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Down the Hanford Reach (Part Three)

Paradoxical River


Click here to read Part One.

Click here to read Part Two.

I am standing next to the perimeter fence, looking across Hanford’s secret geography. Behind the K Reactor complex rises Gable Mountain, a sere ridge of basalt long sacred to the Wanapum people and the birthplace of the Washani Religion, the apocalyptic Dreamer Cult of Smohalla that sparked the great Yakama War of 1855. Now the holy mountain serves as a scenic backdrop for the physics of obliteration.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the Hanford security forces, composed of crack shots from Kennewick and Walla Walla, had the authority to shoot trespassers on sight. In the end, the armed guards chased away a few poachers, some drunken ranch hands from Mattawa and a couple Wanapum elders sneaking into the forbidden land to perform their ancient rituals.

The real atomic spies usually drove right through the front gate, sporting top secret clearance, and drove out again carrying the design schematics for the latest configuration of the H-bomb. The plans were often in Stalin’s vault two weeks later. (For more on espionage at Hanford and other sites check out Richard Rhodes’ masterful book Dark Sun: the Making of the Hydrogen Bomb.)

Hanford’s fences, watchtowers and armed guards were an early exercise in perception management, designed to imply that the real threats were external, rather than leaking from the inside-out, day by day, curie by curie, isotope by deadly isotope.

Off the river for only few moments, and, suddenly, the air feels hot, stifling. The Hanford plain sizzles in the unsparing light. The land looks scalded and skinless, like cooked bone.

“We’re screwed," Josh whispers, urgently pointing down river toward the metallic howl of a jet boat.

"What kind of cyber-sensors does this place have, any way? You’ve been tip-toeing, haven’t you?" I hurl a river-polished rock at the yellow No Entry sign looming above us on the verboten grounds of Hanford’s infamous Area 100. Ka-ching!

I stuff a couple of K Reactor rocks into my pocket. They are oddities from Montana, carried here 20,000 years ago during the mighty Bretz Floods, when the ice dams holding back a vast inland sea cracked, unleashing an 800-foot tall torrent of water that scoured out the coulee country of the Inland Empire and carved the Columbia Gorge. Now they’re radioactive. Maybe I’ll pack them in my carry-on luggage the next time I fly. Gotta keep those TSA agents on their toes.

The jet boat is the first sign of river traffic we’ve seen in twelve miles on the Columbia. Human river traffic, that is. The menacing green craft speeds towards us, ripping huge wakes in the surface of the river and startling fifty Canada geese into angry flight.

Someone is standing in the pilot house holding a megaphone. He seems to be pointing it directly at us. Josh takes out his cellphone, for one last talk with Chelsea, before we join the ranks of the disappeared.

“Tell Chelsea to retain Jonathan Turley or that David Cole. Under the Patriot Act, they can keep us incommunicado for months. Years, maybe.”

Call fails. No signal. Are they jamming our phones, too? Or, perhaps, it’s just another dropped iPhone call. Apple hasn’t been the same since Steve Jobs made up with Bill Gates. These damned phones crash more frequently than Windows XP.

“Quick,” Josh says. “Hide the contraband.”

“We are the contraband.”

“Oh, right.”

We scramble into the kayak and hurriedly push off. Tragically, the river doesn’t abet our getaway. Instead, the current pulls us rapidly toward the approaching the assault boat.

“You’ll never take us dry!” Josh declares over the roar of the jet boat’s engines. Like a true child of Billings, Josh cinches his life-jacket so tightly that he’s beginning to sprout cleavage. He’s not exactly John Paul Jones up there in the bow.

“Remember to leave room to breathe.”

We’ve both read the accounts of the dead and the brain dead. The drowned and the hypothermic. If you end up in the river out here, the odds of surviving aren’t good—and that’s not factoring in the radiation exposure.

The water is cold, the current unforgiving, the good Samaritans long since evicted from the premises. So we agreed early on to follow the Apocalypse Now! Rule of Boating Safety: Stay in the boat, even while under furious assault from DoE SEALS, stay in the friggin’ boat.

Great Blue Heron.

The sun is shining fiercely in our eyes, but it looks like there may be twenty beefy goons crammed into the terrible machine. Surely that’s overkill. What kind of a threat do we pose to the priests of Armageddon?

Yes, we’re packing a soggy and swollen copy of the Monkey Wrench Gang and that might be considered a serious enhancing factor at any secret tribunal. But, hell, Abbey’s been dead for twenty years and Peacock’s four-hundred miles away, hip-deep in the Yellowstone, draining Tecates and harassing trout.

“Remember Ruby Ridge!” Josh shouts, defiantly shaking his paddle.

“Shssh. Don’t antagonize them! They might take it for a weapon.”

“But these are our only weapons!”

“What about those water balloons filled with butyric acid we picked up at Captain Watson’s wharfside sale?“

“Don’t ask.”

At last, we can make out the steel-wool voice blaring from the megaphone. It has a strong eastern European accent. Hungarian, perhaps? A voice trying hard to mimic the harsh intonations of the young Edward Teller.

“Zees is verr ve ended zee wahr,” the rotund man says, pointing toward the B Reactor. “Und zees is verr ve stopped zee Roozkees,” hand sweeping like a mad conductor at the K Reactor complex. “Und zhat is verr ve kud uf beaten cancer,” his stubby finger pointing toward a shadowy complex near Gable Mountain, the mothballed Fast-Flux Breeder Reactor. “If not vor dos damn enfiromentaleezts.”

I nudge Josh in the shoulder with my paddle. “Dos damn enFIROmentaleezts? Is he talking about us? You didn’t bring any matches, did you? I specifically said, No matches!!”

“Yeah,” Josh grins. “But you didn’t say anything about my trusty Zippo!”


“Damn. That could land us another 10 years in the slammer. No vegetarian food, Josh. And the judge might make us write a book report on Three Cups of Tea. Just ask that Jonathan Paul.”

“What if I remove the flint?”

“Just keep it in open view. Don’t conceal that Zippo.”

N Reactor, Hanford Nuclear Reservation

It soon becomes apparent that this is not a Department of Energy Strike Force death-craft racing to defend the nuclear site’s vulnerable riparian flank from interlopers in inflatable kayaks, but something much more ominous: a Hanford tour boat, educating plump H-bomb groupies from Moscow (Idaho, that is) and Wenatchee about the archaeological ruins of the Cold War.

Info-sermon complete, the wise-guy pilot revs the engines into an obscene scream. The sharp bow of the big boat rears up into the full-hydroplaning position and bears down on us with malevolent intent, before making an abrupt u-turn that washes us in a curtain of cold spray.

The chunky tourists cheer, flash us ironic waves and speed back to Richland for a box lunch at Gen. Leslie Grove Park, shredding the surface of the river as they disappear behind a funnel of blue smoke.

Our little orange kayak flexes, then scales the violent four-foot wakes and digs out of the deep troughs carved by the absconding jet boat. Wet and battered, we paddle downstream once again, toward the immaculate high cliffs called the White Bluffs.

The White Bluffs of the Columbia.

To be continued.

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: