The Warden's River

wadin' boot

Donny, you're out of your element...
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The Warden's River

By Wadin' Boot

I-The Idea

In the heart of the Scablands, there is a small, maximum security prison that serves a handful of men. The place was built with good intentions. Most of them from the Warden’s 1997 “State Development Project Grant Application.” Buoyed up in the hot winds of political correctness, the grant floated and drifted around through various committees and subcommittees, and ultimately the thirty-six page application landed on the Governor’s desk. The Governor, a born-again, had come to believe that vicious men could learn anew how to be citizens, and the grant seemed to echo his own conclusions. He wrote on the cover in red ink- “FUND.”

From conception to implementation, the task was assigned to an ambitious Governor’s aide. Money and plans were finalized, the state senate enthusiastically supported the bill, and a handful of tiny communities lobbied hard for the opportunity. One was chosen. That submission, hand carried to Olympia by Ermine Gambale, proposed a solid package: the land, the lease arrangements and most importantly, the construction of infrastructure, including roads. Ermine’s family had accumulated three decades worth of fleet machinery, most all of it working, for various road, irrigation, and highway projects. They built much of Central Washington. They had a lifetime of accumulated business and heavy construction contracts and they knew everyone who built big between Missoula and Seattle. They drew on that expertise with bids that were met on time and without hassle.

To nail things home Ermine’s bid was low, the choice proved simple. The prison’s perimeter wall was dug, the fences hung, the guard towers built and a central prison block constructed. The Governor’s aide cut the ribbon with the Governor’s wife by his side, both beaming, and the busses soon arrived with an assortment of murderers, rapists, and other like-minded men. There was no turning back.

The Governor’s wife felt similarly. After a night in a Moses Lake Motel with the aide, she left the Governor. He took it badly, lost his faith and his vision. And now saddled with alimony and scandal, he retaliated in the only way possible, firing the aide and cutting funds for all the programs the aide was responsible for. Budget deficits turned around within the year, his Conservative Christian colleagues were thrilled and he was enthusiastically re-elected on their dime. He re-married too, this time to a pneumatic lady with platinum hair. The Governor, however, never returned his priority funding for the Warden’s experimental prison.

II- The Warden

The Warden, stubborn to a fault, and hadn’t yet come to curse his own idea. Twenty unrepentant convicts, no money for capital improvements, no officer’s quarters, no kitchen, no health services, he thought all of those problems were challenges, tests of his own creativity and directive strength. There were other major and minor issues, but they all crystallized into three main categories: money, respect and time. It wasn’t long that the Warden’s marriage collapsed under similar stresses.

Oblivious to his loss in stature, oblivious to what the loss of his wife meant, he remained nice, kind and responsive in an environment that translated all of that as ineffectual. This place, this prison, demanded anything but. Not one for half-hearted efforts and self-doubt, he still believed in cognitive redemption and he still would run it as he thought it should be run. His grant structure remained his best guide, researched and footnoted heavily on the experience of other novel reform strategies. How could he not duplicate what others had done? At 35, without children, and possessing a confidence not matched by his record, he was a dubious prospect. Ermine Gambale was sure the Warden would fail.

III-The Lone Cottonwood

The prison was carved in a dry coulee three-quarters of a mile wide and four miles long and rimmed with steep cliffs around three sides. To the North was scramble-up scree at 45-degrees, and sloping to a final steep basalt wall of some twenty-five feet or so. All the other cliff walls were a good 40 feet of that same basalt. The floor of the small valley was a mixture of windblown loess and sands, some of it duned-up towards the southern edge. Maybe, like the geologists said, this was all ridged sediment from the great floods from Lake Missoula. Or maybe some great god had pushed his middle finger into the earth, leaving a long narrow impression, a wasted sliver of land. You’d miss it if you flew over it, distracted more by the bigger deeper cuts all around this one.

There was no doubting the soil though. It was good and rich, and unlike the soils two miles east or west. Ermine was sure of that when he first rode the property, this was soil that had and would support things.

The only broad horizon you could see was to the south, and even then the low dunes often obscured a view. About the best you’d get were the lights of Ephrata reflected off the oncoming clouds on a soon-to-be cloudy night. Otherwise it was just the canyon walls, or the stars above, or the birds of prey circling. That southern view miraged in dead clear days, broken only by the sun hitting the razor-wire.

Sage brush and juniper, grass and tumbleweeds grew sparsely. The only sizable thing worth mentioning was a fat cottonwood at the base of a larger dune. Ermine Gambale had wondered about it for nearly a decade now. Shooting Chukar, hunting coyote, he’d lunch beneath it. Why was it there? This was a dry coulee, even in the heaviest rains this land held little moisture, there were channels and cuts in all directions that, at least in the wettest of seasons, saw some water, but here, in this small canyon? Nothing. It made no sense to him. The good soil combined with an absence of water.

Ermine had an understanding of geology and strata, he knew what could bear foundation loads, what soils would shift, how waters changed all that, how to sound and survey, where faults lay. He knew how good land could be. It was with some surprise then, when the decrepit dustbowl-thin farmer who once owned this stretch finally gave up and put it on the market. He insisted the land was worthless.

Ermine knew a good deal when it came up, and scoffed at the idea that this land (or for that matter any land) was worthless. If there was rock he could make gravel. If there was sand he could make concrete. If there was water he could build farms. He felt no guilt about his underbid, the farmer was a dope and better opportunities had regularly passed him by. This was good land, there was something special about this coulee, but how to draw it out?

IV- The Prison

The opportunity came in the State Project Solicitations that Olympia sent out bimonthly to contractors they liked. A site for a small new prison. His mind was made up before he finished the soliciting paragraph. He lobbied hard, deliberately underbid, a monumental break with his strict business code, but he wanted this job. Here he saw an opportunity to investigate a riddle, on his own land, in a manner that would prove neither frivolous nor frowned upon. He pointed out how the Prison should be founded, how the land would best fit, where the bedrock lay and where the softer sands, the shifting gravels were. He made sure to include how he would bulldoze and pave a service road through the dunes, how he would need to stabilize various soils, and how money up front and lease money long term would do all of it. He also made sure to emphasize the natural boundaries, the steep cliffs, and the impenetrable basalt.

He worked first on the prison, his team had the site surveyed, scoured and leveled within two weeks. The road was harder though. He wavered on which dunes to skirt, which to bisect, but all his enthusiasm was renewed when one day near that Cottonwood dune when one of his men called him on the radio to come have a look, the soil type had radically changed.

There, beneath six feet of loess, another three of gravel, maybe a foot or so of volcanic ashes or clays, he wasn’t sure, there was what he was looking for. Fat, round egg shaped stones. River rocks, stones rounded by not the great and monstrous ice-age floods of Lake Missoula, but instead with gentle flowing waters. The best part about it? The soil that trapped them was wet.

V- The Warden Ages

Over the course of seven years, and in the time that it takes a man’s hair to turn gray, the warden had evolved a different style of governance that suited the men and this place much better. He abandoned the role playing, the character building, the talking, the twelve step and GED programs. All of them seemed to worsen behaviors. He slowly enforced more discipline, asked less input from his prisoners, and began a series of expectations that codified into laws that if they were not met, would lead to punishment. He built a solitary hole, and confined men to it, sometimes for days, sometimes weeks. He developed a token economy, something he once swore he would never do, cigarettes and pornography were now permitted.

Ermine concluded it was the men hardening the Warden and not the other way around. He changed his mind about the Warden. This evolution, like any Gambale had seen before, meant only one thing- opportunity. He had deliberately held back on giving advice, he was young, an enthusiast, ambitious, and perhaps worst of all, annoying. And sometimes you just have to let that wear itself out, like waters on a rock. He’d seen it in men on his jobs, some of them took a decade to break in. As Ermine moved into retirement, he spent more and more time at the prison, he designed himself a role of Warden’s advisor. Sometimes you have to hear it from someone else that to move things, you need dynamite and diesel. Unpaid, but yet still motivated, he came up with the idea for the work gangs. The Warden looked at him as though he was crazy.

“Chain gangs? They don’t work. They’re illegal now anyways.”
“Well they shouldn’t be, men need to work. These men need to work with their hands. You want them to use their minds? Start with their hands. You should have the men start a nursery.”
“No animals. Plants. Here. This coulee, this land”
“They won’t grow here, you’re crazy Ermine.”
“Sure they will. They’ll build it for you. You’re on top of water.”
“Water. It’s here, I know it. I can feel it.” He pointed down
“you’re crazy Ermine.”
“I’m not crazy Warden, you’ll see.”

VI- Ermine Gambale

Ermine had run his company for 35 years and either of his two boys (or his four grandsons) could continue. They were good sons, they worked hard and they didn’t talk a load of crap. They never underbid, never badmouthed, they treated their mother and Ermine well. They had been nagging him about it.

“Poppa, you should move on, lets us run things. “

And they were right. Old men should move on. He’d seen everything there was to see and the fun of it stopped around the time his boys were competent anyways. He saw opportunities differently now. He wanted to direct something beautiful, something he could call his masterwork, and he knew it wasn’t a flyover or a traffic exchange. It would have to be better.

There are certain philosophies a man might come to over a time. Ermine’s included simple truths- idle men are dangerous, expectations should parallel achievements, and a man should know his strengths and play to them. His expectations were concrete. A bridge to span a rail track, a shoulder buttress strong enough to bear a banking 150,000 pound semi trailer. A runway that could withstand an impact crash of a fuel tanker, a bombing, or thousands of yearly arrivals and departures of commercial jets all the way up to 747’s.

He had long ago concluded that men were best building things, seeing what they had done, and knowing there was always need for things built well- and furthermore- that they could be done right the first time. His workers, seldom idle, were well paid, strictly disciplined and fiercely loyal.

He taught the Warden’s prisoners similarly. First on the use of heavy machinery. Their past made no difference to him. Some of them were outstanding, and seemed to enjoy the work. Others less so and merited shovels. To Ermine there was no sound more beautiful than the ring and scrape of a shovel’s head through gravel and soil. Music to his ears. A sound that led to just two things, muscles and discipline. These men, renewed and interested, shifted tons of loess to a relatively flat stretch of higher ground. They succeeded in digging a broad and meandering trough that to most would look like a gravel pit. To a fisherman, it might look like the course of dry riverbed.

The Warden, bless his ever smaller heart saw, over the course of one winter, a football field of finely graded 4-foot deep Loess become two and then three and so on. He wondered very little about the torturous scar where the soils came from, it seemed to loop and wind and follow terrain. His prison site looked ripe for an industrial park to be built, survey sticks with orange flags stapled to them marked some boundaries he couldn’t understand.

One morning, after a three day heavy spring rain in the mountains and east slopes, and even in the scablands, a large crater had formed in the middle of one of the fields, about ten feet down and thirty feet wide. The Warden was alarmed, prisoners joked of space aliens and probing, Ermine was delighted, no rain had fallen in the coulee. A sinkhole meant good things as far as he was concerned, chief among them the possibility of limestone and underground waters. He had the men plug the crater with heavy grades and as the hole was filled, dump trucks ran gravels and finally good topsoil again.

Ermine had a company come and sink some bores at the base of the cottonwood, and as he predicted there was water there. The pressures were strong, and the piping required was thicker than he anticipated. He ran surplus irrigation equipment he’d purchased in foreclosures years up and down the fields, and soon, come early spring, his family and friends from east and west of the mountains, from the Okanagan, from Richland, Ellensburg, and Tri-cities were sending him saplings, salvaged trees, plantings. A garden of lodge pole pines, cottonwoods, junipers, birches and spruce were taking root and shooting up fast in the virgin soils.

The prisoners proved remarkably zealous attendants. The Warden pointed that out to Ermine on one of their daily walk-throughs.

“They need to see things grow.”

The hum of the sprinklers running through the summer nights was soon broken by that of birds. The valley, once silent for all but winds, was now filled with chattering and rustling of leaves. The warden encouraged men to farm- first corn, grains, vegetables. And not long after chickens were ordered from a catalog. Hutches and henhouses were built. Pig pens later. Rattlesnakes and coyotes figured it out, here was food. But the real water was yet to come.

VII- Dyn-o-mite

Under the base of the scree slope on the north end of the valley. That’s where the prisoners thought it would be. They brought it up with the Warden, asking him when they could go for it, when they could take that slope out and find the source. The Warden had never seen these prisoners take such interest, and they put voice to rumors he’d heard about an underground river. He sat on it a while, all the way to October, but the reminders kept coming, and even Ermine was coming to him now. In a mediocre epiphany, he decided that more good could come than without it, the scree slope would be blown. They would do it next spring.

Mediocre because the idea was Ermine’s. Always was. But this time the planning was so neat and slim, having the prisoner’s deliver the message, have the Warden figure it out on his own, have him realize that the men were invested and that he, the Warden, could take credit for it. Ermine was glad he’d gone for it, but in the back of his mind he wondered, why it was the Warden hadn’t taken some initiative sooner. He speculated it was because the Warden was blind to redemption if it flowed all around him.

Ermine had the men from the well company come back in April and helped them position on the Northern scree slope in such a way that several deep bores could be drilled, some forty to fifty feet down. They examined the cores that came up, and the wettest one was where they tamped down the charges.

The blasts could do the harder work. Everyone turned out for them. Ermine brought coolers full of drinks, sodas and such, his wife grilled Italian sausages and a mess of onions, called the prisoners by their first names, the entire Gambale family turned out. Within an hour, a deep “v” in the scree slope was dispersed and a large crater was nearly down to the valley floor. A team of graders, dump trucks and backhoes removed the rim of the crater and stabilized the sides with rafts of thicker boulders and river rocks packed in steel mesh bricks. The spent a good two hours chaining and pulling basalt fingers that had fallen from the cliffs some sixty feet above them. Three of the prisoners were now good enough to turn them on end and line some of the crater to a subdivision entry-way standard, a fact the younger Gambale’s did not miss.

The men excavated right to the base of the cliff wall, which appeared to change rock type about six feet above the crater’s deepest trough. Limestone. Ermine was right, given the sinkhole. The men cored another sample, and when the tube came out, water came up and flowed into the crater, first a small trickle, and then it pushed up an inch or two over the hole’s surface. He quickly had them drill another and a blast was set and fired.

When the smoke and dust cleared, a pool was forming rapidly, all mud and swirling gravels and foams. Everyone cheered. The Warden smiled. A large hole had formed both in the cliff wall itself and beneath it, both were soon obscured by waters. And when all had calmed some the Warden looked at Ermine:

“Where’s it going to flow?”
“Downhill. Always does Warden.”

He pointed to the winding channel the men had excavated, and sure enough the waters began navigating it. Some of the men ran down to the waters and played in them, laughing and smiling, at least until they put their hands in it. It was cold, very cold. Ermine had the backhoe guys throw big boulders into the pool, refrigerator sized monsters, until the crater was lined to his satisfaction and was in no danger of refilling.

VIII- The River

That spring evening the irrigation pumps were turned off and the men fell asleep to the sounds of waters moving down the river channel. Ermine thought there was somewhere between 200 and 300 cubic feet a second of water flowing through when the light finally got too dim to see by. And when he turned the headlights on his pickup on several times through the night, he reckoned it had increased to 400 cubic feet. When morning broke, the waters were still flowing, with no sign of dropping and the muddy initial flows were starting to clear.

They had pooled towards the south end of the prison, eroded a small rise Ermine hadn’t seen and cut under the razor wire into main property. He didn’t worry, it would find its original drainage, or at worst, backup into a shallow lake that would at some point carve a channel. When he drove back down the prison road and headed for the main highway he was stunned to see the river made a turn around a low dune then was never seen again.

He reversed his truck, set out over land, and drove up the small knoll. The river followed the dune and made its way into a small gully he had never explored, all broken car parts and abandoned farm equipment and in that mess, it vanished back into the earth, complete with a mini-whirlpool swirling. The limestone reef must have emerged again to claim back its waters.

“Well I’ll be damned”

Over the next years a series of hydrologists, biologists and fisheries specialists came to the Warden’s river. They had begged Ermine to leave it be, let things mature naturally, so they could study the progression of an environment. But Ermine had different ideas and the way he saw it, there was maybe a decade at most before he was dead. If there’s one thing he hated it was a job half done.

He had the Warden’s men line the banks with rich soils, planted dense groves of trees, stabilized them and so on. He had other men working in the river itself, made sure there were banks of fine sand in places where they should be, reefs of gravels and gradated river rocks. He threw logs into the river, submerged some, embedded others into the bank. He made small falls and runs so there was oxygen and pools, he braided the river in places, made islands of vegetation with branches that grew thick over the water. He lined some with grasses and meadows, cut oxbow side channels, places where the water could heat in summer and ice in winter.

He made it the exact opposite of what he had done for decades with earth and rock and water in central Washington. He made a river. The men shared in it too, they were, perhaps for the first time, content and proud of their accomplishments.

IX- The Miracle

What the Warden and Ermine didn’t do though was stock it. Ermine thought about it. Those waters were so clear and clean. The fisheries guys said these four miles were ideal for native cutthroat, westslope rainbow, bull trout, sculpin and a whole host of others. Fifty-three degrees all year, solid oxygen levels, a kind pH, and a large amount of food, with stonefly larvae, nymphs, crays and bugs establishing themselves. At least where the surface waters flowed. The fisheries guy was of the opinion it should be stocked, and complimented them all on the structure they had gone to great lengths to place.

He didn’t stock it one bit, nor did anyone else. So when Oly Farnham, convicted felon and fly-fisherman came to the mess hall one evening with one 17 inch football-fat rainbow trout and a shit-eating grin, there was silence. Everyone knew what it meant.

“There were others also, I just lost my fly that’s all…”

This was, Ermine knew, his masterwork.

Itchy Dog

Some call me Kirk Werner
Great hardships and personal misery spawn the finest creative works for those so endowed with the gift. The Happiest Place on Earth, in my experience, is perfectly suited for such misery. It paid off, Boot- well done!

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