Friday, September 9, 2011

Driven to Extremes

Day 13: Sept. 8, 2011

We started our day early, grabbing some showers at the very nice facilities at the Wallowa Lake State Park in Joseph, OR, and getting on the road by about 8:30 a.m. We drove almost two hours on the Hells Canyon Scenic Loop until we reached I-84. There we found yet another Walmart, and made a very quick stop to see if they had a small gas grill (we’d thrown our old broken one away a few days ago.) We did find what we were looking for, so the stop was worthwhile. And then we got onto the interstate for the first time in 3 since Monday.

The road was uncrowded and the scenery was surprising--it was quite hilly, but that lovely hay-colored yellow pretty much everywhere, with a lot of farms and rangeland. In fact, it was a lot like the scenery in Washington the day before. We sort of pictured Oregon a little greener. I told Joey it will be greener further south. It was also hotter than normal today--in the 90s rather than the 80s (which after Yellowstone feels too hot anyway…we’ve been cooler in Montana and Idaho until now.)

So, we drove. We drove for a long time, stopping only for lunch. It was several hours before the scenery changed--about the same time as when we got to the Columbia River. I felt quite like Lewis & Clark, appreciating the river so much. I only wish we could have ridden down it rather than having to continue driving. But then across the river, what we saw was totally barren hills, and after that, cliffs which looked as if they were formed by an ancient sea. It wasn’t what we expected, and we wished we had more time to stop and learn about the geology of the area.
My hope today was to stop someplace along the Columbia River, in the area of the scenic highway which stretches from just east of Portland to The Dalles, roughly 80 miles. We managed to arrive at the Bonneville Dam and Fish Hatchery just before 4:30, and they close at 5:00. It was really cool driving across a “road” on the front of the dam to reach the visitor’s center.
We rushed into the dam’s visitor’s center, and I asked the man at the counter, “What should we see? We only have 30 minutes until you close!” He directed us down the elevator to the first floor, so we could see the fish ladder.

The Bonneville Dam is blocking the river where millions of salmon used to spawn. In order to allow them to continue to reach their spawning grounds, they built a fish ladder into the dam so the fish can swim upstream past the dam. There are windows which allow the visitors to watch the fish go past. There’s also a small room adjacent to the windows were someone sits to count the fish. They keep track of all of them so they know how the dam is affecting the fish population.

We only had 30 minutes, but we watched the fish go up the rapids which are sent through the fish ladder from not only the inside of the building (under water, so to speak), but from the top outside.

We chose the best time to come to visit to see the salmon returning to spawn--they have been doing this since mid-August or so. The rest of the year, I guess there are not as many fish anywhere near the ladder. We were outside watching them leap up the steps, when they announced that the building was closing. So we had to rush out pretty fast. I did have time to take a photo of the spillway adjacent to the dam area. We figured we’d have to learn more about the dam itself, how it was built, etc. from the brochure we got when we arrived, since we didn’t have time to look at all the exhibits in the building.

Happily, the fish hatchery was open until 7, so we went there next. That was totally fascinating. Having already seen the salmon swimming upstream past the dam, we could even more appreciate the hatching process nearby. We saw a video of the entire process of raising salmon (in this case--that is the fish raised at Bonneville) and how they artificially inseminate the eggs (that part was pretty graphic!), nurture the eggs until they are fingerlings, and finally how they send them from the hatchery into the river and hence to the ocean. In 4-5 years, they will return to the hatchery to spawn. Unlike the salmon we saw at the dam, who were heading up the Columbia River, these salmon literally return to the fish hatchery itself.

We saw the returnees once we left the visitors center when the film was over. There are salmon runs outside with stairs again, which allow the salmon to come up into the hatchery. We watched them leap up over the stairs barring their way.
They swim upstream to a collection area; when there are enough of them, they are actually lifted up into the hatchery where they are caught and the insemination process begins. We watched them in the trough where they were collecting, and it was fascinating. There were spilloffs of water running into the trough, and the salmon were leaping out of the water trying to get “up stream”. Some of them leapt really high--they are so amazing!

One salmon actually managed to leap onto the cement between two containment areas, and we watced it flap around for about 5-10 seconds until he flopped back into the water. I was so upset for him (or her) that I forgot to take a photo!

We also saw the rooms where the fish eggs are incubated and the fingerlings fed and raised; those rooms were all empty, though. Then we went to see “Herman the Sturgeon”, who lives with several other sturgeon in a pool. The sturgeon are tremendous fish but quite unattractive--they look very like dinosaurs. This is not so surprising, since they evolved during the Jurassic period and haven’t changed since then.

We had a great time at the fish hatchery. After that, we decided to continue driving toward the beach. Joe did a great job taking Mo through downtown Portland, from I-84 to I-5 and finally back to a local road, and then to another Oregon state park, this one about a 30 minute drive from Portland along the Willamette River. It is so hard to compare the drive through the heart of the city with the stark empty hills where we started our day--that’s where my title comes from. We drove from the extreme semi-barrenness and lonesome roads of Wallowa County to the crowded mid-city traffic of Portland. I am quite sure Joe loves the barren loneliness the best!

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