Kayaking Down A River Of Memories

I almost missed my chance to kayak the White Salmon River before it changed forever. After dropping the kids off at school, packing, making last-minute phone calls and sending last-minute emails, I left the house an hour later than planned. With a five-hour drive and only the afternoon of a late October day ahead of me, I had almost given up on the idea of paddling before my trip even started.

I had my boat with me, though, and I wanted to get on the river if I could. So I was heavy on the pickup's gas as I dropped from the freeway onto the state highway that follows the Washington side of the Columbia River and headed west.

I expected the river country to look the way it did the first time I saw it, frozen in a present tense as static as a story in the pages of a book. Of course, no landscape keeps still. Windmills twirled on what I remembered as empty hillsides, and wine grapes sprouted where I recalled only cheatgrass and sagebrush. Slowing to drive through the town of Roosevelt, I noticed a new spec-house subdivision.

An hour down the highway from Roosevelt, I turned up the road that follows the White Salmon River. I tried to catch a glimpse of it, but Garry oaks and ponderosa pines hid the water. Orange mesh barriers and construction barrels blocked every turnout. A sign declared river access closed for a demolition project.

A hundred-year-old hydroelectric dam spanned the White Salmon about three miles from its confluence with the Columbia. Built in the days before people worried much about the environment, Condit Dam lacked a fish ladder to enable salmon and steelhead to migrate upstream. The federal government finally ordered the dam's owner to add one, but the power company figured the dam produced so little electricity—and adding a fish ladder would cost so much money—that it was cheaper just to remove the dam.

The next day, on Oct. 26, 2011, the utility would blow a hole in the dam to drain its reservoir, then spend a year dismantling the structure. I'm as big a fan of dynamite as the next guy, but it wasn't the promise of explosives that sent me traveling. When my wife, Juliet, and I were dating, she lived in Portland, OR, and I lived in a small town near Yakima, WA, and the White Salmon was the closest thing to halfway between us. We had time in those days, and spent our summer weekends there kayaking. I think it's where we fell in love. Despite the distance and commitments that now separate us from the river, it remains a part of us and it seemed important for one of us to witness the dam's demise, for the same reasons it's sometimes important to attend a wedding or a birthday party, even when you can think of a thousand excuses not to go.

Beyond the reach of the reservoir, you could paddle the White Salmon. I pulled into a parking turnout next to a pickup loaded with a kayak. The driver was in his drysuit, and I asked if he was taking off or putting on. Putting on, he said. Even though it was late, I asked if I could tag along.

I hustled into paddling gear and then waited. By the time his friends arrived, and we loaded boats and drove to the put-in and unloaded boats, it was closer to dark than I would have liked, and I knew we couldn't make it off the river before nightfall. But I wasn't worried; I knew the river, and the people I was going to paddle with knew the river, too.

Still, I stayed tight behind a bright green kayak in the first hard rapid. The canyon had already dropped into twilight. We entered river left, dodged some rocks, then moved right and skirted some waves and a hydraulic big enough to stop a kayak. One July day, I led a group of canoeists from back East through that same rapid. All of them flipped, and I spent almost an hour rounding up canoes and paddles and people.

I mentioned that story to the woman I had followed through the rapid, but she didn't seem to care. I swung in behind her again. At the next rapid, a rock shelf narrows the river, which is already narrow, by half. I almost killed Juliet in that thin rapid one spring. The river ran high and Juliet didn't want to paddle it, but I was selfish and I somehow convinced her that she could run it safely.

She was uncomfortable from the first, but I told myself she would loosen up, even though I knew better. When she hit the meat of the rapid, she flipped and swam, lost her boat and paddle, and ended up on the shore opposite the road. For some reason, we decided she could grab onto the back of my kayak and I could tow her across the river so she could hike out to catch a ride back to her car. I should have recognized what a bad idea this was.

The White Salmon is shallow and rocky, and there was no way Juliet could hang on. When she let go, the river sucked her downstream. I chased but could do nothing. I felt a kind of relief I had never felt before when Juliet swam into an eddy and pulled herself onto the bank. I kept that memory to myself and followed the green kayak into the darkness, carrying all my unspoken river stories.

The next morning, the morning of the demolition, I went to the small park at the tail end of the reservoir. It looked nothing like I remembered. The power company had partially drawn down the dam pool so that a river flowed where I recalled a lake.

Frost had formed overnight and lingered in the morning cold. One summer's day, while Juliet and I ate in that park, a man had tried to play fetch with her dog. A husky mix, he wasn't a fetching dog. The man threw the ball once, and when the dog didn't retrieve, the man did. He showed the dog the ball and threw it again. The dog didn't move. The man again retrieved the ball. When he returned, Juliet and I started to laugh. He wandered away after we pointed out how quickly her dog had trained him to fetch. It's a silly story, but I always remember it when I'm at that park. I wondered if my memories would change once the physical space that helped create them changed.

Only a handful of people were allowed to watch the demolition live, so I stood in the spawning room of a salmon hatchery with five dozen government scientists and bureaucrats to view it over an Internet feed. Everybody cheered when the dam exploded and a gush of black water flooded downstream. Still, it wasn't the same as seeing the river.

I had used some connections to get myself invited along on a tour of the dam with the scientists. A few hours after the demolition, a rafting outfitter's bus drove us to the dam and as we filed off, workers handed us hard hats, orange safety vests and protective goggles. A woman gave a speech telling us where we could and couldn't go and what we could and couldn't do, along with a warning that if we broke the rules, our tour was over.

The place was like an open wound. A century's worth of airless decomposition, suddenly uncovered, coated everything with a port-o-john-in-July kind of smell. A hundred feet below us, the river cleaved through a mud-walled canyon. Sometimes great chunks of those walls calved off and tumbled into the river.

The sound of flowing water drifted out of the canyon, but the river looked as if it were made not of water but of churning black dirt. Dirt rapids rose up, then vanished, only to return in some new location as the river remade itself, and then remade itself again. As I walked around the now-useless dam, I took pictures, collected a few chunks of broken concrete, and tried to memorize the smallest details so I could tell Juliet about a changing river that would remain forever familiar.

Mike Barenti has worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., eastern Idaho and eastern Washington and is the author of Kayaking Alone: Nine Hundred Miles from Idaho's Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

To read more about Condit Dam, plus see the video of its demolition, click here.

This essay originally appeared in High Country News.