Pushing to the Source of the Columbia River

Watch the latest video dispatch from Voyages of Rediscovery:



A 1,200-mile, sea-to-source mission on the Columbia River is nearing completion after three months on the water. Adam Wicks-Arshack and John Zinser, finalists in the 2013 Canoe & Kayak Awards, organized the expedition through their Washington state-based outdoor education nonprofit Voyages of Rediscovery. The journey from the mouth of the Columbia on the Pacific Ocean to its headwaters in British Columbia has been nearly a year in the works: The team recruited school children throughout the Columbia River basin to help construct five 20- to 30-foot cedar dugout canoes last fall. Starting in August, Wicks-Arshack’s crew invited the same children to join them on legs of the sea-to-source.

The core Voyages of Rediscovery crew near the mouth of the Columbia River (Photo: voyagesofrediscovery.org)

Wicks-Arshack says the journey is real-life adventure and also metaphorical. “The idea is to bring the salmon back to the upper reaches of the river,” he said in an interview prior to the team’s Aug. 1 departure in Astoria, Wash. “We carved these canoes with thousands of students who’ve had the salmon removed from their culture by the Grand Coulee Dam.”

Now, the team is racing the arrival of winter to make it to the Columbia’s headwaters. “We’ve been waking up every morning at 4 am and paddle all day until dark,” says Wicks-Arshack. “It freezes pretty hard each night and the water is glacially cooled so our feet are feeling the cold as we line up continuous rapids and shallow braided channels of the only true wild and natural section of the Columbia.”

We caught up with Wicks-Arshack for some anecdotes from the river and to learn why the team took a brief hiatus in September to hand-build yet another cedar canoe, this time in the style of legendary Canadian explorer and mapmaker David Thompson.

CanoeKayak.com: Tell us about the early days on of the expedition, paddling on the Columbia. What was it like?
Adam Wicks-Arshack: The first two weeks were incredible. We sailed from the ocean through the Columbia River Gorge to the tri-cities. We lashed two dugout canoes like an outrigger and hoisted an eight- by 10-foot sail on a big mast. We sailed 20 miles on our first day. Negotiating the currents, tides and wind taught us to respect the river. On the first day we sailed between two islands on an outgoing tide and ran aground on a big sandbar and snapped our mast. We limped to camp and less than 20 minutes later saw a huge tidal bore wave right where we were. After sailing the first 300 miles we encountered the strong current of the Hanford Reach—50 miles of heavy current. We paddled when we could and lined up the parts that were too strong to paddle against.

On the Lower Columbia River (Photo: voyagesofrediscovery.org)

From your experience as a river traveler, how have the dams altered the Columbia?
The dams have created a bizarre river culture on the Columbia River. They’ve facilitated the spending of huge amounts of money to introduce non-native sport fish, have encouraged motor recreation and made it difficult for paddlers to access the river above and below the dams. Where there is current and a more natural feeling river, there are fewer people and houses. The dams have also altered people’s awareness for the whole river system. People are only familiar with their [local] reservoir, and most people have no idea where the river begins in Canada. Furthermore, citizens on the lower Columbia are not aware that salmon do not make it to the upper river [because of the dams] so we have been educating as we go.

What are people telling you about their connection to the river?
Everyone we meet on the river is strongly connected to their stretch of river, but very few have experienced the river above or below their towns. Where there are salmon in the river, salmon are the underlying thread of connection but also of contention. Regardless of their cultural background, everyone wants more salmon in the river and most people believe hatcheries are not the answer. Everyone supports returning salmon to the upper Columbia and reopening hundreds of miles of spawning grounds. Habitat is the answer and fish ladders at Chief Joe and Grand Coulee dams are the solution.

What’s it been like getting kids involved in the trip?
It took us a month to travel from the ocean to Grand Coulee Dam. We spent another month on the 145-mile-long Lake Roosevelt paddling with kids from the schools that helped carve the canoes. Not only did every student who carved the canoes come paddling, we did many slideshow presentations educating the students about their river from the ocean to their community. We paddled kids from the Wellpinit school (Spokane Reservation) from the confluence of the Spokane River, 30 miles up the Spokane to Little Falls, the first dam on the river and the site of a historic salmon fishery where they used to pull out 800 fish a day. I think paddling with young people through these powerful and historic sites really opens doors for the students it makes them feel like they are part of a cause (which they are) and that they can make a difference. Even more, they have really shown ownership of their canoes and of the cause. They want the salmon to return to their cultures.

We have also been paddling with the Sinixt Nation (the Arrow Lakes Band of the Colville Reservation). The Sinixt were actually declared extinct by the Canadian government in the 50s, but there are a few elders still living up in the territory near Castlegar, British Columbia. This was the first time Sinixt youth paddled up river from Kettle Falls through their territory. We paddled with them for five days from Inchelium, Wash. to Castlegar. The message to the Canadian government was, “We are not extinct, we are paddling up the river like the salmon.”

Paddling with youngsters on the middle reaches of the Columbia (Photo: voyagesofrediscovery.org)

Why did you stop to build the David Thompson canoe?
As the canoes were being carved (or spawned) they turned into salmon. Like the salmon, we started at the ocean and endured the many challenges they face as they travel up the river. These salmon canoes are [metaphorically] the first salmon to reach the waters above Grand Coulee Dam and like the salmon, they returned to where they were spawned. We returned each canoe to the school and young people that carved them.

That left us with no canoes [for the final leg of the journey], so we had to make a new one. We knew we would be encountering some heavy current so we wanted a lighter canoe. The dugout canoes each weighed over 1,000 pounds and this new canoe is less than 150.

Just like David Thompson we built the canoe out of necessity. He traveled in birchbark canoes but once he made it over the Rockies and was unable to find any suitable birchbark, so he substituted thin cedar boards. All of our cedar was donated by Columbia Cedar and it is some of the most beautiful cedar we have ever worked with.

A canoe-building interlude (Photo: voyagesofrediscovery.org)

In your experience, how does the American Columbia differ from the Canadian portion of the river?
The Canadian Columbia is raw. There are strong rapids, huge glaciated mountains enormous natural lakes and strong weather. The American Columbia is grand, it is huge and humbling—the raw power of the river is evident every day, as are the alterations humans have made to the river. In the US we traveled through and around 11 dams, nine of which have fish ladders. It is time to return the salmon to the upper river where most of the habitat is found.

What’s the significance of the Columbia River Treaty in improving the river (and possibly making it friendlier to salmon) in the future?
For the past 50 years the Columbia River Treaty [a partnership between the U.S. and Canada signed in 1964 to manage the Columbia River] has been solely focused on flood control and hydropower generation. A new treaty should include a third tenant—the ecological health of the Columbia River. This would entail many things, including more ecological flow and fish passages for salmon, as proposed by Bonneville Power Administration and the Corps of Engineers. Fish ladders could be implemented at Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams and also on many tributaries.

Arriving in Trail, B.C. (Photo: voyagesofrediscovery.org)

Anything else you think we should know?
We are not preaching the destruction or removal of the dams, just their improvement. We have an opportunity to do something really special that would impact countless people and more importantly improve the ecological health of the river. We are advocates for the salmon who can no longer reach their ancestral spawning grounds of the upper Columbia River. The Grand Coulee Dam was once thought to be the greatest engineering feat the world had seen. Now time to begin the greatest ecological engineering project the world has ever seen.

We also need to thank the people we have met on the river for their support. We have very little money and thankfully food has been provided for us for the past month.

 — Voyages of Rediscovery’s sea-to-source expedition is supported by the Columbia Basin Trust.



The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!