America’s third-highest dam is found in north-central Idaho, just outside the small town of Orofino. In fact, the Dworshak Dam is the tallest straight-axis dam anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. During our road trip along Highway 12, it was the first pit-stop.
Construction on the dam began in 1966 and lasted seven years, forever altering the landscape along the North Fork of the Clearwater River. Besides creating a giant reservoir of three million acres, the Dworshak provides the ability to control floods and creates a never-ending source of hydroelectric power. The concrete structure stretches out over a kilometer and reaches over 700 feet in height: as tall as New York’s Metropolitan Tower.
Like almost any project that reshapes the earth, the Dworshak Dam was controversial from the outset. The Clearwater River’s North Fork had always been home to one of the world’s most important runs of steelhead trout, and the dam would to block access to their breeding grounds further upstream. In order to assuage these fears, the government established the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, just miles from the dam site.
The hatchery is found on the Nez Perce Reservation and is run jointly by the US government and the tribe. It’s one of the world’s biggest hatcheries for ocean-bound fish; astonishing, since it’s in a state with no border to the ocean. Fish hatched here follow a 1000-mile route that takes them into the Pacific, before they return back home to the Clearwater River.
We took an self-guided tour of the premises, peering into some of the tanks which hold millions of young steelheads, and learning about the work done at the hatchery. I didn’t know (and would have never guessed) that egg-bearing female trout are captured, sliced open, and then have their eggs dumped into a bowl, so that they can be stirred up with a “semen mixture” to promote conception. GAK! Sure, the females would naturally die after laying their eggs anyway, and it’s all for the good of the species, but this is gruesome.
I was also surprised to see a couple people walking around the hatchery grounds with fishing poles. Talk about an easy catch! Part of the agreement between the government and the Nez Perce allows tribe members to continue fishing. Fair is fair. After all, the Dworshak Dam forever ruined their traditional fishing spots.