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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Miller Island Expedition: Columbia River Ghost Cult

My brother Fred sent me a checklist of things he didn’t want to forget for our second attempt at a Miller Island Expedition.

Foil pans
Beer or whiskey/tequila
Bug spray
Ghost repellents

Scouting Miller Island from the Lewis and Clark Highway (Washington side of river)

“Ghost repellents?” I asked.

Well, it turns out that Fred had been doing some research and found an old article from American Anthropologist by Wm. Duncan Strong called The Occurrence and Wider Implications of a “Ghost Cult” on the Columbia River Suggested by Carvings in Wood, Bone and Stone. The article, written in 1945, revealed that bone carvings depicting figures with prominent rib cages, a symbol of death, were found in old cremation pits on Miller’s Island.

Excerpts from the article:

“It can be shown that among these peoples there was an old belief in the impending destruction and renewal of the world, when the dead would return…”

“One of the most striking features of Northwest Coast mythology is the occurrence of numerous tales concerning visits of the living with the dead. Many of these narrate purely mythical adventures but quite as frequently they are couched as historical happenings.”

The article goes on to link the exposed-rib style of art with the “…tragic manner and speed with which the native population of the lower Columbia valley disappeared…”

Hell’s Gate channel from the Lewis and Clark Highway (Washington side of river)
I shared Fred’s checklist with my other brother Troy who pulled out his own checklist suddenly as if he had forgotten something. He went down the list, “Sunglasses, goofy kayak hat, suntan lotion and…” he paused with a wicked grin, “…ghost costume.”

Looking up the Columbia to the East. (Miller Island is on the left.)
Together, Fred, Troy and I launched kayaks from the confluence of the Deschutes and Columbia rivers. We steered our expedition-fitted little fleet of recreational craft a quarter mile into the Columbia’s South Channel and into a tricky crossfire of 15-20 mile per hour easterly winds futilely blowing a superficial surface layer of the mighty westward running river back upstream.

Up in front, Troy took on the challenge like a crazed energizer bunny, his paddle dipping to the left and right with the regularity of a metronome on crack. Tall waves infrequently coaxed little girly screams from me - catching me by surprise. Through a stoic grin, Troy expressed the sentiment that if there weren’t any ghosts left on Miller Island, there soon might be.

Then the reels on the cosmic slot machine slowed and stopped with no winning combination on the payline.

Fred capsized.

I had a pump, but it proved to be ineffective in removing the water from Fred’s Pungo. The plastic kayak had no bulkheads – no means of floatation – so that it turned out to be impossible to keep the water from running back into the cockpit. I could see no alternative but to tow him and his kayak back to shore.

But the whole towing theory began to break down when it became obvious that I wasn’t making any progress after a half hour. Meanwhile, Troy was circling, taking care not to become another capsizing victim and collecting various items that were attempting to escape from Fred’s boat. From his perspective it seemed a change in direction was called for. It was difficult to determine what best to fight against, the wind or the current. Above water, the wind seemed to be the determining factor, but I hadn’t really allowed for Fred’s anchor like characteristics and the additional drag of the submerged Pungo. We decided to try going with the flow (probably painfully obvious to more seasoned paddlers).

Fred had been in the water for what seemed like almost an hour and while at last we were making visible progress toward shore, and though Fred maintained he wasn’t cold, I began to consider jettisoning the Pungo. At about the same time, Troy spotted a lone fisherman in a powerboat and headed off to see if perhaps he’d be willing to lend a hand.

Fortunately, the fisherman had just caught a 35 pound bass (Editor's note: The 35 pound bass portion of this account has come into dispute. If the figure '35 pounds' is correct, then the fish in question was likely not a bass since 35 pounds would be something of a record. The fact finder for the Narrative Image believes the fish in question may have really been a Chinook Salmon. In any case, let's just say the fisherman was pleased with his performance for the day, and Scott mangled the details) (Editor's note to previous editor's note: I received the following in an email from Troy. It goes, "[scott], I don't know [word meaning feces] about fish but that guy specifically said he caught a 35 pound bass."), and was therefore willing and able to take time off to also be a rescuing hero.

When Troy and I finally returned to the beach, Fred had taken an accounting of the weather and the state of his gear and his sense of well-being. Much of his clothing was wet and the usefulness of the charcoal briquettes was suspect.

Fred set up camp along the Deschutes. Some might think this decision was spurred by the three of us learning a lesson about being prepared and becoming appropriately cautious. But I think it really had more to do with the easy access to the cleanest outhouse I’ve ever seen with a six roll toilet paper holder, all fully loaded with premium toilet paper.

Miller Island blending into the Washington shore.
With kayaks released from the burden of camping gear, Troy and I headed back out on the water to see if they would handle easier. We soon succumbed to Miller Island’s beguiling siren song – the lure of the unknown – the draw of new horizons.

We made landfall at the site of an old corral and set out on foot to cross the island.

On top of the plateau, looking East to Biggs Junction (Wind turbines on the horizon)

From the North side of the island, looking Eastward toward Hell’s Gate (Maryhill Museum above)

Hell’s Gate Channel

Deer mattress on top of the plateau?

Sand dune interior of Miller Island

Detail of lower right portion of previous image

Deer becoming aware of intruders

Incongruous trees

I had more than my fair share of Fred’s homebrew.
(And I’d do it again.)

Darkness came quickly to the little canyon valley containing the Deschutes. Magnificent stars emerged from the deepening sky and began to outline the contours of our spiral galaxy. Coyotes set about vexing the tame dogs in camp, calling out taunts and carousing like delinquents. All night I imagined a deer was eating grass right outside the rip-stop nylon wall of my tent, inches from my ear. In the morning, no grass was gone.

The river was as smooth as glass (initially). All three of us set out to explore the island.

Another excerpt from the Wm. Duncan Strong article:

Old Wishram informants told us that the deep petroglyphs had been made by their own ancestors long ago and that they represented water animals who were the particular spirits of their ancestors. They said the numerous red pictographs and shallow petroglyphs on the rim rock in the general vicinity were made by a different, very ancient people, and no one knew how they were made.

Still life

Troy (in the red box), takes a divergent path and discovers what he calls a mini-valley of death.

Raptor poop?

We sail on through Hell’s gate…

…and return to the every-day world.

Special thanks to Keith and Bernadette who provided the use of two Pungos, an innumerable variety of healthy chips, and soy enhanced breasts.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


In August, the Portland area Lutheran church softball season culminates in a two day tournament at Meldrum Bar Park. Church softball can be distinguished from other forms of softball by the ritual group prayer that opposing team members participate in together before they try to beat the hell out of each other.

The typical prayer format:
General thanksgiving for nice weather
Vague promise to enjoy fellowship
Petition for injury free play

As with most prayer, the recognition of answers requires active and imaginative interpretation.

There’s really nothing like sliding in shorts (except maybe falling off a motorcycle) to set up the circumstances that will showcase the miracle of self-repairing skin.

Softball, with its rules and regulations, is rich with metaphors and analogies that can be applied to life in this universe.

In the following dialogue from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, commander Sisko explains our linear existence with a baseball metaphor.


"Baseball" - what is this?


I was afraid you'd ask that...

A beat... How the hell do you explain baseball to an alien... he takes a deep breath, well, here goes...


I throw the ball to you... and this other player stands between us with a bat, a stick... and he... he tries to hit the ball in between these two white lines...

Commander Sisko with antique baseball copyright Paramount Pictures

Jake alien blinks with confusion, Sisko pauses... regroups... getting another idea... his delivery growing with confidence as he continues...


The rules aren't important... what's important is -- it's linear. Every time you throw this ball a hundred different things can happen in the game... he might swing and miss, he might hit it... the point is you never know... you try to anticipate, set a strategy for all the possibilities as best you can... but in the end it all comes down to throwing one pitch after another... and seeing what happens. With each new consequence, the game begins to take shape...


(grasping the meaning)

And you have no idea what that shape is until it is completed...



That's right. In fact, the game wouldn't be worth playing if we knew what was going to happen.



You value your ignorance of what is to come?


(acknowledges, driving home his point)

That may be the most important thing to understand about humans. It is the unknown that defines our existence. We are constantly searching... not just for answers to our questions... but for new questions.

Script from DS9 pilot episode Emissary

Sometimes I get caught up in trying to figure out the title (the shape) to my story. Even more, I’d like to have some reassurance that it’s going to be a good story. But I guess all you can really do is take time out every once in a while and look at the tracks you’ve made so far.

One day, we’ll be gone, and all that will be left is the evidence of how we played.

It’s good to be reminded sometimes that you just can’t be afraid to get dirty.

Dirt Angels

Shaman at work

The Narrative Image NAVIGATION AID

Just a reminder:

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