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Discovering the New White Salmon River: Paddling Through the Old Condit Dam Site

former Condit Dam site, White Salmon River
Paddlers celebrate a free-flowing White Salmon River where Condit Dam once stood. Photo: Tom O'Keefe, American Whitewater.

 

There is a giant basalt rock just downstream of the former site of Condit Dam on Washington’s White Salmon River. When the dynamite blasted a hole in the base of the dam last October, I watched the flood of mud and reservoir water explode through the breach. I remember thinking, that rock has been staring up at that dam for 100 years, waiting for this. I imagined the rock cheering the breathtaking rush, finally able to see some action again, be shaped by free-flowing water again — to have its river back.

A year has passed since the blast and the river is flowing free.  I had a chance to explore a bit of the former reservoir section last month, but we couldn’t float all the way down through the dam site because crews were still working. So it was great to come back last week to paddle all the way from the Wet Planet put-in in Husum about five miles down through the dam site to the confluence with the Columbia.

I was with Travis Rummel and Ben Knight from Felt Soul Media, who were there to capture the final shot for their film DamNation. Partners like Tom O’Keefe from American Whitewater, Pat Arnold from Friends of the White Salmon, and local paddlers like Susan Hollingsworth and guides from Wet Planet made it a true celebration.

What is it like to float a river, recently undammed?  Every river trip is about discovery, but on a river that has just been uncovered and set free, you really are seeing things for the first time — or at least the first time in a long, long time.

Will there be rapids? What will the banks look like? Will it be ugly and muddy? What shape will the river take? Will we be able to tell that a concrete wall stood here, blocking everything in its path?

It took more than 20 years of work by conservation groups and the Yakama Nation to bring the dam down.  That was the key. Now, the river has been unlocked, like a secret. We open the door and step through.

Eyes wide, we can’t stop smiling.

Our flotilla of two rafts and 13 kayaks bounce down the new class II-III waves in the old reservoir section. This stretch, not too long ago, was dark, still water, 50 feet deep. Now it’s whitewater. We pause and look up at the old water line high on the canyon wall. Along the riverbank we see tree stumps, many with springboard notches made by loggers 100 years ago. The exposed land along the river is already greening up — the revegetation effort is underway.

While the contractor removed much of the wood sedimented in the reservoir bottom, there are still a lot of old logs and timbers moving downstream.  Chunks of sediment slough off the riverbanks. So much is still evolving here.

The gold leaves on the trees, the gray skies, and red chinook are signs of the season. It’s a testament to their resilience that, despite the flood of sediment down the lower river a year ago, salmon are spawning here now. We see herons and mergansers. And there are bear tracks on the riverbank — are the bears just eating the salmon carcasses or actually fishing? I wonder if the cars driving along Highway 14, within shouting distance from the salmon redds, know what a wild place this is.

At the dam site we pull over on the gravel bar by the giant basalt rock. We climb out of our boats and stare, trying to picture a 125-foot concrete dam towering over the tight canyon notch. We take pictures and pop a bottle of champagne. I find small chunks of dam mixed in with the pebbles on the beach. The river curls quietly around the rock as it flows downstream into the Narrows. The rock stands, a sentinel to the returning salmon, the seasons, the river re-making itself.

The dam was here. And now it’s gone. Dams aren’t forever – rivers are.

We may have had our worries, our doubts. But the river knew all along, it was just a matter of time.