Rain that falls on Johnnie Grant’s empty grave forms rivulets that trickle toward the Nespelem River.
The muddy Nespelem plunges into the Columbia River, where it mixes with a thousand other streams for a journey over dams, through the gray desert and into the Columbia Gorge.
Somewhere in the gorge, about 400 miles from the grave, the water washes over Grant’s bones.
“Our people say the river must take someone, a sacrifice, every once in a while so the people will understand its strength,” said Grant’s father, John Grant, a Nez Perce Indian.
Over the last 10 years, the river took 38 people in boat accidents alone, according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics. That doesn’t count swimmers who drowned in its dark waters, like the two boys who died near Fort Spokane last year.
The river takes them easily, its combination of current, wind and crowds magnifying mistakes that might not be fatal elsewhere. It claims more lives than Puget Sound or any of Washington’s lakes.
This is the story of one who was lost.
Born on May 13, 1963, Johnnie Grant grew up with his mother’s tribe, the Yakamas, gillnetting Columbia River salmon in the Gorge.
John Grant tried fishing with his wife’s people, but gave up the trade after his own scare in the river. He dove in to untangle a net and was swept away by the current, saved only by a safety rope tied around his waist.
“That was way back when my son was just a baby,” said Grant, who separated from his wife and returned to Nespelem shortly after that experience.
Father and son remained in contact, though they lived in separate towns.
In 1980, Johnnie Grant asked his father’s permission to join the Navy. He was 17 and had a newborn son named Chris.
“He saw the Navy as a chance for an education, a chance to advance,” said Grant. “He liked the Navy. I think he liked the water.
“He liked to read… He had a good brain on him.”
Johnnie Grant became a radio operator and computer specialist aboard an aircraft carrier that served in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. He left the service after four years and worked with computers in San Francisco.
He quit the job in 1988 and moved to Portland. He planned to study business and take advanced computer classes.
Johnnie Grant turned 25 that year. He had a new girlfriend and a second son, John IV, who was born in July. The child’s Indian name is Sa-Ya-Ich, a name so old in the Grant family that its meaning no longer is remembered.
Johnnie Grant returned to the river and the nets.
“Sometimes he told me he didn’t really like it,” said Grant. “He did it if he didn’t have any money and just needed some cash.”
Wind whipped the river on Sept. 15, 1988, as it often does in the Gorge. The combination of gales and blue sky makes that section of the Columbia near Hood River, Ore., a playground for sailboarders and a graveyard for careless boaters.
“None of the fishermen down there wear life jackets,” said Grant. “Big mistake.”
According to news accounts, Johnnie Grant and two other fishermen were a half mile from shore when their 17-foot skiff capsized about 2 p.m. Workers at a lumber mill saw the men swimming to shore.
Justin Weeks, 20, made it to safety. Johnnie Grant and James Weeks, 24, sank into the green river before they could be rescued.
Searchers in boats and helicopters scanned the water until dark. They continued searching the next day, but did not find the bodies.
The accident did not leave John Grant alone. He has a wife, three stepdaughters and a stepson he considers his own. He doesn’t see his oldest grandson, who lives in California.
“His mother doesn’t write,” Grant said.
Johnnie’s youngest son still lives in the Gorge area. Sa-Ya-Ich, 2 months old when his father died, sees his grandfather often and soon will have a stepfather.
“She (the boy’s mother) called us one day and asked us if she could get married,” said John Grant. “We were glad for her.”
On Memorial Day, Nespelem residents cleaned up their cemetery, cleared the weeds from Johnnie Grant’s grave and decorated it with American flags and potted chrysanthemums. The dirt is mounded as if there were a body in the ground.
“His bones are in the river,” his father said. “But his stone is here where I can go and feel close to him.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos; Map of Nespelem area
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