Field School returns with a flourish

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“This experience has become one of the building blocks of my future life, in relation to both my career path and my personal endeavours.” – Faye Petersen, 18, Argenta/Kaslo

After two long years away from the water due to the pandemic, paddles finally dipped, canoes sliced, and hearts sang as the Columbia River Field School tapped into the knowledge and wisdom found in the depths of the Columbia River once again.

Over 15 days, students explored the Columbia Wetlands, visited the Kinbasket Reservoir and the Revelstoke Dam, paddled across the Arrow Lakes Reservoir, and met the Kootenay River where it joins the Columbia in Castlegar. They learned and practiced (and practiced!) canoe skills, camp setup and takedown as well as cooking in the wild, bear safety, map reading, gear packing and all the other small and big things you need to know to travel outdoors safely. 

“It was fantastic to be back on the river with students,” reflects Graeme Lee Rowlands, Columbia River Field School (CRFS) Coordinator. “For many of them, they had never done anything like this before.”

High waters meant a late itinerary change, swapping the traditional expedition experience of traveling for multiple days through the wetlands with a rich exploration of several astoundingly biodiverse sloughs over four different day paddles.

“I wish for everyone on the planet to have access to the experiences I had on this trip. The world would be a better place if their minds could be changed to see the importance of the wetlands,” says field school student Marie Chevalot, 16, from Golden.

With returning and new guest speakers, field school participants were introduced to many of the issues that will affect the places they visited over years to come. Among these was the Columbia River Treaty. This issue was brought to life as students roleplayed a mock renegotiation.

“We want students to see the watershed from as many different angles as possible,” says Monica Nissen, Wildsight’s Education Director, adding that it also allows students to see the many varied opportunities there are to help make a positive impact on the watershed. “They really soaked up the knowledge and engaged deeply with the 18 guest experts who joined us.”

Another memorable opportunity for this year’s students was a visit to the Arrow Lakes Historical Society in Nakusp, and their extensive archive of the area (including over 40,000 photos). Kyle Kusch, archive technician at the society, says programs like Columbia River Field School are enriching precisely because students get to immerse themselves in the material.

“I think it’s fantastic to get kids out there on the water and actually see it for themselves,” says Kyle, whose presentation detailed the impacts of flooding vast tracts of land for BC Hydro’s Hugh Keenleyside Dam (built as part of the Columbia River Treaty). “This is a great way of showing the effect man has on the environment, for better or worse.”

Kyle shows participants archival aerial photos from the land impacted by the Hugh Keenleyside Dam.

The CRFS crew donned safety gear as they toured the inside of the Revelstoke dam.

Each year, participants are asked to bring a sample of water from their community as part of a CRFS tradition. To open the journey, the waters from each student are combined and topped off with a measure from the river’s mouth at the Pacific Ocean, about 2000 kilometres away in Astoria, Oregon.  

“We carry this symbolic body of water with us the whole time. We give some to the river at the headwaters. We bring it with us to the end, and we ask students to return it to the river, as we express our hopes and prayers for its future,” explains Graeme.

Photos by Kari Medig

To conclude the journey, students returned the water into the river where the Columbia and the Kootenay combine in Castlegar. Joining for this occasion was Shawn Brigman, PhD, a member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians and descendent of the Sinixt, Kalispel, and Shuswap peoples, who has spent the last 15 years recovering ancestral building techniques including his signature Salishan Sturgeon Nose Canoe method (established in 2013). The day before, each student had the opportunity to try one of Shawn’s canoes as the group paddled through the lock at Hugh Keenleyside Dam from the reservoir onto the flowing river below.

Students had the opportunity to try one of Shawn’s Salishan Sturgeon Nosed Canoes.

In reflection, students share that they absorbed a surprising amount of knowledge, made lasting friendships and took away an experience of a lifetime. Brayden Smith, 15,  from Elkford sums it up:

“This experience made me think about stuff I never would have before and opened my eyes to see more. The most memorable part was probably everything… there is too much to choose from.” 

We couldn’t agree more.



Columbia River Field School is made possible thanks to the generous support from the Arjay R. and Frances F. Miller Foundation, the Columbia Basin Trust, the Province of B.C., the Real Estate Foundation of BC, the Recreational Canoe Association of BC, School District 8 and our many individual donors. Thank you.

The Columbia River Field School is an extraordinary learning experience for youth ages 15-18. Over 15 days, you can paddle the Columbia River, sleep under starry skies, have fun, make friends, engage in the stories of this river, and learn about yourself along the way.Discover CRFS 
Applications close May 22 for this year's Columbia River Field School: learn more. ----- You may have heard about the Columbia River Treaty in the…Read more