If you had the chance, would you row 1,200 river miles to raise awareness for conservation? Starting in Butte, MT, and heading to the Pacific Ocean, cousins Robert Lester and Braxton Mitchell set out on that exact journey for what they are calling the Columbia River Canoe Project. I caught up with Robert shortly after they passed through Sandpoint, ID to learn more about the project and the motivation behind it.
Robert grew up in Butte, a town known for mining, and learned about mining pollution in waterways at a young age. As he grew older and spent more time outdoors, he saw firsthand the negative impact humans can have on the environment.
“I have seen the scars of the earth that we can leave, but then also not far from Butte is some of the most beautiful wilderness you’ve ever seen,” Robert said. “Seeing this contrast firsthand made me want to be sure we take care of these places.” These experiences inspired Robert to plan the Columbia River Canoe Project in an effort to educate others about the ecological situation of the river, how different areas of natural resource extraction have affected the entire Columbia River basin, and the effects that dams have on many of these ecosystems. A film crew is following Robert and Braxton, creating a documentary about the project.
Their journey started in Silver Bow Creek in Butte. This waterway has historically collected waste from mining operations and was declared a Superfund Site by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) due to high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals.
From Butte, Robert and Braxton rowed along the Clark Fork River, the main tributary for Lake Pend Oreille. After passing through Missoula, MT they stopped at the Smurfit-Stone Mill site, the site of an old pulp mill that stopped production in 2010. The mill has been leaching toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the groundwater for years, causing so much pollution that American Rivers ranked the Clark Fork River among America’s Most Endangered Rivers® in 2023. Robert hopes that with enough awareness brought to the issue, a clean-up plan will be made and put into action before more damage is done.
While paddling through pollution is already a challenge, the most strenuous part of their trip so far has been encountering the many dams along the way. When the crew reaches a dam, they have to portage and carry their canoes and gear around the dam to reenter the waterway below. Including low head and diversion dams, Robert and Braxton will portage over 40 dams before they reach the ocean. These portages have caused them to reflect on the impacts these dams have on fish.
“At Thompson Falls, they have what is supposed to be a state-of-the-art fish ladder that the fish, for some reason, are not able to find. Then the farther downstream we get, the less of an issue bull trout extinction is, which is really interesting” Robert shared. “A lot of these dams are now getting to a point where they’re not generating enough electricity and are just an ecological draw, they’re only a negative. We want to try and learn from some mistakes made in the past and educate people about those.” In many places across the West, removing dams that aren’t feasible anymore makes sense for both our environment and economy.
Robert says the people they have spoken to on their journey have also opened his eyes to a re-envisioned future. As they pass through different regions of the Northwest, they also hope to acknowledge and amplify the voices of the Indigenous peoples who have called these places home since time immemorial. Their team has been in contact with the Kalispel, Salish, Yakima, and Colville Tribes. “These sites are significant to their cultures, and also to their livelihoods – where they fish, what fish numbers look like, things like that impact them,” said Robert.
Robert hopes that when people learn about the Columbia River Canoe Project, more will be motivated to get involved and take care of the outdoor places that they love.
Robert and Braxton are now halfway through their journey and look forward to the new places they will see, and the things they will learn before they reach the Pacific Ocean. You can follow along with their trip on Instagram and Facebook @columbiarivercanoeproject, and look out for their documentary in the future!