The Hood River Valley has a history of ‘others’. The Finns of the late 19th century, the Japanese of the early to mid 20th century, and now those who identify as Hispanic and Latino. I recently spoke with a number of town leaders and bright light activists. Mainly women, both young and old, who are standing up in a unified voice of defiance. Here is a sampling of what they had to say.
Interviewed for this piece (in order of appearance):
Adriana, 23 – Adriana is “a Mexican that happens to be undocumented in the place that is really hard to be undocumented.” A student and activist, Adriana works nights as a waitress/bartender. “We’re on the verge of a revolution here,” Adriana told me. “Either jump on or get off.”
Paul Blackburn, 52 – Paul is the Mayor of Hood River, one of the few (if not only) Spanish-speaking mayors in the State of Oregon. Paul has formed the Latino Advisory Council and would like to see more Latinos on the city council and as mayor one day. He told me that “as the federal tenor and tone go the wrong way, it’s really motivated us to rally around our neighbors and friends and to work together for inclusivity in our city.”
Maria Elena Casmo, 44 – Maria Elena is a health policy analyst who immigrated with her husband Carlos, a civil engineer, from Chile. After five years in America, her status was changed from ‘non-immigrant’ to ‘immigrant’. She gained permanent residence in 2002. Regarding the current anti-immigration atmosphere in America, Maria Elena told me that people of color like herself, “Woke up. [That] they are not going to tolerate this type of speech.”
Montserrat Garrido, 16 – Montserrat, daughter of Maria Elena, is a Junior at Hood River High School who would like to become a journalist. She recently found her voice as a student activist at Hood River’s “MLK Day” rally. Montserrat has travelled back to DC for the Women’s March and for the Anti-Gun March with the students from Parkland, Florida.
Vicky Stifter – Pastor of Riverside Community Church – United Church of Christ. Vicky’s background is in the law. She has spent years on the Texas border working with immigration issues. A member of the community of Hood River for many years, Vicky tells me that if need be, her church has voted unanimously to shelter those in need as a sanctuary church.
Gladys Rivera, 28 – Gladys was born in Hood River in 1989. At the age of four, her mother (at the time six-months pregnant) was deported back to Mexico. She tells me that her mother took her by the hand and hopped back over the fence into America the very same day. While growing up, Gladys told me that she felt confused about her identity, that she “was never Mexican enough and never white enough.” Today, Gladys is an outspoken community member with Latinos en Acción (Latinos in Action) and the Latino Advisory Committee, amongst other groups. She is a mother of three.
Graciela Gomez, 47 – Gracelia arrived in America from Mexico at the age of 14. She wanted to attend school as a child, but her father told her that they were here to work. Graciela has cleaned houses, worked in fruit packing houses, and has picked cherries, pears, and apples. For the past 33 years, she has petitioned the government for a green card, which she received this past year. But she says it doesn’t mean anything when others in the community have yet to receive theirs. “If we don’t say something we are going to keep living in the dark,” Graciela told me. “And it’s time to bring a little light.”
Matt English – Matt is the Hood River County Sheriff. He tells me, “In our area, at least a third of the community is Latino, and so many of those people have some cultural differences that we need to work together to understand. And there has been a real push within this organization to build trust so that the Latino community is trusting of us.”
Here on the Columbia I’m keeping my eyes and my heart open to everything nature and natural. The river itself in all of its glory, the currents and sky and the cliffs. My days are spent observing the whirl of an eagle, the thump of a badger, the jump of a fish — the life underneath and around and above as I paddle upriver.
Just past the town of Wanapum I was aiming to make camp on a beautiful stretch of island when I startled a deer amongst the sage, sand and prickly pear cactus – the second I’d seen the very same day. I paddled myself on and shortly thereafter just under the dense and jungle-like trees and laid out on top of a patch of tall grass was a broad snout and large nose pad and a small set of ears pointed straight up. The beast was substantial — larger than the coyotes I was raised around in the foothills of Southern California. I believe it was a Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) – the very first I’ve ever encountered in the wild. It sat up and stared, watching me intently. It never did flinch and the moment was amazing. We locked eyes as I paddled slowly past and I knew that this island belonged to him.
I made camp on a nearby sandbar and late into the night came the Call of the Wild. A solitary wolf singing up to the vault of heaven and night sky. It’s moments like this that I wish I could share with you. But the fact is I never did reach for my camera or attempt to capture audio. It would have spoiled the moment. What excites me more than anything is the promise of more wildlife to come. As I begin to enter genuine backcountry into north-east Washington, Idaho and Montana. As I begin to feel wild myself.
Along the COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE, OREGON and WASHINGTON
I knew that traversing this nation’s first waterways in a canoe would be a challenge, along with the hope of a tribute to the first people who for millennia have called America home.
The word tribute is a great word because it’s a river word. Rivers that flow into larger rivers are called tributaries. Where they meet is the confluence. And their source point is the headwaters.
And if you scratch the surface by taking a canoe out and onto the water, and take a good long look all about you, and listen, and most importantly, feel, you’ll find the undercurrent, the rhyme and reason of the journey.
There’s a stretch of the Columbia River Gorge where people still speak about the village that once was, before it was washed away by the construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957. The place was called Celilo Falls, where a cascade of high-current whitewater gave way to platform scaffolds and fishermen and the giant chinook salmon that swam up through the rapids and jumped over the falls.
If Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, is celebrated as the first U.S. settlement west of the Rockies (founded in 1811), it is important to note that Celilo Falls stretches back quite a spell further. For 15,000 years, Celilo was a gathering place for the Native American people, the oldest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent, and a mecca for traders who came for the salmon from far and wide.
“I remember the sound of that river and of those falls,” Wilbur Slockish, Jr. told me. Slockish, who was raised on these waters, is the chief of the Klickitat people, a Native American tribe of the Pacific Northwest. “I used to make money by packing one or two fish – the fish were bigger in those days. And I packed them up for the fishermen so that they could fish and I would struggle up there. And that’s where I got my strength, for that was my exercise.”
And Slockish was not alone. During my time on this portion of the Gorge, I visited several of the 31 native fishing in-lieu sites. I toured and met with different tribes who make up the Columbia River Indians — the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce.
Down in Cascade Locks, I met with young Nez Perce natives who were busy getting ready with their boats and their nets for their ceremonial fishing. The first fish of the year, the spring salmon, are collected by the tribes for their ceremonial needs. Extra salmon are brought home to fill the freezers for the years ahead. Only once the quotas are met, will the tribes consider fishing commercially. Although this year’s spring salmon is late, these Columbia River fishermen were hopeful.
Bud Herrera, 54, of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, fishes below the John Day Dam on the Columbia River. Bud, a Umatilla, tells me this could be one of the lowest seasons on record since 1939 for the spring chinook salmon. Bud fishes by scaffold and by line, and while this year’s catch is low, he likewise remains confident.
Bud’s cousin, Cort Herrera, 54, a Umatilla, spoke to me about how family and fishing go hand in hand. “It just goes together. You know, we catch the fish together and have good times here – make memories together on the riverbank. Just have fun, you know. That’s what it’s all about – to teach the younger generation, so they can do it when we’re not here. Just like we learned from our family relations.”
While I was documenting the Herrera family, Bud’s nephew helped his 9-year-old nephew land a spring chinook salmon. The kid’s face said it all. His gap-toothed smile was priceless.
The reason for the 31 in-lieu sites goes back to the Treaty of 1855, which Wilbur Slockish Jr.’s grandfather was a signatory of. When asked to remind us what the treaty promised the local native tribes, Slockish explained: “We were to retain our lands, certain lands, and to retain our fishing rights and our hunting rights. We were to retain all of our other food gathering activities. Places that we fished at. And we gave land to the federal government in exchange for that. We were promised adequate healthcare and they were supposed to build a hospital.”
Today, with the construction of the dams and the washing out of the villages, living conditions for the Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Yakama Native American tribes at the original in-lieu dedicated settlement sites along the Columbia River Gorge remain unsafe and unsanitary. As residents await the federal government’s decades-old promise of “adequate permanent housing” to replace their once-thriving communities washed away by the construction of the dams.
“A lot of people here,” said Slockish, “they seemed all to think that the government and the courts gave us hunting rights and fishing rights — not realizing who gave what to whom.”
There is a connection to this land and river that the native people understand. That they live and breathe and practice and teach. “That is what is important and I try to protect it,” said Slockish. “Because these are the gifts that our creator gave to us. We protect them and take care of them and in turn they will take care of us. Because we don’t own them — the future owns them … So that’s why we value them. Our bodies are made from this land and everything will return to the land – the law of the land – go back to it. So why would you harm it?
“You know when people from the east came this way, they saw all of this land up by the Tri-Cities and down the Gorge and thought it was idle – Idle land, look at this. We can irrigate it. Think of the profits we can realize from it — but they didn’t think, they didn’t realize that it was our supermarket. There was deer, elk, rabbits, grouse, other birds that we ate. Medicine, roots, all within that idle land and that’s why they thought of the dams. That was in the 1920s. People from the east are always doing that — comin’ out here and altering — they altered the landscape. And our foods aren’t the same anymore. Our roots are coming earlier, our salmon are coming later. We should have already had freezers full.”
Cy Jim, 51, who identifies as a Warm Springer, fishes on the Washington side of the river just below the John Day Dam, one of four U.S. Army Corp of Engineers dams of the Columbia River Gorge. For him, it’s more than just subsistence. It’s a way of life.
“Fishin’ just keeps us goin’,” Jim said. “This river keeps us goin’. It’s something we’ll never give up. As long as there’s fish here, we’ll never give it up. We’ll always do it.”
But Jim wasn’t always able to fish. His father, like Slockish’s father, turned away from fishing the Columbia following the washing away of Celilo in 1957. It was too painful, and besides that, there was frequent animosity towards native fishermen over competition for fishing rights that followed.
“I’ve been shot at, I’ve had rocks thrown at me,” Slockish said. “I’ve had boulders rolled down the hill at me, and I’ve been cursed, all over my own food.”
And then there was the “Salmon Scam” of the late 1980s. “We were blamed for 43,000 missing fish when it was aluminum plants that poured fluoride at John Day Dam. See that dam right there? There’s a big gravel bed there – there used to be 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 pound salmon spawning in that area – and with those gravel pits they built the dam and killed it and they poured fluorides in there and the salmon, they lost their sense so they just spawned in a different area, they adapted, but we got blamed for it and I went to prison for three years for it.”
Slockish laughs at the memory of his incarceration at El Reno, a medium-security United States Federal Correctional Institution for male inmates in Oklahoma. “I always called it my government sponsored vacation.
JOURNALIST Neal Moore at the Hood River marina with his Navarra canoe, shortly after his arrival in Hood River. Moore hit the Columbia River again April 9 and two days later it cracked during portage around The Dalles Dam. Moore found a new, stronger (and lighter by six pounds) canoe through a private seller in White Salmon and expected to continue his journey by Thursday.
Chance encounters can sometimes be life changing in grandiose or miniscule ways. You may not realize at the moment of the encounter, but years later, you may look back and say, “Hey, if I hadn’t responded to Kirby’s call and connected with Neal Moore, we may have missed the opportunity of having our youth featured in a story in the New Yorker, a documentary on CNN or a book detailing a canoe voyage across America.” The journey of 7,500 miles from sea to shining sea is described as a “voyage of discovery into the depths of America’s soul.” Moore’s desire is to tell the stories of the diverse communities he encounters along the way in an effort to “understand and celebrate individuals, families and communities rising above themselves.” What was to be a brief stop in Hood River turned into a week of discovery for Moore and the community.
I have always believed that building relationships is key to living life fully. I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe that if you are open to interacting and potentially forming a relationship with those you meet, your life will be enriched. Much can be learned about yourself, about those you meet and the way they perceive the surrounding environment.
Back to Kirby’s phone call. It came at a somewhat inopportune time. I was in the emergency room with my youngest granddaughter waiting for the doctor to come in and do an examination. She had exhibited some painful symptoms that morning at school which suggested appendicitis. Aya is a wisp of a second grader, who seldom complains about physical discomfort. She reminds me of a willow sapling, tall and slender, physically strong, swaying in the breeze, family roots and love grounding her. Seldom do tears well up from monkey bar blisters or brother’s inadvertent kicks or pokes. Insensitive remarks or inequitable treatment are another matter, turning on a fire hose of tears. All turned out well. No appendicitis or nasty flu bug detected. Rest and relaxation were the words from the wise doctor and we followed the orders precisely.
I visited with Kirby briefly, hearing tidbits about a man he hoped I would speak with, a man who had paddled upstream from Astoria on a journey of discovery. These tiny morsels of information intrigued me, and I said “Sure, have him give me a call.”
That afternoon Neal Moore gave me a call and I learned a little bit more of his journey. It would be 7,500 miles across American, from “sea to shining sea.” He would chronicle his journey and document through film, newspaper article and book the stories of small towns and big cities along the way. These were stories of hope and inspiration that underscored the spirit of our country and its remarkable diversity. I was all in at this point, and agreed to meet at the library the next morning, spending a day introducing him to the people and places that would showcase our community.
As I pulled up in front of the library, I could see a soggy young man standing on the steps in the pouring rain. My bad. The library didn’t open for another hour. We sought refuge in my home in Odell. Over several cups of coffee and a plate of chocolate chip cookies, we began a lengthy conversation about Hood River and the people who make this such a beautiful place to live.
Neal said he had enough stories to research that would take him through the weekend, but he hoped I could connect him with a place to stay and store his life possessions now packed in his canoe on the marina. I first offered my home, but thought better of it when I realized that the people he would need to talk to lived down the valley and transportation by canoe is limited in that respect. We pondered this transportation dilemma and agreed to meet later in the day after I went to my blood donation appointment. I was optimistic that I could find someone willing to house him for the next few days.
As I waited in line for my Rapid Pass review at the Red Cross station, I began texting folks living in town, and who are connected to activism, the theme Moore chose to highlight. Let me tell you, a lot of networking gets done at a blood drive. Like-minded people seem to extend their hands and hearts as well as their arms to give life to others. After a few “out of town” replies to my texts, who before my astonished eyes would appear, but an angel in fashionista clothing, Barbara Young. We chat. “Sounds interesting,” she says. “We have an RV in the driveway he could use. It would be better than the pouring rain camping on the rivers edge.” Relief. A warm place to stay and one of the connecting hubs of activism in our community. After a brief call to her husband Gary, Barb learns that they have plans the next three days.
I move behind the “veil of secrecy,” a curtain used by the Red Cross staff to review my health history. Suddenly I hear Barb’s sweet voice calling. “Hey Maija. I am waiting here with Paul Blackburn and he says he has a room.”
I am ushered to my donor bed and the needle is inserted, blood filling the bag rapidly. At the precise moment I finish, Paul plunks down on an adjacent gurney. I fill him in on a few details and the connections begin to fall into place. The Blackburn/Dillon household is full of activism and connections for our intrepid paddler.
The following days are a whirlwind of conversations with Gorge Ecumenical Ministries, Latinos in Accion, The Next Door, Somos Uno … From there, he is on to the individual activists’ stories, Vicky, Gracy, Adriana, Montserrat, and Cristina. Moore has to extend his time in Hood River another three days to make all these connections. He has just scratched the surface.
Moore’s story begins in a community where helping hands, hearts and arms are extended willingly and compassionately. It is the story of many generations who have met discrimination and adversity head on, inspiring a new generation of movers and shakers.
My story is the story behind the story; of the list of friends and acquaintances who began making the connections for Moore to meet our youth, our dreamers, our student activists. These students passionately believe that all lives matter, that our schools should be safe, that people of every age, gender, ethnicity, and faith should be respected. Their belief has been transformed into action, raising their voices, mobilizing their peers, proposing solutions to the problems plaguing our society.
I like the story behind the story that Neal Moore will tell. It is the story of our community at its finest moment, day in and day out.
A successful launch from the mouth of the Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. A treacherous stretch of river awaits, along with the promise of adventure and stories and friends over the next two years. Cheers to Floyd Holcom, Tom Hilton, and Peter Marsh in Astoria for their hospitality, assistance with preparations, and camaraderie, along with all of the families I interviewed in Astoria for the very first story to be (stay tuned). Also thanks to my friends around the world for their support and belief in this project. The big idea — to paddle a canoe 7,500 miles across the United States — from the Pacific to the Continental Divide to the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, to the Atlantic at New York city — in search of the American dream.
Photo courtesy Floyd Holcom; video courtesy Peter Marsh.
To launch out onto a voyage of nature and heartland and Main Street and liberty, to embrace and fully explore the storied town and country and river landscapes of this land down low from the bow of a canoe, it felt only natural to consider my vessel to be as more than a mode of transport and lifeline, but as an allegory for freedom.
Which led me to the history of canoe making in the United States, and with it, the legacy of master wood-and-canvas canoe maker L.H. Beach of Merrimack, N.H., who in the 1950s first introduced a thin fiberglass hull reinforced with wooden ribs to the world. “THE FIBERGLASS CANOE THAT LOOKS LIKE A CANOE” was his slogan. A perfect blend of the old and the new.
From L.H. Beach to his son Lem, to grandsons Randy and Vernon, the authentic Merrimack design was passed along and remained true. While Randy retained Merrimack for many years in name, his “black sheep” brother Vernon moved West and started up Navarro in his California garage, a canoe design based on Lem’s old molds.
Fast forward to the present, with WhiteGold and Kevlar and Tuf-Weave Flex as one’s (pricey) choice of material, with manufacturers like Northstar and Wenonah and even my very own Old Town running through my mind (according to Paddling.net there are “900 or more canoe models to choose from”), I decided to look back to where the revolutionary balance of old and new originally began.
Thanks to an exchange of emails with Bruce and Sue Peterson of the reincarnated Navarro Canoe Co., I soon settled upon the Loon, which can track in wind and wakes and waves, and also carry a generous “expedition” long-distance load.
In the end, I took a lead from Sue and found my very own Navarro Loon on Craigslist up in Lake Bluff, just above Chicago. The nautically-minded gent who was selling had taken care of his craft with love and with oil and with grace, and as it dates from 2002, it comes with a Certificate of Origin, from Talent, Oregon, signed by Vernon Pew.
The canoe will be more than a partner in expedition. She will be my home base for the next couple of years, a focal point for the journey, and a canoe I’ll need to embrace with my life. I see it as a great honor to carry (and paddle) along a bona fide Merrimack/Navarro work of modern art from West back to East, to partner up and traverse and share via this blog the watery byways of this great land in style and with a tip of the cap to history. In so doing, hopefully living up to L.H. Beach’s good name.
I was tagged by @hettela to share 20 things about myself, so here goes:
1) I attended a Rudolf Steiner school as a kid so I’m big on the arts but don’t believe in grades or tests.
2) My family moved every 2 years around LA and I promised myself when I got big I’d stay in one spot.
3) Instead of revolving communities I now revolve continents.
4) I was asked to join my friends in the “gifted class” in Jr High, if only I’d take an IQ test, and I flatly refused, asking my teacher who she thought she was to measure my intelligence.
5) The most interesting person I’ve ever lived next to was the comedian Richard Pryor at the time he set himself alight.
6) I am drawn to eclectic characters with stories to share.
7) I hit my head in the bathtub as a little kid and have had a speech impediment ever since.
8) Which has inadvertently helped develop my writing.
9) On the night I finally got represented, by Writers House, I confided with the barmaid that this was the greatest day of my life, to which she replied, this is my worst. Life is relative.
10) I lost my brother Tom when I was thirteen and he was sixteen. Not a day goes by when I don’t pause and smile and remember him.
11) For a long time Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was my bible but now I like good traveller stories.
12) I’m currently reading Danziger’s Travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers.
13) On the open road is my favorite place to be.
14) I think I spend too much time dwelling on the past.
15) I just finished a memoir about my exploits as a teenager in the townships of South Africa.
16) A jumbo jet I once travelled on lost 2 of 4 engines over Africa.
17) The first question people ask about paddling the Mississippi is: Tell me about the time when you almost died.
18) I’m in awe of friends and family who settle down and start a family.
19) I think the ideal life is that of Huckleberry Finn, and I love the fact we have no idea what happened to Tom Blankenship.
20) I live for travel and continually dream about the next adventure to be.
My name is Neal Moore. I’m a storyteller and a paddler, and I’d like to invite you on an expedition of epic proportions.We’re going to be taking this canoe up the Columbia River from here at the confluence of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean, right across America — 7,500 river and portage miles to New York City.
It’s going to take 2 years — we’ll be traversing 22 rivers and waterways, touching 22 states and stopping off in 100 story-stop towns. Although the best stories are going to be the stumble-upons – the characters we meet up with along the way. The characters that hold the power to transform how we look at the nation, how we see ourselves and our place in the world.
The expedition, it’s large in scope and it comes at a time when we’re struggling, when we’re searching, for our identity as Americans, for a path forward.The aim here — it’s not to be divisive but to be inclusive. To showcase and highlight and celebrate how our identity, ethnicity, and freedom play out across this entire land.
Also, to showcase that discovery.For you, for a worldwide audience, for really anybody whose interested in what makes the American experiment tick.
Of how we can wear our heart on our shirtsleeves — of how we can try.Small communities, big metropolises, indigenous Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, gays and straights, and the transgender community to boot.
Those who identify with all of the above, with none of the above, that hold the secret for what works for them, for their families, for their communities.
They’re not going to say it — they’re going to show it.And if we stop and pay attention, and observe, and feel, we can find the answers, we will see and we will know what has always made this country great.
Inclusiveness, and hopes and dreams and falling down and scraping our shins and getting back up and drying our tears — and putting our best foot forward.With the hope, with the certainty, that the future can most certainly be bright.
It’s a grandiose idea, that taking a canoe across the country, that thread by thread, that piece by piece, when we link it all up together — from here at the Pacific Ocean to the Continental Divide to the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes to the very feet of the Statue of Liberty — we will know, we will feel, and we will understand, the story of America.