the images, just click it to get purchase options.  Thanks for reading!

A solitary clump of blooming lupine decorates a piece of bunchgrass prairie in the Palouse, Washington.

A solitary clump of blooming lupine decorates a piece of bunchgrass prairie in the Palouse, Washington.

Russia in America   2 comments

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation of North America in the early 1800s, is located on the northern California Coast.

Fort Ross, the only evidence of Russian occupation in North America south of their territory in Alaska, is located on the northern California Coast.

An often-forgotten chapter of the American West’s history concerns the “Russian occupation”.  In the early 1800s, not long after Lewis and Clark completed their journey to the Pacific Coast (thus cementing America’s claim to western North America), the Russians made their way down the coast from Alaska.  At the time it was mostly about support for their Alaska territory, but it’s believed that the Tsar probably had ideas of imperial expansion.

They set up shop on the northern California coast.  On a broad terrace sitting well above the Pacific they built a very fine fort.  They established two villages, one for Russians, the other for Native Americans.  Native groups living and working there were Californians and Creoles (mixed Russian-Native).  Aleuts from Alaska were brought to help hunt sea mammals, among other chores.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

This wooden chapel at Fort Ross State Historic Park in California is a rebuilt version of the original.

The fort and settlement were constructed not by the Russian government but by a private fur-trading company, the Russian American Co.  The site is now protected within the Fort Ross State Historic Park.  The park is located along the Pacific Coastal Highway (Hwy. 1) a bit more than two hour’s drive north of San Francisco.

The roof of Fort Ross's chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The roof of Fort Ross’s chapel does not exactly soar like the onion domes back home, but the Russians who occupied the site took some care in construction of their place of worship.

The reason the Russians came here from Alaska?  Food.  Their settlements in Alaska were consistently running short of food, and the Spanish missions in California grew an overabundance.  They needed a market.  It was a win-win for everyone involved, and this explains more than anything else the good relations between the Russians and Californians (native and colonial alike).

This is actually a large park (3400 acres), and the coastline north of the Fort is worth exploring as well.  But the fort is the star of the show, and I recommend taking your time walking around.  Rangers there give informative talks regularly; these happen in the open grassy area inside.

One of the many cannon that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

One of the many cannons that were actually never fired in anger at Fort Ross, the old Russian settlement on the northern California Coast.

Make sure to check out the blockhouse on the NE corner of the fort.  The above photo is from there, and the view of the fort from the cannon ports is fantastic.  The photo below is of the Rotchev House.  This is the only 100% original structure leftover from the Russian occupation, and the slice of life it offers makes a little walk around its interior a must-do here.  The Rotchev’s were apparently a very fine family.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev.  It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort.  It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

This shaped-log house was built for the last manager of Fort Ross on the northern California Coast, Alexander Rotchev. It is the only original structure remaining at the mostly restored Russian fort. It is also the only surviving structure built by the Russians in North America south of Alaska.

The fort was never really used in the way it was intended.  It was never attacked, but perhaps this was the point.  It was built to repel all but a sustained heavy naval bombardment.  Nearly all the residents lived outside its walls, because the danger from attack was so low.  The local natives saw it (correctly) as a way to gain wealth.  It offered a place to trade and work, so the Russians were largely a welcome presence.

It was a busy place for the 30 years they were here, but they eventually retreated back to the north.  Why?  The marine life near shore, including sea otters and fur seals, had been hunted out.  The enterprise was in the red, so there was not much money to purchase the extra food they needed to send to Alaska.  They could only grow enough at the site to feed themselves.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California.  These were built as a position from which to make a last defense in the event that the attackers got in through the gates.

One of the corner blockhouses at Fort Ross State Historic Park, California. These were built as a place from which to make a last defense in the event that attackers got in through the gates.

John Sutter (of California goldfield fame) bought the remaining buildings and materials.  The Mexican government claimed the land, and what remained fell into disrepair.  The great earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco inflicted damage as well.

We should thank the many Californians (too many to list) for this slice of history; it’s been a park for over 100 years!  The settlement’s restoration and preservation, an ongoing process that aims to restore the atmosphere present during Russian occupation, including the villages outside the fort.  It’s definitely worth a visit anytime.

Dinosaurs of Utah   Leave a comment

Sheep Canyon on the north side of the Uinta Mountains in Utah blazes in fall colors.

I’ve somehow in the past missed this corner of Utah during my travels.  But heading south from the Grand Tetons, I followed the Green River into the land of dinosaurs.  This is the path that John Wesley Powell, one of my heroes, traveled twice in the post-Civil War years.  It seems appropriate that I am retracing his route at this moment.

I am still one-handed, having broke my left hand recently.  Of course, mine will soon heal, while Powell’s would never heal.  He lost much of his right arm in the Civil War, but that certainly didn’t slow him down.  As many of you know, he was leader of the first party to navigate the wild Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

The Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah are quiet on an autumn afternoon.

I love the photos produced by John K. Hillers during the second Powell expedition.  Take a look at his photos, which include much more than the Green and Colorado River basins.  The party boated down the Green River, through Flaming Gorge (now sadly drowned beneath a reservoir), then into the land of dinosaurs, south towards the confluence with the Colorado.

Life on the road means a healthy dose of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

This area of northeastern Utah, still quite remote, exposes Mesozoic-age sedimentary rocks, including the world-famous Morrison Formation.  It was in the Morrison and similar formations that the so-called “bone wars” erupted in the late 1800s.  Not a real war, but a dinosaur fossil-collecting frenzy, the bone wars was a rivalry between two palaeontologists, both with healthy egos.  Their names were E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, who each represented a different prestigious eastern museum.  Both men yanked tons of dinosaur bones from rocks of the American west.

Neither of these two discovered, however, the richest trove of fossils in the Morrison.  That was left until 1909, when Earl Douglass of the Carnegie Museum found eight tail bones arching out of the ground.  They belonged to an enormous plant-eating Apatosaur.  Today, this dinosaur quarry is the centerpiece of Dinosaur National Monument, not far from Vernal, Utah.  It’s a beautiful patch of land, watered by the Green River and surrounded by gorgeous canyons.

This is a fantastic place to get off the beaten track in the American west.  Most people visit the dinosaur quarry and a few drive up to the main road’s end at Josie Morris’ cabin.  But there are great sights and short hikes to do along the Harper’s Corner Road as well.  This road actually starts off Hwy. 40 just east of Dinosaur, Colorado.  In the warm months, consider a float trip on the Green River.

I camped inside the monument, alongside the Green.  During the night I was awoken by the sound of raindrops on my van’s roof, the first time in quite awhile I’ve heard that sound.  We’ve been in a long period of dry weather in the west.  In the morning I got a nice (and rare) morning rainbow.

I was interested in Josie Basset Morris.  Her homestead included a small cabin by a spring, backed by box canyons and surrounded with shade trees.  Josie was a character, the kind of independent pioneer woman I admire greatly.  How can any woman today think that women magically became stronger and more independent when they were finally liberated in the late 20th century.  Women have been strong for all human history, and it can be argued that today’s women simply can’t match the grit displayed by women of the past.  Neither can the men.

Josie cavorted with famous western outlaws, who often holed up at her place along Cub Creek.  She also divorced 4 husbands, running one off of her homestead with a frying pan.  She occasionally rustled cattle, made bootleg whiskey, wore pants most of the time, and cut her long red hair short.  She lived the last 50 of her years, alone most of that time, caring for livestock on a remote ranch without plumbing, electricity, or other conveniences.  She died in the 1940s.

Dinosaur National Monument reminds me much of the John Day river country of eastern Oregon.  The canyons are a bit more spectacular here, but otherwise there are many parallels.  For instance, in the John Day country the rocks are laid bare, as at Dinosaur.  But being much younger, the badlands are rich in mammals instead of dinosaurs.  The whole feel of the land, with valleys covered in sagebrush and bunch-grass, badlands and canyons stretching in all directions, and with few people around, made me feel I was back in my old stomping grounds in the Clarno Basin of Oregon.

The most complete skeletons of the meat-eating dinosaur Allosaurus are found in the Jurassic rocks of northeastern Utah. One of these prowls the Quarry Bldg. at Dinosaur National Monument.

The famous dinosaur quarry at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah is known as the Wall of Bones.  Taken with a 15 mm. fisheye lens, this picture takes in the entire wall of fossil dinosaurs.

Hope you enjoyed this little slice of history.  I really encourage anyone with time who is traveling Interstate 80 across southern Wyoming to take a jog south into NE Utah.  The Flaming Gorge, Uinta Mountains, and Dinosaur National Monument make the detour very worthwhile.  Our adventure (Charl and I) continues, as we make our way south through western Colorado, headed for Four Corners and Monument Valley.

The Green River flows through Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.

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