Tag Archives: white salmon river

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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Wild Fire

On Wednesday night I was glued to Facebook—not because I was catching up with the latest antics of my friends’ children or weighing in about the Democratic convention, but because the hills east of my old farm were on fire.

Like many places in the western United States, the Columbia River Gorge gets bone-dry in the summer. So dry that all outdoor burning is banned until the rains return. No campfires, no bonfires, no burn piles. If you use a charcoal grill you put it in the middle of your driveway and you have a hose at the ready.

Why so stringent? Because the Gorge has the perfect combination of conditions to host massive, fast-moving fires: lots of dry grasses and timber; nearly constant wind; steep terrain. Once a fire gets going, it can take days to stop it.

When I lived in the Gorge, such a fire started near the railroad tracks, at river level, south of Underwood. It climbed the bluff that rose 1,000 feet so fast that people who lived at the top barely made it down the hill with their lives. I recall a couple of anecdotes from the local newspaper: one from a woman who threw her kids in her rig and had to negotiate the road’s curves from memory because the smoke had completely obliterated her visibility.

Another interview was with a guy who had been waiting to see if he actually needed to evacuate (there are always holdouts in these situations). He put a few things in his car as the fire came closer. I remember the quotation in the newspaper being something like, “I was going back in the house for more stuff, when the oak tree in my back yard exploded. I decided it was time to leave.”

In Get Your Pitchfork On!, I talk about how difficult it is to get breaking news in these situations. Most people these days turn to social media to communicate to each other, usually Facebook or Twitter. On Wednesday night I sat, transfixed, as different friends up and down the White Salmon River Valley posted updates and photographs.

My friend Jeff, who lives north of Husum and has become something of a one-man news outlet for valley residents, took this shot on Wednesday evening while driving in a small group of cars that were being escorted through the fire zone. On Facebook, he wrote, “This was a tree that was crowning (official fire speak for ‘going up like a roman candle’) only about 10 feet off the highway.”

Photo by Jeff Lemley

The next photograph was particularly unnerving to me. Shot by my former neighbor, Emily, it showed just how close the fires were to my old farm. The building in the lower right of the photo was the old shop on our property, which we affectionately called “The Shack.”

Photo by Emily Wanner

Even though Highway 141 lies between our old property and the burning hills, and our place wasn’t in imminent danger, thinking of it burning made me cry. The beautiful cedars and firs. The gazebo friends helped Mike and me build from logs in our woodlot. The chickens in the barn. It felt like losing our land all over again.

Four days later, the fire has scorched approximately 1,600 acres but is pretty much under control. Crews have defended every home in the area. It’s not over, but so far, so good. The fire’s source has not yet been determined though it was definitely human-caused, meaning anything from someone dragging a muffler on the pavement, to bored teenagers with a lighter, to a firefighter wanting to create a little job security.

As I write this, a new fire (started the old-fashioned way, by lightning) is taking off 20 miles further north, near Trout Lake …

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