Washington’s White Salmon River was reborn this year when Condit Dam came down. Susan Hollingsworth was among the first to run the new river. Here’s her inspiring report.
As kayakers, experiencing a new river is as easy as hopping in a car and driving to a new region. However, rarely do we get to feel the swiftness of a river only recently uncovered right in our backyard. On Sunday, November 11, 2012, a group of river activists, fish biologists, community members, rafting professionals and avid kayakers gathered to share in this unique moment on the new stretch of the White Salmon River.
Located in southern Washington State, the White Salmon River was blocked by 125-foot Condit Dam until just over a year ago. On October 26, 2011 a planned explosion released the river, commencing a year-long process to fully remove the concrete structure. Now, a year later, the White Salmon River flows freely from source to its confluence with the Columbia River.
Sunday’s group came together at the drop of a hat. We had all waited eagerly for the forecasted date, and sat patiently when it got pushed back for several weeks, then for a full month. While contractors had finished deconstructing the dam itself by the projected date, they had yet to remove a nasty and unnatural log jam downstream. Finally, nearly 70 logs were extracted, and PacifiCorp opened the river.
Almost immediately, I received a call from the guys working on the DamNation film, hoping to catch that moment of celebration as we experienced a dam-free river for the first time. With the help of Amy Kober of American Rivers and Thomas O’Keefe of American Whitewater, we quickly set a plan in motion.
A week later, two rafts and thirteen kayaks floated together into the new canyon.
It passed quickly. The river’s steady class II-III rapids carried us through the new landscape faster than we expected. Rolling hills, bursting with a freshly verdant blanket of life contrasted with 50-foot canyon walls painted with bands of color from a century of sediment deposition. The trees on the rim seemed higher than anywhere else in the drainage, even as basalt walls narrowed and grew taller around us. Waterfalls rolled over the bulbous rock outcrops, and salmon flashed by our boats on their way upstream. The landscape’s enchantment overwhelmed us.
We knew that we were near the pinch where, 100 years ago, engineers began construction of Condit Dam. Yet, had we not seen the camera crews, we may have not recognized the site. No bits of concrete or any evidence of development remained. Just a river flowing as it has for thousands of years.
Cheers echoed while others sat in silent disbelief, both reactions to the joy we all felt for finally experiencing the new White Salmon River. We caught an eddy and stood on a gravel bar just below the dam site so that we might savor the moment.
Todd Collins from Wet Planet Whitewater scurried around to film reactions, Amy Kober busted out signs for a photo-op, and Pat Arnold from Friends of the White Salmon River popped open a bottle of champagne. We soaked it in. The river had returned, and we were all there to express our gratitude for being able to see it happen.
Downstream, kayakers delighted in navigating the new version of Steelhead Falls. (Condit Dam had diverted water around this series of drops in a section known as the Narrows.) Large amounts of sediment and debris filled in the lower drop – likely only temporarily – while the upper ledge remained. The curved basalt walls enclosed our view, narrowing our focus to the whitewater. After everyone’s successful descent, the river pulled us downstream, leaving us wishing we could go back and see it all again.
No other river trip compares to our joyful and celebratory descent of the Lower Lower White Salmon River. I look forward to watching the valley’s ecosystem explode back into life. Salmon have returned, and along with them a culture of river preservation and protection. Of course, I’m also looking forward to the day when I can begin at the headwaters in Trout Lake and paddle all the way to the Columbia River, perhaps with no portages.