By Steve Hubrecht 

[email protected] 

Hannah Griffin paddled under the three bridges that span the Columbia River in Revelstoke. It was a beautiful day, the water was clear and Hannah and her partner Steve Hews were flying along the river. Friends had spotting their canoe in the current and cheered them on from atop Boulder Mountain earlier in the day.

The pair were arriving back home, having paddled almost 500 kilometres of the Columbia, all the way from Canal Flats, over the previous nine days. They pulled up to shore in downtown Revelstoke, along a stretch of the Columbia that Hannah knows well — she walks her two husky dogs there often, swims with friends in the currents there in the summer, and frequently glimpses the river from the mountain slope above during the winter. But her relationship to the river had started to change during the past nine days. It would keep doing so as she continued paddling downstream — this time on her own (Steve had to go back to work) — for 800 kilometres more, before ending her trip in Washington State.

Readers with acute memories will recall that the Pioneer published a letter to the editor from Hannah and Steve several months ago, deploring golf balls in the Columbia where the river passes Fairmont Hot Springs. To mark and celebrate International Women’s Day (which falls on Friday, March 8), the Pioneer reached out to Hannah to find out more about her long trip, which began last July.

At least, that’s when the paddling began. The origins stretch back farther, to a love of canoe tripping that Hannah developed while working in summer camps in northern Ontario. She moved to B.C. more than a decade ago, living first at Panorama Mountain Resort, then other Kootenay communities, Vancouver Island and Squamish, before eventually settling in Revelstoke. In between all that she spent time in New York and in Mongolia. She worked as a journalist and then in the tech industry. But memories of the joys of long days spent paddling always remained in the back of her mind. And when she and Steve first moved to Revelstoke, she was fascinated by the fact that water flowing just a few blocks from their home eventually went all the way to the Pacific. What would it be like to paddle it? Hannah couldn’t get that thought out of her head.

Last spring she lost her job. The tech company she worked for wasn’t doing as well as hoped, and so cut staff, including Hannah. Most people would be devastated. But for Hannah it seemed like an opportunity had just opened up — she now had the time available to follow the current of the Columbia. She spent months preparing for the trip – studying the route, reading accounts of those who had done it before (which were few and far between), dehydrating food and packing.

PHOTO SUBMITTED

On July 31, Hannah and Steve launched at Tilley Memorial Park in Canal Flats. A brisk tail wind bore them up Columbia Lake. They dodged herds of people floating the river near Fairmont, then camped beside the rail tracks on the western shore of Lake Windermere. After Lake Windermere, they paddled the braided, serpentine stretches of the Columbia River that wind through the world-famous Columbia Wetlands, between Invermere and Golden.

This part of the trip was a major highlight. “There are so many bird species,” said Hannah. “The river is flowing free, not affected by dams like it is lower down. You’re surrounded by high mountains on all sides. It’s special.”

Beyond Golden, the couple paddled Kinbasket Lake, the huge reservoir formed by the Mica Dam. The surroundings were beautiful, but the effects of the reservoir — erosion and debris on the shore — were evident. It was windy too, forcing the pair to paddle from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., then stop for most of the day to wait out the gusts, and begin paddling again at about 5 p.m. At one point they paddled along the shore while a wildfire raged on the mountain slopes overhead.

“You could see the trees erupting in flames . . . the forest down closer to the shore was charred black. You could still feel the warmth in the air,” said Hannah. 

It was a remote spot, a very long way from help of any sort, which only heightened the mood. The couple thought about paddling to the other side of the lake to be further from the flames. But doing so would’ve entailed a potentially treacherous crossing of an arm of the lake notorious for high winds. These very same winds had, decades ago, whipped down the arm, capsizing a group of canoeists, leaving some of them to succumb to hypothermia. Hannah and Steve decided to avoid the arm, and kept paddling under the fire.

Long portages around Mica Dam and Revelstoke Dam followed, before the couple eventually made it back to Revelstoke. 

Then Hannah set out on her own, down the Arrow Lakes, across the border and on through Washington state. Dams (including the famous Grand Coulee) and reservoirs cropped up far more frequently, and the Columbia was not really a free-flowing river any more. The landscape became flatter and more arid. People were everywhere.

During one leg of her trip last summer, Hannah Griffin couldn’t avoid wildfire smoke that tainted the landscape.
PHOTO SUBMITTED

“I realized I’d never done a trip through a populated area. It was always somewhere remote, like Algonquin or Temagami,” said Hannah. “The dams were really eye-opening. From one side to the other, you were so much lower in elevation. And the water on the other side, the way it moved, the way it flowed, was so different.”

Hannah began to feel exhausted and run down. She chalked it up to long days paddling and the fact that, on some days, smoke from summer wildfires was so thick she could barely see 15 feet ahead. The exhaustion got so bad that Hannah could barely manage to paddle four hours a day before she needed to stop. Normally she could paddle nine to 10 hours a day. 

Hannah waited for things to get better. They didn’t. Near the town of Vantage, Washington, she decided to end the trip, 600 kilometres from the Pacific. Steve drove down and brought her back to Revelstoke. 

She spent days in bed, barely able to get up. Testing revealed she’d come down with an intense case of giardia (also known as beaver fever).

“It must have slipped through my water filter somehow,” she ruefully recalled.

Hannah rested and recuperated and immediately began planning her return to the Columbia this coming summer, to finish her paddle to the sea. Steve will join her on those final 600 kilometres. Hannah is grateful to have had the experience of a long solo paddle, but will be happy not to be alone on the river this summer.

“There were a few people I met who did wonder what it was like (paddling the Columbia) as a solo woman . . . but I was fine. They asked ‘aren’t you scared?’ I thought it was mostly about being alone. To be honest, the idea of it being a gender thing didn’t even occur to me,” Hannah told the Pioneer.

Instead, the reason she’s happy to have Steve along for the final stretch of the trip is loneliness. In the populated parts of the Columbia River in Washington State Hannah saw people every day — picnicking on the shore, zooming by in speedboats – but she rarely interacted with them. There were no other long-distance paddlers. Hannah was among people, but somehow strangely apart from them.

“It’s very satisfying to know I can do something like (an extended paddle trip) on my own,” she said. “But now I know that when I do something like that, I like to experience it with other people.”

Paddling the Columbia has changed the meaning of the river for Hannah.

“I think a lot about how it’s a microcosm for so many issues,” she told the Pioneer. “Before it was just a river that went through town (Revelstoke). Now I see it, when I’m running out on the flats (a part of the Columbia River in Revelstoke) or when I’m looking down from the ski hill and I think about water levels. I think about salmon. I think about the Columbia River Treaty and how it may change. And I still think about how crazy it is the water I see going by here is heading all the way to the Pacific.”

PHOTO SUBMITTED