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Off the clock: Downriver with David Thompson

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Surging high water, searing sun, clouds of mosquitoes and those damnable inflatable camp mattresses — yoicks! These are challenges faced daily by members of the David Thompson Brigade, the hardy souls paddling, well, right this very minute to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the intrepid explorer’s trip down the Columbia River.

Of course, even those challenges (except for the blow-up mattresses) pale next to the rigors of exploration and fur trapping in 1811. That’s why we members of the Sit-and-Snack Explorers Club applaud the arrival of “David Thompson on the Columbia,” the new exhibit at the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center. It has air-conditioning (a club requirement) and art-deco bathrooms with marble floors and porcelain fixtures. Nice.

The well-displayed Thompson exhibit is a sort of virtual voyage told in gorgeous, archival black-and-white photographs — ranging from the 1890s to the 1950s — of a wild and wonderful river and the people who lived along it.

The photos are hung in geographical order, beginning high in Canada near the river’s Big Bend, where the Columbia joins with the Canoe and Wood rivers, and culminating with a 1929 aerial shot of the Columbia’s turbulent mouth near Astoria.

Along the way, impressive Ansel-Adams-like photos of Grand Coulee (1930), Rock Island Rapids (1925), Wallula Gateway (date unknown) and Celilo Falls (1894) punctuate this photo-journey of three dozen images.

Here’s another cool thing: The pictures are supplemented with period artifacts and detailed models that give real-life depth to the two-dimensional photographic voyage. Native fishing tools (harpoon head, sinker stones), trapper supplies (powder horn, flintlock rifle, spring traps), navigation equipment (compass, sextant) and models of canoes (in photo) and tule houses help bring alive Thompson’s courageous accomplishment.

And now that the Brigade has passed through this area (June 26 in Wenatchee) — and had a barbecue celebration at nearly every pull-out in North Central Washington — we Sit-and-Snack explorers can look more closely, at a more leisurely pace, at the life of this fascinating guy. The museum’s David Thompson exhibit is a good place to start.

Details: “David Thompson on the Columbia” runs through Dec. 3 at the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center, 127 S. Mission St. Phone: 888-6240, or visit www.wvmcc.org. For more info on the David Thompson Brigade’s downriver progress, paddle over to 2011brigade.org.

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