We went to the preview event for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society the other night. The exhibit is a one-of-a-kind compilation of objects, written and graphic materials from a variety of private and public collections that document the amazing exploration that reached the Pacific Ocean 200 years ago.
It was early April of this year when Dave and I paddled up the Columbia River from Cathlamet on a perfect early spring river day. A grey sky, slight breeze, and occasional light rain accompanied us as we followed the tide upriver past the struggling river town. The land-water interfaces of big rivers tell many stories to those who choose to travel at the water's pace. Stories of commerce, stories of river life, and stories of history cling tenaciously to rotting pilings, sinking derelict vessels, and rotting wood shacks miraculously held afloat by algae-covered logs felled long ago in long-gone forests.
There is one reach of the river upstream of Cathlamet where the highway moves away from the river atop a high rock bluff and all of the usual and obvious signs of civilization disappear. A high waterfall cascades from the bluff, full from spring rains. Cedars, alders, ash and willow somehow manage to thrive near the water's edge, their branches pruned to a common height above the river according to the vertical range of the tides and seasonal water. The sound of river under the kayak and water-drip from the paddle is suddenly noticeable, until the waterfall overwhelms all other sounds with its constant roar.
I was momentarily overwhelmed by the realization that this is what the explorers of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the native people they encountered, saw and heard every day, and the thought shackled me with anchor lines, pulling at me to linger longer, to stay for as long as possible in this time before time.
As we left the waterfall reach, and entered another section where the highway ran along the shore, I was gripped with a dread feeling of nostalgic despair - and this is truly the only way I can describe it. In the time-speck of two hundred years, this magnificent river ecosystem has been altered almost beyond recognition by and for humanity.
Don't misinterpret this feeling I had. I'm very much a realist, and I understand that the human animal changes its surroundings to suite its needs. But try as we might, we are still part of the natural world, and we still carry imprinted in our genetic code an understanding of what came before. To its credit, nature is a tenacious force; plant and animal species that evolved in this system for millennia prior to the modern time remember the old ways, and struggle to carry on as before. The derelict boats and sinking shacks along the river edge also seem to understand and embody this natural persistence., and yes, there are even those among us humans who remember the old ways.