By United States Patent: Township 11 North, Range 6 West of the Boise Meridian, Washington County, Idaho; Section 35: Lot 8, Section 36: Lot 5.
After John McCrea was whacked upside the head with the business end of a shovel by an angry farmer, he was never quite the same. In the days following the funeral, all agreed it was that assault which marked the beginning of his decline. My great-grandfather was on the county water board when his political party was in power, overseeing the irrigation flow from the Snake River onto the fertile fields of Treasure Valley. John had the unfortunate errand to shut-off the water for lack of payment. The farmer, whose sugar beets were his sweat and life blood, protested by swinging his shovel in a home run hit to John’s head.
His widow, Esther, eventually sold off the land constituting the upper ranch and lower ranch. She moved to California to live out her final days with her sister. Across from the upper ranch, on the Idaho-side of the river, the 36-acre island had served to grow grain and provide pasture, the river being an effective fencing for herd animals. My family still owns the Island.
The shelter of any island, for the maverick and mutineer, tempts Huck Finnian day dreams. There’s nothing prosaic about the Island, as I name it now, a proper noun, as it is referred to by family and familiars in conversation. Sometimes, it is called The Big Island, to distinguish it from The Little Island nearby, when duck hunters plan to float the river and stalk birds. At one time, the level center portion was cleared and plowed to be planted with grain or alfalfa. It has been years since a hoe or harrow worked the earth there. On the upstream side, the land slopes down to a bed of river rock lapped by the river; downstream a high bank comes to a point like the prow of a ship. River banks are thick with willow trees and brush. It is rough, unruly and overgrown, home to magpies and foxes. Over the years, visitors learn about the Island and are eager to go there and explore a curiosity. I don’t know what they imagine before they step out of the boat onto the bank, as though the Island would somehow be quixotic rather than starkly feral.
My grandparents’ place is five acres along Olds Ferry Road, across from the Union Pacific railroad tracks. When my father was in high school, he dug the deep rectangular hole that would be the basement of the house. For many years, the entire home was underground, with stairs leading up to the front door at ground level. There was an outhouse set back 30 or 40 yards from the house. When I was a young child, I would wake under moonlight and wander. Wandering during summer stays at my grandparents’, my mother would apprehend me and herd me outside to the privy before settling back to bed. My older sister would be obliged to wake and join us, whether she wanted to or not. The three of us would float out into the night in moon-washed nightgowns, down the grassy brick path, past the apricot tree, the shop and the greenhouse to the outhouse. The small wooden latrine had a cutout of a crescent moon in the wall, just like the comics. Hurry, my mother hissed, as I strayed and lingered in the jumbled shadows in the orchard, until she took my hand to pull me back down into the underground house. A year or two later, another story was added to the house including an indoor bathroom. It was something of a disappointment to me, though my mother was glad.
In the summer when the river was low, we rode in the ’52 Jeep pickup from farm land that was no longer ours, through the river and up onto the Island. Kids and dogs crowded into the narrow bed of the pickup and my grandfather picked his way across the shallow ford. Sometimes the engine stalled when water lapped over the exhaust pipe. My father would edge along the running boards to fit the exhaust with an extension, a makeshift kind of snorkel, and eventually we reached the Island and clawed up the raw bank. We could have walked. I have. Yet there are stories told with low voices of teams of mules hauling harrows across the ford that lost footing, became entangled, and were lost to the river.
The dogs bailed out before we reach the Island to pant through the brush, scenting quail and pheasant, gathering ticks. We climbed the slope from the bank up to the level field. There was a herder’s weathered wooden trailer that stood on the Island, a faded gypsy caravan. Cheatgrass and bitterbrush grew up through the floor boards and thistle framed the door. We grubbed through the sage to overturn bleached pint bottles of Old Granddad and the occasional tobacco tin. I wanted a trailer such as this one. Back then, I wanted to be a cowgirl. I would build a campfire at night and sing “Red River Valley” under the Milky Way while my horses nickered in the darkness. I had a fringed white vest with a blue star and a holster with a toy six-shooter.
During November in grade school, we drew turkeys by tracing our hands with crayons onto newsprint pages. The outline of the thumb was colored to become the turkey head and the fingers the fanned tail. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we’d load into the station wagon to drive across the mountains and the desert, over the river and through the woods. The holiday meal with extended family at the local grange hall was eaten from long folding tables in the afternoon. Thanksgiving morning, rousted and still sleepy from our arrival the night before, we’d bundle up and head out on the skiff to the Island to hunt. For me, Thanksgiving will never be other than tramping along the deer paths to thrill at the sudden ruckus of a cock pheasant, crowing and iridescent, breaking out of the brush with a startling thrash and beating of wings. I thought a turkey was simply a very large dreary pheasant.
My father gave me a 20-gauge shotgun for my 11th birthday. He sawed down the stalk to fit me and added a recoil pad to ease the dark bruise on my shoulder trap shooting clay pigeons left behind. As we walked the hills or paced the Island, I forgot to shoot at the real birds. I watched in wonder as the quail whirled from the bramble as a hive, or stared at passing clouds and the beckoning yellow leaves. Huddled in the bush, I spied spooked deer plunge into the river to swim from the hunters and held my breath in my concealment as the porcupine, fox, skunk and coyote fled the Island. I ignored the birds. My job became wrangling the hunting dogs and counseling them. That was my real work.
One Thanksgiving when I was a teen, we made the morning crossing in the skiff to the Island. My sister, Shaun, and I were stationed mid-island on the Oregon-side. We were directed to build a duck blind out of branches and stalk to conceal ourselves. Shaun is three years older than me. I was a sullen and awkward adolescent. I was dressed in motley of wool and waxed canvas while Shaun had styled her hunting clothes into a fair facsimile of fox-hunting kit.
We built our little teepee duck blind and spread dry grass inside to insulate us from the frozen ground. We wedged tuffs of it between the overlapping poles weaving a coarse roof. As we settled in with our shotguns and thermos, Shaun pulled a deck of cards out of her coat pocket and we crossed our legs on the grass to play hands of Rummy.
Other hunters landed with the dogs at the prow of the island to work the brush down to us. One hunter was stationed upstream at the rocky beach to cork the bottle when birds were flushed or pheasants ran, refusing to break cover. We forgot to keep watch or scan for shots at escaping birds. We built our blind well enough, though it was a house of straw. Pigs had pastured there for several years, growing lean and feral, or perhaps they’d been forgotten. As we drew cards from the deck, and discarded, the pigs arrived to investigate. Hearing the grunts and shuffle outside our lean-to, we scrambled up and seized our shotguns, tumbled out of the blind, and bounded away across the frost.
The Snake River forms much of the border between Oregon and Idaho. Running west from its headwaters beyond the Tetons, it stretches a thousand miles to join the Columbia. The Snake traces the route of the Bonneville Flood 14,000 years ago that drained the Great Salt Lake and sharpened and deepened Hells Canyon out of rock with an inconceivable wall of water. At Red Rock Pass the natural dam eroded and finally breached–water thundered for weeks flowing up to 70 miles per hour. The Island shrinks in the spring flow of the river, yet does not sink. The water washes away the traces left by the late fall hunters.
Though the Snake is broad and swift, in hard winters it has frozen solid around the Island. Great floes of ice coalesced into a thick sheet to freeze the surface from Weiser up into Hells Canyon. Once a herd of horses pastured on the Island when the river froze and snow covered any forage they might scrapple. A helicopter was arranged to fly over the Island and drop fodder. The cold weather continued and the river froze harder. The helicopter returned to airlift the horses off one-by- one, cradled in a harness, to the shore. The Island is another kingdom. Any herds that pasture there, away from tending, left to defend themselves from coyotes or cougars, become as wild as the Island and the river. Spooked by the whopping rotor of the helicopter, the horses fled out onto the ice, broke through, foundered, and drowned.
In the early summer, cottonwood fluff skims the surface of the river. Frantic green vegetation gnarls the banks and competes for space and sunlight. The river bottom is rock and mud. Great runs of salmon once filled the river and generously fed the Shoshone and Nez Perce people. Now the gauntlet for the spawning run spans dams along the Columbia and through Hells Canyon, effectively ending the prodigious salmon runs forever.
There are catfish plying the bottom of the river, some of them great beasts with hooked horns. Near the turn of the last century, an 820 pound sturgeon was hooked and landed in the river off the island. In the photograph, it hangs from the ground up two heads higher than the men who finally gaffed it into the boat. I think on these fish when the motor dies on the skiff and I wade along the river bank towing the boat back to the landing.
In early August after I turned 19, Megan, my best friend from high school, and I gassed up my 1969 Cougar and headed across the desert to stay with my grandparents. Megan turned 19 earlier in the year and we planned the trip to Idaho when we were both of legal drinking age there. Back then, Coors beer wasn’t sold in Oregon because it was not pasteurized, and this made it all the more attractive. Crossing the high desert from Bend to Burns great thunderstorms sent sheets of rain and lightning down on the highway. We wound through the Malheur Valley down into Vale and passed Ontario as the sun went down.
Megan was lean and long-legged and brought a straw cowboy hat she wore into town to the Athena Club. We shot games of pool with the local boys and drank Coors. We swaggered at the foosball table and commanded our favorite songs be played on the juke box. Megan flirted with a man with a mustache, as I told a cowboy about my two black Labradors back home. Sometime that night, after we’d gone to yeasty sleep in the bunkhouse, a black Labrador puppy was dropped off at my grandparents. They named him Charlie. (I will reaffirm here what I vowed to my grandmother: I was not a conspirator.) In September, Megan’s man with the mustache crossed the Cascades to continue his courtship, but she had moved on.
My grandfather took us out to the Island to fish. I shook my head at Megan pulling on her shortest cutoff shorts. She was working on her tan. I put on my jeans and high-tops. We landed the skiff and tied it to a cottonwood, then walked downstream. We fished off the prow of the island, baiting our hooks with the green putty stink balls my grandfather made. We pulled in writhing catfish with perilous barbs. My grandfather smacked them on the head with a mallet. He would take them home to smoke over hickory chips, because my grandmother refused to cook them. Megan returned to the bunk house with whipped legs, several ticks, and sunburn. Our friendship did not last many years after, as she went to work at the home improvement store and I continued at the university.
John McCrea chalked problems on the barn wall for my father to solve while they tended to the ranch work. My father graduated from Weiser High School and left with a football scholarship to Grays Harbor Junior College in Aberdeen, Washington. I grew up on the green side of the mountains. Often, it seemed, I was shipped off on the Greyhound bus to stay with my grandparents. I think I know that highway better than I know the destination, forever the guest and the traveler. I think of fixing up the gypsy caravan on the Island, if the world ever proves too much, and singing by my fire under the stars. I never got a pony. I never got an upright honky-tonk piano. I have been graced by much, not least of all the idea of an island. The Island abides, but will not endure. The next great flood, an earthquake, melting polar ice, will remake the land.
It’s not the land that lasts.