Beat the heat #5: Float the (new) lower White Salmon

ZACH ZOLLER navigates a guided rafting tour down the lower White Salmon River in a narrow, moss-covered canyon below the former Condit Dam earlier this month.

Photo by Adam Lapierre
ZACH ZOLLER navigates a guided rafting tour down the lower White Salmon River in a narrow, moss-covered canyon below the former Condit Dam earlier this month.

Fed by springs percolating up from the base of Mount Adams, the White Salmon River remains a steady flow and chilling temperature throughout the year, making this Wild and Scenic waterway an excellent option to cool-off on the hottest summer days. In this, our fifth of an eight-part series on great local places to cool off in August, we take a ride down the White Salmon on a giant blue inflatable raft with one of several guide services that run the river.

If you’ve never rafted the White Salmon, you’re missing out. The pristine stretch river is world famous for good reason, and a true gem that anyone who lives in the area should experience at least once. And for those who have done it before, something new and exciting awaits.

The 2011 removal of Condit Dam means the river is free-flowing again, for the first time in almost 100 years. It took about two years for the lower stretch of river — from to the former dam to the confluence with the Columbia — to be navigable after the massive decommissioning project, but starting on Aug. 1 at least one guide company (Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys) started offering commercial float trips past the takeout at the former Northwestern Lake all way to the mouth.

As gorgeous and exciting as the float from the put-in to the former dam site is, what lies beyond is truly extraordinary. The canyon narrow to a series of steep and towering basalt walls unlike anything upstream. Just two years removed and it’s already hard to imagine the 125-foot-high dam in place of the the moss-covered walls and snaking set of rapids there today.

Below the former dam is expected to change significantly over the next few years, as rocks settle, rapids evolve and the river reclaims its lower reaches. ZOO Guide Zach Zoller says outfitters may or may not be able to offer trips down the lower section in years to come; it all depends on how the river reshapes itself from year to year.

After gearing up at your guide headquarters, you’ll get a crash course on paddling technique, commands and basic rescue procedure. Then you’re off to one of a few put-in sites, where guides situate people in their boats and shove-off. On a hot summer day, it’s hard to beat several hours drifting, paddling and splashing your way down such a beautiful stretch of river, with the expertise of a friendly and knowledgeable guide to keep you safe and entertained.

Oh, and don’t forget the 10-foot plunge over Husum Falls; known as the second-highest commercially run waterfall in the country. You’ll have the option to get out and walk around (portage) the falls, but don’t chicken-out — the experience of paddling as hard as you can toward the misty edge of a drop you can’t see over, hearing your guide yell “Get down! Hold on!”, plunging over, holding your breath, disappearing into the whitewater and bobbing back to the surface with and an ear-to-ear grin is one you won’t soon forget.

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