It’s been nearly five years since 700 pounds of dynamite was shoved into a hole at the base of Condit Dam and detonated — blowing a hole in the structure, draining Northwestern Lake behind it, and in the process, signaling a new chapter of the White Salmon River’s life.
Since that detonation in October 2011, the now free-flowing White Salmon River has undergone a transformation and is still continuing to change as it cuts a channel through its old reservoir, trees and shrubs take to the new banks, and native salmon species return.
Locals got a chance to look into the former dam site and explore the lower stretch of the river earlier this week during the 11th Annual White Salmon River Festival, which featured a community float guided by whitewater company Wet Planet from their headquarters in Husum down to the river’s confluence with the Columbia. The float was part of a larger two-day event that featured kayak and SUP races, a community salmon bake provided by the Yakama Nation Fisheries, a boater party at Big Man’s Rotisserie, and other events.
Wet Planet has hosted the event with other Gorge raft companies and agencies since the company founded the event in 2006, but in the years following the demolition of Condit Dam, there’s been a heightened interest in the river as it returns to a free-flowing waterway for the first time in a century. Before, boaters would have to take out at Northwestern Lake Park due to the dam, but now can float unimpeded. With the exception of the intact powerhouse that is perched on the side of the river, there is just about nothing left of the structure itself — so little that rafting guides have to point out to their passengers where the dam once stood.
For those unfamiliar with the history of Condit Dam, it was built in 1913 by energy company PacifiCorp (then Pacific Power and Light) to provide power for the Crown Willamette Paper Company in Camas, Wash., as well as Washougal and Portland municipal customers. The company had tried multiple times to allow fish passage at the dam, which is located 3.3 miles upstream from the confluence, but those attempts failed and the dam remained a barrier to salmon species looking to swim upstream to spawn. In the late 1990s, PacifiCorp reached an agreement with the federal government to decommission the dam after it was deemed too costly to install the required fish screens and fish passage structures.
The “new” White Salmon River has been a boon for both commercial and private boaters and has attracted a sizable contingent of boaters from the Oregon side as well. After some exploratory missions, Wet Planet began offering commercial trips past the former dam site about a year after demolition work was completed and other whitewater companies followed. One of the highlights of the trip is a float through “The Narrows,” an aptly named section of the river that features a steep and narrow basalt canyon that is strikingly beautiful.
“I know for us, it’s just been exciting to have another part of the river to explore and you know, just to be able to share that with our guests, I think it builds appreciation and awareness around the trend of dam removals,” said Heather Kowalewski, who works for BZ Corner whitewater company All Adventures Rafting, a co-host of the event.
“From my perspective, recreational boaters are really stoked to be on a river that’s totally free-flowing,” she added, addressing a crowd of people who gathered at Wet Planet before heading out on the float. “It’s very, very unique in the world of river rafting. I know many of us feel very, very blessed to be here.”
But the river is changing in other positive ways besides an increase in recreational opportunities. Jeanette Burkhardt, watershed planner for the Yakama Nation Fisheries Program, gave a talk before the float about the habitat restoration — both manmade and natural — that is occurring along the White Salmon River, which she said was undergoing “a remarkable recovery.” Manmade logjams provide habitat for fish, trees that have been planted are taking root along river banks, and the river continues to cut its new channel and redistributes sediment.
Burkardt said the response of the river has been “fairly quick,” caused in part due to its steep gradient.
“This is a very dynamic river… what you see today may look completely different next season,” she noted.
And it didn’t take long for salmon species to return. Just several months after PacifiCorp breached Condit Dam, a steelhead was spotted jumping at BZ Falls several miles above the dam site, captured in a photo by Burkhardt, and then circulated widely through the media. Since then, Burkhardt reported that “spring Chinook, fall Chinook, Coho, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey are all coming back into the river.”
With their return, agencies are working to reduce contact between boaters and fish, especially private boaters, as fish runs don’t occur at the height of the commercial rafting season. Boaters should take care to avoid as best they can at trampling riparian vegetation or disturbing gravel beds where redds might be.
“The outfitters have been great about embracing really low impact practices on the river, so hopefully we can all continue to coexist and protect this place that is so unique and special,” Burkhardt said.