Pacific Coast to Idaho - Part Two

A fascinating aspect of every journey we undertake aboard Venture has been the unsuspected back stories that emerge as we plan our trip or proceed along our way. This has been especially true for our journey up the Columbia and Snake rivers. Deciding how best to present the complete picture has been reason for my lack of contemporary blogs documenting our progress. Having now completed the trip - and before continuing on from Portland where the first blog left off - I decided to devote this blog to setting the stage upon which our journey was played out.

An excursion up these important and powerful rivers is really a journey back in time - beginning a very long way back to between 15,000 and 18,000 years ago when much of north America was blanketed with glaciers. A tongue from one of these glaciers crept across and dammed what is now the Clark Fork River (on the Washington/Idaho/Montana border) to create a glacial lake estimated at 2,100 ft deep and containing 530 cubic miles of water. This is a hard figure to get your head around but, to give you an idea, just one, single, cubic mile contains 1.1 trillion gallons weighing 4.6 billion tons. Perhaps because the depth of the water caused the 50 cubic mile ice barrier to float, it gave way and within just three short days, all of this water and ice swept across large parts of the Columbia River drainage area in what is now Eastern Washington. This cataclysmic flood contained 10 times the combined flow of all the rivers in the world today and 60 times the flow of the Amazon River. In places the wave was estimated to have a height of 1200 ft traveling at 60 mph! Amazingly this flood was not just one single event but was repeated up to 90 times over 3,000 years - until the glaciers finally retreated.

The geological evidence for these events was first unraveled by a geologist called Harland Bretz in the early 1900's when he concluded that the strange "scablands" in Eastern Washington could only be explained by enormous but short-lived floods. For many years he was mocked and derided by his peers but eventually his ideas came to be accepted by all but the most virulent of his detractors who never took the time to visit the area and view the evidence for themselves. Some of this evidence, in the form of topography and huge sandbanks, can be seen from the river and I was able to observe additional features during a road trip I took, subsequent to our journey aboard Venture. These include enormous "potholes", scoured out by raging waters, and huge boulders, called erratics, dumped by stranded and melting chunks of glacier.

Although the Columbia River is huge, its point of discharge into the Pacific Ocean was overlooked by a number of prominent explorers. In 1778, while heading up the coast, Captain Cook's ship was blown out to sea at what he accurately named Cape Foulweather on what is now the Oregon coast and he did not see land again until he was north of the Columbia. Three years earlier, a Spanish explorer, Bruno de Heceta, sighted the river mouth in 1775 but failed to explore it because he was shorthanded and the current was strong. He named the area Hecata Bay.

On July 5th 1788, John Meares - a former British naval officer, who first visited the Northwest coast two years earlier on a voyage in search of sea otter pelts - sighted and named Mount Olympus. He then headed south and arrived off the mouth of Heceta Bay. He attempted to cross the bar, but encountered huge and dangerous breakers. He stood off, waiting for the sea to calm but eventually decided there was no river. On July 6, 1788, he named the adjacent headland Cape Disappointment, not realizing that it marked the northern edge of the river's mouth. He renamed the bay Deception and wrote in his journal, "We can now assert that there is no such river."

Four years later, on April 27th 1792, Captain Vancouver reached this spot and wrote in his log:

"On the south side of the promontory was the appearance of an inlet or a small river, the land behind not indicating it to be of any great extent; nor did it seem accessible for vessels of our burthen, as the breakers extended from the above point, two or three miles into the ocean, until they joined those on the beach nearly four leagues further south. The sea had now changed from its natural, to river-coloured water; the probable consequences of some streams falling into the bay, or into the ocean to the north of it, through the low land. Not considering this opening worthy of more attention, I continued our pursuit to the N .W., being desirous of embracing the prevailing breeze."

Two days later, on April 29th 1792, Vancouver encountered the American captain Robert Gray in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Gray told him that he had seen the entrance to the Columbia and had spent nine days trying, but failing, to enter. Vancouver continued on his way - satisfied from Meares report and what Gray had told him that he had made the right decision not to have risked taking his ship, Discovery, into the entrance.

However, a few days later - on May 12, 1792 - Gray returned south for another attempt and this time he succeeded in crossing the Columbia Bar, becoming the first explorer to enter the river. His log read:

"When we were over the bar, we found this to be a large river of fresh water, up which we steered. At one, P.M., came to with the small bower, in ten fathoms, black and white sand. ... Vast numbers of natives came alongside."

Gray spent nine days trading with local people near the mouth of the river, then left without having gone further than 13 miles upstream. He named the river, Columbia, after his ship. Gray's discovery of the Columbia River was later used by the United States to support its claim to the Oregon Country, which was also claimed by Russia, Great Britain, Spain and other nations.

Moving on 12 years, we come to the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was sponsored by President Thomas Jefferson. Setting out from St Louis, the expedition lasted from May 1804 until September 1806. Its brief was to find "the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce". With considerable hardship and the vital help of the native peoples, without whose support they would have perished, they finally reached the Columbia River at what is now Lewiston. From here they floated downstream some 465 miles to the Pacific Ocean which they reached in November 1805. They constructed Fort Clatsop not far from present day Astoria where they endured a miserably wet winter. The following spring they succeeded in making the return journey back to St Louis. Although the hoped-for water route proved to be impossible, with massive mountains dividing the headwaters of the Missouri and Columbia rivers, they proved it was possible to traverse the continent from sea to shining sea - inspiring other adventurers to follow in their footsteps. One of these was John Jacob Astor a New York entrepreneur who sent two expeditions - one by sea and one by land - in what turned out to be a failed attempt to take over the fur trade with his Pacific Fur Company which lasted from 1810 to 1813. His Fort Astor, constructed just 4 years after Lewis and Clark had left, was located a mere five miles from Fort Clatsop. The town of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia is named after him.

As the early explorers had already discovered, the place where the Columbia meets the ocean is extremely hazardous. It is here that water from the massive river, flowing at between 4 and 7 knots, meets the predominantly westerly wind and ocean swells arriving uninterrupted from Japan. Conditions can alter from calm to life-threatening in as little as five minutes due to changes of direction of wind and ocean swell. Since 1792, approximately 2,000 large ships have sunk in these waters, giving the mouth of the Columbia River the worldwide title of the Graveyard of the Pacific. While still dangerous, the situation today has been greatly improved. The construction of north and south jetties keep the flow of the water focused and stabilize the sandbars which previously moved at random on an almost a daily basis.

By volume, the Columbia river, is the fourth largest river in the US. It rises in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. It flows northwest and then south into the US state of Washington, then turns west to form most of the border between Washington and the state of Oregon before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. The river is 1,243 miles long, and its largest tributary is the Snake River. It drains an area roughly the size of France. The river's heavy flow and its relatively steep gradient provides tremendous potential for the generation of electricity.

The main stem of the Columbia River has 14 dams, of which three are in Canada and 11 in the US. Four main stem dams and four lower Snake River dams include navigation locks to allow ship and barge passage from the ocean as far as Lewiston, Idaho. The whole river system, including all tributaries, has more than 400 dams for hydroelectricity and irrigation. The dams address a variety of demands, including flood control, navigation, stream flow regulation, storage and delivery of stored waters, reclamation of public lands and Indian reservations, and the generation of hydroelectric power. The larger US dams are owned and operated by the federal government (some by the Army Corps of Engineers and some by the Bureau of Reclamation), while the smaller dams are operated by public utility districts, and private power companies. The federally operated system is known as the Federal Columbia River Power System, includes 31 dams on the Columbia and its tributaries. The system has altered the seasonal flow of the river in order to meet higher electricity demands during the winter. The river system as a whole generates an enormous amount of electrical power and, today, the system is monitored by technicians manning computers. In response to a request from as far away as San Diego a few clicks on a keyboard can send a surge of Columbia River power flowing down the transmission lines.

The Bureau of Reclamation's Columbia Basin Project focused on the generally dry region of central Washington known as the Columbia Basin, which features rich loess soil. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the Columbia Basin Project partly as a New Deal relief measure. The Grand Coulee Dam was the project's central component; upon completion, it pumped water up from the Columbia to fill the formerly dry Grand Coulee, forming Banks Lake. By 1935, the intended height of the dam was increased from a range between 200 and 300 feet to 500 feet, a height that extended the lake impounded by the dam all the way to the Canadian border.

The project's initial purpose was to provide water for what they hoped would be numerous small farms but the onset of World War II created a high demand for electricity, mainly for aluminum production and for the development of nuclear weapons at the Hanford Site. The project provides water to more than 670 thousand acres of fertile but arid land in central Washington, transforming the region into a major agricultural center. Important crops include orchard fruit, potatoes, alfalfa, mint, beans, beets, and wine grapes. I was able to visit the Grand Coulee Dam and saw the row of 65,000 hp pumps providing torrents of water to irrigate an impressively vast area. Everywhere robot devices roam unattended across acres of lush land where the natural annual rainfall is only around 7" per year.

The installation of dams has dramatically altered the landscape and ecosystem of the river. At one time, the Columbia was one of the top salmon producing river systems in the world. Previously active fishing sites, such as Celilo and Cascade falls in the eastern Columbia River Gorge are now buried beneath the water and salmon populations have been dramatically reduced along the Columbia in the last century. Some of the Columbia and Snake River dams employ fish ladders, which are effective to varying degrees at allowing these fish to travel upstream. Chief Joseph Dam has no fish ladders and completely blocks fish migration to the upper half of the Columbia River system.

Another problem exists for the juvenile salmon headed downstream to the ocean. Previously, this journey would have taken two to three weeks. With river currents slowed by the dams, and the Columbia converted from wild river to a series of slack water pools, the journey can now take several months. In some cases, the Army Corps of Engineers transports juvenile fish downstream by truck or river barge. More recently it has been discovered that even within one species of salmon an individual fish's DNA reflects the place in which they were spawned and the distance of that place from the sea. Before the building of the dams some fish swam as far as 900 miles inland to reach the spot where they were spawned and their DNA reflects this arduous journey.

This then is a brief history and description of the territory through which we traveled aboard Venture during the summer of 2016. The physical evidence of the ice age floods, the Columbia river bar with its immense jetties, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the river itself with its dams bypassed through huge locks together with hydro-electric turbines and impressive irrigation systems are all there to be seen and appreciated. My next blog will pick up the story from where we left off in the first blog at the Columbia River Yacht Club in Portland but, wherever relevant, will refer to the events summarized in this blog.

The above information has been gleaned from a number of sources but Wikipedia has been an especially helpful and has been quoted extensively.