Hidden Hydrology Origins 2: David James Duncan

Originally published on Terra Fluxus – 01/19/2011

Another inspiration for the Hidden Hydrology of Portland is the writing of David James Duncan (author of a couple of my favorite books, the Brothers K amongst the best).  In a book of essays from 2002 entitled ‘My Story as Told by Water‘ Duncan tells some stories with a Portland area spin about his youthful explorations in the area.  The idea of oral histories providing an additional layer to mapping and other on-the-ground study is intriguing, as the narrative is both informative and evocative of what these lost urban waterways meant, and what was lost along with them.

image via Wikipedia

Early in his childhood,  he mentions growing up on Mount Tabor (the volcanic outgrowth in East Portland – not the biblical version, seen above between downtown and Mt. Hood in the image), and his quote worth discussing hints at the disconnect between the modern city and the natural processes which shape and feed these places:

“My birth-cone’s slopes were drained by tiny seasonal streams, which, like most of the creeks in that industrialized quadrant of Portland, were buried in underground pipes long before I arrived on the scene. … I was born, then, without a watershed.  On a planet held together by gravity and fed by rain, a planet whose every creature depends on water and whose every slope works full-time, for eternity, to create creeks and rivers.  I was born with neither.  The creeks of my birth-cone were invisible, the river from somewhere else entirely.”  (p.4)

The water system from early in Portland’s history, was stored at high points like Mount Tabor and piped to surrounding neighborhoods.  This shot from 1912 shows one of the reservoirs that are still in operation today (for how long, is a good question).

image via Vintage Portland

The artificiality of the watershed is evident in Duncan’s discussions, as he makes do with building creeks using the hose and the power of gravity (much to his mothers chagrin) – using with water delivered to reservoirs and coming to his tap, as is common in many cities, from distant locales while burying the remnant hydrology that exists.  A map of the water system shows the existing Bull Run watershed in relation to Portland.

Continuing this discussion on Johnson Creek on a youthful visit, showing the degradation of some of the existing waterways that has been occurring for many years.  “It was just one of Portland’s dying creeks.  Really, one with a much-needed but long-lost Indian name.  Johnson Creek was now its anemic title.  But it was twenty-six miles long, hence a little too big to bury.” (p.10)

image via OregonLive

It’s heartening to see the restoration of the creek, which is one of the few to remain on the east side in some natural form, through the work of a number of local groups such as the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, and recently there were reports of dead coho salmon found 15 miles upstream – which is significant as it is the furthest upstream anyone has noticed these species in many years, and a testament to the work on restoration and improvement.   Something Duncan would appreciate, no doubt.

image via OregonLive

While water and rivers was of importance to Duncan, the main driving force for him was fishing – which drove the explorations to the wilds of the city.  After leaving Mount Tabor, the family moved further east towards Gresham, and lived for a time on Osborne Road, the future route of I-205.  Duncan mentions the lure of possible fishing holes, but the inaccessibility:   “A spring a quarter-mile from our new house flowed into a series of backyard trout ponds for neighbors, but these ponds were picture-windowed, guard-dogged, private.  The closest fish-inhabited waters to my house, so far as I knew, were the Columbia, three miles due north.”  (p.17)

The story continues around the small town of Fairview, under Halsey Street, where Duncan spotted a kid and discovered a hidden world amidst the underbrush:  “…the shocking thing, the magical thing, was that he was standing knee-deep in clear, lively creek water.  A creek surrounded on all sides by briars so dense I’d never noticed it before.”  (p.17)   Later in the same spot, he saw  a guy catching a trout there “a secret trout stream” and found his new exploration spot, as mentioned “Fairview Creek, it turned out, was five miles long, two-thirds wild, and amazingly full of life.” (p.18)  See the location on the far right edge as it interfaces with the Columbia Slough watershed.

Following the course, he found gravel pits headwater at Mud Lake that were stocked rainbow trout, near the Kennel Club, a pond with bullheads, and always adventure in the streams. “In the plunge-pool below the Banfield Freeway culvert, I caught a thirteen-inch Giant Pacific Salamader that stared straight into my eyes, flaring and hissing like something out of Dante Volume one, till I apologized, cut my line and released it.”

The approximate area is interesting to see and compare – although the historical imagery from Google Earth (which is awesome btw) only goes back to 1990, there’s a telling transformation in a twenty year time-span (although still a fair amount of stream left intact with development.  I remember this area, as my mother used to live just North of the Salish Ponds park (south of Halsey) and we took the trails through behind the Target and over into Fairview, which is a real gem and one of those places that, like Duncan, you may walk by many times without realizing it’s there.  I’ve highlighted Fairview Creek in Blue.

The same area in 1990 where you can see the residential development along Fairview Creek

The denouement to this story of youthful exploration comes after a few years of fishing these urban creeks and streams:

“At six-thirty or so on a rainy April morning, I crept up to a favorite hole, threaded a worm on a hook, prepared to case – then noticed something impossible: there was no water in the creek. …I began hiking, stunned, downstream.  The aquatic insects were gone, barbershop crawdads gone, catfish, carp, perch, crappie, bass, countless sacrificial cutthroats, not just dying, but completely vanished.  Feeling sick, I headed the opposte way, hiked the emptied creekbed all the way to the source, and there found the eminently rational cause of the countless killings.  Development needs roads and drainfields.  Roads and drainfields need gravel.  Up in the gravel pits at the Glisan Street headwaters, the creek’s entire flow had been diverted for months in order to fill two gigantic new settling ponds.  My favorite teacher was dead.”   (p.22)

A case of disappeared streams, captured in a moment of time from someone that was there.  The sadness in this loss is palpable, as it isn’t just a line on a map, but a leaving & breathing part of someone – both their history and their essence.  This sort of study of writings offers many opportunities for exploration through history, and can reveal much about a place in the past.  Combined with oral histories from residents and other qualitative study, it offers a dimension that maps just can’t on their own.  Thus looking beyond the map to the history is vital and inspirational going forward.

(all page references are to:  Duncan, David James. My Story as Told by Water.  Sierra Club Books, 2002.)

One thought on “Hidden Hydrology Origins 2: David James Duncan

  1. Fairview Creek used to flow directly into the Columbia. A friend of mine a generation older used to watch silver salmon (Coho) spawn right in the town of Fairview. When the dike that is topped by Marine Drive was built, the flow was pumped through the dike and the entrance from the Columbia was blocked. Only the native cutthroat survived.

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