Aboard American Empress: Visiting Stevenson, Washington

Janet the fish counter
Janet the fish counter

ABOARD THE AMERICAN EMPRESSOn Wednesday many of the cruisers on the Columbia River Gorge met Janet. Actually she was much more under the river than on it.

Our Victorian-style paddle wheeler docked at a rather rustic-looking Washington town named Stevenson. Once more on the free hop-off, hop-on bus, we stopped at the Bonneville Lock and Dam, the same complex we had passed through on Tuesday.

Some cruisers proceeded along the top to overlook the locks. We joined others who walked down a long cement ramp and took an elevator to a site below the surface of the river. There in a theater-like room are glass windows which allowed us to view the lucky salmon bypassing the jam by taking the special fish ladder, thus providing them with a chance to eventually make it to their spawning grounds.

In a small dark room off the side we heard an occasional voice saying things like “Wow, that’s a big boy!” We followed it to meet Janet the fish counter. Happy to talk to us while her fingers kept track of each fish swimming by, she said she absolutely loved fish – eating them, catching them, and counting them.

“I’m a fisherman, too,” she confessed. “But frankly I end up throwing most of them back!”

Usually around 10,000 salmon pass by the fish counter’s eyes per day. But sometimes that figure can reach as much as 60,000.

“This is an easy day,” said Janet. “But my friend who sat her yesterday really got hammered,” she added.

Our guide on the bus said that a nineteenth century explorer at this narrow section of the river once estimated he could walk to the opposite bank on the backs of the salmon run.

The guide also noted that the biggest problem at the fish ladder today are sea lions who often show up to catch an easy meal.  He said that last year many of the sea lions had to be killed in order to preserve the salmon run.

“It was highly controversial,” he added.

No kidding.

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