Editor’s Note: This story is part of "Headwaters to Harbor," a project by The Chronicle to document the Chehalis River from Pe Ell to Grays Harbor while highlighting people and issues connected to the river along the way. Our coverage is compiled online at www.chronline.com/Chehalis-River.
Dave Neiser left the U.S. Army in 1972. Pilot license in hand, he set out for Chehalis seeking a job in law enforcement.
He landed in the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office. There he would stay, first as a road deputy before being promoted to detective.
Detection may be in the job description, but Neiser took it more literally than most. With a plane rented from the Chehalis-Centralia Airport, he carved out a niche spotting marijuana grow operations from the air.
“They decided that since I worked mostly days except for when I got called out, I could try to fly an airplane to look for these marijuana farms,” he said. “Which were much more in vogue at the time.”
Thanks to one profitable drug bust, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office became the only one in Southwest Washington with its own airplane. Eventually, they were coordinating with several other counties in the region and even parts of northern Oregon.
“With that, the sheriff at the time, Bill Wiester, was able to call the TV cameras from Seattle to come down and video him,” Neiser said. “The sheriff, of course, is an elected official, so the publicity was quite important to him.”
When he retired in 2009, Neiser and his wife purchased their own plane, a yellow Cessna 177 Cardinal. It’s notable among Cessnas for not having a wing strut, making it easy to peer out the windows at what’s below, such as the lush Chehalis River basin.
“This one does superbly for the wife and I,” Neiser said.
Likewise, it did superbly for Chronicle photographer Jared Wenzelburger and I to observe the river. That is, until motion sickness got the best of me. Neiser graciously set me down at the airport while he and Wenzelburger continued their trip following the river.
In 2015, a reporter and photographer with The Chronicle took a journey down the Cowlitz River. Ahead of time, Neiser took the duo on a flight down the river for aerial photos. Wenzelburger and I wanted to emulate that.
The Chehalis, though, is stranger than the Cowlitz in many ways. The Cowlitz is glacier-fed and predictably flows from the Cascades and into the Columbia. As Chronicle columnist Brian Mittge put it, the geography of the Chehalis River is “not intuitive.”
Fed by rain, it begins in streams deep within the Willapa Hills, possibly as far back as Wahkiakum County. Instead of flowing from the hills straight to a harbor (as the Willapa River does), it turns almost directly east, then north, then finally west to sea. It is joined by tributaries out of the foothills of the Cascades, later on being joined by others out of the foothills of the Olympics.
As we stared at a map of the river, another friend phrased it like this: “The fact that Chehalis and Centralia are downstream from Pe Ell (not upstream as the river heads to the sea), is so weird.”
Touching both of the state’s mountain ranges, the watershed is the largest basin entirely within Washington.
To understand this landscape, we began upstream of Pe Ell. Neiser flew us over the bends, from forests to farmlands, past the Owl and Olive (a restaurant near Doty you can read more about on page Main 12) and over bridges once ripped from their roads by the flood of 2007.
We’re paying for our portion of gas, but Neiser refused to take anything more than that.
On the drive back to the office after the flight, Wenzelburger said, “That’s the best money The Chronicle has ever spent.”
He might be biased. Neiser let him fly the plane for a while on the way back from Aberdeen.
Look for more aerial photos from throughout the Chehalis River Basin as coverage continues downriver throughout this week and into next week.