WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Below Lower Granite Dam, hordes of spiders do circus trapeze acts over a fish ladder.
Perhaps the spiders have designs on snagging a chinook salmon, depriving orcas of food.
My reverie is broken when a cheerful tour guide approaches. He offers wife Wonder and me a private a tour of the dam. We eagerly accept. We store cameras (no photographs are allowed in restricted areas) and follow him to the visitor center to learn about the dam, about 30 miles north of Pomeroy.
Lower Granite is the last dam on the Snake River before Lewiston, Idaho, which boasts the most inland seaport in the West if not sailors in the streets.
Other Snake River dams downriver, from east to west, are Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor. All four dams are much in the news, of late, as proposals target tearing them out “to save the salmon and orcas.”
Our guide this day, naturally, being a U.S. Corps of Engineers contract employee, argues that Lower Granite Dam is doing much to save the salmon.
Standing beside a scale model, he says Lower Granite Dam went into service in 1975. He gives us the tale of the tape. Lower Granite, at 3,200 feet long, is at the upstream end of Lake Bryan. The eight-bay spillway is 512 feet long.
Power generated is distributed to the Bonneville Power Administration to make sure peak loads can be met and people in Portland have the power to do Facebook.
Before leaving the visitor center, we check out the fish viewing room. There, various species — chinook, steelhead, coho, shad and sockeye — are swimming by, getting their 15 minutes of fame.
Fortified with facts, wearing hard hats, installing earplugs, we proceed through a locked gate and into the dam powerhouse. The gargantuan room contains six turbines.
Dam tours are available spring and summer, we learn, as we stand beside the one turbine spinning this day, powered by an unseen, rather Niagra-esque waterfall. The plate we stand on vibrates, providing a gratifying foot massage.
Heavy-duty bicycles are parked here and there. No, the dam employees aren’t bicycling nuts. The room is so big — more than 300 yards long — they use the bicycles when faced with maintenance work to transport tools built on a Paul Bunyan scale. The guide hands me a huge pipe wrench; I nearly fall through the floor.
Properly herniated, we ride an elevator up seven stories to the top of the dam. Emerging in brilliant sunshine, we check out the towering cranes used for moving equipment. A short walk north, we investigate the navigation lock, where boats going up and down river are raised and lowered 100 feet.
We hear about how the fish cooling system, developed here and at Little Goose, can release supercooled water to reach the proper temperature for finicky migrating salmon. If that isn’t enough, a call can be made to Orofino, Idaho, and Dworshak Dam, seven times higher than Lower Granite, which can produce much cooler water.
Within 72 hours, our guide says, that water can cool the Lower Granite pool to the proper temperature for the temperamental salmon.
As the tour winds down, we get to cool off with a close-up view of the spillway. A windblown mist drifts over us. If such a system could be bottled and sold, the Corps of Engineers could make millions.
From Walla Walla, there are several ways to get to the dam. We choose a loop tour. On the way out we drive through the Palouse and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Dusty and approach the dam from the north.
At one farm, nine old trucks — yellow, red, green, gold and rust colored — are lined up neatly on a hillside. Since we’re visiting in the heart of wheat harvest season, the road that descends in serpentine fashion down the steep hill to the Snake River is busy with semitrucks carrying product that is dumped, along the river, in a Mount Everest of grain waiting to be barged to market.
A mile or so downstream from the dam, we check out Boyer Park and Marina. Here picnic tables and camping sites bask in welcome shade. At a swimming beach, kids and adults splash in kayaks, and a German shepherd dog attached to a beach chair decides to take the chair for a swim.
After a short hike, we drive east to the dam. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack of 2001, the road across the dam was closed for security purposes for more than six years.
Today, 18 years later, we still have to show our driver’s licenses to a friendly guard before gaining access to cross the dam and reach the visitor center on the south shore.
On the way home, with thunderstorm looming, we head downstream on the south shore. It’s been more than a month since Walla Walla has seen more than a trace of precipitation. The landscape is pucker-up dry.
Presently, we pass a sand dune area that’s popular with decompressing college students from nearby Washington State University and the University of Idaho.
Then we begin climbing out of the canyon. Around one corner, we are treated to a family of wild turkeys out for a hike, the little ones trotting to keep up with the adults.
The air is electric.
Soon the drums of thunder roll. Lightning bolts horizontal and vertical enliven the skies. Clouds begin lightening their load. Within minutes, an unnerving stream of water turns the road as it climbs the hills into a mini-waterfall.
We reach Pomeroy in a downpour. Afraid to step out of the car for fear of getting drenched, we agree to drive on to Dayton for dinner. We pass windmills still turning in the slop, creating energy for faraway homes.
At Dayton, we jump out of the car and dodge raindrops, eager for pizza, beverages and a warm, dry place to sit and recount our day.
After a peek at a dripping hop arbor, we drive around Wonder’s old hometown. In the middle of the street by the Columbia County courthouse, we spy what poets call a murder of crows.
Crows are known to love play, such as sledding down a snowy roof on a plastic lid, or causing trouble, such as encouraging cats to fight. Totally unaware of traffic, the crow gang in Dayton seem to be planning another round of practical jokes. We make our getaway before we become their victims.
As we head for home, the electric show continues.