Columbia River BasinExpedition

Purpose of the Upper Columbia Basin Expedition, 2008

This expedition will explore the Upper Columbia River Basin in Canada’s East and West Kootenay regions in British Columbia.

The Columbia River Basin, formed over 40 million years ago, is one of six watersheds in North America and Africa being researched and documented by No Water No Life. In 2007, No Water No Life conducted its first expedition in this watershed, following the entire length of the Columbia River from source to sea. That expedition, which also carried a WINGS WorldQuest flag, served as a baseline study for this second Columbia River Basin expedition.


The Columbia River flows for 1,243 miles through British Columbia, Canada, into Washington and Oregon, US. As North America’s fourth largest river by volume, its watershed spans 1 Canadian province, 7 U.S. states and 11 tribal nations, an area larger than France. Today, over 15 million people rely on its fresh water for livelihood and recreation.

The international boundary that divides the Columbia River was a result of compromise following efforts by the US and Britain to maintain access to the Columbia River. In 1818, the U.S. proposed extending the border to the coast along the 49th parallel, thereby keeping its investments along the southern Columbia River. Following the British rejection of this offer, there was joint occupancy in the area known as “Oregon Country” between 1828 and 1838. Strong U.S. sentiment for keeping the disputed Oregon Territory, which included most of today’s British Columbia, supported James Polk’s 1844 campaign slogan, “Fifty-four forty [54°40’] or fight.” However the 1846 compromise returned to the original 1818 proposal for a boundary along the 49th parallel drawn to the Strait of Georgia.


Now only 15% of the Columbia River Basin lies in Canada. Today it is the least developed, most wild section, which includes the Columbia Wetlands, headwaters of the Columbia River. During the last ice age, from 17,000 to 9,000 BC, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet covered this Upper Columbia River Basin. Today, the Upper Columbia and its wetlands are still fed by remaining glaciers now called the Columbia Icefield. This mass of ice, covering a high plateau between Mount Columbia and Mount Athabasca, is located between Banff and Jasper National Parks. At a depth of 2000 feet (365 meters) this Columbia Icefield represents the largest accumulation of snow and ice in the Rocky Mountains.

As defined by the U-shaped final loop of the Kootenay River and the N-shaped initial loop of the Columbia River, the Kootenay region is essentially an island the size of England. The Columbia River’s northward reach up to Donald and Kinbasket Lake meanders through the Rocky Mountain Trench, at altitudes ranging from 2000 to 3000 feet (600 to 900 meters) above sea level. This valley ranges from 2 to 10 miles (3 to 15 kilometers) in width and includes Columbia Lake, Windermere Lake and the Columbia Wetlands, designated as a RAMSAR Wetlands site of international significance. A crucial migratory bird habitat, it is home to over 60 endangered species. The Columbia Wetlands becomes a river near Golden, where the waterway bends westward around the northern tip of the Selkirk Mountains and then heads south along the Selkirk, Purcell and Monashee Mountains and finally across into the United States at the 49th parallel.


In the early 1800s Canadian David Thompson, an explorer, geographer, cartographer and surveyor, was the first to explore this Upper Columbia region. Several decades later, in 1849, mining began here as forests were burned to search for minerals and cut for building railways and towns, and for fuel.

Humans have long benefited, prior to and since, the mining boom from hunting, trapping, mining and timbering in the East Kootenay region and agriculture, cattle ranching, mining, forestry and power generation in the West Kootenay region. Today, most of the unsettled lands of the watershed are diverse, forested ecosystems with Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine in the drier southern forests and, further north, Engelmann and white spruce, western red cedar, mountain hemlock, birch, aspen, and cottonwood.


• To further No Water No Life’s research and documentation of Upper Columbia River Basin issues uncovered in the project’s first expedition in this watershed, including:

– Protection of the Columbia Wetlands

– Management of Darkwoods, a large land conservation purchase in April 2008

– Education of local stakeholders and visitors by grassroots action

• To open a No Water No Life exhibit and lecture at the Kootenay Gallery in Castlegar

• To meet and interview both new and former conservation contacts