Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lower Snake River - A Landscape of My Past

I just started reading a book on the Snake River. Starting the book brought back memories of my time on the Snake River. For a period of time I lived near the lowermost part of the Snake River near where it joins the Columbia River. At one point I drove across the lower end of the river every day on the way to work at the Wallula meat packing plant wallula-gap-and-john-mix-stanley. The winter I worked as a meat cutter, the lowermost Snake River froze over solid.

The lower Snake flowing from right to left and joining the Columbia on the left.
Notes denote a few of my hangouts along the river

The lower most dam on the Snake River, Ice Harbor Dam, was completed approximately the same time I moved with my family to Kennewick. If there was a dam with a power house and a tour anywhere in our vicinity, my father wanted to see it. He was a mechanical engineer and designed power plants so when Ice Harbor opened for tours we drove out to see the dam for my first experience of the Snake River.

Later, when I was in high school I got to go on a tour of the dam during turbine maintenance. The dam operators lowered each of the students down into the penstock via a small steel cage on a cable to see the blades connected to the turbine. It was awesome to be in the bowels of the dam knowing that the steel penstock closure on one side of the "room" was holding back a wall of water and sprays of water from the tiniest of holes along the edge of closure sprayed in on us. We observed pits in the steel of the turbine blades from the cavatating pressure on the back side of the blades. Someone asked, "What happens to the fish?" We were told they passed through without problems and on their return used the fish ladder which we visited as well. As I remember it some of us were a bit skeptical about the fish going through the turbines and being alright. But at the time it was early in the dam's operation and the numbers on fish returns were early yet.

I had several friends whose family's owned power boats and I got to water ski on the Snake frequently during the hot summers. Typically we would put in on the Columbia River at Kennewick. The Columbia is a cold river compared to the Snake. I was of the view we should not waste gas motoring to the Snake without skiing. I would attempt to start to ski from the dock and would ski down the Columbia to the Snake. By the time we neared the Snake my feet would be numb and entering the Snake felt like a hot tub. At that point I would let go and others would have their turn in the warm waters of the Snake.

We would hang out on the islands at the lower end of the river and try a little fishing. Occasionally we would go up to the dam and entered the concrete lock to be lifted up to the slack water behind Ice Harbor Dam. Amazing that you could get a free ride through the lock, but when the dams were built the power loss was considered cheap and the Army Corp did not want to interfere with river navigation even for small recreational boats.

Ice Harbor Dam with Levy Landing and the cliff jump

We also drove out Levy Landing Park to picnic or drive dangerously on the roller coaster like road. Billy Mays and I swam across the river and back a couple of times. Neither of us were great swimmers but we had endurance and Levy Landing was all about being young and risky. A short distance downstream of Levy Landing was a backwater between the rail line and the shore with a warm pool of water and 35-foot high basalt cliffs plunging into deep water. I initially thought jumping off those cliffs would allow the opportunity to briefly experience what it is like to fly. Perhaps that is what others experience when they jump off cliffs, but mostly it felt like falling and if you didn't control your body right the impact with water was not pleasant and would leave bruises. I have not made the jump in a while and am not sure about access. At the time there were occasions when someone would back a pick up to the edge so that the tail gate could be used as a diving board.

Delta area where the muddier Snake mixes with the Columbia

Lisa took this shot of the delta area with the Horse Heaven Hills and Jump-Off-Joe in the distance with a brush fire blackened area.

I also did a lot of fishing on the lower Snake in the delta area. My guide was Mike Fish a good mate and yes that was his name. He knew the ins and outs of all the fishing holes in the delta area and what kind of gear was required for each hole. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the lay of the land in the delta. This was the time before Google Earth. But as can be seen much of the delta was far from natural, with old abandoned rail lines and likely some dredging for ballast in the former gravel beds now drowned by water backed up water from McNary Dam downstream on the Columbia River. Great fishing and I always came home with a load of catfish and perch. We occasionally tried our hand at sturgeon on the main stem just below the dam but alas I have yet to experience the thrill of catching a sturgeon.

The mouth of the Snake River where it joins the Columbia was once a great gathering place for First Nations peoples all over the Columbia and Snake drainage areas. Lewis and Clark encountered this gathering during the late stages of the salmon harvest. The expedition had tired of eating salmon during their trip down the Snake and traded for dogs as a food source.

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