Posted by: Columbia River | June 21, 2010

The John Day Dam Debacle. John Day to The Dalles.

John Day Dam.

John Day Dam.

As told by Paul Gamache:

The only thing that happens suddenly on the Columbia is wind. Everything else seems to move in slow motion when you are traveling at 2-3mph. A nice way to be but in the end making any sort of distance is going to take a while.

As I slowly cruised towards John Day Dam the excitement of being able to go through the locks increased with every stroke. Having been told by the dam operator at McNary that it shouldn’t be a problem, I began trying to locate where I would be able to pass through.

Navigational tool / home.

Navigational tool / home.

After about an hour and a half from first being within site of the dam I was finally almost there.



For story on the sinking of the Celilo & Sea Mule at John Day Dam: Click Here

The locks.

The locks.

A barge prepares to enter the locks.

A barge prepares to enter the locks.

Upon arrival at the locks I began trying to locate the intercom system which I could use to communicate with the dam operator. Unfortunately, after a while of searching and then eventually yelling for help I started expanding my search area to locate any information on how to proceed through the locks. At one point I found myself on river (lake) left of the pier located above. After a short period of time looking for the intercom or a good area to tie off I began paddling back away from the pier and back towards the locks.

This is when things got weird.

“Hey! Hey! You! DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’VE DONE!” Screamed an irate Homeland “security” psychopath.

Glad to finally see someone who could help, I asked how I can go about getting a pass through the locks. He informed me not only was I not allowed to go through the locks but I had broken federal law by being in a no boating zone.

I tried explain that I was looking for the intercom system or an area to tie off and just wanted to be able to get around the dam. At this point the Dam Supervisor had finally gotten up and came outside to deal with the situation. As calls began being placed to the Army Corps of Engineers & the Sheriffs office I sat on my cataraft not sure exactly what was going on. Clearly I was in front of the dam when I paddled around the pier. However there are tie off markers on both sides of the pier and no signs informing boaters to stay away. Apparently, the major issue was that I was directly above the releasing spillway and obviously in a dangerous area. However, while staying close to the pier there was no current pulling towards the entrance to the dam, making the level of danger they were screaming about more extreme then it really was.

Captain Homeland Security Officer took this time to unleash a flurry of big words that he must have learned in “training”. During which he told me to paddle back around the pier and to the opposite side of the locks. Once back to the other side I sat in my cataraft looking up at the security agent and dam supervisor waiting to see what was going to happen next.

It really is amazing to watch someone try to obtain a superior position through the infliction of fear. If you can make someone afraid, you can make them say or do anything. This was the technique the Homeland Security Officer was trying on me. After tying off my cataraft I made my way up to the area next to the locks.

“You know I can search your boat since you broke Federal Law on Federal Land”. He claimed.

I told him he’s not searching my boat and questioned if he actually had any idea what he was talking about.

“You need to give me your camera”.


This was about the time that the Army Corps of Engineers Park Rangers appeared. The security “officer” made his way over to the Rangers and informed them that I had refused to let him search my boat. Thankfully they were two of the most level headed officers I have ever spoken with. They discussed the situation with the homeland security officer and then one of the Rangers made their way over to talk to me. I explained what had happened and thankfully the Ranger was able to lower the terrorism threat level back down to yellow.

The rangers did their rounds talking to everyone and informed me they were going to have to write me a ticket for $100 simply to end the situation.

I mentioned repeatedly that I looked everywhere for the intercom system, was told by the dam operator at McNary that I could pass through John Day, and that I was literally screaming for anyone working at the dam.

“How did you not see me paddling towards the dam or hear me when I got here?” I asked the dam supervisor, shocked that the situation had escalated to such a ridiculous level.

“We don’t monitor that side of the dam.” He said.

I looked over at the Army Corps of Engineers Ranger with a “did he really just say that” look on my face.

Within twenty minutes or so the Sheriff was there, accessed the situation, confirmed I was just trying to get around the dam, and let me on my way. The ranger handed me the ticket and informed me of a culvert just up river on river right which I could go underneath to access a boat ramp around the dam. Again if there was any sign informing boaters of such a procedure this whole situation would have been avoided. It was almost as if the dam supervisor and security officer were waiting for me to cross the line so they could attempt to have me arrested or just mess with me. Pretty sad for individuals assigned with protecting the safety and security of one of our nation’s vital dams.

Thankfully as I paddled away from the dam I called my friend Lief in Seattle, after which he called the Army Corps and eventually the ticket was dismissed. In hindsight the slightest bit of front line government intelligence would have saved five government officials time, energy, gas, and wasted payroll funds.

As I headed towards the culvert I wasn’t sure what had just happened and wished I was once again in the freezing cold of British Columbia, at least there’s no one there to scream at you.

Looking back on John Day, heading towards the culvert.

Looking back on John Day, heading towards the culvert.

Paddling through the culvert I made my way to the boat ramp. Thankfully, there was a fishing boat that had pulled out and was loading up. I explained to the fisherman what had happened and they let me load the cat on top of the fishing boat for a ride around the dam.

The boat ramp was built as an easement for the Natives as part of the “agreement” for building the dam. On some level I could relate to the anger and frustration the natives at the time must have felt towards the U.S Government.

A little help from the locals.

A little help from the locals.

After a short ride around the dam the locals helped me unload the boat and drove away. Once again the kindness of others towards a random stranger was a saving grace.

Finally below John Day Dam.

Finally below John Day Dam.

Loading up, I pushed off from underneath the traditional wooden native fishing platforms that line the bank. Frustrated with what had just happened at the locks, I was glad to be in the current heading away from John Day Dam.

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