“Roll on Columbia” The River that Drains the Pacific Northwest – Part I

The Columbia River, near Wenatchee WA, about mid way between its origins in British Columbia and its mouth at the Pacific Ocean.
The Columbia River, near Wenatchee WA, about mid way between its origins in British Columbia and its mouth at the Pacific Ocean.


I grew up along this river in the Tri-City area and have had occasion to travel along much if its1,200 mile course from British Columbia to its mouth where it joins the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia River and its adjacent territory has a long and storied geologic and human history. More recently it was in large part instrumental in the settlement of the west and particularly the Pacific Northwest. The river was the last leg of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition which ultimately contributed to the opening up of the Washington and Oregon territory for settlement.

I’ll present the river in a two part series as it got kind of lengthy. This first part covers the river from its origins in Canada to The Dalles and Celilo Falls Oregon. The second part will cover its last 180 or so miles as it approaches and then meets the Pacific Ocean.

As economically important as this river is to the Pacific Northwest today, it was that and much more to untold numbers of First Peoples since the peopling of the Americas perhaps as long ago as 15 to 20 thousands years as they migrated from Asia. Unless these ancient migrants took a coastal or a far inland route, they likely had to cross the Columbia River on their way south. Many stayed for the abundant resources of its waters (salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon) and along its shores and tributaries (elk, deer, bear, beaver, and much more). For those who settled in the vicinity of the river, it was their grocery store as well as their social, cultural and religious center. The two major Indian trading Centers of the Columbia Plateau region were located along the Columbia River – Kettle Falls in the upper Columbia and The Dalles/Celilo Falls in the mid to lower reaches.





This mighty river is born of waters from several springs in British Columbia’s (BC) Canadian Rockies that flow into and form Lake Columbia. The outflow from Lake Columbia begins the river proper which wends its way for 500 miles in BC before entering the US in north east Washington State. From there it flows a circuitous 740 miles south and then west where it forms the border between Washington State and Oregon before blustering into the Pacific Ocean.



      Springs in BC that form the head waters of the Columbia River


By the time it reaches the Pacific it will have carried waters drained from some 259,000 square miles spanning seven states and one Canadian province. This drainage basin is about the size of France.


The River flows through a variety of terrains, beginning in the Rocky Mountains. It flows across high plateaus, carves through enormous basalt beds, and rolls through the Columbia gorge where it cuts through the Cascade Mountains and finally courses through timber country of Washington and Oregon before meeting the Pacific Ocean.

The Dams

The river is said to have been tamed along its modern route, as it is slowed by 14 dams, three in Canada and 11 in the US. Another 46 dams have been erected along its tributaries. There is much controversy today over these dams relative to their environmental effects on migration and the extinction of some salmon populations. These dams have deprived indigenous peoples of their treaty fishing rights as well as important parts of their culture, but that is a story in itself for later.

After entering WA State, the first dam the Columbia meets is the Grand Coulee Dam. Having powered three hydroelectric dams in BC,  the river meets the big one about 135 miles after crossing the border into WA State. It is the first and largest dam on the river. In fact it remains the largest in the US and when it was built, it was the largest man-made structure in the world. It remains one of the largest concrete structures in the world. Its 12 million cubic yards of concrete could build a sidewalk four feet wide and four inches thick and wrap twice around the equator — 50,000.

Construction began in the 1930s and the dam reached full capacity in 1942. The Grand Coulee Dam provides electricity for much of the Northwest and provides irrigation water for 670,000 acres of the Columbia Basin agricultural areas.

The Columbia’s heavy flow and large elevation drop over a short distance, 2.16 feet per mile (40.9 cm/km), give it tremendous capacity for hydroelectricity generation. In comparison,the Mississippi drops less than 0.65 feet per mile (12.3 cm/km). The Columbia alone possesses one-third of the United States’s hydroelectric potential.[130] In 2012, the river and its tributaries accounted for 29 GW of hydroelectric generating capacity, contributing 44 percent of the total hydroelectric generation in the nation.



Grand Coulee Dam with Lake Roosevelt backed up behind

The majesty of this river and the dam that tamed it was memorialized by legendary folk singer, Woody Guthrie in the 1940s. Guthrie was commissioned by the Roosevelt Administration’s Interior Department for one month to write songs about the river and the dam. In fact, he wrote 26 songs during this month while touring the river and dam construction. His song: ”Roll on Columbia” is the official Washington State Folk Song. Here is one about the Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia.

The dam had severe negative consequences for the local Native American tribes whose traditional way of life revolved around salmon and the original shrub steppe habitat of the area. Because it lacks a fish ladder, Grand Coulee Dam permanently blocks fish migration, removing over 1,100 mi (1,770 km) of natural spawning habitat. (my emphasis)

In 1964 Canada and the US signed a Columbia River Treaty with two purposes: 1. Produce hydroelectric power and 2.  for flood risk management. Indigenous peoples were not even at the table for these talks and there was no talk about preserving salmon. Another look at this treaty will begin with negotiations between the US and Canada this year, which unfortunately is a very bad time to approach any international treaty negotiations.

 The River’s Course Through Central Washington

Following the river from Grand Coulee Dam for the next 155 miles, there are 6 other hydroelectric dams which are spaced about every 22 miles. From here on there is very little free flowing water on the river as most is affected by the dams or tides with one exception. In spite of these dams the river maintains its majesty and beauty as it cuts through some rough terrain including granitic cliffs and 15 million year old basalt flows.


Lincoln Rock; just above Rocky Reach Dam near Wenatchee, WA

2014-09-15 Floods.14 036

 The river cuts through these enormous flows of 15,000,000 years

                                                                     old Wanapum Basalt near Wanapam Dam


2014-09-15 Floods.14 048

                                                    And yet another dam  — Priest Rapids Dam. At least they have a

                                                    decent museum here displaying some of the cultural artifacts 

reclaimed prior to flooding the Indian settlements and fishing camps.


Twenty miles downriver from Priest Rapids Dam, we come to the Hanford Reach where the river  flow rate is as close as it gets to being free flowing, unaffected by the dam reservoirs or by tidal pressures. The next dam is 100 miles down river. This area is part of the Hanford Reach National Monument. It is this stretch of the river that accommodates the nuclear plants that produced the plutonium for the first atomic bomb and our subsequent nuclear arsenal. The nuclear site was initially built here in the early 1940s as it had electricity from the Grand Coulee Dam and it could be made secure being so remote. The river also provided plenty of water to cool the reactors.

A few years back my two sons kayaked through the Reach from just below Priest Rapids Dam to the Tri-Cities, about 50 miles. They pulled off the river for the night at a spot they determined to be a good camp site. As it turned out the local Indians had thought so too as there were numerous 8 to 10 foot rings made of large rocks sunk into the ground that had marked their shelters. This site had likely been a seasonal fishing village before the dams came along. My mother, born 100 years ago only a few miles from here recalled going with her father to Indian fishing camps in the early 1930s to trade produce for salmon.

2014-09-14 Floods.14 007

                                                 A free flowing reach of the Columbia River. The building upper center

                                                is one of the original nuclear reactors.The government wanted remote

                                                                       and as you can see, that is remote. 

Columbia River meets the Snake River

About 50 miles down river at the Snake River confluence, the Lewis and Clark “Corps of Discovery”expedition entered the Columbia River on October 16th, 1805 to begin the last leg to the Pacific Ocean. To most Euro-Americans, the Columbia River had been a holy grail of sorts. Some believed (hoped) it was the fabled northwest passage. The expedition had entered the Snake River from the Clearwater River in Idaho after crossing the Bitterroot mountains from Montana. It was an arduous journey but made possible by following several Nez Perce guides along with their Shoshone interpreter and guide, Sacagawea and her husband, Charbonneau.

On October 16 & 17th, 1805, the expedition camped on a point where the Snake and the Columbia met. This turned out to be next to a large Indian encampment as this was a common meeting place for local tribes as a trading center. The point on which they camped is now Sacagawea State Park named in her honor. Most agree that the Corps of Discovery expedition would not likely have been successful with out her.

2014-09-15 Floods.14 001

On October 16 & 17th, 1805, the expedition camped on a point where the Snake and the Columbia met. This turned out to be next to a large Indian encampment as this was a common meeting place for local tribes as a trading center. The point on which they camped is now Sacagawea State Park named in her honor. Most agree that the Corps of Discovery expedition would not likely have been successful with out her.




                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Bronze statue of Sacagawea along the Columbia near its                                                                                                                                      confluence with the Yakima R. 

As had been the case for much of their trip, the Lewis and Clark party were heartily welcomed by the local Indians as the presence of Sacagawea and her baby signaled that they were friendly. On Oct. 17th, they paddled up river about 10 miles to see where the Yakima River joined the Columbia. The Yakima River collected waters from a large segment of the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains.


Sacagawea State Park at Confluence of Columbia and Snake Rivers. 

The river grows and widens substantially after incorporating the Snake and Yakima Rivers. Shortly it also picks up the Walla Walla River which, taken together becomes Lake Wallula that is also the backup reservoir of the next dam, McNary.

Wallula Gap, Columbia River

                                              Wallula Gap where the Columbia takes its westward turn toward the Ocean.

                                            Oregon is on the left (south) bank and Washington is on the right (north) bank.

At the joining of the Walla Walla River the now huge body of water changes its southerly course and takes a sharp westward turn as it flows through Wallula Gap chiseled out of basalt by numerous Ice Age Floods many thousands of years ago. Today the gap is defined by 1,000 foot high basalt cliffs.  From here the river continues westward to the ocean and forms the boundary between Washington State and Oregon.

Moving West from Wallula Gap and McNary Dam a few miles west,  there is a long stretch of river dotted with occasional islands. As a youngster before these dams were erected our family used to boat out to these islands and pick up Indian artifacts, mostly arrowheads. Typically they were small delicate points used for bird hunting.


Arrow heads found on the islands of the Columbia

 preserved forever in a plastic ashtray holder. My Dad’s

   “creation” from the 1950s. Can you find the rattle snake tail?

Celilo Falls

One of the natural wonders along the Columbia prior to the dams was Celilo Falls situated just up river from present day The Dalles, Oregon. These falls were drowned by the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam, as was the ancient indigenous village of Celilo. This flooding was one of the many tragedies that were imposed upon the Native Americans in the name of modern progress. The flooding of these falls and this community destroyed a major social, economic and cultural center that had existed for some 11,000 to 15,000 years along the Columbia River. Celilo was reputed to have been the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America until it was flooded on completion of the dam in 1957.


                                                 Fishing at Celilo Falls with dip nets. Photo by the US Army Corps of

                                                          Engineers, 1957, just before it was flooded. Wikipedia.

Aside from the splendor of these falls was the fact that they provided numerous tribes with robust salmon heading up river to their primeval spawning grounds. As the fish approached the falls they slowed and prepared to jump to the next level. The Indians built wooden platforms out over the falls and fished with long spears and dip nets. It was one of the largest fishing sites in North America feeding tribes throughout the region that came to partake in the bountiful fishery.

Attesting to the extent to which Celilo was a major trading center of the region, artifacts from indigenous cultures have been found from as diverse areas of the country as the Great Plains, southwestern US, and Alaska. Lewis and Clark estimated that  between 7,400 and 10,400 Indians were living permanently or were seasonally encamped in this area. It was the abundance of salmon that brought them together. It is estimated that upwards of 20 million salmon came through these falls each year and in those days, mature salmon were big, some as large as 50 lbs and more.

As the falls were right along the old highway, on family visits to Portland, we regularly stopped to marvel at the wonders. I vividly recall seeing these fishermen on what appeared to be rickety platforms pulling in enormous salmon and as a child, I worried that the fishermen would fall into the falls.

Although there is still some fishing on Lake Celilo, the takings are comparatively puny in number and size and clearly not enough for sustenance.Nowadays the main activity on Lake Celilo is recreational water sports such as wind surfing and kite boarding on the slow moving reservoir combined with continuous winds funneling down the Columbia Gorge.

Next week I’ll pick up at the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area which begins around the Celilo Falls and then continue on to the river’s mouth at the Columbia River Bar where it discharges like a “fire hose” into the Pacific Ocean.

Thanks for coming along on this river ride down the Columbia.


  1. Thank you. The river is beautiful no matter what they/we do to it. The damage done by the dams is another issue. But the river is beautiful.

    • Thanks bfitz, I fully agree with you on that. It is quite a river. I’ll put up part two soon.

  2. Thank you, RonK. I really appreciate you including mention of the impact on Natives. We tend to gloss over these things far too readily, and it’s useful to be reminded that not only were white folk not the first people here, but our disregard for First Peoples is not just something from an old John Wayne movie. (And as always, your pictures are as informative as they are beautiful.)

    • Thanks, DoReMI,

      It is true that our belief that we owned the river and the land along side of it was arrogant. The Indians were not only here first but their culture and livelihood were dependent on the river for thousands of years. They became a mere after thought once we got here.

Comments are closed.