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Down the Columbia – A photo essay

July 10, 2011
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A modern-day voyage down a mighty river where explorers once journeyed

Cliff formations along Columbia in Washington State.

Anyone who has read historian Richard White’s slim volume The Organic Machine will know of the energy and power generated by the mighty Columbia River. I knew it instinctively from living beside it for the first third of my life. Finally, Leola Jewett and I got the opportunity to drive much of its 1,500-mile length in July 2011.

Canadian explorer David Thompson got to the mouth of the huge energy source ahead of Americans Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who in 1803 were commissioned the task by President Thomas Jefferson. And they got most of the glory for traversing the great waterway to the Pacific.

But do many Americans know that the Columbia finds its source in the foothills of the Rockies in British Columbia? Do they know that the river was dammed not only at the massive Grand Coulee Dam but also at Castlegar where the Hugh Keenleyside Dam (a.k.a. the High Arrow) was also built to harness power for American uses?

Our journey doesn’t begin at the river’s source, but rather at the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers at Castlegar not far from where the Slocan River, bursting at its edges from late spring runoff, flows into the dammed-to-the-gills Kootenay River. From there, the waters of both rivers flow into the Columbia at Zuckerberg’s Is.

From the island we followed the river past the gigantic smelter at Trail, down to Waneta Dam and across the Canada-United States border. The river cuts through B.C. mountains that are forested almost to river’s edge, then into badlands-like territory in Washington State, with its canyons and cliffs, its colourful rock formations and always the wide expanse of the waters. Soon we found ourselves in dessert-like lands, with sage brush popping up everywhere, and then into prairie fields.

The Grand Coulee took us off major highways and face to face with a structure that Woody Guthrie sung about in the 1930s. The tune would later be borrowed by Kootenay folk singers, Joe Irving and Skip Fraser, who sang The Dam Song about the devastation wrought by the High Arrow in the early 1960s.

We travelled through the deep caverns at Dry Falls, then on to Highway 30 which took us high above the river only to rejoin it at Mosiers with its 1950s diner replete with life-size image of James Dean. From there we travelled along the Oregon side of the river to The Dalles, famous trading spot where First Nations peoples gathered for centuries. Now it is home to Cousins, a cafe where animal sounds greet diners and a farm tractor sits amidst tables filled with over-sized meals of omelettes, pancakes and cinnamon rolls.

At Portland we turned south and left the big river. Another journey took me to its mouth, completing my life-long dream of seeing the full stretch of the river of my youth.

Here in photographs are some of the highlights of both those journeys.

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3 Responses to Down the Columbia – A photo essay

  1. Christine Hearn on July 10, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    Nice piece. We’ve done that drive several times. Did you have time to go to the Maritime Museum in Astoria? Fascinating place.

    • Ron Verzuh on July 12, 2011 at 9:06 pm

      Didn’t get to Astoria this trip. Was there about one year ago. What an amazing river our Columbia. Cheers! Ron

  2. how to get a free iPad 2 on July 12, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Nice review! This is truly the type of information that needs to be shared around the web. Shame on the Bing for not ranking this post higher!

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