Here I was on an archeological study of the area, some 160 years later. It's the sad thing folks in my line of work, digging through other people's death. Just down stream they'd found - unearthed by the creek's changing path, bones and artifacts let free from the disaster. I'd spent the day panning silt, to see what else the river might offer us up, what other markers we might share with the reservation, to try and preserve this area's history.
Me and yellow dog stayed up late by the fire, the placid creek trickling along in the dark. Various crickets and insects singing the chorus of the nighttime. I picked up some of the sandy soil of the creekside and ran in my fingers. I smiled, imagining how many centuries it had taken the various rock formations around me to break down into this silt.
However, it was in also in that moment that I clearly understood the true cataclysm that occurred here. How this handful of shiny, gritty, river bottom grit had become a grinding churning mass, mother nature's worst weapon of mass destruction.
The Umatilla called it wáaq̓ič yámuxlayk - the sudden death in the dark. An avalanche of soft earth fell from a mountaintop into a deep lake causing an explosion of water and debris, something akin to an elephant jumping into a mud puddle. Turning the narrow Wagnor Gulch into a terrifying wall of death. Entire tribes of people, and a few very unlucky wagoneers on the Oregon Trail, their livestock and supplies destroyed in what looked archaeologically, like an instant, like the snap of a finger.
One of the reservation guides here tells a story of a grandfather standing where the mudflow chose to came to a stop, some 30 miles downstream. Hundred feet deep filled with uprooted trees and torn apart wagons. The sun rising across the valley behind him, he recalled how the almost untouched head of a child's porcelain doll came rolling out of it all, turning up at him with it's lifeless, affection-less smile, sticking in the sandy silt at his feet.