Memories of a native river

  • BUSTLING: The Columbia River in times past. Left, Sternwheeler docking near Wenatchee Landing, 1905

    Wenatchee World
  • BROODING: Stemilt Creek in central Washington, 1922

    Harold Simmar
  The Columbia River today is tamed: Dams regulate water for farms and generate electricity. Rapids are a thing of the past. The wild salmon still left in the river have to be barged upstream to spawn.

But, if you flip the pages of William D. Layman’s coffee-table book, Native River, and allow yourself to be teased back to an earlier era, you’ll see a Columbia River of rapids, rock spires, steamboats, fishermen and boulder-strewn islands. Flip some more, and names begin to catch your eye: Ginkgo Petrified Forest, Coulee Bend, Skookumchuk Canyon, Little Dalles, Azwell.

Layman tells of islands saturated with petroglyphs, which now lie underwater — images so sacred to Northwestern tribes that no one was allowed to sit or climb upon the rocks. He describes how Captain Fred McDermott dodged ferry cables and saved his 4-year old son from an overboard fall at Foster Creek. He recites the tale of “how mountain goat won coyote’s daughter” and offers a eulogy to the tempestuous Kettle Falls, inundated when the federal government built Grand Coulee Dam.

Layman remembers the Middle Columbia River through historical photos and maps and the words of pioneers, priests and American Indian storytellers. He reminds us of a river before cumbersome dams and fights over irrigation water.

But rather than mourning the wild river of the 19th century — when people knew the river for salmon and transportation, instead of electricity and irrigation — Layman lets us wonder what the Columbia holds in store for the 21st century.

Native River: The Columbia Remembered, William D. Layman, Washington State University Press, 2002. 192 pages. Hardcover: $35, Paperback: $24.
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