Traveling Chinook Lands and Waters

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By Owen L. Oliver, Freelance Writer (Quinault / Isleta Pueblo)

The Nature Conservancy’s Ellsworth Creek Preserve in southwest Washington state is situated on the traditional and current territories of the Chinook People — specifically the Willapa, which is one of the five bands that make up the Chinook Indian Nation.

The 8,000-acre preserve hosts stands of old-growth Sitka spruce, western hemlock, western red cedar and Douglas fir that are continuing to grow, and many have witnessed the changes in the landscape when they first sprouted hundreds or even a thousand years ago. The goal of the Ellsworth Creek Preserve is to understand the best methods to grow back healthy and resilient forests after a century of commercial timber production under the previous landowner. For over 20 years now, TNC has managed the Ellsworth Creek Preserve, which is home to healthy populations of black bear, elk and spawning salmon.

A female elk in the middle of a field at the edge of the Ellsworth Creek Preserve.

A cow elk in a field at the edge of the Ellsworth Creek Preserve. © Owen Oliver

I first heard about the Ellsworth Creek Preserve when I started writing for The Nature Conservancy. I knew the greater area well, as I’ve paddled around those shores and have greeted my kin many times in the nearby town Bay Center. When I got asked to come visit the preserve, there was no hesitation to join along. It was an early June weekend, and the rain was following us from Seattle along Highway 101 and all the ways to the shores of Long Beach.

While we drove, I stared out at the thick cedar forests and remembered a distant memory.

I was young and painting the side of my grandfather’s honor canoe. The canoe was made by our family and community to honor my grandfather’s part in revitalizing canoe culture in the Pacific Northwest. Today, we know this movement as Tribal Journey. The canoe is named the Willapa Spirit. It is given that name because of my grandfather’s lived experience in his ancestral homelands called Willapa Bay, into which Ellsworth Creek flows.

An aerial photo showing TNC's Ellsworth Creek Preserve from above. It's an 8,000 acre preserve that contains old-growth trees and healthy salmon runs.

An aerial photo of TNC’s Ellsworth Creek Preserve, which is the traditional and current territories of the Chinook People — specifically the Willapa, which is one of the five bands that make up the Chinook Indian Nation. Photo © Chris Crisman

The next morning, our team met Kyle Smith, TNC’s Washington forest manager, who takes care of Ellsworth and several other TNC properties along the coast and throughout Washington. We planned the day alongside a strong cup of coffee. The sideways downpour viewed from the hotel cafe gave a euphoric welcome to the morning. It was the first time since the start of COVID that I had been back into my ancestral homelands, and I felt my greeting to the land was much overdue.

Owen Oliver talks to Kyle Smith below an old-growth Sitka spruce for which we had been searching. © Nikolaj Lasbo / TNC

While we tailed Kyle through the forest roads into the Ellsworth Creek Preserve, we dodged ditches and occasionally exited the vehicles to cut fallen tree limbs. Once we arrived at the first unit—a parcel of land—the task was to find an older cedar or spruce that Kyle has been meaning to find. We donned our hard hats and raingear. I went ahead of the group to lay a gift of tobacco. I was taught to do this to ensure the longevity of the relationship I have with the area and greater lands. As I spoke, I envisioned the forest as a stand of canoes, sleeping upright, waiting to be carved and brought to the ocean. I thought of the courage of my grandfather when fighting anti-Indian legislation. I embraced my future and knew that my children would be able to live their lives without the passing thought of not having canoes.

We passed through the dense brushes of young red alder trees, and within minutes our pants were shedding inches of rain that lingered on the leaves. We dove into the understory of the old-growth cedar trees. The dryness of the ground and the darkness of the surrounding area was unmistakable. It felt like an umbrella opened and followed us as the rain continued to be heard on the outskirts. As we scampered through the worn trails, Kyle pointed out a magical sight, a large old-growth cedar about 15 feet in diameter. Its trunk was enormous, the furriness of the bark remained, and the gentle, yet massive, limbs gave off their distinct “J” swoop.

A detailed photo of cedar bark.

A close-up photo of an old-growth cedar tree at the Ellsworth Creek Preserve. © TNC

A photo of Ellsworth Creek flowing through rainforest trees, like Sitka spruce.

Ellsworth Creek flows through the preserve and out to the estuary and on to Willapa Bay. © Owen Oliver

When Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest talk about Western red cedar, you can tell that this relationship has been cherished since time immemorial. The gifts and knowledge that cedar gives us result in our canoes, art, clothing and fragranced longhouses. Cedar also teaches us how to give back. I was once told by a Coast Salish elder that we raise our hands to show our thanks because of the two sprigs that protrude out of the top of cedar. We mimic cedar because that’s our first teacher and protector.

Moving past our cedar relatives, we moved downhill toward Ellsworth Creek. The tranquility of the water flowed with ease around the fallen trees, and the continuous droning of the ripples, splashes and trickles made this a perfect stop to relax and catch our breath. Kyle talked about the slow recovery of the chum salmon stocks. We were a bit early in the season, but I could imagine them spawning and feeding the forest with their rich nutrients. This conversation about salmon made me hungry — a salmon sandwich would be ideal, I sufficed with a gas station turkey and cranberry.

We finished the trip by exploring the Ellsworth estuary. I had been waiting to visit the estuary and see some of the local birds. We all walked alongside the road and pointed out various wrens, pintails, yellowthroats and the always territorial red-wing blackbirds. Kyle pointed out some American white pelicans that were wading out in the water. Though a bit distant for our binoculars, you couldn’t mistake their white bodies against the dark green of the temperate forest. They were reminders that many different animals come to gather right here, and we were just quiet witnesses.

A marsh wren amid the Ellsworth Creek estuary. © Owen Oliver

We ended by thanking Kyle for his time, impeccable care of the preserve and his willingness to open a friendship. While departing on our separate ways, I saw a small fishing boat float in Willapa Bay. It was three men, and I imagined it was my great-grandfather Sampson, grandfather Emmett and my father Marvin enjoying each other’s time in their ancestral homelands.   

Read More About the Ellsworth Creek Preserve




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