ROGUE RIVER — The beginning of the end for what's left of Savage Rapids Dam and the lake behind it begins this morning as contractors make final preparations for restoring this portion of the Rogue to its free-flowing state for the first time in 88 years.
And the race to see who's the first to paddle a boat through the new Savage Rapids likely will begin as early as late next week.
Construction crews this morning will open the radial gates at the base of what's left of the concrete dam and begin draining the reservoir and the dam's fish ladder that made it one of Oregon's worst 10 impediments to wild salmon migration.
The move will allow Slayden Construction to remove what's left of a temporary construction dam and cut a new channel down the river's north side, according to the Federal Bureau of Reclamation.
That channel will carry the Rogue River past the dam, and allow Rogue salmon to pass freely at the Jackson-Josephine county line for the first time since the dam's construction in 1921.
Chances are, Jared Sandeen and his crew of kayakers may be there.
"I'd be stoked. That would be great," said Sandeen, 28, of Grants Pass. "I think it's fun to see new stuff and do new things. But being first? You don't know what's down there. There could be a chunk of steel there."
Bob Hamilton, the bureau's project manager, said no one really knows exactly what that initial channel will look like, though he expects the gravel banks to erode rapidly and possibly become dangerous to boaters.
The plan is to create a clean canal-like "pilot channel" that is debris-free and likely carry the Rogue for the immediate future, Hamilton said.
"You can model it until the cows come home, but you can't be certain," Hamilton said.
Hamilton said he hopes members of the public use caution and restraint until the channel stabilizes.
"I'm deathly afraid it's going to be a circus, frankly," Hamilton said.
"We can't stop them," Hamilton said. "We have no law-enforcement authority. All we can say is, 'don't do it.' But someone will do it."
A flotilla of dam-removal supporters has planned a trip Saturday down the new channel.
Attorney Bob Hunter of the group WaterWatch, who has worked on removing the dam for more than two decades, said more than 50 people in driftboats and rafts plan to float from the city of Rogue River past the dam Saturday to commemorate the "opening" of the Rogue.
Hunter said he expects the new channel to be of little challenge to navigate.
After all, the rapid was named after homesteader Lincoln Savage and not because of its difficulty or danger, Hunter said.
The hard part, he said, was getting there.
"This is a historic event," Hunter said. "For me, it's not being the first. It's that now you actually can do it."
The goal of the $39.3 million project, which is funded through the Bureau of Reclamation and with grants from entities like the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, is to remove the dam from the Rogue and replace it with electrical pumps to feed GPID canals.
The pumping plant went on line this spring, and dismantling of the dam began in April.
Three panels of the dam were removed after a temporary coffer dam was built around them with steel, plastic sheeting and dirt.
As the lake draws down today, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife crews will salvage any salmon or steelhead in the ladder's jump pools, GPID Manager Dan Shepard said.
The upstream reservoir will be drawn down until the dam's north side is dry, allowing for a crane and excavation equipment to begin removing the temporary dam beginning as early as Monday, Shepard said.
Once done, crews will carve the new pilot channel that likely will be done Thursday or Friday of next week. Shepard said he expects boaters to swarm in as soon as word leaks out.
"It'll probably be kind of anti-climactic," Shepard said. "It's gonna happen, but I don't know when.
"Until then, it'll probably be the most guarded secret," he said.
As the river is routed to the pilot channel, it will expose the concrete panels on the dam's south side, Hamilton said.
Two more of those concrete panels then will be removed, leaving two panels and the old fish ladder on the south side and the old pump facility on the north side. Those will not be removed as they will not be in the river channel except when the water is very high.
The Rogue likely will remain in the pilot channel until freshets this fall and winter ultimately determine its path through the site, Hamilton said.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.