Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sunbeam Dam

Sunbeam Dam isn't a RAP.  Far from it.  It's a huge hazard.  We talk about it here so as to emphasize the dangers of encountering this Class VI-V man made rapid.

Sunbeam Dam was built around 1910 to supply power to a mine up on Jordan Creek in the Yankee Fork watershed.  The entire business model of this operation stunk and the mine went belly up not long afterwards.  The idea behind the dam was rooted in nearby Sunbeam Hot Springs not far upstream.  As muddled thinking went back in those days, the warm water from the hot springs would keep the reservoir from freezing, thereby assuring power generation during the winter months.  The trouble was that the mine itself was such a loser it couldn't possibly make money.  Meanwhile, Sunbeam dam completely destroyed the chinook and sockeye salmon run.  As the only dam ever built on The Salmon River, it was a complete and total ecological disaster.  To their credit, even the local people recognized this back in those days and called for the removal of the dam.

There are two primary stories about how the dam was breached.  The colorful version purports it was dynamited by irate vigilante salmon fishermen acting on behalf of their beloved chinooks and sockeyes.  The other less romantic version claims that IDFG took upon themselves to rid the river of this world class boondoogle.  To our knowledge, both prevailing stories have their own legion of proponents each claiming they have "evidence" to support their story.  Whoever did the deed, it happened in 1934 and even 79 years later the redfish run still hasn't recovered.

The photos below show Sunbeam Dam at the approximate water level we have right now--roughly 5+ feet on the USGS Yankee Fork gauge or approximately 2500-3500 cfs.  No matter what the level this rapid can eat you alive.

My wife and I once witness a two-person inflatable kayak attempt to run the wave during mid-summer low water.  The wave spit out the paddlers but kept the boat spinning in the keeper.  We stayed over a half hour watching the paddlers make futile attempts to free their boat before we became bored and drove on down stream.  Do not ever under estimate the power of this hazard.  It is easily one of the most--if not THE most--dangerous place on The Salmon River between Stanley and North Fork.

Below is a couple of great photos by David Denning showing one of his guides running Sunbeam a couple of weeks ago.  Look closely and note the top of the old dam showing in the very bottom of both photos.  It's a lot narrower slot that it appears from the overlook.

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