Paper pub. date
January 2001
ISBN 9780870714948 (paperback)
6 x 9 inches, 200 pages. Illustrations. Glossary.

River Pigs and Cayuses

Oral Histories from the Pacific Northwest

Ron Strickland
With a new introduction by William Kittredge.

Ron Strickland’s oral histories recover a part of the original Northwest character that is rapidly disappearing. In River Pigs and Cayuses, he gathers stories from old-timers in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Brimming with lively accounts both humorous and poignant, the book illuminates cadences and traditions that Strickland hopes will survive long after the storytellers are gone. Here a moonshiner, a fish pirate, a timber cruiser, a branding iron maker, a smoke jumper, a frontier bride, and 25 other fascinating individuals speak vividly, revealing their personal histories in their own words.

Strickland introduces each story, providing information on the teller and placing the story in context. In telling their own stories, his subjects speak to the diversity of life and labor in the Northwest. A short glossary enhances the “listening” experience, as do Strickland's own photographs of the storytellers.

In a new introduction, William Kittredge notes that Strickland’s interviewees are most passionate when speaking of their survival in the work-a-day world, sustained both by their livelihoods and by the solace of companionship. “What we hear echoing over and again in these voices,” Kittredge writes, “is pride, at having managed difficult lives, and having along the way earned independence, all the individuality they could manage, and an unapologetic sense of self.”

About the author

Ron Strickland is the founder of the Pacific Northwest Trail, which stretches 1,200 miles from Glacier National Park in Montana to Washington's Olympic National Park. His books include The Pacific Northwest Trail Guide published by Sasquatch Books, Shanks Mare: A Compendium of Remarkable Walks, and oral histories of Texas, Vermont and Alaska. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

Read more about this author

Listening: Introduction to the New Edition
William Kittredge

Ron Strickland

Fish Pirate
Bert "Spider" Jones

Andy Dick

"I Always Fished by Myself"
Signe Ashland

Skagit River Gambler
Mark Gilkey

"Swing Her Round Like Swinging on a Gate"
Bill Robler

"Crazy With Fiddling"
Theodore "Deke" Smith

Tarheel Moonshiner
Ralph "Stogie" Parker

Mulligan Stew
Gene Grush

"Five Cents an Hour, Ten Hours a Day
Al Coffelt

Ice Harvest
Stanley Darwood

Frontier Bride
Eva Beebee

Barn Raisings and Harvesting Bees
Clara Fewkes

Logging with a Swedish Fiddle
Joe Yocum

Francis Lufkin

Logging Horses
Clyde Smith

River Pig
Bert Wilke

Timber Cruiser
Ralph Thayer

Steelhead Water
Howard Miller

Ninety Years in the Mountains
Glee Davis

"It Takes Fifty Prospects to Make One Mine"
Bill Tilly

Snow Geese and Salt Marshes
Harte Pentilla

Hard Times at Thirty Below
Gaspar Petta

A Step at a Time
Harvey Manning

"We Wanted to Build a House"
Les More

Lowen Chin

Tom Drumheller

"We'd Whistle and Sing to Hold Them Cattle"
Paul Louden

Branding Iron Maker
Slim Worthen

Foss & Bill Creveling

"I Belong to the Cattle Ever After"
Ross Filer

Thong Nguyen


Introduction by William Kittredge

My father and his dearest friend, Henry Nicol, when they were young men in the 1920s, used to head out into the high snowy Cascades of central Oregon in early spring with nothing but a light pack of blankets and dry clothing wrapped in a tarp, hip boots, fly rods, and a side of bacon for seasoning. They'd sleep beside the great yellow pine, melting drifts of snow still deep around them, hike and fish and eat what they caught. "We stayed out till the bacon was gone," my father said. I still hear his voice, echoing with his love of that old commonplace kind of life which is now lost to the most of us, except for a possible week or so on vacation.

When I yearn to be a little closer to biological time in a natural world, and wonder what it was like for his generation in that other world where our kind of creature was closer to native contact, I think of heading out to talk with fry cooks and interstate truckers and the like, but more often turn to books of interviews with people who'd had little choice but to give their lives to surviving in the work-a-day world, hoping that will drag me back from abstract, theoretical concerns. I reason that getting out of myself will be good for my peace of mind, and blood pressure.

The books I go to are recent classics like Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe, and those put together by Studs Turkel, and these by Ron Strickland, River Pigs and Cayuses and Whistlepunks and Geoducks.

The rewards are immediate — I find idiosyncratic voices speaking precisely about the particularities of their days and the work that absorbed and defined so much of their lives, and the complexities of the men and women they had learned to either revere or despise, and the blooded old barking, writhing animal world which has so clearly gotten almost completely away from us in these mechanistic times. It's good for me to listen to these people who watched, touched, and paid attention to odors while I was thinking. Which is not to say thinking isn't a good idea. But there can bee too much of it, and once in a while I find it's necessary to be in the world rather than simply on it. Listening, as to the singing of birds, or the voices of people who've experienced the world in ways we never will, is an invaluable tool for anyone interested in being at home where we are.

As a child, around the working men on the ranch where I grew up in southeastern Oregon, I listened and can still to some dim degree hear those voices. Children spend a lot of time watching adults and listening, overhearing, searching for clues about who they should try to be and hot to go about forming themselves. But then I became a man who listened mostly to his own thoughts. In going that route I was in the business of distancing and isolating myself. Eventually this made me to a considerable degree frantic and crazy with the so-called existential anxiety which is so endemic in our time. It is, take it from me, a lonesome and frightening road to travel.

Others, however, managed to keep their interior child on the job and curious. Ray Carver, for instance, owed much of his success as a writer to his fascination with voices. Ray listened, paying attention to what people were trying to say, how they occasionally came right out with it in a straight forward talk and more often didn't, how they negotiated the tick of revealing themselves through dodges and misdirections which were sometimes intentional and often not, how they learned to tell the story of who they thought they were, and why they were unique and valuable. After parties Ray would say, "Did you see that?" Of course I hadn't. His eyes would gleam as he recounted a line of conversation he'd overheard. "And then she said, all the time eyeing this other guy over her boyfriend's shoulder, then she said… "I wish I could remember. But only Ray was intent of listening.

Work, more than anything, constitutes the overwhelming circumstance in Ron Strickland's books, what it demanded in terms of fortitude and dedication and courage, and how people responded to those demands. Poetry and stories, both make-believe and not, don't often tell us enough about how people have gone about the vastly consuming purposes of their days, how their efforts sustained and solaced them, not only physically but also intellectually and emotionally. They tell us incessantly about romance, and not often about work.

An old timber cruiser in the deep outback forests of the Northwest, Ralph Thayer, talks of making his own snowshoes. "All the trappers — Charlie Wise, Hooley Stien, and the guys up in Canada — had to make their own then." He details the process for us, step by careful step, and then sums up the years of isolation in the deep timber. "You had to be so you wouldn't get lonesome. You'd go off by yourself and when night came you'd bed down and go to sleep. I just come by it naturally. Some others got homesick and had to leave."

By that Ralph Thayer seems to mean that others were frightened by their own emptiness when facing the absence of both family and a cultural framework. Other voices are at once both blessedly diverting and reassuring.

Women — and we wish there were more of them in Ron Strickland's collections — were right there at work beside the men. Phoebe Yeo tells of minding a nine-mile timber flume in which running water carried unfinished lumber down from a rough-cut mill near Bingham, Washington, to the Columbia River, where it was loaded on sailing scows and transported to a finishing mill in The Dalles. Phoebe was nine when she began the work, wielding what was called a pickaroon, a pike pole used to break up jams in the flume. She also helped her father cut firewood with one of those long limber two-person saws called misery ships or Swedish fiddles. "I was awfully strong in my arms and I could pull a crosscut saw as well as my dad could. Oh, he used to have me pull on that old saw until I was blue in the face."

Eva Beebee came west on a summer trip from St. Paul, where she was a secretary, in 1914, and met a handsome horseman. She lived most of her life an a homestead just across the North Fork of the Flathead River from Glacier Park, where her husband, Chance (she always called him Mr. Beebee), was a ranger.

Eva tells of a man called Uncle Jeff, "a great big, tall, bony fella with white whiskers down to his waist." Uncle Jeff was a Pony Express rider and then a horse thief (the horse thieves used geese "instead of regular watchdogs. If anyone came around those geese would make such a fuss!"). Eva says, "He was a wicked man. He had steel blue eyes and he looked at you like he would just pierce you." But Uncle Jeff was the one who gave Chance his start on the North Fork, and "Everybody was nice and friendly. They'd help each other. They always left some split wood and some food for anyone who came along." Such stories lead me back to personal history. My grandfather ran away from a farm in Wisconsin and ended up at work as a blacksmith in butte the year he was fifteen — his work was called sharpening steel and I've still got his union card from 1904. "They were good to me," he said. "I was a kid, and they didn't send me down in those mines."

People in those days were often sustained by companionship. Along with Phoebe and her father, we hear about Eva and Mr. Beebee — lovers and marriages — but we hear more about the friendships in work camps. Frontiers were not where women much went, so it's no accident that the American frontier produced a literature about male companions, from Moby Dick and Huck Finn to On the Road and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. In Kent Haruf's recent Plainsong, in which their decades of comradeship with considerable generosity, we see, after the frontier has gone by, men and women learning how to live together, and it gives us heart.

One of the joys of listening to these voices lies in hearing the specific workplace lingo, the names of tools — the misery whips and the pickaroons — language which is already archaic and in danger of being lost. (We of course have our own workplace languages: bytes and so on.) Ron Strickland's books contain short glossaries, and they enhance the reader's pleasure. An Indian pony is a cayuse, and river pigs are men who rode the great flotillas of logs floating downstream through the shallow flats and river rapids to a sawmill, breaking up log jams along the way, an obviously and famously dangerous way to make a living. I saw a crew of river pigs just once, on the Selway in 1968, just at the end, and will never forget the agility and casual courage with which those men sort of walked on water as they went about their work. Like horse breakers on the sage deserts of southeastern Oregon, they were careful, graceful, skillful, and looked to be fearless.

Reading Ron Strickland's books, I'm reminded of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels, in which the details of managing all aspects of a ocean-going life, from meals to warfare, initiate such an important port of the narrative energy. We hunger for stories about specific worlds, and the particularities of making a go of things. We search them for clues about how we might make our own efforts succeed. Ronald Blythe, in Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village. wrote that "The old people have gone and taken a lot of truth out of the world with them."

What we hear echoing over and again in these voices is pride at having managed difficult lives, and having along the way earned independence, all the individuality they could manage, and an unapologetic sense of self. These men and women knew their end of the trail, and themselves, and spoke their minds with honesty, assurance, and candor. Such qualities are survival skills and ultimately invaluable virtues which make for a society in which trust and generosity can be ordinary.

William Kittredge

Introduction by Ron Stickland

We are all storytellers if given half a chance. All we need is a listener.

Listening is not as easy as it looks. It takes infinite patience. Most of all the listener must care. It is an art of subtle encouragement. In a roomful of people the happiest person is the found beside a good listener.

I must be a good listener because all kinds of people, total strangers, are always telling me about themselves. a few years ago I became so fascinated with these stories that I decided to begin recording them. I was not after a precise, orderly record of the past nor was I attuned to common subjects of conversation such as pets, genealogy, kids, or gossip. I did want to find good, pithy stories, steeped in the individualism of someone's own ferment of ideas, associations, and years.

Originally storytellers came my way purely by accident in places like Polebridge, Bonners Ferry, Metaline Falls, Republic, Nighthawk, Twisp, Concrete, Sedro Woolley, La Conner, Seattle, and Friday Harbor in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Between 1970 and 1983 I spent as much time as possible exploring and choosing routes for a new long-distance pathway, the Pacific Northwest Trail. But soon my fascination with the region grew into a quest to preserve part of the oral traditions I had loved so much as a footloose rambler. Having emigrated from the overdeveloped East, I feared the drastic effects of new roads, summer homes, strip mines, forest rape, water pollution, and other imminent threats. I feared that a time would soon come when so much tradition would be lost that there would be plenty of old people but very few old-timers.

That happened much sooner than I expected. Many of the friends whose stories grace this book have already gone. I was very close to some of them; they filled important gaps in my own life. But please don't ask who survives and who doesn't. think of them all as lively, optimistic souls whom you are meeting here in person.

Each time someone dies an irreplaceable world disappears. The stories in this book are offered as inspiration to people everywhere to sit down immediately and start listening. And recording, if possible. Do it even if you don't think you need the stories or information, even if you think there will always be plenty of time for this later.

In 1979 I visited Chief Charlie Jones of the Pacheenaht Band at Port Renfrew on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. If that alert, busy man had not told me, I would never have guessed that he was over one hundred years old. In fact, I found him energetically carving a piece of wood in his workshop. As an active revivalist for Coast Salish traditions, he wanted the government to build a center where he could teach young people traditional fishing methods. He showed me a dozen fir knots he had found in the forest and stored in a box. "We used to use these for halibut hooks," he said. "They are extremely had and won't rot." He teased the dense brown wood with his knife to prove how much tougher it was than ordinary fir. "Whenever I go through the forest and see one of these knots I pick it up to use later."

The stories we record now are like those knots. When our relatives, friends, and neighbors are gone (or when we, too, are no more) the knots will endure and be valued.

Sometimes at the height of my search for storytellers in 1978 and 1979 I time-traveled in and out of several different lives in the course of a single day. Imagine the heady intensity of dizzying blurs of months spent haunting woodlots, back porches, corrals, fishing schooners, ranch kitchens, Scout camps, log cabins, saltwater beaches, overgrown Indian trails, game refuges, forgotten mines, and wilderness mountains. Even when I was very ill I kept at it, as on that chilly autumn day when I straggled, virus-weary, down out of the snowbound Pasayten Wilderness in search of refuge. But immediately I was on the trail of the Methow Valley's old-time cowboys. The Scruffy, Dusty little town of Twisp looked like the set for a 1950's Jimmy Dean movie; it was the right place. I soon felt like an 1880's placer miner with a sluice box full of "colors." I'd found Bill Robler, the dean of rodeo bullhorn callers, Deke Smith, the ace storyteller whose slow, gravelly voice is a national treasure, and Ross Filer, the Methow Valley Zane Grey.

But story mining is as full of disappointments as prospecting. The worst words to hear are, "Oh, you should have been here last month before old so-and-so died; now he could have told you some stories." Almost as bad is finding someone whose stories have disappeared in the fogs of a stormy mind.

Not a few old-timers helped me despite very serious physical weaknesses. One islander who had spent most of his life on or beside the saltchuck was alone with a picture-only TV when I found him in a nursing home. The sound was off because he was stone deaf, and he was alone not because of that or his partial paralysis but because of the disinterest of anyone in visiting him. Yet he was a good-natured fellow and very eager to help me. Though the four walls of his room were only a few miles away from the best scenes of his youth, he had no way to travel. When I checked him out of the nursing home for an outing many envious people watched us go. Later it was almost more than I could manage to carry him to a log overlooking a great bay where cormorants ("shags") shot across the surface of the water and fishing boats crawled across the island-studded horizon.

I could smell the acrid odor of incontinence. The heavy, helpless man's deafness was almost as total as my hoarseness. But the great waves crashed on the beach and the sun shone bravely just as they always had at this spot. Then the memories came and the infirmities dropped away like the spray flung from a cresting wave. The beach itself changed with the boats and the fish traps and the men who had worked here. Slowly the bonds of time cracked open like oysters, the pearls inside made of words.

I would like to think that some readers will read these stories aloud to capture the cadences and effects of the original experience I heard. Passing that opportunity on to you is a major purpose of this book. Another purpose is good, enjoyable entertainment. And then there are the Big Themes. I do not want to frighten anyone with them, but I hope you will be fascinated, as I have been, by a few common threads which run throughout the book.

For the last several years our national news has often been a litany of economic woes, international reverses, environmental degradation, official corruption, social unrest, and personal insecurity. Against all of these conundrums this book offers nothing more substantial than cowhand Ross Filer pouring cow camp coffee out of a blackend pot while the "hoot hooters" drum in the distance. Or Gaspar Petta of Jasper's Pass explaining how his balloon silk underwear and lynx-fur face mask kept him warm on North Cascades traplines. Or Eva Beebee telling why a neighbor celebrated the Beebee's wedding on the North Fork of the Flathead with dynamite.

I believe that solutions to our national problems must begin with similar will power, optimism, maturity, gumption, and sense of humor. Although these traditional values are "square" and unglamorous, my guess is that America yearns for them with both nostalgia and anticipation. We have sources of strength which must be heard from our neighbors' lips to be understood and appreciated.

Many people in this book show a gentleness which comes from a lifetime of trials. An inner grace shines forth in their accounts. Listen for it as Gaspar Petta rides out an avalanche in the North Cascades. Or when professional gambler Mark Gilkey decides to fold up his "hot town" poker games for the last time. Or when Al Coffelt struggles to get by in the moneyless San Juan Islands on "popcorn and ice." Or when Gene Grush celebrates the equality and helpfulness of the railroad hoboes in their trackside "jungles." I find these qualities, too, in the younger people, like the Mores, whose contemporary solutions to old problems I have included here.

Failed crops, cruel layoffs, shattered dreams, and broken lives are the dark side of America's traditional promise of abundance for all, and all too often even simple survival is a major victory. As sheepman Tom Drumheller says, "People who went through the Depression of the Thirties all have a kind of kindred spirit. We learned then what being frugal amounts to." Deke Smith remembers, "Everybody… was poor as the devil." Rancher Slim Worthen says, "We didn't use much equipment, and there was little expense so we didn't have to have a great big income. We took it out of our hides, though, working out — she teaching school and me working in the woods."

Cooperative effort is a related theme of many of these stories. Putting up a barn in a moneyless wilderness or forming a volunteer fire department or holding a bake sale are only possible if neighbors work together. But there is a deeper current here, too. Listen carefully to Clara Fewkes and the others for the caring which elevates their sharing above mere practicality.

Voluntary associations are quintessentially American. Even our government reflects this, being a voluntary association of free citizens through a constitutional convention. Ever since the Mayflower Compact the exigencies of distance, wilderness, and necessity have encouraged the development of voluntarism in America. (It is unfortunate, however, that the lawsuit is now coming to be more symbolic of our society than the barn-raising.)

Eighty-five year old ex-wrangler Bill Robler laments that "in the old days everybody trusted everybody because there was no need for mistrust." His friend Deke Smith remembers neighbors getting together for winter house parties. "people thought nothing of going out at ten below zero, maybe in a snowstorm, eight or ten miles through the snow to some house. The whole tribe'd go and wedge in there, Grandpa, Grandma, babies, and the whole works." Ralph Thayer recalls how his neighbors helped to raise his house and vice versa. "We didn't exchange any money. We didn't have any. They helped me and I helped them." Wilderness wife Eva Beebee says. "Nobody locked their cabins in case people needed to get in. They always left some wood split and some food for anybody who came along." Old-timer Clara Fewkes explains that "that kind of neighborliness began to decline when things prospered more… and when people moved away and newcomers came in who didn't understand the ways of the West."

Memory, experience, and the narrative urge are the raw materials which novelists, poets, entertainers, and balladeers carve and burnish into rich gems of invention. I believe that at its best nothing can surpass th warmth and drama of a single voice speaking directly to us of the things which matter. The campfire flickers on the rapt faces. The radio reader charms and gladdens through the limpid pulses of the air. A pastor delivers a sermon full of passions and life. A parent invents a fable for the falling-asleep child. Our impersonal age cries out for this balm, the healing touch of words, the storyteller's art.

Ron Strickland
Seattle, Washington
July 1984

“This book recreates a history of the Northwest through the conversations of these old-timers so vividly that we, the readers, live through it ourselves.”

—Studs Terkel

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