Spirit of the Columbia – Article
What follows, is the fabulous article that my father wrote about the “Spirit of the Columbia” expedition we embarked upon.
What the River Gives
©2011 by Michael C. Staudinger
What the River Gives
But the river had other plans. The wind shifted and came in south-southwest and grew in intensity. What had been a glassy surface suddenly undulated, as if the Grand dam had snapped a table cloth to scatter the crumbs that had gathered. In moments, the river had gone from tame to wild.
Chris and I had launched from a campground just west of Kettle Falls, an old mining and timber town hunkering like a cold camper in the pine and fir forests of north central Washington. Although it was Memorial Day weekend, the temperature was in the low forties. The first 103 miles of our journey would be on Lake Roosevelt, the giant reservoir created by Grand Coulee Dam. Our hope was to make Fort Spokane, 55 miles down the lake, by mid afternoon. The current, aided by a late spring flood and the decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to drain the lake to 1/3 its capacity, was a healthy 5mph. Winds, which we had monitored for the past two months, were light and off our beam. As we launched, a silver layer of sunlight broke across the foothills far to our south, burning a swath through the purple clouds and landing on the dense west bank of the river. Eagles circled overhead. It was a majestic morning. The first five miles of the journey were precisely what we expected, taking all of thirty minutes. Dreams of making Grand Coulee the first day hung before us like stockings over the fireplace on Christmas Eve.
When agitated, the Columbia is a frightening thing. Even severely drained, the river can stretch a mile or more from bank to bank. The wind clawed the water far downstream, pushing back against the current and piling it in ever growing heaps. The swells resembled those of Puget Sound, and with the wind had the vigor of Class 3+ rapids. Our kayaks, well versed with a more subdued river downstream, took a beating, but because the lake had been drained, the banks on either side were nearly vertical. We were forced to continue downstream.
The fierce winds lasted two hours. In that time, we had managed to make less than two miles downstream. We radioed ahead. Ken was another thirteen miles away, waiting with the car and trailer at the nearest access point. We continued sailing and pedaling as the winds diminished. Six and a half hours after launch, we arrived at our first stop. We had made a paltry twenty miles.
Big rivers promise adventure, which is why we had spent a year planning this voyage. But we soon learned that none of us really knew this river.
The unfamiliarity with the river is, I believe, a modern condition. The Columbia River has always been my neighbor. Its watershed was my teacher and companion. As a boy, I caught guppies in the Spokane River. I learned to swim in the Molalla, east of Portland. I worked cattle along the Payette and fished the Pend Oreille and Wenatchee. I sped down white water in a canoe on Idaho’s St. Joe, and floated inner tubes on the Snake. Even while hiking the Selkirk and Cascade mountain ranges, I have dipped my cup into streams that eventually would feed the Columbia. I have spent a lifetime in, on, and beside the waters that form the fourth largest river in the USA. But before our first day was done, I realized I had never really met the river on her terms. Like most of my neighbors in this modern age, I pass by and wave, but know nothing of their stories.
The Columbia’s story begins in its many headwaters. From streams and lakes in nine western states and two Canadian Provinces, the river gathers force until it is spewing, on average, 265,000 cubic feet of water every second into the Pacific. Estimates of the 2011 Japanese tsunami indicate that 3,000,000,000 cubic feet of water was displaced, destroying villages, cities, and infrastructure. The Columbia pours roughly the same amount of water into the ocean every 3 hours. That’s eight tsunamis a day, every day. As we rode the power beneath us, with only a thin piece of plastic between us and the churning water, we felt like gods taming the leviathan.
By the end of the day, we became accustomed to the river and its changing winds. And so, as if to remind us who was in charge, the river changed tactics. The second day began much like the first, with winds moderately strong, but off the beam. Although Chris navigated the entire 330 miles of our trip, Ken and I each took half days in the boats, allowing one of us to move the car and trailer to the next take-out point, and to help portage the dams. The second morning, Ken climbed into the kayak, unfurled the sail, and followed Chris out into open water. I loaded up our gear and drove our car and trailer to the next take-out spot, twenty more miles downstream.
I watched the kayaks disappear around the first bend, making better than eight knots. Waiting at Columbia Campground, our next stop, I figured the boats would arrive within an hour. The sun had come out and I lounged in the welcomed warmth. I read several chapters in a book. I called out on the radio to see if they were close. There was no response. Six and a half hours later, the two voyagers came around the final bend, exhausted. The current, they said, had stalled as soon as the river turned west. The wind died completely. They had pedaled the still water almost the entire way.
The great river was not always willful and belligerent. Fair winds blew, from time to time, but mostly to tease us. What was constant was that raw beauty surrounded us every hour. Bald and Golden eagles, as well as an occasional osprey, circled over the waters. Cormorants, geese, ducks, gulls, terns, white pelicans, and loons decorated the surface like beads on a necklace. Red-winged blackbirds, finches, larks, and chickadees sang along the shores. Swallows ducked and weaved around our sails, inspecting our progress and sometimes landing on our masts to introduce themselves. Our boats were stealthy, and more than once we startled deer along the banks. Mountain goats watched us from crags on either side. What was missing were other humans. Two days on Lake Roosevelt brought out less than a dozen other boats, and those clustered close to Fort Spokane and Grand Coulee. The long stretches in between were filled with solitude.
It is not that there is no sign of human presence. The seven Washington dams form long lakes behind them, slowing the current and spreading the river wide. Close to highways, summer homes cluster and roost, waiting for warm weather and their owners’ return. Orchards and vineyards, thanks to the irrigation provided by the dams, drape across hills, surrounded by shrub steppe and scablands. And each day, we picked up trash floating in the water as we passed by. But what the river gives, more than anything else, is solitude.The Columbia splits the state of Washington in two, tearing an uneven line from Canada to Oregon. It flows generally south-westerly until it reaches Wenatchee and butts up against the Cascade Mountains, then turns southeast toward the Tri-Cities. In this 350 mile stretch, only two urban areas and a handful of small villages have grown along its banks. Less than 5% of the population of the state resides along these miles, and almost all of that in the Tri-Cities. In comparison, the Ohio River basin (the nation’s third largest river by volume, but over 300 miles shorter than the Columbia) boasts nearly 10% of the nation’s population, with over 250 million people living beside it.
Solitude was certainly the theme of the fifth day, when we launched south of Rock Island dam and sailed through the canyons north of Vantage. The launch point was an upscale resort village. For the next four hours, we never saw another human or any sign that we were anything but alone in the world. A light rain tapped against glassy water, then stopped. Basalt cliffs rose first on our left, then dived down beneath the water and emerged on our right, like a playful otter. Finally, the massive walls rose on either side, and we glided down the still waters, occasionally inspecting the natural caves on either side. For an hour, the only sound was our own breath as we pedaled forward. Feeling playful, I whooped once and my voiceechoed with a four-second delay. The sound of a human voice coming from somewhere other than inside my boat was surprising. Halfway down the canyon we encountered a pair of hikers who seemed not to notice our passing. A mile further, we saw a group of teenagers, laughing and playing. One of them waved, and soon their voices died behind us. Another few miles, and we encountered a tiny village tucked away beneath the basalt wings. It offered a pristine park, and we jumped out and stretched out legs. A lawn mower growled from somewhere up the tidy streets, but we saw no people.
It is not people, but the sign of people that we notice. An occasional road leads down to the river’s edge. Irrigation from dams changes shrub steppe to cherry and peach orchards. Vineyards appear as perfect rectangles carved out of the steep slopes. Power lines vault the river, decorated with white and red beads to let us know they are coming. All of this is a byproduct of the dams. Others have written about the rationale and effects of dam construction. What a kayakist notices is that as a dam is approached, the river widens, slows to a crawl, and fills with debris. In the first few miles downstream of a dam, the river is reborn, swift and churning, as if the dam is a nozzle spraying the full force of the river into narrower canyons. Upstream, boats cluster around the launches; parks dot the shores. Downstream, the wilder river is, for the most part, left abandoned.
The elevation from Northport, Washington, to McNary Dam, drops nearly 1100 feet, most of that occurring at or within a few miles downstream of each of the seven dams. At Kettle Falls, 100 miles upstream of Grand Coulee, the river moves at a brisk 5-6 mph. But once the lake begins and the water’s elevation flattens, the current deadens to a slow drift.
The Hanford Reach is an exception. From Priest Rapids dam to the Tri-Cities, the river is unfettered. A slow river stirs and picks up speed through narrowing channels. Chalk-white bluffs loom on the northern bank, hosting cliff swallows, while the kayaks race past islands – the first real islands of the journey. Islands are a mark of the wild river, loaded with surprises. White-tail deer graze on strips of land no more than twenty yards wide, hemmed in by fast, deep water. They feel so safe they do not run when we approach. Thousands of gulls and terns roost on the more rocky islands, protected by the current from most predators. The sound of them is deafening and delightful, all at once.
Once the river grows wild, the obvious appears. Like the flotsam on the water, people gather near the dams and at the confluences; but nature returns to itself when the river is free. Pelicans glide like fighter jockeys in perfect formation, inches over the water. The steep banks of an arrested river now slide low and easy into the water. Unlike upriver, where getting out of the kayak means a scramble up steep banks, here you can drive the prow into the sand and step off to stretch your legs, although you best not. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation lines the southern shore, keeping people at bay. Thanks to the events of a decade ago, it is not uncommon to have a security helicopter come check you out. Aside from that – and the box buildings that once held the start of the atomic age – you and an ancient nature are at peace. These fifty miles are an easy and delightful strip of natural beauty, slicing through the shrub steppe of Southeastern Washington.
Why the Kayak?
It would surely be easier to launch a power boat and cruise down the river. The trip would take a few days at most, and travellers could fish for sturgeon, steelhead, salmon, trout, walleye, carp, perch and any of a dozen other game fish. But the sound of the engine would drown out the voice of the canyons, and the rocketing speed would blur the subtle, easy beauty that was always around us. Low to the water, the view of the world intensifies. Everything but the river itself is above you, and so you feel her cradle you. You also experience the river’s quick temper, and the raw emotion of being caught by it.
Journeying down the Columbia by kayak is anything but tedious. It requires concentration to manage the quickly changing winds and current. On the road paralleling the river, or on a fast boat speeding down it, you might see an eagle circling overhead, and point it out as an anomaly. But joined to the river in our kayaks, my son and I watched a young eagle repeatedly launch at the water and come up empty. We moved closer until, twenty feet from the eagle, it finally flew away. A baby loon popped through the surface. With each attack, the downy bird had instinctively dived under the water, safe from the eagle’s talons. Seeing us, the loon quickly circled around to the side of my son’s boat, and he ushered it to shore. Nature threw us headlong into the daily struggle for survival, and we unwittingly became participants. No car or speeding boat could offer us that.
Washington is a magnificent state. It alone of all states boasts rainforest, volcanoes, desert, steppe, year-round arctic conditions, inland seas, grand cities, and of course, the Columbia. But so few of us know this river. The chance to glide silently between her banks is just the first of many opportunities I hope to take in what will become, for me, a lifetime journey of discovery of my most majestic neighbor.