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Stretching body and mind on the Columbia


"(below Rock Island Dam) We paddled into the dark, and memorably through vast congregations of ducks in alarm of our unobservable movement through the blackness of this night. The geologic acoustic theater we were now traveling was a basalt gorge, which amplified and echoed sound unhindered by any wind, though it is common resident here."

- Marc Van Grinsven and Dan Blessing, 2010 'Paddle for Sustainability' Retracing Explorer David Thompson's journey across North America - circa 1811


Paddling the waters of the middle and upper Columbia River is a little like hitting a Cascades mountain lake with nary a ripple, only a few minutes later to find yourself transformed into the intense chop of a Lake Michigan.

Depends on the spot. Depends on the wind.

Paddling this stretch of the Columbia also is akin to taking a trip around a classroom.

Traverse all or parts of it, and you'll end with passing grades in Recreation Management 101, Archaeology 201, U.S. History 270, Biology 322 and Geology 400, among others.

The lessons along the way are that many. The river's bedrock is made up of lava that flowed millions of years ago. Its channels were carved during the last Ice Age. On its shores have stood the likes of Chief Joseph, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Woody Guthrie.

Dip into the river and learn some more. Dams built during the Great Depression and the Cold War have funneled electricity to plants, businesses and homes throughout the West ever since. Revenues from the power sales have been used to construct countless parks and to fund wildlife mitigation. Water from Grand Coulee has been used to irrigate 600,000 acres and to produce more than 60 crops annually.

Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the upper and middle Columbia's breadth and reach.

In this vast watershed, you'll find pieces of landscape present in all 50 states - deep forests, sandy beaches, rolling hillsides, shrub-steppe, basalt cliffs, scablands, farm lands.

Perhaps the only thing missing are ocean waves - and you may think that's what you are facing if ever caught in a windstorm, which is an ever-present threat on these flatwaters.

Look up and out from your canoe or kayak, and you may spot bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, bears, bald eagles, blue herons, and other waterfowl of every stripe.

Look under and there goes a trout, walleye or salmon.

But not all is solitude on the upper and middle Columbia. Seven dams stand between Kettle Falls and the Tri-Cities. Indeed, the river sections that make up this paddling guide are divided up from dam to dam. Additionally, two metropolitan areas - the Tri-Cities and the Wenatchee area - can be found along the way.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation resides along the shoreline, too. (For juxtaposition purposes, so does the Hanford Reach, the last non-tidal free-flowing stretch of the river.)

"Aside from two isolated stretches - above Northport and within the Hanford Reach - it is quite clear when traveling along mid-Columbia shorelines that we are looking at river places divided into geographic and economic units," Wenatchee historian and author Bill Layman writes in Columbia Magazine. "We visit Lake Roosevelt, Wanapum Reservoir, Rufus Woods Lake, and Lake Entiat - all distinct entities, all places created and defined by dams."

And, as you'll note in this guide, each of these "units" have their own paddling identity.

Want the splendor of Ponderosa pine forests and sandy beaches? Then the section between Kettle Falls and Grand Coulee (Lake Roosevelt) is your destination.

Want isolation? Try the scablands up river of Chief Joseph Dam or the intrigue of the Hanford Reach.

Want the reassurance of an adjacent city and comfy lawns to pitch a tent? Then the area between Wenatchee and Pateros will fit the bill.

Or do you prefer showy basalt cliffs rising hundreds of feet from river's edge? If so, head to the stretch between Wanapum and Rock Island dams.

If the water is calm, soak it all in. Paddle strong and sure. And whatever you do, make sure to take notes. The mighty Columbia is, after all, a classroom for the body and the mind.

Next: History >