A dozen years ago, any talk about restoring ocean salmon to the upper Columbia River watershed in Canada was labeled a pipe dream. Far too many dams in the way. Complicated international politics. Enormous expense. The list of barriers for the return of this iconic fish was long.
About the same time, local author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes received a phone call from the Kootenay Storytelling Festival. Could she write a story about the landscape, bringing it somehow to life?
“I had just begun research on a new book about the Columbia River,” Pearkes recalled. “It wasn’t long before the Columbia was waking me up in the middle of the night, urging me to record its story. I discovered as I listened to the river that a big part of its story was the salmon. The loss of the ocean salmon, and the river’s hope for its return.”
One storytelling festival and one limited-edition version of the book later, The Heart of a River is back, this time in an affordable soft-cover edition illustrated by Nichola Lytle of Pink Dog Designs. A decade later, the book has been re-released into an unexpected atmosphere of hope for salmon to return. Two pages from the book are included below.
Technical issues about fish passage around dams are being resolved, one by one. Leaders of American tribes and Canadian First Nations are uniting spirit and science to press for changes to the Columbia River Treaty to include eco-system values and salmon passage around Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams in central Washington.
The new edition of the book has a role to play.
“During a recent meeting in Spokane, a tribal representative gave a copy of The Heart of the River to the lead US negotiator for the Columbia River Treaty,” said Pearkes. “I love that our region’s own story of the river has returned to the US State Department in Washington D.C.”
The new prime minister is also on the list to receive complimentary copies.
Until the 1942 completion of of Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state, three ocean salmon species and steelhead trout made their way upstream from the river-mouth in Astoria, Oregon, over 1,000 km into Canada, and 2,000 to the headwaters. While Bonnington Falls stopped the salmon from ascending to Kootenay Lake, they found their way just about everywhere else in the region, enriching the ecosystem and providing important food for the indigenous culture.
The illustrator Lytle admitted to some long, sleepless nights during her own creative process.
“I wanted to give back to the river,” said Lytle. “I wanted to be part of a more empathetic awareness of the Columbia River. I hope that my illustrations invite others to become part of it, too.”
For both Lytle and Pearkes, the story serves as a reminder of water’s potential, as well as the possibilities for change. The Columbia River watershed is the fourth-largest in North America by water volume and encompasses an area the size of France. Its concentrated descent from the height of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean inspired some of the largest and most profitable mega-projects in North America, and resulted in significant losses, especially in Canada.
“So much of our mountain culture is deeply connected to and dependent on water,” said Lytle. “Many of my creative projects are in some way connected to the Columbia — whether I am designing for a local business, creating advertising for tourism, promoting water conservation strategies, or encouraging habitat preservation.”
The Heart of a River is available at the Touchstones gift shop, Otter Books and Ellison’s Market in Nelson; at Merixtell Books in Nakusp; at the Yasodhara Ashram bookstore on the East Shore and online at shop.pinkdogdesigns.com