09/29/2010: Day 6: Montana, across Idaho, and into Washington
I'm sitting on the veranda of our little room in the Columbia River Inn looking up at the spillway of the Grand Coulee Dam as the last of the sun paints the hilltops across the river orange. We arrived in town barely in time to catch the last dam tour of the day. Nine-eleven did a number on such tours, but after the metal detector and prohibited items inventory, it went pretty well. We toured Power House Three, the afterthought addition that has a capacity of well over 4 Gigawatts. (42,000,000 100 watt bulbs, or two 2GW nuclear power plants). This is the biggest dam in the U.S, and the largest hydoelectric plant.
We started the day in Missoula, Montana, a town we'd previously stayed in and enjoyed in 2003. This time, we just spent the night, and drove west. We followed I-90 over another pass, and into Idaho and Pacific Time.
We stopped in Kellogg, Idaho. I toured a mining museum while Karen rested on a porch and then walked over to find Espresso. The Staff House Mining Museum was getting ready to shut down for the season. Friday would have been too late. This was a silver and lead mining town for a century and a half. Most exhibits were typical, but I was impressed by a hand-drawn 3-D map of the mine done on layers of acetate film stretched on a home-made rack by a mine engineer. One could walk around this model and really see the shapes of the lodes.
Karen had less luck. All the coffee places were done for the season. A waitress in a resort restaurant told us where to find good coffee in Coeur d'Alene, a half hour farther along our way.
After some misdirection, we found the Bakery, and had lunch and coffee. Then we wended our way westward into Washington State.
We zipped through the traffic of Spokane and then left the interstate onto US-2. We headed up 2 to county road 174 to the Grand Coulee Dam. Yes, another damn Dan dam stop. I'd toured several dams, and am interested in how each is presented to the public. Plus, I am a guy who likes gadgets from nano to mega. This is mega.
We barely made the last tour of the day, but got to see the middles of both running and stopped-for-maintenance generators. Actually, when I saw how tight the time was, I was ready to give up. But Karen hustled me into the car and we raced across town to the other side of the dam to catch the tour. If you want details of the dam, try the link above. But reading about or seeing pictures doesn't convey the feeling of the rumble of gigawatts being converted a few feet away. This is basically a 360 foot high waterfall on the second largest river on the continent, barely contained by pipes and turbines under the most careful management. Very impressive, up close.
At night, they open the spillway gates a crack and let merely millions of gallons flow down the dam to make a foaming, white screen for a laser show. The rumble of a sheet of water 350 feet tall, 1600 feet wide, and a foot thick impressed me. And looking up through the fan of lasers to see the milky way was fun. It is just barely dark enough here to see our galaxy. This nightly show runs through Sept 30, and starts again in May. We just made it.
So I decided to just stay in the dam town, at a hotel built on the spot where the Engineers Village was when the thing was built. Karen made sure they had a working hot tub, but as with many stays, didn't have the energy to go use it.