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the longest day of the year, June 21, LaFont and Leslie came to the
northernmost reach of the Columbia River. They were still on
"Far below where we're floating, here," said LaFont, "was an important place to the voyageurs. Boat Encampment, they called it. Hudson's Bay Co. had a trading post here. The fur trade route was from Fort Vancouver, on the lower Columbia, to Boat Encampment and up over the Rockies toward Montreal."
Kinbasket Lake's shoreline curved left, in a wide U-turn back to the world. With skies clear and wind at their backs, they soon came to Mica Dam.
A movie at the visitor center explained the river, before and after the dam. The U.S. and Canada agreed in a treaty to build Mica Dam and to share its benefits. Three other storage dams - two in Canada, one in the U.S. - were included in the treaty. The idea was to prevent flooding and share power from the water these dams hold back.
Mica Dam was so tall that Leslie's ears popped three times on the elevator ride down into the bowels of the dam. In a huge bedrock cavern below the former level of the river, four immense turbines were using the river's force to spin generators and make electricity.
"The advantage of hydro power," the tour guide said, "is that the fuel - falling water - can be used over and over again. As the river continues toward the sea, it passes through many other dams. And each year nature gives us a new supply of water."
After touring Mica Dam, LaFont and Leslie carried their canoe down the left bank road until they reached the next level of river. Already, the Columbia was flat, another reservoir, although the current was strong.
In the long, narrow reservoirs behind Revelstoke and Keenleyside Dams, LaFont and Leslie paddled south. Days faded into weeks. Leslie looked up one day to discover that her grandfather's white stubble was now a short beard.
These long lakes were a place of great beauty. Above timberline, the Selkirk Mountains rose on the left, the Monashees on the right. They found campgrounds, but stores were rare.
"Somewhere below where we're floating is what they called Les Dalles du Mont," said LaFont. "Death Rapids." It was one of the roughest rapids the voyageurs had shot on the old, wild river. They tied red bandanas on their heads, he explained, so they could spot accident victims and fish them from the water.
So that's why the old man wore his red bandana when canoeing, Leslie thought. He was carrying a piece of history down the river.
"Anglos and Americans ended up claiming the Columbia's territory," he said. "But French voyageurs left their language on the river. We say glaciers, not icefields," he said. "Canal, not ditch. Canoe is a French word. Paddle. Portage. We call this a reservoir," he said, "Not an impoundment like the English would."
At the Nakusp marina, LaFont fixed a poleholder to the side of the canoe so he could troll for kokanee on Arrow Lake. Whenever he hooked one, he let Leslie reel the fish in.
"Now these kokanee," he said, "are modern cousins of your sockeye salmon. They're a landlocked salmon."
Before Grand Coulee Dam was built, he explained, salmon migrated all the way from the Canadian reaches of the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean and back. They would spend years out in the ocean. Those that survived would swim all the way back home to spawn.
"Now they can't do it," LaFont said. "There are no fish ladders at Grand Coulee or Chief Joseph dams, downstream. These kokanee do the best they can," he said. "The reservoir is their ocean They spawn by the shoreline, and in creeks that feed the reservoir."
If that was odd – "the reservoir is their ocean" - it was no more odd than the idea that she and her grandfather were paddling over the sites of former villages and towns.
The river was working in new ways for people At the end of Arrow Lake, Keenleyside Dam had a navigation lock. A tugboat was towing a boom of logs. The tug disappeared into the lock. The lock drained and dropped the tug 80 feet to the next level of the Columbia River. Just below the dam was a large lumber mill, where the logs were headed.
So the Columbia River was a series of steps, really. Each of the dams backed up a long flat reservoir to hold the river and put it to work. Yet here, below Keenleyside Dam, the Columbia was flowing as swift and unhindered as the old voyageurs had found it.
The Kootenay River came boiling in from the left. It nearly doubled the Columbia's flow. Leslie scanned the water, looking for the gray-white slab of bark LaFont had tossed into the Kootenay over a month ago. Could it really be here?
"Not likely," said LaFont. The Kootenay, like the Columbia, has dams on it. Libby Dam, a big storage dam in Montana, backs the Kootenay up into Canada. There are five more dams between Libby and the Columbia.
Almost all major tributaries of the Columbia, he explained, are harnessed. In addition to Libby and three others covered by the U.S.-Canadian Treaty, there are four big storage dams in the U.S. Together, "the big eight," can hold back 30 million acre-feet of water - enough to cover the state of Ohio a foot deep.
"So how many dams are there?" she asked. Leslie knew they would pass 14 dams on the mainstream Columbia. Now she was thinking of the whole system.
"Altogether?" LaFont said. "About 125 dams. Every drop of water in the Columbia River system is spoken for - and then some."
They stopped at a cafe in the river-junction town of Castlegar. LaFont and some old-timers began telling flood stories, like war stories. LaFont had seen the 1948 flood wipe out Vanport, far downstream. The locals were not impressed. They had seen their own flooding of the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers, and more recently than 1948.
"I grew up in Bonner's Ferry," said the waitress, pouring coffee. "Up the Kootenai*, over in Idaho. Until Libby Dam got built and calmed things down," she said, "flooding was our big excitement. People went down and watched the water gauge. You'd have every available body patrolling the dikes. You'd see a little trickle and heave sandbags at it."
"The good old days, hey?"
"Stuff the good old days," she said. "The last 20 years or so, you can live a normal life around here. I hope I never, ever, hear a flood-siren again."
The river narrowed between tall cliffs as it rushed from Castlegar toward the U.S. border. Fortress-like, on a plateau above Trail, sat an enormous zinc and lead smelter. "Why put a smelter on the river?" Leslie asked.
"It's another way people put the river to work," he said. "They use hydro power to purify metals," LaFont said. "The mining company owns five hydro plants on the Kootenay and one on the Pend Oreille Rivers," he said. "And they need lots of water for cooling."
Soon another large river joined the Columbia from the left. "This is the Pend Orveille," said LaFont. "If you followed the Pend Oreille," he said, "past Albeni Falls Dam, you could take the Clark Fork far into Western Montana. Another river into the Pend Oreille is the Flathead. That's where you'd find Hungry Horse, another big storage dam."
LaFont was so busy watching the Pend Oreille River meet the Columbia that they nearly missed the U.S.-Canadian border. Putting ashore, they passed through customs.
"How long have you been in Canada?"'
"Since I was little," said Leslie, flexing her canoeing muscles.
"About five weeks, now," said LaFont.
As they paddled on, there was nothing like the color change on a map to separate the U.S. from Canada. Leslie was disappointed.
"Well, the river can't tell the difference either," said LaFont.
"So who decides?" she asked. "Canada or the U.S.? Who gets the electricity and who works the reservoirs?"
"That's part of what the treaty is for," said LaFont. Each country, he explained, runs its own dams. But they coordinate things. "Canada didn't need that much energy at the time," he said. "So when the storage dams were finished, in the late 1960s and early 70s, they sold their half of the electricity to the U.S. for 30 years."
Thirty years, Leslie thought, from the 1960s.... "What's going to happen now?"
"Canada wants its share back," he said. He paddled on a while. "The point is," he said, "the river can give more when both sides share. The river is a whole system, with many parts. By working together, both sides get more."