Two American cousins have embarked on a paddle of a lifetime, one they hope will draw attention to the current and historic impacts of resource extraction, and its effects on the Columbia River watershed.
Butte, Montana native Robert Lester, 25, and his cousin Braxton Mitchell, 18, from Utah officially launched the Columbia River Canoe Project on May 17.
The cousins dipped their paddle into Silver Bow Creek near Butte to begin a 2,000-km expedition from Montana via the Columbia River watershed to the mouth of the Pacific Ocean in Astoria, Oregon.
The Trail Times caught up with Lester and photographer Jonathon Stone at Buckley’s Campground on the Pend d’Oreille River near Trail on Tuesday, May 30.
The pair had just crossed into Canada for a 25-km paddle and portage to the confluence of the mighty Columbia River, where they will head south into Washington State, halfway to their destination.
The project’s purpose is to create a documentary on the Columbia River watershed and the many environmental concerns that persist from Butte to Astoria. Along the way they plan to talk to experts on the environment and natural resources, as well as Indigenous leaders.
“We understand in a lot of ways hydroelectric power is key for society but also a lot of these dams don’t run as efficiently as they should, or don’t run at all,” said Lester. “So those ones, we are looking at removing them and try to restore the Columbia, the entire Columbia, in Canada and the U.S., to be as wild and free flowing as possible, while still maintaining its function.”
Mitchell did not receive his passport in time and could not cross into Canada, so Stone supported Lester in the paddle from the Boundary Dam down the Pend d’Oreille River on the Canadian side, then a 12-km portage from the Seven Mile Dam to the Waneta Dam.
The team also has a support van for emergencies. But make no mistake, the paddlers are keeping it real. Where they can’t canoe, they will portage, and have already carried the 17-foot, 40-pound custom Navarro canoe for over 25-km around the Alberton Gorge in Montana.
The duo also ran the rapids below Metaline Falls where they enjoyed their first unplanned dip in the river, but came away energized and unscathed.
Lester says he has pondered the trip since he was a child, and was struck by the vast inter-connectivity of streams, rivers, and lakes across the continent.
“I live on the other side of the Continental Divide, where the Big Hole comes into the Jefferson and we would build boats in the summer and we’d put them in the river and we’d put messages in them and try to send them to Louisiana,” said Lester.
“As a kid I became obsessed with the idea of travel via waterways, like Native Americans use to do, and the fur trappers use to do, and all that- it was this highway.”
He researched the trip and its extensive winding route while in college, and inspired by a close friend with disabilities, decided to make it happen. He invited his cousin, who had never been in a canoe before, to join him.
“So then it was about making sure it wasn’t about me, and that we had a good strong purpose, and we were going to leave a positive impact from the trip.
“We want to talk about how the Native Americans used this river, and how the Indigenous Peoples believed in preserving the river above all else, and how they thought that everyone owned the river,” said Lester. “They now have the least amount of say.”
Locally, the Columbia River has been impacted by industrial pollution from the lead-zinc smelter in Trail for over a century and the pulp mill in Castlegar, built in 1961. The hydroelectric dams constructed on the BC side of the border have also negatively impacted native fish populations, in particular the endangered white sturgeon.
Although, there is no way to fully erase their impact, the Columbia River Canoe Project will focus on the positive steps governments, dams and industry have taken to recover and remediate the last free flowing section of the river that has emerged over the past 30 years.
Lester, an avid skier and mountaineer, points to the rich flora and diverse wildlife, the beautiful environment that still exists, that he paddled through down the Pend d’Oreille River and onto the Columbia last week.
“I think there is this idea where we are past the point of no return, with 100 years of damage that’s been done. But if you come out here, there is no doubt that it is all still worth preserving, and making sure that our future generations will see it as natural as we can.”
As the project returns to the U.S. and continue their journey, they will face a series of dams and reservoirs beginning with Lake Roosevelt and a 240-km paddle to the largest dam, the Grand Coulee, which stopped salmon migration with its construction in 1941, and displaced Indigenous settlements and culture.
“Those salmon they were key for native people at the time, but they were also part of this river’s health, and if the salmon aren’t there and they aren’t decomposing, then the eagles aren’t as prevalent … It’s tough, but it’s one little domino in a chain. And if one of those dominoes isn’t there, all of a sudden the chain doesn’t function properly.”
Lester expects the next half of the odyssey to be challenging depending on severity and direction of the wind on the large reservoirs, such as places like the Gorge, well known for it windsurfing.
But the Columbia River Canoe Project is buoyed by their success at reaching the half-way mark and keeping to their timeline — with only 1,000 km and 11 or so dams to go.
“There is always a lot of unknowns,” said Lester. “With these dams there is probably about 70-30. About 70 per cent of the time it goes exactly how I thought it would on the map … and about 30 per cent of the time we show up to one of these dams and there’s an eight foot fence on the road I thought we were going to cross.
In the end, it’s all about a much bigger picture that needs attention, says Lester.
“Natural resource extraction is a big part of our society but it leaves scars, and we need to make sure those scars are cleaned properly.”