The river is a strong brown god. So declared T. S. Eliot, anyway. Some rivers, perhaps. The Mississippi, the Ohio, the Platte, certainly the Colorado. But not this river. Not Nch’I’Wana. Not the Columbia. Here in the shadow of the Rattlesnake Hills, the river is a clear as a subatomic particle, as cool as the icy hand of death, as fast as coyote sprinting at full stretch.
They call the Reach the last free-flowing run for the Columbia in the United States. The river flows. But it’s not entirely free. For 51 miles, from Priest Rapids Dam to the backwaters of McNary Reservoir at Richland, Washington, the waters of the Columbia flow unimpeded by a dam. The flow is regulated by the hydro-engineers upstream at Priest Rapids Dam. The releases of water fluctuate wildly. At peak demand, as the water is rushing through the turbines, the spills can raise the river level of Columbia by as much as 16 feet in a few hours. Still the river has a pulse, a taste of what it once was.
River trips don’t need a pretext. But we’ve got one anyway. Josh is tying the knot–and I’m not talking about a bowline or a clove hitch. He’s getting married in a couple of weeks–or some contractual variation of that state of domestic union. This is a bachelor’s party of sorts, a final taste of freedom. It’s not much of a party. There are only two of us, squeezed into my sockeye-salmon orange inflatable touring kayak. Just the two of us and the whorls and boils of the liberated river. Just us and the river and the monitoring stations, watch towers, patrol boats, warning sirens and razor wire.
Despite its status as a national monument, conferred by Bill Clinton exactly 10 years ago as a morsel to politically-famished greens, the Hanford Reach remains largely a closed and forbidden landscape. Ominous signs warn that entry to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the world’s most toxic site, on river right will result in arrest and prosecution. Most of the Saddle Mountain Wildlife Refuge on river left is closed. There’s no overnight camping allowed anywhere along the Reach. Even the islands are off limits. Only on the river are you really free.
The plan is to kayak as much of the Reach as we can, a forty-mile stretch from below Priest Rapids Dam, once home of Smohallah, the apocalyptic Dreamer of the Wanapum tribe, down to Ringold, site of a strange fish hatchery cordoned off by concertina wire. What dark plot are they protecting the salmon fry from? The Cold War is long gone, but the paranoia persists.
The float will take two days, requiring us to take-out at the old White Bluffs ferry, return to Richland for the night, and then put back in there the next day. That’s roughly 200 miles of driving each day to circumvent the sprawling nuclear wasteland of Hanford. But if access to the Reach were easy, the river would be crowded with shitheads on powerboats and jet-skis.
This Saturday morning we have the launch above Vernita Bridge to ourselves. By 9 am, the air is already heating up. The gold slopes of Saddle Mountain to the east blaze in the sun. The sky is cloudless and crystalline. To the Northwest, we can make out the glacier-draped bulge of Mount Rainer, nearly 150 miles away.
The ground at the launch is littered with the corpses of squawfish, large, needle-toothed fish that prey voraciously on steelhead and salmon smolts. The fish are native to the river, but in recent years a bounty has been placed on their heads. Like the sea lions of the lower Columbia, the squawfish, also known as Columbia River pikeminnow, has become a scapegoat for salmon decline. Blame anything but the dams.
We unfold the kayak, inflate its six chambers with a hand pump, clip-in two seats, tuck away our river bags, water and cameras. Despite recent warnings from the Environmental Working Group about its toxicity, we slather our cavefish-white Oregon flesh in sunscreen. It will do little good. By noon, we will both be sautéed. Our skin will redden and peel. It is a salutary, healing kind of pain, a ritual flensing—quite unlike the other kind of heat generated by the dark towers on the far side of the river. “Come away, into the Sun” counseled D.H. Lawrence. “It’s the Sun you want. You want life.”
Entering Hanford Area 100.
The rigging of our low-riding craft takes less than five minutes. One last check of essentials.
“Obligatory volume of Abbey?”
“This is a bachelor’s party weekend, isn’t it?”
We sprinkle some sagebrush into blue torrent of Nch’I Wana to appease the river gods, push off the gravel-strewn shore and immediately the newly liberated Columbia grabs the bow of the kayak, spins us to the south and hurls us downstream toward the pilings of Vernita Bridge, our portal into the Reach.
The river constricts, flexing its power as the current rips under the bridge. Suckholes swirl on both sides of us. One of them pulls at the bow of the kayak, tilting us toward the whirlpool. I slap the water with a low brace of my paddle and then it playfully releases us and we shoot into the iridescent, writhing surge of the main channel. A few moments later we turn and look back. The bridge is already far behind us.
“Let’s have a toast!”
“Absolutely,” says Josh. He’s from Montana. It’s never too early for him.
“Where’s the tequila?”
“In the river bag.”
Josh fumbles around in the small hold in the bow. Comes up empty-handed.
“Where’s the river bag?”
“Uhm, back in Richland?”
“Can we make it down this river sober?”
As if in answer, our kayak is jolted and spins, despite our frantic stroking. We’ve been gripped by an eddyline, the violent interface between powerful counter-currents, where the river turns back on itself.
Water flows around us, but we are still. Dead calm. Like the movie, but without anyone even remotely resembling Nicole Kidman. The kayak is perpendicular to the current. Not the best position, according to the operations manual. Not by a long shot. There’s a movement in the reeds on river right, the nuclear side. It’s coyote. He looks our way, ears erect. He sizes us up for a moment as he takes a crap. Then he lopes away toward a low ridge to the west, crowned by two black smokestacks. The twin fangs marking the B and C reactors, the dark towers of Dr. Fermi and Dr. Teller, where the rough nuclear beast came of age.
Reactor B is now a National Historic Landmark inside a National Monument. That’s probably not the architectural legacy Enrico Fermi had in mind when he designed the plutonium machine back at his mass atomic death lab at the University of Chicago in 1943. Fermi’s schematics to construct a plant to produce fuel for a plutonium bomb by a process of nuclear fission were handed over to the DuPont Corporation, whose engineers had the reactor up and running by September 1944, when Reactor B conducted its first successful nuclear chain-reaction. Ten months later plutonium-239 generated at Hanford would be used for the first nuclear bomb test at the Trinity Site in New Mexico. Three weeks later Hanford fuel would be packed in the “implosion design plutonium device” called Fat Man and detonated over Nagasaki, killing 73,884 people, injuring another 74,000 and exposing another 250,000 to radioactive fallout. That atrocity ended the Pacific War, but Hanford was just gearing up.
Reactor B is not a big building. It only covers about 1,700 square feet, about the size of a suburban house. Last fall, Josh toured the facility with Chelsea. By all accounts, it such hot date that they soon decided to join together what remains of their half-lives in matrimony. The reactor core is essentially a graphite box about 36 feet tall and 28 feet wide. The core is encased by a 10-inch thick shield of cast iron. Such a tiny little place to generate so much fear, so much death.
The core craves water to keep it cooled down. Lots of water. That’s the prime reason the nuclear engineers picked Hanford. It was a remote site with easy access to an almost limitless supply of water. So pumphouses were built to suck up 75,000 gallons of Columbia River water every minute and shoot it through aluminum tubes and around the uranium slugs. The highly contaminated water was then discharged into settling ponds and then flushed back into the river down large sluices. And that’s where the trouble started for the river and the fish and the people who ate them.
Coyote pauses on the ridgeline, pisses on a stubby sage and chortles. Always the tricks, the twisted little jokes, with you buddy. Well, here’s one on you, coyote. For years, ecologists scouring the Hanford steppe with Geiger counters to chart the how the radioactivity at the site is marching its way up the food chain have gotten the loudest pings when sweeping across coyote turds. The Geiger counters almost spasm with excitement. The ecologists have taken to calling the hot coyote scat “hummers.”
Coyote, Hanford, Area 100.
Here’s an object lesson in the upward accumulation of bad isotopes. The deer that graze Hanford’s high desert plants are radioactive, too. But their shit doesn’t ping like coyote’s. That’s because deer are vegans. They consume radioactivity from toxic water, willow leaves and forbs. It accumulates in their blood, organs and tissue. But it doesn’t bio-magnify. It doesn’t increase in toxicity. That only comes with the consumption of radioactive flesh.
There’s only one other species at Hanford who’s shit sets off coyote-like alarm bells: the deer-hunters of the Hanford Reach. Out here, the Great Chain of Being has gone radioactive.
Through no machination of our own, the river kicks us out of the eddy and sends us twirling downstream, toward the notch in Saddle Mountain, the lovely “alpine view” used to lure workers to the Hanford outback. Boy where they in for a surprise. The austere Saddle Mountain is the tallest range in Washington without trees.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photographs by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR.