Daily Bread: The Columbia — from source to sea

COLUMBIA River begins its flow from Lake Columbia, in British Columbia. At top of page A1: Marbach’s image of the Purcell Mountains, at the origins of the Columbia near Spillamacheen, B.C.

Photo by Peter Marbach
COLUMBIA River begins its flow from Lake Columbia, in British Columbia. At top of page A1: Marbach’s image of the Purcell Mountains, at the origins of the Columbia near Spillamacheen, B.C.

Have you ever wondered where the Columbia River begins? I started pondering this over a decade ago. Since that time, the pondering grew into an exploration of a river and its people that has brought me to the brink of completing the most challenging endeavor of my life as a photographer.

The river story begins so humbly, bubbling up from an underground spring near the tiny town of Canal Flats in southeastern British Columbia. From here it forms Lake Columbia, and eight-mile gem wedged between the rugged Kootenai Rockies to the east and the Purcell and Selkirk Mountains to the west. At the north end, the river flows out, the last wild and free remaining section. In places it is a mere 10 yards apart as it winds its way north in a series of undulating curves for nearly 200 miles.

This section is home to the largest intact wetland system in North America providing critical habitat and resting area for waterfowl during the annual migration along the Pacific Flyway.

Like many things in life, timing is everything. Over the years, I have contemplated and wondered how and when I could put into action this notion of traversing the entire 1,250 mile of the Columbia and tell a story through landscapes and environmental portraits that was timely and of interest in the community and world at large. When I learned earlier this year that the 1964 treaty between the U.S. and Canada over Columbia River water rights was being re-negotiated now, this felt like the right time to put all my energy into moving this idea forward.

The 1964 treaty focused largely on hydropower and providing farmers and ranchers access to plentiful source of water. As I write this, negotiations underway now between the U.S., Canada and First Nations and tribal organizations are looking at finding a way to get salmon up and over the Grand Coulee Dam. At the time it was built during the 1930s, it was the largest dam in North America. We have all benefitted from this dam and others on the main stem of the Columbia. But the ancient runs of salmon that went all the way to the headwaters were cut off and the flooding upstream of Grand Coulee impacted not just tribal populations but orchardists and farmers and all people of the river.

I have been given a tremendous opportunity to share this story with an invitation that I have accepted for a three month solo exhibit titled, ”Nch I Wana: The Columbia – From Source to Sea,” at the Oregon Historical Society beginning in January 2017. This is just the beginning of what I envision as a year-long journey giving lectures, organizing a traveling exhibit, and creating a larger body of work for a book to reach as large an audience as possible in the Northwest and beyond.

It is nothing short of miraculous that the possibility exists that in our lifetime, salmon may be able to go all the way home. This is what inspires me, that in some small way my exhibit, lectures and eventual book can be a useful part of the conversation and perhaps inspire those at the negotiating table to look at the big picture, be bold, and do what is right and just and good for the fish and Nch I Wana – The Big River. I have always believed that artists have a moral obligation to give their talents toward a cause greater than themselves. This a calling that requires a leap of faith and a listening to that inner voice that says this is The Work you are meant to do.

Knowing I would need substantial resources just to cover costs, I approached Hatchfund, a national non-profit that supports artists working on projects of cultural and national significance. I am honored that they warmly accepted my proposal. But I had to push the envelope of my ability comfort zone and write a script and develop a short, three-minute video for an online campaign that launched on Aug. 19. To my utter delight and gratitude, support has been strong with having raised nearly 65 percent of my target goal so far, with most of the support coming from the greater Columbia River Gorge area. I am deeply touched that so many people feel what I am trying to do is worthy of support.

Over the next three months I will be roaming the length of the river numerous times to find places of cultural and scenic significance and create portraits of some of the working people of this sacred river.

This project is deeply personal, a fulfillment of a pledge made over 15 years ago while recovering from open heart surgery. I gained strength walking the shore and trails above the Columbia. I climbed to the summit of Mount Hood to embrace the never ending view of the river snaking its way to the eastern horizon. I made a promise then to one day give back to the river for the healing given to me.

This is a critical moment for the future of this storied river, a coming together not only of government leaders from the U.S. and Canada, but a welcome opportunity to embrace aboriginal knowledge toward restoring ecological balance to the river, and a chance to give voice to the nation that has the most to gain – the salmon.

This campaign ends on Sept. 17, my late mother’s birthday. Like the miracle that awaits the return of salmon to their ancestral spawning, you can bet I’ll be counting on some divinely timed maternal engineering to bring this project home.

(Editor’s Note: To watch Peter’s video and consider making a donation during the final week of his campaign, visit www.hatchfund. org/project/nchi wanathe_columbia_from_source_to_sea).

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