Wednesday, August 01, 2012


Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater’s Pacific Northwest stewardship director, stood on the banks of the White Salmon River in Washington State. The scheduled explosion was running late. As Tom looked downstream, he could see what was left of the river after 100 years – shallow pools of water starved of sediment for the past century. Upstream were the staid waters of Northwestern Lake, the five-story wedge of silt underneath invisible.

The river had run the same course as a stream near Tom’s childhood home in upstate New York. Tom played and fished in creeks and streams when he was young, and an old Civilian Conservation Corps dam held back the waters of one in particular. Over the years, silt had accumulated in the reservoir behind it, and the water was only a few inches deep. Tom would scan the surface for the tiny trout that still lived there.

Tom often thought about that dam. As a river ecologist and kayaker, he saw how dam owners corralled rivers upstream and downstream with fences, preventing people from experiencing rivers as he had. Tom also spent time on hundreds of wild, free rivers around the world, and began fighting to protect and restore them – for wildlife and for people. In his efforts over the last decade to put water back, tear down outdated dams and increase the opportunities to enjoy them, he highlighted the many recreational and educational benefits of free-flowing rivers.

As Tom waited for the dramatic conclusion to the nearly three-decade-long fight to remove Condit Dam, he knew that others would someday experience the White Salmon the way he had experienced so many other rivers.

A warning horn blared. Someone yelled, “Fire in the hole!” A low rumble resonated from the river canyon and the ground shook. Seven hundred pounds of dynamite blew a hole the size of a two-lane highway in the bottom of the 12-story cement structure, draining the water it held like a giant bathtub. The sound of the White Salmon River exploding free echoed from the canyon below. Dark, sediment-filled water gushed, restoring access for salmon, steelhead and people.

To learn about what you can do to help conserve and restore our rivers – and enhance opportunities to enjoy them – visit

From the Early Fall 2012 Patagonia Catalog featuring essays on Dam Busters

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