This is Steve Ember.
And this is Shirley Griffith with the VOA Special English program,
EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about the Columbia River that flows
through the American Northwest.
(Photos - Bonneville Power Administration)
It is said by many that the Columbia River is the most beautiful
river in North America. It flows from the Canadian province
of British Columbia into the United States through the northwestern
state of Washington. It is the fourth largest river in North
America, and the largest that empties into the Pacific Ocean.
The Columbia begins its two-thousand kilometer trip to the
Pacific Ocean in Canada at Columbia Lake. That is just west
of the main part of the Rocky Mountains in southeastern British
Columbia. It flows mainly south into the northwestern United
States until it makes a big turn to begin flowing west. It is
at this point that the Snake River enters the Columbia. As it
flows west, the Columbia forms much of the border between the
states of Oregon and Washington before it reaches the Pacific
The great river flows through deep valleys and narrow places
called canyons. It passes through two large series of mountains
? the Cascades and the Coast mountains -- and it crosses desert
areas and flows through lands of great forests.
The Columbia and the rivers that flow into it gather water from
a huge area of more than six-hundred-seventy-thousand square
kilometers. That is about the size of France.
Large ocean going ships can sail up the lower Columbia River,
as far as Vancouver, Washington. Smaller ships can continue
up the river about three-hundred kilometers from the Pacific
Ocean. However, these ships must pass through devices known
as locks. Locks can change the level of the water. In a lock,
a ship can be raised or lowered to another level where it can
sail on. Small boats can travel another two-hundred-twenty kilometers
up the river. There are locks for river traffic along this part
of the river too. These locks and the many dams on the river
were built in the last century as part of development projects.
The first white explorer to see the Columbia River was an American
named Robert Gray. Seeking increased trade for the new United
States, he sailed from the eastern city of Boston in Seventeen-Eighty-Seven
to the Pacific Northwest. He found the river in Seventeen-Ninety-Two.
Robert Gray named the river after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva.
On a second trip to the area, he explored the lower parts of
the river. Gray¡¯s exploration of the river helped
the United States claim what became known later as the Oregon
In Eighteen-Oh-Five, American explorers Meriwether Lewis and
William Clark reached the Columbia River area by traveling across
land from the east. They were the first explorers to do this.
The two men had been sent to explore what was called the Louisiana
Territory. The United States had purchased the Louisiana Territory
from France in Eighteen-Oh-Three.
President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore
the territory. He hoped that the explorers would find a river
that could provide a direct waterway across the North American
continent that could be used for trade and business. The two-year
trip probably is the most famous story of American exploration.
When Lewis and Clark arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River
at the Pacific Ocean in Eighteen-Oh-Five, Americans were already
living there. Fur traders such as David Thompson had settled
there earlier. Thompson was with a company dealing especially
in animal skins used in making clothes in the eastern United
States and in Europe.
In Eighteen-Eleven, members of the Pacific Fur Company arrived
in the area to establish their business. The company was owned
by John Jacob Astor. They established Fort Astoria on the edge
of the Columbia River in what later became the state of Oregon.
The fort became the modern town of Astoria. It is the oldest
American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.
The Columbia River was at the center of the new American settlement
in Pacific Northwestern territory, then known as the Oregon
Territory. For many early settlers it was known as the Oregon
River or the River of the West. However, the name given to the
river in Seventeen-Ninety-Two became its final name ? the Columbia.
Native Americans had lived in the Columbia River area for an
estimated ten-thousand years. To them, the river represented
the center of life for the surrounding land. The river provided
these first Americans with their most important food, fish known
as the Pacific Salmon.
Salmon can grow to weigh as much as twenty-five kilograms.
They spend most of their lives in the salt waters of the northern
oceans. But they are born in the fresh waters of rivers. When
the huge fish are ready to reproduce, they swim hundreds of
kilometers from the ocean up the rivers to the places where
they first knew life.
After laying their eggs at the end of this long trip, the salmon
die, their circle of life completed. No one knows how many thousands
and thousands of years the salmon have been doing this.
In Eighteen-Sixty-Six, the first salmon processing factory
was built on the edge of the Columbia River. In less than twenty
years about thirty similar factories were supplying world markets
with salmon caught on the river in nets, traps, and wheels.
In Eighteen-Eighty-Three, almost twenty-million kilograms of
salmon were caught on the river. By the Nineteen-Sixties, only
two-million kilograms of Columbia River salmon was sent to markets.
The salmon population has been severely reduced because humans
have blocked the flow of the river. The salmon can no longer
go back to the places of their birth on the Columbia and the
other rivers that flow into it.
In the Twentieth Century, huge dams were built on the Columbia.
There are fourteen dams on the river. These dams serve at least
three purposes. They provide electric power. They provide river
water to grow crops. And they control flooding.
The largest of the dams on the Columbia is the Grand Coulee
Dam. It is about halfway between the beginning and the end of
the river. It was completed in Nineteen-Forty-One. Before then,
about twenty-five-thousand salmon swam up the Columbia River
into Canada to lay their eggs. Thousands of them would swim
all the way to Columbia Lake, where the river begins. When the
dam was completed, the salmon could no longer swim up the river.
All the fourteen dams on the Columbia are not like the Grand
Coulee Dam. Some of them were built with what are called fish
ladders. These ladders permit salmon to swim past the dams to
go up the river. Many of the two-hundred-fifty dams on the rivers
that flow into the Columbia also have such devices built into
them. Yet the dams have changed the Columbia from a free flowing
river to a series of lakes linked by the water that is permitted
to flow through.
The dams produce great amounts of electricity. The result is
energy whose costs are lower for expanding development in the
Pacific Northwest. The lakes that remain behind the dams provide
water for agriculture along the river. This is especially true
in what once were dry, desert areas in central Washington State.
So, the Columbia River and the dams are extremely important
to the economy of the Pacific Northwest.
There are many people who believe that dams are not good. Biologists,
environmentalists, Indian tribes, and fishermen argue that at
least some of the dams should be removed or changed to permit
water to flow as it once did. They say that there is no longer
a natural balance of the river. Opponents of the dams say humans
should make an effort to live together with other life forms
on Earth. Supporters of the dams believe the river should be
controlled for human use even though other life forms may be
This argument is expected to last many years.
Most of the great rivers of North America and the rest of the
world have great cities on them. But not the Columbia River.
The Hudson River has New York City. The Mississippi River has
a number of great cities along it. The Seine has Paris. The
Nile River has Cairo. Along the Columbia, however, the human
population is spread more thinly. And, most of the people who
live along the beautiful Columbia River would not want to live
This VOA Special English program was written by Oliver Chanler
and produced by Caty Weaver. This is Shirley Griffith.
And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another
EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.
This V-O-A Explorations Report is published
courtesy of VOAnews.com