Claire Dibble: From “Source to Sea” Along the Columbia River

Two thousand kilometers.  One river. One paddler.

Last summer, Canadian artist and adventurer Claire Dibble paddled alone in a skin-on frame kayak that she built (with some help from her dad, Keith), starting at Columbia Lake near Canal Flats, British Columbia, and ending just past Astoria, Oregon. The journey—from “source to sea” along the Columbia River—began in early July and ended in mid-October.

Along the way, Dibble spent a lot of time alone. She also met many people. She crossed from one country into another. Seasons changed.

Why pursue such an arduous adventure, one that took 112 days, was modestly promoted and whose outcomes were deeply personal in nature? Along the way, Dibble created photographs and prints, collected stories and even penned a trip log.

A decade ago, Dibble was a serious white water kayaker who traveled the world for the sport. Part of the Columbia River journey was rooted in this same pursuit of physical adventure. Another inspiration was the possibility of embracing new cultures. But the crux may be more complicated and layered.

Dibble was at the local library in her home town of Golden, British Columbia, when she found a guide book on paddling the entire Columbia River.

“I live on the Upper Columbia,” says Dibble. “My brother lives on the Lower Columbia. I’ve marveled that we’re living on the same water. Those were the things that put the early concept in my head. I’m not much of a kayaker these days. But 10 years ago, I was. So I have a real connection to river systems, bio-regions and watersheds.”

Then there was this:

“The Columbia Treaty Renegotiation was a topic of discussion in my little town of 5,000 people at the time. I wasn’t super informed. So I wanted to learn why people were so passionate. I wanted to experience and learn what inspired all of these different stakeholders. To see the draw down zone, the nuclear zones, and generally to learn about the river.”

Brokered in 1961, the Columbia River Treaty was an agreement between Canada and the United States that outlined the development of several new, large dams in the upper portion of the basin. The treaty also allocated basin hydropower and flood control between the US and Canada. The treaty had two priorities at the time: Power generation and flood control.

Native tribes were not consulted even though the effects of the treaty would significantly alter their cultures, cultural and natural resources, and in some cases, the rights guaranteed in treaties with the United States. As well, the treaty was signed before the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act and 1974 Boldt Decision, which confirmed tribal nations’ right to co-manage salmon in the Northwest.

Now, five years before the flood risk allocation part of the treaty expires, renegotiations have begun. As the two countries contemplate what a modern day treaty for a modern day Columbia River should look like, U.S. tribes are once again not at the negotiating table (First Nations in Canada have observer status). Similarly, ecological concerns have been mildly received or in ways that appear to be more about gesture than action.

All of these elements piqued Dibble’s imagination and ambition. As a professional artist who’d completed residencies and projects around the globe, she was used to bringing big ideas down to reality. She asked curators about making an art project around the journey. She sought funders. She even called the author of the guide book.

Eventually, she drafted a funding proposal for a grant. Five months later, Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance committed enough money to allow Dibble to conduct further research and prepare and lay the groundwork for her journey. From there, smaller grants, along with private funding, came in.

The entire project, ultimately called “Watershed Moments,” took on a do-it-yourself ethos. With a little help from her father, boat builder Keith Dibble, Claire Dibble constructed a kayak for the journey. A comprehensive timeline was drawn up. Friends and family, including husband Mike Taylor, drove down supplies to each stop a day or two ahead of Dibble’s arrival.

A typical day on the water meant Dibble paddled 20 kilometers. That pace allowed her time to take photographs, interview some of the people she met, and reflect. Most of the time, she camped on her own, close to the water, and as removed from groups of other people.

What was the river like?

Dibble said the Columbia presented many different impressions, even in one day. “The nature of the river upstream versus downstream was a huge contrast,” she says.

Then there were the dams.

“I wondered what the flow or scenario or trees would have been like there at some point. And then to be plucked out again into the actual river and to see the true river bed, that was such a gift.”

Nothing shocked or surprised Dibble. But she says 112 days alone, paddling through the different personalities of the Columbia, put her deeper in touch with water and people. And while her environmental beliefs still remain urgent and passionate, time alone on the river also made Dibble more patient about how processes such as the Columbia Treaty renegotiation evolve and happen.

“I started out already with the feeling that water was important to me,” she says. “It’s really precious to me, and important for any worthwhile future in this world. But I would also say this journey softened in me my judgments of people.”

More than four months since she paddled her last stroke, Dibble has been sorting through different creative strands. She gave a talk about paddling the Columbia at Astoria’s Columbia River Maritime Museum.  She’s compiling the different artwork she made during the journey, including photos and some audio. Mostly, she’s taking a big yoga breath and letting the flow—like water—happen.

“It’s been four months since I finished paddling the Columbia,” Dibble wrote on her website. “And I’m still gaining perspective on the experience. The lessons are still coming, and so is the art. It can be hard to let the magic of the unknown unfold at whatever pace. For now, I will put my metaphorical boat in the water and trust the flow.”


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