Condit Dam removal will free White Salmon rapids for rafters

Condit Dam towered over Mark Zoller, his crew of three, and the rafts they’d just wrestled down a catwalk and a cliff to reach the White Salmon River near Underwood, Wash.

The swirling stream and steep canyon walls were a hundred hues of green. Mist from the water cascading over Condit’s spillway dampened everything.

“The stretch below the dam is as beautiful as any section of the upper river,’’ said Zoller, 48, owner of Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys, the largest of the commercial rafting companies on the White Salmon River.

Zoller recently made his second raft trip on the three miles of the White Salmon between Condit — scheduled for removal this fall — and the mouth of the river at state Highway 14.

Zoller makes his living rafting customers down the White Salmon River from BZ Corners to Northwestern Lake. Northwestern Lake is the 92-acre reservoir behind Condit Dam. He hopes to be able to offer his clientele additional rafting water once the dam is gone.

That begs two questions: What will the river that’s been under the lake be like, and is the stretch downstream of the dam raftable?

“It’s a big mystery what’s under the reservoir, but I don’t think it will be too difficult,’’ Zoller said. “One of the old-timers says there’s a decent rapids about where the bridge is across Northwestern Lake.’’

A 10-foot-tall coffer dam was built just upstream of Condit to divert the river during construction. That coffer dam also is scheduled for removal.

Zoller recruited Keenan Hoar, Aaron Reichert and Ryan Webb to join him for his second trip between Condit and the river mouth. Hoar and Webb guide for him.

They used a pair of 101/2-foot rafts instead of the standard 131/2-footers.

“It’s like a sports car,’’ Zoller said, pointing to the smaller vessel. “You can put this in places you can’t put a regular raft. Remember, the smaller the raft the bigger the wave seems.’’

Zoller said the three miles downstream of the dam appear suitable for commercial raft trips, given the streamflows are high enough.

“There’s nothing really nasty down here,’’ he said.

Steelhead Falls, a three-tiered drop of 9 to 11 feet in about 50 yards, is Class 4 water, Zoller said. Waters are rated from Class 1 to 6, with a Class 6 rapid likely fatal.

“Steelhead Falls is really Class 3 that gets rated Class 4 because you have three technical spots back to back to back,’’ he said.

Standing at Steelhead Falls, Zoller said, “If we go for a swim right here it won’t be a good swim because you could get trapped.’’

Zoller is hoping for a jump in business once Condit Dam is removed.

“The White Salmon is going to get a lot of attention,’’ he said. “When people pay attention to that, they’ll notice us.’’

That’s when he hopes to be ready to offer trips on the stretch of the river that has been inundated for almost a century.

“I’ll be on it as quickly as possible.’’

Zoller fishes for winter steelhead in the canyon downstream of Condit Dam, yet he is concerned about the recolonization of the river by wild fish.

Most of the spawning habitat in the watershed is in Buck, Rattlesnake and Spring creeks, tributaries the rafters pass in their trips upstream of Condit.

“I’m worried some fanatic might sue to get us off the river for 15 salmon,’’ he said. “That could shut me down.’’

But for now, Zoller is getting ready for the 2011 season. Most of his trips are booked between May and August.

“People say I’m in the rafting business,’’ he said. “Really though, I’m in the business of building memories.’’

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