Grins and Gratitude on the White Salmon

old reservoir on the white salmon river

Old Reservoir on the White Salmon River | Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater

After years of effort by American Rivers and partners including Friends of the White Salmon, the Yakama Nation, and American Whitewater, the White Salmon River is flowing free.

On November 2nd, the new stretch of river through the reservoir section and old Condit dam site, down to the confluence with the Columbia opened to paddlers. And on Sunday the 11th, Wet Planet Whitewater hosted a float to explore and celebrate this stretch of the White Salmon. Nearly 30 supporters came out despite the cold: some in rafts and some in kayaks, all sporting wide grins of appreciation that this remarkable river has finally been set free.

Having never seen this stretch of river with my own eyes, to float it for the first time was an incredible experience. Below Northwestern Park, the high water line of the old reservoir begins to rise steadily, until anyone observing it from river level has to crane their neck as the canyon walls tower overhead. Staring speechlessly upward, I was startled by a shout from downstream. Paddling around the corner however, I had to smile; our pack of boaters was whooping – fists and paddles triumphantly raised – as they floated through the notch where Condit Dam once sat.

group enjoying the White Salmon River

Enjoying the Free White Salmon River| Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater

The group paused on a gravel bar to take pictures, open a celebratory bottle of champagne, and revel in the absence of the White Salmon’s last barrier to freedom.

As we floated on, the canyon continued to tighten. Everyone made it safely past Steelhead Falls, the gorge’s only class IV rapid, and into the slot canyon-like narrows beyond. Signs of the recent dam breach are still evident in the narrows and below, with oddly placed logs and debris scattered along the river’s path.

Emerging from the gorge, however, wildlife surrounded us. Herons sailed above, gulls and mallards lined the banks, and shadowy red Chinook salmon darted by beneath us on their way upstream to spawn. It’s a rare thing to see the recovery of a river happening right before your eyes!

Having observed much of the Condit Dam removal from the outside, I was surprised and grateful to feel warmly welcomed on this float. The event shed light not only on the improving state of the White Salmon, but on the strength of the community that surrounds it. I am amazed and impressed by both.

* Anyone interested in paddling the White Salmon should read American Whitewater’s notes on safety – and don’t miss their great video!