River stories


My new friend, author Robin Cody, suggested he was my Clackamas River Cousin, the one I didn’t know I had. The one related not by blood but of water, of rivers that run and pool, and carry us from today to tomorrow.  How is it I had not discovered his writing until now? As I read Another Way the River Has – Taut True Tales from the Northwest, I found what felt to be a kindred spirit: another Oregonian telling rich river stories.

Most fascinating to me, though I hesitate to compare myself to this well-known and respected author, are the similar stories and themes we write about, even if from a different perspective, gender, and age. (Yes, I realize men seem to have written more about our rivers, or at least are the ones published.) I am thankful I had not yet known River Tales before My Music Man was published, as some may have claimed me a copy cat, picking up threads of my own stories from within his pages. For – as it turns out – and further evidenced by posters on popular platforms like Dead Memories Portland and Vintage Portland, many of us are still compelled today to relate stories of our past.

We weave these historical nuggets into our original paragraphs, in part, as an attempt to not forget. Details like the dozens and dozens of river landings dotting the mid-to-late-1800s Willamette: most far busier and more populated then, than now. (When I learned Cody penned the forward to Willamette Landings, I had to double check my own heavily bookmarked copy to learn why I hadn’t seen his name before: I rely on my grandfather’s original 1947 edition, not the 1974 third edition he introduces.)

Yes, we are proud of our logging, and pulp and paper industry and respective jobs they provide(d), even if we simultaneously mourn damage to water quality and the environment. If we grew up in the ‘60s or earlier we feel it our duty to remind newcomers of the days when sewage and mill effluent polluted the Willamette (even though they may know about today’s Portland Harbor Cleanup), making sure they too are educated about Governor Tom McCall’s legacy. We lament loss of beaver yet share the strange fascination (and, in my case, fear) we river kids had with nutria, “river rats.” We openly acknowledge our state’s long history of racial inequity and discrimination but don’t always know how to resolve that with our deep love of place. We do feel obligated to remind others of the ferry crossing once required to travel between Astoria and Megler, adding in a few facts about the Graveyard of the Pacific. We can’t not tell people where we were and what we were doing on May 18, 1980, how the river had to be dredged after, and about at least one pre-eruption memory of Mt. St. Helens or Spirit Lake. And yes, we honor old boats, even when they are no longer seaworthy. (My brothers and I had an old fishing boat for a shoreline sandbox – Cody found a happy family to take on his). But, perhaps more than any thing else, in our writing, Nature becomes the main character, and Place is alive.

Our river memories cloud reality and practicality. We know it. But it seems to be who we are.

A few Oregon River Books worth a read.

The First Oregonians (Laura Berg); Another Way The River Has (Robin Cody); Voyage of a Summer Sun (Robin Cody); Willamette Landings (Howard McKinley Corning); Steamboats on Northwest Rivers (Bill Gulick); Swift Flows the River (Nard Jones); The River Why (David James Duncan); Ricochet River (Robin Cody); Mink River (Brian Doyle); Beyond the Ripples and My Music Man (Yours Truly).

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