Issue Four - June 2002

Rolling Old River

By Iris Graville

“Ever moving and winding and free
You rolling old river,
You changing old river
Let’s you and me river
Run down to the sea!”

Every time I sing that folk song, I think of the Stehekin River, formed by glaciers of the North Cascades and flowing into Lake Chelan in North Central Washington. That old river changed dramatically during our second winter living on its banks, and the “Flood of ’95” left its mark on me.

That year, snow came to the valley floor early in November, followed by warmer temperatures, melting, and then days and days of heavy rain around Thanksgiving. We watched the summer-dried river bed fill first with snow melt, then with rain water. We heard legendary tales of floods in 1894, 1903, and 1948. Old-timers predicted what might lie ahead this fall.

“Yeah, this reminds me of Thanksgiving of ’90,” our neighbor, Wally Winkel, reminisced. “I came back from being downlake to find my cabin surrounded by water, logs, and mud. It got clear up to the doorway before it went down.”

We braved historic forest fires our first summer in Stehekin, and I dreaded another natural disaster. But I knew this was part of life in the wilderness, and I admit I was excited about witnessing the cycles that shape the centuries old mountain valley.
Winter often lasts from October through April in Stehekin, and long-time residents usually hope the first snowfall will be late. This year, though, everyone wished for cooler temperatures to turn the rain into snow, to slow the rise of the river. Probably nobody wanted that more than Dan Wilsey, whose voice we heard over the Park Service two-way radio one morning.

For once I was glad to have the radio in our house. As a part-time maintenance employee for the Park, my husband, Jerry, used it to stay in touch with the rest of the crew working in the valley. Usually he turned it off when his work was over. We relished Stehekin’s solitude without phones, television, and newspapers to remind us of the outside world. But that week, the radio sat prominently on the kitchen counter, humming with news of the rising river.

A voice interrupted the radio’s crackle. Burton Karapostoles, one of the maintenance crew, was surveying the damage in front of the Wilsey house and the shop where Dan repaired nearly all the vehicles in the community. His place was about the same distance upriver as ours, on the opposite side, so Jerry, our thirteen-year-old twins Rachel and Matt, and I hovered around the radio to hear this report.

“Ray, I think we need to get the Wilsey’s out,” Burton suggested to his supervisor, Ray Lawless. “I’m on the front end loader, and we moved that big cottonwood that fell across the road by Danielsons. I can’t tell how much of the road washed away after we moved it.” We looked at each other anxiously, trying to picture the scene. Burton went on, “The loader lurched when we got to the spot where the cottonwood came down. Looks like there’s not much road left on the river side.”

Dan took a turn on the radio adding, “I moved all the vehicles to higher ground. Our place is an island now. I don’t think I want to wait around here with Karen and our five boys watching the water come up!”

“This is as suspenseful as any made-for -television movie,” I told Jerry and the kids. Ray’s voice came on, giving the go-ahead for Burton to evacuate Dan’s family, and we listened until we heard they made it out safely. A few days later, we learned the details of their escape. Karen and Dan hung on to each side of the rig, two of the boys cuddled in the cab, and the other three sat in the machine’s bucket. Little did we know how soon we would be up to our knees in our own drama thanks to that changing old river.

All day long the rain continued, adding to the Stehekin’s raging force. The river that usually serenaded me with its quiet, soothing flow now echoed the sounds of tumbling, rumbling boulders and the splash of 100-foot tall cedars and pines, their roots torn from the banks by the pressure of the current. Late that afternoon, water exploded over the embankment just beyond our house at the end of Company Creek Road. Now a new arm of the Stehekin surged down the middle of the road.
The next morning, I ventured out to see the effects of the night’s deluge further from our place. In the gray mist, I walked Company Creek Road. After about half a mile, just before Jim and Rene Courtney’s place, I could go no further. This gravel road, that wound from our house for four miles beside the Stehekin then across Harlequin Bridge, was our connection to the five miles of paved road leading to the ferry landing, the head of Lake Chelan, and the downlake world. Now, this link had been split by a torrent of mud brown, roiling water, so deep I couldn’t see the rock roadbed that surely lay underneath. That “rolling old river” had cut me off from friends, neighbors, the school, mail, and groceries. I looked at its galloping currents and wondered, when will it recede, slow down enough for us to get across and reunite with the rest of the community? Will we have to be evacuated like the Wilsey family? Will anyone remember that we’re at the end of this road?

As full-sized cedars bobbed past, I also wondered how one of my favorite trees was faring. Early in our relocation to Stehekin, I spotted a cedar just beyond Harlequin Bridge. I called it my “lean into it” tree. Its lower trunk stretched out from the river’s edge and curved gracefully upward, suspending the upper branches out and over the river flowing beneath it. That tree inspired me as it fearlessly reached toward the elements, held firmly in place by its strong roots. Standing at the road’s edge, I worried. How could that leaning tree survive the thrashing water that gushed past our house, washed away our road, and felled cottonwoods?

I was awed by the power of this force. How many times had that river flooded, reminding the residents of its valley we had intruded on its home? We might think we know best where roads should go or houses should be built, but the river follows its own wisdom, has its own idea about its course, and thus ours. We think we can control it, but every few years, it shows us we can’t.

I went to Stehekin to wrestle with my need for control. I went despairing at the feelings of detachment I had built up to protect myself from urban overload. The flood’s fury reconnected me to the earth. The “ever moving and winding and free” water swirling at my feet carried the rains, the melted snows, the ancient glacial melt that forced the Stehekin to escape its borders and eat away at the bend in the road. Now a big chunk of road joined this flow of history, mingled with old and new waters, mixed with boulders and pines that rushed down the swollen river, to the head of the lake, bound to get to Chelan, the Columbia, and the sea before we would.

I didn’t realize until much later that this flood, like the leaning tree, symbolized the tension I feel with life’s requirement to both hold on and let go. Helplessly watching the frothing water flow past my boots, I wasn’t ready to let go. Like the leaning tree, I desperately needed to hold on.

While the river raged, there was nothing for us to do but wait, stranded at our end of Company Creek Road. Along with the boulders and trees, the river washed away power poles and lines, leaving us without electricity during the flood’s climax. Fortunately, we had followed the wisdom of our neighbors and filled our bathtub with water in anticipation of the loss of our electric pump for the well. We had plenty of firewood for the barrel stove that warmed the house. A full tank of propane fueled our cooking stove to heat the food we kept cold in an ice chest on the front porch. Our days were filled with basic survival chores, so it didn’t matter that the sun disappeared around four in the afternoon. After dinner preparation, cleanup, and a little reading by the light of candles and kerosene lamps, we were all ready for bed.

Three days after the road disappeared, the water receded enough for Cragg Courtney to drive his bulldozer into the woods beyond the washout to punch out a temporary road between the trees. Now we could drive to the main road, and work crews could get in to replace the missing power poles and string new lines to restore electricity. Life began to return to normal.
When we got permission to drive across the temporary road, my family enthusiastically piled into our ’72 Suburban. We were eager to reunite with friends from throughout the valley, knowing there would be stories to hear, and our own to tell. We drove slower than usual down the narrow, winding road, not knowing what hazards from the river’s rampage might stop us. Its surge had created gullies, cleaned out fall debris, and scattered fire wood, toys, barrels, and equipment far from their homes.

Before we ever got out to survey the damage throughout the valley, we had heard that the approaches on both sides of Harlequin Bridge had taken a beating. I held my breath as we approached the Maintenance Yard at the bend just before the bridge. My eyes focused to the left, just beyond the bridge’s span, to the bank across from us. Still “leanin’ into it,” my cedar clung to the river’s edge. It survived, perhaps by its very leaning into, accepting that someday, it too will join the river in its run down to the sea.

©2002 by Iris Graville