On a whim, I decided to take the kids on a long drive during spring break. What was supposed to be a “stay-cation” turned into a road trip across this vast and wonderous landscape we inhabit, the Columbia Basin.
Here in the Methow, we reside in the upper reaches of one of the most rugged and spectacularly beautiful watersheds that drains into the Columbia River’s northern reaches, known by land managers as the “upper Columbia.” Though the Methow Valley is unique, with our craggy peaks, rolling shrub-steppe and wild river, the entire basin offers such a diversity and wildly dramatic places to explore, a lifetime of wonderings would barely skim the surface. A surface that reveals a drama of geologic history of massive lava flows, petrified forests, glaciers, and colossal floods.
There are so many interesting waysides and adventures along the river. One of my kids’ favorites is playing on the turbine at Wells Dam. But traveling farther south this time of year, the basin comes to life, offering a prelude of what’s to come in the next few weeks. A full spectrum of spring wildflowers marches forward from the west and moves north. This, too, is the time for waterfalls. Columbia Hills State Park is in full bloom right now as the balsamroot and lupine are at peak, and water cascades down every small gully and crack in the basalt.
If you have a keen eye, you’ll be rewarded with glimpses of mustangs along the Yakama Nation. Oak savannas flank the deep canyons that carve through basalt columns highlighted by fluorescent lichens amidst wind farms that flank the gorge east of The Dalles, dotting the landscape in an impressive and surreal image of a futuristic landscape. The white bluffs of the Hanford Reach tower over the only free-flowing section of the river. White pelicans land on the water’s surface, a recent triumph of conservation to reclaim these endangered creatures.
To travel the Columbia in its entirety, you transect distinct sections and landforms that rival the scenery of any national park or monument, and the lower reaches are in fact a National Scenic Area. Of course, doing so by car, there are some limitations. River craft would be ideal, though two days wouldn’t cut it. In in 2003 Christopher Swain, a Portland man, swam the entire 1,243 miles, in the water six to seven hours per day in effort to raise awareness through his observations while he documented the condition of the river in an intimate way never done before.
NPR followed Swain on his journey in 2003 and I listened each week to the updates. According to Swain, when he entered the mid-Columbia’s vast fruit orchard growing region, the region we are so close to, the taste of the water changed. He could literally taste the pesticides in the water. As he observed the changing current speeds and temperature differential altered from the Columbia’s 14 dams as he approached the numerous pools, or “lakes,” he imagined what this must feel like to the salmon. Lewis and Clark’s observations of the river were reportedly “crystal clear” waters throughout. Today, the river’s bed is seldom visible while silt accumulates in the pools and visibility low.
Needless to say, the river that once was is no longer, its power siphoned off and its banks permanently flooded. What remains today is a complex and vast network of human accomplishments including hydro power, wind power turbines, irrigation, agriculture, orchards and recreation that leaves one in awe of the natural splendor, all created in a geologic blink of the eye. There is still a lifetime of discoveries in this wildly tame place, and this is the time of year to explore it.