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Powerdale Dam: Dinosaurs & Emerson?

Recently, while I was in New York, and Matt (Matthew D. Kulisch) was in San Diego—I emailed him a link about how we could, for $10 each, join a live Jedi vs. Sith lightsaber battle in Washington Square Park. My subject line read, “aren’t you sad you’re not with me in New York City right now?” That innocent and playful email ended up spurring up a larger conversation about grief and friendship, travelling, internal space or lack-there-of, and love. Then in a post-post email, Matt wrote, “Can you believe that all started with lightsabers?”

Yes. I can, and I’m really not even a Star Wars fan. Though a lightsaber battle, un-ironically, sounds like so much fun.

My friends, the good ones, in different ways offer an extension beyond the origins of a conversation, an expansion of the mind (intellect), the heart (desire), or the gut (instincts), and the best ones offer insight or commentary on all three.

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Circles essay asserts, “The key to every man is his thought…He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own. The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.” My circle aligns with Matt’s most times, but because we are ever learning, we’re like spinning Venn diagrams; our rings like Saturn. And at the points where a new intersection happens, there’s some collision of ice and rock particles, and in little ways (sometimes large) our circles will make room for new revelations – our conversations, even via email, are a lot like that.

Which brings me to a few weeks back when Matt and I made a weekend trip to the Columbia Gorge. The weekend consisted of cooking dinner, reading, watching a so-so rom-com movie called Man Up with two leading Asian characters (!? – yes, it’s true. They weren’t White), and paying $1 each time we crossed the bridge to and from Washington and Oregon to walk and talk all up and around the Gorge.

On one particular hike we visited the Hood River Pipeline Trail, which until 2013 was called the Powerdale Pipeline and belonged to PacifiCorp Electric Company. An easy 2.6 mile round-trip on foot, the majority of the trail took place on an old, rickety, utility walkway, atop an old penstock pipeline. Parts of the walkway, like the railings, were missing, and sections of the grate were pulled back like a velociraptor had torn through. The entire thing was rusted. Our minds were free to wander, more nimble and random in the openness of nature than in a city with constant demands for our attention. At one point we conjectured whether or not lock-jaw was permanent (it is not). Then I wondered out loud: “Maybe meth-addicts are taking parts of it [the walkway] to sell back as scrap metal.” Matt didn’t look particularly convinced, so I continued, “A few years back, farmers had to replace their metal sprinkler heads with plastic ones because people on meth were stealing them to sell back for drug money.” And without any transition, I excitedly asked, “Doesn’t this [hike] remind you of Jurassic Park?”

I think as adults, there’s a part of us, no matter how large or small, that craves some semblance of adventure and the grandiose absurdity of stories that could possibly be true. And for those of us that experience life through our intellect and our senses, adventure can come in the form of research and play.

The curiosity that arose on the hike – about the hike – is a lot like what Emerson noted about the human spirit: “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle.”

The story of Powerdale Dam is a drawn-out decommissioning story, with the drama of a natural disaster. In 1923, it was built to replace other facilities, to help feed the need for hydro-electricity in the expanding agricultural industry of Hood River and The Dalles. At the time, it was touted to be “the largest single power unit in Oregon.” Eighty years later, as nearby dams erected, including the mammoth Bonneville Dam (completed in 1937), it made Powerdale’s function obsolete. It became more costly to run Powerdale than it was worth to keep operating it.

In 2010, Pacificorp finally turned over 400 acres of the Powerdale Corridor. The land runs along both sides of the Hood River and extends 3.5 miles from the original site of the dam. Hood River County (HRC) received 101 acres, and the Columbia Land Trust (CLT) received the remaining 299 acres. According to the CLT, along with HRC, they have long-term plans to preserve the balance between conservation and environmental stewardship, while maintaining the area’s recreational access. The settlement took ten years from the time PacifiCorp went into an agreement to decommission and remove Powerdale. In the original settlement agreement, PacifiCorp was allowed to keep it running until 2010, but in 2006 a large flood damaged the facility, leaving it unusable, fast-tracking its removal. So it wasn’t drug-addiction that motivated the dismantling of the walkway after all, nor velociraptors.

My weekend with Matt consisted of many imaginative untruths (pontificating about Powerdale) and a lot of personal truths (friendship and the value of taking time and making space for conversation). I like to think that Matt and I came out of that weekend much like the narrative trajectory of Powerdale’s story: how it’s original purpose to produce electricity became decommissioned into something besides its original function. Its utility was turned into something else, yet just as important – the environmental and human kind – a river for the chinook and coho salmon to swim in, and a hiking trail for one to walk and talk and wonder along.

Our hike wasn’t necessarily adventurous in any life/death Jurassic Park kind of way, and our conversations though bouncy and agile, from politics to the personal, and the absurd and downright wrong – velociraptors and metal stealing meth-addicts – weren’t particularly revelatory, but still, to again quote Emerson, “The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end…” was exactly what we were doing.

Stay Backwords,

Jenny M. Chu

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