As a winter fellow last year, I spent most of my days scouring the internet for documents and reports on political squabbles over the upcoming renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty, an agreement between the U.S. and Canada about how the Columbia River should be managed as it crosses the international border. I felt like I was learning a lot from this Internet sleuthing and making good progress toward my final report. But every time we met, my faculty host and mentor, Rich Wildman, suggested that remote research was not enough and that I should take advantage of my flexible schedule and go see the river itself. I agreed with the sentiment but was not swayed enough to spend the time or money on the trip. Besides, I thought I was doing fine work from campus.
But Rich’s suggestion stuck in the back of my mind. So after my fellowship ended I decided to combine my academic interest in the Columbia River with my passion for bike travel. On June 24th I pedaled my bike away from the sand of Clatsop Spit, Oregon where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. I was bound for the river’s headwaters 2000 kilometers away in Canal Flats, British Columbia.
For the next 36 days I peddled upstream. Along the way, I observed the landscape; I read five books about the river; I interviewed experts and ordinary residents of the Basin. And on July 29th, I arrived at the river’s beginning, much the wiser for it.
Now a month later, as I prepare to begin another year at Quest, I am reflecting on the experience and what I have learned from it. My biggest takeaway from the trip is that, in contrast to my earlier attitude, I am wholly convinced it is essential to spend time in the places that we study. It seems that my prior mindset of remote research as sufficient is a common one in academia, especially in this age of abundant and accessible information. But on my bike journey up the Columbia, I learned that, while internet and library research can get you close, it is no substitute for experiencing the place itself.
About a week into my trip, I spent a day sitting in the park in the tiny riverside town of Mosier, Oregon reading a book called The Death of Cellilo Falls. In it, author Katrine Barber tells the story of Cellilo Falls — once North America’s most prolific fishing site and a foundation of the region’s indigenous culture — and of the Dalles Dam, which in 1957 flooded the falls forever and displaced the nearby native communities. The next day, I cycled through the area and saw with my own eyes the places I had read about. The Dalles is on the dry eastern side of the Cascade mountains and, behind the massive concrete wall of the Dalles Dam, the Columbia River shines brilliant blue against the parched brown hillside.
Later that afternoon, I sat on a picnic bench in the town of Wishram, Washington with Wilbur Slockish Jr., an elder and hereditary chief of the Klickitat Tribe (part of the Yakama Nation). We were on the shore of Lake Cellilo adjacent to the submerged site of the Cellilo Falls, which was flooded when Wilbur was 13 years old. For an hour, he told me about his life near the river and how the loss of the native fishery has hurt his people. I asked him questions about the things I’d read in The Death of Cellilo Falls the day before. He shared his thoughts on the state of the river and his concerns about its future, including the unresolved pollution problems at the Hanford nuclear site. Wilbur worries that people will never realize how the value of renewable resources like salmon far exceeds that of short term profits.
In the evening, as I rode along the river toward that night’s campsite, I reflected on the past two days. In three years of university and in my fellowship, I had never had a learning experience so vivid. Reading and thinking from afar can do a lot, but there is a richness and depth of understanding that can only be found in the real place. Whatever your academic interest, as the new school year begins I urge you to leave the classroom, the library, and the computer behind and go see it for yourself.
You can read and see more of Graeme’s trip at https://graemeleerowlands.com/the-anadromous-cyclist/ and on instagram @theanadromouscyclist.