Salmon River Stories: Remembering Willis Conrad

Willis Conrad lived near Katamiin in Somes Bar. He was an early friend of the hippies who founded the Black Bear commune in the late 1960s and later worked with some of them as a firefighter. /Photo by Jeff Buchin

By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer

Part I: Willis Conrad Introduces a Friend to Fire Fighting

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a three-part story about Willis Conrad, logger, firefighter and dip-net fisherman from Somes Bar. It is part of a collection of Salmon River stories that regular TRT contributor Malcolm Terence is working on.

The smell of smoke still gets me. Not smoke from a woodstove or a campfire. That smells like comfort and coffee in the morning. It’s drift smoke that stirs me up. It’s smoke from a fire in the forest. Memories tattooed into the brain by adrenalin seem to be the strongest.

We had gotten grabbed off the timber crew for the fire. You never knew whether it was a little spot fire or the start of something big. Either way we were buzzed. It was a change. The money was good. If we were a little scared, we didn’t even admit it to ourselves.

This time we went way back into the mountains behind Orleans on roads I’d never been on before. It was a little burn right then, near the bottom of a logging unit. “Doesn’t look too bad from here,” I suggested to one of the veteran firemen on the crew.

He looked me over and said, “You got plans somewhere else for the afternoon?” The other firemen all started laughing at my naiveté. One of them handed me a McCloud, a cross between a rake and a hoe. The second crewman, a tall muscled woman in standard issue yellow shirt and green pants, gave me a sack lunch and a banjo canteen. She looked down at the fire and passed me a second lunch and a second canteen.

Willis Conrad, a Karuk Indian man was crew boss and I’d known him since he befriended us hippies in the early days of the Black Bear commune. Willis led us down the flank of the clear-cut so we could approach the fire from the side. So far we saw no flames, only a growing column of smoke, but one of the never-break-them rules of firefighting was to never approach a fire from directly above.

As we neared the bottom, the brush towered over our heads and grew thicker. We could hear the crackle and rush of the flames and see them a little. A few of the crew started to push through the brush to engage but Willis called them back. “We need to cut a path in there,” he yelled, “so we can get out when it blows up.”

“You mean, if it blows up,” I corrected him.

Willis had known me since I moved into the country 15 or 20 years earlier. He gave me his best grin and said, “It’s gonna blow. Look at all that old logging slash and brush upslope. We just need to get safe when it does.”
By then two chain saw operators were cutting open a six-foot corridor through the brush and the rest of us started cradling out the hacked vegetation so the path was passable. In 30 minutes, the first crew members started building fire line around the burn area, still less than an acre but building in heat.

The cutters with chain saws continued in the lead, followed by five men and women swinging pulaskis, the unforgiving hybrid between an axe and a mattock which was most firefighters’ favorite. Behind them came me and two others scraping the path down to nonflammable mineral dirt with our McClouds. I heard Willis on the radio asking for another crew and for aircraft that could deliver a retardant drop.

It seemed to me that we would have the fire circled in an hour and be headed home by dinner. Willis’s call for help and aircraft seemed overkill but I said nothing. I was a timber cruiser who’d been more-or-less drafted to work with these regular firefighters.

Soon my part of the line was right up against the blaze. I started to reconsider. I was glad that we had the green and yellow fire-proof clothes, but they were not heat-proof. They grew so hot that they stung our skin wherever the fabric touched us.

I remembered one of the women rambling on the day before about what tee-shirt best protected her nipples from the heat. Another woman teased, “You just like to boast about those nipples,” and I had discounted it all to titillation. Not anymore. It was hot.

Just then the breeze shifted up-slope and I saw that the brush on what should have been the cool side of our line was starting to smolder. Up ahead the saws stopped running and the cutters came down toward us, with Willis behind them. “Move back out, over into those woods,” he ordered, pointing toward the relative safety of the unlogged forest alongside the clear-cut. No one needed to hear it twice.

The air was fresher under the canopy of the unlogged patch when we got there. The sweat-soaked crew collapsed on the ground and began guzzling water. Soon a small aircraft, a spotter plane, buzzed over head and Willis began a radio conversation about where a drop of fire retardant would work best.

Minutes later we heard the rumble of the retardant bomber lumber overhead. Willis’s radio crackled with instructions. The old bomber took a trial pass and then circled again for a drop.

I stood to watch as it disgorged a huge plume of thick red liquid from its belly. “Goddamn!” yelled the woman with the nipples. The load drifted dreamlike away from the burn and into the tall tree tops over us. The fire fighters dropped face down on the ground and covered their tools with their bodies.

Willis yelled for me to do the same. “Stop looking up!” he ordered.

I dropped and heard the shiny sticky retardant fall around us like a sudden rain shower. When it stopped, I opened my eyes and the ground all around me was red. The backs of the crew were red. The back of my arms and most of my tool handle was red. A ripple of profanity grumbled through the crew.

The radio crackled again as the pilot asked Willis if he was on target. “Pretty good,” Willis answered. “But we can use another or maybe two, a little further west.”

“No problem,” the radio answered.

“Let’s move up out of this stuff,” Willis ordered and we moved further into the old growth forest where there was little brush or other down fuel. Many of the giant trees showed the signs of fires over the years but their thick bark had protected them and they had survived. I began to hear birds who were alarmed by the smoke and our presence. We settled down in the shade for an extended break. I think I may have slept.

When I awoke the radio was blaring out for Willis. He may have been asleep himself. Before he answered, he ordered one of the cutters to start up his saw. When it was running, he answered.

“Headquarters, this is Willis. Just a minute. Shut off that goddamn saw. I’m trying to talk on the radio.” The saw operator looked perplexed for a moment, but then shut off the saw and broke into a huge smile. The crew, scattered all around Willis on the ground, all grinned but none laughed aloud.

I need to say that I met Willis a long time before I got drafted by the fire crew. Somewhere between the births of  his kids Tonner and Shawnna was when we hippies met Willis and his wife Florence. They were camping near us on the North Fork Salmon. We hippies had been picking blackberries all day and had car troubles when it was time to head home. Michael Tierra led us over to the campsite where Willis was roasting deer meat over the fire. Willis shared the cooked venison without hesitation. The hippies offered blackberries in return. If Willis and Florence thought it wasn’t much of a trade to offer blackberries when you’re stuck in a black berry patch they didn’t show it. They just offered the Conrad hospitality that so many of us enjoyed over the years.

Beyond Willis, it was not a friendly place here for hippies in those years. I’m not sure why Willis reached out the way he did. Maybe it was because Willis grew up in a world where Indians were badly treated. Maybe he was fascinated by White people like us hippies who were ranked lower on the Siskiyou County pecking order than Indians. I figured Willis was determined to treat us better than he’d been treated growing up.  It was just a bonus that most hippies thought the best thing they could be in the whole world was to be like an Indian.

After that meeting at the blackberry patch, Willis became a regular visitor at the commune. He’d bring up friends from Somes Bar, sensing correctly that we had made few local friends. He took us dipping for salmon at the falls and eeling and hunting. He often would come to the commune with a truckload of salmon, thinking, probably, that it wasn’t good to just live on blackberries and beans and brown rice. Once, when I was gushing thanks for  all the fish he said, “It’s no big deal. Anyway, I just won a big bet. I bet those guys who came with me that we’d find hippies working naked in the garden.”

Part II: Using Beginner’s Luck in the Game of Katimiin Schmidt

Willis Conrad, with his dip net poles, boulder-hopped along the surging rapids at Ishi Pishi Falls to the spot where Karuk fishermen have caught salmon since time immemorial. It seemed a good place to find fish but a bad place to fall in the water. Conrad family members say the photo was scratched by a bear that broke into their house. / Photo courtesy of the Conrad Family

One day a few years later, I was working some kind of woods job running saw up in Happy Camp and I made what I thought would be a short stop at the Somes Bar Store.

The store, which has had a few locations over the years, has, for decades, sat at an auspicious space at the foot of a rocky knoll just above where the Salmon River poured into the larger and much muddier Klamath.

Just above it is a jumble of boulders so huge that even the vast flow of the Klamath is bent and wrapped into a riffle, a grey, grinding flood that has run there since the retreat of the last Ice Age and before. The spot has so much power that even the runs of many kinds of salmon, as they return to spawn in their natal streams, need to slow there in what backwaters and eddies they can find. For millennia, and maybe forever, native people have fished there with small nets strung between long poles. There was a village just above there that the Karuk people called Katimiin. The arrival of the white miners had decimated the village just the same as it had ruined so many others. The great fish runs were reduced in number from the sediments dumped by mining and by the generations of too much logging and too many haul roads that followed. Much of the Karuk culture was trampled but it was not forgotten.

Willis Conrad was the first person to take me there to the falls. His family had had a fishing spot there for countless generations and he was justifiably proud of his skill maneuvering the net and poles. He had to do this perched on a wet boulder over the churning river and the danger was not lost on him. He told me stories of people who had fallen in the water and were rescued by a fellow fisherman. In one of the stories the person was swept away and his body was found days later along the bank 30 or 40 miles downriver in Weitchpec, being eaten by feral pigs. If the stories were to make me cautious, they certainly worked.

I should warn about the information I offer about local Indians. I am only half certain if it is right. Some of it I’ve been told by people I know. Some of it, I’ve read here or there. People on the river tell stories of academic ethnographers prowling around a hundred years ago and offering money to elders for stories. Elders are inventive by their nature and money is an extra spur to invention. So my sources are suspect, I guess. You are warned accordingly.

But this I know: Willis had a certain kind of charisma. His charisma went beyond his ability to lead a fire crew, although he was certainly adept at that. Charisma, the way I define it, includes the ability to coax people into something they might not ordinarily do. Different people accomplish persuasion in different ways. Some browbeat you. Others guilt trip you or intimidate you. Willis’ particular gift was to make you feel that it was something you always wanted to do.

Charlie Thom, who is a Indian doctor and a ceremonial leader among the Karuk, told me a story about Willis. It goes back some years to when the Karuk were trying to win official recognition from the Feds. Charlie decided it would be useful to rebuild a dance pit at Katimiin.

He says he recruited Willis to the project because he knew Willis would know how to talk people into it. Willis must have told his friends, “You know how you’ve always wished there was a dance pit here…” The pit got built.

So there I was at the store and Willis came in. We exchanged greetings. To make small talk, I asked him when the next Brush Dance would be. “It starts tomorrow,” he said. I nodded appreciatively and he added, “They’re playing cards down there at Katimiin tonight. Let’s go.” Then as I arranged my excuses in my mind, he added, “You always like that sort of stuff.”

“Indian cards, with the sticks?” I asked, stalling.

“No. Regular cards. They’re playing Katimiin Schmidt. You’ve played it, huh?”

Minutes later we were down at the ceremonial grounds even though I’d protested that, after a day running chainsaw, there was nothing I wanted more right then than a shower.

A summer day running a saw coats your skin and your clothes with a fine film of bar oil and wood chips.

“I don’t have any money so I can’t gamble,” I said. This was not quite true.

“You don’t need money,” Willis said. “I have money.”

Several other Indians were already sitting at the table when we arrived and they greeted Willis enthusiastically. “Hah, now we’ll get some of that Conrad ishpuk,” one of the gamblers said. I didn’t know many Karuk words but everybody knew ishpuk meant money.

One of them offered me a beer from under the table and then made a show of not offering any to Willis. He teased back and soon had a beer.

“Put your money out, Willis,” the dealer said.

“I’m not playing. Just deal to my friend” he answered and dumped a handful of quarters on the table in front of me.

The dealer shuffled a fat deck—it must have been more than one set of cards—and dealt a small hand to each of us. I turned to Willis and mouthed, “I don’t know how to play.”

Willis only grinned, motioned my attention back into the game and slid a few of his quarters into the pot. Players laid out cards and when my turn came, Willis made a gesture that I should play whatever card I wanted. It continued through the hand.

“Well, look at that. Hippie-dude has won the whole thing. Who’s this card shark you brought here, Mr. Conrad?” The dealer pushed the entire pot over into Willis’s pile of quarters. I took a congratulatory sip of the beer and wondered how I’d won. Also whether this might be a clever hustle to get hold of my money. Then another sip of the beer. Over the next few hands I won frequently, but not every hand. I started to think I understood the rules but then something else would happen. It was like the game was really three games overlaid, each with it’s own set of rules. As my pile of quarters grew, Willis pocketed a handful. No problem. It was his money.

An hour went by. A few of the players, the biggest losers, started to seem annoyed and that just made them the target of more intense teasing.

I was, by then, in my second beer, my usual limit, but the under the table stash had run out. A young Karuk woman, very pretty, had been sitting on the periphery and one of the men instructed her to bring more from his pickup.

When it arrived, he set one in front of me, even though mine was far from finished. I made a show of guzzling that one down and opened the new one. The game continued.

At some point, an Indian woman of great age and great dignity approached our table. All of the men slipped their beers out of sight and Willis nudged me to do the same. “Hello, Willis,” she said.

“Hello, Elizabeth,” he replied. All of the other players nodded with great respect and so did I.

“Who’s she?” I asked when she moved past us and they said she was an important medicine woman, come to join the Brush Dance ceremonies. Another said she’d been in declining health. It was a good sign that she’d come.

Beers surfaced again and I was passed another. I didn’t rush to open it. I still needed to drive home. The sun had dropped below the ridge and one of the people near the dance pit preparing for the dances was looking around for a lamp.

One of card players said his wife would be pissed by his absence and he left the table, in a shower of good natured teasing.

I turned to Willis, who still had not joined the game himself, and said I needed to leave too. Other players overheard me and sour expressions crossed their faces.

“They’re not gonna like it if you leave,” Willis said.

“That guy left. Why not me?”

“That guy hadn’t won all their money. They want a chance to win it back.”

Part III: Willis Explains Cards

Willis Conrad believed that luck had great power in card playing and that beginner’s luck was especially strong. He loved to play a game called Katimiin Schmidt, named for the Karuk ceremonial village above Ishi Pishi Falls. /Photo courtesy of the Conrad family.

Several weeks passed after the card game before I saw Willis Conrad again.

He had a place not far from the ceremonial grounds at Katimiin and I found him there.

The house and its surroundings always fascinated me. A steep road descended to it from the main highway and it was built on a forested bench, part of what I guessed was a very old landslide.

There was a long line of abandoned cars in one direction and a full woodshed in the other. The cars were swallowed in blackberry canes and further away there was a small deserted cabin disappearing into the thickets of small conifers and more thorny brambles.

When I stared hard, I could see signs of what I took to be another even older cabin, slowly sinking into the vegetation.

That was just what I could see. I sensed that people had always lived at that place, so close to the dip net fishing places at the Ishi Pishi falls. Even with the wrecked cars, it seemed as hallowed as an old country church.

But Willis’ house was not so old. He had built a big add-on as his family grew. The new room was a source of personal pride. He told me the story.

He had worked lots of different jobs over the years and eventually ended up with the US Forest Service. He was not exactly in love with the agency.

Lots of its employees felt that way, especially people who were local to the area, and this was even truer of Karuk people.

All of the land that had once been theirs was now labeled National Forest. They were ticketed for cutting firewood, penalized for hunting deer for their families and harassed for catching salmon, with the exception of the dip-netting at Ishi Pishi Falls, where the game wardens looked the other way.

Eventually, when the tribe got federal recognition, there was much lip service paid by the government agencies to the new Karuk sovereignty. In this flush of “government-to-government” relations, it was agreed that the US Forest Service installation at Somes Bar should go to the tribe.

Some of the structures were left for the tribe and others were dismantled. One in the tear-down category was what had been the main office of the Ukonom District.

Willis made the winning bid for the demolition and then hauled the materials he could reuse to his own place, a half-mile away.

I could tell that he took great pleasure in tearing down a building that had been the location of so much aggravation over the years. He even re-used the office doors or propped them up in his yard like a hunter might hang a trophy head on his wall.

Willis was working under the hood of a car when I showed up, but he invited me into the house to visit.

I wanted to tell him a story about my daughter Erica Kate who was then 10 years old. When she was just a baby, Willis had given her a name in Karuk language, the word for mountain lion. Years earlier, Willis had named

Slate, Erica’s big brother vírusur, the Karuk word for bear. That made sense. Even as a child, Slate seemed bear sized.

I always have trouble pronouncing the word for mountain lion, which is yupthuekirar. Try pronouncing that.

Anyway, I told Willis that Erica Kate and a young friend had seen a mountain lion in the brush walking home from the swimming hole at Grant Creek.

Erica and her friend had carefully backed away and, as soon as they were out of sight, they ran like crazy to get home.

Willis shook his head and said I shouldn’t be afraid. “The mountain lion will protect Kate,” he said.

He called her Kate in those days. Everybody called her Kate.

He offered a beer and I declined but I thanked him for taking me to the card game.

He laughed and said, “You thought you wouldn’t do very good.”

“I still don’t think I’m very good.”

“Well, all those guys who lost money thought you did okay,” and he laughed again.

“But really,” I said. “How come I won so often?”

“Well, if you really didn’t get the game, then maybe you were just lucky.”

“Lucky? Nobody’s lucky that much of the time.” I could tell when Willis was being evasive. He’d get this sly smile and you knew.

He scratched his head and said, “I’ve been watching cards a long time and luck plays a part. People don’t give it enough credit. And beginners’ luck is especially strong sometimes. Maybe you were having beginners’ luck.”

It was not a very satisfying explanation for me, and I finally said, “I have a couple of other questions.”

“Fire away,” he said. He was happy to change the subject.

“Is Katimiin Schmidt what people call Indian Cards? I’ve always heard about Indian Cards.”

“Indian cards is different,” he said, reaching across to the shelf behind him.

He grasped a small bundle of sticks, untied the short deerskin lace that held them and passed them to me. “You never seen Indian cards?”

They were a little thicker than matchsticks and of sturdier wood, maybe hazel that’s also used for baskets. They looked to be nine or 10 inches long and there were more than a dozen of them.

I squeezed them in my hand to get the feel of them and Willis nodded approvingly.

I returned them to him and he showed me that there was a small black mark around the center of one of the sticks. Then he put them behind his back and divided them into both hands.

He held both hands out and said, “Which hand has the marked stick?”

I picked a hand and was right. Next turn I was wrong.

He passed me the sticks and I tried, although I was really not certain how I’d divided them myself. Then he explained to me a long web of complex thinking that he used to outwit other players.

My mouth may have hung open to hear such a maze of feint and deception for, what seemed to me, little more complex than flipping a coin heads or tails.

On top of that, sometimes bystanders were beating a drum and others might be singing or chanting with other people placing side bets or teasing or just generally making a racket.
More than coin tossing, I agreed.

He wrapped the sticks together again with the deerskin lace and handed the bundle to me. “These are for you,” he said.

I was touched by the gift and thanked him. Then I thanked him another time for the way he befriended us back when we lived at the commune.

He pursed his lips and finally said, “You know what I think of White people. When I met you, you didn’t seem White. Sometimes I watch you now with a job and a good truck and a big house and I wonder if you’re becoming too White.”

I was unsure what to say. Everything that came into my head was too glib or too defensive. So I didn’t say anything and just stared down at the bundle of sticks he’d given me.
After a while Willis said, “You said you had two questions. You only asked one.”

“Yeah,” I said, happy to stop reflecting on whether I was backsliding into some White-people cultural destiny. “What I want to know is what that guy said. The one who growled at you when I said I was gonna leave the Katimiin Schmidt game. He mostly spoke in Karuk.”

Willis thought back for a minute and then another big smile crossed his face.

“You don’t wanna know,” he said.

Leave a Reply