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May 26, 2022

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“How do you fit a river this big into a book this small?”

Vancouver man pens text of historical Columbia River photos

By , Columbian staff writer
5 Photos
The History Press 
 Kettle Falls, a centuries-old, vibrant fishery, was a major center of fishing and commerce long before white people arrived in the Pacific Northwest.
The History Press Kettle Falls, a centuries-old, vibrant fishery, was a major center of fishing and commerce long before white people arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Photo Gallery

It may look beautifully serene to a day visitor, but the Columbia River is actually the site of historical and ongoing conflict between tremendous forces.

John A. Harrison traces the history of those diverse forces, and how they created today’s vital, working waterway, in a rich photography book from The History Press. Harrison’s “The Columbia River” rolls along the whole story of our mighty local river, from its violent geologic origins to the tribes and settlers, businessmen and politicians, engineers and tourists who shaped, and keep shaping, the landscape we know today.

Harrison, who lives in west Vancouver, said he’s on the cusp of retiring from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council after a 31-year career. (Before that, he was a journalist who worked for several newspapers, including this one.) When The History Press contacted him about assembling and writing the text for a book of historical photographs about the river, he’d already been contemplating a different-but-similar project, he said.

The History Press has strict length limits for its reader-friendly publications, Harrison said.

“How do you fit a river this big into a book this small?” he said.

But in the end, Harrison was able to shave the book down to size (127 pages) while still telling the story of the working river that historian Richard White termed an “organic machine.”

Other local books

Here’s a list of more books by local writers, as personally recommended by the staff at Vintage Books, Vancouver’s long-running independent book shop at 6613 E. Mill Plain Blvd.

“Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Real-Life Tales of Black Girl Magic”: Continuing the bestselling series of inspirational books for girls, this volume focuses on Black women who made a difference — from author to astronaut, from soul singer to vice president of the United States. Vancouver children’s author Sonja Thomas is a contributing writer. (Thomas’ first young adult novel, “Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence,” will see publication in spring 2022.)

“I Speak Boy” and “Suns Will Rise”: Prolific Vancouver author Jessica Brody has two new books out. In “I Speak Boy,” a 12-year-old girl who finds boys interesting but utterly unintelligible discovers a phone app that tells her what they’re really thinking. And in “Suns Will Rise,” Brody and co-author Joanne Rendell add the third installment to their intergalactic System Divine sci-fi series, a tale of rebellion and revolution that’s been described as “Les Miserables meets Star Wars.”

“Welcome to Mexico with Sesame Street” and “Reptile Colors”: Writing dialogue for the likes of Big Bird and Grover is a special joy for Vintage staffer Christy Peterson, who contracts with publishers of education-market picture books. “Welcome to Mexico” is an elementary introduction to culture, food, climate and nature south of the border. Crayola’s “Reptile Colors” introduces kids to chameleons, snakes and other creatures whose hues keep us guessing.

“Columbia River Gorge & Mount Hood”: Matt Wastradowski, a former staffer for The Columbian, wrote this guide to traveling, sightseeing, hiking, camping, dining and wine tasting.

“Little Feet Hiking,” “Little Feet Hiking II,” “Little Feet Hiking: Mt. Hood”: Outdoor educator, hike leader and backpacker Jessica Becker doesn’t like leaving children behind when she hits the great outdoors, so she self-published this series of guides. Many hiking books add afterthoughts about including kids, but Becker’s books make them the central focus. The books include trail descriptions and ways to engage kids along the way.

“The Charm Offensive”: Alison Cochrun, a teacher at Mountain View High School in Vancouver, wrote this romantic comedy about gay men and mental health. “It has a very positive approach to mental health in general,” Peterson said. “It normalizes the idea that we all need help and we all need love.”

“Nothing Hidden Ever Stays”: This gothic mystery by H.R. Mason features premonitions, ghosts and the curse of a haunted Ohio house.

“The Cure for What Ales You”: This cozy mystery by Ellie Alexander (a former Vancouver writer whose popular whodunit tales always involve Pacific Northwest scenes, foods and drinks) involves a brewery in Leavenworth, a delicious new Lemon Kiss ale — and murder.

“The Pickwick Murders”: This pastiche novel is the fourth installment in Heather Redmond’s series subtitled “A Dickens of a Crime,” starring the 19th-century novelist as amateur detective. All of Redmond’s Dickens fictions pretend to reveal the hidden backstory that motivated one of the author’s masterpieces.

“Colorful Place: Mindful Story and Art for Kids”: Heather McClelland (a former Camas public school teacher) and Jocelyn Fitzgerald (a family and art therapist) collaborated on this calming journey for stressed-out kids who need to learn mindfulness.

“A Better Part of Valor”: This is the grand finale to Camas author Gary Corbin’s woman-centered police procedural series starring determined cop Valorie Dawes. 

“The Three Shades of Justice”: Vancouver writer Carolyn J. Rose sets this comedic mystery in a retirement home.

‘Great mart’

The fifth-largest river in North America was an engine of commerce long before white people arrived, Harrison pointed out. Before it was submerged behind The Dalles Dam, Celilo Falls was the site of such abundant fishing and busy intertribal trading that explorer William Clark called it “the great mart of all this country.” But it’s less well known that Kettle Falls, in the northeastern corner of Washington, just below the Canadian border, may have been an even richer, busier site.

“For millennia at Kettle Falls,” Harrison writes, “local Indian bands caught salmon and steelhead for their own use and also to trade for goods brought by Indians who traveled to the fishery from as far away as present-day Montana. Historical accounts suggest the fishery at Kettle Falls might have been larger than the one at Celilo. Between 1,000 and 2,000 Indian fishers regularly used the site during salmon runs, particularly in the summer.”

The arrival of industry, highways and dams intensified conflict between natural and built environments — and between old and new cultures, Harrison said. Some tribal peoples were practicing careful resource stewardship ages ago, he writes: “Like a modern-day conservation practice, a certain number (of salmon) were allowed to pass upriver before fishing began.”

Then white people started building fish wheels, which pulled salmon from the river on an industrial scale. Fish wheels came to be seen as destructive and wasteful, and eventually, they were banned.

In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt advocated for the construction of public-power dams along the Columbia as a way to speed development of the entire region.

“There are undeniable benefits of big dams and the power they bring to everyone,” Harrison said. But Indigenous people were once again forced to acquiesce. Experimental fish ladders were included in Bonneville Dam, but Grand Coulee has nothing of the kind. Fish swimming upstream to spawn now faced a concrete dead end — and so did all tribes upstream from there, clear into Canada.

When the Grand Coulee came online in March 1941, it was “a day of celebration for non-Indians at the dam, but a day of immense sadness for … tribal members who could hardly celebrate the end of the salmon and steelhead runs that were crucial to their culture, economy, and sustenance,” Harrison writes.

Past and future

Harrison’s “The Columbia River” presents hundreds of photographs of a bygone era. But the book’s ending brings us up to date with runaway population growth, recent legal decisions that bolster tribal fishing rights, the reintroduction of salmon and steelhead in the upper river behind Grand Coulee, as well as the overarching threat to fish and other wildlife posed by warming water due to climate change.

“The Northwest is a place where the environment is the economy,” Harrison writes, “and where the Columbia River touches on virtually every aspect of life.”

Dramatic tunnels, cliffside bridges and scenic views were paramount in the design of the 1916 Columbia River Highway, which ran 74 miles along the Oregon side of the river between Troutdale and The Dalles.
Dramatic tunnels, cliffside bridges and scenic views were paramount in the design of the 1916 Columbia River Highway, which ran 74 miles along the Oregon side of the river between Troutdale and The Dalles. Photo

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