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At the resort, LaFont and
Leslie crossed a muddy 300-yard portage to the water. The reservoir
was down. As they paddled north, Kinbasket Lake - the reservoir
behind Mica Dam - opened before them. Leslie could see no end to the
lake. It disappeared over the curve of the
"From here to the Pacific Ocean," said LaFont, "the river has been changed to serve humans. This reservoir is filling now," he said, "catching melting snow and ice."
Mica Dam, he explained, is a storage dam. It was built in the late 1960s to help smooth out the seasonal ups and downs of the river. "Storage dams," he said, "work like a sponge on the Columbia River System. They catch and hold water. Then they release it gradually as the water is needed."
"So they stop the flooding?" . "That, and they help people use the river," he said. "They help float barge traffic year-around. They help farmers water their crops in the dry months downstream. And electric power," he said. "Homes, farms and businesses use electricity all year. Left alone, the river would send down more water in spring and early summer than people could use. And less than enough in fall and winter. This reservoir makes life safer and more prosperous in British Columbia and four U.S. states."
Mica Dam, the highest earth-filled dam in North America, had backed up a lake so large that it made its own weather. Wind from side canyons could raise waves up to five feet high. The safe thing was to paddle close to shore and be prepared to get off the lake very quickly.
"How long will it take us to get to Mica Dam?" Leslie asked. "Lord willing and the north wind don't blow," said LaFont, "we'll reach the dam in six or seven days."
The wind did blow. It was slow going, tough paddling. For one whole day and part of the next, they were in view of Mt. Columbia. Clinging to the mountain was the Columbia Ice Field, a blue-white cap of ice.
"Up there," LaFont said, "is your Continental Divide. One big icefield sends water this way and also to the Atlantic and Arctic oceans."
Kinbasket Lake reminded Leslie less of a sponge than of an enormous tub with multiple spigots. Streams poured into it from the glacier-capped mountains along the lake's flanks. Except for a logging camp, there was no sign of civilization. They saw more deer than humans. A scruffy black bear and her cub watched warily from the bank.
"A bad part about this reservoir," said LaFont, "is that it covered up a lot of area for caribou, deer and bears. Wildlife got forced into higher, colder territory. With less land per animal, many died. Any time you mess with a river," he said, "you get your good and your bad."
Leslie's job at each day's end was to pitch the tent, while LaFont fixed dinner. They ate soup, pork and beans, dried fruit, jerky and granola. At home, Leslie wouldn't have touched this stuff with a 10-inch fork. But up here, everything the old man stirred up tasted surprisingly good.
A squall set in one night on Kinbasket Lake. They stayed in the tent, played cards, and waited it out. By early afternoon, the clouds lowered and dropped a cold, steady rain.
"Nothing to bother a pair of rugged voyageurs like us," LaFont announced. They struck camp and pointed the canoe onto the gray, rain-dimpled lake.
To Leslie's surprise, rain was a good thing. Rain settled the wind. Each stroke of her paddle was followed by a smooth, jump-ahead glide of the canoe. As far as Leslie was concerned, it could rain another day. And it did. They made good time.
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