Going down into the bowels of a big hydroelectric dam can make you feel like a spy, like an agent sent by a shadowy foreign power to ascertain the engineering secrets hidden beneath all that concrete. Or maybe taking the tour will make you feel like a spoiled uplander from Metropolis who takes everything for granted, ignorant of how his cushy lifestyle is really powered.
Whatever their effect on you, these monoliths of technology and human resolve do make you feel something -- something far outside your daily experience. The soothing white noise of the whitewater coming through the spillways, the cool air rushing to greet you as you descend into the power station guts, and the imposing whir of the hydroelectric turbines are sensual stimuli you don't encounter everyday. Then there is always the "Holy crap!" shock-and-awe that hits when you pause to consider that people -- not gods -- built this thing. This thing that makes you feel as puny and insignificant as an ant.
So don't go discounting the entertainment value of a nice burly hydroelectric dam. There are several fine specimens within day-trip distance of Spokane, and most are set up to accommodate and inform visitors. And do kids of all ages get a kick out of dam tours? Damn right they do. Allow me to suggest:
Long Lake Dam
on the Spokane River, 30 miles northwest of Spokane on Hwy. 291
When it was completed in 1915, Long Lake Dam was the world's highest spillway dam, rising 213 feet above the Spokane River bottom. Its turbines were also the largest (in both size and capacity) of any in existence at the time. Today, it is capable of meeting the average energy needs of about 35,000 households. The dam restricts the westerly flow of the Spokane River, creating Long Lake, a 24-mile reservoir that provides us all with all the fishing and other water-rec activities we landlubbers can handle.
The best view of the stately old dam is accessible from the public observation area on the north side of the Spokane River, just off Highway 291. At a dizzying height above the river gorge, you can check out the spillways, the powerhouse and the plant's four exposed penstocks. Those with serious vertigo might want to opt for the day use-only public picnic area located on the south bank of the river, about a half-mile west of the dam, which is accessed by a paved road directly off Highway 231.
on the Pend Oreille River, 107 miles north of Spokane, just off Hwy. 31
Boundary Dam sits, appropriately enough, right against the U.S.-Canadian border in northeastern Washington, just north of the town of Metaline. Constructed in 1967, it's a breathtaking bit of engineering set along a densely forested stretch of the Pend Oreille River. Unfortunately, the visitors' lobby and the guided tours that I fondly remember from childhood days have been suspended due to major construction and the increased need for security. (Boo, Seattle City Light. Boo!) You can still get a good look at it, though. And you should, too, because Boundary is a handsome sucker, a thin-arch dam 740 feet long and rising 340 feet from its bedrock. Although it's 32 feet thick at its base, the dam is only eight feet thick at its crest. It creates a 17-mile reservoir and cranks out enough juice to light up an entire city the size of Seattle. (In fact, Boundary typically provides 50 percent or more of the electricity used by Seattle City Light's customers). A boat ramp and picnic area are located just downstream from the dam.
Grand Coulee Dam
on the Columbia River, 85 miles west of Spokane off Hwy. 174
Grand Coulee Dam is rightfully recognized as one of the engineering wonders of the world. It's the big one, the largest concrete structure in North America and the third-largest producer of electricity in the world. It straddles the Columbia at a width of nearly a mile, rising 550 feet above bedrock. It contains four power plants and 33 generators. In comparison, the so-called "mighty" Hoover Dam features just one power plant and a mere 17 generators. Yeah, that's right, Vegas, our dam kicks the living crap outta yours.
Grand Coulee is also a very accessible and visitor-friendly dam. Pretty much everything is free. There's a bridge across the top and numerous viewpoints to explore. The Visitor Arrival Center is a hands-on, AV repository for all things historical and informational; it's open seven days a week through the summer (9 am-11 pm). The tour inside the dam's powerhouse No. 3 (daily at 10 am, noon, 2 pm, and 4 pm) is a no-brainer. And if you still haven't had your fill, stick around for the sights and sounds of the Laser Lights Display, which is projected against the entire face of the dam itself each night at around 10 pm. For information, call (509) 633-9265.