EDITOR’S NOTE: This 2003 column of mine came to mind Monday morning after discussing otters with a colleague. It remains relevant.
Looking ahead 300 years or so to a time when the communities of the Columbia estuary have their own professional baseball team, I’d like to propose a name: The Mythtown Otters.
As long-time readers may recall, Mythtown is the lost city of the Chinook Indian Nation on the south shore of Willapa Bay. Perhaps a real place in ancient times — several giant tsunamis ago — Mythtown was the focus of one or more stories related by Charles Cultee of Bay Center to legendary anthropologist Franz Boas in 1890.
Cultee was one of only two surviving speakers of the Chinookan languages who Boas could find when he made two trips to the estuary country. To people of this area, Cultee deserves to be a far more honored and recognized hero than Sacagawea. Perhaps he should be a bigger hero than Lewis and Clark. Cultee’s vivid memories of the tales and taboos of a vanished civilization are the perfect embodiment of the true spirit of our land and waters.
Perhaps someone knows where Mythtown really is. If so, please show me — I promise not to tell. But it’s both more likely and more romantic to think it is a place that exists only in the imagination, a sort of Shoalwater version of the fabled Brigadoon of Scottish lore.
I’m a little torn in writing about it because of fear it will become one more roadside attraction on the tourist circuit, a place of McDonald’s wrappers. But in one of the happiest occasions of luck and leadership, Mythtown happens to be hidden somewhere on the thousands of acres of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.
Although poorly funded in relation to other extensive land holdings in the West and elsewhere, the refuge system places land securely off-limits to hot dog stands and cheap souvenirs.
Mythtown also is protected by its profound stillness. Among the most exciting places to me, it is the very antithesis of what most folks consider interesting. There’s really not much to look at, apart from the aforementioned otters, plus a lot of birds. There are no artifacts, no crumbling ruins, and in places not really much open water.
An incredible restoration effort is restoring the shallow marshes and tidelands to some of the south bay, bringing back a dizzying crowd of birds. But some of the old dikes, made by white people decades ago to turn Willapa mudflats into pasture land, now snake their way through a grassy expanse, with even their “water” side being thousands of feet from the bay. (This restoration has been largely achieved in the 16 years since I first published this column.)
I often walk along the grassy Willapa shoreline. Much about it reminds me of the autumn fields of my childhood, the wind constantly changing the warp and weave of the land. Far off in the distance, the cliffs of Long Island rise from water I can’t see, as close as it comes to abandoned battlements in this place of the lost city.
Apart from this, I treasure the place because of how it lets me occasionally get out of my own head, forgetting who and what I am for moments as the sweet air blows in and out of my lungs, feet steadily pacing through the stubble of wild hay. It is in those times that Mythtown swells out of the bottomless muck somewhere far beneath the hungry roots. Ghosts pass, busy and content.
But sure there are other times, most of the time, when it is only a sublime real place, the sloughs alternately draining the marshes or refilling them with salt water.
Then, I imagine myself as someone may see me from a distance, striding across the green-golden expanse like the solitary sowers in Van Gogh’s 1888 series, or “Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun” that he painted in Saint Remy in late June 1889 — about when Cultee and Boas were sitting in deep conversation half a world away.
Once in a great while, when I time the tides right and luck is in the wind, I come upon the otters. They station themselves below enormous culverts as the tide ebbs, waiting for fish.
Watching them playing with graceful charm — plump, whiskered mermaids and mermen — they are a tangible link to the past, to the ages when many of the Northwest’s original people considered otters to be people, too, as Hindus do the cow.
There’s still an intelligent sparkle in their eyes. They tolerate being appreciated for a minute or two, then slip beneath the surface.