Monday, March 27, 2017

A Day at the Bonneville Dam

My oldest son, Lachlan, is really into fish.  So this year we are studying all the swimming creatures.  We had heard about the fish ladders at the Bonneville Dam and we thought it would be great to go see the salmon coming up river for spawning.  I knew it was a bit late in the season (this was in early October) so I called and talked to someone at the dam to make sure we could still see some fish before we made the drive.  I was told that there were many more fish coming through in the fish ladder on the Washington side.  So we set out on our journey, crossed into Washington via 205 and headed east on highway 14.

To my surprise, this drive, tied in perfectly with our history lesson.  Of course, I do not have pictures of this part of the journey because I was driving.  But let me try to explain.  In our history we are listening to the audio books of the Story of the World, Volume 1: Ancient Times.  In Chapter 9 we learned that ancient people used the rivers as roads because it was easier than traveling on sand and rocks and it was faster than walking or using carts pulled by cows.  In short, it was much more efficient.

As we traveled on highway 14 we saw many markers indicating historical sites for the Lewis and Clark trail, but we also saw lots of industry set up along the river.  There were many train tracks and loading areas for trains but also for barges.  This lead into a great conversation about why all these places had set up here.  In fact, when we got to the dam we found this hand out about how much can be carried on a barge as compared to by railroad and by semi-truck.
This just confirmed, that even today, using the rivers can be a more efficient way to move goods.

Now it was time for the fish ladder.
 Here we are at the entrance to the Washington side of the Bonneville Dam.  One thing to know is that this is considered federal land, so there is a security check point as you enter the visitor center and fish ladder.
Here Lachlan is sitting by one of the fish ladder windows with a Salmon making it's way through the ladder.  There is an office just behind where Lachlan sits in this photo where a fish and wildlife ranger sits and counts the fish as they come through the ladder.  The fish count is updated everyday, April through October, and there is a phone number you can call to get the latest count.  So that's the good news about this blog post, there is a spring run of salmon that should be coming through soon.
All I had was my cell phone, so the pictures aren't superb, but you can see a whole school of fish here.
In the fish ladder area on the Washington side there were displays of the different kind of fish.  There was also a small museum type display showing the different salmon fishing techniques of the native people.
 When we were there, two sturgeon were hanging out in the ladder.

 A school field trip came through when we were in the fish ladder viewing area and we were able to sit in and learn even more.  If you want to take this trip as a group, I highly recommend scheduling a tour.  We were able to see salmon eggs in their different stages of development and we learned that even if a fish gets into the turbines they will not die because the turbines are designed to push the fish back out in one piece.  This was good to know!
 This is the top of the fish ladder.  You can see down into the ladder from above to see how it is designed, but you can also look out over the river.  We actually spotted a few sea lions out there trying to fill up on salmon.

This is where we made our way into the dam itself.  There is a viewing area where you can see right into the turbine room.  Let me tell you, it was an awesome sight to see and feel.  The turbines with the lights on were the ones running.  Only two of them at the time of our visit and the whole dam vibrated. Quite the feeling.
 They had displays showing how electricity was made using the turbines and the flowing water.
 They had a theater with a video running on a loop explaining everything you need to know about the dam.  It showed the history of the cities and towns that were there.  The big flood that hit and how the dam helps with flood control.  We didn't stay long enough to watch the whole thing but it was very informational.
 He just seemed so small in this giant place.
 As we were driving away I had to stop to take a picture of the whole thing.
 We then headed a little farther east on highway 14 and crossed the river at the bridge of the gods.  Just a heads up, it's a toll bridge and it's a tall bridge!  It is also metal and you can see down below you when you drive.  We were stopped on the bridge for construction and I took a picture.  Although gorgeous, it's also a bit freaky.
We have now made it to the Oregon side of the dam.  At the federal check point the guard shared with us a funny fish joke.  What does a fish say when it runs into a concrete wall? . . . Dam.  :)

If I did this trip all over again, I would plan it the exact same way, start on the Washington side and end on the Oregon side.  The Washington side lets you see inside the dam, it's bigger, newer, grander and has a lot more information.  The fish ladder viewing area is also bigger and grander.
However, one neat thing about the Oregon fish ladder is that it is completely open and there is a bridge you can stand on to watch from the top for jumping fish.  Had there been more fish, I am sure it would be a site to see.  Down below in the viewing area under the water, there just weren't as many fish coming through.  But calling before you go is key!
 Be prepared, at the Oregon visitor center, there is a gift shop, and I could not resist.
We were able to sneak in on the tail end of another tour on the Oregon side and peak into the turbine room.  If you do not have a tour scheduled, the viewing area for the turbines is not open to see.
Outside the visitor center on the Oregon side of the Bonneville Dam they have one of the turbines on display.  It's quite massive as you can see.
Our next stop, the Bonneville Fish Hatchery.
There were pools of fish you could feed.  They had fish food dispensers you could get a handful of food for a quarter and feed the fish.  They would all swarm the food and it was really fun to watch.
We also, happened to be there when they were loading and counting fish.  There was a big truck, sucking up fish and loading them into a tank.  There are so many fish and so little water that the truck has oxygen tanks that feed the water with the much needed oxygen for the fish to breath as they make their trip.  These fish were being taken to another fish hatchery in Oregon where they would be raised and then released. We learned that most of the people that work at fish hatcheries complete a course at Mount Hood Community college.  I still need to contact them about that program.  If Lachlan's love for fish continues, I could see this being a career he would love!
 Also at the hatchery is a display tank with a 70 year old sturgeon.  He is huge!

 There were buttons on the wall you could push to turn on a voice recording with lots of information about sturgeon.
 From the top of the sturgeon pond, the display window area looks like a flooded house.
 As you meander through the vast grounds of the hatchery there are more pools with more fish food dispensers.  What we learned, is that the ducks like the fish food too.  We were able to feed them right out of our hands.
 They hung out right by us.
My little guy, only 2 at the time of the trip, still asks to go back to the Bonneville Dam on a regular basis.  This was one of his most favorite days of his life so far.
Towards the end of our day at the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, we found the spawning area for the salmon.  As you know, salmon, come back to where they were hatched to spawn.  They spend 5 years out in the ocean and somehow find their way back.  If a salmon is hatched in a hatchery, it comes back to the hatchery.  They swim up the river and then into the hatchery and wait in this channel until they can get into the spawning pools, which are calm, somewhat shallow, concrete pools.  The fish waiting in the channel that lead to the spawning pools knew where they needed to be and tried to jump over the concrete path separating the two areas.  They jumped so high, they had to put up white plastic guards.  You can see a few salmon jumping and the channel and spawning areas I mentioned in the videos below.
I think I figured out how they get the fish in the channel to the spawning pool, but I am not 100% sure I am correct.

Honestly, I can't believe we fit this all into one day.  This area could easily be explored for several days.  There is something for everyone if you spend the day or two at the Bonneville Dam.

If you don't live in the Pacific Northwest and you can't make it to the Bonneville Dam, make sure to look up a fish hatchery or a near by dam.  Some of my fondest memories as a child are from fish hatcheries.  I don't think hatcheries get enough credit as an AWESOME place to take kids.  And the dam just left us in awe of what man can build. 

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