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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.


  1. sounds like a fantastic trip, scott. If you had gotten a teeth-side view of that skull, I'm sure Karrie or I could have identified it :)
    Hope your vacation continues to be fun (albeit less windy)

  2. Scoooooooott....come back to the Island with your friends and spend the night..........................'s perfectly safe..................................come back.....come back..................Scoooooot..

    the ghosts

  3. An eyewitness account of what really happened on the Miller Island Trip - Fred's Story told by Fred

    The Columbia was angry that impetuous day of August. "Show me what you got" I said aloud and in no time, the white squall was upon me. It was as if the Ghosts of Miller Island were trying to prevent us from landing. The next thing I knew I was treading water and holding onto the now useless Pungo. I heard Scott yell out to Troy "Man in the water". It was a futile attempt to keep all of my belongings but I tried anyway. In sorrow I watched as some of the Precious departed in the heavy swells at the confluence of the Columbia and the Deschuttes. "You'll never take this boat" I shouted while shaking a fist in the air as if reciting a line from Lt. Dan of Forest Gump.

    If you find any of my Precious in the Columbia, please save them for me. They are in 12 oz. cans labeled "Rainier Beer".

    The trip was an excellent adventure. There is still much to explore on Miller Island and many more historical records to research but that will have to wait for another trip.

    Deepest Gratitude to Scott for assisting me in the turbulent waters and attempting to row me to shore. Special thanks to Troy for saving the supplies and getting help. Many thanks to Bernadette and Keith for the use of the Pungo and generous hospitality. A respectful thank you to the Native Americans of the region including the Wishram Indians.

  4. Miller Island is a very sacred place for the Yakama Nation Indians. The island is owned by the US Forest Service and is closed to overnight use. The Native Americans consider the rock art sacred and do not want photos of it published to both protect the works and protect the arts sacredness. I was part of the FS crew that wrote the Island Management Plan and worked with the YN to work out protection measures. The Island is regularly patrolled by the Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Enforcement.

    Jurgen Hess


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