All 187 miles of the Willamette River meander through Oregon on its journey to the Columbia, forming the Columbia River’s largest tributary. My geologist husband was once incredulous some 35 years ago, when he learned that my only “C” grade ever was from Dave Alt’s Introduction to Geology class at the University of Montana. I still remember learning about the Missoula floods – creating marks still visible today on the hills of Missoula, and forming our own Columbia Gorge – and being fascinated at how moving glaciers make “u” shaped valleys, while rivers carve “v’s”. I have no idea how it is that I got that “C.”
Last week as I drove to a work event in Southern Oregon’s Ashland, I noticed the small sign announcing my crossing of the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. I hadn’t remembered ever spotting this before. Later, online I learned that the Coast Fork of the Willamette is formed in the Calapooya Mountains at the junction of the Little and Big Rivers. The Calapooya mountains originally separated the tribal domains of the Kalapuya and Umpqua tribes, back before they ceded their lands to the U.S. government; while also proving to be a barrier to white settlers hoping to move into Southern Oregon. The Coast Fork flows north through the mountains to Cottage Grove where the Row River joins it, and on to join the Middle Fork just southeast of Eugene. And then – the Willamette as so many of us know it – flows onward, winding its way north towards the Columbia.
On my drive home I decided – as I have been meaning to for so long – to visit Willamette Mission Park, first established in 1834 by the Jason Lee Missionaries with its developing settlement later becoming known as Mission Bottoms. Although my great-great-great-grandmother Chloe refers in her diary to this Mission, and visited it, unlike other Lee Missionaries she never lived there. This site is eight miles north of our Salem Capitol, and just east of the Willamette adjacent to the Wheatland Ferry. The mission was moved six years later to Chemeketa, today’s Salem.
The changing course of the Willamette is visible today if you pay attention to the location of the original Mission site. In a flood in 1861, the site was extensively damaged, and the Willamette changed its course: the Mission, which sat on its banks, now sits on the banks of Mission Lake. And on this particularly brilliantly sunny day, as weather forecasters threaten the “any minute” unleashing of a major storm, I am reminded of the beauty and power of the land that surrounds us.