If you need a rest stop to break up the monotony of driving Interstate 5 north, the Winchester Dam viewing area outside Roseburg offers breathtaking views of the North Umpqua River and an up-close look at its underwater denizens.
And best of all, it's free.
Constructed in late 1890, Winchester Dam is the oldest existing dam in Douglas County and one of the first electricity-creating dams in Oregon. It's also an impediment to chinook salmon, coho salmon, summer and winter steelhead and migratory cutthroat trout that head upriver to spawn.
In 1945, crews built a more permanent fish ladder to help fish bypass the dam and created Winchester's first fish counting station. The fish swimming by are recorded on videotape, which technicians review to record species and size, fin clips and any predator marks. The fish counts are used by biologists to make angling recommendations and monitor fish populations.
After descending a short flight of stairs down to river level, you'll find an underwater viewing area for the public built in 1964. It's shaped like a roomy cave outfitted with several giant Plexiglas windows. Stand there, and in a few moments, the ghostly outline of a salmon will appear, like a zombie out of the mist. Look away for just a second and when you glance back, a fish will be eyeballing you, just as curious about your species as you are about his. Watching the salmon and steelhead drift in and out is mesmerizing.
To reach the Winchester Dam Viewing Area, take Exit 129, which is about two hours from Ashland, and head east. Turn right on Highway 99, and the parking area is on the left. Meander over to the sidewalk, which will take you directly down to the fish ladder, and read the informative signs along the way. Bring a camera, comfortable walking shoes and your sense of wonder.
Amelia Covert Zeve is a student at Ashland High School. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.