Saturday, December 13, 2014

White River Falls

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Today's adventure takes us out to White River Falls, an Oregon state park about 30 miles south of The Dalles, on highway 216 between Tygh Valley and Sherars Falls. This spot is out in the middle of Oregon wheat country, with dry, rolling hills, and it's surprising to find a substantial river here, much less a huge waterfall. The name is a clue: The White River flows east off of Mt. Hood toward the Deschutes, and glacial sediment in the water sometimes gives the river a milky look.

I really didn't know anything about this place until a coworker visited early this year. He somehow managed to break an ankle on the trail down to the base of the falls. He insisted it was still worth visiting, broken ankle or no, so I figured it might be worth a look. I wasn't disappointed. It's one of the secret gems of Oregon's state park system, and I absolutely recommend it. It's totally worth the trip. Just don't break your ankle. Or if you do, be sure to have someone else drive you home instead of messing your ankle up even further. Or if you absolutely have to drive home, maybe go see a doctor right away instead of waiting a week or two and self-medicating with cheap vodka. Don't be that coworker of mine, basically.

Anyway, the state park system only acquired the falls in 1969. Before that, the site was owned by a local electric utility, and the falls were home to a small early 20th century hydroelectric plant. By 1960 the plant was considered obsolete (the article compares it to a Ford Model T), and it was taken out of service when the Dalles Dam opened. The old plant was just abandoned in place, though, and much of its infrastructure remains in place, including an old stone powerhouse with several vintage turbines inside. I'm actually saving that for a separate post, simply because I took way too many photos of both the falls and the hydroelectric ruins, and I'm fairly sure nobody would page through that large of a Flickr slideshow. I'm not sure people page through any of my slideshows to be honest, but it felt like a giant 80+ photo slideshow would be overdoing it.

The one unfortunate thing about the park is that the trail down to the river peters out part of the way down. It branches out into a bunch of use paths, and it's hard to tell which path is the right way down to the bottom, and you could easily break an ankle if you aren't careful. I had to backtrack a couple of times before I figured it out. Upgrading it to a proper trail wouldn't be that difficult or expensive, I imagine. The state may have realized that a nice paved trail to the bottom would mean more people visiting the rickety old powerhouse, and sooner or later someone would get hurt there and sue. And renovating and tourist-proofing the powerhouse looks expensive. They'd probably want to put a new roof on the building, and pick up all the sharp rusty tetanus bits lying around, and make sure there aren't any PCBs left over from the old electrical gear, and ideally turn the whole thing into some sort of interpretive center, possibly with a park ranger or at least seasonal volunteers. I think that's worth doing, but White River Falls is far away from the state's major cities and almost nobody has ever heard of it, so it's never gotten the same level of attention that a place like Silver Falls does.

Here are some assorted items about the falls, from across the interwebs:

  • Some general articles about the falls, most with the same obvious "hidden gem" angle I'm going with, at OregonLive, the Salem Statesman-Journal,, and Hikelandia.
  • A forum thread at Portland Hikers Field Guide with lots of photos.
  • A blog post about the falls by @BJDorr
  • From the library's Oregonian database, an 1893 proposed railroad from Portland to White River Falls (and presumably points east), on the idea that this was the only viable route through the Cascades in Oregon. This railroad was never built. The river-level route along the Columbia existed, so I suppose they were looking for a competitor. The current rail route over the S. Cascades from Cottage Grove over to Chiloquin / Klamath Falla came later, if I'm not mistaken.
  • A circa-1895 grist mill at the top of the falls, of which no obvious traces remain. It's a logical thing to do here in the middle of wheat country.
  • An Oregonian piece from 1903 about an early photographer going on a wagon journey around Eastern Oregon, photographing the area's unknown and overlooked sights, while also making himself available to do portraits. His wagon was outfitted as a complete photography operation, complete with darkroom, and decorated with examples of his work. That was probably quite a sight when it rolled into a dusty ranch town. Itinerant photographers were a staple of old classic Western films, and here we have a little evidence that at least one actually existed just like in the movies.
  • Historic Hood River has a vintage photo from the hydropower days, with a forest of wires connecting the hydro plant to the outside world.
  • The falls merit an entry in something called the Encyclopedia of Forlorn Places, thanks to the derelict powerhouse.
  • A WyEast Blog piece on the falls, concerning a rejected 2010 proposal for a new hydro project here, and a counterproposal for a major expansion and enhancement of the state park.
  • Incredibly, the falls appear in a large photoset of people kayaking over waterfalls. So either it's been done at least once, or someone has excellent Photoshop skills.
  • A kayak website informs us that the lower (and more kayak-able) cascade of the falls is proposed to be named "Celestial Falls". Which I guess isn't a bad name, assuming the lower cascade needs a name of its own.
  • During the 1980s there was a controversy around stocking the river above the falls with hatchery salmon. Apparently the state had decided that a good way to make up for all the habitat destroyed by dams would be to introduce salmon to places they had never been before. The idea was publicly broached in a 1984 Oregonian op-ed. A 1985 study by ODFW & the US Forest Service insisted that introducing salmon was a great idea, even though it would cost millions of dollars and would likely displace native trout species upstream of the falls. 1989 saw the final agreement to begin stocking the river, and that's the last I've seen about the idea. So I don't know whether it actually went ahead or not. The obvious problem, to me, with this plan is that baby salmon would eventually follow their seagoing instincts and head downstream to certain doom at the falls. None of the articles explain how the state planned to get around that little detail.

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