Leashing The Pacific Northwest’s Master Stream


The Columbia River is a master stream of North America, originating in ice fields on the Continental Divide in Canada and eventually embracing rivers that flow through six states.

The river system helps define the Pacific Northwest, powers our economy, and grows the crops which feed us. We recreate in its waters and canyons and draw inspiration from its beauty.

The Braided River division of Mountaineers Books is fresh out with a beautiful and definitive work, Big River: Resilience and Renewal in the Columbia Basin. It celebrates the river, offering a photographic feast for the eyes, capsule biographies of river folk, plus serious discussion of restoring natural features of the river system. Its chief author, David Moscowitz, writes with eloquence and deep knowledge.

The Columbia Basin is a landform sculpted by nature and transformed by man. During the last ice age, a 3,000-square-mile inland sea, Lake Missoula, formed behind a half mile high ice dam. The great floods at the breaching of the dam unleashed “intense creative forces of movement and change,” writes Moskowitz. The floodwaters sculpted the inland Northwest canyonlands used 15,000 years later by today’s rafters and kayakers.

A 1964 ceremony at the Peace Arch marked an acceleration of human sculpting of the Big River. President Lyndon Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson signed the Columbia River Treaty under which upstream dams would store water for downstream power generation. Rushing waters would give way to slack water.

The Columbia is today a working river. Some 14 dams back up waters of the main river, with 13 obstructing its principal tributary the Snake River (or “the river on the Snake” as presidential candidate George Bush once called it).

The greatest project, the Grand Coulee Dam, made an arid desert bloom with the 679,000-acre Columbia Irrigation Project. Downstream dams made Lewiston, Idaho, the farthest inland seaport on the continent.

The kilowatts came at a high cost: decimation of the river’s once great salmon fishery. Built without fish leaders, Grand Coulee blocked upstream migration on the. Columbia River, while Hells Canyon Dam did likewise on the Snake River. Ecosystems were destroyed along the rivers. Celilo Falls and Kettle Falls, renowned Native American fishing locales, were inundated. The two lovely Arrow Lakes in British Columbia were transformed, by the Keenleyside Dam, into a single 230-kilometer-long reservoir.

Between Bonneville Dam and the Canadian border, a single 40-mile stretch of undammed river remains, where one side of the Hanford Reach is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the other side holds the largest volume of nuclear waste in North America, the legacy of plutonium production for nuclear weapons production. The river’s largest remaining wild salmon run makes its home in the Hanford Reach.

The Moscowitz book focuses on the human ecology of the Big River and its tributary streams. It profiles the Native American and Aboriginal First Nations peoples, their languages and cultures. An assortment of river residents describe their lives and love for their ranches, orchards and their endangered fishery. The book focuses on remote places, such as the dry, gorgeous Owyhee River country of Idaho and eastern Oregon.

Of human impacts on natural systems, the author writes: “Everywhere in the watershed there used to be more — more salmon, more bears, more old growth forests, bigger glaciers, more language speakers.” Today, chinook salmon must migrate through eight dams on their epic 700-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to Redfish Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. In the upstream migration, the salmon pass through the deepest canyon in North America.

Moscowitz navigates endangered places as well as endangered salmon.  The temperate rainforests, in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, for instance, are being logged at an alarming rate.

Yet, as Moscowitz explains, there is hope for restoration of Big River’s natural systems and wild creatures. He focuses on tribal successes in rebuilding a sockeye salmon fishery in the Okanagan Lakes country just over the border in British Columbia. He celebrates action by tribes in creating preserves to nurture and protect buffalo herds.

The book’s photography records the vast diversity of wild creatures sustained by the Columbia River system. A mother grizzly bear and cubs are pictured on a riverbank. A wolverine appears in the North Cascades. A sage grouse primps on a grassland. A family of otters feed on a mountain sucker fish. Mountain goats navigate a steep mountainside.

High desert habitat is pictured on one page of the book, while vast wetlands decorate the next.  We learn of the importance of the whitebark pine, whose fatty cones are a prime food source for critters — and that the species is endangered by climate change.

Big River ends at the treacherous, stormy mouth of a stream that lights, irrigates, and inspires the Pacific Northwest. Its waters have traveled around and through the Purcell, Selkirk, Monashee, and Cascade Mountains. The river “shoots an enormous amount of water “ into the Pacific, writes Moscowitz, whereupon it is “swept up and carried back inland to begin as rain and snow.”

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. Re salmon.
    Columbia River could take a lesson from Hood Canal “chum” ST article.

    “First, state and tribal fisheries managers curtailed their harvest, buying time to develop a recovery plan. Next, a coalition of those tribes, state agencies and nonprofits unleashed a limited supply of hatchery fish”
    Too many interests would oppose. Restrict salmon catch? Supplementation with hatchery? And negotiate with Canada 🙁
    Sad. Maybe this works better on smaller river systems.

  2. What hope the dams brought to our struggling forebearers in the midst of the Depression. It was a shining hope. Family farms sprouted for a generation, maybe two, before Big Ag figured out a way to scoop up that cheap water created by the dams. The aluminum industry, drawn by the cheap power, created Inland prosperity and helped win the war against fascism. And, great balls of fire, here we are giving a want-to-be dictator a pathway to becoming The Leader of the Free World. Still love the refrain of Woody Guthrie and the hope the words brought to a struggling generation.

    Roll on, Columbia, roll on
    Roll on, Columbia, roll on
    Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
    So roll on, Columbia, roll on


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