Columbia Hills State Park & Horsethief Lake. WA
Bright and early the Saturday after the 4th of July, my sister and our two good friends left on a Columbia River Gorge adventure. Despite the other three being good and abstaining from sweets and caffeine, this driver decided that she needed her Dutch Bros hot cocoa. (*To set the record straight, I was reminded that my passengers succumbed to my bad influence and shared a hot cocoa…) With hot cocoa in the driver’s hand, we drove out I-84E to Hood River, Oregon where we crossed over the Hood River Bridge. Following WA-14E we buzzed along east for about 18 miles.
Ranger Warner, who confirmed our art walk reservations, didn’t tell me that there are a number of areas (…like 3) encompassed by the Columbia Hills Historical State Park, nor did he tell me where to meet the tour. Unfortunately I didn’t think to ask. We took the first exit north off WA-14E that said something about the State Park – I think it said to “Columbia Hills State Park – something ranch.” That was not the right road. The gravel to the Dalles Mountain Ranch made for rough riding. After about 5 or so minutes of rattling and shaking, while crawling along at less than 10mph, we decided to turn around and see if there was another entrance to the Park. Clattering and rumbling back we made our way in low gear to WA-14. My poor little Malibu was bing-binging and flashing “Power Steering” by the time we reached level ground. Well, our hunch was right; there was another entrance. This time off to the south toward the Columbia River a large grand sign welcomed us to “Columbia Hills State Park and Horsethief Lake.” The asphalt road led us smoothly to a gravel parking lot a stone’s throw from the train tracks and the river. It was there that we paid our ten bucks for an Adventure Pass (a day parking pass) and met up with the tour group.
We lucked out. The free tours are lead Fridays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. by volunteer guides. This morning three guides showed up. The art walk is about mile and takes a little over an hour. Due to vandalism the art walk is closed except for these April through October State Park sponsored pictograph and petroglyph tours. They suggest reserving your spot two to three weeks out, but lucky me got four spots just four days out. The number given to reserve your spot is: 509-439-9032. When Ranger Warner called confirming our art walk reservation he left this number: 360-773-7712.
According to our guides, the area now known as the Columbia River Gorge has been the most continuously inhabited location in North America. Some of those inhabitants included the Chinook, a loose conglomeration of tribes that extended from the Pacific Ocean east through the Gorge and the surrounding areas. Much trading and traffic of different Indian peoples has happened here. These Indians are the ones who left their marks on the land and rocks. The artwork, both pictographs (rock paintings) and petroglyphs (carved rock art), are evidence of these peoples. Though thought to be very religious (from other evidence and tradition), our guides admitted that we don’t know for sure what the artwork represents. The various diseases and hardships that overcame many of those people in the last two hundred years means there is no definitive voice interpreting the remains today.
The Indians consider this area a sacred place and even today bring offerings of worship here. Walking along this art trail was like visiting the remnants of an old Catholic cathedral or Buddhist monastery. We were seeing Native American artwork that could be likened to stained glass windows or chubby little Budas. The trail had about five stops where the guides pointed out artwork and talked about what were seeing. With the smells of wild berry bushes, grasses and dust in the dry heat air, we took in the artwork. I was glad the guides had leaflets showing exactly what we were looking for in the rocks. Some of the work was difficult to see, and the guides said this was because the sun was so bright. Apparently if there had been a bit of cloud cover or been overcast, the artwork would have been seen better.
While guide “J” kept his interpretations palatable, our two other guides affirmed the sacredness of the area every chance they got. I appreciated J’s constant reminder that we really don’t know what these works of art represent or for what purpose they served; every member of the tour’s guess was just as valid as any of the opinions of the guides’. Personally I think at least some of the artwork was made simply for art’s sake and some of the specimens were practice sketches. I doubt it is all sacred.
“White. White paint represented death, didn’t it?” The older blonde lady-guide piped up.*
“Um. I’ve never heard that before,” said J hesitantly.
“I thought I read that somewhere – that artwork in different colors had different meanings,” she persisted.
“Maybe. I think they just used what they had,” said J.
A few minutes later, as we preceded single-file down the sun baked and sneaker trodden path, the guides are talking among themselves again.
“I think I read that colors signify different meanings,” repeated Blondie, this time to guide “K”.
“Yeah – you could be right,” he says.
“I think white represents death,” she says again.
“Really? That’s new to me, but it could be. Their artwork was full of significance that we don’t even understand,” he affirms her with genuine interest in his voice.
When at the beginning of the tour our three volunteer guides discovered that they had unexpected co-guides, I didn’t expect their consensus that they’d learn from one another to amount to much. Nevertheless, they kept talking among themselves and comparing notes. They all had their own angle. Blondie was definitely death focused. K was especially attuned to the spirit side of things, with a touchy-feely edge. J was a textbook guide; he had a script and followed it.
The art walk is a destination walk with “She Who Watches” being the final viewed specimen. The piece was created using both paint and rock carving. A large piece, it looked to me like a bear with very Native American features. There are various traditional tales associated with this artwork. All of them include a woman chief, the wolf and a being put in stone to watch over the chief’s people. Some of the traditions say that the wolf promised her he would watch over them, and he put himself in the stone, while others say he put her in stone, so she could always watch over her people. Anyway, it was a neat piece to see. I was impressed at the symmetry of the eyes and ears.
One thing that was not made very clear on the art walk was how many, or which of the specimens exactly, were rescued and strategically placed. Apparently at least some of them were salvaged before the dam was put in about a mile up river and the area flooded.
Even at the end of the art trail our guides were still talking among themselves and comparing notes.
“Didn’t owls signify death in Indian depictions?” Again the topic of death, and again, brought up by Blondie.
“Yeah – sometimes animals did depict life events and situations,” affirmed K.
“I know I was just reading about how owls signify death. And my spirit animal is an owl,” she relates to him.
Uhhh… and you’re broadcasting this why? I thought to myself as I moved on, looking for my sister, relieved that that part of the art walk was over.
After the tour we ate our picnic lunch in the day area by the lake. With many picnic tables in the shady grassy area, we had no problem finding a nice spot by the water’s edge. The following swim in Horsethief Lake, with rocky Horsethief Butte looming above and the sun shinning down, refreshed our sun-chapped skin. Yes, blue sky, sparkling warm water and good friends – what a lovely day.
On the drive home, we veered off a little so to take in the Historic Columbia River Highway, which turns 100 years old this year. Stopping at Crown Point and the Vista House, we took in the view.
*Quotes and dialogue – not precisely accurate as I am quoting them as I thought back to what they said.