The Snake River is a massive part of Idaho, and one of the biggest reasons Idaho is the way it is. So much civilization has cropped up around the Snake, and so many people over the years have relied on the river in one way or another for the support of their livelihood or simply their lives. It is a life giving and life sustaining river, but it did not exactly start that way. In its natural state, it was still used to support human life like any other untamed river, but it was still a wild and powerful force that needed to be adjusted so that humans could use them efficiently and on a large scale. Along the Snake River, in addition to other, less obtrusive modifications, there are fifteen major dams that exist to control the course of the river, provide power and fresh water to wherever it is needed, and just make the river usable in general. Of course, just as a large part of the Snake River does not flow through Idaho, most of the dams that harness it are not within Idaho’s borders. There are three that are within reach, and stop up the river where it runs south, marking the border between Idaho and Oregon, and all three might make the ideal spot for a mini vacation if you are living in the Treasure Valley.
First, maybe you are wondering why you would ever want to visit a dam? Sure, the Hoover Dam is a national treasure and a massive piece of incredible infrastructure, but why should you care about a few little dams in northern Idaho? There is something surreal about a dam. All of that concrete holding back all of that water. An unquantifiable amount of liquid just waiting to unleash its unlimited potential energy and cascade down onto whatever waits beneath it, and all there is to keep that from happening is a slim grey line of manmade rock. Are finding it hard to fit that in your head? It is only understandable. A large dam is a sight to behold, a modern giant that has placed itself in the way of an ancient giant, and the Snake River dams in Idaho are all giants. They are each worth at least an hour of silent contemplation and introspection on the nature of things and where you fit in that grand scheme. Even if the dams themselves do not impress you, their surroundings will probably do that trick. The Snake River itself and the natural features surrounding it are beautiful and can capture the mind all on their own.
So, what are the major dams that are within Idaho’s borders and within reach of the Treasure Valley? Like I said, there are three, the Brownlee Dam, the Oxbow Dam, and the Hells Canyon Dam. They were all created under the mantle of the Hells Canyon Project by the Idaho Power Company in order to generate power and keep the surrounding area from being flooded. Unlike some of the other dams along the Snake River, these dams are all impassible to boats and fish (Unless the boat is particularly small and carriable and the fish particularly determined. Brownlee Dam was the first to be finished in 1959, followed by Oxbow, which was named for a particular quirk of the river’s shape, and the project was finished with the Hells Canyon dam itself. The Hells Canyon Project lasted for more than twenty years, and the dams have endured for more than 50 years. As you might expect and be aware of, the Hells Canyon dam is probably the most famous of the three and is a popular destination for fishers.
Of course, there is more to do around these dams than to just stare or wander around. If you have some time and know you will probably fill up on the dams themselves pretty quickly, I recommend bringing along something fun that will take advantage of all of that powerful water. Maybe a fishing pole? I have already said Hells Canyon is a great spot to do some angling, but the whole area is ripe for a few casts (Or more. Probably a lot more if you like fishing or if you are really bad at it). Maybe lash a canoe or kayak to the top of your car or pick one up from a rental place in the area or on the way. Careful of whichever dam you are near (You probably will not be able to get close to them anyway), but consider having some fun paddling around the water. The Snake River is a fun place to spend a day, so make sure you do not waste it.
There has been some push to remove a number of the dams on the Snake River, though none of those in Idaho. A particular breed of salmon in the part of the Snake River that runs through Oregon has been adversely impacted by four dams there, and this species is in danger of going extinct. There is some discussion as to whether or not the removal of these dams will actually help the problem more than other, less severe methods, but as of last August, no resolution has been met. The dams are not critical for the power needs of the region, and as you might imagine, it would be quite difficult to remove them, and it is uncertain what problems might be created in the attempt to solve the first problem.
For something as simple in concept as a bunch of rocks and concrete plopped down in the middle of a river, the Snake River dams are surprisingly breathtaking. Perhaps they remind us of the times when we might have tried our own hand at damming up small parts of rivers we waded in. I am sure many of you have such memories. With a visit to one of Idaho’s Snake River dams, you might be able to retrieve them or just make new memories right here in Idaho.