Rowing the undammed Columbia

In 1920 and 1921, two writers, one a Hollywood insider given to rhetorical flourishes, and the other a civil engineer who wrote like a civil engineer, made rowboat voyages down the Columbia and left vivid descriptions of the free-flowing river. If they were not the first to do so, at least they were the first to write book-length memoirs about it, and possibly the last to see the Columbia from its headwaters to below the site of Bonneville Dam before mainstem dam construction began. Not even David Thompson, the first European to descend the Columbia, made a continuous one-way trip from the headwaters to saltwater.

One writer made it the whole way — from Canal Flats, British Columbia, to Astoria, Oregon. The other broke up his trip with steamboat rides through the Arrow lakes and from Cascade Locks to Portland, where he gave away his boat and returned to his home in Pasadena.

They left detailed reminiscences in the books they wrote, which offer glimpses of the undammed Columbia and the people and towns along its shores. M.J. Lorraine, the engineer and the one who made it all the way, described himself as “an old voyager and white water man” whose adventures prior to the Columbia trip included shooting salmon with a rifle in wilderness rivers in Alaska. Lorraine, from Alhambra, California, was 68 years old in the summer of 1921 when he rowed the length of the Columbia in a boat he built himself at Columbia Lake and named, appropriately, “Columbia.”

His book has the ungainly title of The Columbia Unveiled, Being the story of a trip, alone in a rowboat from the source to the mouth of the Columbia River, Together with a full description of the country traversed, and the rapids battled. It was published in 1924 by the Times-Mirror Company.

A dam-site surveyor by occupation, Lorraine was a distant relative of Samuel Brown, one of the Boston merchant partners in Robert Gray's expeditions to the Columbia in the late 1780s and early 1790s. In his book, Lorraine wrote that he got the idea for the trip while surveying a rural area in California. He loved adventures, and he’s had plenty in Alaska, where he sought remote rivers to test his hunting, boating and survival skills.

Traveling mostly by train from Los Angeles, he arrived at Canal Flats on May 31, 1921, and commenced building a 17-foot dory with wood he bought from a nearby supplier. He shoved off into the old steamboat canal, and then into Columbia Lake, on June 13 to begin the 1,200-mile row to the estuary.

In his book, Lorraine dissects the Columbia, ostensibly for the benefit of future boatmen. It seems as if no detail of the current, its velocity, the river's channels, rocks, chutes, pools, riffles or general appearance escapes his clinical description, and he offers detailed advice and reconnaissance on the best approaches to difficult stretches, paddling techniques, portage locations and lengths and other essential travel information. In comparison, there is very little about fish, wildlife or the people he encounters, save for those who help him along the way. It is very much an engineer's travel literature.

At Canal Flats, in one his more reflective moments, Lorraine writes:

“This section of the country is well-called the 'Switzerland of America,' and the view from the head of Columbia Lake was alone worth coming all the way from Los Angeles to see.” He described the peaks of the Rockies to the east and the Selkirks to the west  as “all equally grand and impressive.”

For a more colorful description of the undammed Columbia, one need only turn to the writing of Lewis Ransome Freeman (wikipedia entry), author of 18 books about his adventures on rivers around the world. Freeman, who lived in Pasadena, floated down parts of the Columbia about a year before Lorraine. Freeman’s book, titled Down the Columbia, was published in 1921 and excerpted in Sunset magazine that year. Unlike Lorraine, who built his boat and launched it at the headwaters, Freeman traveled to the headwaters and back on horseback, hired a boat to take him around the Big Bend from Golden to Revelstoke, traveled the Arrow Lakes by steamer, and then bought a boat, which he named  “Imshallah” (“God willing”) — for the remainder of the journey. He launched it at Castlegar. (Lorraine knew about Freeman and was chagrinned that he went down the Columbia first. Somewhere south of Kettle Falls, Lorraine bought the June edition of Sunset and read the first installment of Freeman’s series.)

Freeman spends as much time writing about the characters he meets along the way as Lorraine spent in his clinical description of the river. Thus, from two authors who boated down the wild Columbia within nine months of each other, a picture emerges of the undammed river and many of its people.

Freeman was a colorful writer. Consider, for example, his description of entering Surprise Rapids, a three-mile stretch of white water between Beavermouth and Boat Encampment, at the point in British Columbia where the Columbia bends to the west and then south:

What had been merely a swiftly flowing river with a streak of silver riffles down the middle has changed to a tumble of cascades that gleamed in solid white from bank to bank like the churned snow of a freshly descended avalanche. There was no green water whatever; not even a streak that was tinged with green. All that relieved the coruscating, sun-silvered tumble of whiteness were the black tips of jutting bedrock sticking up through the foam they churned. The deeply shadowed western wall, hanging above the river like a dusky pall, served only to accentuate by contrast the intense white light that danced above the cascade. It was as though the golden yellow had been filtered out of the sunlight in the depths, and only the pure blue-white of calcium reflected back into the atmosphere.”

That bit of exposition, typical of Freeman’s lavish description of scenery, is a view back into history, for Surprise Rapids today is inundated by the Kinbasket Reservoir behind giant Mica Dam. But when Freeman and Lorraine passed through, there was no dam, and Kinbasket Lake was “a broadening and slackening of the Columbia; backed up behind the obstructions which cause the long series of rapids between its outlet and the Canoe River,” Freeman wrote. He described the singular beauty of the Rockies to the east and the Selkirks to the west — “strings of lofty glacier-set summits,” he called them, and commented: “If Kinbasket Lake is ever made accessible to the tourist, its fame will reach to the end of the earth.”

South of the international border — precisely 126.5 miles downriver, Lorraine writes, the boatmen encountered the rapids at Hell Gate. Lorraine described Hell Gate as “a contracted gorge of perpendicular walls of considerable height, and at the entrance is a large, protruding rock dividing a swift current agitated, below the rock, into fair-sized breakers which dissolve into a quiet eddy within the enclosing walls.” Freeman wrote that “although Hells Gates is a long ways from being the worst rapid on the Columbia, it comes pretty near to qualifying as the worst looking rapid.. . . The main river, writhing like a wounded snake after being bounced off the sheer wall of an island, zigzags on through the black basaltic barrier in a course shaped a good deal like an elongated ‘Z.’.”

Freeman ran the rapids with his hired local boatman, Ike Emerson of Gerome, Washington (actually, they loaded Freeman’s boat on a log raft that Emerson was delivering to a place downstream of Hell Gate and rode through the chutes on the raft), but Lorraine ran the rapids alone, as always, and this time “in underwear only,” prepared to swim if his dory capsized. It didn't. In a moment of self-aggrandizement, Loraine wrote: “To the man at the oars, the only thoughts are of the necessity of a cool head and hand, and the exertion of a little muscle — the making of no misplays, either mental or physical.”

Neither man comments in great detail on the Columbia's signature fish. Lorraine wrote that “a description of the Columbia River would not be complete without something more than a reference to that most highly prized of all fish, the Salmon.” Lorraine knew salmon. He had seen them in the Sacramento and Feather rivers of California, and in rivers of Alaska and western British Columbia: “I have watched them while spawning, have shot them with rifle and pistol, killed them with clubs, and hooked them with a gaff. I have lived on them for months, and have visited the canneries and observed the operations of packing.” But while he noted that the Columbia River had “a world-wide reputation” because of its salmon, he didn’t see any. He wrote that he had hoped to shoot some salmon at Celilo Falls but, alas, the run was over. He tried fishing at a few other spots along the middle and lower river, with no success. He spoke with people who were familiar with Columbia River salmon, who told him the upper river runs were not as abundant in 1921 as they had been in past years.

Lorraine first saw commercial salmon fishing in the area of The Dalles and wrote that “thereafter, the contrivances used for taking the fish and the canneries for packing them were constantly in evidence all the way to Astoria.” He counted 21 canneries, most of them at Astoria.

Freeman writes even less about salmon than Lorraine. While he saw only a few salmon, he managed to catch a 50-pounder near the mouth of the Spokane River. A photo in his book shows him wrestling it to shore.

Freeman does, however, comment on the Columbia's hydropower potential. He praises the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s plan — never realized — to build a dam at Surprise Rapids to electrify its Mountain Division trains (“The Columbia, in a hundred miles of the Big Bend, offered the opportunity for developing more hydro-electric energy than all the west of Canada could use in the next twenty years,” he wrote). He also praises the promoters of a dam at Kettle Falls (“Up to the present, the development of the enormous power running to waste over Kettle Falls has gone little further than the dreams of the brave community of optimists who have been attracted there in the belief that a material asset of such incalculable value cannot always be ignored in a growing country like ours.”) and quotes at length from engineer James O'Sullivan's report about the potential for a dam at Grand Coulee. Freeman makes no attempt to disguise his sympathy for those who would develop the Columbia. For example, he writes, “From source to mouth, the Columbia today is almost useless for power, irrigation and even transportation.”

Freeman wrote that he hoped people living along the river in British Columbia one day would be as enlightened as the promoters and developers of hydropower and irrigation south of the 49th parallel. Between The Dalles and Astoria, he wrote, people:

 . . .take a mighty pride in their great river, and regard it with little of that distrustful reproach one remarks so often on the upper Columbia, where the settlers see it bearing past their parched fields the water and power that would mean the difference between success and disaster. When this stigma has been wiped out by reclamation, as it soon will be, without a doubt the plucky pioneers of the upper Columbia will see in their river many beauties that escape their troubled eyes today.

Between political commentaries on the one hand, and dry observations on the other, Freeman and Lorraine left a careful record of the undammed Columbia, a river that both men described as raging in some places and placid in others, a river that was an artery of transportation and commerce for the people who lived along its shores. Even before dams turned the river into a chain of slow-moving lakes, the Columbia was not a river that one simply floated, at least during Lorraine’s voyage in June 1921. Freeman ended his voyage in Portland; Lorraine went all the way to Astoria. Upon his arrival there, a local newspaper reported the adventure under the headline: “FLOATS DOWN GREAT RIVER,” to which Lorraine responded in his book:

I presume that the author of the head-line thought that because the Columbia has a current, all one has to do to navigate down the stream is to sit lazily in his boat and with occasional use of the oars or paddle the current will float the craft to Astoria. Nothing is farther from the truth. While it is a fact that much of the Columbia has a current, very swift in places, yet a great deal of it has barely perceptible movement; there is ‘backwater’ which flows upstream, and there are 153 miles of currentless lakes . . . the length of the Columbia, approximately 1,264 miles, was mainly covered by my own exertions, and my arrival in Astoria was THE END OF A LONG ROW.

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