Healing the big river

Photographer documents the Columbia mile by mile while chasing salmon dreams

By Steve Hubrecht


It was an afternoon like any other, only maybe more beautiful. Peter Marbach was on the slopes of Mt. Hood, scouting locations for a future photo shoot. It was mid June, late in the day, and the Sunday River was roiling below a washed out bank as Peter bushwhacked along the shore through underbrush beneath lodgepole pine and Douglas fir.

A consummate nature photographer, Peter has certain things he makes sure to look for: the right landscape elements for a striking composition, a spot that would catch great evening light, and in this case a new angle, a unique perspective, one that hadn’t been photographed before.

It was starting to look like all three might line up. Peter worked his way further upstream, hoping the river would give him a serpentine S-shaped curve. The sun shone, tree limbs rustled gently in the occasional breeze. The Sunday continued to bounce and burble as it streamed down from its source at the Sandy Glacier far above, en route to meeting the mighty Columbia, not too far away. It was as perfect a moment as life offers. And then Peter felt his heart flip upside down inside his chest.

“I had the sensation that my heart literally rolled right over. It was the weirdest damn feeling, and it wasn’t good,” Peter told the Pioneer. He went down the mountain and straight to a doctor. The doctor asked a few questions and then quickly did an electrocardiogram (EKG). The doctor left the room, and the minutes ticked by. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. It didn’t seem like a normal amount of time to confirm test results.

“When he (the doctor) came back in the room, he wouldn’t look me in the eye,” said Peter. “He told me ‘you’re heart is not getting enough oxygen’.” They scheduled Peter for an angiogram as soon as possible, a few days later. The angiogram showed things were even worse than suspected.

“They told me I was literally a few hours away from having a heart attack,” said Peter. It was as terrifying as it was unlikely for Peter, who was still young, in his early 40s and, as a lifelong outdoorsman, as fit and healthy as it gets. “It’d felt a bit fatigued for a few weeks prior, but that was it. No warning really, it just came up suddenly, almost out of nowhere.

Fate, karma, pure dumb luck – call it what you will, it was not on Peter’s side. And then all at once, just as abruptly, it was. A patient who was scheduled for heart surgery at the same hospital cancelled, and so Peter was wheeled directly into the operating room in this patient’s stead, barely an hour or two after walking in the hospital door.

“They said ‘we’re taking you in right now’. There was no time to consider. Out-of-the-blue, emergency triple bypass surgery. It was pretty crazy stuff,” he said. “It all happened so quick. First the shock of finding out how close I was to checking out of this life, and then to be able to get into life-saving surgery with no notice at all…it was a rollercoaster, to put it mildly. I really do feel I’ve been given a second chance.”

The surgery was a success, and Peter was fixed. Biologically fixed, yes. That rollercoaster came to a stop. But another rollercoaster awaited: recovery, both psychological and physical, from nearly dying was anything but straightforward.

“Maybe it’s the shock of a near-fatal surprise like that, but you don’t just pick up where you left off with your life right after,” said Peter. “It takes time.”

For somebody used to rambling up mountainsides, it meant slowing down and taking things easy for quite a while.

“I spent a lot of time just sitting on the shores of the Columbia,” said Peter. “I spent a lot of time healing on the Columbia.”

It was a big change for Peter, going from gazing down at the Columbia to not being able to do more than plunk down on the river’s bank. Still he took comfort in the familiarity of the river. The coiled waters slipping by were like an old friend, appreciated from a new perspective.

Bit by bit Peter regained strength. He took to walking along the Columbia’s shores, noticing aspects of the watercourse that he never had before. What had been appreciation became fascination.

That fascination turned into something more one fine late winter morning eight months later, as he stood on the summit of Mt. Hood taking in the sunrise, having climbed under a full moon to get there. He’d taken his recovery slowly, but seriously, doing everything the doctors and physiotherapists recommended, being careful but doggedly persistent. And here we was, having just summited an 11,000 foot (3,300 metres) volcano. Better? Yes, you could say he was. And it felt great, the fresh, crisp air and the sunlight glowing on his face. He cracked a grin. Far below he saw the Columbia, snaking through the fabled Columbia River Gorge.

“How is it”, he thought to himself, “I’ve spent 13 years living on this river and I’ve never seen its source? I’ve scrambled up Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and all the big peaks that loom over the Columbia Gorge. Most of the local streams near Hood River that feed into the Columbia, I’ve traced them to their sources and photographed them. But the Columbia herself? I’ve never seen how she starts.”

The sun rose higher in the sky as Peter stood fixed to the spot, recalling how the river — its calming, constant presence and its swirling currents — had helped him heal. Another thought popped into his head, as urgent and clear as a thunder bolt:

“Right there I made a promise to the universe to give something back to the river after the river had given so much to me,” said Peter.

And he knew almost instantly how he would say thanks to the Columbia. He’d spend ever spare moment and more travelling the length and breadth of the river. He’d photograph ever part of it from source to sea, in winter and in summer, in spring and in fall. He’d shoot the mountains and gorges and wild creatures around it. He would talk with the people who live along the Columbia. Young and old. Bigwigs and smalltimers. First Nations chiefs, conservationists, and anybody else. He would tell the river’s story through images.

The more Peter thought about it, the more he dug into it, and once he started making trips up and down the Columbia, the more his idea grew. In the end he spent 12 years working diligently on the project, logging more than 350,000 miles (560,000 kilometres) on his 20-year old pickup truck as he did. The resulting book, Healing the Big River: Salmon Dreams and the Columbia River Treaty, came out earlier this year. Its official launch was to have roughly coincided with this past spring’s Wings Over the Rockies Festival, where he was slated to be a guest speaker. The COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the festival, and Peter’s presentation, but local residents and visitors can still find the book for sale online. Those that pick up the lavish coffee table volume will find quite a bit that is familiar: although the book covers every part of the river, Peter admits the watercourse’s headwaters — the Upper Columbia Valley — hold a special place in his heart (so much so that it even makes the book’s cover).

“The first time I stood at the source, just outside Canal Flats, watching those springs bubble up right out the ground, it nearly brought me to tears,” he said. “It was a kind of a pilgrimage for me, and very emotional. It’s hard to describe.”

It was in the Upper Columbia Valley that he met Shuswap Indian Band Chief Barb Cote and former Akisqnuk First Nation Chief Alfred Jospeh, encounters that changed the format of his book. “I realized, wow, there’s really a good story here. This is the missing piece of my project. It was clear I needed to make something more than just a scenic book. And so it morphed into a much larger vision,” said Peter. He gathered written contributions from Chief Cote and 11 other people with deep connections to the Columbia, and these essays, in his opinion, are the heart of the book.

Some of the essays and photos touch on the enormous salmon runs that once came right up from the ocean to Lake Windermere. The Grand Coulee dam, completed in 1942, and other dams since, stopped those runs decades ago, but Peter began to feel that even in their absence, the salmon are present along the entire river. In conversations. In memories of true old timers. In family recipes still handed down through generations. In traditional festivals, such as the Columbia Salmon Festival jointly held by the Shuswap and Akisqnuk in Invermere, along the river banks. In the dreams of and advocacy of those hoping against all odds that one day, somehow, the salmon runs will be restored. It is these dreams that give the book its title.

But there’s more to the book than salmon and the Upper Columbia Valley. Almost every stretch of the river is covered: The glacier-clad peaks that feed the headwaters. The green glistening ecological jewel that is the Columbia River Wetlands. The deep and still dam-created lakes of Big Bend Country, with evergreen clad slopes rising above. The dry, dusty, sagebrush-dotted shores of the Grand Coulee. The cleft of the Columbia River Gorge, cleaving the Cascade Range clear in two, leaving snowy volcanoes and wildflower strewn meadows on either side. And the fearsome, storm-tossed Columbia Bar where the river meets the Pacific Ocean, and where the roaring waves and treacherous shifting sandbars occasionally send oceangoing ships to the river’s bottom.

“I don’t know if there’s any other books on the entire Columbia, mile by mile,” said Peter. “To say it was a challenge is an understatement.”

Adding to the pressure was a self-imposed deadline. Peter wanted the book out before the Columbia River Treaty renegotiations are finished, which he managed to do. The tenth round of the ongoing process was held digitally in late June.

“It’s perhaps a vain pipe dream of mine, but my hope is that maybe I can motivate people into action and provoke some thought. And if some of the government treaty negotiators somehow look at the book, maybe, just maybe I can inspire them to grow a moral spine,” said Peter.

The river helped Peter heal, and as much as he can, he wants to help the river heal, even a little bit, to help it regain a little of its former wildness.

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