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Canoeing the Columbia in 82 days ... or 10,000 years

Author Robin Cody shares surprises uncovered on historical waterway -


COURTESY PHOTO - Cody, 73, studied at Yale University and spent many years teaching at the American School of Paris. 'There was nothing heroic about the trip,' he says.Robin Cody spent 82 days paddling the Columbia River from beginning to end. By the time he was finished, he had traversed 10,000 years of human history too.

“I was forced to think about how recently we got there, and how rapid the change,” Cody told an audience of 150 during a book talk Tuesday, July 26, at McMenamins Edgefield in Troutdale. “I came to have a different attitude toward the river. The river comes at you with a sense of geologic time.”

Cody is the author of “Voyage of a Summer Sun,” the true story of his trip — accomplished unaccompanied — from the Columbia’s bubbling headwaters in Canada to its mighty mouth at the Pacific Ocean in Astoria.

Though he traveled alone, Cody spoke with many along the way. The book features distinct voices, from a Native American woman born without an English name, to the lock operators who helped transform the river into an engine of industry.

Cody was outfitted with a 16-foot, 47-pound Kevlar canoe for his 1,214-mile journey. He portaged 12 dams and spent his nights camping near the river, surviving off freezed-dried imitations of turkey tetrazzini.

He produced what he called “voluminous” journals during the trip, and said he mostly wrote the book by subtraction.

“I didn’t want it to be an adventure story,” he told the crowd. “I wanted the book to be about the river, not about me.”

“I’m the hero of the journals, but that’s not so interesting.”

The most dangerous part of the journey wasn’t out in the wilderness, though Cody did at one point mistake a black bear for a stump.

COURTESY PHOTO - 'Voyage of a Summer Sun' was first published in 1995. It took Cody five years to write.Instead, it was the most artificial portions of the Columbia River Gorge that posed the most danger. With Highway 14 on the Washington side, and Interstate 84 on the other, Cody often found himself bordered by steep, man-made walls of boulders, with no way to disembark when the wind or chop picked up.

Compounding the contradictions, Cody found the highest concentration of wildlife along the Hanford Reach, the 51-mile stretch of the Columbia named after the decommissioned Hanford nuclear plant site. It’s considered one of the most polluted spaces in the United States, but Cody recorded “an explosion of wildlife around the reserve, because people don’t live there.”

And while “Voyage of a Summer Sun” spends plenty of time with the white pelicans, coyotes and deer that populate the area, Cody said he didn’t want his book to come off as politically motivated or an “environmental scream.”

He says that some of the dams along the Columbia, including Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph, as well as Hells Canyon Dam on the Snake River, may never be removed.

In Troutdale, for instance, the Bonneville Dam provides the necessary flood control that makes population possible.

“Voyage of a Summer Sun” received an Oregon Book Award and a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award when first published. It was re-released by Oregon State University Press in 2012.

Cody, who grew up in Estacada and now lives in Portland, also is the author of the novel, “Ricochet River” and “Another Way the River Has,” a book of true short stories.