Passion for Columbia leads man to become river's expert

WENATCHEE -- William "Bill" Layman didn't set out to become an expert on the Columbia River. The way he tells it, it just kind of happened.

Layman, 64, has written three books that delve into the history of the West's mightiest river. The most recent, Atlas of the Canadian Columbia, was published this fall and includes a series of aerial photos of the river 50 years ago and today.

In addition to the books, he helped curate museum programs about the Columbia, helped form groups to protect it, and worked to bring river-related sculptures to Wenatchee.

Layman is a mental health counselor. He never had a grand plan to become the region's scholar on all things Columbia River, or one of its biggest advocates for raising awareness about the 1,243-mile waterway that travels from Canada to the Pacific Ocean.

"It's like the river gods were at work, and they tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'This needs to be done,' " he said in a recent interview. The books, museum showings and public art were part of a logical progression, he said.

As a boy in his native Ohio, he saw a photograph of American Indians fishing at Celilo Falls before it was flooded by The Dalles Dam. It fascinated him.

Many years later, he and his wife, Susan Evans, were living in Milwaukee and decided to move to Wenatchee to be closer to her parents in Seattle before they settled far away with their young son, Nathan.

Layman said his first real effort to learn about the Columbia River's past began after he came to Wenatchee in 1979 and saw the out-of-place petroglyphs sitting on gravel at the base of a big locomotive. "It just seemed like a strange place to have them. There was no real interpretation."

Layman became determined to give them a proper home at the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center. But to move them, he felt he needed a clear idea of what the petroglyphs looked like in their natural setting, before the area was flooded by Rock Island Dam.

He set out to find photographs of Rock Island and the petroglyphs before the dam, and eventually found some in five different locations.

One was the Army Corps of Engineer's Seattle District, where about 130 photos were taken that hadn't been seen since the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, he said. "That felt like, wow! Finally I could see this river that I had seen in the photograph as a child," he said.

The effort launched him to research, write and publish Native River: The Columbia Remembered, in 2004 -- his first book -- which dives into the history of the Mid-Columbia.

Layman said the next step was to look beyond the Mid-Columbia, so he went back to work, and two years later he published River of Memory: The Everlasting Columbia, which won the Washington State Book Award and was runner up for the Western Writers of America Spur Award.

The book looks at the river as a whole, and includes historical photos of the river before hydroelectric dams were built. It features observations by early explorers and naturalists, along with works by contemporary writers about the Columbia River. The effort ended with a multimedia historical exhibit at the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center, later sent to other venues.

He was just finishing that project when more than 300 slides of aerial photographs of the Columbia River fell into his lap. "I thought the river gods were going to let me go. But they were chuckling in the background," Layman said.

Warren Clare, a Tacoma scholar who had worked with Layman during his previous search for photographs, found several trays of slides in a closet, taken nearly 50 years earlier by his late uncle, T.A. Weaver. Weaver was a Wenatchee fire chief who had made it his hobby to photograph the length of the river from the air. Only a few sections, such as the Hanford Reach, were missing.

Clare contacted Layman, who helped to get them donated to the Wenatchee museum. "From the first glimpse, it was clear to me that these photographs were something very special," Layman wrote in his Atlas narrative.

He knew then that he must repeat Weaver's work, to show the changes that the river experienced, particularly in Canada, where three major dams since had been built. "When the opportunity came to think about doing a repeat photo project, I was very, very excited about that, particularly when the late Arnie Clarke stepped forward and said, 'Let's do the whole thing.' "

Clarke, a longtime manager of Pangborn Memorial Airport and Air Force pilot in Vietnam, was looking for adventure, and that fitted nicely with Layman's own dreams to be able to see the entire length of the Columbia River. The two of them flew to Canada three times to capture images that were close enough in perspective to the ones shot by Weaver. Bob Parlette, a Wenatchee attorney and orchardist, also reshot many of the photos from Astoria, Ore., to The Dalles, Ore.

Layman said flying the river and attempting to reshoot the same photographs was not easy, because Weaver's photos were not labeled, and provided no longitude, latitude or elevation from which they were taken.

But with Clarke's patience and piloting abilities, and Weaver's photographs to guide them, they got it done.

The editing process, he said, was even more painstaking. He pored over photographs, and maps, and placed icons of airplanes on the map to show where each photo was taken. Pixel by pixel, he cleaned up the busy places on the maps so the river could stand out.

We tend to know the part of a river that flows by us, Layman said. He's had the good fortune of getting to know it from mouth to headwaters.

"The relationship that I have had with the Columbia River is something I don't fully understand. I do know that the river -- its story, its people -- is very much a part of who I am," he said. "It just has this resonance within me that is larger than my ability to explain."

The river's past still fascinates Layman most. "I look into those still waters now and I see a deeper story beneath the water," he said. "When we were flying over Kettle Falls, I saw the many, many photos taken of Indians fishing there."

Layman said he hopes his work helps people to better see the Columbia River running wild and free as it did for eons.

"I think my interest in making available to all of us what this river looked like is in some respects to help us claim the original place, and to label the place in our psyches," he said. "I believe that helps us become more responsible residents, and inhabitants of this place."