Engineers seem to love rituals, but one unspoken engineering ritual that I love to partake in, is to view the greatest examples of engineering, great buildings, bridges, tunnels, canals and even sewer systems are all possible candidates worthy of reflection. But in my mind, and for many Civil Engineers, dams are an important pilgrimage ritual akin to a shrine on the side of the road, where one petitions the gods for safe travels – they may not be the purpose of the journey, but provide a suitable place for reflection. For Civil Engineers, the alchemy of earth, rock, steel and concrete formed by man to hold back and harness that most powerful force of nature, water; is an awesome sight to behold, worthy of photographing, inspiring the young and old to imagine the weight of the wall of water behind the stark grey walls, wondering at the cold, murky depths below the calm surface.
On a quiet day, the dam can seem tame. The moving parts are hidden away, only a faint hum or vibration may be evidence of the great transformation from potential to kinetic to electric energy taking place below your feet. Looking downstream, the flow of the river continues, thousands of cubic meters of water that have unwittingly aided in powering this computer.
But as the need to release water increases, the dam transforms from a tame animal into a furious unforgiving beast. Water, as though in slow motion, thunders down spillways, buildings vibrate and a mist hangs around the valley. The noise is deafening up close, and even from across the valley one can hardly imagine the power of the water being discharged.
This video is from 2012, and shows the first time in many years that BC Hydro had opened up the Revelstoke Dam spillways. The flow reached an estimated peak of 679.6 cubic metres per second, or roughly 10 per cent of Niagara Falls’ flow, for about three days, drawing crowds of locals and tourists alike.
Having moved to Revelstoke in the fall of last year, the dam has been closed to visitors all winter, just opening up for the May Long Weekend.
So, this weekend I was finally able to make my pilgrimage into the belly of the concrete beast, walking through the cool, tomb-like tunnels, ascending by elevator to the observation lookout perched on the crest of the concrete dam. From there, with a wide view of the Columbia River Valley, I was able to share with my wide-eyed kids the wonders of dams, rivers, structures, turbines and potential energy. I highly recommend the self guided tour that is available for the historic and educational components for children and adults alike.
We’ll be back to see Revelstoke Dam again, and I’m sure it won’t be the last dam we pilgrimage to as a family either.
For information about fees and opening hours – check out BC Hydro’s Revelstoke Dam page.