Roll On, Columbia, Roll On

Astoria, Ore.  A version of this story first appeared in the “22 Rivers” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here

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Ray Roberson of Saint Maries ID finishes a set at FisherPoets Gathering in the Voodoo Room. Feb. 29, 2020. Astoria, Ore. Photo by Neal Moore.

When Jon Lee and his band Slimeline kicked into “Roll On Columbia” the tightly packed crowd at Astoria Brewing Company joined in. It was FisherPoets weekend at the mouth of the Columbia River, an annual gathering of grizzled fisher folk from Alaska to California who come to celebrate their craft with prose and poetry and song. Old and young here know Guthrie’s ditty by heart, and Lee, a descendant of over a century of Chinese cannery workers in Astoria, sang it with gusto.

But the Columbia no longer rolls – thanks in colossal part to the Grand Coulee Dam for which “Roll on Columbia” was penned – and this was Lee’s point: to encourage debate.

Lee had asked his friend Scott McAallister, a commercial fisherman from Juneau, Alaska, to interrupt him half way through. And so he did. The duo yelled back and forth for some time in pre-scripted fashion. McAllister arguing that Guthrie was a tool of the Corp of Engineers who never cared for the Columbia or the men and women who worked her. And Lee, that Guthrie, who could do no wrong, was being ironic.

“Ha, that would be the ultimate,” Robbie Law, Lee’s cousin and member of Slimeline, later told me. “To have the Bonneville Power Administration pay for you writing subversive lyrics.”

As big a boon as Alaska is for fishermen today, the Columbia River was once bigger. “It was just a wealth of big trees and salmon and water,” Lee said. “It should have sustained us. But we squandered it. It should have lasted forever.”

Lee’s friend, the writer Victoria Stooppiello, was born and raised in the Lower Columbia region. Her father, grandfather, and great-uncle were commercial fishermen their whole lives. In an essay titled “Denial is Not a River” she conjured the folly of over-logging and the damned dams and renewable energy through the lens of an economic enterprise zone.

Many of the professional fisher folk had a streak of activist in them. For they rhymed not only about the joys of the salmon runs of Bristol Bay, a region of Southwest Alaska, but the need for the EPA to reverse its recent verdict to allow the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process to consider mining it.

To once and for all disallow Pebble Mine, a porphyry copper, gold, and molybdenum mineral deposit project that will replace the sanctity of the salmon and these waters for the bounty that lies underneath.

Closer to Astoria, the presenters here assembled were passionate about the Columbia River, reflecting on the over-fishing that led to smaller fish and lessened runs, along with other obstacles the salmon now face.

As one fisher poet concluded at the gathering’s farewell event on Astoria’s fabled Pier 39, referring to the dams and the engineers who built them, “Sometimes it seems instead of one apple, we’ll devour the whole damned tree … So, it’s time to step back and take a long sober look, and conclude, Mama Mia. Let’s go back to the software, and try to come up with what’s really a good idea.”

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