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Northwest Passage: The Great Columbia River

by admin on March 3, 2011

North West Passage

Published April 1995

Read an Excerpt

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When Lewis and Clark reached the Columbia River in 1805, they found a roaring and unruly river with a treacherous mouth and confusing course, boasting salmon runs without equal in the world. This book reveals the heroic stories, triumphant engineering, and disturbing degradation of this powerful, beautiful river. Northwest Passage is an ambitious work of history, geography, and science, a sweeping overview of the transformation of the Columbia from its geologic origins and aboriginal inhabitants to its pioneers, settlers, dam builders, farmers, and contemporary native Americans.

The Columbia is the second largest river, by volume, in the United States and the largest on the west coast of the Western Hemisphere. Its terrain varies from rain forests with more than 100 inches of precipitation a year to desert with as little as five inches per year. It was once the most inexhaustible of rivers with as many as 16 million fish pushing up its 1,200-mile-length each year to spawn and die in its hundreds of tributaries. These runs supported one of the most populous and complex native cultures on the continent. Before the European discovery of the Columbia River, merchants dreamed of the “Great River of the West” they believed had to exist. Then intrepid explorers set out to find this fabled Northwest Passage.

This book tell the tale of the Columbia from its volcanic origins and Ice Age floods to its Indians, explorers, pioneers and developers. This was a river that nourished native cultures for thousands of years but proved frustratingly untamed and “useless” to the Euro-American culture that followed. They set out to transform it, and turned the Columbia’s basin into the most intensively developed river system in the world.

The Columbia today is a largely docile and productive waterway, run by engineers and turned on and off by valves at fourteen major dams and more than 500 small ones. The obstacle course of its falls, boulders, whirlpools and floods has been harnessed and provides 70 percent of the Northwest’s energy. Yet these dams have also permanently blocked half the region’s stream miles from fish migration and reduced wild salmon runs by 98 percent. Environmentalists have named the Columbia one of the nation’s most imperiled rivers.

Northwest Passage is the story of heroic engineering and beauty subdued, of ancient people and brash and ambitious newcomers, of Grand Coulee, the atomic bomb, and the watering of the arid west. It is about how people changed the Columbia and were in turn changed by it. What happens to the Columbia, after all, is what happens to us.


“Dietrich’s measure, thoughtful book views the Columbia through a succession of different lenses — as a bountiful fishery for the Indians, as a snag-ridden and nearly impassable highway for early white explorers, as a hugely powerful manufacturer of hydroelectricity, as a source of irrigation for farmers, as the town drain for the mining and nuclear weapons industries. His Columbia is really a woven braid of the many rivers of the fisherman, the farmer, the engineer, the towboat operator, the explorer, the industrialist. Whenever I have crossed the Columbia, I’ve seen an enormous muddy enigma. Next time, I’ll stop and see it altogether differently, through Dietrich’s eye.”
–Jonathan Raban, author of Old Glory and Waxwings

“In this remarkable book, Bill Dietrich has taken the measure of the Columbia. In his telling, the story of the Columbia is a grand tour of the river’s many lives and the complicated relationships between the river and the people who have used it. Northwest Passage will be immediately recognized as the best single book on the Columbia in print and a superb introduction to hundreds of essential stories about the most powerful hydro stream in North America.”
–William L. Lang, director, Center for Columbia River History

“William Dietrich’s love of history and the Columbia is clear on every page of this powerful, thought-provoking work.”
–Craig Lesley, author of River Song and The Sky Fisherman

“The Columbia River is a natural epic, and William Dietrich gives us a fluent translation of the big river, its long history, its grandeur and its great woes. Northwest Passage is a primer for anyone who cares about the lasting music of water.”
–Ivan Doig, author of Prairie Nocturne

“The most informative book I have ever read about the Columbia River.”
–Murray Morgan, author of The Last Wilderness and Skid Road

“A grand narrative of the river as idea . . . the special value of Dietrich’s story is its humanity. An engaging case study of a whole bundle of environmental and social issues (pollution, hydropower politics, Indian rights, resource economics) that should matter to people all over the country.”
New York Times Book Review

“A marvel of history, nature writing, politics and common sense, extensively researched, lovingly written, and splendidly woven together in an epic story of a magnificent river and humanity’s conquest of nature.”
Los Angeles Times

“A wonderful, disturbing, and thought-provoking history of the Columbia River, Northwest Passage is a remarkable book, first of all in its scope and complexity. Here is a fine blend of natural history, of human history, and of political history.”
Washington Post

“The book flows like the river itself, with information suspended throughout its chronology as the sediment it carries out to sea . . . Dietrich provides definitive histories of Grand Coulee Dam, the impact of irrigation and electrification, river navigation, the sleeping monster at Hanford, (and) a concise profile of the salmon.”
Portland Oregonian

“A must-read for anyone interested in the interplay of technology, nature, and human ambition.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Dietrich expertly incorporates the viewpoints of myriad sources who have taken a passionate interest in one of our greatest natural resources.”

“Dietrich offers us two books in one. The first having to do with the settlement and development of the river and the second, the basin’s environmental downfall, including some modern, quixotic efforts to make it not seem like one.”
Wilderness Magazine

hardcover / $26.00 / Simon & Schuster / 067179650X / April 1995
paperback / $18.95 / University of Washington Press / 0295975466 / June 2003

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