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High in the Canadian Rockies,
Leslie LaFont and her grandfather paddled their canoe from Columbia
Lake into a gentle silver ribbon of springwater. The icy,
crystal-clear stream got smaller until they could paddle no farther.
Among willows and tall grass, Leslie and the old man left the canoe
and walked the bank.
The stream became a trickle. Then it just stopped. Or rather, it just began. In a small oval pool, springwater bubbled from the earth. Craters the size of cereal bowls pocked the bed of the shallow pool. Water pushed aside sand and fine pebbles in each crater.
" This is it, " her grandfather whispered. We are standing at the source." Shivers crawled up the back of Leslie's neck. She was watching the start of one of the planet's mightiest rivers, the Columbia.
A few steps downstream, Leslie stood with one foot on the left bank of the Columbia River and her other foot on the right bank. Like a colossus, she straddled the great river's birthplace while LaFont snapped the picture.
Leslie awoke the next morning to the smell of bacon frying. She rolled over in the sleeping bag and tried to remember where she was: the bus ride from her home in Seattle; meeting her grandfather and his driver-friend in Spokane; the all-day trip in the van; up into British Columbia and over Crow's Nest Pass; to Columbia Lake; Thunderhill campground.
She and her grandfather were going to canoe the entire Columbia River, from its source in Canada to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean.
"Leslie!" the old man called. "Up and at 'em, girl! Can't be late!"
Her grandfather, Leslie knew, had a thing about the Columbia River. As if the river flowed in his veins, he couldn't even talk about the river without his eyes filming over. Among his ancestors - her ancestors - were voyageurs, those French trappers and river runners who helped open up the West. His father had helped build Grand Coulee Dam.
His own first job was on a power line crew, bringing electricity to farms and towns. After dams turned the river into a series of man-made lakes, LaFont piloted a tug up and down the Columbia. To him, the Columbia was no less than life itself.
When she stepped out of the tent, Pierre LaFont was sitting on a rock next to the campfire. His bird-nesty white hair was almost corralled by the red bandana he always wore on canoe trips.
"I would have let you sleep in, Les'," he said, "but water boils faster at this altitude." We're half a mile above sea level." He handed her a steaming tin cup of cocoa.
"What time is it?" she said.
It was 5 a.m. This far north, in June, daylight came early. Columbia Lake, a deep blue-green, lay calm and waiting below the campground. The sun had not yet peeked over the jagged row of mountains east of the lake.
Already, LaFont was in one of his filmy-eyed moods. "The thing about the river," he said, "is it's hard to see the whole thing. People live on it, use it, and they know that part. But there are lots of parts."
"People have put the river to work in many ways," he said. "We've stopped floods and let the river make the desert bloom. Its energy runs homes and cities. It floats barges and sailboats, while it still carries fish to and from the sea." "What's easy to forget, is that it's still a river. A whole thing. That's what we're here for," he said. "To feel the whole thing."
LaFont, for all his hurry-up bluster, was not really in a hurry. First, he wanted to spend a few days poking around Columbia Lake. On flat water, they could let callouses, before blisters, form on their hands.
Leslie wasn't worried about keeping up. She and her grandfather had canoed other waters, other summers. Parts of the Snake. The Willamette. Smaller Columbia Basin waters - the Yakima and Deschutes.
Always the idea had been to work up to the Columbia. She had done a report on it. The Columbia's 1,200 river miles were as far as from Seattle to San Diego, if you could lift them off the map and straighten them out. This canoe trip would take all summer.
"Let's get on down the river," she told him.
"Not quite yet," said LaFont. "The trouble with kids today," he said, "is they're always in a hurry."
Exploring the south end of Columbia Lake, they beached the canoe. A road led across flat, marshy land. Less than a mile from where Leslie had straddled the baby Columbia, they came to a river! "This here's the Kootenay River," LaFont said.
It was a big stream, more than Leslie could throw a rock across. The old man picked up a piece of gray-white alder bark that was shaped like Tennessee. He tossed it into the Kootenay. Leslie watched the bark disappear, south, around a bend. The Columbia River, she knew, started north out of Columbia Lake.
"Now that slab of bark," LaFont said, "will end up the same place we do. But it will take a whole different trip. It'll float into Montana, cut back across Northern Idaho, and then turn north again into Canada. About 400 miles later, downstream, the Kootenay will come back into the Columbia River."
They stopped at the store in Canal Flats for a canister of white gas, some roasted peanuts and pop. "I hear there used to be a canal," said LaFont to the clerk. "From the Kootenay River to Columbia Lake?"
"You'd be meanin' Grohman's Ditch, " said a shopper. The way people clipped their words reminded Leslie that she was a foreigner, far from home.
"Built before the turn of the century," said a burly customer. "A chap named Baillie Grohman, hey? Owned orchards downstream on the Kootenay," he said. "Grohman thought he'd divert Kootenay floodwaters into the Columbia."
"Did it work?" Leslie asked.
"Not much, hey?" said the man. "Folks on the Columbia didn't want Kootenay floods. They filled in the canal. You can see it," he said. "Over by the railway."
LaFont and Leslie walked toward the tracks. They came to a wide, overgrown ditch. "Looks like old Baillie-Grohman was a little ahead of his time, is all," said LaFont. "Later, people figured out better ways to put these rivers to work. You'll see," he said.
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