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Of windmills and aerial views: a modern-day Don Quixote is on a quest to show how the Columbia River has changed since the sixties.

Don Quixote wears blue jeans--or so I discovered when I met him earlier this year.

And he doesn't call himself Quixote, by the way (no one can spell it). Instead, he's a Layman--William D.--and for the last twenty-five years he's devoted his energies to chronicling the history of the great river of the West, the Columbia.

In the few hours we recently spent together, he shared his enthusiasm and his latest project with me--I also have an interest in the river. At first, as I listened, I began to feel more and more like Sancho Panza, seeing only windmills where the Don--er, Bill--saw giants.



But just as the Man of La Mancha taught us much about what it means to be human, I came to appreciate how Bill Layman and his work on the Canadian Columbia speaks volumes about the importance of place and memory in modern life.

For the past two years, Layman has been following the flight patterns of a dead man--former fire chief T.A. Weaver. In the summer of 1962, "the Chief," an amateur photographer and flying enthusiast, took to the air, travelling the length of the Columbia River. His goal was to document the river--including its remaining wild reaches in Canada--in light of its imminent remaking, thanks to the Columbia River Treaty that was signed just the year before.

The treaty, which resulted in storage dams that would increase the generating power of American hydro darns downstream, flooded farmland in B.C. and changed the landscape and ecosystem of one of North America's largest river basins.

If the hundreds of Kodachromes Weaver took captured the river, they also captivated Layman when he first saw them in 2006. With the support of the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center, he re-enacted the 1962 flight, photographing a much-changed river from the same vantage points Weaver had used nearly half a century earlier. The result is The Canadian Columbia: Aerial Views of a River's Remaking, a book he'll publish later this year.

Paging through the paired photographs and accompanying survey maps detailing what was on the ground during Weaver's time is likely to be a moment suffused with sepia for those who live with the river.

People less familiar with the Columbia and its history might not immediately appreciate how the river basin was transformed thanks to the treaty dams; they might not see the scale of the changes that motivated Layman to embark on this impossibly complex project. Instead, what will strike them right away is his passion and commitment.

The expense, time, and attention to detail that went into The Canadian Columbia is mind-boggling. None of Weaver's 300-plus 35mm slides were labelled with a location, never mind any coordinates.

Layman knew Weaver flew along the river, but not his exact flight pattern. Land-based repeat photography is hard enough. If moving left or right a few metres can result in an entirely different perspective, imagine how difficult it is to reproduce aerial photo graphs, where altitude has to be taken into account as well and the picture snapped while hurtling through the air at high speeds. And then there was the small matter of matching the photographs with maps that were made from the late-1940s to the late-1950s as part of the comprehensive survey of the Columbia Basin undertaken by Canada and the United States.

In the end, what we have seems as much a monument to determination as it is to obsession. As Layman himself admits, the Columbia is his passion--and it's also his affliction!

And yet, there's something powerful in these pages, something familiar, even ff the landscapes aren't.

To see Boat Encampment, B.C., in 1962, for instance, is to see it in much the same way David Thompson and his men did when they spent the winter of 1810 building watercraft to take them down the Columbia; it's to imagine the joy and relief of the men from Fort Vancouver and Jasper House, and perhaps to hear their voices raised in song when their fur brigades met.

Put that 1962 photo next to the one taken in 2008 and you come to appreciate a very different manifestation of human power: the mega project. Boat Encampment was drowned by the Kinbasket reservoir, created when Mica, one of the three Columbia River Treaty dams, was completed in 1973.

The same waters that obliterated the past now hide the damage. For all the more recent arrivals and visitors to the area know, Kinbasket "Lake," as it's commonly called, has been there forever. Set side by side, these photos communicate both the enormity of the changes that define modern life and the amnesia that comes along with them.

For me, what's most affecting about Layman's photos is the transformation they worked in him, rather than the changes in the land they record.

Reflecting on his labours of the past few years, Layman is acutely aware of how the project connected him with Weaver, forging an "aerial kinship" between strangers. It also connected him to all the other people whose lives had been touched by the Columbia's waters, from the fur traders of the nineteenth century to the settlers and adventurers of the twentieth.

"This tardiest explorer," to echo the Stan Rogers song "Northwest Passage," was only the latest in a long line of people to be gathered up by the river's currents.

Although few people will do what Bill Layman has, his motivations resonate deeply, encompassing the human instinct to mark the passage of time and make sense of the changes.

We all do this, whether with pencil marks on the wall, charting the heights of children, or through the yearly class photo. We share Layman's desire to connect: His work makes us think about those special places in our lives that link us to the past and to each other.

In our fragmented and sometimes alienating modern world, such connections and the places that nourish them are all the more important. They tether us to place and time and help us to deal with the maelstrom of change that surrounds us.

In that sense, Bill Layman's affliction is one we all share. We can thank him for showing us his cure.

University of British Columbia historian Tina Loo comments regularly in Canada's History. Contact Bill Layman at
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Author:Loo, Tina
Publication:Canada's History
Date:Aug 1, 2010
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