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White Salmon River not ready for floaters

Sun., Nov. 20, 2011, midnight

The lower White Salmon River is laced with woody debris that “look like shish kebabs facing upstream ready to spear you,” said the rafting guide who recently made the first trip down the stream since the breaching of Condit Dam.

“They are scary looking,” said Mark Zoller, owner of Zoller’s Outdoor Odysseys, a rafting company based in BZ Corner. “They are a kayaker’s nightmare.”

His company is the largest of the commercial rafting outfits on the White Salmon, but trips are off for now until the river becomes safer.

Zoller, 47, was hired to go down the river as part of a study of siltation following last month’s breaching of the 125-foot-tall dam 3.3 miles up the river.

Zoller and 12 others, using three rafts and a kayak, put in about .75-miles downstream of the Condit site. They took out at the mouth of the river at Underwood.

“How the debris sits in the river is crazy,” Zoller said. “There are logs everywhere. It looks like they floated down, hit the sandy bottom, wedged in, got cemented in place for now, and are sticking upstream. It’s a huge danger.”

Zoller said the river is changing daily. One day a silt island was at the mouth of the river, the next day it was gone.

The river is 4 inches deep in many places. Four times during his float Zoller had to get out of the raft and drag it through water less than 2 inches deep.

“The river is moving fast,” he said. “An engineer explained to me the math, but all the particles in the water make the river flow faster than normal.”

Rafts normally don’t move fast in 4 inches of flow, but they did during the exploration, he added.

The material on the river bottom is an intermittent mix of mud, sand and gravel. Zoller said he was surprised at the amount of gravel.

At spots, the shoreline could be walked with ease. Elsewhere, the rafters sunk to their knees in the muck.

The river downstream of Condit is closed to rafting and fishing. PacifiCorp, operator of the Condit Dam, issued a statement reiterating the danger of the White Salmon River.

“It’s such a quick-changing environment,” Zoller said. “People could see something on YouTube and think it’s OK to get on the river and then really get themselves screwed up.”

Zoller noted the regular BZ Corner reach of the river is open for rafting.

Commercial trips for the former Northwestern Lake reach and downstream of Condit must wait until the entire dam and coffer dam have been removed, perhaps by late summer 2012, he said.

“People will have to be patient and give the river time to clear itself and the contractors time to remove the dam,” Zoller said.

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