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.