Recommended for grades 4-6

Clarence Pickernell, a Quinault-Chehalis-Cowlitz Native American from Tahola, Washington told this legend in February 1951. He had heard it from his great grandmother. Pickernell pronounced the closing words rapidly – in a rhythm and with a hand movement to suggest the lapping of water against the shore.

One time when the world was young, the land west of where the Cascade Mountains now stand became very dry. This was in the early days before rains came to the earth. In the beginning of the world, moisture came up through the ground, but for some reason, it stopped coming. Plants and trees withered and died. There were no roots and no berries for food, and water in the streams became so low that salmon could no longer live there. The ancient people were hungry. At last, they sent a group of their people westward to ask Ocean for water.

“Our land is drying up,” they told him. “Send us water lest we starve and die.”

“I will send you my sons and daughters,” Ocean promised the ancient people. “They will help you.” Ocean’s sons and daughters were Clouds and Rain. They went home with the messengers from the dry country. Soon there was plenty of moisture. Plants and trees became green and grew again. Streams flowed with water, and many fish lived in them again. Roots and berries grew everywhere. There was plenty to eat. But the people were not satisfied with plenty. They wanted more. They wanted to be sure they would always have water. So they dug great pits and asked Clouds and Rain to fill them. Clouds and Rain stayed away from their father, Ocean, so long that he became lonely for them. After many moons, he sent messengers to ask that his sons and daughters be allowed to come home.

“Let my children return home,” he sent word to the ancient people. ”You have enough water for the present, and I will see that you have enough in the future.”

But the people were selfish and refused to let Clouds and Rain go. The messengers had to return to Ocean without his sons and daughters. The Ocean told his troubles to the Great Spirit.

“Punish the people for their evil ways,” prayed Ocean. “Punish them for always wanting more and more.” The Great Spirit heard his prayer. He leaned down from the sky, scooped up a great amount of earth, and made the Cascade Mountains as a wall between Ocean and the dry country. The long and deep hole left where the earth had been, Ocean soon filled with water. Today, people call it Puget Sound.

The people east of the mountains are still punished for their selfishness and greed. Ocean sends so little moisture over the range that they do not have all of the plants that grow along the coast. But they still have the pits their grandfathers dug. They are Lake
Chelan and the lakes south and east of it.

Ocean still grieves for his sons and daughters who did not come home. All day and all night along the beach he calls to them and sings their mournful song: “Ab’tab lab’ tab lab’! Ab tab lab’! Ab tab lab’ tab lab’ Come Home! Come Home!”

(From The Origin of Puget Sound and the Cascade Range from Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella E. Clarke, University of California Press at Berkeley, 1953)

Finding Your Ecological Address

Water runs downhill – we all know that. The instant that a drop of rain hits the earth, it begins its journey to the ocean (If it falls as snow, it has to wait until it melts!). Of course, not all water drops make it to the ocean. Some are taken up by the roots of plants and are transpired into the air through the plant’s leaves. Some evaporate in puddles, or other areas that hold water. Some filter down into underground areas, moving slowly downhill. But most water drops end up as runoff, the water that finds its way into creeks, streams and rivers. This long or short journey to the ocean takes place within a watershed. If you were to stand in a stream bed and look upstream at all the land the stream drains, you would be looking at the stream’s watershed. Almost all the area of a watershed is land – not water! And almost everything that happens on that land affects the stream that drains it. In other words, ALL land on earth is in a watershed.

Since all land is part of a watershed, it follows that all the factors that affect the land also affect the watershed. The boundary between two watersheds is called a divide. A watershed is drained by a network of channels that increase in size as the amount of water and sediment they must carry increases. Streams are dynamic systems (meaning they often experience changes) with channels that collect and convey surface runoff generated by rainfall, snowmelt or ground-water discharge. The shape and pattern of a stream is a result of the land it is cutting into and the sediment it carries. The stream is forever evolving, always in the process of change.

Watersheds can be big or small. A mud puddle has a watershed of only a few square feet. The Columbia River in the Western United States has a watershed that is 258,000 square miles. The biggest watershed in the country is the Mississippi River, which drains all the land between the Rocky Mountains and Appalachian Mountains! Watersheds are separated by ridges, called divides. The Continental Divide of the U.S., for example, is in the Rocky Mountains. All the rain and snow falling on the west side of the divide flows into the Pacific Ocean. All the rain and snow falling on the east side of the divide, sooner or later, ends up in the Atlantic Ocean.

The climate (or weather) of an area obviously plays a big part in the processes within the watershed. Land and water are linked directly by the water cycle, usually in the form of rain or snow. Runoff, the gravity-powered journey of water downstream, erodes the rocks and soil of the watershed. At least some of the water percolates into the soil as groundwater. Except for high rainfall events, most of the water running in streams is from groundwater

Humans remove both groundwater and water in streams from the watershed for their own uses. Some of that water is returned to the watershed, sometimes not as clean as it was when removed.

The shape and slope of a watershed affect the speed of runoff, erosion and the amount of water that can percolate into the soil. The steeper the slope, the greater is the possibility for rapid runoff and erosion. The makeup of the soil and rocks within the watershed (some being easier to erode than others) is another factor affecting the rate of erosion and deposition.

Plant cover benefits a watershed. Grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees intercept rain and reduce the force with which it strikes the ground. The plant canopy reduces the effects of wind, and slows runoff and erosion. Plant material also falls into the stream, delivering a vital food and energy source to the creatures of the stream. Plant roots bind together the soil, and reduce erosion by stabilizing stream banks and slopes.

Human activities continue to both help and hurt watersheds. Management of watersheds is essential to their good heath, both from a water quality and watershed quality point of view. Activities such as agriculture, recreation, timber harvest, livestock grazing, urban and industrial development, and mining can be harmful if they are not performed with care.

Management of watersheds and their river basins is part of being careful with watersheds. Management includes establishing rules in your city and state regarding:

  • Land use planning and zoning for developers
  • Permitted vs. prohibited types of land uses and development
  • Restrictions for developments near bodies of water
  • Pollution control

Management also requires citizens like you to be involved in repairing watersheds and guiding local government decisions. We call this stewardship. Stewardship is alive and well in Washington! People from all walks of life are coming forward to volunteer to help restore damaged watersheds, “adopt” portions of streams and rivers, assist the Department of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies in monitoring fish populations, and teach young people to be responsible anglers. There is much work to be done, but with help from people, watersheds and public attitudes towards them can be improved. Rivers, hillsides, mountain tops, bottom lands, and even groundwater are all part of one system. They are linked together directly by the water cycle and watershed. The combination of climatic conditions, soil types, topography, plant cover, and drainage systems define the character of each watershed. We all live somewhere within a unique watershed. We could say that each of us has an “ecological address,” one that tells us where we live in relation to the watershed above and below us, and defined by the plants and animals that live there with us.

Learning Acitivty: Write your OWN definition of a watershed.