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WRITTEN BY ROSS ANDERSON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
Over the following month, they trekked some 300 miles of rugged terrain, crossed five mountain passes over 4,000 feet high, up and down primitive switchback trails, across the snow-capped Cascades and finally down the Skagit River to Mount Vernon.
In his official report, Lieutenant Pierce hoped "this reconnaissance . . . through territory never before traversed by white men, will add to a correct understanding of the geography of the country and perchance attract attention to fertile regions and pleasant landscapes hitherto unknown."
Then Pierce faded into historical obscurity.
So did most of the geography he had explored. It would be nearly a century before most of his cross-state route would be traced by a significant road - Highway 20 from Colville to Republic, Tonasket, Winthrop and across the North Cascades. And to all but a few isolated Okanogan and Ferry County residents and the odd tourist or geologist, that remote landscape remains virtually unexplored.
Today the site of Fort Colville rests at the bottom of Lake Roosevelt, remembered only by a stone marker outside the village of Kettle Falls. From here, you can survey the serpentine river-turned-reservoir, tamed and domesticated
by the Grand Coulee Dam some 100 miles downstream. On the other side, the mountains rise abruptly from its banks.
In 1882, as Pierce's expedition ferried across the still free-flowing Columbia, he stopped at Kettle Falls to admire the sight as "the lusty salmon make their persistent and stupendous leaps to gain the upper stream." Like Fort Colville, the falls and the upper-river salmon runs are now casualties of the dam, while tiny Kettle Falls subsists on logging and summertime tourists from Spokane.
West of the lake, Highway 20 climbs steeply through stands of pine, spruce and Douglas fir into the highlands, closely following that old Indian trail. Groves of cottonwood huddle alongside Sherman Creek, named after William T. Sherman, the Civil War general who himself explored these mountains a year after Pierce.
"To the north and south, on either side of the creek, the mountain ranges are lofty and plentifully wooded, much higher and more densely timbered," Pierce wrote. "Huge croppings of granite . . . and deep ravines rendered the progress slow and difficult."
That landscape has changed little in a century. This is not the sagebrush and wheat fields most of us envision in Eastern Washington. It is a landscape of dense forests and gurgling streams clinging to the slopes of granite towers with names like Hoodoo Mountain, Profanity Peak and Alligator Ridge. Environmentalists, who yearn to preserve the area, say these mountains are home to cougar and lynx, black bear and rumors of towering grizzlies.
And very few people. The Okanogan Highlands, composed of Ferry County and parts of Okanogan County, is one of the state's most sparsely-populated regions, with an average of about three people per square mile. As we trace Pierce's route over 5,575-foot Sherman Pass, we encounter few cars on Highway 20, no towns, not so much as a gas stop.
The route from Colville over the pass is a reminder that the Okanogan Highlands remain very much an island, defined by the Columbia River and Lake Roosevelt on the south and east, the Okanogan River on the west and the Canadian border to the north. The sprawling Colville Indian Reservation across the highlands' southern reaches provides another buffer against the outside world.
From the pass, the highway eventually follows Pierce's route down to the town of Republic, perched on a rocky shelf between two granite mounds. Pierce camped here in 1882, remarking on the excellent grazing for his horses and pack mules.
With barely 1,000 residents, Republic is the largest town, essentially the only town, in Ferry County. It lies at the junction of the county's two lonely, scenic highways - the east-west Highway 20 and north-south 21, which wanders up a narrow valley from the Columbia to the border.
Republic exists here for one reason only - gold. In 1896, 14 years after Pierce's expedition, gold was discovered in these hills, triggering a human stampede that coincided with the Klondike. By May of that year, the boomtown had a name and a newspaper, which enthusiastically reported arrivals of whiskey shipments. By 1900, Republic was the sixth-largest city in Eastern Washington, with several thousand people, 28 saloons, two dance halls and a short railroad that hauled ore north to Grand Forks, B.C.
The Republic District, as it was called, produced the richest gold and silver ore in the state's history. Four decades later, several mines were still operating along the gulch that leads north from the end of the main street up to the tiny community of Curlew and eventually to the border.
Today, Republic is a quiet county seat with a Western motif - false-fronted stores, bits of Victorian architecture mingled with the workaday Americana. There are two grocery stores, several small restaurants, a handsome new high school, a hardware store and a pharmacy. There are cellphones and espresso machines, but no fast-food joints, no ocean-sized parking lots, not even a stoplight.
North and west of town, the landscape is pockmarked with the remnants of the mines - abandoned shafts, mounds of earth, rusting equipment and old towns with colorful names: Chesaw, Malo, Toroda. The towns themselves have been reclaimed by a new generation of fortune-seekers whose treasure is not gold or silver but cheap land, peace and quiet.
Henry Pierce is no household name here. But Dick Slagle knows who Pierce was. Slagle was born and raised in these parts, and ran the local drug store his father ran before him. Now his nephew has taken over, while 83-year-old Slagle cares for the photographic collection at the local museum.
"We may seem a little isolated here, but I reckon the world revolves around Republic," he says with a chuckle. "Nobody's getting rich here anymore, but we have what we need. We have a couple of doctors and a little hospital, good schools, a couple of lawyers. And we still have a gold mine."
That is the Kettle River Mine, carved into a granite wall near Curlew. Dan Hussey, a bearded, softspoken geologist with Canadian-owned Echo Bay Mining, leads us on a tour of the state's last operating commercial gold mine. Seated in a squat, diesel-powered "buggy," we rumble down a mile-long shaft that spirals into the heart of the mountain.
Every few minutes, we round a corner into the fearsome eyes of a huge, growling dumptruck, each hauling 20 tons of rock to the surface. We back up into a side shaft, allow the truck to crawl past, then continue our descent.
At the bottom, a small crew of miners works amid the roar of diesel engines, drills and enormous fans, using equipment that might have been designed for a Star Wars movie. The crew grinds away at one end of a geological deposit that is believed to run north-south beneath the town of Republic. Hussey explains that the precious metals were concentrated in underground hot springs that gradually worked their way toward the surface. Over a century, more than 3 million ounces of gold - worth a cool $1 billion in today's prices - have been extracted from mines such as the Morning Glory, the Eureka Gulch and the Knob Hill. The Knob Hill closed in 1994, but Echo Bay has continued to operate.
This year, it expects to pull 172,000 tons of ore from this mine. From that, they hope to get 35,000 ounces of gold - one ounce for every five tons of rock.
"This mine is on the downside," Hussey says. "It's not spectacular, but it pays our costs."
But for how long? People in the Highlands worry that they may be about to lose their last mine along with its 85 well-paying jobs. Scott Marikis, Echo Bay's local manager, says the company intends to stay; it's pushing a new shaft toward what may be another gold deposit.
And they do. If nobody seems to be getting rich here in the Highlands, nobody's whining, either.
Consider Lisa Barksdale, a California refugee who manages the Stonerose Fossil Site, next door to the town museum in Republic. For a couple of bucks, she'll provide you with a small pick-axe, a cloth bag and some advice on how to dig your own 50 million-year-old fossil from a roadcut at the edge of town.
Back then, this was an alpine lake that accumulated countless leaves and needles, insects and even the occasional fish. Each specimen became encased in mud and eventually turned into fossils.
The site is an odd twist on Republic's mining history, luring tourists to dig for fossils of ancient roses and leaves. These rocks may not glitter, but each year some 8,000 people hack away at the roadcut, and each ends up spending a few bucks at local businesses.
Consider Steve and June Konz, who moved here after graduating from Washington State University 40 years ago and bought a ranch on the Sanpoil River south of town.
"When we arrived here, there was no realtor in the county," Steve recalls. "Property just stayed in the same family for generations, or people made their own deals. This place had just two owners since 1896!"
Ranching, however, has become a tough way to make a living. So the Konzes are trying to cope by converting their spread into a year-round guest ranch. Visitors from as far away as England explore the valley on horseback or get acquainted with the family menagerie, which includes goats, an ostrich, peacocks and a baby moose as well as the obligatory cows.
Their passion for the landscape and what lives on it is what keeps people here. To people like the Konzes, these Highlands are both a natural treasure and a livelihood, and they resent people from the other side of the mountains telling them how to take care of it. Environmental regulations affect everything from grazing rights to the mines that have sustained the region for a century.
It was about 25 miles northwest of here that another Canadian company wanted to blast the top off Buckhorn Mountain and dig an open-pit gold mine - a plan that split the region deeply between those who wanted the jobs and those who resisted the environmental risks, and perhaps the intrusion. The proposal became a cause célèbre until the Clinton administration stopped it.
A year later, the issue remains a hot topic at roadside haunts like the Waucanda Cafe, a ramshackle bar and greasy spoon that serves up burgers and beer and cinnamon rolls the size of 10-gallon hats. "That's the regular size," warns the waitress. "You should see the extra large." A century ago, Waucanda was another bustling frontier town. But the cafe is about all that's left, a pit stop for ranchers, miners and a few fishermen.
None of them existed, of course, when Lieutenant Pierce's party rode by. They made their way over Waucanda Pass and into the Aeneas Valley, a "broad and fertile plain" that had long been the winter quarters of the Okanogan Tribe. Pierce wrote that Aeneas, the chief, was "reported to be friendly and reliable," but his log home and ranch were vacant, the tribe having migrated to the Columbia to catch salmon for the winter. Pierce, however, was impressed with the valley, which "presents one of the most magnificent grazing areas in the world."
Retracing the route, we stop to visit with Pat McGoughlin, who is trying to remake the family home into a guest ranch overlooking the valley. When he moved from Lynnwood 30 years ago, the valley was nearly deserted, he says. "Times must have been tough, because people just up and left. There were old homesteads up and down this valley with dishes left on the tables, books and toys, broken-down Model A Fords all shot up by hunters. This whole valley was a ghost town."
Gradually, over the past 30 years, the valley has been repopulated by some combination of serious ranchers and rural dropouts. Here and there are rustic log homes with new metal roofs and well-kept outbuildings, interspersed with double-wide trailers propped on the high ground to catch the view.
In recent years, it's been mostly bust. As in the Highlands, life goes on here. But it is life with fast food and parking lots and a WalMart down the road - all those familiar, franchised institutions of American life. It feels too much like home.
In 1882, long before these towns existed, Pierce's expedition made its way down the riverbank, peering up the rocky slopes rising sharply some 2,000 feet on either side, seeking a route to continue their trek. Just south of present-day Omak, they headed up an old trail over Loup Loup Pass to the Methow Valley, "a scene of peculiar loveliness," Pierce reported.
From there they climbed yet another pass to the top of Lake Chelan, then over the Cascades to the headwaters of the Skagit River, and down to Puget Sound. Their route over the mountains remains a wilderness. Yet it also traverses a better-known Northwest landscape - snow-clad peaks and forests of giant firs and cedars.
Perhaps that's why I am drawn back to the earlier stages of the journey, to the Island of Quesnellia and its capital city of Republic. Lieutenant Pierce was right. The "fertile regions and pleasant landscapes" he explored 120 years ago have attracted people to the Okanogan Highlands - not by the thousands, but enough.
They are drawn to isolated-island life - to life without McDonald's or Nordstrom, without traffic or traffic lights, without Major League Baseball or, for that matter, minor-league baseball. It is not on the way to anywhere else. It is what it is - a place of untamed beauty and a little old mining town whose mines have just about given out, but whose people labor on, living the lives they've chosen to live.
Pierce would have liked it here.
Tracing the Okanogan Highlands
The 1882 route of U.S. Army Lt. Henry Pierce began at Fort Colville on the upper Columbia River and traversed the untamed northern tier of the state, emerging at the Skagit River and finally setting foot in the area that is now Mount Vernon. Highway 20 now traces much of the route across the North Cascades into Ferry and Okanogan counties.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then|