Wa’atch River, Makah Bay

Wa’atch River, Makah Bay

by | Aug 8, 2022

Wa’atch River starts at an elevation of about 1,480 feet (451 m) on the eastern flank of Makah Peaks and flows generally north for 5 miles (8 km) through the Makah Indian Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula to the confluence of Educket Creek and then generally west-southwest for about 4.5 miles (7 km) to Makah Bay, about 20 miles (32 km) west-northwest of Clallam Bay and 3.3 miles (5.3 km) southwest of Neah Bay, Washington. The river is named for an ancient Makah village and means ‘bundling up cedar to make a torch‘. The Olympic Mountains form the core of the Olympic Peninsula and are a barrier between Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. The mountains grew as a result of the tectonic subduction of the Juan de Fuca oceanic plate underneath the North American continent plate. This occurs at the Cascadia subduction zone which extends from northern California to British Columbia and is where sediment is continually being scraped off the subducting oceanic plate by the overlying continental plate. This process creates a deep offshore trench and an accretionary wedge of sediments against the western margin of the continental plate. This pile of marine sediment is exposed in Washington as the Olympic Mountains. The Olympic Peninsula was partially covered by the Juan de Fuca Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet during the Late Pleistocene. This ice probably moved into the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula at present-day Cape Flattery sometime around 24,000 years ago and was gone by 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. Cape Flattery was once an island but is now connected to the mainland by Quaternary sediments that eroded from the surrounding mountains and filled the Wa’atch River valley. The western portion of Cape Flattery at Makah Bay is composed of a rock formation called the Waatch Point siltstone that formed during the Eocene and is exposed in the cliffs and wave-cut shore platforms that extend over 1,000 feet (305 m) into Makah Bay. At the mouth of the river in the vicinity of Waatch Point, the cliff base and upper shore form a smooth-sloping abraded ramp where beach gravel is constantly moved at high tide by waves. From Waatch Point, the irregular shore platform continues northward along the coast, then fades out where the Waatch Point formation passes beneath the more massive Bahobohosh sandstone.

The earliest written history of the Makah people coincides with the arrival of Europeans. The first to have traveled in this area may have been the Greek navigator Juan de Fuca, who in 1592 claimed to have seen the Strait of Anián. The first recorded European to have landed on the Olympic Peninsula was Manual Quimper at Neah Bay in 1790. Quimper named the bay ‘Bahia de Nunez Gaona’ and claimed the surrounding lands for Spain. In 1792, a small Spanish force under the command of Salvador Fidalgo returned to Neah Bay and erected a stockade enclosing a number of buildings including a forge, a blacksmith shop, a baking oven, and as many as ten cabins. After an altercation with the Makah which cost the lives of one Spaniard and perhaps a dozen or more Makahs, Fidalgo abandoned the fort. In the following decades, there was an increase in maritime fur trading and territorial expansion by Russia, Spain, and Britain. In 1849, Samuel Hancock, a Euro-American fortune hunter arrived to establish a trading post at Neah Bay, but his plan never really materialized and he left the area the following spring. In 1855, Governor Isaac I. Stevens met with Makah leaders and presented them with the Treaty of Neah Bay which set aside what is now the Makah Indian Reservation. In 1857, Henry Webster, William and Charles Winsor, and Charles Strong arrived in Neah Bay and built a compound at Baada Point near the northeastern end of the Wa’atch River valley. In 1859, James G. Swan visited the area and described two dwelling houses, an oil house, a storehouse, a fish house, a smokehouse, and a cooperage. Webster subsequently became the first Indian Agent in Neah Bay and this complex of structures became the core of the first sustained Euro-American presence in the area. The first large-scale timber harvesting on the Makah Indian Reservation began in the late 1920s and continued until the start of World War II and then resumed in 1946.

In 1950 during the Cold War, the Makah Air Force Station was one of 28 permanent radar stations built as part of the North American Air Defense Command. The land for this site was leased from the Makah Indian tribe and is located near the mouth of the Wa’atch River. The land for this site was leased from the Makah Indian tribe. In 1988, the station was deactivated and the Air Force closed most facilities. The radar facility was turned over to the Federal Aviation Administration and today the site is part of the Joint Surveillance System, Western Air Defense Sector. The remaining facilities at the station were turned over to the Makah people for use as the Makah Tribal Council Center. In 1963, Robert T. Paine of the University of Washington traveled to Makah Bay to lead a rocky intertidal field trip for a course he gave in Seattle on the natural history of marine invertebrates. He noted that sea stars were abundant in a band below the mussel beds which eventually led to the hypothesis that a keystone species has a disproportionately large effect on its natural environment relative to its abundance. The role that a keystone species plays in its ecosystem is similar to the role of a keystone in an arch. While the keystone is under the least pressure of any of the stones in an arch, the arch still collapses without it. Similarly, an ecosystem may experience a dramatic shift if a keystone species is removed, even though that species was a small part of the ecosystem by measures of biomass or productivity. Paine established field experiments in Makah Bay and elsewhere to test this hypothesis and published a series of classic academic papers that greatly influenced ecological theory and conservation practices. Read more here and here. Explore more of the Wa’atch River and Makah Bay here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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