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Travellers near and far love Revelstoke Dam Visitor Centre

Vernon's Derrick Hiebert poses in front of Revelstoke penstocks after visiting the Dam Visitor Centre.
Derrick Hiebert of Vernon dropped by Revelstoke Dam Visitor Centre last month with his son and was wowed by the experience, which includes an elevator ride up for a view from the top of the BC Hydro dam.

Vernon man blown away by hidden gem near the Trans Canada Highway

If Derrick Hiebert had been a TripAdvisor fan, he may not have been quite so surprised during his recent visit to the Revelstoke Dam Visitor Centre. The tourist spot ranks a 4.5-stars-out-of-5 rating on the popular travel site.

Instead, the Vernon man acted on a tip from a Revelstoke gas attendant and drove a few minutes north of the Trans Canada Highway to where he could see the massive dam, which stands 175 metres high and can generate 2,480 megawatts of electricity, enough to power nearly 200,000 homes.

But could he really go to the top of the dam, like he'd been told? He wasn't convinced, at least until he got to the visitor centre.

"When I go home and show the video to the wife, and some of the pictures we took, I think she's going to be dumbfounded," said Hiebert, who had stopped in Revelstoke with his son Corey. "She'll say 'You mean you got to go inside? You got to take an elevator to the top?'"

Yeah, he sure did. And when the Hieberts emerged from the top floor of the elevator to the dam's crest, they were in for another surprise: a hand-built relief map that showed not just BC Hydro's Mica, Revelstoke and Hugh Keenleyside dams on the Columbia River, but 11 more dams along the river south of the Canada-U.S. border.

"I'm surprised by the scope of that map — there's like a million dams," said Hiebert, exaggerating just a little. "You don't hear about that. It's engineering beyond belief. When you see the dam in person, you realize the scope and the genius behind developing it."

Shot of spillway and switchard from top of Revelstoke Dam.
Stunning views from the top of the Revelstoke Dam include this vista overlooking the dam's spillway, where water is released in those rare times when the reservoir gets too full and there's little demand for hydroelectric power.

Visitor Centre showcases construction of Revelstoke Dam, 1977-1985

Like so many of us who use electricity on an hourly basis but rarely think much about where it comes from, the Revelstoke Dam tour is a crash course in not just how hydroelectric power is produced, but also the enormity of the equipment — and the human effort — involved.

Anxious to head up to the crest of the dam, the Hieberts rushed a little through the historical gallery in the visitor centre. But they stayed long enough to view the video story of how turbine No. 5 at Revelstoke was transported by ship, truck and barge from Brazil, the place it was manufactured, before it was installed in 2011.

While the dam was built from 1977 to 1985 to accommodate six turbines, only four were initially installed. But as B.C.'s demand for electricity grew, BC Hydro added a fifth turbine in 2010, and are looking to add a sixth in the near future.

The Hieberts were also wowed by the photos that detailed how the dam was built.

"Man, the earth moving they had to do to build this dam, and the diversion dam," gushed Hiebert, referring to the construction of a temporary dam that diverted the Columbia's water around the construction site and through a special tunnel to be spilled out below the dam site. "For a laymen, I'm just amazed at the whole scale, the size of the turbines, or looking down at a guy in that massive room [powerhouse]. It's just massive."

Dam-building water table for kids at Revelstoke Dam Visitor Centre.
Kids have a great time at the Dam Visitor Centre, too. One of the most popular displays is this interactive build-a-dam water table in which kids can try building a dam and then releasing water from the "river" above.

Visitor centre offers fun for adults, kids, and even staff

Revelstoke Visitor Centre tour guide leader Cathy Meacock says there’s a great variation in visitors' knowledge about dams and hydroelectricity. Some need to know the basics about how the turbines work, while more than the occasional engineer shows up to ask a question that stumps the staff.

The visitor centre is a particular hit with kids, who can experiment with dam building in an interactive display or play — from a bird’s-eye-view vantage point atop the dam — a game of spot-the-family-car in the visitor centre parking lot.

And you never know what you might see from the top of the dam.

"We have binoculars we share with our guests, and one day I was up here and saw a deer cross the river below the dam," says Meacock, who has also seen eagles, osprey and an otter, in and around the dam. "I didn't think deer were that comfortable swimming with those skinny little legs, but he just swam across. It was like 'Good for you, buddy!'"

A few favourite facts from Meacock and other staff:

  • The dam took about eight years to build and was completed in 1984, at the narrowest possible location in the Columbia River, formerly known as the Little Dalles Canyon.
  • One portion of the dam is earthfill — basically a huge pile of rock — while the bulk is made of reinforced concrete.
  • The dam required so much concrete that a cement plant was set up on site.
  • The reservoir created by the dam, Revelstoke Lake Reservoir, stretches 130-kilometres north to the foot of the Mica Dam.
  • The Big Bend Highway that runs along the reservoir and now ends at Mica Dam used to be the main highway to Golden before the Revelstoke-to-Golden stretch to Highway No. 1 was built.
  • There are seven species of fish in the reservoir, including bull trout, kokanee, rainbow trout, Rocky Mountain whitefish, burbot (ling cod) and sturgeon.