Solace at Kootenai Falls

by Jay Hansford C. Vest

Walking through the May morning in Missoula, I stopped to scent the fragrant lilacs beaded in the droplets of spring rain. The purple scented flowers appeared everywhere as I went trekking through the city. There was a lift to my step, I had just returned from an extended study of wilderness solitude in the canyons and red rock country of the desert southwest.

My study had begun at a gathering of wilderness advocates in a meeting along the shores of Lake Foul, (Lake Powell in development circles). As we came together for a symbolic fracturing of the Glen Canyon Dam. My associates included Dave Foreman and Edward Abbey among others as we unfurled a three hundred foot black plastic crack onto the face of the massive concrete intrusion holding back the mighty Colorado River. As in the days of shamanic magic, we had cursed the dam with our symbolic crack putting its early demise on notice and giving hope to the restoration of the treasured canyon that few had known before its inundation.

Of course, my study of wilderness solitude had been pre-arranged well in advance of this creative act advanced by Earth First. Bidding adieu to the indomitable Wilderness advocates, I set out for several months in the Grand Canyon and other wild environments there about. As my study produced several academic papers and an eventual scholarly journal article addressing the philosophical significance of wilderness solitude, I was pleased with my work when I returned to Missoula during these handsome days of May. It was on such a day when entranced with the lilacs I approached the Hellgate Station in quest of my accumulated mail. While separating the junk from the meaningful and the obligatory, I noticed a poster announcing a wildland hearing for Kootenai Falls where a proposed hydroelectric project was awaiting a decision. Minding this concern, I crossed the lobby of the federal building into the Region One headquarters of the U.S. Forest Service where I signed up to give testimony at coming hearing. My intent was to share an experience that I had had at the falls some five years prior to this threat upon the last great cascade in the northwest.

The earth was humming, as I remembered the moment that had launched my quest, it felt like I was standing on a great engine idling under my feet. My skin began to crawl with static charges of electricity; it was like ten thousand ants crawling about my body.

Elevating my voice over the din of energy, I asked my colleagues: “Do you feel it?”

Fairly shouting back, Ray a quiet spoken man empathetically responded: “Let’s get out of here.”

We were standing at the base of the iconic Boundary Dam holding back the Pend Orielle River in Northeast Washington state. Constructed in 1967, it had inundated one of the last great waterfalls in the inland northwest. Decades earlier the wild salmon had been blocked at Grand Coulee so Metaline Falls was expendable in the eyes of developers calling for “cheap” and “clean” hydroelectricity. As for the ancient sturgeon whom the Kutenai, Kallispell, Pend Orielle and other Plateau tribes had taken from these waters, no one seemed to care.

Government foresters with the Bureau of Land Management, we had come north from Spokane to inventory an isolated track of public lands immediately within the confines of the Colville National Forest and adjoining the international boundary. Somehow in the rules of federal land management, the track had been held back and excluded from inclusion within the surrounding National Forest. It was an odd adventure with no lodging in the little town of Metaline Falls, although it had a diner, so that we had to take our rest across the “medicine line” in British Columbia. Each morning driving south across the border we passed the dam access road when going to the village restaurant and in reverse when approaching the border for our field work only to repeat the cycle in reverse at the end of the day. Somehow it always felt odd crossing the international boundary in a federal vehicle prominently displaying our agency logo with its official status - Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of the Interior. Still the border guards on both sides of the line had come to know and apparently trust us so that they just waved us through on each crossing.

Ironically enough we were there to examine a border guard’s mineral claim under the auspices of the 1872 Mining Act. Having no housing within the immediate vicinity of the Custom’s House and faced with little prospects for shelter within the isolated region, he had cast his eye upon an isolated track of Public Lands adjacent to his guard station. Empowered with the finding that it was public land subject to several antiquated laws designed for its disposal into the private domain, he dreamed of the old Homestead Act as a means to create his residence. Empowered with this fanciful plan, he purchased a double wide and situated it with power and other amenities while smugly squatting on the public domain. As a border guard, his act was daring and reckless but he reasoned that it served a higher purpose. His homestead dream was abruptly interrupted when shortly thereafter Congress authorized the Federal Land Management and Policy Act of 1976 (FLPMA) which repealed many of these give away laws. One possibility remained to him, it was the fossilized Mining Act that was retained despite with the new legislation. In his quest for legal acquisition of the parcel, he thought to become a miner and he immediately filed a claim for his squatters domain. Word of his trespass had filtered down to the BLM District Office in Spokane initiating an investigation. The order was given and it was going to be my duty to survey the claim and situate it within the public land survey.

Traveling north and west past Colville, we reached the village of Metaline Falls sometime around noon we took stock of our task ahead over lunch. During the afternoon on site, we found the doublewide and a small barrow pit that an enterprising child could have dug within a playtime interval if so motivated. Our suspect, the border guard excitedly hefted some rocks suggesting a rich ore strike but recalling my geological studies of a few short years before, I noticed nothing of value. Dean collected the samples for assessment and went to report the findings to Orv, the area manager in Spokane. Meanwhile Ray organized a plan for our survey of the “claim” and surrounding Public Lands.

At dinner in the village, we recalled notice of the boundary dam which was a short drive from our worksite and it was decided that we might take a quick look at it in the morning before Dean and Ray departed for Spokane. Dean was the team leader, Ray senior to me and I was senior to Tim. In a way, the conversation reflected this ranking of our personnel. Although expressing reservations over the fishery, Dean, an archetypical forester, was championing the net result with its hydrological power; Ray, trained in part in an outdoor recreation speciality, remarked on the dam-lake’s suitability and use as a recreational resource. My own thoughts had tended in favor of wild salmon, migrating steelhead, ancient sturgeon and mountain vastness beyond development. Tim, a seasonal technician, gave us all pause. While it may have been my concern for the natural inhabitants and the organic cycles of the rivers and forests that emboldened him that evening, he was something of a local from north of Spokane at Deer Park.

As a local he had more experience with the region than any of us. His appreciation of nature was perhaps less subtle than the rest of us but he knew something of the tribal histories and associations with the river. Tim began telling us a scaled down account of the Salmon Boy legend common to the region’s aboriginal inhabitants. In one case, he waxed poetic when referencing the giant ancient sturgeon that used to run in these waters. It was an agreeable conversation that effectively held us spellbound and lead us to meditate upon the original waterfalls and their indigenous usage. In the end, we were four government foresters with a fairly wide set of environmental values but attention to land use policy had taught us to consider alternatives beyond a simple hard utility and what might be termed “site mining” in the utter destruction of an organic wholeness affirmed in wild centered ecological process.

Still we were not quite prepared for what we found. In the morning when we reached the dam, the turbines were in full force generating maximum power with the spring-summer snowmelt. The energy was arcing all about us with static charges and it was maddeningly depressing. The torque of holding back that hydrologic surge was abundantly apparent as the generators whined in our ears. Looking to nearby mountains, the peaks remained mantled in white snow packs giving the scene great beauty but it was clear the winter glaciers were receding with each day. Evidently everyone felt the same need to abandon our sightseeing adventure so that when Ray suggested leaving we all bolted for the vehicles and crestfallen we parted ways with Dean and Ray returning to Spokane while Tim and I set out to survey the trespass.

Soon we were again at our worksite giving our best for Uncle Sam and the taxpayers. The claim was on a flat with open intermittent forests adjacent to the border crossing so that it was a breeze to survey. The remainder of our task was a bit more difficult as we had to locate it within the U.S. sectional survey and in doing so this meant traversing the International Boundary. There were no land mines and not even a Mountie to question our activities as we made our way to an official survey corner. We finished within the week and moved onto other projects although I had to prepare a platte documenting the survey.

In the process of this assignment, Tim had planted the seed for my quest to visit an untrammeled waterfalls, Kootenai Falls, and to experience its wild majesty. His account of visiting the falls some years earlier and our depressing experience at the dam gave me the desire to try and discover what he had known when visiting the wild cascade. Subconsciously I began planning a trek to the solitudes of Kootenai Falls while in quest of the origins of the mighty Columbia.

Although the seeds for my quest were germinating over the summer, it was much later in the fall when surrounding a three day weekend that I made my way to Montana in search of the last great waterfalls within the northwest. In the meantime, Orv had asked me to go north again to the border outpost and give a look in at our border guard “miner.” The shallow barrow pit had taken on some weeds but the promise of rich ore was nowhere to be seen. Telephoning my observations into the office, it was mid-August and I had traveled in my personal vehicle so as to enjoy a brief respite from work across the boundary in Canada. Crossing the line I made my way to Trail where I saw the barrens effect of an operating smelter at work. Turning westward across Fourth of July Mountain, I was in search of a high vantage point where I might find an unobstructed view of the Leonid meteor showers. It was a superhot day and along the way my little truck experienced the oddity of vapor lock. Shutdown on the mountain road, I somehow thought to open my fuel cap and “whoosh” the vapors rushed out into the sweltering air. It was that simple, the engine caught and I headed down the mountain to Oosyoos where I pulled into a Royal Canadian Legend parking lot. As I did so a Canadian pulled in nearby with a stutter and stop that ended in shutdown; I had seen it before on the mountain so I walked over and suggested he unscrew his gas cap. As the vapor lock swooshed away, he was pleased to offer me a beer in the nearby tavern and under the circumstances I could not resist the invitation. Later when I explained my goal to find a high peak to observe the meteor shower, he asked around and someone informed us of an observatory mountain some miles to the west. Taking my leave, I made my way to the mountain which had tarmac roadway with many switchback turns reaching to the summit. Finding a suitable parking site, I had a three hundred sixty degree view of the horizon but I thought to bed down in the back of my pickup where I could look up at the stars and also feel secure while the spectacular meteor display filled the night. It was indeed a time to wish upon the stars.

Back in Spokane I began to again give thought to visiting Kootenai Falls. There was a three day weekend coming and I planned to leave immediately after work on a Friday so as to make haste and reach the site before dark. As I investigated the lore of the falls, I learned David Thompson, a British explorer, had first recorded the cascade in 1811 describing a tempestuous passage through the cascades: “The River had steep banks of rocks and only 30 yards in width, this space was full of violent eddies which threatened us with destruction.” As he passed through these rapids, he followed rock cairns built by the Kootenais intended to honor and ensure good medicine from the the spirits inhabiting this sacred place. Thompson’s corp of discovery included several Iroquois canoemen who were embraced by the Salish and Kootenai during the adventure. Later they returned to take up their lives among these Plateau Indians. In doing so, they spread tales of Black Robes and their medicine power. As these mountain tribes were under assault from the powerful plains inhabiting Blackfeet, the Salish and Kootenai took solace in the idea of the Black Robe medicine. Four expeditions were sent to the east in order to find and secure a Black Robe. At long last on the fourth journey, they found their man in Father Jean Pierre DeSmet, S.J. who with other Jesuit Priests recorded their adventures in the mountain fastness. While DeSmet never mentioned the falls, he did give some account of the splendor of the wild landscape. Some years later when their Black Robe crossed the mountain parapets to take his “medicine” to the Blackfeet, the Salish-Kootenai gave up the cross and returned to their old ways but the falls were doomed with the advent of these white explorers. Wildness which the Natives had embraced in harmony and balance with the land was soon oppressed and overwhelmed with an abstract afterlife fantasy in mind over matter rationalization. Undaunted by my research, I set out some days later for Montana and my adventure at Kootenai Falls.

With its clear crisp nights and days, autumn is a splendid time in the plateau region. The vermin - biting insects and such - give way to crystal clear days of blue skies and seasonal colors as the foliage goes dormant. These autumnal mornings seduce even the best of intentions in a wildland explorer. To this end, there is a [Salish-]Kootenai narrative recounting the creator’s promise to give out names to the animals on such a morning. Coyote was so excited with the news, he could not sleep as the growing anticipation loom in his nightlife by the campfire. He wanted a powerful name, something like Wolf or Grizzly Bear, so that he set by his fire imagining how it would be when various other persons called him by his new and magical name. Towards the late hours of darkness, he finally fell asleep only to be awakened shortly thereafter with the growing warmth of the sun shining down upon him. The Sun was in fact high in the sky, but he was undaunted by this observation and he raced over to the place of naming where surprise astonished him when he found no one there at all.

Addressing the forest, he called out to the creator saying, “I am here to acquire a good name, a powerful name like Grizzly Bear or Eagle. Will you give me this name now that I am the first to arrive?”

The creator responded with a laugh, “Coyote have you not seen the sun above? The naming is long past and there remain but two names available to you.”
Perplexed but hopeful, Coyote inquired, “What two names have you that I might chose between them?”

“There is Skunk and Coyote. You had best keep the name you have.”
And that is how Coyote got his name.

As for my journey to this special place, I had been told that in the autumn there is a morning mist that enshrouds the falls so that it is a place of mystery and creation as in the the dawn beginnings and endings of life. Having worked through Friday afternoon in Spokane, I arrived late with evening descending at the cascades, but I managed to find a suitable campsite and I set up my tent in the darkening evening with the aid of my campfire and a flashlight. The roar of water sluicing through the rapids filled my ears; it was a soothing sound, slick in the fluid glide of water cresting and receding while rushing through the narrows. There was an electromagnetism in the air that I found relaxing like that gentle peace following a thunderstorm. My mood was altogether relaxed and seeming at one with my surroundings as I made myself snug and secure in my sleeping bag. As the light dissipated into an enveloping darkness, I was wont to tarry in the comfort of my bedding like Coyote of the long ago time.

Come morning, the midst was still rising when I awoke; the air was filled with a solemn spirituality holding a hint of mysticism as the daylight stole away the enveloping fog about the falls. In those sunshining hours, I poked around the water’s edge exploring the nooks and crannies of wild solitude for the three remaining days of my visit. Spirits spoke from the ancient rock cairns and guided me on the waves of refreshing water that lapped against the shoreline.

The spiritual power imbued my soul and I discovered that soul-mood which wilderness adventurers poetically describe in their use of the term solitude. As the Kootenai acknowledged the spirits or nature persons thereabout, it was the will-of-the-land speaking to me in that soul-mood - wilderness solitude.

The desire for cheap power to light the darkness in far off Seattle had cast its eye upon the last great waterfalls in the northwest - a place of mystery and wonder, sacred to the Kootenai was now in the sights of urban planners and developers. Equipped with my will-of-the-land soul-mood experience at the falls, I entered the hearing room to see an expansive crowd including a host of Kootenai and their Salish allies - men, women and children - bunched tightly in the left front quadrant. Taking my seat across the isle from this band of indigenous keepers of the land, I smiled broadly at my hosts. It came to me with a start as my hosts in corner of aboriginal North America. It came to me with a start as my name was suddenly called. Mustering my dignity, I arose to take my place at the microphone.

In my best extemporaneous address, I recalled my experience at the falls giving particular attention to the sacred Kootenai tributary rock cairns. There was mention of the spirits - nature persons - and soul mood when I subsequently challenged the whiteman’s greed suggesting if that wanted to dam a sacred place then they might start with one of their own. Rhetorically I raised the spectre of damming Arlington National Cemetery and it resonated with my audience of Salish-Kootenai people. In the end, I felt the empowerment of having done my best on behalf of the spirits inhabiting their sacred Kootenai Falls.

Following my presentation, a whiteman took the stand suggesting that he had never seen an Indian visiting the cascades while concluding what he deemed a “higher” and “better” use of the place in generating hydroelectricity. His speech was given a chilly reception that even dampened his spirit when he shrank away to his seat. All in all the hearing clearly favored keeping the wild waterfalls free of dam-development and hydroelectric generation. There was a sense of wildland empowerment as I nodded to one of the forestry school professors in attendance when leaving the auditorium.

Once again I was walking about the city thinking to take a late evening meal at the Ox. As I approached the old watering hole, there was a young Indian man smiling broadly who stepped out to greet me. He offered his hand saying my old uncle wants to speak with you.

Pulling the Oxford door open, he ushered me to a table in the back where an old man sat with his cadre of attendants. They were devoted to the old ways of honoring the spirits and maintaining a sense of reciprocity with the natural world. The old man took my hand as I accepted a seat next to him. The young man translated, “My uncle thanks you for your words at the hearing.”

“It was my pleasure. The least I could do,” I replied.

As I passed a precious hour in his company, the old man spoke of crossing the rivers in spring time. “We put our things in bull boats,” translated the young man, “and swam across with them. Sometimes blocks of ice would thump against you. It was cold.”

Soon thereafter they prepared to leave and the old man gave me his blessing while I clapped his shoulder in warm embrace, there was again wild solace in my heart.


Jay Hansford C. Vest, Ph.D.
Enrolled member Monacan Indian Nation
Direct descendent Opechanchanough (Pamunkey)
Honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) in Ceremonial Adoption (June 1989)
Professor of American Indian Studies
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
One University Drive (P. O. Box 1510)
Pembroke, NC 28372-1510 USA
Dr. Jay Hansford C. Vest’s Website