Dents are what we look for, slight indentations in the ground, places where railroad ties might have once laid on the ground. There are three of us, Gretchen and Chuck and myself. We’ve turned back once after discovering snow on the road, and realized the truck we have will never make the steep grade to the work-site. We return to the ranger station, switch vehicles and start all over. By the time we reach the brushy bend in the road where we short cut to the work-site, it is mid-morning and we are not hopeful that we will find what we have come looking for.
We work for the US Forest Service building trails, designing trails. Today, a November day after the first snowfall of the year, our task is to do a cultural resource report – part of the pre-construction environmental work. We are to document the history of the land we cross; sorting out what might be important and needing preservation. For this project we document railroad grades – ones from the early 1900’s, from the early days of logging in the Pacific Northwest, the early days of the Forest Service. We are to map the bits and pieces of rail grade that crisscross the proposed trail relocation and all the related remnants we find like rusted cables wrapped around stumps and oil cans. Earlier and days before we study old maps and documents – dig through yellowed and tattered files in the office to piece together what we can about the company that logged here, about the area, about what happened.
The area is ripe with early logging history. Cedar stumps scarred with springboard notches are everywhere, clear signs of logging with crosscut saws – long before chainsaws or logging trucks. I imagine loggers standing on long boards stuck into the stumps, just above the swell, chopping and sawing. The grades we often find are vague greenish things. They possess a rich layer of moss and can be easily confused with a natural bench. Here there are several benches rising above the river. The benches are flat ledges of land that are easier to navigate than the steep side slopes in between. Narrow game trails connect the benches, bounding straight up before traversing a distance along the river, then climbing to the next bench and eventually to the base of cliffs and jumbled fields of rock at the base of the mountain. Builders often used these natural benches to locate railroad grades or later the logging roads and sometimes when no natural bench lent itself to building they were forced to carve right into the mountain’s side.
We walk through the forest of hemlocks and cedars and Douglas fir, past the cedar stumps and through stands of alder, all under a heavy layer of wet snow, white and elegant and starting to melt as the temperature creeps just above freezing. We walk until we find where the proposed trail location seems to cross a remnant of some sort of grade.
“Railroad grade?” I ask. Chuck and Gretchen nod yes and pull out the thirty meter tape. We start to measure and draw. We aren’t absolutely certain its rail grade but certain enough that we start to document. We document every grade change from say a turnpike, or what looks to be turnpike, those slightly elevated grades that cross wet ground. Then the turnpikes end and sweeping swaths of grade that seem cut right through the slope start. They leave leaving a big v in the hillside, before flattening out.
And while some of the man-made grades are vague and grown over in moss others are as obvious as the day they were built. Some lack the moss altogether and have instead a seemingly hard surface covered over with layers of leaves. The corridor is wide, the surface relatively smooth and uninterrupted by fallen trees or salmon-berry.
“Look for slight indentations in the ground,” the archaeologist instructs us. We are the foot soldiers for the archaeologist, the forward guard, the ones to brave the brush and report back effects of interest, things the archaeologist will need to come out and verify as important and worthy of preservation or not. The indents, we’re told, indicate where railroad ties once were and have either rotted or been removed. In the forest here, the railroad lines were moved often from timber stand to timber stand. Whole camps were moved by rail, up river, up valley and then back down again. The trick is differentiating the rail grade from road grade; finding the area of transition. This is of import as it documents the transition from railroad logging to log trucks, where crosscut saws were set aside and chainsaws started up. We’ll know this place by the garbage we find, a busted up radiator, a bent hood, a rusted metal culvert poking out of the hillside.
We measure length, height, width of the grade. We measure to the top of the cut slope, to the end of any seemingly man-made disturbance. Then we measure down slope. We wander off into the woods on either side looking for logging debris like cables wrapped around tree stumps or maybe even a garbage pit. I draw and take pictures, Gretchen measures, and Chuck takes GPS readings. We hope we’ll find what we need to verify our hunch. We hope to find dents.
Then the grade disappears, the sureness of it When I glance about, the woods look thick with brush and wind fallen trees – stands of alder – hemlock – cedar. I mean the grade could be anywhere or nowhere at all. We stop measuring and spread out.
“I’ll keep an eye out for those dents,” Gretchen says, smiling as she pushes through a dense thicket of salmon-berry to climb over several downed cedar logs piled on top each other.
“Dents in the ground,” she says and gives me a thumbs up.
“Oh look,” Chuck exclaims as he bellies down to the ground to get under a massive root wad. “Dents!”
I hear him chuckle, then grumble as he heads off down slope. Gretchen goes upslope. I walk the middle. We are quiet and quickly lose sight of each other though the occasional hoot keeps us connected. This is how we have come to communicate in the woods when we can’t see each other but don’t want to disturb the day with radio chatter or bother with reaching into our packs and fussing with a radio. We do our best Spotted or Barred owl imitations, hoping someday an owl might answer back or that we’re so good we’ll fool each other into thinking its the real thing.
Through the bare trees I see blue sky and sun but only bits and pieces of light reach down to the forest floor. The mountains are white with snow. I look up toward the tops of the cottonwoods and alders, some are large, over 30” in diameter or more with hemlock and the occasional Douglas fir mixed in. Their size and mix indicate an older stand of second growth. Here I look for a path of alders, often the first to come up in disturbed ground, a line of alder, an unusually straight alignment that might indicate “man-made and disturbed”. Nature is more random with its trees and thickets of vegetation. I’m looking for purposeful and think I find it but can’t be sure.
I have come to love November. Though it is often rainy and dark, or like today sunny but the forest covered in a wet melting snow, it is also a time when walking in the dense northwest woods is somewhat easier. What secrets the dense devils club, salmon-berry and vine maple conceal in summer are revealed as leaves fall off and stalks die back. As I walk, the woods give way to wetlands. I realize I am trying to evade increasing pools of water until I find I am smack in the middle of a swamp, chock full of massive root wads, fallen trees and a mishmash weave of foliage growing over everything. But somehow I am several feet above the water. Turnpike, I realize. Somehow I’ve stumbled onto a very large and well built turnpike – a common structure for crossing wet ground. Dirt mounded up between timbers.
I look and see Chuck about to step into deep water. Cold water. Water made even colder by the chunks of melting snow that are slipping off tree limbs and plopping into the water every few minutes. And on our backs too, sometime landing on our heads or right on the back of the neck and sliding down our backs and melting against our skin – getting us cold and wet.
“Chuck!” I wave and yell. “This way,” I say. ” I think I’m on a turnpike.”
I point to it back behind me. It looks like any other tangle of trees and brush except that I am on dry ground and with the leaves gone I can see a distinct line through the woods. Chuck shakes his head “Looks like forest to me,” he yells back.
Gretchen comes up from behind. “Hoot – hoot – hoot,” she says and smiles. She waves over at Chuck. “Its a turnpike,” she shouts out at him. We wave.
“Easier walking over here,” we say in unison. Chuck shakes his head and tries to go forward then pauses and says something we can’t hear before turning around. He crawls under yet another root wad and through the dying back devils club and salmon-berry to join us on the supposed turnpike. He looks it up and down and shakes his head, doesn’t concede anything.
We follow the turnpike until it leads to drier ground, where Doug fir and hemlock are interspersed with fern and the ground is covered in a thick green blanket of moss. That’s when we find it. It is just a slight thing, the indentation. I bend down and press my fingers against the indent, the moss, and realize it is not just one dent but many and they continue for a distance, not really so much as clear or obvious but there. We are all sure, the three of us. We have found what we had come looking for but never thought we’d find, a suggestion of undisturbed rail bed – nearly imperceptible dents in the ground. We all stare at it.
“Dents,” Chuck says, shaking his head in disbelief.
We continue to follow the grade. We find a twisted rail, then old ties. We follow the grade all the way to the river where remnants of a bridge are exposed by the torn river bank. We find the junction where the rail line headed from the bridge site back down stream. We measure and note it all. When we return to the office we search again the historical maps to see this line, a line like cross stitches across the page and are delighted that it seems to match what we have found on the ground.
But why the delight? Why does this matter? We already know that the lumber company operated here from 1922 into the 1950’s. We know that the newly created Forest Service made a number of large timber sales in the area, the biggest of which would be for timber on 5,800 acres. We know that a twenty year contract was awarded to the lumber company. We know this. Will a grade on the ground lead us to any greater understanding of anything?
Maybe it’s about paying attention, about touching the past and wondering who was here, what they did and how and why. I know it’s not the Parthenon or the Great Wall but it’s a past, our past; the forest, the town, a government, a nation, a planet even. We are a thousand species intertwined and more. It’s an important history as all histories are. What we do in our lives at any given moment, what we give and take what we ask for becomes part of a shared story. The dents here inform us of how this land was once used – what was asked of it.
Maybe its the puzzle of it all, little pieces of evidence of a debate, one enacted right here on this ground we walk on, the ongoing debate over managing public forest lands. The big doings of history, of the great White House, so quietly settled onto this forest floor. Its a debate started by Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, granddaddies of the US Forest Service. The logging of this valley was just one part of it all. While Pinchot argued small timber sales to small, family run businesses “a working forest for working people” congress and industry pushed for large and industrial and mostly won. It wasn’t until the demise of railroad logging and the rise of truck logging that the small operators had a chance. No longer did the railroad owner have a monopoly on moving timber. A single operator, a family, could own a logging truck, start a business, make a living – mostly on their own terms. Independent.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s public opinion turned against the Forest Service and questioned their clear cutting ways, renewing the battle not only for more sustained yield logging but for a wilderness preservation system, or as Pinchot had called it “small scale logging at the edge, preservation at the core”. The ongoing logging of this valley would help spur the movement; help spur creation of the nearby wilderness area and national park.
I touch the dents, the moss. I look around, at the river rushing by, at the empty trees and the cold pale sky. I marvel at this fragile link back to something bigger. I marvel at this moment, right here, under these trees, when history seems to rise up briefly and touch us. Here we are growing old, adding our history to the story of this place. How many times have we stood beside a rivers edge, debated the merit of one thing or another, ate lunch, survived yet another cold, wet day? We’re not loggers or pioneers or politicians. We’re not the Indians that lived here for so long before the loggers came. We’re trail workers, forestry technicians, stumbling through the debris of history, finding our way through the forest as best we can. What we’re doing seems so ordinary. Not grand or noble like the bits of history we find on the ground.
Still, in that moment when I touch the dents, I picture someone wandering into these trees, walking not a new trail anymore, but the been here forever trail, the trail they will have hiked as children and now walk with their children’s children. I picture them stopping and looking into the river, watching the way the water tumbles over the rocks, watching the way the breeze bends the cedar boughs. I picture them standing quiet and listening for a moment, the way I have so many times.
I look over and see Gretchen and Chuck measuring and writing, hollering numbers back and forth. Gretchen rubs her hands together, folds one over the other, blows warm air into the tiny pocket she’s formed, rubs them together again and again. She reaches into her backpack and takes out some dried fruit, a thermos – untwists the top and pours something hot and steamy into a cup and takes a sip, then passes the cup to Chuck. He takes a sip and then another, holds the cup up and motions for me to come join them. And I do. I walk over and take the cup in hand and sip, let the warm liquid seep in. We stand there, the three of us , along the banks of the White Chuck, sipping and not saying much, watching the river flow by.