Sunday, February 27, 2022

Salmon Falls, Washougal River

The next installment of the ongoing waterfall thing takes us to Salmon Falls, a low (7') waterfall on the Washougal River about an hour's drive NE of Portland. The link goes to its rather cranky Northwest Waterfall Survey page, which is mostly about why it's too small and doesn't deserve its own page, and only has one because it has an official name and a major road and bridge are named after it.

It has a nice setting and is reasonably picturesque, despite a rather ugly fish ladder on one side of it. So if you feel like visiting, it's visible just upstream of the Salmon Falls Rd. bridge, which you can get to by going out SR14, turning at the same place you would for Cape Horn, but continuing north a few miles instead of parking at the lot there. Or just take Washougal River Road til you get to that bridge, which is a slightly longer but more picturesque route.

Once there, your best bet is to park at the turnout on the south side of the bridge and walk halfway across the bridge and take your photos from there. After that there really isn't anything else to do here. You can't get any closer to the falls, or down to anywhere on the river upstream or downstream of there. It really looks like this ought to be a nice community swimming hole or river access spot, but instead you're confronted by lots of very stern "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs, even more than what you'd ordinarily see in a very conservative rural area like this. There's actually an interesting story behind this, which I'll get to in a minute.

Before we get to that, a bit on the significance of the falls, which seemed to mystify the Waterfall Survey reviewer. The page mentions that this was said to be a historical barrier to migrating salmon but is doubtful about this claim. It's true, though. In general, any sheer drop over about six feet is a barrier to migrating salmon, since for most salmon species that's about as high as they can jump in a single leap. (Chum salmon are a bit less talented in the jumping department and can only manage something like 4-5 feet.) This would just be an interesting bit of fish trivia, except that it was key to a mid-20th Century scheme by salmon biologists to try to improve on nature.

By the 1950s, fishery scientists had figured out that salmon runs were declining across the Northwest, and they even knew the reasons why, more or less, hydroelectric dams and other habitat losses being the major contributors. They also understood, correctly, that there was zero chance of fighting the dam-building industry and winning in those days, and came up with an alternative they hoped would avoid that fight. The idea was that all across the Northwest there were whole watersheds that ought to be perfect salmon territory, if not for a waterfall or two in the way, often just a foot or two too high for salmon to get past. So they figured that putting in a fish ladder here and there would let salmon pass these barriers. Which, in theory, would open up a vast swath of territory for new salmon runs, replacing the ones lost to dams, and everyone lives happily ever after.

A big complicating factor is that under normal circumstances, salmon imprint on their stream of origin and want to return there and nowhere else, and won't go looking for a new stream if home ends up behind a dam. Obviously sometimes they do go rogue and look for new territory, otherwise they wouldn't have been all over the region in the first place, but exactly what environmental cues make them do this are still not understood very well. A 2009 thesis I ran across summarizes what was known about it at that point, and in the 1950s it would have been a complete mystery. So (as explained in a 1956 Oregonian article about the newly modernized Washougal River) they dealt with the salmon-and-egg problem by building a whole fish production system, centered on a fish hatchery about as far upstream as you want the new salmon run to go, along with fish ladders at all barriers downstream so the salmon can do their one-and-done commute. Then you start with some migrating fish collected somewhere else, fertilize the eggs in a big vat, and raise the baby salmon in pens until they're big enough to release, and hopefully they imprint on the river and hatchery at that point. Then they swim out to the sea for a few years, and eventually instinct leads them right back to the hatchery, where they're stunned and processed into new baby salmon. This process is not exactly nature's beautiful circle of life at work, and the whole rationale behind it has really fallen out of favor now, but it does more or less work as designed, and it provides a guilt-free supply of catchable salmon, so I guess there's that.

Aside from fishing, parts of the Washougal River have also become popular for whitewater sports, and there are a couple of pages at American Whitewater for river segments that begin and end right around the falls. The latter page notes that the historic take-out above the falls is private property and boaters are no longer welcome there. Down in the comments there's a repost of a belligerent email dated 2006 and addressed to the site admins, pointing out that the state only owns the fish ladder, while all the land around it is private property, and the landowner will definitely call the sheriff and press charges against all who trespass there. The email then demands they remove any mention of Salmon Falls from the website (which they obviously haven't done), and finishes by saying so-and-so "pays the taxes".

The "pays the taxes" bit was an odd phrasing and it piqued my curiosity. A few minutes of googling led me to the 2011 decision in a long-running land dispute dating back to sometime before 1963. This wasn't a trespassing case, exactly, but an adverse possession situation. This is the legal doctrine that if you live on or use a piece of property as if you own it, for some amount of time, and nobody stops you, you become the new legal owner. You don't have to actually squat there full time, but you do have to use it, and the exact definition of "use" depends on the nature of the property. That could mean farming on farmland, and for commercial property it might be running a business there, or paying bills, or doing maintenance, or collecting rent. In this case, the disputed land was a steep, blackberry-choked hillside with no obvious uses at all, beyond a couple of trails the plaintiff/adverse possessor had created for their own personal access to the river. Apparently the legal precedent here is that no matter how useless a property seems to be, the act of putting up "No Trespassing" signs or otherwise excluding people from the land counts as using it, since that's the full extent of what any owner could do with it. This wasn't a purely hypothetical issue here, since the general public had come to see this as a customary river access spot, and a previous landowner was on record saying it was basically futile trying to keep people out, though he'd call the sheriff sometimes when things got out of hand. Also at issue, apparently, was which adjacent landowner had put up "No Trespassing" signs first, and who was more diligent about replacing these signs after they were stolen or vandalized. The court found in favor of the plaintiff -- the person who "pays the taxes" in that 2006 nastygram was the primary defendant -- and the case ended in 2012 when the state Supreme Court declined to review the decision.

I'm not a lawyer, and have no opinion about the case or its outcome either way; I just like finding a clear explanation for all the anti-trespassing signs, so I don't have to guess, which usually ends up as a ridiculous yarn about Bigfoot. Looking around the area nearly a decade later, the place just had kind of a weird and bad vibe to it, even though I couldn't put my finger on exactly why at the time. It seems as though the whole area settled down into a sort of tense neighborhood Cold War after the case wrapped up, neighbor against neighbor, and each neighbor separately against you, an outsider and potential trespasser (and thus a threat to their land title). This is probably not somewhere where you'd want to have car trouble and need to knock on anyone's door for help.

If it's any consolation, when agents Mulder and Scully stop by a few weeks or months later to investigate what really happened to you, they'll almost certainly uncover some sort of ancient evil that's the real reason behind the endless courtroom battle, for all the good that will do you. In support of this theory, here's a strange YouTube video from Salmon Falls that I only ran across after hitting 'publish' on the first version of this post. It seems there's some kind of creepy underwater cave or rock formation or structure right at the falls called "The Tube", and the poster got in the water there to check it out, and it's bound to be related to the aforementioned ancient evil somehow. It might be a lair, or a portal, or something along those lines. That's all I know about the place, because there's nothing else about it on the interwebs as far as I can tell, and any narration the video had has gone missing because the poster unwisely set it to a Pink Floyd song, and the music industry muted it. Allegedly for copyright reasons, but it stands to reason the copyright police are in league with the ancient evil, and are doing their part to keep the truth from getting out there. That, or the whole thing is a plot by Google to sell YouTube Premium, since signing up supposedly unmutes the video. Also here's a video of a guy unwisely jumping off the bridge at Salmon Falls, ending right as he hits the water. Just gonna assume he was drawn there against his will, and eaten right after that. But enough about Salmon Falls.