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Visitor centres offer fascinating look at BC Hydro dams

Included in a tour of the Power House at Stave Falls is a visit to the turbine room.

Blaine Kyllo
For bchydro.com

The next time you're traveling over one of British Columbia's dams, take a moment to consider what's down below.

Sure, there's hundreds of litres of water, and tonnes of concrete, but as Janis Schultz quips, "The dam just holds back the water. The power house is what makes the power."

Those buildings, the power houses, are where you'll find the massive generators and turbines. They are also below the dam, and they are fascinating facilities.

Janis coordinates the tour guides at the Power House at Stave Falls, one of four visitor centres in the province operated by BC Hydro. "Sometimes people are reluctant to come in," she says on the phone, "but once they see everything they are blown away."

The four facilities – the other three are the Peace Canyon Visitor Centre at Peace Canyon Dam, the Gordon M. Shrum/WAC Bennett Visitor Centre at the GM Shrum Generating Station at WAC Bennett Dam and the Revelstoke Visitor Center at Revelstoke Dam – are open to the public through the summer.

At each of the visitor centres, says Janis, guides educate people on how electricity is made with water, but each centre has its own unique feature.

The dam's the thing

At GM Shrum, for example, visitors actually descend by bus into the rooms that contain the huge generators and turbines. Next door, the WAC Bennett Dam is B.C.'s largest earth-filled dam.

Revelstoke is known for its immensity, and for the spectacular view that can be appreciated from the dam's crest. It was recently renovated and has 14 interactive exhibits, including one that has you building your own dam.

The Peace Canyon Dam creates the Dinosaur Reservoir, named because the region was once home to the duck-billed Hadrosaur. The visitor centre has exhibits showing the history of the region's settlers and First Nations. There are also two life-size Hadrosaur displays.

Janis' home base, the Power House at Stave Falls, is the museum. The original power house at Stave Lake was constructed in 1911. There were no roads, Janis explains, so everything came up from Ruskin, B.C. by train. And everything was built without using more modern construction staples like excavators and dump trucks.

While it was decommissioned in 2000 – the new Stave Falls facility, operating since 1999, is across the street – the original structure is intact.

The museum spans from 1900 through 2000, and includes a film that provides an overview of the history of power generation in B.C., and two rooms of interactive exhibits including a bisected turbine, so you can see what it looks like inside.

"We've got lots of displays about electricity generation," says Janis.

There's also an electric car, built in Detroit in 1912. It's the property of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, but the Stave Falls visitor centre is a good home for it. Built to accommodate people who didn't want to have to hand-crank an engine, Janis says, the original batteries have been replaced and the car – which is still operational and can travel 80 km before needing to be plugged in – can be charged using a standard household outlet.

Special events this year

Revelstoke Dam and Visitor Centre is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and is having a celebration on June 19. On that day, admission will be free, and cake will be served.

And there are two summer events taking place at Stave. A barbecue and hog rally – as in Harley Davidson motorcycles – in support of the BC Burn Fund for Children, and the annual Christmas in July celebration on July 24 and 25. In lieu of admission, visitors are asked to make a cash donation or bring a non-perishable food donation for the Mission Food Centre.

Two-for-one admission

Coupons for two-for-one admission to Visitors Centres on special dates – Canada Day, BC Day long weekend (July 31 to August 2) and Labour Day long weekend (September 4 to 6) – can be found in your local community newspaper.

BC Hydro Visitor Centres