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Awe-inspiring experiences on offer at B.C.'s largest dam

Image of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam sign
Hudson's Hope is located about an hour and a half southeast of Fort St. John, and the W.A.C. Bennett Dam visitor centre is 24 kilometres from town — but well worth the stop.

W.A.C. Bennett Dam Visitor Centre takes you behind the scenes

Posted by Chelsea Watt

When you arrive at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and the Gordon M. Shrum Generating Station, located 24 kilometres from Hudson's Hope, to visit the brand-new visitor centre, there's no mistaking the significance of the operations.

That's because security onsite is tight; all vehicles headed to the visitor centre need to pass through a security checkpoint and are verified by security staff before they can proceed.

It's a strange introduction to an attraction aimed at tourists and visitors, but a necessary one. Bennett is BC Hydro's largest dam, holding back its largest reservoir, Williston Lake.The powerhouse at G.M. Shrum, along with the nearby Peace Canyon Dam and Generating Station produce about one-third of B.C.'s power. So it's not surprising that keeping the facility secure is of paramount importance.

But once you make it to the parking lot for the visitor centre, the experience goes from intimidating to inspiring. Awe-inspiring, that is. And not the least because of the incredible views of Williston that are available before you even walk in the door.

Image of the interior of the Williston Reservoir
This photo of Williston Reservoir, taken from the W.A.C. Bennett Visitor Centre in late May, showcases some of the beautiful scenery and the incredible views available while visiting the centre.

New visitor centre now welcoming visitors from around the globe

Hudson's Hope is about an hour and a half drive from Fort St. John, which may seem like a remote location. And when you're making the short drive from town to the dam, you're more likely than not to see more deer or moose than crowds of people or houses. But make no mistake; thousands of visitors traveling the Alaska Highway regularly stop in at the Visitor Centre to learn about the dam and hydroelectric power.

A brand-new visitor centre opened in May 2015, and I got the chance to experience it firsthand.

Image of the interior of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam Visitor Centre
Exhibits in the centre range from interactive water tables that explain hydroelectric generation to an exploration of regional history.

Family-friendly exhibits shine a spotlight on power (and light)

Stepping inside the new visitor centre is instantly welcoming, with bright new displays and smiling staff to greet you. Friendly and helpful people are the rule, not the exception, in Hudson's Hope, and the visitor centre tour guides are no different. On this occasion, I opted to explore the new exhibits on my own before taking the underground dam tour.

Although there were no kids traveling with me, I could spot a few activities that would appeal to younger audiences, such as the chance to pet snowshoe hare and wolverine fur through fun reveal boxes. Displays around the centre offer up plenty of information about the local fauna, and I must say, it's a lot less intimidating to learn about moose in the visitor centre than to contemplate one appearing on the side of the road next to our vehicle.

Image of cables on display at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam Visitor Centre
From puzzles that explain how giant dams like Bennett work to pieces of power line cables, you'll learn about every aspect of hydroelectricity. And you'll get to enjoy incredible views of the reservoir, too.

Underground dam tour is included in - and well worth - the price of admission

As a BC Hydro employee, I appreciated the chance to learn more about how we generate and distribute power — there's even pieces of 500-kilovolt power lines and a mock transmission tower available to see and touch.

And don't miss the chance to pedal a bike to generate power that lit up different devices and appliances. It's a great way for anyone, young or old, to get a tangible idea of what it takes to power our daily lives.

But as relaxing as enjoying a snack and looking out at the reservoir may be, there's no beating the real highlight, included with your admission: the underground dam tour that takes you inside the Gordon M. Shrum generating station and to the base of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam.

Journey 500 feet underground and watch power at work

From the moment I stepped inside the bus that takes you from the visitor centre to the dam, our tour guides were fantastic, offering up local history (and some pre-history; the area is well-known for its dinosaur fossils and tracks) and information about how the dam was built.

Our guide Masha built my hopes up for wildlife sightings on the short drive. There are six tours a day, and before our afternoon tour, she told me that the guides had already spotted a black bear, some otters and bald eagles on their way to the portal access tunnel, where you enter the generating station.

Image of an access tunnel at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam
One of the best parts of the dam tour, the portal access tunnel allows vehicles and staff to enter the generating station near the tailrace, where water exits after being used for power generation.

Watch for geographic features along the rock face inside the powerhouse

Standing inside the portal access tunnel, you really get a keen sense of the massive size and scale of Bennett Dam, and the engineering feats required to carve the powerhouse out of the canyon. The tunnel is so long that crews use bicycles and golf carts to travel from one side to the other quickly.

Your tour guide is a great source for information you won't get anywhere else. For example, we learned that the portal access tunnel is spray-painted white so that staff can quickly pinpoint if any of the massive amount of rock or "shotcrete" has fallen from the wall. And they'll point out geographic features such as coal and sulfur deposits, visible outside and inside the powerhouse.

If you're not comfortable with the idea of being underground, the dam tour certainly isn't for you. Thanks to the sheer size of Bennett Dam, going inside it at ground level means that you'll find yourself 500 feet underground at one point. But if you can handle it, you'll be treated to a rare chance to see one of the world's largest underground powerhouses at work.

Image of a diagram at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam Visitor Centre
If you're not a fan of underground spaces, you may not be a fan of the dam tour. This sign in one of the powerhouse tunnels shows just how far underground you'll find yourself when you exit the generator floor.

Massive equipment, massive amounts of water

The tour takes you above the generator floor, and if you're lucky, one of the 10 generating units might be undergoing some maintenance so you can see inside to the massive rotor and turbine runners.

Masha explained on our tour that many visitors to the dam come from regions that don't have a lot of hydroelectric power, so the sheer amount of water involved can blow some visitors away. Alberta residents often make the journey, but she says many visitors traveling the Alaska Highway come from parts of the U.S. and especially Germany.

You'll see some of that water if you're able to visit the manifold (sometimes work is underway which means tours can't enter the manifold chamber). It's loud in there, because it's filled with the churning, rushing water that's exited the turbines and is making its way to the tailrace and out of the generating station.

And if all of this hydroelectric technology sounds confusing, don't worry. I may be a second-generation BC Hydro employee, but even I didn't understand much of how power was actually made until Masha and her colleagues Katie and Brie took us on the tour.

Heading back out to the bus, you'll see the water one more time as it enters the tailrace. And maybe, if you're lucky, the otters and eagles that I missed might be on offer for your visit.

Image of the interior of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam tailrace
The area around the dam is well worth a visit; this shot of the tailrace is taken from the bus tour, but driving the dam crest road offers great views of Williston Reservoir. But get your passengers to snap the shots; stopping on the dam crest road isn't allowed, much like stopping on a bridge.

After the tour, there's one last stop to recommend on your visit to W.A.C. Bennett Dam — drive along the dam crest road and take a short drive up to the marked viewpoint. You'll get great views of the dam, Williston Reservoir, and Dinosaur Reservoir (held back by the nearby Peace Canyon Dam). Seeing both sides of the Peace River canyon, naturally carved out by the river, is a great way to end your day.

Visiting W.A.C. Bennett Dam

The visitor centre is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week until Labour Day, and there are six tours available each day. A snack bar is available inside and picnic tables outside if you want to enjoy lunch while enjoying views of the reservoir, rain or shine.

Admission prices and directions