Celilo Fishing Panorama

One of the first articles I wrote for the WyEast Blog continues to be among the most popular: Restoring Celilo Falls (February 14, 2009). In the spirit of keeping the idea alive, this article is a tribute to the way of life that all but vanished when Celilo Falls disappeared in 1957, as revealed in photographs.

For this article, I blended images of Celilo Falls in the 1930s (courtesy the Oregon State University Commons archive) into a sweeping new panorama. I had viewed the individual images before, but it didn’t occur to me until recently that the following three images overlapped enough to allow for a blended panorama at relatively high resolution:

You can click here for a large view of the blended image, with the caveat that it retains the same publication terms as any other image in the Oregon State University Commons (use your browser window to pan across the image, as it is much larger than most monitors).

My original intent was simply to have a detailed panorama of the scene at Horseshoe Falls, the most iconic of the dozens of cataracts that made up the massive Celilo Falls complex. But as I stitched the images together, the details within the larger image suddenly came into view, and provided new insights into the unique way of life that had evolved over millennia at Celilo.

For example, in this clip (below) from the panorama, the surprising system for anchoring the wooden fishing platforms is revealed — a pile of rocks in a framed wooden crib! To my amazement, this method shows up in many other images of Celilo, though I had never noticed this detail before:

Another enlarged clip (below) from the panorama shows the precarious hanging platforms along a section of cliffs just below the falls, with fishermen using wooden ladders to reach what must have been slippery, intimidating perches:

In this enlargement from a separate photograph (below), taken just a few moments before the panorama images, the fisherman riding the cable shuttle to the opposite side of Horseshoe Falls is the same person visible in the panorama view (just below the fourth bridge arch):

The above view also shows a returning shuttle car, perhaps empty, or possibly loaded with filled salmon crates. Pulley systems like these moved fishermen and salmon catch on a network of cables that connected the multitude of rocky islands within the falls complex where fishing platforms were located.

In another clip (below) from the panorama, two fishermen are dipping from a group of platforms located at the extreme base of the falls. These platforms are also anchored with rocks, and are designed with dizzying overhangs that create a startling degree of exposure for the fishermen, yet provide a clear zone under the platforms for maneuvering dip nets:

The following clip (from a separate image) shows the same pair of fishermen seen in the previous clip from the panorama, but from a somewhat different angle. In this view, more details on how their platforms functioned are revealed: a crib of rocks anchors the middle platform, while and all three have large, wooden crates for salmon.

The size of the crates is also telling, as the typical salmon weighed 25-40 lbs, with many big Chinooks weighing in at well over 50 lbs. Landing these huge fish clearly required great skill, strength and agility using 15-foot dip net poles on a slippery plank surface.

Also visible in the above image are the safety ropes that the men tied to their waists while working the platforms. This was a relatively recent insurance policy in the ancient fishing tradition, and one that was seldom tested by people who had grown up around the platforms, working the salmon harvest.

The following image shows the top of the ladder seen on the right side of the panorama, but viewed from just above the platforms. As with the fishing platforms, the ladder is anchored by a wooden, rock-filled crib.

The above image also shows fisherman working on the next rock outcrop (in the upper left) seemingly afloat in the river, though clearly on another system of platforms in the larger panorama.

In another photo of the scene (below), the safety ropes can be seen in more detail — one tied to the fisherman — as well as the planked decking that was informally scabbed to platform supports.

Though sturdy, the informal construction of the platforms and catwalks makes sense, given that seasonal flooding almost certainly swept away anything that wasn’t removed by the fishermen at the conclusion of the fall fishing season. Yet, the position of individual platforms reflected traditional locations where the same families had fished over the generations. In that sense, while temporary in design, the platforms were also permanent.

The Tradition and the Legacy

Deconstructing these scenes in creating the panoramic view left me with an even greater appreciation for the fishing tradition at Celilo Falls. It also gave me new inspiration to see the falls restored, not simply for their scenic and spiritual value, but for the working fishery they provided. What a thrill it would be for the dip net fisheries to return to these rocks, and to watch them just as photographer who captured these images did!

The attraction of the Celilo restoration idea is that it is completely reachable. The falls is still there, underwater, and serving as a permanent reminder of our priorities as a society. It can be restored.

As the salmon runs continue to fade on the Columbia, along with the barge traffic once used to justify the dams, the sole argument against restoring Celilo Falls fades as well: it is as simple as finding better ways to generate — or conserve — the 1,800 megawatts of hydropower that is generated by The Dalles Dam. It’s really that simple.


Trail blazing is the ancient practice of marking paths with a system of symbols to help travelers navigate, and since the rise of recreational hiking in the 1800s, has been adapted to foot trails. Blazes are generally placed at eye-level, and spaced frequently enough to reassure hikers of the route.

In other parts of the country, where trails often cross private lands and many are maintained by hiking clubs, blazes can take the form of painted dots and symbols or small signs or medallions attached to trees, with hundreds of localized variations. These symbols are easy for volunteers to maintain, and often lend their design to the trail name (e.g., the “White Cross”, “Red Dot” and “White Cross” trails in New Hampshire’s White Mountains)

In the Pacific Northwest, where most of our hiking is on public lands, we are used to the standard Forest Service tree blazes that still mark most of our trails (like the one pictured at the top of this article). Though the practice of chopping blazes into trees has long been discontinued out of consideration for trees and trail aesthetics, many of the original blazes still remain, decades later.

Where trails leave the forest canopy, many Northwest trails are marked with stone cairns, such as along Gunsight Ridge (above) near Mount Hood. Along Mount Hood’s famous Timberline trail, cairns along the high eastern section are further accented by 6x6x8 cedar posts (below) that have been gracefully carved by the elements over the years.

Today, the legacy of Pacific Northwest trail blazing is fading quickly, as most blazes were made at least 50 years ago, and some as much as a century ago. The example below, on Mount Hood, is from a standing snag that tells a familiar story: the tree survived the initial blaze marks for many years — long enough to heal — before finally dying and losing its bark, revealing the layers of blaze-scarred wood, beneath.

Most northwest trees large enough to withstand a blaze are very large, long-lived species, so there are also countless examples of blazes that have simply been swallowed up by successive seasons of growth. With a sharp eye, you can often spot examples like the one below, where only the healed-over scar of the blaze remains. This tree has nearly erased the blaze scars that were likely made in the 1930s or 40s, but could easily thrive and grow for another century or more.

The Forest Service Standard

By the 1930s, the Forest Service had established a simple standard for blazes that is responsible for the thousands of blaze remnants that we see today. The Forest Service blaze consisted of an 8” rectangle topped by a 2” rectangle, forming the familiar upside-down exclamation mark that we still find on our trails. The width of the rectangles was determined by the width of an axe blade, roughly 4” across.

The following instructional diagram is from a Forest Service trail manual dating to the 1930s, and provided the basics for the thousands of young Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers who flooded the nation’s forests and parks during the Depression, building trails, campgrounds and roads.

As the diagram (above) shows, the Forest Service blaze was designed for speed, with trail crews quickly working their way along paths, blazing as they went. The crews of the 1930s covered thousands of miles of trails, as the trail network of the day was more than twice what survives today.

The following is another schematic from the same manual, providing more tips for the CCC crews on how to cut blazes:

Though most of our trail blazes in the Pacific Northwest follow this standard (or use cairns in open areas), one notable exception exists that is closer to the Eastern system of customized trail icons: the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Throughout its length, the trail is marked with the familiar triangular shield (below), though the old-style metal PCT signs still survive in many sections of the trail.

The PCT sign is an accepted Forest Service standard, and it makes sense that an iconic sign is warranted, as most of the PCT is stitched together from the cobweb of forest trails that existed prior to the PCT, making for many potentially confusing junctions along the way.

There are also a few local trails in our region that carry an iconic, themed logo that follows the Eastern style, thanks to the work of a few volunteers in the 1970s and 80s. Most notable among them was Basil W. Clark, who not only helped build new trails, but also created illustrated signs for them, such as the “Chetwoot Loop” sign, below:

Clark’s whimsical icon signs also appeared at Devils Rest and Trapper Creek, as well as other spots in the Gorge, and a few still remain today, providing a charming, rustic feel that is unique to these spots. Click here for an early 1980s Oregonian tribute to Clark.

A Future for Themed Blazes?

Chopping blazes into living trees is now a relic of the past, but is there a future for more contemporary blazes along our forest trails? After all, we have only a few decades left before all traces of this earlier era are erased, and trails will be completely reliant on other forms of signage and markings.

One route that could benefit from an iconic, tailored blaze sign is the Timberline Trail. The system of cairns built in the most alpine sections are a good start, but along the rest of the route, there are many spots where the web of intersecting approach routes make it confusing to know if you are still on the loop trail. The Timberline Trail has a couple of easy options for a blaze theme — the Timberline Lodge logo (below, left) or perhaps a CCC-based logo (below, right), given the unique history of the trail.

Other candidates could be the simple loop paths that circle Lost Lake and Trillium Lake, two of Mount Hood’s most visited destinations. Both have thousands of newbie hikers visiting them in the course of a year, many hiking for the very first time. Both trails also have a maze of unofficial, unmarked fisherman and campground paths that can make staying on the loop trail confusing, so a system of blaze signs would provide a useful function.

How might this come about?

As Basil Clark proved, themed blazes are a perfect project for volunteers, from designing and creating the signs, to providing the ongoing installation and maintenance inherent to trail signage. Perhaps trail organizations like Trailkeepers of Oregon, the Mazamas or the Trails Club of Oregon would jump at the opportunity to provide this service?

As always, one way you can help is to propose this idea (or any others you might have) to the Forest Service through their online suggestion box.