By: Anne Digenis

When the Columbia River carved its path to the Pacific Ocean millions of years ago, it made no considerations for what might come next. Without agenda, it pushed onward.

This uninhibited path has since connected thousands of people across what has now become seven states. Its vast basin has shaped cultures and economies as people have come to rely on the river for transport, recreation, trade, energy and sustenance. Across every generation, these natural provisions have attracted millions of people to the river’s banks and inspired homages of all sorts. We have positioned it as a glimmering backdrop for ceremonies, parks, monuments and festivals.

Locally, the Community Foundation and its many fundholders have paid their respects by supporting dozens of projects.

The largest in scope is the Confluence Project, which connects people to place through art and education. A number of Community Foundation fundholders joined donors from across the nation to fund six art installations designed by Maya Lin. These sites now reach from the gateway of Hells Canyon to the river’s estuary with the Pacific Ocean. Each location represents its own “confluence” of history, culture and ecology. In Vancouver, the project’s Vancouver Land Bridge marks a crossroads for Native American tribes and a place where European and Native cultures converged. Today, Confluence continues its mission by immersing students in the art, traditions and stories of Native Americans and the contributions they have on our region.

The Community Foundation has also provided its own support to projects along the Columbia through our Community Giving Fund. For six years, our grants committee supported the International Discovery Walk Festival. Personally, I can still remember our staff gathering for the Mayor’s Friendship Walk that kicked off the festival each year. As we walked the waterfront to Esther Short Park, it was heartwarming to see all of the amazing projects made possible through our donors’ gifts and community support.

Whether it was admiring the Wendy Rose and Ilchee statues, drinking from the Firstenburg fountains that dot the pathways or seeing the beautiful parks our fundholders have helped build and restore, each was a reminder of the ways that philanthropy can enhance the place we call home.

New developments on the horizon

A more recent project is adding to this long legacy, while also carving out another future place for residents to enjoy the riches of the Columbia River. Construction on The Waterfront, a 32-acre mixed-use development in downtown Vancouver, has already begun. And while there are 21 city blocks planned, the development’s half-mile riverfront park will serve as the major focal point.

The completed 7.3 acre park will include a little something for everyone, with views of Mt. Hood and the Columbia River, river access, trails along the riverfront and an expansive central lawn for events. Each of these elements will be integrated into an overall plan that mimics the meandering of a river.

Anchoring the public space will be an elegant cable suspension pier supported by a steel beam, which symbolizes a ship’s mast forging through the Columbia’s current. This reference to the park’s riverside surroundings is the signature of lead designer, Larry Kirkland, who has also created installations at Penn Station in New York City and the American Red Cross in Washington, DC.

His plans also include an impressive interactive water feature known as Headwater’s Wall. Cast in bronze, this 180-foot-long relief of the Columbia River system will be placed at the terminus of the pier. Its trickling waters will beckon both children and adults to play and learn about the river’s tributaries and timeline through art. Historical references will be folded into the topography of the map, which will channel water into a shallow pool and create slight, wave-like ripples that represent the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Imagine tracing the route with your fingers to get a sense of the long journey from the headwaters to the Pacific, while people around you enjoy the natural beauty and recreation that the river provides. It’s a beautiful vision and a fitting tribute to the mighty river that has shaped our region.

A fitting memorial

This vision inspired longtime Community Foundation fundholder, Alvin Berg. Al is one of the founders of the Parks Foundation of Clark County, alongside Florence Wager and Phyllis Goldhammer. Today, this organization continues to serve as a resource and network to the individual groups and organizations working to enhance parks, trails, and recreation programs. It also raises funds through public and private partnerships, in order to provide annual community grants that support these efforts in Clark County.

While Al has supported many park projects, this particular effort spoke to him because of the time he spent on the trails with his four children. He especially remembers his youngest daughter, Mary, being ready to tie up her laces and hit the trail at a moment’s notice.

Like most hikers in southwest Washington, The Gorge was one of the Bergs go-to spots and a place where they built bonds to last a lifetime. Sadly, a fatal car accident robbed the Bergs of that time with Mary, who died just days after her eighteenth birthday. It was a heartbreaking loss and one that Al always wanted to memorialize through his giving.

“She was a free spirit who loved adventure and always had a big smile on her face,” Al recalled. “I would say she was a close carbon copy of me in many ways.”

The Headwater’s Wall seemed like a perfect match, because it blends their shared love of the outdoors with a tribute to the river they used to walk together. Al is looking forward to another iconic park being added to Vancouver and is glad to have his daughter’s legacy play a small part. Mary Berg’s name will be one of a few etched into a stone at Headwater’s Wall—a place that the Berg family and our entire community will cherish for years to come.

Of all the ways to tell the story of our relationship to the Columbia, philanthropy continues to be one of the most meaningful and impactful. It deepens our connection to the river by sustaining traditions, documenting history, protecting habitats, enhancing experiences and touching our hearts.

Note: A previous version of this post was updated to address cultural inaccuracies or misstatements. We embrace all feedback and apologize for the pain this caused. Our organization is constantly striving to better represent everyone who calls southwest Washington home and is working alongside our community partners to advance equity in our community.
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About The Author

Anne Digenis

Born in Seattle and raised in Portland, Anne Digenis is a graduate of Clark College and has resided in Vancouver for over 30 years. Anne has been working at the Foundation since 1997, providing ongoing assistance to donors by matching their charitable interests with community needs.

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