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A Canoe Trip On The Upper Columbia

The Modern Day Columbia River – Part One

The Columbia River is often called the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest. It flows 1200 miles from British Columbia, through the inland Northwest, to the Pacific Ocean.

A hundred years ago the Columbia was a free-flowing river. Today it’s tamed by no fewer than a dozen dams. In part one of a series on the modern day Columbia River system, Correspondent Austin Jenkins takes us on a canoe trip in Northeastern Washington. Today we go searching for history that’s hard to find.

My guide on this trip is Jack Nisbet. He’s an award-winning author and naturalist who’s written extensively about the Columbia River. Jack and I launch a canoe at the confluence of the Colville and Columbia Rivers. We’re near the town of Kettle Falls – about eighty miles north of Spokane.

 Jack Nisbet
Author Jack Nisbet paddling on the Columbia River near Kettle Falls

Austin Jenkins: “Let’s hit the river or the lake.”

Jack Nisbet: “Alright. We call it the lake.”

A lake because in the early 1940s, Grand Coulee Dam turned this portion of the Columbia into a reservoir. It’s now called Lake Roosevelt – after FDR - and it stretches 150 miles. As a small plane buzzes overhead, Nisbet points the way.

Jack Nisbet: “So we’re going to go all the way out and around that point with the pine trees on it.”

Our destination is the site of the original Kettle Falls – a waterfall that like Celilo Falls on the mid-Columbia - was an important Indian fishing spot. When Grand Coulee was built, the falls disappeared.

As we paddle, Nisbet begins to tell me the story of David Thompson. He was a British fur-trader and mapmaker who’s credited with being the first European to map the entire length of the Columbia. Thompson passed this section of the river on the morning of July 3, 1811.

Jack Nisbet: “He was coming down from above, from our right. And what Thompson saw was the run-off of a really big winter. So he was riding fast in flood waters.”

So fast that….

Jack Nisbet: “You could water ski behind his boat – easily.”

In fact, the seven hundred mile trip from here to the mouth of the Columbia took Thompson just 10-days. Today it would take weeks. It’s hard to imagine this lake was ever a fast-moving river. We’re headed up-stream but there’s no hint of a current.

Jack Nisbet: “Okay, now we’re coming around the point, we’re looking at the trestle. The trestle is just downstream from the original Kettle Falls.”

More on Kettle Falls in a moment. As we canoe past a sawmill on the banks of Lake Roosevelt, I ask Jack why David Thompson is important to Northwest history.

Jack Nisbet: “And the answer is we’re a written culture and we place great value on maps and books and writing and Thompson is our first shot at that for this gigantic portion of the Northwest where we live.”

Soon we cross under the railroad trestle.

Jack Nisbet: “See now we’re over the old Kettle Falls, we’re coming up on the old Kettle Falls. I’d like to say you can feel a riffle here, but you can’t. It’s too far down.”

Lake Roosevelt has risen up and swallowed the falls. It makes it difficult to understand what this place was once like. But picture this: water cascading down a natural staircase broken up by roiling pockets or kettles carved out of rock.

Jack Nisbet: “And that allows fish to come up and get into a level, a pool that’s at a level and then jump another way and get into another pool and jump another way. It’s not a huge drop. It’s maybe thirty feet or something like that.”

In other words, the falls acted as a natural fish ladder. Around the next corner we beach the canoe.

There’s scientific evidence humans have lived and fished along the Columbia River for at least 9000 years — as far back as the Kennewick Man. Today when you look out over Lake Roosevelt you still see people fishing. Most are in motor boats and chances are they’re catching Walleye, not salmon. Houseboats and jet skiers are also a common site. But much of the history is buried under water.

Jack Nisbet: "Ya, there’s a lot lost, there’s no reason to deny that. There’s a lot lost. But a great teaching of all these tribal people who survived is they’ve lost a hell of a lot more than the falls. I mean their culture has seen the apocalypse and it has come out on the other side.”

Austin Jenkins: “Off we go.”

Jack Nisbet: “Off we go. But I think we’re going to be going into a wind.”

Back in the canoe we head down river – or down lake – back toward our put-in. It’s afternoon now and a stiff breeze has come up. Waves crash against our gunnels. Wind bedeviled explorer David Thompson too.

Jack Nisbet: “When David Thompson downstream going with the current behind him and an afternoon wind on the Columbia coming up at him that’s dangerous conditions and he’s messed up.”

Austin Jenkins: "So we’ve been paddling downriver, but against the wind now for almost two hours non-stop. And we’re almost back to shore and back to our car.”

We manage not to swamp. A question that’s hard not to think about when you’re out here is will the Columbia ever run free again.

Jack Nisbet: “It won’t be in our lifetime for sure. We don’t have to worry about that. We don’t have to ache with longing that the Columbia’s going to be a great place again so that we can see it because that’s not going to happen. We have to live with the fact that this is Lake Roosevelt and it’s going to be Lake Roosevelt. But a thousand years from now, we have no idea what’s going to happen.”

With author Jack Nisbet on the Columbia River, I’m Austin Jenkins reporting.

Next, we visit the John Day reservoir , a deadly stretch of water for the region’s migrating salmon.

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