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During the last retreat of the glaciers about 15,000 years ago, a large ice dam blocked the Clark Fork River in the Idaho Panhandle, creating Glacial Lake Missoula.  This lake was massive. It is estimated is was 2,500 feet deep from rim to bottom. As the lake filled, it would back up to the Canadian border covering 3,000 square miles of Western Montana and containing more than 500-600 cubic miles of water which today is more water than Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined.

The ice dams at Glacial Lake Missoula routinely failed, resulting in periodic gigantic catastrophic glacial floods filled with ice, dirt-filled water, sheared rocks and gravel, leaving a lasting mark on the landscape where it flowed.  The floods swept across Northern Idaho, through the Spokane Valley, southwestward across Eastern Washington, and down the Columbia River Gorge, enroute to the Pacific Ocean.

The Glacial Lake Missoula floods are the largest known floods on Earth during the last two million years.   When the ice dam exploded, the flow of water was ten times the combined flow of all the rivers of the world.  The floods had such height and velocity that it scoured everything in its path. From speeds approaching 65-80 miles per hour, the Glacial Lake Missoula would have drained in as little as 48 hours. In terms of potential energy, the equivalent of 4,500 megatons of TNT was released by each flood.

The cumulative effect of the Glacial Lake Missoula floods was to excavate 50 cubic miles of very fine grained silt or clay, sediment and basalt, largely coming from the Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington and transport it downstream through the Columbia Gorge.  Near present day Kalama, Washington, a backwater lake was formed known as Lake Allison.

Lake Allison filled the area we now know as the Willamette Valley.  At the time of the floods, the measured height of the lake at Oregon City was 400 feet and in Eugene at 380 feet.  Floods deposited boulders the size of houses and enormous gravel beds along the way. As velocity slowed, the silt-laden water deposited its cargo on the valley floor, forming some of the richest farming soil in the country. Here, the Glacial Lake Missoula floods deposited thick layers of deep, well-drained soils, in some places up to 300 feet, making the Willamette Valley one of the most fertile agricultural lands in the United States.

The last Glacial Lake Missoula flood occurred about 13,000 years ago.  And thence, to this land came the Kalapuya Indians that settled between the Rivers of the Santiam, nestled in the fertile Willamette Valley nearly 10,000 years ago. 

Caption.  Today, a view over Santiam Valley.  Fifteen thousand years ago, this landscape was part of Allison Lake that spread from Portland to Eugene.  Here rests the silt-laden soil that flowed from Montana, Northern Idaho, Eastern Washington and down through the Columbia Gorge during the time of the Missoula Floods. 




Santiam derives its name from the Santiam group of the Kalapuya (Kalapooia) Indians that once lived in this geographical area for 8,000-10,000 years, according to archaeological sites.  The North and South Santiam Rivers provided livelihood to the Santiam group. The two tributaries merge near the present-day City of Jefferson.  As traders, explorers and settlers arrived, by 1833 an estimated ninety percent of the Kalapuya people perished due to smallpox and malaria.  In 1851, leaders of the Santiam group requested to remain on their traditional territory between the forks of the Santiam River. 

 "We don't want any other piece of land as a reserve than that in the forks of the Santiam river.  We do not wish to remove."  
Alquema, Santiam Leader at the Santiam Treaty Council
Champoeg, Oregon Territory, April 12, 1851. 

The Santiam Treaty was not ratified. 

By 1855, the remaining remnants of the Santiam people were moved to the Grand Ronde or Siletz Reservations.

Caption: Camas (Camassia quamash) is a purple flower which covered the moist meadows of the Willamette Valley during early spring creating beautiful purple landscapes of Camas prairies.  It's bulb was an important food staple for the Kalapuya people and other Native Americans.  Archaeologists have documented camas ovens in the Willamette Valley that are more than 7,000 years old.






The "Overlanders" arrived in 1843 and with them came cattle, sheep, wagons and people.  Intensive agriculture production ensued as the bottom floor of the Willamette Valley was cleared and ditches were dug to drain standing water. With them came the trappers, loggers, salmon fishermen, miners and general ineptitude toward the First Nations of this land, its culture and history. 

Here, the river-based culture of the Kalapuya people used the North and South Forks of the Santiam as the major source for transportation and for food and commerce. They used cedar-built river canoes this way for 8,000-10,000 years.  

The overlanders saw the world in a different way. The importance of the rivers was minimized and the land-based resources of furs, timber, fish, minerals and land were exploited. The ecological habitats of forbs and fauna were changed forever. Beavers were trapped, old-growth timber felled, fish were over exploited and mining towns surfaced on the slopes of the Cascades sending tailings downstream on salmon spawning beds.  

What did Santiam Valley Ranch look like before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark spent the winter at Fort Clatsop under the care of Chief Coboway in 1805-1806; before the pioneers then charted their way to Oregon, "River of the West?"

Speaking today in ecological terms, our farm laid on the lowest elevations of the Santiam Valley floor.  With predominantly clay and slightly well-drained soils, the landscape today would be termed "wetland prairie and upland prairie." 

What Did A Wetland Prairie Look Like in 1800?  Due to its heavy clay soils, one might find entire swathes of wetland prairie habitat near creeks, or slivers of wetland prairie occupying drainages and creeping into upland prairie. The wetland prairies were dominated by Tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa), rushes (Juncus spp.), and sedges (Carex spp.).  A great diversity of flowering annual and perennial forbs were present.  As the pioneers ventured this way, the wet prairie became known as “Camas prairie” because of the vast purple hue and the massive abundance of the springtime Camas flower (Camassia ssp.) 

Along with Camas, the arrow-shaped  leaves of Wapato (Sagittaria spp.) abounded in and around seasonal pools, edges of wetlands, along rivers and in shallow ponds.  A  Kalapuya child or woman would slip her toes around the Wapato root in the mud, dislodge it from the bottom and toss the root into a canoe floating alongside. The bulbous root might be roasted fresh in a fire's embers or dried and later pounded into a compressed meal and served similar to our bread today or added to boiled meat.  Sacajawea led the Lewis and Clark clan to the south side of the Columbia River because of the great source of Wapato, which became a frequent food during the Corp's winter diet.

The landscape exhibited endless streams and inlets along the river's edge where fish swam into sloughs and creeks, emanating from the over-spill of beaver dams. The pools created by the beavers provided abodes to a vast array of amphibians and reptiles including the Northwestern salamander, Red-legged frogs and the Western pond turtle.  Thick riparian vegetation found home along the streams and edges of creeks, boasting Oregon ash, Black cottonwood, willows, Bigleaf maple, Douglas-fir and Western redcedar that grew in rich profusion. Before trapping the beavers, channeling the waterways, cutting the timber for homes, fences and firewood, and cultivating the Valley floor, here stood the 200 foot tall Black cottonwood, seven feet in diameter, with an occasional 330 foot tall Douglas-fir, eight feet or more in diameter.

As part of the Pacific Flyway, Santiam Valley Ranch was right in the north-south migratory route for birds extending from the Arctic to Antarctica.  Every year, millions of migratory birds traveled some or all of this distance both in spring and in fall, following food sources, heading to breeding grounds, or travelling to overwintering sites. Skies were darkened by the migrating geese and ducks. Feathers harvested from raptors and songbirds played a role in clothing, decorations and spiritual ceremonies.  

Two hundred years ago, wetland prairie covered 1/3 of the total prairie area in the Willamette Valley, today spanning from Portland to Eugene.  In the past 150 years, this landscape has been reduced to 1%.   

What Did An Upland Prairie Look Like in 1800?  The upland prairie occurred on moderately well-drained soils intertwining with adjoining wetland prairie.  It accommodated a range of plant communities based on soil depth and seasonal moisture. The majority of plants were grasses primarily being Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis ssp. roemeri), Red fescue (Festuca rubra), Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda), Prairie junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), Lemmon’s needlegrass (Achnatherum lemmonii), Wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus), Wild blue-rye (Elymus glaucus), and California oatgrass (Danthonia californica). Flowering perennial forbs would abound throughout this landscape, complemented with bryophyte flora of hornworts, liverworts and mosses.

The upland prairie could support shrub and trees but instead remained as open prairie due to prescribed burning by the native Kalapuya people. They burned the Valley floor during late fall to enhance the production of plant species used for food and fiber and to produce a lush crop of native grasses for deer and elk. The Oregon White oak withstood the seasonal scorching and rewarded the landscape with acorns, an additional source of food.  Fire scorched the Tarweed,  removing its sticky tar substance and leaving its husk full of seeds and ready for harvest.  Western-facing slopes were burned as well to foster the propagation of huckleberry patches.  

Two hundred years ago, upland prairie covered 2/3 of the total prairie area in the Willamette Valley, today spanning from Portland to Eugene. In the past 150 years, this landscape has been reduced to 1%. 

Today, upland prairies, and their counterpart wetland prairies, are among the rarest of North American ecosystems. 

What Did the Rest of the Valley Look Like in 1800?  The wetland and upland prairies provided luxuriant grasslands that creeped into the forested foothills on the Valley's eastern and western flanks. There they gave way to the Savannas where the understory was usually open with grassy or herbaceous vegetation, few shrubs, and intermittent stands of Oregon White oak, Douglas-fir or Willamette Valley Ponderosa pine. Beyond, one would notice that more trees would appear as the savannas merged with Oak-Pine Forest.  Here the forests were dominated by oak and pine and included various combinations of Douglas-fir, Western redcedar, Western hemlock, Bigleaf maple, Red alder, Oregon ash, and dogwood.  Lastly, one could see the Coniferous Forest  surrounding the margins of the Willamette Valley adjoining the Cascade and Coast Range. Here were the majestic old growth stands of Douglas-fir, or mixtures of Douglas-fir with Grand Fir, Incense cedar, Willamette Valley Ponderosa pine, Chinquapin, and Madrone. Here, the forest floor was covered with Oregon grape and salal. Higher elevations added the Western hemlock, Western redcedar, Grand fir, Bigleaf maple, dogwood, Oregon White oak, and Red alder. 

The open space of the Valley welcomed a plethora of mammals that easily passed through from one landscape to another, from one valley to the next, and from one mountain range to another.  They included the Roosevelt elk, Black-tailed and Columbian White-tailed deer, Grizzly bear, Black bear, Mountain lion, Bobcat, Coyote, Gray wolf, Red and Gray fox, Common porcupine, Long-tailed weasel, Ermine, Common raccoon, Striped and Western Spotted skunk, American beaver, Mountain beaver, River otter, Muskrat, and many smaller mammals including voles, moles, shrews, mice, woodrat, gopher, squirrels, chipmunk, rabbits, myotis and bats. 

Of these, the Columbian White-tailed deer, Grizzly bear and Gray wolf no longer wander through the Santiam Valley, freely venturing from one landscape to the next.  Gone too are several bird species who once made home here -- the Black-billed magpie, the Loggerhead shrike, the Burrowing owl and Lewis's woodpecker. (This bird was so enjoyed by Meriwether Lewis that it was given his name after the discovery of Oregon in 1805).

Loss of habitat, lack of protected routes, and construction of fences, buildings, roadways and the north-south Interstate highway have eliminated mammal walking routes between the Cascade Range and the Coast Range.   Without access to protected causeways across the Valley floor, the impact of isolation will affect the genealogy of these species. 

After two hundred years, many mammals are isolated, confined to protected 'reserves' owned by large private timber corporations or within State or federal public lands in the foothills or mountain ranges.  Loss and destruction of habitat on the Valley floor has affected animals with marked decline in amphibian and reptile populations. Native flora has been affected with many species now listed on the threatened or endangered species list. The impact on mycology, or soil fungi, and its importance to the living soil is unknown.  Plant and animal invaders have found a new home, as native species struggle, putting further peril on Oregon's Willamette Valley ecosystem.

Caption:  Wapato (Sagitarria latifolia)