If we renamed a river, what would change?
The floating pier at river mile 123 is tipsy this early morning, though the wind is calm and the water glass. I step carefully, wary of a river’s tricks. They’re deceptive creatures – although perhaps I should say ‘mysterious.’ It’s not their fault we humans so often fail to read their complexities aright. This one in particular looks like a medium-sized lake on a quiet day, with a lake’s associations of peace and an easy pace. Launch a kayak from this pier, though, and you’ll feel its wild strength. There’s a current out there – at least one – and a tide, even so many miles from the ocean.
I know no other way to invoke this sleeping giant than Columbia, but mornings like this, the name tends to catch in my throat. It’s a beautiful word, as suited as any other, but its casual jingoism takes my breath away sometimes. Columbia, the personified United States, floating serenely westward in a cloud of Manifest Destiny. The name makes the river into a thrilling paean – as well as a single-sided history lesson. I feel the gooseflesh rise on my arms: two entirely opposite emotional responses in one involuntary shiver.
The massive waterway we call Columbia sends more water by volume into the Pacific Ocean than any other river on the continent. Its basic course was set millions of years ago, humans have built their lives around it for 10,000 years or more. Until the 1930s, it dropped toward the sea at a reckless careen, crashing down steep, rocky canyons. Today that wild ride has been tamed, both imaginatively and tangibly, through the power of the dam. There’s no telling how long that imposed serenity will last. At any rate, not forever.
Our single layer of naming is a moment in time, a flash in the pan. We don’t know the full catalog of human description our river has borne through the millennia, but I find it intriguing that the records we do have, from cultures present before our own, take one step back from the imposition of a name, in favor of something more like a title. Nch’i-Wàna, for example, or Wimahl: The Great River.
Robert Gray and the British Empire bestowed the name Columbia in 1792 (though the name as a reference to the land that became America is older.) With it, he changed the river’s nature. The change, of course, came not from him precisely, but from the subsequent imposition of new cultural values related to the word. The power of humans to name resonates cross-culturally. The founding myth of the Judeo-Christian world involves a pair of argumentative humans who spend their first days naming everything in sight. It’s an integral part of their dominion over all the earth.
So here I am on a winter Saturday just at sunrise, grateful for and uneasy over my casual ability to name this great presence, to stand on its banks and feel a sense of belonging, even ownership. In a mile or so, I’ll be on a National Wildlife Refuge, which is technically my property, held by my government in trust for all citizens.
Let’s shift focus. Easier by far to clear the mind and fix on the sound of a single mallard taking off. It claps the surface once, twice, three times, loud in the stillness of the morning, and flutes off busily at a 45-degree angle, working its wings at exhausting speed.
Next to the pier, the secretive river hints at hidden vehemence: tiny, wild eddies bump into the intruding structure, swirling off and under.
A stocky kingfisher swoops, but omits its distinctive, rattling call. I see these birds just as often at dawn as any other hour, but they always seem reluctant to break the quiet of an early morning.
I’ve been dallying on the floating dock, but the trail I’m meant to be walking starts just above – and it’s not precisely a trail, but the flattened top of the dike that divides the river from the town of Washougal, Washington.
The city’s name is thought to derive from a Chinook word meaning something like “rushing waters,” which was probably appropriate when the river ran free. Looking at those eddies, it doesn’t seem entirely wrong now. There’s another theory that the original name meant “small rocks and pebbles,” which I like because the word Washougal sounds like pebbles rolling and clicking in my mouth.
The first couple of miles cut a straight line between the industrial edges of the town and the wild fringes of the river. On one side: a lumber yard, a sewage treatment pond, the fallen-in ruins of something agricultural – maybe a turkey farming operation. On the other: chortling waterfowl, a couple of stone canoes cast to look like Lewis and Clark’s, a cottonwood chewed halfway through by a beaver.
It takes me a moment to remember that my imagined line is just that. The two sides I thought I saw are really a unified zone, an sort of industrial ecotone. None of its component parts contradict each other. Every time my mind makes that shift, it’s like unraveling an optical illusion.
The cottonwoods thin out as the dike arrows onto federal land. From here, the mist-veiled steeps of the Columbia Gorge rear up from the river in silvery morning stormlight.
A name changes everything – witness the rotting, abandoned turkey farm – and also nothing, long term. It creates lines in our heads and in our lives, shifts currents, and both causes and controls human disaster. It also has zero effect on the eternal continuity of such a vast and weighty presence as the river we call Columbia.
Until I spent a few hours on it in a kayak, the river had no meaning for me. I crossed it on freeway bridges, watched it recede as the plane took off. It was beautiful. It was big. Dragging my kayak out the shallow, sand-barred mouth of the Lake River from Vancouver (I hit the tide wrong) changed all that.
The confusingly named Lake is gentle and pleasant. A friend and I watched a river otter dive and play between our opposing bows, the two of us just floating, smiling, barely attending our drift.
The Columbia is powerful; it demands constant attention. Even on a windless blue day, the water is cold and runs strong, in nothing like a straight line. Eddies and cross-currents and all that sheer volume of deep water actually thrum beneath the shell of your flimsy boat. Travel is shockingly fast, and weather gets serious even faster.
Like nighttime walking in the woods, it’s an experience that thrills, in both senses of the verb. I want to repeat it. I also enjoy recalling it with both feet firmly on the dike. Floating on the surface, with more agency than a leaf but less than a bird or a fish, is the closest I’ve come to unnaming the great river, and maybe the closest to any kind of understanding.
From the bank, this calm day, the Columbia is a picture of smooth-featured, safely named serenity. I watch it, content, the memory of profound unsettlement dropping through my mind like a stone beneath the surface of the water.
The given name of this trail is simply the Columbia River Dike, or East Dike. Begin from either end: Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, at the edge of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, or Steamboat Landing in Washougal. Both are immediately accessible off State Highway 14. The total mileage (there and back again) is about 6, and the elevation gain nearly non-existent. From Portland, it’s a 20-30 minute drive, depending. No fees to park.