As many expected, the breach of Condit Dam was probably the biggest – and most viewed – moment in river conservation history. At 12:00 pm on Wednesday, October 26, 2011 nearly 300 people anxiously sat behind Wet Planet, waiting for a sight they could never have expected.
When the dynamite blew and the plume of water shot from the base of the dam, the entire tent erupted in cheers.
No one expected the power of the flood, no one knew Northwestern Lake would drain so fast, and no one could keep their eyes off the live-video feed for a while.
The event at Wet Planet was hosted by some of the nation’s and the region’s most influential river conservation organizations. Representatives from American Rivers, American Whitewater, Hydropower Reform Coalition, Trout Unlimited, Friends of the White Salmon, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, and Columbia Riverkeeper were there to celebrate the success of decades worth of work. Also in the crowd were major sponsors whose long-term support have made moments like this possible.
We were happy to be raising a toast with Patagonia, Keen Footwear, Klean Kanteen and New Belgium Brewery.
On a local level, Wet Planet, the White Salmon Riverfest and Symposium, Solstice Cafe, Gifford Pinchot Task Force, Crag Law Center, Cor Cellars, Next Adventure, Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe, Kayak Shed, eNRG Kayaking, We Love Clean Rivers, Immersion Research and NRS all jumped at the opportunity to support the freedom of the White Salmon River.
Basically, the crowd was completely composed of people who care about rivers.
However, the congratulations primarily went out to the locals on this momentous day.
The Friends of the White Salmon River, a volunteer-based group of local river and community advocates, were recognized by all as the key players in the decades of legal proceedings that led to this day. Without their persistence and vision, the dam may still be holding back the White Salmon.
Quickly ungluing their eyes from the images of the newly freed White Salmon River, party goers enjoyed an exquisite lunch from Solstice and beer from New Belgium Brewery. Expecting the reservoir to take up to 6 hours to fully drain, the crowd lazily enjoyed the sunny day and great company.
Heather Herbeck quickly brought the attention back to the river when she notified the crowd that the lake’s transition was happening quicker than expected.
In just under an hour, the new stretch of the White Salmon River emerged. The crowd rushed back under the big tent like a bunch of college kids at a free buffett. Shouts of amazement and disbelief rang out in unison.
The river had almost completely taken the canyon back. Pouring over the 98 year old coffer dam, the surging and rampant flow cut its way through 100 feet of sediment on its way downstream.
For the next 3 hours, excited kayakers, rafters, conservationists, guides, writers, lawyers, teachers, doctors and more watched the river evolve. The flow pulled massive slabs of sediment off the canyon walls, unveiled huge trees stuck in the mud and cascaded downstream in a thick, brown fury.
Now, we wait. But not for long.
The White Salmon will soon stabilize itself and the river will be restored, likely faster than anyone can imagine. Judging from similar events on the Hood River and Sandy River on the other side of the Columbia River Gorge, the river knows how to move downstream. Soon, we will see those 40 lb salmons swimming upstream and building their redds, or nests, up to 33 miles from the river’s mouth.
Author Susan Hollingsworth writes for Wet Planet Whitewater, Canoe & Kayak Magazine, American Whitewater, and any other river-related publication she can find.