Witch Way is the Water? The Ancient Art of “Water Witching” is Still Relevant
Jack King spins his two rods, L-shaped and about two feet long, made out of coat hangers, around in his hands around his head like lassos as he steps across the property line. He asks questions about where other wells in the area are located and how deep they are. He looks for large oak trees, spotting two right away. He holds the short part of the “L” in each fist, straight in front of him with his elbows held close to his sides, and the long part of the Ls pointing forward. He walks with a slow, steady stride.
King would look like a sheriff in a western film sneaking up on a bandit, guns drawn, except he isn’t looking where he is going, just at the ends of the metal rods with undivided attention. After about half an hour, he returns and says that he found some good spots for water, but he wants to bring his friend Dave Van Arsdall back tomorrow. Not only can Van Arsdall tell where the water is, but also how far down the water is and how much, says King.
King and Van Arsdall are old friends who both retired—teacher and sawmill worker/car salesman, respectively—and share the unique hobby of water witching, also known as water divining or dowsing. Some swear it works; others don’t.
Basically, the practice involves a person using wooden sticks, metal rods or an object hung from a string to locate underground oil, minerals, artifacts or in this case—water. Those with the “gift” can “feel” the “pull” of the desired objective beneath the ground. King and Van Arsdall like to collaborate/compete when seeking water underground, for the purpose of choosing a spot to drill a well.
The next morning, they both show up in King’s pickup. King with his thin metal rods and Van Arsdall with both back pockets full of sticks. “Willow branches,” he says. Willow is “water loving,” and helps point the way to the water. All the sticks he has are the “Y” of the branches, and he shows me how to hold them. Palms up, in fists, grasping each side of the Y with the bottom of the Y pointing straight ahead. Again, elbows in, and the outside of the wrists facing each other. He looks for oak trees too, and starts that same trek, slow and steady, eyes on the end of his willow stick. He looks more like a bloodhound, sniffing out the water.
Not everyone can water witch, they say. Van Arsdall’s daughter can, but not his son. I timidly ask if I can try. Van Arsdall hands me a willow Y, and tells me to start walking along, holding it very still and straight. As I get closer to the spot he pinpointed, the stick starts to point down, ever so slightly, like a subtle nod from a seasoned auction bidder. Then he says, I’m going to touch your elbows now. When he does, the stick tilts downward even more. Trippy.
Next, I try King’s metal rods. Following the same trajectory as I did with the willow stick, I hold the rods like a sharpshooter. I walked along, and—I kid you not—the two tips of the rods moved towards one another as I got closer to the spot. Confirmed trippy.
After about a half hour, Van Arsdall says the water is about 90 feet down and we will get several gallons per minute. The stick pulls down on Van Arsdall’s hands, leaving the palms and the insides of his fingers white from the friction. He sure does seem to have the gift.
“If a well is going to give 30 gallons a minute, it will pull the stick right out of my hands,” he says.
About a month later, we have our well drilled by Coleman’s Well Drilling in Grants Pass—right in the spot King and Van Arsdall pinpointed. And sure enough, about 90 feet down, they find water, to the tune of about six gallons per minute. Trippy? Sure. But I’m a believer, and I’ve got the water to prove it.