The Hanford Reach
of the Columbia bends through central Washington for 51 miles along the
northern edge of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation roughly between
Richland and Priest Rapids Dam. It is the most unaffected, undeveloped part of
the Columbia River in the United States, and this is because it has been
off-limits to the public ever since World War II, when the government located
its secret plutonium production facility at Hanford.
Columbia River in the Hanford Reach is not exactly free-flowing, as flows are
regulated by dams upstream, particularly as the result of the
Vernita Bar Agreement, which protects fall Chinook spawning habitat in the reach. But
it remains a wild, remote place that probably appears much as it did prior to
1850, when the first Euro-American explorers and settlers began to trickle onto
the Columbia Plateau. The largest remaining population of naturally
spawning fall Chinook salmon in the Columbia River Basin — more than 80 percent
of all fall Chinook in the basin — spawns in the Hanford Reach. Their redds, or
egg nests, often are yards across, and in the spring, when the eggs hatch and
fish emerge, millions of silvery fish the size of large paper clips dart
through the shallows along the shoreline as they prepare to migrate to the
estuary and ocean.
reach is an historic indian fishing site. Local Indians once had
numerous camps along the shoreline, places like Tah-Koot and Wy-Yow-Na. These
particular camps were on the south shore near present-day Locke Island. We know
about them in large part because of the memories of an Indian who called
himself Columbia Wildman. He was about 75 years old in 1942 when he told an
interviewer about Tah-Koot, where he was born in about 1867.
was a seasonal village, where Indians caught fall Chinook salmon, but not until
after they spawned. This was to ensure salmon for the future, according to
Columbia Wildman, who spoke with Edward G. Swindell, Jr., an attorney for the
U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Indian Affairs. Swindell was
investigating the location of usual and accustomed Indian fishing sites in
Washington and northern Oregon. He was conducting research for the case of Tulee
v. Washington, which was in litigation at the time of the interview.
Tulee, which was decided in 1942, the United States Supreme Court
reversed a decision of the Washington Supreme Court and declared that the state
could not require Indians to purchase fishing licenses to fish at their usual
and accustomed places. A few pages of Swindell’s 323-page report, which covered
traditional fishing sites from the Washington coast to the Columbia Plateau,
were devoted to the Hanford Reach.
the height of the annual fishing season, some 500 Indians — many of them
families — came to the most popular site, Wy-Yow-Na, about a mile and a half
from Tah-Koot. Many Indians camped on Locke Island.
were plentiful. Some Indians fished at night from two-man canoes. One man would
attract the fish with a torch, and the other man would spear them. During the
day, the Indians would stretch large nets through the water. The nets, made of
hemp, were about 75 feet long and five feet deep.
family would catch an average of 300 fish, according to Columbia Wildman. Some
were eaten fresh, but most were dried for future use or for trading with other
Indians for goods such as roots, berries, meat or buffalo robes.
Indians who fished at Wy-Yow-Na were ancestors of some of the bands that today
make up the Yakama Nation. Many Indians from other places, such as the Nez
Perce country, visited Wy-Yow-Na to trade for fish. The visitors did not fish,
but they did participate in games and ceremonies.
last time Columbia Wildman fished at Wy-Yow-Na was about 1904, although he
returned every year to partake in feasts and ceremonies. He witnessed a steady
decline in the number of salmon over the years. This he attributed to “. . .the
activities of the white man in constructing dams and catching very large
quantities” of fish, Swindell reported.
Wildman could not speak English or read a clock, but he had vivid memories of
the Hanford Reach of his youth, when Indians fished, feasted, matched skills in
vigorous competitions and conducted ceremonies along the shore of the Columbia
in the Hanford Reach. Paraphrasing Columbia Wildman, Swindell wrote: “Nowadays
there are only a few places of that nature that are used by the Indians due to
the fact that almost all of the old places have been destroyed and are no
longer of any practical value to the Indians.”
still is a wild place, undeveloped and remote. Ironically, it likely is
contaminated by radioactivity from the decades of plutonium production at
Hanford. Fish are still caught in this part of the reach, but there is nothing
evident of the fishing village. If by “practical value” Swindell meant economic
value, then this place probably does have little value today. But there is a
deeper value, a personal, cultural value, a reverence for the ancient places
like this one, that lives on in the descendants of Indians who once lived and
Hanford Reach is as untouched a place as remains along the Columbia River in
the United States, primarily because of its proximity to Hanford, where the
government made plutonium for nuclear bombs, including the test bomb detonated
in New Mexico and the one that incinerated Nagasaki to end World War. The
shoreline, islands and the nuclear reservation are closed to the public except
by permission of the Department of Energy. Evidence of ancient habitation is
right under foot, particularly on Locke Island where remnant bits of obsidian
cutting and scraping tools, and arrow heads, are evident upon close
irony of the place is as thick as the swirling dust, as cold and clear as the
river. Within sight of the places where Indians once gathered to fish, feast,
celebrate and trade, the government secretly manufactured explosives that would
kill hundreds of thousands of people in a distant land. The same water that
nourished salmon cooled the doomsday reactors.
the Hanford Reach fall Chinook are surviving; the population appears stable.
Scientists point to the reach as a model for salmon habitat restoration
elsewhere on the Columbia. There are periodic political efforts to protect and
preserve the reach through legislation, both local and national. There are
agreements among fish and wildlife agencies and utilities to protect fall
Chinook spawning and rearing, and most of the time these agreements have their
intended effect. Sometimes, however, juvenile salmon still are stranded when
hydropower operations upstream cause the river level in the reach to recede
rapidly. And trouble lurks below the surface: a radioactive plume is inching
steadily toward the river from leaking underground waste storage tanks. Its
position is known precisely and is monitored regularly; it may be impossible to
stop, and its impacts on fish, humans and water quality can only be speculated.
Some day, if the nightmare pollution ever is gone, the reach may be more
accessible to the public. For now the river slides by in its nearly natural
channel, the fish continue to spawn, and access restrictions necessary for
public safety remain in effect.