Although less known by modern travelers, rivers define places much more than roads.
We had seen the Columbia River years earlier, following it by road from Portland through the gorge it carved to the Pacific. This time however, we approached it from further east in Washington where it flows over flat land that is covered with rich, dark, volcanic soils. Although on the dry side of the mountains, irrigation from the great Columbia creates a place covered with orchards: apples, peaches, plums, cherries, watermelons and much more. As the Columbia cuts through the mountains and heads toward the Pacific, her character changes as well as she cuts through rock and rushes to places where salmon fight the upstream currents to spawn.
A few days later, we had a chance to paddle our canoe in the Pacific Ocean on Bellingham Bay with friends. Were we encountering waters that we had already crossed on the west side of the continental divide?
Our friends and canoeing comrades from Bellingham, Saul andShelley, gave us a “have to read” book about the surveyor, explorer, and trader David Thompson. Thompson explored the Northwest U.S. and Southwest Canada, the places we were and would be traveling through. Reading about his journeys further piqued our fascination with rivers. He however, was discovering and mapping that country in the early 1800’s, before the boundaries of our two countries had been set. Another big difference: he was doing so in canoes he and his compatriots built from birch bark or western cedar. One of his goals, like many other traders of that time, was to find that celebrated route across the Rockies to the Pacific. Eluding him for years because of its circuitous route, he finally floated that river, the Columbia, to the Pacific, the first white man that many of the native people along that route had met.
As we traveled North into British Columbia we crossed or followed many other special rivers, many of which Thompson had surveyed. The Skagit, Nooksack, Fraser, Kootenay. We swam in the Thompson River, the surveyor’s namesake.
Many of these Canadian rivers were white with glacial sediment like we had seen in the White river near Mount Rainier. The Athabasca is a powerful river that is white as milk. It flows north from massive glaciers and ice fields in the Canadian Rockies. Where do the Athabasca’s waters eventually flow? Into the Arctic Ocean!
This glacial flour, as the sediments are sometimes called, carries various minerals giving some lakes and rivers less of a milky color but hues of green, and blue, and turquoise. Lakes that we paddled in Jasper, Banff, and other parks, were colors that require the explanation when showing photos; “These really look like this. They were not photo shopped.”
As we moved east and out of the Rockies we crossed the continental divide again and the prairies of Southern Canada. Fewer rivers but many lakes and prairie potholes left by glaciation, dot Southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Our welcome back to the U.S., and the waters that mingle with those of our home in Tennessee, happened at our friends Greg and Rebecca’s house in northern Minnesota. An hour after arriving at their house, Greg invited us to walk down to the end of their property where the Mississippi flows peacefully.
We canoed up and back a small stretch there where the river is colored with tannin from conifers and is only ten feet wide in places. The headwaters of the Mississippi begin only a few miles upstream from where we were! This water would flow south to a place where our “home” waters would mix as the Ohio dumped into the, by then, mighty Mississippi. We would soon be back in our home watershed in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Early this September I flew west again to Portland to work with some friends at Mount Saint Helens Institute. As we approached the airport I could see Mount Adams, and Rainier, solitary mountains but part of a chain of volcanoes, sticking up above the clouds. As we dropped below the cloud layer, there was the Columbia and the gorges it has carved flowing below me. Just weeks before I had been on its banks. Jennifer and I had crossed it several times on our trip. I looked down from this height and imagined David Thompson meeting for the first time with tribal groups who lived there. I imagined the places it flowed, the people it had touched over time, and those it touches today. The Columbia is one of a host of many rivers that have touched me and helped me to know a place more deeply.
Wherever we go, we look for rivers and when we can, we travel them for a ways. A river can bisect a city and yet, traveling its waters can show you a bit of the soul of a place. Along its banks can be found what wildness used to, or in some parts still exists there.
Following rivers is not that hard. Tools that help; a map, a road, a boat, a friend? It takes time, and effort, and sometimes a bit of searching, to really get to know a river. I intend to spend more time doing so.
Where I live there is a road,
it’s seen me come and seen me go,
and taken me so far I thought I’d lost my way.
Where I live there is my heart,
won’t be long until I start,
back again to where that river slips a way.
– From the song “Where I live” by Bill Staines