Along the Columbia River

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This is Steve Ember. And this is Shirley Griffith with the VOA Special English program, EXPLORATIONS.

Today we tell about the Columbia River that flows through the American Northwest.It is said by many that the Columbia River is the most beautiful river in North America. It flows from the Canadian province of British Columbia into the United States through the northwestern state of Washington. It is the fourth largest river in North America, and the largest that empties into the Pacific Ocean.

The Columbia begins its 2,000 kilometer trip to the Pacific Ocean in Canada at Columbia Lake. That is just west of the main part of the Rocky Mountains in southeastern British Columbia. It flows mainly south into the northwestern United States until it makes a big turn to begin flowing west. It is at this point that the Snake River enters the Columbia. As it flows west, the Columbia forms much of the border between the states of Oregon and Washington before it reaches the Pacific Ocean.

The great river flows through deep valleys and narrow places called canyons. It passes through two large series of mountains – the Cascades and the Coast mountains -- and it crosses desert areas and flows through lands of great forests.

The Columbia and the rivers that flow into it gather water from a huge area of more than 670,000 square kilometers. That is about the size of France.

Large ocean going ships can sail up the lower Columbia River, as far as Vancouver, Washington. Smaller ships can continue up the river about 300 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean. However, these ships must pass through devices known as locks. Locks can change the level of the water. In a lock, a ship can be raised or lowered to another level where it can sail on. Small boats can travel another 220 kilometers up the river. There are locks for river traffic along this part of the river too. These locks and the many dams on the river were built in the last century as part of development projects.The first white explorer to see the Columbia River was an American named Robert Gray. Seeking increased trade for the new United States, he sailed from the eastern city of Boston in 1787 to the Pacific Northwest. He found the river in Seventeen Ninety-Two.

Robert Gray named the river after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. On a second trip to the area, he explored the lower parts of the river. Gray's exploration of the river helped the United States claim what became known later as the Oregon Territory.

In 1805, American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reached the Columbia River area by traveling across land from the east. They were the first explorers to do this. The two men had been sent to explore what was called the Louisiana Territory. The United States had purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803.

President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the territory. He hoped that the explorers would find a river that could provide a direct waterway across the North American continent that could be used for trade and business. The two-year trip probably is the most famous story of American exploration.

When Lewis and Clark arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific Ocean in wighteen oh-five, Americans were already living there. Fur traders such as David Thompson had settled there earlier. Thompson was with a company dealing especially in animal skins used in making clothes in the eastern United States and in Europe.

In 1811, members of the Pacific Fur Company arrived in the area to establish their business. The company was owned by John Jacob Astor. They established Fort Astoria on the edge of the Columbia River in what later became the state of Oregon. The fort became the modern town of Astoria. It is the oldest American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.

The Columbia River was at the center of the new American settlement in Pacific Northwestern territory, then known as the Oregon Territory. For many early settlers it was known as the Oregon River or the River of the West. However, the name given to the river in 1792 became its final name – the Columbia.Native Americans had lived in the Columbia River area for an estimated 10,000 years. To them, the river represented the center of life for the surrounding land. The river provided these first Americans with their most important food, fish known as the Pacific Salmon.

Salmon can grow to weigh as much as 25 kilograms. They spend most of their lives in the salt waters of the northern oceans. But they are born in the fresh waters of rivers. When the huge fish are ready to reproduce, they swim hundreds of kilometers from the ocean up the rivers to the places where they first knew life.

After laying their eggs at the end of this long trip, the salmon die, their circle of life completed. No one knows how many thousands and thousands of years the salmon have been doing this.

In 1866, the first salmon processing factory was built on the edge of the Columbia River. In less than 20 years about 30 similar factories were supplying world markets with salmon caught on the river in nets, traps, and wheels. In 1883, almost 20 million kilograms of salmon were caught on the river. By the 1960s, only two million kilograms of Columbia River salmon was sent to markets.

The salmon population has been severely reduced because humans have blocked the flow of the river. The salmon can no longer go back to the places of their birth on the Columbia and the other rivers that flow into it.

In the Twentieth Century, huge dams were built on the Columbia. There are 14 dams on the river. These dams serve at least three purposes. They provide electric power. They provide river water to grow crops. And they control flooding.

The largest of the dams on the Columbia is the Grand Coulee Dam. It is about halfway between the beginning and the end of the river. It was completed in 1941. Before then, about 25,000 salmon swam up the Columbia River into Canada to lay their eggs. Thousands of them would swim all the way to Columbia Lake, where the river begins. When the dam was completed, the salmon could no longer swim up the river.

All the 14 dams on the Columbia are not like the Grand Coulee Dam. Some of them were built with what are called fish ladders. These ladders permit salmon to swim past the dams to go up the river. Many of the 250 dams on the rivers that flow into the Columbia also have such devices built into them. Yet the dams have changed the Columbia from a free flowing river to a series of lakes linked by the water that is permitted to flow through.

The dams produce great amounts of electricity. The result is energy whose costs are lower for expanding development in the Pacific Northwest. The lakes that remain behind the dams provide water for agriculture along the river. This is especially true in what once were dry, desert areas in central Washington State. So, the Columbia River and the dams are extremely important to the economy of the Pacific Northwest.

There are many people who believe that dams are not good. Biologists, environmentalists, Indian tribes, and fishermen argue that at least some of the dams should be removed or changed to permit water to flow as it once did. They say that there is no longer a natural balance of the river. Opponents of the dams say humans should make an effort to live together with other life forms on Earth. Supporters of the dams believe the river should be controlled for human use even though other life forms may be harmed.

This argument is expected to last many years.

Most of the great rivers of North America and the rest of the world have great cities on them. But not the Columbia River. The Hudson River has New York City. The Mississippi River has a number of great cities along it. The Seine has Paris. The Nile River has Cairo. Along the Columbia, however, the human population is spread more thinly. And, most of the people who live along the beautiful Columbia River would not want to live anywhere else.

This VOA Special English program was written by Oliver Chanler and produced by Caty Weaver. This is Shirley Griffith. And this is Steve Ember.