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Originally published Thursday, August 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Grand Coulee Dam: Still a Grand experience?

Use 12 million cubic yards of concrete to put a giant cheese wedge in the middle of a thousands-year-old river and you're bound to stir...

Special to The Seattle Times

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GRAND COULEE DAM — Use 12 million cubic yards of concrete to put a giant cheese wedge in the middle of a thousands-year-old river and you're bound to stir up questions.

On the recent tour I took of Grand Coulee Dam, the questions came in two sorts: Why not more power and why not more tour?

Our guide had worked at the dam for 32 years and overflowed with figures on megawatts, acre-feet of water and the rpms of rotors. He could tell how many of the 24 generators were operating by the river's turbulence.

Someone asked why more generators weren't running, and the guide said, "There's no one to buy the power right now."

Which brought an "Oh, yeah?" comment from Marc Norman of Bellingham. He and his friend Troy Brandt, also of Bellingham, both work at the Alcoa Intalco Works in Ferndale, which has been in a dispute over the cost of power.

What about snakes?


You hear lots of stories and warnings about snakes in the area, but I saw only one, at Banks Lake Golf Club, a casual, 6,450-yard course bordering Banks Lake just outside Electric City. From my description of it (brown markings, small head and pointed tail with no rattles), Fish and Wildlife people said it was probably a non-poisonous bull snake out enjoying the sun.

But it is rattlesnake country, and locals will tell you to keep a sharp eye for where you're stepping. Do that, and you should be fine hiking in the area.

"We thought we'd come over and see where it all comes from, and why there can't be more of it to keep us in full operation," Norman said.

Did the tour answer his questions?

"Sometimes it was hard to hear the guide," Norman said. "The tour was impressive, but abbreviated."

The guides hear that "abbreviated" comment a lot, thanks to heightened security, especially from people making a return visit.

"I was here in 1999," said Brandt, "and drove right up to the top of the dam and parked — see, you can still see the lines for the parking spots. I remember there were people fishing off the dam."

If you go


Tours

Until school starts in September, Grand Coulee Dam tours are offered daily every 30 minutes, on the hour and the half-hour. After school starts, the tours are hourly, on the hour. But because of ongoing maintenance and construction at the dam, visitors should call 509-633-9265 to check before visiting. No reservations are needed. Tours start from the Visitors Arrival Center.

Also worth seeing at the Visitors Arrival Center are the free movies shown in the upstairs theater. The daily schedule is posted in the lobby. Features include "Modern Marvel," on the history and construction of the dam; the 15-minute "Columbia: Fountain of Life"; and a feature on the Ice Age flood that created the coulees.

The nightly laser show begins at 9:30 p.m. during August and at 8:30 p.m. in September. The 35-minute show is free and can be viewed from several places in the area, including the Visitors Arrival Center, where the outdoor sound system carries the narration. If you are watching the show from Crown Point or one of the parks in Coulee Dam, you can listen to the audio portion on 90.1 FM.

For more information: www.usbr.gov/pn/grandcoulee.

Lodging

There are several motels and RV parks in the four towns (Electric City, Grand Coulee, Coulee City and Elmer City) around the dam. A good place to start your search is the Grand Coulee Chamber of Commerce: www.grandcouleedam.org or 800-268-5332.

Camping

Steamboat Rock State Park is a gem for camping, with 100 campsites with full hookups, water, electricity, tables and fire pits at each spot. Unfortunately, the park is booked through Labor Day. You can check for cancellations and grab a reservation by visiting www.parks.wa.gov. Otherwise, you can take your chances on one of the 12 boat-in, hike-in primitive spots ($10 a night) available on a first-come, first-served basis. The park also has similar primitive campsites at Osborn Bay (26 spots) and Jones Bay (44).

The National Park Service runs Spring Canyon Campground, which is on Lake Roosevelt and is the closest campground to the dam. They have 57 spots that can be reserved (seven days in advance only), and 39 spots that are first-come, first-served. All spots are $10 per night with no hookups at the individual campsites. To reserve, call 877-444-6777 or see www.ReserveUSA.com and ask for the Spring Canyon Campground in the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area in Washington State.

There is also camping on the Colville Reservation. Call 509-634-3145 for information and reservations.

You might want to stop in the Sun Lakes area south of Coulee City and stay at one of the resorts offering camping, boating, fishing and jet-ski rentals. Sun Lakes State Park offers 162 tent sites, 18 utility spaces for camping. Reservations can be made at www.parks.wa.gov or 888-226-7688.

Hiking

Try Northrup Canyon just off Highway 155 south of Electric City. It has the only natural forest in Grant County, about 3,000 acres nestled inside coulee walls. The canyon is part of Steamboat Rock State Park, and a climb to the top of Steamboat Rock takes about 90 minutes with some steep places on loose rock. You're likely to encounter deer, eagles and other birds up there, maybe even a coyote.

Another man on the tour said he remembers taking a self-guided tour inside the dam, viewing the generators and then driving on across the top of the dam.

That means he visited before the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, said Ken Hilson, one of the guides at the Visitors Arrival Center alongside the dam on Highway 155. That's when the self-guided tours were eliminated for security reasons.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, driving on the top of the dam was prohibited and all tours were halted until July 2002. Since then they have been restricted to the Third Power Plant, where visitors ride 465 feet on a glass-fronted elevator at a 45-degree incline to a plaza overlooking the front of the dam.

Signs warn visitors that no backpacks, purses or satchels of any kind are allowed on the tours. You can bring a camera but not the camera bag. Guides tell tourists the security is just like at an airport: Everyone goes through a metal detector, and penknives, fingernail clippers and similar items will be confiscated.

Immense undertaking

So, with all the restrictions and abbreviations, is the 40-minute tour worth taking?

Yes, to get a real sense of the immensity of the dam and how much of an undertaking it was to build it. The dam is 57 feet short of stretching a mile across the river. Shaped like a giant cheese wedge, it sits on the granite bedrock with its flat side facing the river, its weight alone holding back 151-mile-long Lake Roosevelt.

It took nine years to build the dam, from 1933 to 1942, and 77 workers died during the construction, mostly from falls. The Third Power Plant was built between 1968 and 1975, and another four people died building it.

Everywhere you turn in the Grand Coulee area there is information on the dam, how it works, the geology of the area and the irrigation of 500,000 acres in the Columbia Basin (and aiming for another 500,000 acres if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which built and oversees the dam, gets its way).

Start with the 40-minute tour of the dam in the morning. Take a lunch break and return to the visitors' center for one of the movies in the afternoon. The visitors' center reopened in June after remodeling, and updated and interactive displays will be installed there next spring.

Walk across the steel bridge in front of the dam for a good spot to photograph the dam and to get more questions answered. Wonder what the river looked like before the dam was built? The placards on the south side of the bridge — facing the dam — will show you. The displays on the north side give a geology lesson on the area.

After dinner in one of the four towns in the Grand Coulee area, return to the visitors' center for the laser show (check there for start times). Enough water is spilled over the dam to create a frothy white, 300-foot tall canvas for the giant laser images while music plays, and the Bureau of Reclamation has the Columbia River "narrate" its story and answer in the affirmative the question of whether the benefits of flood control, irrigation and power outweigh the loss of its free-flowing life, salmon runs, Indian fishing sites and 11 towns.

Beyond the dam

After a day at the dam, there's the question of what to do next in the area, and the answers are many.

Nearby Banks Lake, named after Frank Banks, chief construction engineer of the Grand Coulee project, offers camping, boating, jet-ski rentals and fishing. The reservoir stretches 31 miles from Electric City south to Coulee City on Highway 2.

The lakebed is actually the Grand Coulee, once a massive, high-walled ravine cut by floodwaters and then left dry until the Bureau of Reclamation pumped water into it from behind the dam for irrigation in the Columbia Basin project.

Hilson, whose father once owned the weekly newspaper in Grand Coulee, remembers the day in 1951 when the first waters were released.

"By then my father said he'd had enough of ceremonies concerning the dam and suggested we go to the other end of the coulee," Hilson said. "You could hear that water coming, roaring. ... Then the snakes started coming, and we decided we'd had enough of that."

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