Rafting on the Recently Restored White Salmon River


Exposed bank of the former reservoir on the White Salmon River, WA - notice the old boat

Exposed bank of the former reservoir on the White Salmon River, WA – notice the old boat | American Rivers

On Saturday I rafted the White Salmon River. With Condit Dam completely gone, the river is now free-flowing from its source high up in the snow-melt streams of Mount Adams all the way to the Columbia River. We spent about three hours on the water, floating from the Wet Planet put in to Northwestern Park.

The last time I rafted this river several years ago, the trip ended in the slackwater of the dark reservoir. Now, the current is swift the entire way. From class IV rapids to big waterfall drops to fun riffles, this is water that was meant to move.

The river is exceptionally clean and clear – in many places we could see straight down to the cobbles on the bottom. In the big drops the glacier blue water fizzes into white bubbles, the kind of cold oxygen-rich water the returning salmon and steelhead need.

The White Salmon is a narrow, intimate river. You’re surrounded by forest. Old cedars and sword ferns crowd the banks of the steep basalt canyon. With yesterday’s flow at a low 500 cfs, the paddle rafting was pretty technical. Our guide did a great job navigating us between boulders, around old logs, and down steep chutes.

Rafting the newly free-flowing White Salmon River, WA. You can see the level of the former lake on the river bank

Rafting the newly free-flowing White Salmon River, WA. You can see the level of the former lake on the river bank | American Rivers

I asked him how the river has changed now that the dam is gone. He said he has already seen steelhead jumping up Husum Falls and BZ Falls – a great sign of the resilience of these fish.  He told me there is a big log jam near the old dam site – one of the reasons we couldn’t float all the way down through there yet. We had to take out upstream, at a spot where the old reservoir used to be.

As we got to the end of our float, it was exciting to see the former lake level begin to appear on the riverbank. At first we noticed just three feet of exposed rock-pocked dirt. Then as we floated the new current, the exposed banks got taller – 10 feet, 50 feet.

Since dam removal began last fall, the rain and the river’s flow have been resculpting and healing this place, washing away old silt and sediment accumulated in the reservoir. We should see more big changes once the rains begin this fall and winter.

It has been such a privilege to be part of this river restoration effort, and to witness the river’s transformation first hand – starting with the big bang last fall. This paddle got me thinking – what does it take to remove a dam, to restore a river? In addition to the decades of advocacy by groups like American

Rivers, the Yakama Nation, Friends of the White Salmon, and other partners, here are some highlights: