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Mt. Spokane, The Little Spokane River, Rock Cairn Vision Quest Sites and a Poem

by Tina Wynecoop O Bring Me a Mountain Nothing else will do  I don’t need more jewelry,  fine woven stuffs,  painted pottery,  soft leather gloves  But a mountain!  One can never have too many  Yes a small one will do with  smoothed-over green slopes or a  sharp one of grey granite with  snow frosting  I don’t really care  Only come back from your travels  with a mountain for me!  ~ Margaret Tsuda

Several years ago a logger was cutting trees on the east side of Wellpinit Mountain in Stevens County. He was cautioned by the tribal forester to avoid cutting in certain areas where cultural sites, composed of vertical piles of rock, were located.

These rock piles, or cairns, were built by Amerindians who inhabited the Plateau region (east of the Cascades to the Rocky Mountain foothills) for at least 10,000-12,000 years before European contact. Cairns marked vision quest sites and were integral for rites of passage in which individuals, both male and female, made the transition from puberty to adulthood.

The foothills of the Rocky Mountains include the Selkirk Mountains — one of which is Mt. Spokane (former names: Mt. Baldy; Mount Carlton/Carleton; and Ch-qw-ul-sm (Cottonwood) – the name given to it by the Upper Spokane Indians who depended on it for some of their subsistence gathering.

This majestic peak in the northeast corner of Spokane County looms above our lovely Little Spokane River Valley. It is a beautiful, welcoming geographical feature with ever-changing plays of light and weather on her features. It is visible from nearly everywhere in the city of Spokane and the surrounding counties.

The mountain’s watershed includes Little Deep Creek, and Deadman Creek (and Peone Creek with flows from upstream into Deadman Creek) all of which contribute their watery run-off to the Little Spokane River as it meanders on its way downstream to the confluence with the Spokane River.

Back in Stevens County our logger was careful as he worked around these rock piles on the slopes of Wellpinit Mountain. He knew of other places where similar prehistoric cairns were still intact: on the south slope of this same mountain; on a plateau overlooking a creek that forms the eastern border of the Spokane Reservation; and near aptly named Four Mound Road, north of Fairchild AFB

Mt. Spokane had documented rock cairn sites as well.

Although no cairns remain on the Mount Spokane summit, an 1895 travel account to the mountain substantiates their existence:

“I was very much interested in the strange character of the stone that covered a level portion of the top of the mountain. There were acres and acres of just these loose, thin sharp rocks that appeared as if blasted out and taken up there and dumped; and the strangest thing about them is the many piles or columns built up as high as chimneys, and all over the locality. They have been in just this strange condition for years. The oldest Indians say they have no … knowledge as to how these stones came to be piled up in this manner, nor for what purpose, but they were unmistakably piled by human hands.”

Bell, Beth, 1895 “On the top of Mount Carleton.” The Northwest Magazine, June 1895.

What did the remaining stone piles have in common? The logger noticed that they were strategically placed with views of Mt. Spokane — visibly the tallest “cairn” of all. Early cultural anthropologists Verne Ray, James Teit, and others, noted, “As the highest elevation in proximity to traditional Spokane territory, it seems reasonable to assume that Mount Spokane was also a destination for aboriginal vision quests and/or other puberty rites. Such cultural activities often entailed the stacking of large stones to construct alignments and cairns. Prehistoric cairns in upland locales often command panoramic views…”

The cairns have been destroyed on Mt. Spokane, a loss that cannot be measured. What can be measured, though, and must be protected, is this mountain’s tremendous physical beauty. Unfortunately pedestrians traveling the trails near the river can’t catch glimpses of the mountain’s ever-changing glory; thankfully, early on, the Friends of the Little Spokane River Valley wisely planned trails and walkways in the higher terraces above the valley floor – where vistas to the east make the heart nearly burst at the beauty of the valley, its upland reaches – and the mountain!

“O bring me a mountain!”

Traceries of old trails (and Shady Slope Road was once just a narrow pathway) marked this land from times past. One of the Indians’ permanent settlements in the area was composed of four or five houses; it was located at the base Shady Slope (recorded by V. Ray in 1936); its place name meant, in Salish, “where the creek enters the river,” and the settlement connected to that old trail which led to the summit of Mt. Spokane.

We know of this trail’s existence because Beth Bell described it in her October 1894 “foray on horseback up Mount Carleton to retrieve a band of horses which had been summer grazing on the mountain” — she stated that access to the mountain’s top was via an “Indian path” that measured about five miles in total length:

There was only the narrowest possible zigzag path, just wide enough for one through dense tangled underbrush on the mountain side, which closed in across the path and reached away above our heads, and the trail would lose itself every little while where we could not find it … At the time we were going back and forth, from side to side, not more than the length of a horse in one direction, then doubling back again.

Trails were part of this landscape long before the FLSRV team envisioned and delineated the current trails map. A new map of completed trails is included in this newsletter (special thanks to Mark Case, CADD –Designer) as FLSRV continues to work toward its original goal of 25-30 miles of non-motorized trails.

(The logger is now retired. His wife wrote this article.)

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