The estuary contains the rich zone where riverine nutrients slow and concentrate near the ocean. Floodplain habitats grow wapato, tule and cattail. Fish resources include salmon, eulachon and sturgeon. Water levels in the backwater sloughs, shallows and side channels fluctuate with the tides. This area includes the entire lower Columbia River below Bonneville Dam and the tidally-affected lower portions of tributaries like the Cowlitz, Lewis and Kalama rivers.
The rich rivers of the region include larger rivers like the Cowlitz, Lewis and Kalama, as well as all of the smaller creeks emptying into them. River resources include the life-giving water itself, and principle fish species of salmon, steelhead and eulachon, but also including lamprey. Important sites of traditional fisheries are found at bedrock pinch points on rivers where runs of returning fish concentrate and are easier to catch. River cobbles and well-shaped rocks were a key component of traditional material culture. They were shaped into many tools such as net weights, choppers, wedges, hammers and pestles. The Cowlitz People relied on a unique style of shallow-draft, shovel-nosed canoe in these rivers and were renowned for their expertise maneuvering these crafts through rapids and shoals, using both paddles and poles.
Freshwater Wetlands and Lakes:
The fringes of wetlands and lakes were important hunting areas because a rich suite of food resources were available there. Ducks, geese, and swans are seasonally available as are their eggs. Turtles were an important food and their shells were used as bowls or expertly carved into many other useful objects, such as spoons or combs.
Given the climate of the last 2000 years, prairie habitats should have already been conifer forests. However, regular and purposeful use of fire as a land management tool by the Cowlitz People maintained open prairie habitats. Fires were principally set to maximize the abundance of important root resources such as camas and bracken fern roots. Other prairie-associated resources include sunflower seeds and grasshoppers. Elk grazed in these open habitats and grew to enormous sizes. When horses became available, the Cowlitz People were readily able to adopt a horse-focused culture, because of the rich grassy openings of prairie in the landscape, where horses could graze.
Oak woodlands, also maintained by a purposeful fire regime, are one of the richest habitat types. The herbaceous understory often includes the same root resources found in prairie habitats, but produces rich and nutritious crops of acorns, which were soaked to leach tannins, then pounded into flour. The flour was used to bake simple flatbread cakes, which were usually augmented and sweetened with baked camas roots, dried berries or roasted hazelnuts. Acorn flour was also used as a thickener to enrich soups and stews. Both black-tailed and white-tailed deer frequented these park-like woodlands and were hunted for meat as well as their bones, antlers and sinew. Oak wood is dense and made firewood that would burn long and hot. It was excellent fuel for use in earth ovens. Other important food species found in oak woodlands include serviceberry and crabapple.
Ash woodlands grow along sloughs and wetlands where water levels rise high in winter but there are no scouring flows. The wood of ash trees is strong and light, and is suitable for paddles and tool handles. Food-bearing species frequently found in ash woodlands are hawthorn and bitter cherry. Nettles are common in low-elevations ash forests. Fibers from the central stalk of the plant are long and strong and can be woven into nets and rope to catch fish, deer, and birds.
Cottonwood woodland exist along rivers and streams large enough to exhibit scour and gravel bar substrates. The wood of the Cottonwood tree is light and easily worked. Most food storage bowls and trays were made out of cottonwood because it did not impart flavor to the stored food, whereas the wood of pines and firs do. Cottonwood was sometimes used for grilling and firecooking meat because it burns hot and fast with little smoke.
Red alder woodlands typically grow alongside smaller streams with steep gradients. The bark of red alder makes a red dye that can be used to color clothing or other items. The wood of red alder burns poorly and coolly and creates a smoky fire. This is an extremely useful property for preserving meats and venison jerky, as smoke has antibacterial properties. Most smoked salmon, steelhead, and eulachon, as well as elk and deer meat was slowly smoke-cured in a cedar shed with a small, smoky fire of alderwood until it was completely dried.
The interior of dense conifer forests were not that productive for food, but the edges offered a rich profusion of berries including salal, mahonia, several kinds of huckleberries, trailing blackberry, raspberries and gooseberries. Wet areas contained salmonberry whose green shoots were eaten in the early spring. Conifer forests were not that rich in material culture resources, with two exceptions: yew wood is the densest and heaviest wood found in the region. It is stronger than ash, but was far heavier than ash wood, which kept it from being useful for hand tools such as paddles. It was used to make wedges for splitting boards from logs, or a waist-high stick with one pointed end and a T-handle was often used as a digging stick for root harvest.
The second exception was red cedar, whose wood, roots and bark were used for almost anything and everything. The wood of the cedar tree has a natural antifungal agent that keeps it from decaying, and it also has insect-repellent properties that keep it from being consumed by ants, termites or beetles. The wood is light, straight-grained and easily carved. Cedar wood was used for houses, canoes, boxes and bowls. The bark was harvested, then processed and woven into clothing, hats, and cloth. Cedar roots were split and used for twining baskets.
Mountain huckleberries grow in the subalpine fringe meadows between 4,000 and 6,000 feet elevation. These berries are one of the most important food resources in the Cowlitz seasonal round of resource gathering. Whole families moved to the higher elevations in the late summer of each year. Women and girls harvested berries from bushes and collected them into coiled baskets. Berries were brought back to berry camp, where they were dried on wooden racks and cattail mats over small fires. The raisin-like dried and smoke-cured berries would be packed into baskets and taken back to low-elevation villages, where they would be eaten throughout the winter mixed into acorn and hazelnut breads or cooked in soups and stews with smoked salmon and jerky. The meadows were also place where beargrass bunches grew in abundance. The center leaves of the tuft were picked and woven into finest imbricated baskets known.
While Cowlitz women and girls were gathering mountain huckleberries in late summer, Cowlitz men and boys would climb the high mountains hunting mountain goats and sheep. Boys would be sent to gather tufts of wool from the bushes where mountain goats scratched and shed their itchy winter wool coat. The men would hunt sheep and goats for their meat, horn and hooves, as well as their woolly skins. They would hunt mountain sheep for their spiral horns. Most men would leave the mountains and return to low-elevation riverside villages when word came that the fall run of coho salmon was underway.