Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Umatilla County farmers mourn death of medicine man

With the death of 70-year-old Alfalfa Jim just before Christmas in 1922, farmers in northeast Umatilla County wondered: Who will bring the Chinook now?

Alfalfa Jim was a full-blooded Walla Walla Indian known throughout the region as a medicine man who could break a cold snap for the right price. When heavy snow and biting cold settled over the Cayuse and Adams area for extended periods, the farmers would beg Alfalfa Jim to bring a chinook wind. Relief was often long in coming until the farmers could raise a big enough purse to entice him to “mix his medicine.”

Chinooks, according to the Mountain Nature website, are caused by moist weather patterns originating off the Pacific coast that cool as they climb the western slopes of the mountains and then rapidly warm as they drop down the eastern side. Chinooks winds generally begin with a sudden change in wind direction toward the south or southwest and an increase in wind speed, followed by rapid large temperature changes and a significant drop in humidity.

Farmers in the 1920s were fans of chinooks during the winter perhaps because the melting snow allowed their livestock to move around and find forage more easily, cutting their costs for hay and winter feed. Rapid snowmelt, however, can also result in a loss of soil moisture and plants breaking dormancy early, leading to crop damage when cold weather returns. Cattle can sometimes develop pneumonia or other respiratory diseases, or even be electrocuted when chinooks create a strong positive charge in the air that electrifies wire fences. And flash floods caused by melting mountain snows often spell disaster in low-lying areas.

Modern Umatilla County farmers are wary of chinook winds, partly because every molecule of water (stored in the form of mountain snow) is so necessary to their livelihood as water resources decline and temperatures continue to increase during the growing season. Perhaps, if Alfalfa Jim lived in northeast Oregon today, his services would not be in such high demand.

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