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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

The Crossing

by Jack Nisbet

James Keast Lord was an English veterinarian and wanderer who at the age of 40 signed on as horse doctor and assistant naturalist for the British North American Boundary Commission. For the next four years, between 1858 and 1862, Lord accompanied the surveying crew that cut the swath along the 49th parallel from just below the mouth of the Fraser River to the Continental Divide. He turned his adventures along the way into a two-volume account of the natural history of the vast Columbia District that is full of hearsay stories, colorful characters, and first-hand descriptions of some of our region’s most familiar birds, animals and landmarks.

Lord was particularly struck by a traditional crossing place of the Pend Oreille River near modern Laclede, Idaho. "The scenery is picturesque beyond description; densely wooded on each side, the river winds its way through a series of grassy banks, flat and verdant as English meadows. In June these grass-flats are flooded by the melting snows, and for a short time the river assumes the appearance of a lovely lake. The Indians en route to the Buffalo plains, east of the Rocky Mountains, cross the Pend Oreille at this its narrowest neck--hence the name, Syniakwateen."

Here Lord exactly captures a significant place: for untold generations, Salish-speaking tribes from the south and west had crossed the river at the place as part of their Road to the Buffalo. It was a fact first put down in writing by David Thompson in 1811, and the place had already been spelled half a dozen different ways by the time of the Boundary Survey. But J.K. Lord was the first writer to notice the abundant life that flourished all around the crossing. “The place is a perfect paradise for the lesser migrants: sunny sheltered, and abounding in insects and flowers, the birds live sumptuously, and find in the forest-trees and shrubby underbrush every variety of site for building purposes.”

Lord described an assemblage of butterflies “pitching together on the ground, choosing damp bare places for their gatherings; many hundreds of these brilliantly-coloured insects might be seen every day on these meadow-like river-banks, outvying in variety of tints any grouping of flowers the most skillful gardener could produce.” He also shot one of our most beautiful warblers, a male American Redstart, at Syniakwateen--“this exquisite little bird, more like a tropical sea-shell than a feathered songster, I met twice only in my rambles--once at this place, and again in the Colville valley.”

Lord saw ospreys throughout the Columbia District, including at this crossing of the Pend Oreille River. He noted that their nest “...is a most conspicuous object, and can be seen from a long distance; it is invariably built on the extreme summit of a dead pine-tree, made of dry sticks, and in size as large as an imperial barrel.” A painter working for the America crew depicted just such an osprey nest on a broken snag above the British encampment.

The front piece for the second volume of Lord’s book is taken from an 1860 photograph of Syniakwateen made by the Royal Engineers. The etching shows the tents of a military encampment surrounded by a mixed riparian forest at the height of spring runoff. A traditional Kalispel sturgeon-nosed canoe is turned up in the foreground to reveal its frame and paddles, and a teepee beside it is snugly wrapped with layers of tule mats.

Today visitors can locate themselves in this scene by walking to the boat ramp below the Laclede sawmill on the river’s north side, or peeling off the Vay-Edgemere Road that comes up the Hoodoo Valley to the south. It is not quite possible to recapture the awe of Lord’s description because the backup of Albeni Falls dam has flooded the verdant meadows that supported those colorful displays of butterflies and redstarts, and new houses are encroaching on the Pend Oreille’s narrow neck from both sides of the river. Although the Riley Creek Recreation Area provides a fine park setting just downstream, there is no official heritage designation of the crossing, and the only interpretive sign is out on the highway. No archaeological work has been done either that Boundary Survey encampments or the thousands of years of tribal use the preceded their brief appearance.

Yet The Crossing remains a remarkable place. From water’s edge visitors can look north up the Purcell Trench and imagine the subduction of terrains that docked on the edge of the North American continent eons ago. They can trace the path of the great glacial floods that broke loose from the ice dam on the far side of Pend Oreille Lake, and follow a wall of water hundreds of feet high as it roared downstream to follow the trench south through the Hoodoo drainage, across Rathdrum Prairie, and on through Spokane--scarring hillsides, dumping hundred of feet of churned gravel, and creating The Crossing itself. And right at the boat ramp, ospreys whistle from a nest that must have been active almost without interruption for more generations than anyone living there today can count. J.K. Lord would be glad to know that the birds he took so much pleasure in are still around.

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