Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

A long drive to massive hydroelectric energy in Canyon of the Dammed

Posted in California & Nevada by canyoneering on September 29, 2014

Canyon of the Damned.

Big Creek, aka Canyon of the Dammed, 3CIII
Sierra National Forest


According to google maps it is a 10.5 hour drive to Canyon of the Dammed, this first stop on our whirlwind Sierra-Nevada canyoneering tour. We actually picked this canyon because it has a shorter drive time than the pièce de résistance of the trip, Lower Jump Canyon. Leaving Phoenix after a full work day we know we have a nasty drive in store for us. With overheating issues those 10.5 hours become 12 and we pull off to the side of a dirt road to bed down for the night at 4:30 AM, just a few miles from Canyon of the Dammed. Three hours later we are getting our gear together. In an exhausted state I attempt to acclimate to my new surroundings. During those 679 miles we have left the desert and entered into a world of mountains, pine trees and massive granite features.

We set up our lower car shuttle in the town of Big Creek. The town has been built around Southern California Edison’s Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. We park a car not far from the powerhouse that creates hydroelectric power from the drainage that we will be descending. The structure is enormous and is one of 9 powerhouses generating a total capacity of 4 billion kilowatt hours a year, serving 4.3 millions customers in Southern California. It accounts for 12 percent of all hydroelectric power in California. It is fascinating to think we will be traveling through and be surrounded by the water and geography that makes all of that energy possible. We continue our drive through the town of Big Creek, not a person in sight at this early hour. The town appears to exist purely to serve the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. We switchback on a paved road up over two thousand feet to Huntington Lake, a reservoir, also part of the Big Creek Hyrdroelectric Project. In California’s historic drought, the lake is frighteningly low. The lake is at a third of its normal level. Tree stumps from when the lake was created in 1912 are exposed and docks lay in dirt far from the shoreline. Check out this story from the Los Angeles Times with amazing photos showing the retreating Huntingon Lake. I begin to wonder for how much longer will the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project be able to provide electricity to charge all those smartphones and run all those air conditioners. In the more immediate future is there go to be all that much flow for our descent.

At the start of the approach, Cody walks by Huntington Lake. With the extreme drought in California you can notice how low the levels of the lake are.

At the start of the approach, Cody walks by Huntington Lake. With the extreme drought in California you can notice how low the levels of the lake are.

We throw on our packs and walk alongside pipes, rails and other various infrastructure, of the hydroelectric project. Much of it appears to have been long decommissioned. As we work our way down a steep slope into the Big Creek drainage we are pleasantly surprised to see it is flowing considerably higher than from what we could see when we parked our bottom car. We now suspect that what we were seeing was after much of the water had been pulled out of the drainage for the powerhouse. Two thousand feet above there is enough water that I am second guessing my decision not to have brought my additional neoprene vest.

We get in it and begin to work the down climbs, rappels and slides. It is a place dominated by granite, way slicker than the sandstone we are more accustomed to. The canyon itself never really tightens but the adventure is exciting just the same and the scenery magnificent as we work our way towards and then past the massive granite feature known as Kerchoff Dome. One rappel is particularly exciting with the line right through the water course. As the descent nears its end we move past more pipes, wires, bridges and a small dam. A few more rappels past this and we can begin to hear the loud hum from the powerhouse. As I change out of my wetsuit studying the imposing quality of the powerhouse I am buzzing from an exciting Class C descent. I can’t help but wonder if the drought could put an end to what I just experienced and make the entire Big Creek Hydroelectric Project irrelevant.


One Response

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  1. Anonymous said, on October 1, 2014 at 11:37 am

    Thanks for another great photo-tour. Stay safe.

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