GLOWING WITH EXERTION: Hiking in Hanford Reach National Monument

A visit to Hanford Reach National Monument in eastern Washington, across the river from the historic nuclear weapons production reactors of the Hanford Site.

Columbia River and White Bluffs of Hanford Reach National Monument

We came away glowing from our weekend hike in the sunshine of eastern Washington. Or perhaps the glow came from radioactive wastes generated by the nine decommissioned nuclear weapons reactors on the adjacent Hanford Site. Hanford is well known in Washington State, but for those unfamiliar with the name, I’ll give you a brief history.

Step back in time to 1938, when Nazi Germany was ascending and German scientists demonstrated that the uranium atom could be split. Albert Einstein and other scientists put two and two together and realized that if Germany alone possessed an atomic bomb, the world would never again be safe, and Sauron of Mordor would possess the One Ring. Einstein lobbied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to enter the nuclear race; research and production facilities were quickly built at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford to create an atomic weapon to deter Germany.

Hanford’s role was to make plutonium, and three reactors were built before the end of the war to help split uranium and create plutonium, which was then sent to Los Alamos for incorporation into weapons. Hanford plutonium was in the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

F Reactor, now decommissioned, was used in manufacturing plutonium

After World War II ended, the Cold War intensified the atomic age, and nine weapons production reactors were operating at Hanford by 1963. It was a hot time econonomically in the nearby tri-cities communities of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick, and a hot time radioactively for those living downwind and downriver of the Hanford Site. But that was presumed to be a small price to pay in order to provide some 57 tons of plutonium for about 60,000 nuclear bombs.

Fast forward to the winding down of the Cold War and the morning-after headache of nuclear waste. The reactors have all been shut down, and there is a massive cleanup under way. The Department of Energy hopes to block a million gallon waste plume of radioactive groundwater from reaching the Columbia River. They are also building a massive facility to combine radioactive waste with glass to make the waste stable for long-term storage. The threat? Plutonium has a half-life of 24,100 years, with nearly a half-million years of time before the element is safe for humans. Most of the waste is not plutonium, so it is not quite so dangerous, but remind me not to drink it.

Our seven mile hike did not take place on the Hanford Site, which is still off limits to virtually everyone but clean-up workers, scientists, and nuclear terrorists. Oh, sorry, I made that last one up. Presumably terrorists would be targeted by motion sensors and other security measures that made me a little apprehensive about even pointing a camera at the facilities. Perhaps security was pointing a camera back at me with a predator drone. Instead of trying to sneak across the river, we hiked along the White Bluffs, across the Columbia River from the Hanford Site.

The White Bluffs are now part of Hanford Reach National Monument, a wild area set aside by President Clinton and administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Our hike led past American White Pelicans and Common Egrets resting on the Columbia, two bands of Mule Deer wading in the great river, and tracks of a wily Coyote in the sand. About 20 kinds of desert wildflowers were blooming on the sand dunes and stony expanses atop the cliffs. A rare stretch of free-flowing Columbia River runs by below the cliffs, free of the dams that impound most of the river.

The White Bluffs are sliding away because of irrigation water seepage

The photographs will give you a sense of this barren and beautiful landscape, which is called a sagebrush-steppe community–a type of desert dominated by sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and grasses. To those passing through the desert at 80 mph on a freeway, it is interminably boring; but for hikers, the intimate

landscape of dunes, wildflowers, songbirds, and stones make it a fascinating place. Keep in mind that there are rattlesnakes, black widows, and ticks, just to keep life interesting (we didn’t see any of these, by the way, but we did take precautions against ticks).

For information about the Hanford Reach area, go to: Hanford Reach National Monument and Hanford Site.

For information about hiking along the White Bluffs, go to:  Washington Trails Association.

Beautiful shifting dunes atop the White Bluffs

Lunch break with not much shade

Dunes with the Saddle Mountains in the distance

Mother Nature at the White Bluffs

An impressionist view of Cusick’s Sunflower

Coyote tracks crossing a dune

Sand Dune Penstemon, with the bluest true blue ever seen

Strange concretions were eroding from the White Bluffs

These are all concretions, geological in origin (and not what they look like!)

Yin Yang of dunes and the bluest sky imaginable

Longleaf Phlox flowers by the hundreds were blooming during our hike

Sand dunes and Saddle Mountains

A view of the historic F Reactor, now decommissioned

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LEWIS AND CLARK: Our Maya Lin Weekend


When the Lewis and Clark Expedition crossed the continent in the years 1804 to 1806, they initiated a new adventure for the young American country that would knit together the coasts and Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, giving the nation a vast new identity.  Migration and settlement and displacement and wars and environmental changes on a vast scale were soon to follow.  Two centuries have now passed, and there has been a quiet reassessment of the changes that have occurred during that time.  The bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s big adventure has now come and gone, leaving a series of new “big box” interpretive centers in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana as remnants of the historical celebration that cross-country travellers can visit.  My understanding is that the Lewis and Clark tourism boom never occurred on the scale that planners hoped, so these expensive centers have not been particularly successful.

Along the west end of the Columbia River, a smaller project took hold among Native American tribes and civic groups of the region.  They had the insight in 2000 to enlist Maya Lin, a great American artist and architect, to reimagine a thoughtful celebration of Lewis and Clark’s visit to what would become Oregon and Washington. 2008_or_1592 Maya Lin is best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.; she created the concept for that emotionally resonant granite wall when she was a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate.  Since then she has designed a variety of memorials and parks. Maya Lin is also a creative artist.  I saw a wonderful installation and exhibit of her work at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, in which she abstractly created maps using old books and wires and 2x4s.  You can see graphics of this exhibit at this link: Systematic Landscapes.  It was at this exhibit that I first saw her plans for The Confluence Project, and was determined to see the finished installations when I could.

In November 2008 my wife Karen and I took a Maya Lin–themed weekend trip to see the first three completed sites of the Confluence Project.  These are small and quiet installations,with nothing on the scale of the Vietnam Memorial.  But they are effective at making you think about the changes to the landscape that have occurred since Lewis and Clark made their monumental journey.

First, we visited the Sandy River Delta, where Maya Lin’s concept of a bird blind has nearly been completed.  We walked a 1.2 mile trail on U.S. Forest Service land to a site near the confluence of the Columbia and Sandy Rivers, where the blind has been built in a riverfront forest.  2008_or_1614Most of the people on the trail were out simply walking their dogs (which got me to thinking that most Americans would get no exercise at all if they didn’t have dogs!).  A gentle ramp leads up to the small cantilevered blind, where we looked out through Black Locust slats to the forest beyond. This is nominally a bird blind, but in reality it is a memorial to the wildlife that Lewis and Clark wrote about in their journals, along with the date they first observed each species and the modern name for that creature.  For example, on August 20, 1805, they observed a Moonax.  What is a Moonax?  I had no idea, but it turned out that the Moonax is now known as a Yellow-bellied Marmot. The Black Locust wood used in construction of the blind is an alien to the region planted by early settlers, but it is wonderfully weather-resistant and is sustainable, so it was a good choice for construction. My only wish was that we were visiting in spring and we could observe colorful warblers in the trees beyond the blind.

Late in the day, we drove to our second Maya Lin location.  The Vancouver Land Bridge is in Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, located in Vancouver, Washington and run by the National Park Service. The bridge is a pedestrian bridge over Washington Highway 14,


connecting the historic fort with the Columbia River. This site has a long history: it was a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, a campsite for Lewis and Clark, and an army fort for approximately a century. The bridge, designed by Seattle architect Johnpaul Jones, curves gracefully over the highway, and has several kiosks that interpret the history and native peoples of this confluence of the Columbia River and the Klickitat Trail. 2008_wa_1652I especially liked the artwork along the bridge. At the Columbia River end of the structure, there is a Welcome Gate designed by Native American artist Lillian Pitt. The gate consists of two crossed wooden canoe paddles, each featuring a stylized cast glass face of a woman from the Chinook Tribe. It is simply an elegant piece! There are also some wonderful metal interpretations of petroglyphs from the Columbia River corridor.  Maya Lin served as a consultant for this project.

It was getting dark, so we left Fort Vancouver and headed west along the Columbia, finally reaching our third destination, Cape Disappointment State Park, in the evening.  We set up camp in a campground filled with about 120 Rvs and travel trailers on this November night; in fact, virtually every campsite was full and we had the only tent.  Through the tent walls we listened to the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean; the advantage of a tent is that we are more closely linked to the natural world than if we were in a hard-sided vehicle. The downside is that bears might eat us!

Cape Disappointment was named by an English seagoing captain, John Meares, who somehow couldn’t find the mouth of the Columbia River and was disappointed by his failure.


It is miles wide here–how could he possibly have missed it?  When Lewis and Clark came to Cape Disappointment, Indians told them of ship captains who had wooden legs and eye patches. They sound just like the pirates in books of my youth!

The next morning we explored the state park, visiting several Maya Lin–designed sites.  First, we took a boardwalk to Waikiki Beach, a beautiful beach with a morning 2008_wa_1357mist hanging over the Pacific Ocean seascape and salt spray fragrance in the air.  The boardwalk itself is inscribed with places and dates from Lewis and Clark’s journals, and it represents the place where the Corps of Discovery reached its Pacific destination.  Next, we walked along a pathway studded with fragments of oyster shells to a cedar grove.  Here there are five driftwood logs sunk into the ground, each inlaid with a wide metal strip.  The logs surround an old cedar stump.  It is a place for contemplation of the forest and of the repeated refrain along the path from the Chinook Tribe praise song “Teach us, and show us the way.”  2008_wa_1344Finally, we visited a trail and boat ramp along Baker Bay, where there is an immense column of basalt that has been sculpted into a fish-cleaning station.  This Maya Lin–designed feature goes beyond its obvious functionality; inscribed on its surface is a Chinook origin legend that celebrates their interdependence with Columbia River salmon.  We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Cape Disappointment, but wish that Washington State Parks would provide better signs to these Confluence Project features.  I talked to one woman who said she had wandered around for a whole day and couldn’t find the trail (which, by the way, she was standing on when I pointed out its location to her).  Of course, she could have asked at the park office.

Our mission to see and learn from the Maya Lin sites was successful; we enjoyed all three sites and are eager to see the remaining four as they are completed in coming years. For more information about the outstanding Confluence Project go to the website for the Confluence Project.


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