Marys Peak Creek Naming Honors the Indigenous Heritage of the Willamette Valley

By Geoff Nudelman

Thousands of years ago, a great flood washed over the Willamette Valley, leaving only a few sparse peaks for refuge as the waters overtook land far and wide. One of those refuges was atop what is now known as Marys Peak – one of the highest points in the Willamette Valley and, at 4,097 feet, the highest point in the Oregon Coast Range.

The peak is one of few that are sacred to the native Kalapuya (others include Spirit Mountain and Mt. Angel) as they were spread out across the Valley. Their ancestral story of perseverance and survival became one passed down through each of the 500 generations since that defining event. 

“Marys Peak is a place of empowerment and peace for the Kalapuya,” says David Harrelson, tribal historic preservation officer for The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Effort to Name Creeks Dates Back to 2016

Marys Peak, just outside Corvallis, is one of few in the Willamette Valley that are sacred to the native Kalapuya (others include Spirit Mountain and Mt. Angel).

Fast forward to 2016, when a City of Corvallis-led watershed tour of a separate area highlighted a number of unnamed creeks with opportunity for naming. Marys Peak Alliance (a volunteer-run advocacy group) President Dave Eckert was on that tour and inquired about naming one of the creeks through a collaborative effort with the Confederated Tribes. Working with Harrelson, the duo spurred further momentum for the tribal community to name 10 creeks within the Marys Peak area as tribute to the inherent importance of the land. 

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (which traditionally called western Oregon, northern California, and southwest Washington home) offered six names in traditional tribal languages; The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, which traditionally lived in the Willamette Valley and along the Oregon Coast, proposed another four. All were unanimously approved by the Oregon Geographic Names Board (and later certified by the National Geographic Names Board). They are:

  • Ahngeengeen: Meaning “The Flint” – a leading character in the Ampinefu Kalapuya stories (pronunciation: ahn-GEEN-geen)
  • Ahnhoots: Meaning “The Panther” – a main character in Ampinefu Kalapuya stories, and an important animal culturally (pronunciation: ahn-HOOTS)
  • Ahntkwahkwah: Meaning “The Frog”; related to a Kalapuya story explaining the role of frogs in damming up an area (pronunciation: ahn-TKWAH-kwah)
  • Ahshahyum: Meaning “The Grizzly” – a featured character in Kalapuya stories (pronunciation: ah-SHAH-yum)
  • Ahmoolint Creek: Meaning “The Wolf” – Wolves are mentioned in the collected Ampinefu Kalapuya stories and this name was offered after a wolf sighting on Marys Peak (pronunciation: ah-MOO-lint)
  • Ahsney Creek: Meaning “The Coyote” – Coyote is a leading protagonist in the Ampinefu Stories referring to Coyote’s home being higher up than all other homes. This creek is the highest of the six with Kapaluya names (pronunciation: ah-SNEY)
  • Pa’wint Creek: Meaning “cinnamon bear,” a nod to the type of bear that lives in the area
  • Lo wa’ ha yu: A nod to Marys Peak as the highest mountain in the Alsea and Parker Creek watersheds
  • Wusi’n: The name the Alsea people call themselves; this particular creek’s multiple waterfalls may have been culturally significant to the Wusi’n (pronunciation: Woosh-I’n)
  • Yaqo’n: The name the Yaquina people called themselves (pronunciation: Yak-own)  

Each signifies a historical or cultural importance to the tribes and bands of the area.

Creeks Remain Largely Unreachable For Now

Marys Peak at dusk

Eckert explains that six of the 10 creeks are only reachable via treacherous hikes with no marked trails.

“They’re rugged, hard to find, and require permission since they’re in the Corvallis Watershed,” he adds. 

The creeks are on a combination of U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and private Starker Forests land. Four of the creeks do run right into and under the main road up to the “true summit” of Marys Peak (the area technically has four “peaks,”) but aren’t marked and will remain unidentifiable until signage takes shape in the next few years. 

The naming was formalized in 2020, and Eckert says that further work was paused by the COVID-19 pandemic. He says the Alliance has the funding to move forward with a mobile app and additional signage—and that the group will begin that process soon. 

Even if most of the creeks are inaccessible and unmarked, there’s still a lot to love about a visit to Marys Peak. Several miles of trails crisscross the Marys Peak area, with wildflowers blooming in meadows (and at the summit) in May and June each year. Alternately, a road leads from Highway 34 to a parking area just below the summit (and is accessible in spring, summer, and fall); impressive views from the parking area peer down into Philomath and the wider Willamette Valley. A short trail ascends from the parking area to the summit, where visitors can see the Pacific Ocean to the west and several Cascade peaks to the east. More experienced hikers can make Marys Peak part of a thru- or portion-hike of the new Corvallis-to-the-Sea Trail.

Exploring the Willamette Valley’s Indigenous Heritage

For those looking to learn more about the Willamette Valley’s Native American history, Harrelson encourages visitors to stop by the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center in Grand Ronde, which offers a deeper look into the area’s tribal history. (Note that, as of June 2021, the museum remained closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Call ahead, or check the Chachalu website, before visiting.) For those visiting the peak, he simply encourages them to look east.

“That is where you can look out and imagine the flooding across the Valley,” he says.