Bridge over Nothing

Published in Water-Stone Review, 2003.


The only way to get to where I live in Miroco, a remote cluster of houses below Cape Foulweather, is by crossing historic Ben Jones Bridge.

Once it was called “one of the most beautifully situated bridges in the state, spanning a small gorge in a picturesque section of the Oregon Coast.” Today there is no gorge, no stream below. It’s a bridge over nothing.

But we don’t see it as a bridge over nothing, just as we don’t see the disappeared salmon below. When I first drove across it, I stared at the teal-green ocean and basalt cove on my right, oblivious to the steep slope of boulders on my left and the drainage pipe drizzling water over the cliff below.

My neighbors told me that when the Highway 101 bypass was built in 1955, ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) filled in Rocky Creek gorge. The blasting rubble from nearby cuts raised the roadbed 150 feet above sea level, so a 6 x 426 foot culvert was installed to funnel stream water into the ocean.

This road fill not only destroyed Rocky Creek and its gorge, it destroyed the Rocky Creek fish runs. When the coho salmon, steelhead, and sea-run cutthroat trout returned to Rocky Creek Cove, they could not find the stream. In confusion they gravitated beneath the fresh water spilling from the small culvert high above the ocean.

Fishermen reported huge syalmon catches during those years. “Fishin’ here at the cove in ’56 ‘n’ ’57 – it was great! So many salmon, they turned the water silver. Couldn’t catch ‘em all.” But they tried. Fish unable to swim upstream died. Fish upstream unable to reach the ocean died. Three salmonid fish runs became extinct in one highway project

I stare at a pre-1955 photo of Ben Jones Bridge arched over Rocky Creek, a pristine, flowing salmon stream, and feel bereft. Then I was in college, knew nothing of the Rocky Creek ecocide. Now that I’m aware of the loss, I cannot ignore the anguish. Each time I cross this bridge over nothing, it exacts a toll — a hidden toll of losses.

I can speed across in the dark. Or I can drive slowly in the daylight, feeling the weird weight of rock fill underneath. I let the unnatural landscape penetrate my senses. I let myself imagine, forty years before, the desperate flopping of salmon on the rocks below.

I cannot pretend that where I live is the paradise it once was, a native fish camp. Hiking through the pines, digging my garden, I find shell middens. My neighbor, excavating for his new house, finds an exquisite obsidian arrowhead for a fish spear.

From time immemorial this area called Miroco was Indian land; in 1855 it remained Indian land as part of the 1.1 million acres set aside for the Coast Reservation, even after the reservation was reduced by 900,000 acres.

But in 1892 the General Allotment Act declared eighty-five percent of Indian allotted lands as “surplus,” subsequently sold for seventy-four cents an acre. Were Miroco still Indian land, Rocky Creek would flow freely, teeming with salmon.

Salmon Boy, a Coast Salish Story

Long time ago there was a little boy who wore a red feather around his neck. He was eager to go fishing, but his grandfather told him not to go near the river by the sea. So naturally the little boy found a canoe and went fishing.

When he was out in the middle of the river, whoo-oooo-oooo, the whirlwind spirits came and spun the canoe around, and pulled the little boy down into a tunnel to the bottom of the sea.

When he woke up he found himself in a different place. The people looked very strange. When they came close to welcome him, he could see they were very beautiful, wet and shiny.

They had deep, slithery voices. Their words slid out and covered the little boy so that he would never forget where he was. Finally he realized these were the Salmon People.

They called him Salmon Boy, and he joined them. As time went on, Salmon Boy wondered why the salmon warriors would leave every season to go up river and never come back. He decided to go with them to find out.

They all started swimming up the river until they came to a narrow place where fishermen were throwing out dip nets and harpoons.

As the salmon warriors swam by, the fishermen caught this weird-looking fish with a red streak on its gills.

The old grandfather thought, my grandson lost in the river so long ago wore a red feather around his neck just like this fish. So he took the strange fish home to his wife and told her it was their grandson returned.

They called the master shaman, The One That Shines With His Eyes, who came and sang over the fish to bring him to life. For seven days they dropped oil on the fish until it grew as tall as a young man.

When he came to, he did not recognize where he was, but his grandfather tied a new red feather around his neck and gave him the name, Ski-an-doosh.

He became the Salmon Shaman, a powerful healer who traveled all over to lead the ceremony of taking the first salmon of the season.

After many years Skiandoosh became the oldest man in the village. One day some young men were playing by the river, the same river where he once had been lost in the whirlwind. These young men were fighting over a strange fish with a red streak on its gills.

Skiandoosh said, “We don’t fight over fish, loud and noisy. We don’t get greedy and take them all.” But the young men ignored him.

Skiandoosh got mad and grabbed the harpoon away from them. He threw it into the river and hit the fish with the red streak, which floated into shore and dropped dead.

As soon as the fish dropped, the old man dropped.

The old man had not seen it was himself that he had killed.

The old man had killed his own soul.

Every time I drive across the bridge over nothing, I lose a part of my soul. One day I stop by the fill, compelled to load a dozen rocks in my trunk. I begin a rock wall at home. For weeks I remove a few at a time from the millions blocking the stream. A neighbor looks askance. It’s not vandalism, I say. Besides, ODOT will remove part of the fill when they repair the bridge.

When my rock wall is finished, I’m satisfied to see a small dent in the fill slope, a few bare spots. It seems silly, yet I recognize my need to do something, however futile.

At last ODOT meets with Miroco residents to ask our opinion about keeping the historic design of Ben Jones Bridge, but not our opinion about restoring the fish runs to Rocky Creek.

When I ask when ODOT will enlarge the six-foot drainpipe underneath Highway 101 into a ten-foot salmon ladder, I’m told they have no such plan, since fish culvert replacement belongs to a different department.

Yet in 1996, ODOT began investigating possible solutions for fish passage at Rocky Creek, and contacted Don Porior of the Bureau of Land Management at Coos Bay, Oregon, to design just such a fish passage.

His blueprints show a ten-foot baffled culvert on an 8.9 percent grade extended down to the ocean by a sixty-foot fishway flume. This fish-friendly design allows for passage of all species of adult and juvenile fish at all creek flow levels.

The million-dollar cost of this new ten-foot culvert seems high. However, Rocky Creek’s cost per stream-mile, $70,000, is much less than other ODOT culvert replacement plans in Lincoln County, some of which run as high as $250,000 per stream-mile. With fifteen miles of potential fish habitat quality rated “good,” Rocky Creek is a premier restoration project.

Indeed, Oregon State laws specify that ODOT is legally required to restore fish passage at Rocky Creek. So why don’t they? Unfortunately, funds to rehabilitate salmon runs are allocated only for endangered, not extinct stock. Catch 22.

Yet native fish stock, once extinct need not be always extinct. It’s possible to restock coho and steelhead runs from native stock in nearby streams until Rocky Creek’s pre-1955 carrying capacity of two-hundred-to-two-thousand fish is restored.

Indeed, Governor Kitzhaber’s Oregon Plan declares, “Extinction is not an option.”

Nor was extinction an option one hundred years ago for Livingston Stone, a founder of the American Fisheries Society. He successfully campaigned for the first National Salmon Park, the Afognak Island Forest and Fish Culture Reserve off the central coast of Alaska.

Sixty years later Ross Leffler of US Fish & Wildlife Service revived the idea of an anadromous fish sanctuary in the Snake River basin, but it was never implemented. Again in 1993, plans proposing Key Watersheds as refuges for salmon were omitted from the final Jack Ward Thomas Report.

We have no new salmon parks. How far will we go to rescue our endangered fish? When will we see the salmon as part of our selves?

An Alsea Kalapuyan Story

Long time ago, before the rivers were polluted, every spring the Salmon People would return from the great Pacific Ocean and swim up the great Columbia River.

Some of the Salmon People, friends of the Alsea Kalapuya, would turn south and swim up the big Willamette River until they came to a stream flowing east from the Coast Range.

It lay between Tchapenafu — Place Where the Elderberries Grow — now called Corvallis, and Monroe. The Salmon People turned once more and swam eagerly up their small stream, nearly home.

Upstream, the Alsea Kalapuya were waiting for their brothers, the Salmon People. They sang songs calling the Salmon People home.

They rejoiced that once again, the Salmon People had returned to spawn and renew their kind, and once again the tribe’s food larders would be full.

Every spring they waited, not at the mouth of the stream, but at the falls, the high falls, to honor their return, the renewal of life. They waited with waterproof woven burden baskets.

When the Salmon People arrived at the pool beneath the falls, they milled around and waited, for the falls were too high for them to jump.

But the Alsea Kalapuya called to their brothers, “Swim into my burden basket and I will carry you above the falls so you can continue your journey.”

And the Salmon People would swim into their baskets. The tribe would carry their dripping, splashing loads up the cliff trail to the top of the falls, and set their brothers free.

Time after time, load after load, until all the Salmon People were above the falls. Only then would the tribe take the First Salmon, an offering to the Everywhere Spirit, and share it, first catch of the season.

I envision the Stewards of Rocky Creek carrying salmon across Highway 101, a small version of the barges and trucks which carry them around the Columbia dams. We must save the salmon, I believe, or lose our souls — until I find an equally moving story in Salmon Without Rivers by Jim Lichatowich which changes my mind.

High in the Olympics Jim came upon a seven-inch cutthroat trout struggling up a small rivulet blocked by a logjam. His first impulse was to help it upstream, but he suppressed his desire to intrude and “fix” nature. Instead he watched it leap and struggle through the tangle of logs and moss-lined pools until, with great effort, it eventually reached the stream above the jam:

“I could have interfered in the trout’s struggle and helped it over the log-jam, but I didn’t….I left the stream that afternoon having learned an important lesson. Anything I do to help the salmon recovery has to work in concert with the salmon’s own [tremendous] capacities and capabilities….The most important help we can give is to remove or reduce the obstacles, not to continuously carry the fish over the top.”

Salmon know how to recover if the habitat is available and healthy. We don’t need to wait with burden baskets or barges to carry fish around falls and dams, we don’t need to manage fish farms nor impose another techno-fix, we merely need to remove those barriers we ourselves have created, rock by rock, dam by dam.

The Stewards of Rocky Creek’s mission to restore the fish runs begins. In 1999 we send a technical feasibility study to ODOT, watershed officials and the governor.

Receiving no response, in 2000 we apologize to Salmon Boy. We host a ceremony to call the Salmon People back to Rocky Creek, and to tell their stories, stories of transformation so that we never again forget we are interdependent.

We walk the watershed, find sea-run cutthroat trout trapped for forty years. Then, at the Bridge Over Nothing we pray and sing to the salmon spirits, while below us, two others lay an offering plate on the waves. A rainbow arches over the ocean, and directly overhead, salmon-pink clouds float like fish.

Afterwards we celebrate with a feast and giveaway for the people. We wrap honored guests in salmon blankets. Bridging the chasm between spiritual and political action, we are transformed and renewed.

The repair of historic Ben Jones Bridge continues, costing $4.3 million for forty-three households. Now we have two traffic lights and a bypass over nothing. Historic preservation goes on, for both bridge and salmon.

Prayers and politics, technology and story. Traffic lights flash red, then green. Bridge closed. Creek closed. Road Closed — Keep on going. Move political rock.

They may dismiss me as the Lady Who Apologized to the Salmon. Yet what but a change in perspective can remove political road-blocks? I’ve become a bridge person myself, daring to testify for the salmon at televised hearings, while continuing to pray for their “impossible” restoration.

I cross my bridges every day. For Miroco’s historic sign must tell about the return of the salmon as well as about Ben Jones. I close my eyes and see wild coho, steelhead, and cutthroat trout swimming upstream to spawn, see wild smolts returning to sea. And arching overhead, a Bridge Over Salmon.

References

An Alsea Kalapuyan Story, retold from Bob Cannon. Salmon Boy, or Skiandoosh the Salmon Shaman, retold from Johnny Moses.

Cone, Joseph, & Sandy Ridlington, editors. The Northwest Salmon Crisis, A Documentary History. Oregon State University Press. 1996.

Lichatowich, Jim. Salmon Without Rivers. Island Press, 1999. p. 229-30.

Roche, Judith, & Meg McHutchinson, editors. First Fish, First People: Salmon Tales of the North Pacific Rim. University of Washington Press. 1998.

Rocky Creek Project Report, Friends of Rocky Creek, 1999.

Smith, Dwight, James Norman & Pieter Dykman. Historic Highway Bridges of Oregon. Oregon Historical Society Press. 1989. Photo credits, Craig Markham, p. 102.

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