By Eric Adsit
What lies beneath?
It’s a question that’s been on paddlers’ and naturalist’s minds alike since the 98-year-old Condit Dam was removed from Washington’s White Salmon River in October 2011. With the dam gone, the still waters of Northwestern Lake drained away, revealing nearly two miles of riverbed coated in a nearly100-year accumulation of silt and downed timber from the surrounding forests. Access to this new run officially opened this weekend, November 3, and C&K has a preview from the first paddlers to document the stretch.
Located in southern Washington between the towns of White Salmon and Husum, the newly revealed section is part of a five-mile stretch of river that could become a scenic addition to the world-class lineup of recreational whitewater just upstream. The White Salmon currently boasts four commonly run segments: the Class IV ledges and slots of the Farmlands at the top, the Class V waterfalls and boulder gardens of the Green Truss, the playful Class III Middle, and the mellow Class I-II Lower, which previously ended in the slack water at the head of Northwestern Lake.
Early in the morning of September 20th, 2012, kayaker Sam Drevo and standup paddleboarder Dan Gavere explored this newly revealed stretch of whitewater, which the paddlers are calling the Lower Gorge. They discovered miles of Class II-III rapids, spiced with a Class IV ledge and—especially during this exploratory run—a number of strainers and logjams.
In the weeks since Drevo and Gavere’s descent, dam owner PacifiCorps has completed a long overdue operation to remove wood and steel cable from the riverbed. In a November 3rd email, American Whitewater’s Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director Tom O’Keefe confirmed that the river is now open for recreational paddling. “They just pulled the signs and opened the river,” he said.
Point-of-view video from Drevo and Gavere’s descent depicts a narrow, vertically walled canyon with spectacular scenery. With views rivaling the Farmlands section upstream but with far less difficult rapids, the Lower Gorge of the White Salmon seems destined to take its place among the many excellent whitewater runs in the region.
The removal of Condit Dam marks much more than a new recreational opportunity, though. Within days of its removal, salmon were seen spawning upstream of the dam site for the first time in decades. The White Salmon River now flows freely from its headwaters at Mt. Adams to the Columbia, providing more than 30 miles of habitat for spawning fish such as Salmon and Steelhead.
The White Salmon’s rapid recovery should be viewed as a testament to the vivacity and ability of a river to restore itself.