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It took them a full day to paddle
Columbia Lake, south to north. The next morning, the end of the lake
was a fuzzy outline of willows and low brush. They kept paddling.
The lake water became a small stream, heading north.
"The mighty Columbia River!" LaFont said. The canoe scraped rounded rocks and meandered slowly past willows.
"This is it?" Leslie said. She'd seen deeper water in the bathtub.
The sleepy Columbia soon leaked into another natural lake. After the resort town of Invermere, the Columbia River snaked into a broad, flat valley that stretched to the north as far as Leslie could see. Snow-capped mountains guarded the valley.
"They call this the Rocky Mountain Trench," her grandfather told her. "It's so big," he said, you can see it from the moon. When you see satellite pictures on the weather show, look for a huge gash, like a wagon wheel rut, in the Rockies. That's where we are, where the Columbia gets its start."
In their third day paddling the river, the Columbia was still in no hurry. It wandered across the marshy valley floor. Geese and ducks were everywhere. They came across a moose, belly deep in marsh grass. He turned his huge rack of horns toward the canoe and then looked away.
"This isn't much of a river, if you ask me," Leslie said. "I thought it would be a lot bigger."
"Give it time," said her grandfather. "A river has to gather strength and become something." His voice startled a great blue heron, which stretched its wings and flapped away.
"OK," she said, "but this river's not as big as the Kootenay. And that was way back there. If the two rivers come together, later... Why isn't the Kootenay called the Columbia?"
When they stopped at a sandbar for lunch, LaFont dug into his pack and pulled out a large map. With a blue marker, he traced the route of the British trapper-explorer, David Thompson. Thompson and his band, in 1807 to 1811, had paddled and carried their canoes all up and down the Kootenay and the Columbia. Clear to the Pacific Ocean and back.
"Thompson was the first to write it down in English," said LaFont. "He called this branch we're on the Columbia."
"Now here," said LaFont, moving the marker up the Kootenay River, "he could have just as well called this branch the Columbia. Or here. Some people say Clark Fork is the true main stem of the Columbia. Or down here," he said, tracing a long U-shaped mark from Wyoming across Idaho. "What we call the Snake River comes a thousand miles before it joins the Columbia. Maybe that's the true source."
LaFont kept drawing until almost the whole map branched out from the stem of the Columbia. Like blue broccoli.
"Then there isn't just one source," Leslie said.
"Good girl," LaFont said. "People put labels on water. They need to think where a river starts and ends. But a river doesn't think that way at all."
Five days after leaving Columbia Lake, they were still paddling north. The Spillimacheen River came rollicking in from the left, milky green. It and other brash glacial streams gave the Columbia new color and force. The Columbia River was waking up, flexing its muscles. Now it was less of a job to paddle the canoe than just to steer it.
"What happens, see," said LaFont, "is you get as much as 300 inches—25 feet—of snow each year on the slopes of this Rocky Mountain Trench. The Rockies catch thick clouds coming in from the Pacific Ocean, and rake the snow right out of them. As the snow melts, it feeds the river. The Columbia drains one of the world's greatest water machines."
At Golden, the area's big town, the Kicking Horse River bucked into the Columbia. Now the river surged beneath their canoe with new-found power. They reached the high bridge at Donald Station, where the Trans-Canada Highway crossed the Columbia. Great eddies formed around the concrete bridge footings as the river rushed past.
Truth is, the voyageur in LaFont's blood was thinning. He didn't know what lay in the stretch just ahead. Maps showed Kinbasket Lake backing up within 10 miles or so of Donald Station. But in June, now, the reservoir would be drawn down to catch and hold the summer runoff. They might go 20 or even 30 miles before reaching the lake. Dangerous rapids could be exposed.
LaFont pointed the canoe ashore at a big lumber mill. Workers were changing shifts.
"This time of year," said one, "you'll see more river than the map shows. There are rapids before you reach the lake."
"But the river's high," said another. "It'll shoot you right through."
"The river butts into that cliff. Whirlpools cough up logs like toothpicks."
"No problem, hey? I've done it. It's flat."
"The river changes, day to day. No telling what it'll be like." Leslie was amazed that people had such a wide range of "knowledge" about the river. Or maybe the river had that many different faces. LaFont had seen enough of the river's force to be wary.
"Where's your canoe?" said a mill worker. "Toss it in the pickup, here. I'll drive you over to a fishing resort on Kinbasket Lake. It's only 25 kilometers by road."