HUSUM, Wash. — The rope swing looked a bit lonely, and more than a little hazardous, hanging over a cliff high above the White Salmon River.
Three years ago the swing would have dropped you safely into the deep waters of Northwest Reservoir, while today it would result in broken bones or worse during an 80-foot plummet into the gorge of this transformed Columbia River tributary.
The lowest section of the White Salmon has changed in many ways since the removal of Condit Dam in September 2012. It replaced a century-old reservoir with a totally new stretch of river, restored salmon runs and made historical landmarks out of old rope swings.
“The crazy part is how quickly the river has recovered,” said Zach Collier, who guided our 12-foot raft down this new stretch of river. “Unless you knew the story, you’d never guess that we’re paddling through what was once the bottom of a lake.”
Although the history would be interesting by itself, what really brought me here during late July was the chance to experience the unique scenery of a stretch known as the White Salmon Narrows.
Born from the snows of Mount Adams, the White Salmon thunders through a collapsed lava tube for much of its journey, creating the illusion of rafting down a dark hallway. In the lowest section the cliffs close in even tighter, so deep and narrow it feels as though you could reach out and touch both walls with outstretched arms.
“Rivers don’t typically do this,” said Collier, who owns Northwest Rafting Company and will offer guided trips here beginning Sept. 1. “It’s just so beautiful, and so unique in there.”
A quick history
The removal of Condit Dam became a defining moment in the Pacific Northwest.
Built in 1913 to provide electrical power for local industry, the dam, just three miles upstream from the mouth of the Columbia, chocked off fish passage to the upper river.
In 1996 the federal government demanded PacifiCorp install a fish ladder for endangered salmon and steelhead — something that would have cost around $100 million. Instead, they decided to remove the dam at a cost of $35 million.
The United States’ largest dam removal project at the time, the 125-foot hydroelectric structure was breached Oct. 26, 2011, and totally removed from the river Sept. 14, 2012.
The dam removal has already improved salmon and steelhead runs. But the project also removed popular Northwest Reservoir, turning a flat-water recreation spot into a steep and less accessible river. People with cabins on the shoreline saw their lakefront property disappear.
“That lake was a big part of people’s lives, and there are times when I go down to where the lake used to be and think, ‘we did lose something here,’ “ said Pat Arnold, president of Friends of the White Salmon.
The river has recovered to a natural state quickly. Barren patches of muddy riverbank have disappeared below a re-vegetation effort that included 13,000 saplings and massive reseeding effort.
“There’s very little that tells you a dam was ever there,” said Tom Gauntt, a spokesman for PacifiCorp. “The goal is to restore it as much as possible to a pre-1912 state.”
On the river
Our rafting trip began at Northwest Park, and during the first mile the river bounced through a landscape that for almost a century was underwater.
A mixture of small saplings, native grasses and old stumps blanketed a landscape that looked a bit like an open flood plain. High on a cliff face, a white line marked the former waterline of the reservoir like a streak of chalk.
Slowly the cliffs rose on both sides of the boat and we dropped through a narrow slot of tumbling waterfalls into what could best be described as a large bowl in the river. This was the former site of Condit Dam, but very little clues you into the fact a 125-foot structure ever stood here.
Below the old dam site the scenery began to improve, with canyon walls closing in on a lush, colorful landscape.
The toughest rapid, Class V Steelhead Falls, arrived with a horizon line at a bend in the river. Most of us portaged on the left with the aid of ropes bolted into the canyon walls but kayaker Pete Biskind had other ideas.
He navigated a squirrely rapid at the top of the falls, then launched off the left side of the riverwide drop with a smoothness that made a difficult rapid look easy.
Below came the trip’s highlight, the mossy gorge known as the narrows, where the river squeezes into such a tight defile it feels a bit like paddling through a deep crack created by an earthquake. Encased in the canyon, there was a feeling of paddling through remote wilderness rather than a stone’s throw from the busy corridor of the Columbia River Gorge.
Gradually, the canyon opened and we passed the old Condit Powerhouse — the last remaining structure related to the old dam. The final stretch took us through slow water, and views of Mount Hood appeared as the White Salmon emptied into the Columbia.
I’ve been on more exciting stretches of whitewater — this was mostly Class III — but the scenery and novelty of floating through the realm of an old dam made the trip more than worthwhile.
The most popular trip on the White Salmon River is the middle section — centered around the town of Husum — and for sheer thrills and whitewater that’s the best bet.
Even so, a few commercial outfitters — Northwest Rafting Company, Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys and Wet Planet — do offers trips down this lowest stretch of the river. Dangers include logs wedged in the narrow canyon and Steelhead Falls, and unless you’re boating with someone who knows the river or have a high degree of skill, an outfitter is recommended.
White Salmon River
Lower “narrows” section
General area: Columbia River Gorge on the Washington side. Closest towns are White Salmon, Wash. and Hood River.
Put-in: Northwest Park
Take out: Parking pullout at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Difficulty: Class III+ (V)
Notes: Beware of logs in the river that can become very dangerous due to the narrow nature of the gorge.
Guided trips: Northwest Rafting Company (541) 450-9855; Wet Planet (509-493-8989); Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys (509-493-2641).