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18 February, 2011

Backroads: 14 Gorge Power Maximum

 A couple of entries ago, I got us on the road, climbing 14 upriver past cascades, through the Cascades.

The range took its modern name from the falls of the Columbia. As a whole, not as high as it's iconic volcano peaks: Tahoma (and its many spellings, including Rainier), Baker, Adams, Hood, and pre-blast Saint Helens. But it's still thousands of feet higher than the river, a mile of basalt to cut through to get to the lowlands and taste that sea.

Ergo gorge. Gashing into one of the world's largest lava flows, the big river relentlessly seeks sea, beating through rock to reach that salty embrace.

Route 14, rails, and trails all use the river's path. It's the flattest route, the furthest inland. My mind's blown, hundreds of miles inland, the river is still only hundreds of feet above sea level. In the last century, people dammed most of it, drowning the cascades, but also allowing boat traffic. Barges haul immense loads up and down the aquatic path.

The dams also harvest electricity, scraping electrons, smiling over spilt water. It beats burning coal (though plans are afoot to start shipping our coal to Asia, which is upwind,...brilliant), but the damns were pretty bad for the salmon people.

Another thing that likes to travel the gorge is the air. Cold air sinking across the winter plateau drops into a creek, a river, and finally the river. Oceanic storms push wet air into that Cascadian gap. The winds are legendary. Chinook winds bring spring, thaw the land. Gorge winds suck in world-wide windsurfers, fill the sails of tourism entrepreneurs, and all manner of metaphoricity.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, people discovered that they could scrape electrons off the wind. Oh, and make money. Turbines have sprouted rapidly, lately, and scouts scour the land, anonemeters in hand, looking for the next place to plant a wind farm. The ones in the photo here were cranking. 130-foot blades, tips moving 200 feet per second. They do a number on unlucky birds, and it takes a lot of bulldozed roads to erect and service these things. No energy is pure green, but like hydro, this one doesn't require overseas warfare. 

Wind and water flowed through the gorge as long as it existed, flowed so it could exist. Tales of raven and the other animal people tell how long ago they deciedd that the river should only flow one way, but river road Route 14 lets you go either way. Not quite as fast as the windmill tip, but a heck of a lot faster than the first 15 millenia of human travel in this ancient path.

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