Kayaking memories on the White Salmon River

  • Negotiating Husum Falls on the White Salmon River in Washington

    Tom O'Keefe, American Whitewater
  • The breaching of Condit Dam, in four images

    PacifiCorp
  • The reservoir after the Condit Dam breach

    PacifiCorp
 

I almost missed my chance to kayak the White Salmon River before it changed forever. After dropping off the kids at school, packing, making last-minute phone calls and sending last-minute emails, I left the house an hour later than planned. With a five-hour drive and only the afternoon of a late October day ahead of me, I had almost given up on the idea of paddling before my trip even started.

I had my boat with me, though, and I wanted to get on the river if I could. So I was heavy on the pickup's gas as I dropped from the freeway onto the state highway that follows the Washington side of the Columbia River and headed west.

I expected the river country to look the way it did the first time I saw it, frozen in a present tense as static as a story in the pages of a book. Of course, no landscape keeps still. Windmills twirled on what I remembered as empty hillsides, and wine grapes sprouted where I recalled only cheatgrass and sagebrush. Slowing to drive through the town of Roosevelt, I noticed a new spec-house subdivision.

An hour down the highway from Roosevelt, I turned up the road that follows the White Salmon River. I tried to catch a glimpse of it, but Garry oaks and ponderosa pines hid the water. Orange mesh barriers and construction barrels blocked every turnout. A sign declared river access closed for a demolition project.

A hundred-year-old hydroelectric dam spanned the White Salmon about three miles from its confluence with the Columbia. Built in the days before people worried much about the environment, Condit Dam lacked a fish ladder to enable salmon and steelhead to migrate upstream. The federal government finally ordered the dam's owner to add one, but the power company figured the dam produced so little electricity -- and adding a fish ladder would cost so much money -- that it was cheaper just to remove the dam.

The next day, on Oct. 26, 2011, the utility would blow a hole in the dam to drain its reservoir, then spend a year dismantling the structure. I'm as big a fan of dynamite as the next guy, but it wasn't the promise of explosives that sent me traveling. When my wife, Juliet, and I were dating, she lived in Portland, Ore., and I lived in a small town near Yakima, Wash., and the White Salmon was the closest thing to halfway between us. We had time in those days and spent our summer weekends there kayaking. I think it's where we fell in love. Despite the distance and commitments that now separate us from the river, it remains a part of us and it seemed important for one of us to witness the dam's demise, for the same reasons it's sometimes important to attend a wedding or a birthday party, even when you can think of a thousand excuses not to go.

Beyond the reach of the reservoir, you could paddle the White Salmon. I pulled into a parking turnout next to a pickup loaded with a kayak. The driver was in his drysuit, and I asked if he was taking off or putting on. Putting on, he said. Even though it was late, I asked if I could tag along.

I hustled into paddling gear and then waited. By the time his friends arrived, and we loaded boats and drove to the put in and unloaded boats, it was closer to dark than I would have liked, and I knew we couldn't make it off the river before nightfall. But I wasn't worried; I knew the river, and the people I was going to paddle with knew the river, too.

Still, I stayed tight behind a bright green kayak in the first hard rapid. The canyon had already dropped into twilight. We entered river left, dodged some rocks, then moved right and skirted some waves and a hydraulic big enough to stop a kayak. One July day, I led a group of canoeists from back East through that same rapid. All of them flipped, and I spent almost an hour rounding up canoes and paddles and people.

I mentioned that story to the woman I had followed through the rapid, but she didn't seem to care. I swung in behind her again. At the next rapid, a rock shelf narrows the river, which is already narrow, by half. I almost killed Juliet in that thin rapid one spring. The river ran high and Juliet didn't want to paddle it, but I was selfish and I somehow convinced her that she could run it safely.

She was uncomfortable from the first, but I told myself she would loosen up, even though I knew better. When she hit the meat of the rapid, she flipped and swam, lost her boat and paddle, and ended up on the shore opposite the road. For some reason, we decided she could grab onto the back of my kayak and I could tow her across the river so she could hike out to catch a ride back to her car. I should have recognized what a bad idea this was.

The White Salmon is shallow and rocky, and there was no way Juliet could hang on. When she let go, the river sucked her downstream. I chased but could do nothing. I felt a kind of relief I had never felt before when Juliet swam into an eddy and pulled herself onto the bank. I kept that memory to myself and followed the green kayak into the darkness, carrying all my unspoken river stories.

The next morning, the morning of the demolition, I went to the small park at the tail end of the reservoir. It looked nothing like I remembered. The power company had partially drawn down the dam pool so that a river flowed where I recalled a lake.

Frost had formed overnight and lingered in the morning cold. One summer's day, while Juliet and I ate in that park, a man had tried to play fetch with her dog. A husky mix, he wasn't a fetching dog. The man threw the ball once, and when the dog didn't retrieve, the man did. He showed the dog the ball and threw it again. The dog didn't move. The man again retrieved the ball. When he returned, Juliet and I started to laugh. He wandered away after we pointed out how quickly her dog had trained him to fetch. It's a silly story, but I always remember it when I'm at that park. I wondered if my memories would change once the physical space that helped create them changed.

Only a handful of people were allowed to watch the demolition live, so I stood in the spawning room of a salmon hatchery with five dozen government scientists and bureaucrats to view it over an Internet feed. Everybody cheered when the dam exploded and a gush of black water flooded downstream. Still, it wasn't the same as seeing the river.

I had used some connections to get myself invited along on a tour of the dam with the scientists. A few hours after the demolition, a rafting outfitter's bus drove us to the dam and as we filed off, workers handed us hard hats, orange safety vests and protective goggles. A woman gave a speech telling us where we could and couldn't go and what we could and couldn't do, along with a warning that if we broke the rules, our tour was over.

The place was like an open wound. A century's worth of airless decomposition, suddenly uncovered, coated everything with a port-o-john-in-July kind of smell. A hundred feet below us, the river cleaved through a mud-walled canyon. Sometimes great chunks of those walls calved off and tumbled into the river.

The sound of flowing water drifted out of the canyon, but the river looked as if it were made not of water but of churning black dirt. Dirt rapids rose up, then vanished, only to return in some new location as the river remade itself, and then remade itself again. As I walked around the now-useless dam, I took pictures, collected a few chunks of broken concrete, and tried to memorize the smallest details so I could tell Juliet about a changing river that would remain forever familiar.


View the breach of the Condit Dam

Mike Barenti has worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., eastern Idaho and eastern Washington and is the author of Kayaking Alone: Nine Hundred Miles from Idaho's Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.