Thinking Citizen Blog — The Snake — from Wyoming through Idaho to Oregon and Washington

Thinking Citizen Blog — Wednesday is Climate Change, the Environment, and Sustainability Day

Today’s Topic — Rivers of the US IX: the Snake — from Wyoming through Idaho to Oregon and Washington

The Snake, the largest tributary of the Columbia river, gets its name from a misinterpretation of the sign language of the Shoshone. Their s-shaped gesture for swimming salmon which spawned in the river’s waters was misread as “snake.” But the name fits well enough. Other names that competed for a while were “Lewis River” (after Meriwether Lewis, the explorer) and “Mad River.” The Native Americans themselves called the river after an herb that lined its banks — Yam-Pah-Pa or Ki-moo-e -nim. Today, a few more notes on the Snake. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.


1. “The Snake River Plain was created by a volcanic hotspot which now lies underneath the Snake River headwaters in Yellowstone National Park.”

2. “Gigantic glacial-retreat flooding episodes that occurred during the previous Ice Age carved out canyons, cliffs and waterfalls along the middle and lower Snake River. Two of these catastrophic flooding events, the Missoula Flood and the Bonneville Floods significantly affected the river and its surroundings.”

3. The Snake, Yakima, and Columbia Rivers merge at Tri-Cities, Washington after the Snake has traversed the plain of southern Idaho, and passed through Hell’s Canyon, along the Oregon-Washington border, the deepest gorge in North America — deeper than the Grand Canyon!


1.”The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–06) was the first American group to cross the Rocky Mountains and sail down the Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean. Meriwether Lewis supposedly became the first American to sight the drainage basin of the Snake River after he crossed the mountains a few days ahead of his party on August 12, 1805, and sighted the Salmon River valley (a major Snake tributary) from Lemhi Pass, a few miles from the present-day site of Salmon, Idaho.”

2. Then came the fur trappers, and then the settlers. The Oregon Trail ran along the Snake River (see image below). Then came the railroads and the steamboats.

3. But the Snake was hard to navigate because of the rapids caused by the huge change in elevation. Most steamboats limited themselves to the stretch between the confluence with the Columbia and that with the Clearwater River at Lewiston, in north-central Idaho. Even that section of the river has 60 sets of rapids.

NB: Railroads ran along the river transporting people, industrial products, and agricultural goods.


1. Dams have been constructed along the river for three principal reasons — irrigation, hydroelectricity, and navigation.

2. The dams have blocked the migration of salmon.

3. Irrigation has resulted in serious contamination of the river with pollutants such as fertilizer and manure. Phosphorus, fecal coliforms, and nitrogen have contributed to algae blooms that have depleted the oxygen supply.

NB: The contaminants have also seeped into the aquifers below the irrigated land.

Snake River

Lewis and Clark Expedition

Oregon Trail

Steamboats of the Columbia River

Hells Canyon

Tri-Cities, Washington


Please share the coolest thing you learned in the last week related to climate change or the environment. Or the coolest, most important thing you learned in your life related to climate change that the rest of us may have missed. Your favorite chart or table perhaps…

This is your chance to make some one’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart.