In the autumn of 2013, barely a third of the way into a 1,240-mile canoe expedition from the Pacific Ocean to the source of the Columbia River, a crew of paddlers led by Voyages of Rediscovery, a Washington state-based outdoor education nonprofit, ran out of money. But it was harvest season in the Pacific Northwest and the residents of the Columbia basin had the paddlers in their hearts. “People opened their houses to us and took care of us,” says Adam Wicks-Arshack. “It was clear they wanted to be part of the journey.”

The response galvanized the paddlers’ mission to restore ecological integrity to the once-mighty Columbia. In paddling five homemade dugout canoes, each symbolizing species of salmon native to the area, it’s Wicks-Arshack’s goal to facilitate a discussion to bring the salmon back.

Now, as Canada and the U.S. enters discussions to renew the Columbia River Treaty, Wicks-Arshack says it’s time to recognize the importance of salmon to local communities. The Voyages of Rediscovery team has just released a documentary film highlighting their upstream journey—and the effort to restore historic salmon runs above Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam.

We caught up with Wicks-Arshack to go behind the scenes.

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Courtesy Voyages of Rediscovery

CanoeKayak.com: Talk about the canoe-building projects that inspired this journey.

It all started with a load of logs. A local logging company donated five logs, which were too big for their mills. As we were carving the first tree into a canoe, a young girl saw a salmon in the soon to be bow of a 33-foot cedar dugout canoe called Tyee, or the Salmon Chief. We proceeded to carve a total of five dugout canoes with thousands of young students. We based each canoe project at a different school or community center and the kids chopped away. Using traditional hand tools, these young people carved five dugout canoes in honor of the five species of salmon.

Just how important is the Columbia River on local Indigenous communities?

The Columbia River is the lifeblood of people throughout the Columbia River Basin. It provides food, electricity, transportation and a spiritual base for many people. Traveling this river from sea to source gave me an appreciation for the diverse communities—big cities like Portland, small native communities like Wanapum and adventure meccas like Revelstoke. They all have deep understanding of the importance the river has on their lives. Although past generations made decisions that have altered the ecological harmony of the river, I can honestly say we did not meet a single person who does not want to see a healthier Columbia River. And the common sentiment from sea to source is that it starts with reintroducing salmon above the Grand Coulee Dam.

What were people’s responses like when you encountered them on your journey?

When we started at the ocean, near Astoria, Oregon, people asked us where we were going. We said, “To the source,” and they laughed. Once we made it into Canada, 700 miles from the ocean, people asked where we came from, when we replied “from the sea,” they laughed. It became quite clear than many people on the lower river have no idea where the river begins and conversely, many people throughout the upper river have no idea where the river meets the sea. I think the 14 dams blocking the flow have something to do with this. These dams block not only the natural flow of the river and the salmon from reaching their ancestral spawning grounds but also stop river people from experiencing other parts of the river.

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Courtesy Voyages of Rediscovery

From a paddling perspective, was tracing the full length of the Columbia an enjoyable experience for you?

Paddling up the Columbia River taught us what it is like to be a salmon. You start at the ocean, strong and clean but by the time you make it up towards the headwaters, you’re smelly and moldy, bruised and battered—but the drive never goes away. The salmon keep going upstream, and we kept paddling upriver. It was our goal to understand what Columbia River salmon go through as they travel upriver past dams, nuclear waste, and Superfund sites—and also extraordinary beauty. Paddling upriver brings the river into your heart, and in turn the river opens its heart to the paddler.

How has this experience shaped your life direction?

It is our hope that this film will turn the conversation of salmon reintroduction and a healthy Columbia River into a national and international discussion. I know the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams will not be removed in my lifetime; our focus is what we can do to make them better.

While paddling upriver from sea to source we learned that with the upcoming renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty, there is hope of salmon reintroduction. Because salmon is a trans-boundary issue, the Columbia River treaty can be the forum in which reintroduction is addressed. Currently the treaty addresses hydropower and flood control. It is our position and many others throughout the basin that ecosystem function should be included as well.

–See photos of Wicks-Arshack building the five dugout canoes that took them on this journey.

–Watch another video about their sea-to-source paddle for Columbia River salmon.

–Read more environmental paddling stories on CanoeKayak.com

voyages-of-rediscovery columbia-river salmon sea-to-source dugout-canoes

Courtesy Voyages of Rediscovery