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Downstream 

How one man's epic voyage down the Columbia 200 years ago changed who we are today.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS BOVEY
  • Illustration by Chris Bovey

Two hundred years ago this week, David Thompson launched a strange-looking cedar plank canoe into the waters of the Clark Fork River. As in our present spring, all the rivers in the region then were swollen with late, heavy snow runoff, but Thompson, a North West Company fur agent and surveyor, was experienced on the water, and he knew where he wanted to go. He had spent three years setting up a network of trade houses on the major eastern tributaries of the Columbia River, and he was ready to reap the rewards of his tribal contacts and business investments. After more than a decade of trying to crack the puzzle of the whole Columbia River, he finally had the opportunity to paddle its main stem to the Pacific.

To commemorate Thompson’s epic journey, an international canoe brigade launched from the source lakes of the Columbia in southeastern British Columbia last week. Over the next six weeks, the intrepid paddlers will follow Thompson’s trade route to the Pacific, participating in community events all along the way. First they’ll row the Kootenai, Clark Fork, and Pend Oreille rivers on their way to Kettle Falls, pausing for festivities at Kettle Falls’ Mission Point over the weekend of June 17-19. Then, after restarting their journey, they’re scheduled to reach Astoria in mid-July. Their every paddle stroke can be traced by visiting 2011brigade.org.

Even as the brigade traces much of Thompson’s original route, they remain in awe of what the fur agent accomplished in his interactions with French-Canadian, Iroquois, Plateau tribal, Hawaiian, and mixed-blood men, women, and children.

Thompson and three company voyageurs kicked off their journey in January 1811, at the confluence of the Columbia and Canoe rivers, on the Columbia’s northernmost bend. There they framed a 26-foot canoe of Thompson’s own design and sheathed it with split cedar planks sewn together with spruce root. Built to haul 10 men and a ton of gear, this bateau measured 54 inches wide and 36 inches deep at the middle thwart.

The Nor’westers paddled their canoe upstream to Thompson’s Kootanae House at the Columbia’s source lakes, picking up two expert Iroquois hands along the way. From there, they ran the Kootenay River to Libby, Montana, traded for Kootenai horses, and took an overland route to the Saleesh House post at Thompson Falls.

After building a second cedar-plank canoe, they followed the Clark Fork River to Kullyspel House on Pend Oreille Lake, then continued down the Pend Oreille River to a Kalispel tribal encampment at modern Cusick. A Kalispel guide led the fur traders south on a trail to Spokane House, then north on another trail through the Colville Valley to Kettle Falls, where Salish-speaking tribes from all over the region were gathering for the great mid-Columbia summer salmon fishery.

On July 3, 1811, Thompson set off in a third cedar plank bateau for his final push to the sea. Even Thompson stopped along the way at every large village to exchange gifts and speak with local tribes, the massive spring runoff propelled his boat to the confluence of the Snake and the Columbia rivers (at the modern Tri-Cities) in just six days. In another six, he reached the Pacific and was parlaying with traders at the newly constructed Astoria post about trading rights on the big river.

Thompson quickly turned around and headed back upstream. After an overland shortcut and a brief stop at Spokane House, he rode north to Kettle Falls, built his fourth cedar plank canoe, and paddled back to Boat Encampment, completing his survey of the Columbia River’s 1,250 miles.

Under Thompson’s watch, the fur trade began to alter Plateau tribal lifestyles forever. His surveys set the stage for a political struggle between Great Britain and the United States over ownership of the Pacific Northwest that would not be resolved until the 1846 boundary settlement. Those same surveys allowed Thompson to draw the first accurate maps of the entire Columbia drainage area.

But perhaps most significantly, his introduction of tribal and European peoples into the region created a new social dynamic that is still reflected throughout the Inland Northwest today. The 2011 commemorative brigade reflects and honors all these outcomes as the big river sweeps them downstream.


The 2011 David Thompson Columbia Brigade set off from Canal Flats, B.C., on Friday, June 3, and is scheduled to pull out at Astoria, Oregon, on July 16 — 43 days and 1,040 miles later. As they come through our area, historian Jack Nisbet will set the stage for their arrival at cities along the route, with talks on David Thompson’s journey to the sea.

June 10 Clark Fork, Idaho, senior center at 7 pm
June 13 Dover, Idaho, City Hall at 7 pm
June 14 Oldtown, Idaho, Rotary Park at 5:30 pm, followed by dinner and a repeat presentation
June 17 Kettle Falls, Wash., Interpretive Center at 7 pm
June 19 Kettle Falls, Wash., Interpretive Center, all-day teachers workshop
June 24 Pateros, Wash., 7 pm

For more information on the brigade (including a video of their last river journey), visit 2011brigade.org.

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