I love the headwaters of the Columbia River

Two weeks ago I found myself standing on a bridge overlooking the Clark Fork River. I was, what felt like, really far from home.

I’d travelled 600 km and crossed one international border. In retrospect I was really only in Montana, the mountainous state to the south. But I’d followed the direction of the headwaters, or North Fork of the Flathead River as it flows south. It joins its two major tributaries, aptly named Middle Fork and South Fork to create beautiful Flathead Lake. This watershed drains 23,000 km2 of the Rocky Mountain Trench as it crosses from Canada into the U.S.

I travelled along, through time, plunging off the Polson Moraine, a massive geological feature citing ancient glacial activity that created the Rocky Mountain Trench. Further south still, through the stunning wetlands of the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, past the National Bison Refuge, I was heading into a landscape very different from my home in the Kootenays.

Forests creped up mountainsides to expose grasslands and agricultural fields below. I imagined what it must have been like for the nomadic Tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and the European explorers to travel this landscape, both using very different means than I experienced in the comfort of my Subaru – which is how I got to reach the Clark Fork River, where I found myself standing on a bridge contemplating its journey as a headwaters tributary to the mighty Columbia River. My home in the Kootenays is smack at the headwaters of the main stem of this same system, where the Columbia River starts its 2,000 km journey to the Pacific Ocean. Suddenly I felt so connected to those around me – we are all part of the same watershed. The river connects us.

Through my travels in the Pacific Northwest I have felt the spiritual gravity of river systems – the confluence of the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers in Canada; the point where the Snake and Salmon Rivers meet in Idaho to eventually charge the Columbia; even the very spot where the Gallatin, Jefferson, and Madison Rivers meet to create the Missouri River, which eventually forms the Mississippi (okay, that one’s on the other side of the divide, but it is a pretty special place).

I may have missed a few in my count, but the Columbia River has 364 named tributaries and lakes that form its Basin. It is one massive river system. But there is something about headwaters, the point where rivers of life begin. Maybe it is that from the headwaters one can only look downstream, toward the future, toward what is ahead. Contemplate the triumphs, sure failures, moments that will need all the courage you can muster, a future most certainly full of possibilities.

What does the future of the Columbia River – the most dammed river in the world hold? For a river with an International Treaty creeping toward potential re-negotiations; a river governed by laws that were written over 100 years ago – before flood control, before provisions for ecosystems, before watershed stewardship was even a concept; a river that long ago lost its native salmon runs…I wish for a future full of possibilities, a future full of love.

This year, for Canada Water Week, we are celebrating the waterbodies we love. Visit ilovemylake.ca to declare your love for your favourite river, lake, wetland, glacier….

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