A shift in the landscape east of the Cascades during the 1930s took place between the rocky cliffs of the Columbia River with the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. As the turbines began to produce electricity the Columbia River flooded the land behind the dam creating Lake Roosevelt. I live by this water. When this man-made lake in northeastern Washington was formed it covered orchards of trees, foundations of homes, and sacred burial grounds. The fishing weirs built by the Colville and Spokane Indians to catch the native salmon disappeared.
As bodies of water disappear and a drought continues to dry up land in the west, The Grand Coulee Dam Chamber of Commerce proudly advertises, “We’ve Got Water!” On any day ferry boats, jet skis, houseboats, fishing boats, and yachts are spotted all over Lake Roosevelt. The lake provides a vacation destination for campers and tourists year round. The lake is plentiful with fish. While sitting on the deck I enjoy sailboats drifting by slowly. Living by water I sometimes forget this lake used to be the Columbia River so many years ago. The drawdown is a reminder.
The drawdown of Lake Roosevelt takes place each spring. Often the drawdown is held for flood control. Sometimes is has to do with repairs at the dam. Last year it involved the selling of electricity by the Colville and Spokane Tribes. During a drawdown the water is adjusted at Grand Coulee Dam causing Lake Roosevelt to return closer to its original state. As the snow melts and the trees begin to bud we watch for the signs of the drawdown from our deck. The shoreline across the lake shows up more and more with the sandy beach getting wider and wider. Long, narrow sandbars appear close to shore as the level of the lake drops. The commuters on staff begin talking about having to drive all the way around if the water gets to shallow and the ferry can’t operate.
Depending on how much water is drawn down on a given year the islands north of the Kettle Falls Bridge reappear drawing the native people to the sacred site for ceremonial rituals. I often hear stories of tribal members doing a Vision Quest when the rocks emerge during the drawdown. As I walk along the shore in late spring I can count the trees stumps that remain and imagine how the land looked in its natural form. During the drawdown archeologists, local historians and elders can be spotted carefully sifting through the sand along the shore for artifacts representing an earlier time.
While walking the shores of the changed landscape I began to understand what creating Lake Roosevelt did to the native people. Two thousand tribal members were displaced. Homes and businesses were lost. As my students walked along the path of old Inchelium last spring and stood on foundations of old buildings and marked the places where family houses had been they too began to understand how the mighty dam and Lake Roosevelt affected their people. Elders sadly explained how there was an attempt to move all the bodies from the cemetery. Some buildings made it up the hill by St. Michael’s Catholic Church while others ended up closer to the ferry landing. Some things just couldn't be salvaged as the water began to cover up the land behind the dam.
I do live by this water and love watching the sun rise and reflect on the blue lake, but I also look forward to driving closer to Canada and seeing the river in its natural form at the headwaters of the Columbia. Eagles, moose, deer, and coyotes also continue to live by water close to the shores of Lake Roosevelt. Bald eagles are at home along the shores of the lake as they dive for fish in the deep blue water. The native people have found new places to fish. New land was found for the cemetery.
Woody Guthrie spent time around the Columbia River during the construction of the dam. He wrote numerous folk songs during his stay, but the one most familiar to those in Washington state is “Roll On Columbia”. Guthrie said, “This was the greatest thing built by human hands.”
Was it the greatest thing built by human hands? Here is the dilemma. I feel blessed by the beauty that surrounds me, but am saddened by the losses to the people that lived along the Columbia. I love living by this water, but am concerned about the zinc tailings that pollute the lake from the smelter across the border. I enjoy the scenic beauty of the campgrounds along the shores, but have grown weary of seeing human garbage and pollution left behind at campsites and along the beaches.
I live by this water. I hope to visit the remains of Old Inchelium again with my students as we celebrate the beginnings of a town moved up a steep mountain and rebuilt. I will walk quietly along the shore as not to disturb the deer drinking in the shallow water. I will listen to the stories from the elders to gain a deeper understanding of what is sacred. As the bald eagle circles above the pine trees by the lake I am reminded of a renewed sense of respect I feel for the lake and land around me. I live by this water.