The Winds of Time

Over the weekend we took our friends, Jyothi and Rajeev, on a drive up the Columbia River Gorge. It was one of the first clear, sunny days all spring, and the air even teased us with a bit of warm. We stopped at many of the noteworthy spots within reason for a day’s drive. We’ve seen most of the sites previously, though as adults it has been a lot of years. With a new lens, even with all that has been preserved since the last time either Greg or I have visited, it seemed something was missing.

No drive up the Gorge is complete without a short traipse along the old highway to stop for a photo op at Crown Point and to catch a glimpse of the roadside waterfalls. The wind reined furiously at Crown Point, in all its glory. It did not feel like the car door was going to pull off the hinges when I started to open it, but suffice to say, even parked the car rocked and rolled so much I elected to sit by myself inside while the others braved the gusts. From inside the car I could hear surprise from the one other group of morning travelers, “I didn’t know it would be so windy!” We were there once when it was even windier, but “calm” has a different meaning in the Gorge, especially at Crown Point.

We stayed just long enough to snap a few photos of the Gorge from one of its most majestic vantage points then traveled onward to Multnomah Falls. When we arrived the sky was still crystal clear and blue, and we were protected from the wind, but I could see my own breath as it met the damp, frigid air. We ascended the red tile stairs to the lodge restaurant where we were seated in the atrium with a waterfall view for breakfast. We laughed when our server discovered the flower-painted reproduction coffee cups were stained with enough coffee and tea they might have been original to the lodge when it was built in 1925.

All four of us enjoyed breakfasts that featured smoked salmon. We had brought smoked salmon from the Siletz fishery and smokehouse with us to India as gifts when we attended Joythi and Raj’s wedding, but something happened to the seal and it was spoiled before it was opened. Since arriving in the Pacific Northwest Jyothi has acquired a palate for salmon, especially smoked salmon. With its cultural, historic and economic sigificance in the region, salmon was a fitting entre into the Gorge.

After breakfast we went out into the cold to get a few pictures of the second-tallest, year-round fall in the United States, then hurried along to Bonneville Dam. At the facilities entrance we were stopped by a contracted security guard who asked if we were carrying any weapons and looked in the trunk for anything suspicious. We proceeded across the locks and along side the transformer scaffold of the south powerhouse. There were few cars in the lot. It was deceitfully sunny and warm inside the car. Outside the air was biting cold with enough wind to carry the icy spray from the thundering spillway into the lot of the visitor’s center.

Inside the Bradford Island Visitor Center we joined a small group of other guests to hear a presentation by a man of slight build from the Army Corps of Engineers. He explained the history of the dam, including preliminary research, the effects of the Depression and the New Deal, World War II, and the ever-increasing power usage of the region. He quoted Woody Guthrie to demonstrate the cutural significance of the Columbia River and Bonneville dam in the recent history of the U.S. The man had small props to explain how power is generated and the Columbia dam system’s changing role with the advent of wind power. Prior to wind generation, the Bonneville system produced about 85 percent of the power for the region, and even some for California. Presently, it fluctuates, but hovers around 65 percent. He acknowledged the Columbia River Basin system cannot hold any more dams. In other words, the Corps has simply run out of places to put new dams unless they install another river first.

At the conclusion of his talk our guide led us outside into the spray of the snow-fed spillway to see a retired turbine standing at least three stories tall. The vast majority of those in service are encased and rest below the main floor of the powerhouse. We walked over the fish ladder and to the visitor’s display inside the powerhouse. All ten generators were lit at the top, indicating they were all generating power, even on such a blustery day when the wind turbines upstream must have been highly productive as well. We re-entered the visitor’s center along side the fish ladder, but so early in the season there was little to see but turbulant water. The spring run had started, but the year-to-date chinook count, the most plentiful run, read 87 on the small dry erase board for counting the various species. By the end of the fall run there should be well in excess of 10,000 chinook that migrate upstream through the ladder, a substantial reduction from estimates made by the indigenous fishers and early white settlers before the dam system was constructed. To our excitement one salmon did pass through the ladder while we were in the observation room. Having enjoyed a breakfast of salmon, it was simultaneously a little disheartening to see the salmon migration has become so constricted.

On the road again, out of the bitter cold and into the warmth of the car, our next stop was the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Wasco County Museum at The Dalles. Opened in 1997, it was a beautiful stone building that suggested the layering of sediment over geologic time. Iconic portraits of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark greeted us upon entering. Each portrait was at least 15-feet tall. I was struck by the ridiculousness of their white, silken ascots, even though I’d seen the same portraits countless times. By the time their team reached The Dalles they were probably all filthy, stunk like a herd of upset skunks, and what was left of their clothes was probably rags and tatters, though more likely they had long since given them up entirely in exchange for locally-made, rugged clothes of hide or other more appropriate materials for an extended hike.

Once inside, the two wings of the museum were separated by a wide, tiled hallway with the silhouette of a section of the Columbia River inlaid in granite along the length in the center. The “discovery” wing started with a display on the most recent ice age, including information about the Missoula Floods that were responsible for the Gorge’s regal facade, along with fossils and depictions of animals that have long been extinct.

The ice age led to a display of artifacts from the indigenous communities who inhabited the region for at least 10,000 years. We all chuckled at the term “Indian” used in many of the individual displays, as we accompanied two close friends who are both Indian by birth and by race, ethnicity and culture, yet have only set foot in the Americas in recent years. I understand the term Indian, after having been erroneosly imposed on the communities of North America with pejorative connotations, is commonly accepted by some of North American heritage, but that did not subvert the irony of the situation as our friend from South Asia jested, “Who are these Indians? My people traveled very far.”

The display featured arrowheads, a few stone tools, a little bit of beadwork, and a number of handwoven baskets. I had difficulty leaving the basketry display due to my minor basket fetish. As I gawked at the beautiful artwork it occurred to me I have baskets from Guinea and Zimbabwe, but none from our local community. A short recording of three or four different tribal members telling a memory looped way too loudly over the speakers in the room. Overall, it was a well done, if underwhelming, display considering the history of the local community extends 10 full millenia that have been documented by contemporary scientists.

The museum progressed through the Lewis and Clark expedition, the arrival of white settlers on the Oregon Trail, and through the early history of Wasco County. The salmon fishery was an important part of the economy as it was developing from a tribal community and economy, into the capitalist economy of the United States. The cannery photos, taken before the advent of commercial refrigeration, featured salmon laid out by the thousands, or more, waiting to be filleted and canned. It was pretty clear that many of the salmon we missed in the fish ladder earlier in the day were sacrificed generations prior when the sustainable fishing practices that fed the native communities and their economy transitioned into overfishing to fuel an economy based on unregulated and consumption-driven growth.

As we moved on to our next destination and journeyed passed the sign marking Celilo Village, I realized the museum scarcely mentioned the Celilo Falls fishery. There were a few photos and plaques, but given its profound importance in the region I would have expected a prominent feature on its history and recent flooding to build The Dalles Dam. Of course, one other reason why the salmon run has slowed so greatly is the extensive dam system, including the dam at The Dalles, that literally submerged an entire community and its economic center, intentionally. I benefit from the inexpensive power, though I often wonder how cheap it really is. The simplistic acceptance of the deliberate destruction of a community living in a basin that has been dammed to its maximum capacity makes me wonder what a cost-to-benefit analysis of one additional dam would have revealed in 1957. What did it gain at the time, and do we even need it now?

Greg pointed out a road sign that signaled the end of the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, noting that the section of the Gorge is protected by federal law that imposes limits on construction and other activities. He also pointed out that immediately beyond the sign the wind farms were visible. Apparently dams are scenic, but windmills are not. Most of the windmill turbines were twirling like a child’s toy. Wind energy is not the golden goose any more than hydroelectric or oil or natural gas. Balance and conservation are what will lead to sustainable energy. But the balance needs to scrutinize the unintended consequences of any project much more rigorously than in the past when the government just moved a community and flooded its fishery.

We crossed the great river and arrived in Maryhill at the Stonehenge Memorial for Klickitat County soldiers who died in the first World War. It was a beautiful day for photos and many other travelers stopped for the view as well. We took our share of pictures and piled back in the car finally to turn around and head west. After a quick stop in Hood River to make the trip complete we arrived back home in Portland to our cheap power on a stable grid, and a freezer full of sockeye. At what cost?

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