On a recent hike foraging for mushrooms, we embarked up Buttermilk Creek. A visiting friend remarked, “this is an interesting creek name.” Discussion ensued with pontifications imagining there must have been a pioneer dairy in the vicinity that sold miners raw buttermilk as they explored the hidden deposits in search of precious metals. Or maybe the waters at an earlier time were tinged with glacial milk, rendering the creek its name.
In any case, I don’t have the answer, but if you do, share it with me! This line of wonderment lead us play a game of guesswork inquiring what is likely the most common creek name in North America. There are lots of good and viable answers out there. We have all been to a Gold Creek, Cow Creek, Beaver Creek, Bear Creek, Ruby Creek, Swift Creek, Dry Creek, Rock Creek, Boulder Creek, Clear Creek, Trout Creek and Muddy Creek in various parts of the nation, and these were some of the names we came up with.
The most common creek name in the United States has less to do with its quality as a water body or its inhabitants, but everything to do with its utility. East of the Mississippi, Mill Creek is king. In Washington state, Bear Creek takes the honor. Mill Creek reigns again in California, but why are there so fewer Mill Creeks in the West? Here in the Methow, we were built on mining, and the creeks supplied the needed power to drive the stamp mills that were plenty in the late 1800s. Perhaps the boom and bust were too short lived here and the advent of steam-powered piston engines transitioned millwork from water-powered to fossil fueled.
Here our Bear Creek stands among 53 other Bear Creeks in our state. And when we say, “Bear Creek,” often we don’t even mean the creek. Rather, the name denotes the general area near Pearrygin Lake State Park and Blue Buck Mountain areas; it means the road that connects the Methow Valley Wildlife Area to the valley floor; it refers to the quaint and pastoral Bear Creek neighborhood, and, of course, it means the golf course. (The Bear Creek Junior Golf Program is now accepting registration for ages 7–17. There are two sessions this year for beginner/intermediate and more advanced players. Go online for details. The golf program clinic runs July 8–12.)
But back to names, another peculiar creek name near and dear to us is the Chewuch. Or is it the Chewack, or the Chewak? Well, that depends on the map you are looking at. Old-timers will always use the “Chewak” name. That was the official name from 1904–1960, when it was changed to Chewack. Then in 1987 it was officially changed again to Chewuch. The USGS lists other variant names as Che-wuch, Chewach, Chewack, Chewuck, Chiwak, East Branch of the Methow or North Fork of the Methow River. This is very confusing. So, don’t scoff at the visitors to the valley can never pronounce this correctly, utilizing the “ch” sound instead of the “k” we all know to be correct. Warm weather ahead, it’s time to dip into the Chewik, Chewuch, or Chewack — whichever you please.