The Columbia River originates in two lakes that lie in the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the province of British Columbia and the Clark Fork, named for William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in the State of Montana. It flows a little over 1,200 miles to Astoria, Oregon and Ilwaco, Washington where it dumps 235,000 cubic feet (6,650 m3) of water every second into the Pacific Ocean. It runs mostly through the state of Washington and forms the bulk of its border with Oregon.
For its first 200 miles the Columbia flows north, then bends to the south crossing the international border into the United States where it meets the Clark Fork. The Clark Fork River begins near Butte, Montana and flows through western Montana before entering Pend Oreille Lake. Water draining from the lake forms the Pend Oreille River, which flows across the Idaho panhandle to Washington's northeastern corner where it meets the northern Canadian fork.
The river then runs south-southwest through the Columbia Plateau, changing to a southeasterly direction near the Columbia Basin where the magnificent Gorge at George is located. The Gorge Amphitheater, which looks out over the gorge, is one of the most spectacular concert venues for you and your 40,000 closest friends.
When most think of Washington State they think of Seattle, the Emerald City, and the evergreen forests with all of its rain. However, on this north-south stretch through eastern Washington, the Columbia spans a large desert created by the Cascade Mountains' rain shadow. With out irrigation from the Columbia and her tributaries millions of dollars of agriculture, including apples, pears, wheat, alfalfa, potatoes and many others would be blown away with the tumbleweeds.
The river continues southeast until passes the Hanford Nuclear Reservation just before it reaches the Snake River. The Columbia then makes a sharp bend to the west were it begins to form the Washington / Oregon border. Along this section the river cuts through the Cascade Mountains in which lays the Columbia River Gorge, a beloved spot for windsurfers. Constant winds of 15 to 35 mph blow through this wide straight gorge. This 80-mile section of the river is a half to three quarters of a mile deep in places. It continues west until the Pacific Ocean, with one small north-northwesterly directed stretch near Portland, Vancouver and the confluence with the Willamette River.
The Columbia's waters used to be navigable, and where frequently by steam powered riverboats. They would transport goods as well as passengers from the Pacific to the Canadian border. However, in 1932 Rock Island Dam was built making it impossible for any ship to pass. Since then, 10 additional river-spanning hydroelectric dams have been constructed on the Columbia including the behemoth Grand Coulee Dam. There are still a few riverboat companies that operate out of Portland, however, they cannot venture any farther upstream than Bonneville Dam, the farthest downstream dam on the Columbia.
All together there are 55 major hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and its tributaries, making it the largest electricity producing river system in the world. However, these dams server more of a purpose then electrical generation. 260,000 square miles of land drains into the Columbia. In the late spring and summer months, as snow melts in the mountains, there is considerably more water trying to make its way to the ocean, which used to lead to massive flooding throughout the region. Each dam has large capacity reservoirs, which has all but eliminated devastating floods. The reservoirs are closely regulated to insure one dam is not "hoarding" water so salmon and other fish can have an adequate habitat.
The Columbia used to be the largest salmon producing river in the world. The decline of salmon as a direct result of the installation of hydroelectric dams has been the topic of much ecological controversy. Fish ladders in most dams insure salmon can reach some of the more northern tributaries, such as the Wenatchee and Okanogan Rivers, to spawn. However, no salmon can make it past Grand Coulee Dam. Pin salmon, or those raised in hatcheries, are used to supplement the decline in population.
Here are some facts about the Columbia:
Length: 1,230 miles (1980 km)
Land area drained: 260,000 square miles (670,000 km2)
Drainage at the mouth: 235,000 cubic feet (6,650 m3) of water per second
The Columbia ten major tributaries:
Major dams on the Columbia: