I want to tell you one of my childhood memories. But along with it comes a geology lesson, my view of the river and thoughts about the present state of our country.
The childhood memory becomes very vivid when I encounter these components: The Columbia River, a windstorm strong enough to make whitecaps breaking over small swells and a barge going upriver.
In the 1960’s My parents purchased a 16 foot Sabercraft ski boat with a 100-horse Johnson out board engine. It was an indulgence they thought would provide years of family fun. My sister and three brothers were breaking into their preteen and teenage years and I was the littlest and would be around the longest to enjoy it. The Columbia River was the most logical place to take the boat. It offered endless recreational opportunities and was about a 45-minute drive from our family home in Walla Walla.
The maiden family trip would not be disrupted by a little wind and white caps on the river. Dad put up the canvas canopy and securely snapped it into place. He launched the boat off the trailer and when it was docked mom and all of us kids piled in. Dad drove the boat at the no wake speed out of the harbor and then he gunned it, which made the bow rise high until he had it “planed” out and level. The boat hit the swells with a thud but that just seems to make my dad wilder. He spotted the barge pushed by a tugboat coming upriver. Huge waves were breaking across the front of the barge and the tug leaving a 4-foot wake. He took our boat with his family across those wakes at too fast a speed. After being launched in the air our little Sabercraft came down with a hard thud that caused us all to come up out of our seats and hit our heads on the canvas roof. The engine died. The barge pilot must’ve looked back and seen us and we heard a loud blast of the tug’s horn. With the engine restarted and all children checked for damage, Dad gunned it again and drove the boat back across the wakes to come alongside the tug, waving his hand out the window at the pilot and speeding past.
You can see why this is childhood memory easily comes to mind. It was a scary thrill.
The Columbia is an important river to the Pacific Northwest. It is over 12,000 years old and had its origin in the great Lake Missoula flood of the Ice Age.
Stick with me here, this geology lesson will be short.
Western Montana was covered with a lake about 2,000 feet deep. An ice wall built up blocking what is now known as the Clark Fork River. The rising waters behind it weakened the wall and water burst through sending rocks, ice chunks and debris downstream which left ripple marks on canyon walls and dug out the channeled scablands of eastern Washington and the Columbia River Gorge.
Our family used that boat for many years. When everyone was grown up and out of the house but the youngest, me, the purpose of having a boat changed. My dad sold off the little Sabercraft for what he paid for it and bought a 25-foot Bayliner with a underdeck cabin. It was his ocean bound fishing boat. There are many stories about his driving this boat over the Columbia River Bar and into the ocean. We also had many good times on the Columbia River near us. Charlie and I lived about 10 miles from the river and helped my aging parents launch the boat with its 400 horse VOLVO engine. With Charlie as the pilot and me as the deck hand we crept out past the no wake zone makers, and he would gently urge it into higher speeds. Much more relaxing than my dad’s driving.
The Bayliner was sold years ago. Both my parents have passed. But the river, the winds and the waves remain. The basalt formations revealed by the grating power of the ice aged floods still fascinate me a do the birds, the fish, the wind and the waves.
This mighty river once flowed free. Salmon flourished as did animals that came to the river to eat the salmon.
The interference of man has changed the river and its surroundings. The huge Grand Coulee project brought irrigation and electricity to the region. More dams were built. More water taken from the river, more control of the flow for electricity. And the salmon were almost lost to us.
My sis-in-love Mary visited us this weekend. She is an avid kayaker and we planned to hit the water. A freak storm with high winds and lightning nearly ruined our plans. I kept a vigilant watch on the wind speed, and Sunday I saw it dropping by the hour. We loaded up the kayaks and headed to McNary Beach which is just upriver from McNary Dam. As we looked out on the water, we saw how wide the river is at this place. It is Wallula Lake, the water that is built up behind the dam to be spilled out or run through the generators for electricity. With our little 10-foot boats ready, we paddled upriver hugging the shoreline. The wind stopped; the water became flat. It gently lapped on the basalt lining the shoreline. Canadian geese flew overhead. Flowers grew in bunches just off the small sandy beaches. Tiny silver fish jumped around us. A coyote stalked its prey on the bluff above the river. Deer came to the shoreline to drink. There were so many things to see, to feel, to hear. My senses felt overloaded.
There is such diversity in this place. In the thousands of years this river has cut through the cliffs, the land, the basalt rock, the vegetation, the wildlife has co-existed. They live in benefit of each other.
We saw none of this when we drove into the park. We only saw a big river.
When we drove out of the park I looked back. I no longer saw the same river. I saw flowers, and little fish and deer, the rocks that jutted out and the trees growing along the banks. And there, a salmon surfaced.
If only we saw individuals. If we did not see race. If we saw every human being as unique; that we truly need one another to exist…what if…..
Dear Lord, can we have another chance?