Standing beside Pine Creek in late December 1964, I listened to the thunder and roar of the first stage of the so-called “Christmas Flood.” Chocolate-brown water laden with debris overtopped bridges, ran down Weston’s Main Street, and scoured places where, during the creek’s quiet moments, I lifted smooth rocks to reveal crayfish with clacking claws.
When I heard the earthen-fill dam four miles upstream of town blew wide open, my concern was not for houses threatened along the creek, but for the treasure trove of trout from Poplar Springs Reservoir that scattered downstream like so many leaves in the wind.
Nearly six decades later I survey property damage near our cabin on the upper Umatilla River. Floodwater overtopped the bank and left a path of destruction in its wake. A combination of warm rain and melting snow raised the Umatilla River eight feet in elevation from dinnertime February 5 to noon the following day or nearly six inches an hour. To compound the situation, the flood held its record-breaking crest for nearly two days.
One week before I had wandered over to the river with a friend. “Water ever get over these rocks?” he asked, pointing at a boulder embankment constructed to reinforce the shoreline.
“Not even close in the 15 years we’ve lived here,” I said.
Blue Mountain streams are dependent on melting snowpack to keep them charged through a relatively dry summer and fall. A typical spring involves slow release of this stored moisture over a period of weeks. High flow might mess up opening day of trout season, but less often threatens streamside homes.
Our circa 1940 log cabin took in three inches of mud, the front porch was ripped loose, and two winters worth of firewood floated away. Other property owner’s fared far worse though. The river undercut the foundation of one neighbor’s cabin and carved a new flow path through another’s backyard. Farther downstream, roads buckled, Thornhollow Bridge was destroyed, vehicles were submerged, and people climbed onto roofs to escape the raging flow.
These events pale in comparison to a kind, gentle soul who perished when floodwater threatened her cabin and she could not make it to safe ground. You might walk away from memories, but you cannot bring back a life.
Reconstruction of the storm showed that warm rain melted several inches of new snow, first along the river, then at higher elevations as wind gathered force and moved up canyon. Frozen side slopes slumped, shed excess moisture, and brush-lined ravines filled to overflowing. Upstream of our cabin, Thomas, Buck, Coyote, Lick, Bear, and Rock Creeks poured their contents into a swollen river that spilled over and inundated flat areas adjacent to its historic flow path.
The Christmas flood of 1964/65 involved three storms over 44 days, encompassed 200,000 square miles, and caused over $3.9 billion (in today’s dollars) worth of damage. The book is still out on the cost of this years devastating flood.
Whether due to climate change, stochastic process, or persistent “Chinook” winds, this year’s flood makes me wonder: how much time and money should a person invest in restoring a structure whose creaky foundations rests in an ancient flood plain?
I can’t count the times I have studied stage height and discharge volume of Blue Mountain streams on the Internet before setting forth to cast for trout, steelhead, and spring Chinook salmon. Real-time flow data helps inform me when fish migrate, their preferred holding areas, and when wading is safe. If not for me checking the river stage, I would have been reading by the soft glow of our cabin’s wood stove when debris-filled water lapped at the front porch.
Floods do more than wreak havoc on streamside property and homes. Raging flows fill in favorite swimming holes, cut new channels, straighten meanders, and destroy streamside vegetation. Fish populations are also compromised. The scouring action of this year’s flood likely wiped out much of last year’s spawn of spring Chinook salmon. I can only hope that juvenile Pacific lamprey, whose lifestyle requires spending up to 6 years burrowed in soft silt and gravel, somehow find a new home. No doubt juvenile steelhead, resident rainbow, bull trout, and resident populations of minnows and suckers were flushed downstream.
I can say with assurance that adult steelhead paired up for spawning were also displaced. Several years ago, raging floodwater deposited adult steelhead in pastures adjacent to the Touchet River. Chum salmon were seen swimming across a major highway in western Washington during another flood. Roadkill fish. Who would have thought?
Thankfully, nature is resilient and the river ecosystem will rebuild over time. First to come back will be algae and streamside vegetation. Caddisflies, stoneflies, and other aquatic insects will drift downstream from upper reaches. Fish will migrate into and populate disturbed habitat. Opening day of trout season will be a challenge for local anglers though. Many will wonder, where have all the fish gone?
My grandchildren each reacted differently when they saw pictures of the flood. One was concerned about mud in the cabin’s bunkhouse. Another wanted to know if he could still cast for trout in his favorite bedrock-lined pool. The youngest asked, “Will crayfish survive?”
“Some will,” I replied, “if lucky enough to find refuge along the stream margin or quiet side-channels. Unfortunately, it will be awhile before tiny minnows, the ones that nibble on your legs when you wade in the river, will show up again.”