Students from the Wellpinit School District paddled a canoe they carved themselves up the Spokane River last week to the foot of Little Falls Dam, reflecting on changes to the river since the era of dam building.
Fishermen from the Spokane Tribe once hauled 700 to 800 salmon per day out of the river at Little Falls, but “it’s something the students haven’t seen and their parents haven’t seen,” said Warren Seyler, an employee of the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources.
The downstream construction of Grand Coulee Dam during the 1930s blocked salmon from returning to the upper third of the Columbia River and its tributaries, including the Spokane River.
The students’ trip was part of a larger effort to lobby for salmon passage over Grand Coulee Dam. Next year, the U.S. and Canada are scheduled to begin formal talks on the Columbia River Treaty, which governs operation of the hydropower system on the 1,200-mile-long river.
The 1964 treaty was narrowly written, focusing on power production and flood control. Northwest tribes, environmental groups and others say the treaty should be broadened to include salmon issues, such as passage over Grand Coulee.
Adam Wicks-Arshack, a 25-year-old graduate of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, is leading an effort to paddle the length of the river to call attention to treaty negotiations. He’s a director at Voyages of Rediscovery, a river-based environmental education program.
A chance meeting this spring between Wicks-Arshack and Seyler’s brother, Jim, led to the Wellpinit students’ involvement in the river journey.
A 145-year-old ponderosa pine felled from the Seyler homestead was used to carve two canoes. Half the tree was carved by middle and high school students in Wellpinit during May and June. The second canoe was made by students at the Medicine Wheel Academy in Spokane.
“It was exciting to watch the kids do something culturally that the tribe hasn’t done for 120 years,” said Seyler, noting that the tribe’s oral history and fur traders’ journals mention the Spokanes traveling by canoe.
The Voyages of Rediscovery crew launched the canoes at the mouth of the Columbia earlier this summer. When they reached the confluence of the Columbia and Spokane rivers, 25 students joined the crew for a two-day, 30-mile paddle to Little Falls.
It was the first time that some students had spent any amount of time on the river, said Greg Ramos, a community liaison for the Wellpinit School District.
“They learned that it takes a long time to make a canoe,” he said. “The paddling was really hard, but if they worked together, they learned their teamwork could overcome obstacles, such as the strong current.”
The canoes were returned to the schools Friday during a ceremony. Wicks-Arshack is back on the Columbia this week, where he’s paddling with students from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in a 33-foot-long cedar canoe they carved. He’ll stop at Kettle Falls, the former home of a salmon fishery that once drew tribes from all over the Northwest.
The Voyages of Rediscovery crew will make a final canoe in Kettle Falls, based on designs used by the Canadian explorer David Thompson. That canoe will take the crew members on the final leg of the journey to Canal Flats in British Columbia, near the source of the Columbia.
Crew members don’t have a firm schedule, but hope to arrive before Thanksgiving, Wicks-Arshack said.
Meanwhile, he and the crew will spend about 10 days carving the last canoe at the Kettle Falls Historical Center. People interested in the project are welcome to drop by.
“We’re trying to spread the word about the treaty as we travel,” Wicks-Arshack said.
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