Last week, power company PacifiCorp quietly announced it had finished removing the Condit dam in southwest Washington. It’s the second largest dam removal ever in the United States, and it’s revealed a stretch of the White Salmon River that was lost for 100 years.
It’s a damp day in November. Todd Collins, a river guide, addresses a crowd of 30 people in wetsuits.
They’ve traveled here to paddle through the old site of the Condit dam.
Collins: “It’s probably the most beautiful section of the white salmon river. And I’m talking from Trout Lake all the way down. It’s pretty stunning.”
PacifiCorp blasted a hole in the dam last October. It’s taken a year to pull out the rest of the concrete out and clear debris.
Collins tells the paddlers to watch out for the trees that are still working their way down the river. And to avoid taking an accidental swim.
Collins: “I think swims would be pretty scary, because you don’t really know what’s in there, and there’s just logs that are in places and formations that don’t make any sense.”
But the mood is euphoric. Kayakers push off from shore in plastic boats colored like skittle candies.
Collins: “Forward paddle”
A yellow raft carries three fish biologists who have come to observe the river’s transformation.
Margaret Newman directs the Mid Columbia Fisheries enhancement group.
Newman: “Oh I’m super excited to see the lower river and to see the habitat that’s opened up and what fish might be here already.”
The Condit was 125 feet tall, and it didn’t have fish ladders. That’s the primary reason it was removed.
Newman says last year, as the deconstruction began, steelhead trout found the hole in the dam and began swimming through it and appearing upriver.
Newman: “This 20 pound fish could do something a human could never do. We could never swim up a waterfall. We could never swim through a hole in a dam.”
Collins: “Forward paddle!"
Swift water carries the raft and the biologists downstream. They reach the edge of what was once a shallow man-made lake behind the dam.
Jeanette Burkhardt, with the Yakima Nation fisheries team, points to the shore.
Burkhardt: “What we’re starting to see is kind of a bathtub ring where the water level used to be.”
The flowing river has cut its way down through the bottom of the old lake-bed, sweeping gravel and sediment downstream.
Rope swings that once hurled children into the lake dangle 80 feet above the water.
A home on the lake shore is collapsing into the river.
Up ahead small pile of rocks at a narrow spot is the only sign of where Condit Dam used to stand.
Ambit: “This is it. We would be encased in concrete. Whoooooo.”
The expedition pulls over on a gravel bar and stops for pictures and champagne.
But the real treat for the kayakers is up ahead.
The river bounces down a class four rapid and then races into a narrow green canyon.
You can almost touch the rock walls with your fingertips.
Burkhardt says this roaring whitewater used to be just a trickle.
PacifiCorp diverted the water here to generate electricity.
Burkhardt: “So it looks so much different now that all of the water that used to be in the river is back in this stretch. And it’s gorgeous.”
As the river gets wider, the biologists point out long gravel beds. Brady Allen, the third biologist in the boat, says all this gravel was trapped behind the dam.
Allen: “There was very little gravel because the dam held it all up. Big floods scoured the rest of it down below and it couldn’t be rejuvenated. The river is probably about four or five feet higher than it was when the dam was holding it all back.”
Removing the dam and releasing the gravel has created miles of new salmon habitat. Females have scoured the newly deposited gravel with their tails and laid their eggs. Hundreds of red spring Chinook streak across the river like comets.
Burkhardt: “There’s so many fish in here in this stretch. There’s just tons of them spawning and holding and moving around. Every few seconds you see another one. ”
The wind carries an ammonia smell, from the dying fish. Eagles, herons, and ducks have all taken note.
Burkhardt says she’s seen signs of other animals returning, too.
Burkhardt: “If you keep an eye out in the fine sediment we saw a bunch of bear tracks the other day. They are obviously smelling what we smell and coming down here to see what they can snack on.”
As the White Salmon flows into the Columbia River, the rafts and kayaks pull to shore.
‘I’m cold. Burr. But I feel great. “
That’s Pat Arnold, President of Friends of the White Salmon River.
Arnold: “It’s just exciting to be part of such a big event in natural history.”
Arnold says even with the dam gone, the future of the White Salmon River is uncertain. Klickitat County has proposed new development along the river. She worries that could hurt water quality. But today, she’s just happy to see the river flowing freely.
Arnold: “There’s a lot of work to be done. This is the beginning. It’s not the end at all. “
Guides say the newly opened section of the White Salmon is changing every month. Don’t try it unless you’re a confident class four (IV) paddler.
Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio