One of my first jobs after signing on with Uncle’s big green machine took me to a 200 foot tall, 8,835 foot long hydroelectric dam in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re wondering what in the hell, the Army has to do with hydropower, rest assured I was every bit as confused as you are when I showed up. Suffice for now to say it has less to do with power generation than it does with navigable waterways, infrastructure development, and having a ready pool of trained engineers available when we went on a national building spree during the Great Depression.
Some dams, I’m thinking about you Grand Coulee and Hoover, are things of beauty in their own right. “My” dam wasn’t what anyone would call pretty. The hulking, squared off mass of concrete, squatted astride the river like the world’s largest cinderblock. It’s real beauty is in the machine itself – it’s 14 General Electric turbines spinning out almost 2 megawatts when they crank the penstocks wide open, the lock that lifts 650 feet worth of barges almost 90 vertical feet , the way the building hums that rises from your feet straight through the top of your head, and the subtle but definite sound of steadily running water when you climb down into the depths of the foundation.
So what’s the point of all this recollection from the Columbia River? Well, as it turns out enough time has passed now that I’m starting to feel just a little bit nostalgic about my time spent on the edge of the high desert. For this son of the east, the Cascades, the Gorge, Portland, it was all a time of being a stranger in a strange land. It was good times, though I was in too much of a hurry to get back east and start my life as a big city DC bureaucrat to realize it then.
I know that still frontier feeling stretch of river is too far from the banks of the Chesapeake for me to ever call it home, but I sure wouldn’t mind passing that way again sometime.