Washington State Map The North Columbia Monthly Northeastern Washington Map

Boundaries Contents


by Jack Nisbet

Jack Nisbet is the author of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple Flat Top, Singing Grass, Burning Sage and Visible Bones. His newest, The Collector, is due out in October.

Crawling Upstream
April 2007

In this 1915 photograph of lampreys strung off rocks at Kettle Falls, a watercolor of the actual falls has been pasted in as background. Courtesy of Stan Morris, Beaver Magazine, August 1975.

Once upon a time there lived many different kinds of creatures, all of them animals. One day two of them, Eel and Sucker Fish, challenged each other at the stick game. "Now we'll play. Don't let anyone interfere. Only two of us will play the stick game." Then they played, Sucker Fish on one side and Eel on the other. They played almost the whole night long. Eventually Sucker Fish defeated Eel. He won from him everything he had, and Eel was left without even his scales. That's why Eel has no scales. After Eel had lost everything, he told Sucker, "I'm going to bunch up as many bones as I have." And so Eel bid his bones and began gambling again. They continued playing, and by the time the sun was rising, Eel had lost all of his bones. This is why Eel has no bones, no scales, nor anything. He lost them all to Sucker in the stick game.
Nez Perce Oral Narratives, Haruo Aoki and Deward Walker, U.C. Press

Eel might have lost all his scales and bones at stick game, but he did not lose his power there. The Pacific lamprey, always called eel by local fishermen, known to Sahaptin people as ksuyas and to Spokanes as kwutul, is a key player in the history of the Columbia River ecosystem.

Slender as a snake and growing two to three feet long, lampreys sport two wavy dorsal fins, beady eyes, and a single nostril on the top of their heads. The seven slits along each side of their necks are not true gills, one clue to the deep strangeness of Eel -- although a true fish, they remain not only boneless and scaleless but jawless, and the 40 or so species recognized worldwide belong to a class all their own. Since cartilage does not fossilize as easily as bone, lamprey fossils are rare, but recent excavations in China and South Africa have yielded close relatives of today's lampreys that date back to the Devonian Age, long before dinosaurs came on the scene.

Because of their world-wide distribution, all manner of Eel stories have filtered down through the ages -- King Henry I of England supposedly died after consuming way too many lampreys at his evening meal, and Seneca records that the Roman Emperor Augustus kept a pool full of giant lampreys for his amusement. When a clumsy slave broke one of his favorite crystal glasses, the emperor tried to punish the offender by feeding him to the awful beasts.

That would never have worked, because the Pacific lamprey's mouth consists solely of a large sucking disc studded with three rows of small sharp teeth, a kind of swimming hole saw that specializes in large companion fish. Many people around the Great Lakes see them only as monsters, because an Atlantic species of lamprey accidentally introduced into that chain preys on important game fish. But Eel's role in the Columbia system remains far more complex than that.

The life history of the Pacific lamprey mirrors that of the salmon. After a considerable stay in the open ocean, Eel embarks on an epic journey upstream to spawn. Large concentrations of lampreys swimming with migrating salmon provide an important source of fat and protein for all manner of birds, fish, and mammals, and a buffer between the faster swimming salmon and predators harbor seals and sea lions. In times past, at every famous falls where Pacific salmon made their storied leaps against the spray, Eel worked its way upstream slowly and persistently, grabbing hold of rocks with its remarkable mouth, inching its body another length forward, snaking out again for another firm hold on the endless crawl upstream.

Once lampreys reach the tributary where they were born, the females shake their way down into a spawning nest that resembles a salmon redd and lay their eggs; males swim over and fertilize them with clouds of sperm. When the eggs hatch things get strange again, because Eel begins life as a burrowing freshwater larvae that looks more like a tadpole than a fish. These mudpuppies feed on microorganisms for five to seven years before undergoing a metamorphosis as radical as any amphibian, rearranging internal organs, developing entirely different eyes, and finally emerging as an efficient predator or parasite (scientists still debate which description fits them best). They head for the open sea, feed and fatten for several more seasons, and then make their way back upstream.

No matter how outlandish its natural history sounds, Eel's presence at all the famous falls on the Columbia was much more than a curiosity.

Kalispel elder Alice Ignace told vivid stories of traveling from Usk to Kettle Falls to fish for salmon and lamprey in the 1930s, before the closing of Grand Coulee Dam. She had an uncle who was famous for his ability to capture lampreys, and said it was all in the way he talked to them. "My uncle would make a basket dip net on a long pole, and take it to where we saw the eels hanging on the rocks with their sucker mouths," Alice said. "He would hold the basket under those eels, hold it there until he had it just right. Then he would whistle a special sound that only he could make. As soon as he whistled all those eels would let go of the rocks and fall right into his basket."

Once tribal fishermen had eels in hand, they knew what to do with them. Sahaptin elders James Selam and Elsie Pistolhead said the people would spit their eels through with skewers made from syringa, the mock orange bush, then place them over an open fire right beside the salmon. When they had too many to eat on the spot, the surplus eels were split open in a careful pattern, spread with cedar splints, then air dried in a shed or smoked over a fire of alder shavings. For years Elsie Pistolhead ran horizontal poles through her garage, and all summer it would be filled with drying eels. The smell of Eel's delicious dark fat would make everybody's mouth water as they peered into the darkness to check on the season's take.

When declining salmon numbers and a boom in vitamin oils sparked a commercial lamprey fishery on the lower Columbia during World War II, the harvest produced startling numbers -- in 1946 alone, 397,000 pounds of lamprey were processed for oil, fish meal, and livestock protein at a plant in Warrenton, Oregon. In more recent times, an equally startling drop off in lamprey numbers, as revealed by fish counts at various upriver dams, speaks of a population headed for disaster. During the 1960s, it was common to census 50,000 lamprey a season passing Ice Harbor Dam on the lower Snake; during the 1990s, that number was usually less than 1,000. Eel is still playing at his stick game, but he is almost out of anything to bet. Tribes all along the Columbia are pushing for measures to restore the population to viable numbers, and the Army Corps of Engineers have developed an experimental flume at Bonneville Dam in the hopes that it will ease their passage, allowing Eel to again provide nutrition and stories to the culture of the river.

"We would cook them over the open fire, and grease would drop off and keep the fire burning," said Jay Minthorne of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. That is a fire, many people agree, that should always remain lit.


Jack Nisbet Homepage


Search by author:

by Title:

by Keyword or ISBN: