Note: This story took more than five years to write. It recounts a two-day river trip that Joshua Frank and I made down the last free-flowing stretch of the mighty Columbia River through the irradiated Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a landscape that has been called “the most dangerous place in the world.” The excursion, in a flimsy inflatable kayak, was a bizarre kind of bachelor’s party for Josh, who was getting married to his future wife, the environmental photographer Chelsea Mosher, only a few weeks later. I took extensive notes on our trip in the nuclear zone, but never finished the essay because a few weeks later I learned that Alexander Cockburn was ill and our whole world changed, never to be quite the same. Yet years later, on the eve of our own daughter’s wedding, those surreal days on the Atomic River in eastern Washington came streaming back to me and I finally wrote it all up, more or less how it happened. — JSC
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 as 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 cleansing—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.”
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 the 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 was 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 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.”
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 were they in for a surprise. The austere Saddle Mountain is the tallest range in Washington without trees.
The Columbia is the great river of paradoxes. Stoke by stroke, we are paddling deeper and deeper into a conundrum. But the contradictions are mostly ours, not the river’s. Let’s start with this one. Hanford’s corridor of reactors, nine in all, were located here because of the free-flowing river. The river in the Reach remains undammed because of those nukes. The river on both sides of the Reach is dammed up largely to provide power for the Hanford nukes. They call them the Cold War dams: Priest Rapids, McNary, John Day and The Dalles. Each were sold to the public on the promise of cheap power, but much of that energy was secretly re-directed up to Hanford for the production of plutonium for H-bombs. The great salmon-fishing grounds of Celilo were lost largely to satiate Hanford’s unquenchable thirst for electric power.
Of course, that didn’t stop the Army Corps of Engineers from wanting to inundate the Reach behind a mega-dam to be constructed near Pasco. The plans were first drawn up in 1932, then shelved until the early 1970s, when an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, steelhead fishermen and the Atomic Energy Commission, who were then in charge of Hanford, beat it down.
But dams don’t perish so easily and the Pasco project, called the Ben Franklin Dam (at least they didn’t appropriate the name of a local chief like Kamiakan), was resurrected by the Carter Administration in 1978. Most dams, like wars, are instigated by Democrats. This time the dam wasn’t sold as an engine of cheap hydro-power, but as a mighty facilitator of marine commerce. The idea was to open the entire upper Columbia River to barge traffic and, in the process, make Wenatchee, Washington, nearly 500 river miles from the coast, a deep water port. The Corps sank another $2 million into engineering studies to justify the dam and boosters poured in another $2 million in pr touting how the project would transform the Inland Empire into a glorious engine of commerce.
Alas, it was not to be. This time the dam was killed off by the Reagan administration, which was forced to confront the uncomfortable fact that the waters of the reservoir would have encroached upon the most toxic soil in the world: the radioactive tank farms of Hanford. The sages in the Reagan White House wisely decided that it was better to let the 177 vats of radioactive slop discretely corrode and leak into the groundwater than risk exhuming them and publicly confronting the treacherous mess that had been left behind as an eternal relic of the nation’s four-decade long obsession with devices of nuclear annihilation.
So in 1981 the Ben Franklin project was shelved once again. And there it sits, biding its time for a third incarnation. What’s the half-life of a dam?
Merrily, merrily we float. Downstream, always downstream. Such a beautiful word. A word with an unimpeachable integrity and authenticity. On this lonely stretch of river, pelicans are our only companions. The big white birds are graceful flyers on 10-foot wingspan, much more so than the ungainly great blue herons that stalk the riverbanks and bark irritably when we paddle by. Both the herons and the pelicans are fish-eaters. The pelicans are voracious feeders, each bird eats as much as 5 pounds of fish each day—more when they are feeding chicks. The white pelicans of the Reach aren’t diving birds, like their cousins the brown pelicans of the coast. Instead, they take their prey from the surface of the river while swimming. If ravens are the coyotes of the avian world, pelicans behave more like wolves. They live in highly organized social groups. They hunt together often in coordinated groups of six or ten birds. Sometimes the groups will split, with some pelicans pushing schools of fish into shallow water where the other birds are waiting and a communal and often synchronized feeding frenzy ensues.
The white pelicans will eat almost any fish: chub, perch, bass, carp, rainbow trout. But it’s the salmon they love. It’s the salmon that have lured them here, decade after decade, in great migrations from their wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.
But it’s that passion for fish that has put the pelican, and the herons, eagles and osprey, at risk. For even though the Hanford Reach is home to the last vibrant run of wild Chinook salmon on the Columbia River, those fish, and the others in the Reach, are contaminated with an array of radionuclides and other atomic debris leaching inexorably into the Columbia from the Hanford’s 1400 haphazardly-placed waste dumps. By one estimate, these dumps have leaked three-million curies of radiation into the river every year from 1950 through the 1980s. The radiation continues to leak–though leak is perhaps not the right word—largely unabated by the latest techno-fixes.
At Hanford, environmental mitigation is an expensive illusion. How expensive? Back in 2000, the price-tag for cleaning up Hanford was pegged at $100 billion dollars. But in the intervening decade the extent of the contamination has more than tripled. This is delightful news for contractors, such as CHM2 Hill, Westinghouse, Batelle, Bechtel, but a dismal diagnosis for the ecosystem. Just ask any pelican.
On river right we pass the old pumphouse near the sprawling K Reactor complex. The building is gouged roughly into the river bank. It has a crenellated roofline and dark windows, looking like a ruined castle on the Scottish moors. The pumphouse fed millions of gallons of water into the so-called sister reactors and later into the menacing K-Basins.
When Hanford suddenly stopped producing plutonium in the late 1980s, the atomic engineers were left with a problem. There were more than 100,000 uranium fuel rods and rod fragments that had been irradiated but wouldn’t be processed into plutonium. What to do with this hot property? After a few seconds of deliberation, they decided to sink it.
In the 1950s, two vast concrete pools had been constructed less than 400 yards from the Columbia River as temporary storage lagoons. Even though these basins were already 10 years beyond their 20-year life expectancy, the Department of Energy decided to fill them each with a million gallons of water and submerge the deteriorating fuel assemblies.
Out of sight, out of mind. Naturally, it didn’t work out that way. Almost immediately, the K-East Basin sprang leaks. Highly radioactive water began to spill onto the ground and leach its way into the river. The irradiate rods began to corrode and decay, dissolving into a lethal sludge.
In 1994, the Energy Department began the dangerously experiment task of fishing out the 2,100 metric tons of fuel rods from the K East Basin. It took them 10 years to remove the fuel rods and then they hit the sludge. The fuel rods were packed away in another spooky structure at Hanford called the Canister Storage Building, but the thick band of sludge at the bottom of the basin was sucked up in giant vacuums over a four-year period, stuffed in canisters and then submerged into the K West Basin. The million gallons of water was sucked from the basin, run quickly through a treatment plant and then, somewhat unbelievably, simply sprayed on the ground.
So much for the problematic K East Basin, right? Wrong. In turns out that the ground beneath the basin is thoroughly saturated with radioactive scum.
What about the K West Basin, you ask. Good question. It remains filled to the brim with water, fuel rods and sludge. The genial folks at Hanford say not to worry. This radioactive swimming pool is quite impermeable. So far.
But there’s no time to dally on such trifles today. The river pulls us away. The current picks up steam. We hit a standing wave, sending a cold spray over the kayak. Then another and another. Suddenly we’re drenched. This is Coyote Rapids, a bouncy wave train that is over just as we start to enjoy it. We try to paddle furiously back upstream to ride it again, but the river pushes us back. Exclusive engagement, no replays.
We slide into an eddy below the rapids and nose the kayak toward a gravel bar.
“Look at that,” Josh says pointing toward a large bolt in the river. It is bone-white and four-feet long.
“No wonder this place sprang a leak.”
Hanford’s missing bolt.
We pull the kayak on the bank and step on forbidden ground. Josh heads toward the nearest mutant willow tree to take a piss, while I climb up an old road bed to get a better view of the K Reactor complex. The road ends at a fence topped with razor wire. There is a large sign featuring stark red letters:
You are entering the Hanford Site Emergency Zone. If you hear a steady 3 minute siren leave the area IMMEDIATELY. Turn your radio to KONA 610 AM for emergency information.
“Hey, Josh, where’s our damn radio?”
“Back with the Tequila.”
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.”
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.
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?“
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.”
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 parapets of the White Bluffs hulk 500-feet above the river. These are not the usual black basalt cliffs that dominate most of the Columbia Plateau. The White Bluffs are the remains of an ancient lake bottom, left by the melted glaciers of the Pleistocene, now being inexorably incised by the steady gnawing of the Columbia.
Geologists categorize the cliffs and nearby hills as part of the Ringold Formation. The people of the river called this eerie landscape the deadlands and it was here that the great healer Smohalla came to pray and mourn when he failed to save his young daughter from one of the plagues introduced by the white people. It was here that Smohalla had his vision of his own death and resurrection and here where he experience his chilling dream of the end times, when bodies would rise from the earth, and tribal people would once again live as one with the land.
It is possible, even probable, that during his sojourn through these haunted badlands that Smohalla came across the embedded bones of some now extinct Pleistocene creature, a Giant sloth or Wooly Mammoth, which the cliffs frequently disgorge.
The river people called him Starman, as if he could see through deep space into the circulating currents of time. Smohallah could certainly see more clearly than most what was coming from the white invaders, the people he called “red-eyed fools.” Dispossession, destruction and death. He had no doubts about the veracity of his vision and counseled sternly against the making of any treaties, any deal that consign away the sovereign rights of native people to the land, the river, the deer and the fish. Make them take it, if they must, but don’t sell it or give it away.
The whites came to White Bluffs in 1855, driven by a frenzy for gold. The creeks were dredged, mines sunk into the strange fluvial soils. No fortunes were made, but people stayed anyway. The small town of White Bluffs sprang up in the valley. Apple, pears and almond trees were planted on the ridges. People squeezed out a hard living from this austere land.
Then in 1943 the government came calling. The people in White Bluff were told that their land was being seized and there could be no appeal. Some residents were given only three days to pack up their belongings and leave. A few months later all of the houses, barns, churches and buildings in White Bluff were bulldozed and torched, the orchards uprooted and burned. And, in a spooky fulfillment of Smohalla’s prophecy, nearly 200 bodies from town’s cemetery were exhumed from their graves, tossed into Army trucks and hauled off to another graveyard in the town Prosser 30 miles away.
On this July day the high desert air will breach the century mark, but the river is cold, probably hypothermic. Once the temperature of the waters rose by more than 2 degrees, when the nuclear engineers at Hanford flushed thousands of gallons of hot water into the great river of the West. Hot as in radioactive.
The consequences of that spill and the others that followed are still being felt and will be for something like eternity. These are the cruel externalities of the atomic age, thyroid cancers for the downwinders and other forms of death for those who live downwater, such as the forty-five babies in the Hanford Region born dead without brains. A cursed landscape? A tormented existence that Smoholla dreamed? Perhaps. But it is a curse we have brought upon ourselves and our descendants until the end of time.
Bank swallows buzz our heads. Two trout break the surface of the river in tandem, chasing the same big yellow mayfly. The sun breaches the White Bluffs and burnishes the golden tones of the high desert to the west.
“You know the scenery out here probably hasn’t changed all that much since David Thompson floated it in 1811.”
“Except for the reactors.”
“Except for the them.”
“Who’s David Thompson?”
“Where did you go to school, Josh?”
“Who says I went to school?”
Therein lies a tale.
Growing up in the cornfields of the Midwest, I had two childhood idols who I couldn’t talk about. One was Crazy Horse, who I couldn’t bring up at school without getting into a fight with some slick-haired jackass in shit-kicker boots. I went to Shit-Kicker High School. Our mascot was a professional Shit-Kicker, blonde hair, massive biceps, pointy boots. Despite it’s name, Indiana was a devoted Custer state. Still is.
The other hero was certain Dafydd ap Thomas (otherwise known as David Thompson) and no one knew who the hell he was. They still don’t.
I learned about the life of the great Welsh cartographer one drizzly afternoon in Ely, Minnesota from Sigurd Olson, the Thoreau of the North Woods. Along with Aldo Leopold and Robert Marshall, Olson helped build the political movement to protect wilderness. He was a driving force behind the creation of the Boundary Waters and Voyaguers and Boundary Waters National Parks, the Reyes Point National Seashore and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He helped write the beautiful authorizing language for the Wilderness Act. Olson was also a gifted historian of the early explorations of Canada and the Pacific Northwest, from Samuel Hearne to Alexander Mackenzie. But ranking above all of these in Olson’s estimation was David Thompson, who explored and mapped much of western Canada, as well as Montana, Oregon, Idaho and Washington two hundred years ago.
Olson was in his late-seventies when I met him. But he still spent many solitary weeks in the Quantico-Superior Wilderness, paddling his canoe over those vast windy lakes and humping heavy loads of gear across demanding portages.
“I like to take these trips alone,” he told me in his cabin. “The way old Thompson did. Just me and the loons and the stars.”
When I was 16 I retraced some of Thompson’s travels in Manitoba, from Churchill on Hudson’s Bay to the Little Beaver River, two hundred and fifty miles up the Churchill River. Even in the 1970s, this remained a wild region thick with trout, Arctic grayling and bears. Big brown ones. I later wrote a limp novel enmeshing the contours of that trip with Thompson’s remarkable life, now consigned to ashes.
Now, on the 200th anniversary of his greatest adventure, a thousand mile-long descent of the Columbia River, from its source in British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, Thompson remains an obscure figure, eclipsed in the public imagination by Lewis and Clark and John Wesley Powell, who have enjoyed more zealous promoters, from Bernard DeVoto to Wallace Stegner to Ed Abbey. Olson, unfortunately, never got around to writing a book on Thompson.
Of course, in the race for Empire, Thompson ended up on the losing side—that side being the trappers, the fur-traders, voyageurs, the beaver, the otter and, yes, the river tribes themselves. The side of the old ways, living close to the rhythms of land.
Thompson’s beautiful and precisely rendered maps were put to a malign purpose. The most malign imaginable, a purpose not different in kind from the complex recipes for brewing a super-bomb at Hanford two centuries later. So were his deftly-written journals. They were used first as a guide to western expansion, then as a blueprint for the remorseless exploitation of the natural world and the systematic dispossession and annihilation of the river tribes.
It all must look pretty much the same,as it did in 1811, except for the nuclear plants, barbed wire, sirens, sensors, pumphouses and powerlines. And what is missing. The tribal villages, the bears, the runs of fat summer Chinook salmon. We have entered the world of the seen and the unseen, where we define ourselves more by what we have lost than what we have made.
The sharp eyes of David Thompson would have surely recognized the White Bluffs, the black basalt escarpment of Gable Mountain, the block faults of Rattlesnake and Saddle Mountains and the river itself. This last arc of free-running river, crisp and crystilline and brawny. They ought to rename it Thompson’s Reach. Or Smoholla’s Reach. Or Sohappy’s Reach. Anything but Hanford. Hanford has taken too much already and given nothing back but death, cancer and blank checks for defense contractors.
Josh is daydreaming again, hypnotized by white cliffs and blue skies. No one is guiding the boat. We might run into another lost chunk of Hanford, hit an otter, crash a pelican party. Of course, no one needs to navigate. We’ve slipped into a riparian lethargy. This is the kind of spell cast by desert rivers. Occasionally, a few small cottonwoods and willows on the bank scroll by. But mostly it’s rock and sagebrush and sand, bank swallows still circling our heads.
How it came to this is unclear. But we are floating backwards at six river miles an hour. Our paddles are bone dry and hot. They’ve scarcely touched the water today. Josh is not going to get buffed up for the all-important wedding photographs at this rate. If we’re not going to work, there should at least be beer. But once again we’ve forgotten the Tecate. No one thinks rationally in Richland, Washington. Not at six in the morning. You just want to get out of town and on the river as fast as you can. Maybe those famous headwinds will finally pick up. Maybe they’ll blow us all the way back to Coyote Rapids. Out here, on the Atomic River, one is allowed to hope.
“Look at that,” Josh says.
“Not Edward Teller’s brand of nothing, I hope?”
“No. A beautiful nothing.”
“The way it’s meant to be.”
“Don’t tell the Chamber of Commerce. They’ll want to fill it with something.”
“I’m telling them nothing.”
And so we go, floating backwards down the cobalt-blue Columbia, through a beautiful nothingness.
All photos by Jeffrey St. Clair.