Flood waters: A week of flow going

The normally placid Okanogan River that flows past my home decided to exert its authority this week, egged on by its major tributary, the volatile Similkameen. What, I wonder, makes a tributary a tributary, especially when the supposedly junior partner runs amok?

We on the U.S. end of these two international rivers have not been as adversely impacted as our neighbors in British Columbia. I’ve not been impacted at all other than hypnotized while watching the urgent flow of forceful currents.

Ordinarily, especially at this time of year, the Okanogan is one of the slowest moving rivers in Washington state. Its source is a series of lakes in Canada. The southernmost, Lake Osoyoos, ushers the river into the United States, after which it drops a mere 125 feet along seventy-seven miles to the mighty Columbia. Contrast that to its raucous neighbor, the Methow, which drops 1,740 feet in its final fifty miles to the Columbia. 

White water rafters prefer the Methow during runoff in spring, while the Okanogan plays host on hot summer days to inner tubers who lazily drift, often towing a floatable cooler. My husband and I used to keep a small motor boat in the river during high water months, usually April into June. At that time of year, there was just enough current to create a wee bit of white water upriver. John delighted in taking grandchildren to experience what they dubbed the “wimpy rapids.”

Canada geese scramble for higher ground as the river inundates their small island

At this time of year, the most frequent river residents are mallards and Canada geese, serenely riding the slow current. Their tranquility was rudely interrupted this week when the river began to gradually rise from its normal five-foot level. Suddenly, in forty-eight hours’ time, it skyrocketed to 15.48 feet, officially a flood.

All of this at the insistence of the Similkameen, which joins the Okanogan some forty miles or so north of my home and contributes seventy-five percent of its flow. I’ve tried to determine if there’s some kind of standard for distinguishing between a tributary and main channel. The best Google could offer was that a tributary feeds into a larger river. 

Well. The Similkameen at 122 miles has a seven-mile edge over the Okanogan’s 115 total. At their confluence, the Similkameen clearly has the greater volume, turning the Okanogan’s clear, lake-fed water muddy brown. My husband called it “Similkameen silt.” Shouldn’t this river (and the valley it created) be named Similkameen?

It’s futile to suggest. Our tourist industry, which spends beaucoup dollars promoting “Okanogan Country,” probably wouldn’t want to rebrand. Their website goes so far as to dismiss the Similkameen as a “small, scenic river,” about four miles long. Which brings up the question of where does a river actually begin, but we’ll ponder that at another time.

At least we’ve managed to retain an indigenous name, or something close to it. Maps created by early fur traders in the 1800s tried to name the river Caledonia, but the British Empire lost out. Okanogan is an anglicized version of the native term. In his book “Late Frontier,” historian Bruce Wilson tracked down fifty ways newcomers tried to spell the word that they were hearing natives speak. Attempts ranged from “Cachenawga” to “Otchenaukane.” Even the U.S. and Canada can’t agree on its spelling. In Canada, it’s the same river and valley but spelled O-k-a-n-a-g-a-n.

Similkameen reportedly means “treacherous waters” — true enough when flooding. The translation of Okanogan is “rendezvous” or “meeting place.” Yeah, probably better for tourism. By week’s end, as flood waters recede, I’m just happy to go with the flow.

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