Hydro Review: Growing up Hydro

By Steve Wenke

How long have you been working for the company? It’s a question I get asked a lot. Most of the time, I say that I’ve been in the utility industry for more than 35 years. While I aspired to be an astronaut as a kid, and not to work at dams or on generators, it turns out life’s random events took me to the hydro industry and it has provided me with a long and personally fulfilling career. My dad had always counseled me to be an engineer because, “They have good jobs and they don’t have to work shift work.”

As a high schooler, I had a job bagging groceries, making $1.60 an hour, which was minimum wage at the time. My uncle was working for an electrical contractor and he helped me get an interview with that contractor. He told me they liked to hire engineering students for summer work. In my interview, when I was asked what I was going to major in at college, I answered, “Engineering.” I wanted a higher-paying job.

The contractor offered me the job at $2.00 an hour. So, I like to tell people that I became an engineer for forty cents an hour. I was easily bought!

When I entered college, I did follow through and take engineering classes and decided to major in power engineering. After graduation, I accepted a job at Idaho Power working in their power plant construction group. Five years later, a job with Washington Water Power (WWP) offered the opportunity for my wife and I to move back “home” to the Washington State area.

But when I get asked about how long I have been working for WWP (now Avista), I answer: “All my life!” And that is mostly true. I grew up as a WWP hydro operator’s kid, moving around from plant to plant as my dad’s career advanced. I look back fondly at what it was like growing up in the relative isolation found near hydro plants.

My dad originally went to work for WWP on the water system they owned that served the town of Clarkston, Wash. At that time, WWP was building the 400-MW Noxon Rapids hydro station in western Montana. Because this was a new plant coming online, the company was in need of operators, so he took an apprenticeship and went to the hydro operations group. At the time he was awarded the apprenticeship, my mom was a couple of months away from delivering me. True to the culture of the company I work for today, my dad’s start date was postponed until after I was born to ease the transition. My family moved to one of the tiny, drafty and antiquated company houses at Little Falls two days after I arrived.

My childhood was spent moving around to different plants as my dad’s career advanced. Soon, my kid brother came along. In keeping with the family trade, he now works for Grant County Public Utility District in their transmission area. Without question, of all the places we lived, our favorite was Little Falls.

This plant was built in 1906, and the operator’s camp that followed was built in 1908. The house we lived in was small and had no phone, no TV reception and no insulation. In winter, it was always cold and drafty and I had to shovel coal before I left for school and as soon as I got home to keep the house warm. The plant was built down in a canyon, and the TV and radio signals wouldn’t get down to the houses. We did have a battery-powered hand-cranked telephone system that rang all the houses and the plant. I remember our house was “two long” rings and a “short, long, short” ring called the plant. If there was an emergency, you first called the plant, and they used the carrier line to call the company operator in Spokane, Wash., who called the hospital in Davenport, who would then dispatch any emergency help they could get from 15 to 30 miles away. So, if you had an emergency, you piled into a car and drove to town. It was faster.

The beautiful, untouched nature surrounding many hydro plants meant that the outdoors was our vast playground. My friends would come visit and we would spend all day out in the woods, climbing the canyon rocks around the river, building roads for our toys or swimming. During these carefree days, we would be out all day and return with our “treasures or trophies” from the day’s play. Of course the requisite bumps, bruises, cuts and scrapes came with that too.

We lived in the Operators Camp, meaning we were close to the plant. It was a five-minute walk to take dad his evening “lunch.” He worked shifts, so getting home quickly was a pretty distinct advantage. The best thing for me was that when he got off work, we could go down to the swimming hole. He always laughs when he tells me he would come home after working all day and I would be waiting at the door with my suit on, hurrying him up so we could get going. I was a pretty strong swimmer. I can remember swimming across the reservoir a couple of times (under his supervision of course). I couldn’t get enough. The reservoir was a prime spot for our family to enjoy. If we weren’t swimming, we would take a slow boat ride up the river in the steep canyon that made the reservoir. Sometimes it was being pulled by a ski boat. As you can imagine, we spent some time fishing as well.

We broke up the isolation by going to town a lot. I am sure that anyone who has lived near a plant like this finds this familiar. In our case, no matter where we lived, “going to town” meant taking the 45-minute trip to Spokane. It seemed like almost every day off dad had, we would head out. We had some great friends there and lots of shopping for my mom!

Christmas was an amazing time. The company always put on a big party. All the kids in the operators’ camps at WWP’s hydro plants would pack into a few cars and travel to the Fox Theatre in Spokane for a two-hour show put on by company employees. The show was complete with a visit from Santa Claus and a brown lunch bag to take home filled with nuts, an orange and a few pieces of hard candy! In those days, the tradition of the party was a really big deal — and made up another trip to town!

Wintertime also meant a lot of snow. One of my most ingrained memories is the winter when it snowed so much that the school bus only made it down to the plant three days in January! We had some friends come to visit and they were stuck with us for four days before they could get out. Once, my uncle’s car froze to the driveway and it wouldn’t start and couldn’t be moved. We were all stuck at home for a couple of days that time. Because of the distance, if you wanted to get out, you pretty much had to wait it out. No snow plow was coming anytime soon.

The remoteness of the Operators Camp created a place where I could experience and explore the world in a way that is foreign to many kids. Far from experiencing lonely isolation, the location of the plant facilitated the formation of a core of lifelong friends who shared in this lifestyle. These friends have become family over time and we still keep track of each other today.

Those beginnings also exposed me to an industry that has provided me a wonderful and fulfilling career and has given me the opportunity to call many of you “friend.” As I look back, I feel fortunate to have grown up hydro.

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