WHITE SALMON — David Johnson uses a simple rule of thumb to find solid ground in the ever-shifting landscape around the White Salmon River, snaking through a deep muddy canyon that used to be Northwestern Lake.
Look for a tree trunk.
“If you don’t see a tree trunk,” Johnson said, “you’re not there yet.”
In other words: Many of the soft, bare slopes that now plunge toward the river’s new path — and a handful of tributary creeks feeding into the former reservoir — won’t be there for long.
“There’s a lot of dirt up here still to be moved out of here,” Johnson said. “It’s still changing.”
The White Salmon began charting its new course Oct. 26, when a blast of dynamite breached Condit Dam and drained Northwestern Lake in barely an hour. Nearly a century’s worth of mud and sediment buildup behind the dam started working its way down toward the White Salmon’s confluence with the Columbia River.
Much of that process will depend on how much rain and snowmelt the coming months bring. But as it starts to play out, a few cabin owners along the former reservoir fear they might lose more than a lakefront view. Erosion continues to rapidly reshape the landscape, in some places washing away banks uncomfortably close to structures and docks. Those impacts are evident even past Northwestern Park, about a mile and a half upstream of Condit Dam.
PacifiCorp, which owns Condit Dam and the surrounding land that dozens of cabins sit on, has constantly monitored conditions since the day of the breaching. Contractors JR Merit and Kleinfelder occupy a sort of home-base office in a building just a stone’s throw from the dam itself.
PacifiCorp spokesman Tom Gauntt said the company has mostly let nature take its course in shaping the river above Condit Dam so far. Crews step in when needed to keep things flowing smoothly, he said — pulling debris away from the hole at the bottom of the dam to keep it from plugging up, for example. PacifiCorp also cut down several trees near Big Buck Creek recently after cabin owners feared erosion may cause them to topple over.
Heavy rainfall will cause unstable ground to shift and move more quickly, though this winter so far hasn’t been particularly wet. Still, that doesn’t mean the area is inactive, Gauntt said.
“The river’s always flowing,” Gauntt said. “So there’s cutting going on regardless of whether it’s high volume or not.”
Among the most striking views of the evolving landscapes around the White Salmon River are just upstream of the dam, where cabins sit high above what’s now the riverbed. Where Mill Creek empties into the river from the west, huge banks of sediment gradually slope downward, cracks visible as the ground continues to shift. A handful of docks droop with it, sunken from their original orientation.
Before the dam breaching, PacifiCorp asked cabin owners to submit plans to secure docks left vulnerable, Gauntt said. The company isn’t aware of any structures imminently threatened, he added, but there are a few being watched closely.
Johnson considers himself fortunate. At his family’s cabin, dropping water appears to have given way to solid, stable ground. He walked out past his dock on a recent afternoon, dogs Blaze and Harley bounding alongside. Johnson, who lives in Washougal, pointed out clay and tree stumps nearby. That’s what suggests mostly firm land, or trees that were cleared before the reservoir filled almost 100 years ago, he said.
Johnson bought the cabin in 2007, well aware of PacifiCorp’s plan to decommission the dam rather than install costly upgrades for fish passage. But he admits he had “no idea” what the land would do in front of his cabin when Northwestern Lake drained.
Farther north, eroding banks near Big Buck Creek have retreated much closer to cabins along the west bank of the White Salmon. At least one cabin has been temporarily vacated, said Johnson, a board member of the Cabin Owners Northwestern Lake Association. A “FOR SALE” sign hangs in front of another. Orange fencing lines the bank in front of several others.
The erosion includes areas where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists last year dropped hundreds of salmon in anticipation of the dam breach. Fish and wildlife officials are hopeful that spawning upstream of the dam will eventually restore historic fish runs.
“A new river”
By spring, the deconstruction of Condit Dam will resume in earnest. That’s when crews will dismantle the 125-foot concrete barrier, aiming to finish by September. Then comes landscaping work, planting and revegetation planned for subsequent months.
Rafters Doug Hepburn, Terry Neal and Jim Waddell made a trip up to the White Salmon River last Thursday. The trio had rafted the river years ago, and stood near their old take-out spot at Northwestern Park, surveying the transformed area. None had seen the river since the Condit Dam breaching.
Hepburn, of Vancouver, said the group came mostly for “nostalgia.” Neal, of Washougal, said he was “blown away” by how different the lowered river looks now.
As the three spoke highly of the White Salmon’s active rafting runs, they spoke in the past tense. This river was great. This was a favorite spot.
Truth be told, most of the river miles above the park haven’t changed since Northwestern Lake disappeared. Hepburn said he hoped the river — now closed — will keep its popular status. He hoped the park might be refurbished to fit the dropped waterway.
Johnson called some of the recent changes “depressing” for cabin owners. But he’s not giving up his optimism, either.
“I think a lot of us have accepted that it’s going to be a new river. That’s fine,” Johnson said.
Standing on a dock outside his cabin later, Johnson surveyed a mostly muddy view on a gray day. It’s a view he hopes he’ll see change again.
“I’m hopeful that someday this will be a pristine, pretty area like it was before,” Johnson said. “Just different.”