Condit Dam Revisited

A year ago, I alerted my co-workers at our early morning huddle: I would be in the office but watching the live webcam footage of the breaching of the Condit Dam. They were welcome to join me, but I would be a little distracted. This event verged on religious ceremony as far as I was concerned.

I tuned in around 11:30. There wasn’t much to see yet; the explosives had already been set and there were just a few Pacific Power engineers and Fish & Wildlife people in orange vests and hardhats running around and checking things. A documentarian, Andy Maser, had set up three cameras: one on the west bank, looking down on the basin; one on the east bank, a little lower and closer to the dam; and one on the top of the dam that could rotate to look both up- and down-stream. The feed switched from one camera to the next.

Looking upstream, the camera showed Northwestern Lake lying placid and unsuspecting. Mike and I lived just uphill from it and had canoed on it many times. It was a great lake to paddle around—we passed by floats of cinnamon teals, mallards and any number of other migrating water birds. Wild turkeys and deer gathered at its edges for a drink. If we pulled into one of the fern-covered, cedar-lined coves we might spy an adorable water ouzel, or American dipper, bobbing on a rock next to a waterfall.

Looking downstream, the dry canyon was lined with ferns. A monolith of basalt, probably 30 feet tall, rose in the center about 40 yards from the dam. The usual trickle of run-off flowed from a chute in the dam. Everything seemed to crackle in anticipation. Or, maybe it was just me.

Pacific Power, which owned the 125-foot dam, was not removing it (yet), just blowing a hole in the bottom. They had excavated most of the tunnel, which was about 15 feet across, and this day’s explosion would complete it. The rest of the dam removal would occur in 2012. I knew a bunch of my friends were congregated at a locals’ viewing station up the road, in Husum. There had been 24-hour guard on the dam for weeks to keep out interlopers and The Curious.

I waited.

At noon, there was a series of loud air horn blasts. A flicker called, as if answering them, and then a basso percussion of explosives rumbled. Cement flew from the base of the dam, and right behind it was a black shaft—dense bottom sediment thrust through the tunnel by the pressure of a mile-long reservoir.

It was thrilling. The water seemed to scream with joy. The camera angle switched to the east side camera, which was getting sprayed; droplets slid down the lens. Water rushed past like a speeding locomotive. The camera angle switched to the downstream view: The spike of basalt was being pummeled by the torrent shooting from the dam. I swear it was laughing.

The water was free. I could feel its power from 75 miles away, over an Internet connection and through a camera lens. Even though I would miss canoeing on Northwestern Lake, I was so happy for this river, silenced for 100 years, to get its voice back. I realized tears ran down my cheeks.

I stared, transfixed, for the next hour. The engineers expected the lake to drain in four hours; it took 45 minutes. At first, it didn’t seem like much was happening from the upstream camera, but once the top (the widest, of course) drained it was possible to see the level going down. National Geographic later posted a sped-up view, which seems to me a little like God watching the Creation.

Shortly after the dam was breached, Mike and I drove up to Washington to see everything first hand. To our chagrin, Pacific Power was still guarding the access road to our former canoe put-in. Biologist friends had told us that the put-in was now a deep crevasse, and we would just have to take their word for it because the guard was unmoved by our arguments to let us down there.

Next, we drove to the county park, which is a mile upstream from our old house. With the exception of the deep slice the new river had cut in the east side of the lake bed, the rest was untouched. A mile of perfectly smoothed basalt rocks spread in front of us; we pocketed a few and kept walking. Dead salmon, caught below the dam and released above before the breach, rotted in the rocks. Mike found an old cork handle to a fishing rod.

First salmon above Condit Dam in a century

Standing in the middle of the lake

A year later, salmon and steelhead have been seen jumping Husum Falls. A long-time Columbia River Gorge artist, Daniel Dancer, had been part of the effort to remove the dam for decades. His video adds depth to the history; in it, I learned that part of the dam breech included a Native American ceremony, calling the salmon home.

Hearing their voices and drums rise above the roar of the water, I started to cry all over again.

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