THE MOST powerful of American rivers, the Columbia, starts as a small bubbling spring in British Columbia, at the foot of the Canadian Rockies, above the western tip of Montana. We began our journey along this great river by wading; I was able to cross the Columbia in one short step.
For a large part of two years, as we were producing Columbia River Country, a full-length motion picture, this great waterway seemed almost like our home. Leaving one of our cars in Portland, Oregon, Helen and I—often accompanied by our young daughter Adrienne—would commute from our Southern California home up to Portland by train, jump into our car, then head out to a part of the great river that we needed to explore some more. We journeyed the entire 1270 miles of its length, traveling by canoe, stern-wheeler, car, barge, and flatboat.
What many people do not realize, from its bubbling source this great river does not head southwestward into the United States and toward the Pacific; instead, it flows north, toward the Arctic Ocean.
When the tiny stream became wide enough, we launched a rented canoe and began paddling north. For a week we continued our exploratory canoe trip, sighting moose, beavers, and bears, camping out every night as the river’s roar lulled us to sleep.
For 180 miles the Columbia flows toward the Arctic, plunging into an area which has been called the best wild game hunting territory of the Northwest. Then—mountains stand in its path. Instead of flowing on northward, where it would have been lost in obscurity, the Columbia makes a sudden right-about-face, turning directly south. Eventually it flows across the international border into the United States, into civilization, and into a vital place in our nation’s history.
We wanted to explore the river by every means so, according to plan, at the rugged little mining town of Golden, where we had stored our car, we returned the rented canoe and continued on the rough and rugged Big Bend Highway, following the river through a sparsely settled pioneer land.
After the Columbia’s turn southward, so we had been told, lay Death Rapids. Our eyes and ears were always alert. From far down below in a deep wooded gorge came the sound of roaring water kicking up its heels. It must be Death Rapids. I had to see it.
Hard as it was on my legs, it was even harder on my hands, which were doing double duty. As I tried to hold onto trees and tree limbs to slow my descent, I had to release my hold almost constantly to frantically slap at mosquitoes; 89 mosquito bites adorned my face and forehead before that experience was over. Next day, my face was so swollen that I could scarcely open my eyes. While my eyes were still capable of functioning, I had seen the rapids but I felt that I had learned the reason for their name; they had been deadly to me.
Still battling mosquitoes, we arrived at Revelstoke, at the end of the Big Bend Highway. To the south, for 150 miles, the Columbia widens to form the Arrow Lakes. An almost ancient 52-year-old stern-wheeler, the Minto, with Captain Estebrook at the helm, was the lifeline of those lakes. There were occasional tiny villages and farms along the widened Columbia, but no highway whatsoever, and no railroad. The people depended entirely for their mail and supplies, and for getting in and out, on the Minto.
Our car was loaded onto the vessel. We boarded, along with a dozen or so other passengers, including a cute little girl named Susan. With her mother, she had been on a three-day shopping trip to Revelstoke.
The first stop was at a small village where, as we went ashore to talk with the handful of inhabitants, we received a liberal soaking from the backwash of the stern-wheeler. Boarding the vessel again we received another soaking.
Susan and her mother disembarked at the village of Nakusp, and here the Minto tied up overnight. We found that if one chances to arrive on a weekend, the vessel stays over Sunday.
Next morning as we were about to depart, a strange bit of cargo was loaded—a huge workhorse. We were intrigued as to where it might be going.
Early on the second day we made what was called an “up-country” landing. There was no wharf or pier, but our little vessel pulled up close to shore, to deliver a radio battery to an isolated farmer. Captain Estebrook told us the Minto would make such impromptu landings to deliver a single letter. On the last trip he had delivered a spool of thread to a farmer’s wife.
Next place ahead had four houses and two stores, and boasted a real dock. Off went a metal bathtub, part of our cargo.
Then another up-country landing, with no sign of a house or civilization. But a lone farmer was awaiting us. Old Dobbin, the horse, was unloaded, then on we went.
Next to the last stop was at Renata, a city of 80 people. We saw two Model T Fords on shore. The Minto had brought them in years before but the only place they could go was on the few miles of roads in the village. There was no connection to the outside world.
At last, Robson, “end of the line.” For years afterward we exchanged letters with the captain of the Minto.
Heading toward the international border by car, we soon entered the United States without seeing a soldier, a guard, or a fence—an unguarded boundary—an inspiring example of international peace.
For 150 miles we followed along Franklin Roosevelt Lake, the reservoir of Grand Coulee Dam. Then—the dam itself. Everything here was on such a huge scale that, as we viewed the dam, it was hard to realize that here was the largest structure ever built by man. When full, the reservoir we had been following would contain enough water to supply every man, woman, and child in the United States with two-and-one-half freight car loads of water. The dam was making possible the generating of half a dozen times the power of Niagara. Some of the equipment used to construct the dam—nearly a mile in length—was the largest ever built.
With our cameras recording the scenes, and our eyes and notebooks bulging, we spent superlative days in the Grand Coulee area. Later, after our Columbia River journey was entirely completed, we were to return here for the most dramatic sight of all.
The dam had not yet been officially dedicated. We made a special trip to observe President Harry Truman perform that ceremony. We filmed the dedication but it was completely overshadowed by another event which had unfolded before our eyes just a few hours before.
Herds of sheep had regularly been driven across the top of the mile-long dam. But now that the great structure was to be officially “open for business” those sheep-crossings would be no more.
There was to be one final drive; a herd of 4000 animals would make the final crossing. If only the sight could be filmed from the air, with the great dam and the spillway waterfalls as a background—what a spectacle that would be.
Lacking helicopter or airplane, we had another possible solution. A tower rose from near one end of the dam. We gained permission to climb up that tower, which was topped by a large unrailed, gently-sloping surface. The wind was blowing, it was a trifle scary, but the sight was worth it.
There came the herd-4000 sheep. Some lingered, to peer over the edges. But the main herd moved slowly but steadily. To the left was the reservoir; to the right—just under the roadway itself—the great waterfalls tumbled into the frothy river below. The 4000 sheep took center stage.
When I showed the scenes of that sheep crossing to my lecture audiences the next year, many told me afterward that it was one of the most unusual spectacles they could remember seeing. We agreed.
Our cameras continued to work overtime as we explored the wheatlands below Grand Coulee, with great combines harvesting so much wheat that the grain elevators could not take it all. Billowing piles of the golden grain had to be stored on the ground. Then the apple country. Wenatchee Valley had just five percent of America’s apple trees, but produced a quarter of America’s apples.
At Umatille, Oregon, we boarded a grain barge on which we had received permission to make the trip down to Portland, not by road but by river.
In places the current was swift, sometimes snarling in aspect, where canyon walls hugged close in. At other places the Columbia widened into what seemed like a slow-flowing gentle waterway. And at one place navigation was impossible; a canal had been built for ship passage around Celilo Falls. We saw and filmed the Celilo sights on that barge trip but we also returned several times later to capture their wonders on film. It was well we did; a dam has since been built, the backed-up reservoir of which has obliterated what was one of the irreplaceable treasures of the river, from a natural as well as a human standpoint.
All along the Columbia we had been straining our cameras and our notebooks to the limit. At Celilo, the notebooks had to give up. Those falls had to be seen; they could not be adequately described. What needs to be emphasized is that they were plural; not one waterfall but a dozen, stretching across the river, each one vying for our camera’s attention. BUT–it was not only the falls, but what was transpiring there. The activity even overshadowed the falls.
The Indians of the Northwest had the rights for all fishing at Celilo. Coming from many parts of the Northwest, they live for a time in huts along the shore and exercise their rights.
Midst all the scattered tumbling falls were small rocky islands with board platforms rising above the water. From a dozen of those vantage points, individual Indians were fishing. How did they get out to those isolated perches surrounded by the surging current? We soon found out. Rude, man-sized buckets suspended on a long cable carried them out across the otherwise impassable—and what seemed to us, the impossible—roar of the river’s main channel, to the rock islands.
There was no other way to film it all than to make that “cable car” passage. Helen and I squeezed into one of the huge buckets, along with an accommodating Indian who would pull on the cable to get us out to the action. It was a bit frightening but the uniqueness of the entire scene and of the whole experience overcame thoughts of fear. Until—well, our Indian companion thought of something he perhaps felt would be subject matter for our notebooks, in which he had obviously seen us scribbling. “Two week ago,” he explained in rather good English, “a man make a crossing. Cable broke. Too bad. He not been seen since.”
For the next hour we saw sights that made us forget even the thought of a cable breaking. This was the time of a salmon run. There before us were salmon, hundreds of them, surging upward in that amazing cycle of the spawning, trying to get over the waterfalls to continue on to the tributary streams of their birth far up the Columbia. The Indians were not using fish poles, but nets. All the time that we watched, they put in their nets and pulled out salmon. The average weight, we found out, was from 20 to 40 pounds. An old granddaddy caught the season before, so an Indian told us, was over a hundred pounds. Fish story or not, we did not know. It didn’t matter; our experience at Celilo had given us the most authentic fish story we had ever filmed.
As we continued on by barge toward Portland, many times we were close to the Columbia River Highway. We could see the grandeur of a dozen waterfalls tumbling down the cliffs just beyond the highway. We caught views of Mt. Hood on the Oregon side, and Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens over in Washington State. A sudden rainstorm, which turned to hail, brought an apt remark from our daughter Adrienne: “That must be why they say ‘Hail, Columbia.’ “
And so, on to Portland, the end of the barge journey. During our spring trip there, rhododendrons and azaleas seemed to have taken over the city. In the suburbs it was daffodils—great fields of them. Our eyes were bulging at the beauty, and our nostrils tingling at the air-filled floral odors.
On Portland’s Council Crest was a sight not only for our cameras but for our notebooks—a footnote to history which is not well known. A statue to the Indian mother, Sacajawea, with babe in arms, is there. She acted as guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition during much of the latter part of their explorations. She was one of the great women of America.
Portland is 100 miles from the Columbia’s mouth and as we journeyed along the final portion of the river there were more scenes of salmon seining and shipping activity along the way. At its source, the Columbia was so small I had crossed it in one step; as we bid the river goodbye, after more than two years spent in learning its secrets, we looked out at a great waterway which was five miles wide as it majestically flowed into the Pacific.