My Columbia River - Greg Fuhrer

As I was going through old photos and post cards belonging to my grandfather, a third generation Swiss mountain guide, I came across a 1912 card that he had written to his father. It read, “Father, you must come to America, the peaks in the Pacific Northwest are largely unclimbed and remind me of home.” My Grandfather made a life long career of first ascents and exploration in the Cascades, the Canadian Rockies, and the Tetons. The home that he made in this country for my father, and ultimately for me, was nestled near Mt. Hood, and only a short distance from the impressive sight of the Columbia River.

I grew up with the river in my backyard, and like many native Oregonians viewed the river as a marvelous spectacle and a powerful force. As a child, my mother showed me a high-water mark in the hall closet of her childhood home. This mark was left by the Columbia River and it was beyond my comprehension how the Columbia River could have disfigured this beautiful home. She told me of the destruction by the Vanport Flood —the result of the spring snowmelt of 1948. This flood caused multiple dike failures along the Columbia River and reduced America’s largest post-war housing project to rubble in an hour’s time. From that day on, I had the utmost respect for this magnificent river. 
My first deep connection with the Columbia River occurred as part of my job as a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Although opportunities for first ascents and novel exploration no longer exist within the Cascades, the water resources of the Columbia River still welcome exploration and study.  One of my first field assignments was to assess contaminants in sediments in the lower Columbia River Estuary. I still remember locating various sampling locations on navigational charts and maps for my field trip. There was Baker Bay on the Washington side, Young’s Bay and Cathlamet Bay on the Oregon side, main channel sites, and ocean sites just north and south of the Columbia River jetties. This map exercise did not prepare me for the wide expanse of the estuary, its powerful currents, and tricky bar. I was fascinated with the calm backwater areas of the lower estuary, but quickly learned the real meaning of the term “bottom swells”.  My body lacked any reasonable ability to deal with the seemingly random motion of water outside the confines of the jetties; seasickness was my only companion. Nonetheless, this trip, and many to follow, was fruitful in understanding some of the environmental challenges within the estuary.
To this day —and no different from when I was a child—I continue to have the utmost respect for this magnificent river. With the added passage of time though, I also realize that the river isn’t invulnerable; its power is undeniable, but its protection rests in the hands of those of us who are connected to this great river.
Greg Fuhrer is the Acting Associate Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Oregon Water Science Center.