Sunday, September 7, 2014

Childhood Revisited

The summer I was eight years old Dad moved us way out west from Tuscola, Illinois, to the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, where he had a job mining uranium at the now infamous Midnite Mine, today the site of a Superfund ecological cleanup. We were a family of six, mom and dad, me at eight, my brother six, a sister four, and a baby sister six months old. About eight miles from the little village of Wellpinit was an old Civilian Conservation Corp campground beside the pristine waters of Blue Creek and very close to the mine site. That is where Dad parked the little eight foot trailer house that would be our home for the next six months. There were three or four other families camped at that site, with seven kids our ages, and a couple of bachelor geologists too. At first we had no electricity or running water but soon a makeshift generator supplied enough power to run lights to the trailers. We never did have indoor water. Mom carried water from the creek for drinking and to wash our clothes in a kettle over a campfire. With only a dozen cloth diapers this was a daily ritual. An outhouse down by the creek served the needs of all those in our camp.
Looking back to those years I try to see them through the eyes of my parents and believe it was a time of high adventure for my father. He came from a coal mining background in central Illinois, joined the CCC when he was fourteen or fifteen and travelled out west building roads and planting trees. In 1941 he enlisted in the Navy, was a Boatswain's Mate on The USS Saratoga in the Pacific during WWII, spent shore time in Seattle, Washington, and came to love the West. In 1954 he ventured out to Colorado to do some uranium exploration, leaving his much-pregnant wife and three young children in Tuscola for the winter. His mine boss, Pete Loncar, beckoned him to Wellpinit the following spring and that's how we found ourselves in this primitive little camp of miners in the summer of '55.
For my mother these months were probably not so romantic. Our cramped quarters, lack of amenities, limited social life, no relatives within 2,000 miles (Mom missed her Smith family so much), and young baby kept her from finding much to like about life on the reservation. Not far from our camp were some lakes with recreational areas and at least once we went swimming at Deer Lake or Jump Off Joe's Lake, maybe both (my memory and my brother's differ on this subject). We also made a trip to Seattle and Bremerton in our '53 Kaiser, rode the ferry, ate restaurant food and fresh fruit along the way. Those outings provided a much needed respite from life in Wellpinit for all of us, especially Mom.
From my point of view, an eight year old girl with a good imagination, life on an Indian Reservation surrounded by pine-covered mountains and a nearby creek to play in was heaven on earth. We were free to spend as much time outdoors as we wanted. In fact, we were strongly encouraged to get out of that little trailer early each morning so my mother had room to cook and care for the baby. We climbed the mountains and found wild strawberries beneath the pines, elderberries hanging low on bushes, and tasty trout at the nearby beaver dam. Wildlife surrounded us including a porcupine that swatted one of the dogs in camp, a bobcat that someone shot and brought down for us to see, and beavers in the dam. That summer provided me with a lifetime of idyllic childhood memories on which to draw as life became more complex and inhibited. As summer waned and the temperatures dropped my dad decided to move us out of central Washington and accepted a job as a cobalt miner in a little company town high up in the rugged mountains above Salmon, Idaho, appropriately named Cobalt. That move brought two and a half more years of adventure in the wild west to my life but closed the chapter on Wellpinit, least I thought so.
Twenty-one years later my husband and I with our eight-year-old son travelled from our home in Colorado back to that camp on the Spokane Reservation in the hope of finding our old camp. From the time we left Cobalt, Idaho, in 1958 I lived in Illinois but the pull of the West was strong and Fort Collins, Colorado has been my home since 1970. The summer of 1976 we crossed the Little Falls bridge and pulled in to Wellpinit where we stopped at a grocery store, the same one where my parents shopped so many years ago. I told them of my quest and was directed to an older native woman stocking shelves. She gave us exact directions out of town, past Turtle Lake, into the old camp site which was now a picnic grounds. The three of us tromped around, took photographs, found the road that led to the now missing beaver dam, and checked out the creek. Little had changed in the area and I believe the Midnite Mine was still in operation in 1976 but we didn't try to find the mine. My memories didn't include the mine site.
Just last week, September of 2014, my sister made her first trip back to Wellpinit to rediscover the place her four-year-old self vaguely remembers, and she found it despite faulty instructions received from a Reservation cop. There was a fallen log blocking the narrow dirt road leading to the camp so she parked her car and walked down into the bowl-shaped camp ground, her dog at her side. Using her iPhone she photographed the creek, the open-sided picnic cover, and the warning signs at the mine entrance then sent them to me so I could share her excitement. After 49 years the place has changed very little aside from the big "elephant in the room", the contaminated Midnite Mine, which leaks uranium tailings and radioactive waste into the ground and creeks, including our beloved Blue Creek. I do believe our camp ground was above the mine so the flow of waste water into Blue Creek and then into Roosevelt Lake is away from the Blue Creek Camp. However, I wouldn't advise eating the berries, the fish, or even breathing the air for any length of time.
Maybe this will close the chapter on Wellpinit for us, my sister, brother, and I, and our memories will fade and be lost to history. But like so many of my aging friends I like to revisit in my mind those wonderful childhood memories when I was free to roam, pretend to be a "wild Indian", float notes in bottles down the creek, be an innocent, naive eight-year-old girl in the 1950s.