History & Culture


An overlooked treasure..........

The Colville National Forest disproves the widely held notion that Washington State lies flat east of the Cascade Mountains. These million acres in the northeast corner roll like the high seas. Three waves of mountains run from north to south, separated by troughs of valleys. These ranges -- the Okanogan, Kettle River, and Selkirk -- are considered foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

The troughs between the mountains channel water into the Columbia River system. The Pend Oreille River flows north into Canada to merge with the Columbia. The major rivers in the national forest are following paths bulldozed by Ice Age glaciers. Mile-high ice sheets surging south from Canada drowned all but the tallest peaks several times during the last two million years. The ice ground off sharp edges, leaving the mountains well rounded.

Today's landscape emerged from the melting ice about 10,000 years ago. Animals and plants followed the retreating glaciers northward, and humans were not far behind. The first Indians probably began hunting, fishing, and gathering in the area about 9,000 years ago.

And what a rich land it was! The new forests were full of deer, elk, and moose. Salmon swarmed in the rivers. Berries hung thick on the bushes. Camas bulbs ripen in the valleys. Kalispel tribal legend tells of scouts who once mistook a valley for a huge lake because it was so thick with blue camas blossoms.

Many tribes harvested the bounty, coming from as far away as Montana and Yakima during salmon runs. Tribes met each year at Kettle Falls on the Columbia River to fish and trade. Travel routes were worn into the ridge tops by centuries of yearly migration to the area.

Archaeologists estimate that Indians caught more than 1,000 salmon a day at Kettle Falls during peak runs. Salmon congregated below this wide, low falls on their way upstream to spawn. Fishermen stood on rocks and wooden platforms to spear and net the fish as they jumped up through the whitewater. People camping near the falls smoked and dried the fish, preserving it for winter use. Runners would carry the smoked fish back to the elders and young children who had remained behind in winter villages.

Some tribes stayed in the area year-round. The Kalispel wintered on the east banks of the Pend Oreille River. Kalispel means "camas people," and the tribe had territorial rights to some of the richest camas fields in the region. Camas bulbs provided much-needed carbohydrates to the diet of the Indians. Cooked in earth ovens, they tasted like sweet, smoky figs. Remains of ovens found today at the Pioneer Park archaeological dig along the Pend Oreille River date back more than 4,000 years.

Local tribes allowed other groups to harvest camas in exchange for goods such as obsidian from Yellowstone or shell necklaces from the Pacific Coast. They also traded camas for hunting privileges. The Blackfeet might come to the Pend Oreille Valley to dig bulbs, allowing the Kalispell to hunt buffalo in western Montana, in return.

A rich spiritual tradition was interwoven with resource harvest. Many tribes welcomed the fish back to the river each year with a First Salmon Ceremony. Young people entering adulthood pursued vision quests in the mountains. The First Salmon Ceremony is still celebrated at an intertribal pow-wow at Kettle Falls each year, and modern young Indians spend days alone in the wilds of the mountains seeking to connect with their spiritual roots.

Changes to these seasonal routines came in 1809 with the arrival of the first non-Indian, fur trapper David Thompson, from Canada. The many trappers who followed were looking for beaver, marten, and other animal pelts to help satiate the European hunger for fur hats and coats. They traded with the Indians introducing beads, tools, and alcohol to tribal culture.

Within a few decades, up to three-fourths of the Indians had died of illnesses to which they had no resistance, such as smallpox, tuberculosis, and measles. Missionaries had come to save Indian souls, and native religions were forced underground.

By 1826, American fur traders were living in Fort Colville, built near Kettle Falls. They brought in pigs and cattle, began farming around the fort, and limited Indian fishing access. By the late 1800's the Indians were confined to reservations. Kettle Falls and the salmon runs disappeared under the rising waters of Roosevelt Reservoir in the 1930s when Grand Coulee Dam was built.

Miners and homesteaders came around the turn of the century, each searching for riches in the mountains and valleys. Neither had much success. Gold and silver were found in the area around Republic but weren't plentiful elsewhere, and the growing season was short. The miners moved on to Alaska, and the homesteaders sold out to the government. By 1920, the population in northeast Washington was half of what it had been in 1910. Today, empty mines pock the hillsides, and rotting cabins stand in abandoned fields throughout the Colville National Forest.

Loggers and ranchers were more fortunate. They found good supplies of trees and grass on public land. Early land use was unregulated, but when the Colville National Forest was established in 1906, rangers began overseeing private resource harvest. After a hostile beginning, a working relationship evolved between the Forest Service and those who used the national forest lands.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCCs) changed the face of the Colville National Forest during the 1930s. CCC workers built roads, trails, camps, and buildings, many of which are still in use today. Camp Growden, known as "Little America" because it housed CCC enrollees from around the country, was built west of Kettle Falls. It was one of the largest CCC camps in the area. An octagonal concrete fountain and an earth-filled dam still stand at the site. The Sullivan Lake and Newport ranger stations are CCC buildings, as are many of the fire lookouts on the national forest.

Resource harvest continued on the Colville National Forest today. Timber harvest remains one of the primary ways these lands meet economic needs. Because most of the national forest burned in the 1920s due to dry conditions and lightning strikes, a large crop of trees reached maturity in the 1990s. Thus, the Colville National Forest was able to harvest at high levels during an era when other national forests were severely reducing the timber cutting.

Modern timber management differs markedly from the simple numbers control, slash burning, and single species reforestation of the early years of the Forest Service. Today, foresters design timber sales to reduce environmental and visual impacts. Partial cuts are replacing clearcuts as the preferred harvest method. Live trees are left standing for natural seeding purposes, and standing snags are left for wildlife. Buffers of trees along rivers and lakes protect crucial riparian habitat for fish and wildlife.

Fire still affects timber management. The drier portions of the Colville burn naturally every twenty or thirty years. Even modern fire control methods are of little use when lightning strikes aged lodgepole stands after weeks of dry weather. The White Mountain Fire of 1988 burned more than 20,000 acres, reminding foresters that fire, as well as timber harvest, can start a forest over again.

Not everyone hunts with modern rifles. Archers and muzzleloader hunters have special seasons before and after the main hunting season. The archers ease quietly through the trees, their faces smudged with charcoal and their clothes colored camouflage green. Both they and the "black powder" muzzleloader hunters must get much closer to their prey than hunters with modern rifles. The success rate is much lower, but some say rewards are much greater for these hunters, who have relearned the skills of the pioneer past.

Interpretive trails near Sullivan Lake and Kettle Falls tell the story of early logging, sawmilling, and mining on the Colville National Forest. Signs at an archaeological dig at Pioneer Park Campground on the Pend Oreille River describe early Indian life. An interpretive exhibit set among burned-out snags along Washington Highway 20 near Sherman Pass dramatizes and explains the White Mountain Fire of 1988.

Few other cars distract drivers from the views on either side. From Sherman Pass, at the high point of the drive, a short trail leads to viewpoints. Other short stops include the Log Flume Interpretive Trail, a half-mile walk among the ruins of a logging operation from the 1920s, and the White Mountain Fire interpretive signs. For those with more time, Canyon Creek and Sherman Pass campgrounds offer rustic campsites with water, tables, pit toilets, and small fees.

When General Sherman of Civil War fame crossed the Kettle River Range in the 1860s, he probably never imagined that a paved highway bearing his name would curve through these mountains to connect northeast Washington with the Idaho Panhandle. Yet it's easy for visitors to turn their backs to the road, look out over the mountains cresting in all directions, and feel the wilderness he must have experienced. The Colville National Forest has not been entirely tamed into an urban playground like some national forests closer to large cities.

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