Changes on the Grays
Author and ecologist Robert Michael Pyle offers an introduction to his home waters, the Grays River.
In a time of travel blogs and Instagram influencers, it can feel as if the secret places of the Pacific Northwest have all been shared. Yet, despite being just two hours from Portland and three from Seattle, the Grays River still flows in relative obscurity. The Grays drains a 90,000-acre watershed from the broad emerald valleys of the Willapa Hills to the Columbia River, just 20 miles east of the Pacific Ocean in Southwest Washington. This is timber country—home to a few thousand people and millions of trees.
Robert Michael Pyle is one man to whom the Grays River has become quite familiar. On a sunny summer day in 1978, Pyle was conducting research on Washington butterflies when he ambled down the west fork of the Grays River along a logging road. Before returning to Portland on Route 4, he ventured to the covered bridge across the Grays. Looking up, he saw one of the picturesque verdant valleys that he’d fallen in love with over the course of this fieldwork. He also spied an old house with a for sale by owner sign and decided it’d be as good a place as any to call home.
Forty-two years later, Pyle still looks out daily upon the Grays, a lepidopterist (butterfly scientist) living happily in one of the loneliest, rainiest places in the country, which also happens to host fewer butterflies than almost anywhere else he’s been. We caught up with Pyle—who in addition to being an ecologist is an accomplished author and essayist—to learn a little more about the changes he’s observed during his years on the Grays River. “There are lots of reasons why I’ve stayed here,” Pyle says. “I love it dearly. Every day I go outside and I can be surprised. I can encounter wildlife and natural history delights outside my door. The low population, very good water and air, and the sense of community, which is kind and thoughtful. I’ve grown deeply invested in this place.”
Pyle observes that in some ways Grays River has changed little since his arrival. Wahkiakum County, where the lower river system resides, is home to an estimated 4,500 people, which is just now exceeding its 1940s peak in population. The biggest change he’s observed is in the character and consistency of its iconic forests.
The watershed’s geology and climate—uplifted seabed and some of the highest precipitation levels in the lower 48 states—long ago gave rise to some of the world’s grandest temperate rain forests. The region was home to ancient giants: western redcedar, Sitka spruce, hemlock, and bigleaf maple.
In the 1880s, European settlers began harvesting the forests in the 1880s, and both world wars drove demand for strong, lightweight spruce timber in order to build airplanes. Much of the old-growth in the Willapa Hills was gone by the end of the 1950s. While most of the remaining old-growth fragments have now been conserved, the abundant and diverse second-growth forest that Pyle found here in the ’70s and ’80s was virtually liquidated in the 1990s. Today, more than two-thirds of the watershed is private industrial forestland.
On the Grays River itself, Pyle has seen changes for the better and for the worse just beyond his window. The river is highly productive for fish, hosting spawning grounds for primordial lamprey, eulachon, sturgeon, steelhead, and chum and coho salmon. Throughout history and to this day, these fish are culturally important to the area’s indigenous communities, the Chinook Nation and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. For chum, which seek cold, gravelly waters and can’t leap up cascades as well as other salmon, the Grays is the most important river in the entire Columbia River Basin.
Because the Willapa Hills are low in elevation, the river is not reliant on snowpack and will be more resilient than most as the climate warms. However, the soils of the steep hillsides are highly erodible, and without old forests to soak up water, heavy rain events now lead to frequent flooding and heavy siltation, which affects the community downriver.
While Pyle has noticed the sedimentation and flooding with concern, he’s also observed signs of restoration over the years. Columbia Land Trust has conserved more than 1,000 acres in the Grays River watershed, much of it near the mouth of the river at Grays Bay. The Land Trust has spent the last 20 years restoring swaths of the lower river’s historic tidal floodplain, returning lowlands back to Sitka spruce swamp habitat benefitting salmon, waterfowl, and other wildlife.
Today, when climate change and species loss threaten every aspect of our Northwest way of life, the Land Trust looks to the Grays River watershed. Based on conversations in Wahkiakum County communities, we see unique opportunities to promote shared values, such as sustainable forests, a thriving local forestry economy, healthy fish and wildlife populations, and less frequent and severe floods. We see opportunities to collaborate with local governments and tribal partners to protect natural, cultural, and historic resources.
Pyle finds himself in familiar surroundings during a global pandemic, a uniquely lonely time in modern history. Yet the Grays River and its covered bridge are constant neighbors. He also doesn’t mind the dearth of butterfly species to observe. “You can become blunted by sheer abundance,” Pyle says. “I enjoy the butterflies that are here. I take great pleasure in every individual that I see.”
At a time when pristine old-growth forests are confined to scant reserves and wild, untouched rivers reside mainly in our imaginations, Pyle has learned to find beauty in the reality before him: resilient, if damaged, landscapes with the potential to transform into something new and different. Leave it to a butterfly guy to find metamorphosis in unlikely places.
Read more about the Grays River watershed in Robert Michael Pyle’s books, including Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land (2015 edition, Counterpoint Press) and Sky Time in Gray’s River: Living for Keeps in a Forgotten Place (new edition expected in January 2021, also from Counterpoint Press), as well as in the upcoming project The Tidewater Reach: Field Guide to the Lower Columbia River in Poems and Pictures (with Judy VanderMaten, Columbia River Reader Press). Support your independent bookstores in this time of crisis; many are surviving by selling new and used books online. Lastly, keep an eye out for the feature film The Dark Divide, adapted from Pyle’s book Where Bigfoot Walks—release dates are in flux.