Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sherars Falls

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Today's adventure takes us to Sherars Falls on the Deschutes River, located along Highway 216 east of White River Falls and Tygh Valley. The falls are only about 15 feet high, so they look more like very serious rapids. The Deschutes upstream of here is a popular rafting river, but Sherars Falls is an impassable major obstacle. An article on the history of boating on the lower Deschutes puts it this way:

Sherars Falls will likely always be considered the grand daddy of all hazards on the Lower Deschutes. Sherars Falls is a class VI rapid and considered by most prudent people to not be navigable. However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s a few folks tried, but very few survived. Attempting to navigate Sherars Falls was then outlawed and the falls became forbidden territory for boats.

That said, here's a video from 1972, back before safety was invented, in which a bunch of guys went over the falls in a bunch of inner tubes lashed together, and somehow survived. Legal says I have to caution you not to try this, although if watching the video isn't enough of a deterrent, I'm not sure what would be.

In short, boating is not the reason there's a big parking lot and RV park here. The falls are impassable for boats going downstream, but not quite impassable for salmon headed upstream. Migrating fish stack up here while trying to make their way up the falls, so this has been a productive fishing spot since time immemorial. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and other tribes retained treaty fishing rights here, and wooden platforms for traditional dip-net fishing (video & photos: [1] [2] [3] [4]) line the riverbanks near the falls. This is similar to what was once practiced at Celilo Falls, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The tribes have owned the land around the falls outright since 1980, but continue to allow non-tribal members to fish here, so long as they comply with tribal regulations and state fishing laws. There's a lot of stuff on the net about non-tribal fishing here, which to me (as a non-fisherman) isn't that interesting, though I did bump into a fishing guide's tale about a broken boat trailer and karma at the falls.

While researching this post I also ran across a 1980 Bend Bulletin article about the tribe purchasing the falls. The purchase was mildly controversial at the time, so the article starts with references to "war whoops" and "peace pipes". Apparently it was perfectly fine to print that sort of thing in a family newspaper in 1980. A 1987 article in the same paper about traditional fishing at the falls left out the weird racist jibes. Hopefully they received a few indignant letters after the 1980 article and got a clue or two.

In addition to salmon, the falls are also a traditional fishing site for Pacific lamprey, a much less charismatic fish. Lamprey are a traditional native food that never caught on with the European-American population; a 2008 Bend Bulletin article explains that it has a strong taste, something like a cross between fish and liver, and an even stronger smell, and a very firm texture. Lamprey fishing at Sherars Falls involves a long pole with a hook at the end, which is used to pry fish off of rocks they're attached to. Due to a major population decline in the lamprey population at Sherars Falls (which is almost certainly due to dams) tribal members have taken to collecting lamprey at Willamette Falls instead. Willamette Falls lamprey supposedly has a subtly different flavor, although the man who explained this to the Bulletin didn't go on record as to which one is better.

I was curious about how long people have fished here, but I can't seem find a concrete answer to that question. You'd think there would have been an archeological dig here at some point; fishing platforms themselves would have fallen into the river eventually and wouldn't have left any evidence behind, but presumably people camped here for weeks or months at a time while fishing. Searching for academic articles isn't really my specialty, but I checked JSTOR and Google Scholar and didn't see anything relevant. It's certainly still possible there are old papers that aren't online, or which only exist in specialized databases I don't have access to. I did come across a few Oregon Historical Quarterly articles about the pioneer era and nearby Sherars Bridge, and a lot of papers about fisheries management, but nothing on archeology. A website focusing on Oregon rock art has photos of a few pictographs nearby, which is interesting, but that's about it.

(As an aside, I also ran across a few plant genetics papers about Mimulus nasutus, a small, yellow flower that grows here. Apparently the local population (located right at the falls) is genetically distinctive and has been studied extensively. See for example this study on factors that control the timing of flowering, which I won't even try to summarize. The complete genome of the closely related M. guttatus has been sequenced & released; apparently it has relatively few genes and it's only a 430Mb download, if you're into that sort of thing.)

Anyway, in lieu of having a solid archeological date, several of the previous links in this post speculate that the falls have been used by people for hundreds or even thousands of years. Thousands seems like a very safe guess to me. The standard theory on human settlement of the Americas suggests that people took a roughly coastal route down through Alaska and coastal British Columbia on their way here from the old Bering Land Bridge. Assuming that's the case, more or less their entire route went through prime salmon habitat, and it's reasonable to assume they already knew all about salmon and waterfalls well before they set eyes on Sherars Falls, and likely began fishing here shortly after arriving. It also seems reasonable to assume people first fished here around the same time as at Celilo Falls, where more extensive research has been done. Archeological work at Celilo Village has indicated the site has been continuously occupied for at least 11,000 years.

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