Fishtrap Week 2: Reflections

[This is a really, really long post. Click “Read More” if you want to read more than what’s visible on this screen…and especially if you want to hear about the ghost heard of elk, whose mystery continues to unfold.]
I extended my research a little beyond the lake this week, reading about the history of the town of Joseph, studying the waterways on my topo maps, and getting a better sense for where the Nez Perce actually were in this country (as compared to where, nowadays, the reservation is). I even found a book published by the Nez Perce tribe that offers the Indian perspective on their displacement, and why the Wallowas matter so much to their way of life. Here’s a scanned copy of their “diminishment map” (Wallowa County is in the uppermost right hand corner of the state of Oregon):
My second week at Fishtrap, I’ve also been enjoying the nuances of reading dated history books not only for their silly, stuffy tone but also for the variety of facts various authors deemed important depending on the publication date. To that end, I read two 50+ page pamphlet publications this week: Pioneering in the Wallowas: Four Fronteir Tales by Lloyd W. Coffman (1987) and Bits of Wallowa County Lore by Claudia Killough (1971).
Try imagining the courage and sense of freedom the young Frank McCully must have felt when he first glimpsed this valley, as Killough reports of the late 1800’s:
“The founding story of the City of Joseph as it is now known is actually the life history of Frank D. McCully. Young Frank when only 15 years of age was sent by his father to Wallowa County with cattle to pasture. He was so impressed by the beauty of the country he could hardly bring himself to go back to school, but being so young, he did return to Willamette University [in Salem, OR] until he was twenty years of age, then came back to found his town. He was still too young to obtain a title but in another year he would be twenty-one and on his own, so he staked out his townsite, laid out the streets and lots, blocks and alleys, and named it Lake City and began to offer lots free to anyone who would build on them and start some kind of business within a definite time.”
When I myself was 15, I backpacked for 14 days in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of the Wallowa Mountains. I fell in love with the valley and visited the town of Joseph several times more while I was an undergraduate at nearby Whitman College. I remember driving 2 hours some weekends just to sit on a bench outside the coffee shop in Joseph, do homework, and people-watch. “Some day,” I told my 19-year-old self. “Some day I will live here.” For this reason, I find Frank D. McCully’s story not only relatable, but endearing and brave.
That said, next to the diminishment map of the Nez Perce Tribe, how does one history lay claim over another? My morals side with the Nez Perce, but my own upbringing and ethnicity make me feel amazed by McCully’s vision and determination. Can I be of both minds?

In terms of progress on the page, this week I started two short stories (one set in the Wallowas, one set in NYC) and began revising a story that I wrote last month at Jentel. My war stories book was rejected by another publisher and I was rejected from Millay Colony for a residency in Massachusetts. I firmed up a contract for another arts essay (due in two months), researched a few publishers of flash fiction books, and maintained Cheek Teeth (including being the editor responsible for the publication of this story).
I’ll continue to write about my time with students in the local schools, and occasionally about the college class I’m teaching (WR122 for Blue Mountain Community College)—though probably less of that for professional reasons. Hands down, I’m loving my small but fun fiction workshop with the seniors at Joseph High School and I’m hoping that a few of the students will want to read their stories in public at my “farewell reading” sponsored by Fishtrap at the OK Theatre this April.
And finally, in finishing award-winning author Craig Lesley’s novel Winterkill this week, I was pleased to find a thorough telling of the ghost herd of elk story embedded right into his realistic fiction. In the novel, the main character Danny recalls when his father Red Shirt (also Nez Perce) took him to the head of Wallowa Lake and told him the story of the ghost herd of elk. If you can imagine me leaping around the lake house upon finding this legend in writing, you’ll have a fair picture of just how excited I was.
Without further delay, I’ll conclude by quoting the legend in full. Here is Winterkill author Craig Lesley on pages 266-268, who is speaking through his Nez Perce character Danny, who is remembering his father Red Shirt’s words:
“One winter, a large herd of elk, thirty-five or perhaps forth, tried to cross the frozen lake during Elkmoon. Somewhere near the black cliff face, the ice was thin and the herd broke through. No one saw them flailing their hooves and cutting their legs on the shards of ice, but one by one they sank, their hot breath extinguished by the black water. Two days later an old Nez Perce hunter, one of the Dreamers following their trail, came upon the spot where they had fallen through. New ice, had formed by then, so their tracks disappeared in the middle of the lake.
“Many stories about that lost elk herd were told around Dreamer campfires in the Wallowas. Some said they had gone into the world below the water. Others said they were ghost elk that had disappeared during Elkmoon. Sometimes, looking over the frozen lake in winter, the hunters thought they say the elk herd crossing the lake. Their hides were white as ermine, and their eyes glittered like diamonds. The breath from their nostrils came so thick it formed a low fog.
“The old men who first told the stories eventually died, but versions of the story were well known around the lake for many, many years.
“Then one summer a rich doctor from one of the cities lost his motor overboard near the black cliff face, and he offered any diver one hundred dollars to find the motor and pull it out. A young diver searching the area found the water to be deep and cold, but with the aid of an underwater light, he located the motor. When he came up, he told a strange account of seeing the skeletons of elk down there. But everyone around the lodge laughed at him because the elk bones would have been buried by silt or washed apart many years before. Still, he insisted, claiming these skeletons were of the largest elk he had ever seen, standing maybe seven feet tall at the shoulder. The men laughed harder, and some suggested he was crazy, for no elk is that tall.
“A businessman fro Portland heard of his discovery and offered him twenty dollars for every elk tooth he could bring up. He planned to have them made into watch fobs, tie tacks, and the like, then sell them as curiosities at the lodge.
“One of the old Nez Perce guides tried to stop the young man from diving after the elk teeth, but he got the help of a friend, and the two took turns diving off the cliff face. All morning, the first diver was perplexed because he could not find the skeletons, for he had marked the place well when he went down after the doctor’s motor. They moved the boat out farther into the lake that afternoon, and he dived again. When he didn’t come back up in twenty minutes, his friend went after him.
“At the coroner’s inquest, the second diver said the water was much deeper than he would have expected, and extremely cold. He went through two thermoplanes before he found the lake bottom. There, the diver claimed, he saw the most unusual sight he ever could imagine—the bare-boned skeletons of the entire herd of elk. The bones were note weathered but gleamed white in the light from his underwater torch. The legs moved slightly in the deep current of the lake.
“He found his friend at one of the larger skeletons. His weight belt had somehow fouled in the antlers of the elk, and in trying to twist free, he had pulled loose his air hose and drowned. The diver was puzzled as to how his friend’s belt fouled, for this elk’s antlers were tilted at a different angle from the others, and its head was lifted, perhaps from his friend’s struggles. He cut the body free and began swimming to the surface. But when he switched off the underwater torch, he swore he saw the elk bones still gleaming in the black water, and a light-red glowing where their eyes should be.
“As the men on the dock helped unload the body, they found two elk teeth in the sack the dead man clutched. Those who saw the teeth claim they were exceptionally large and white and seemed to glow—even in the afternoon sun. But by the time of the inquest, the molars had disappeared. Some think they were stolen and worked into cuff links, but others believe the old Nez Perce guide rowed them out by the cliff face and threw them into the deep water to appease the ghost elk.
“In any case, several other divers tried for the next few weeks to find the skeletons, but no one could. The coroner ruled death by accidental drowning, and the stories about the ghost elk go on. Those who believe there actually were some elk molars think they must have come from an elk that drowned the winter before in a similar spot. Sometimes at night, though, if someone is brave enough to try fishing near that black cliff face, they say they can see something glowing way down in the depths of the black water. But others just think it’s the reflection of the moon dancing on the waves.”
  • Kyle Lang


    I was wondering when you were going to get to that portion of "Winterkill". When you told me you were reading it, it was hard to keep my mouth shut. Thanks for the post.


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