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The Alpine Lakes: Water from the Mountains

1940 Tunnel discharge

It was already known when Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery was planned that summer water would be in short supply. Temperatures soar in summer, too, and salmon must have cool water to survive (below 60 degrees F). Engineers came up with an audacious plan: build a trail up to the nearby alpine lakes, blast a tunnel through 2,250 feet of solid granite, and install a valve to control water release into Icicle Creek.


    A 30 Inch-Wide Trail

    Packing supplies up trail

    A supply train moving up the trail.

    Getting to the alpine on foot was one thing. Packing the necessary gear and supplies up the steep slope was another. U.S. Forest Service workers dug a 30 inch-wide trail in 1938 up to Nada and Snow lakes. Eight miles southwest and 3,000 feet above the hatchery, these lakes would provide badly needed cool water for raising fish. Back to top...

    High Country Camp

    Nada Lake Camp

    Nada Lake Camp.

    The Bureau of Reclamation was in charge of the engineering project. They established a camp in the high country. Forty men lived at Nada Lake Camp for nearly a year. They built a mess hall, cook shack, compressor house, blacksmith shop, and powder shed, as well as dormitories.Back to top...

    A Long, Hard Haul

    Hauling up trail

    Hauling a load up the trail.

    Every piece of equipment, every bite of food, every last thing needed at Nada Lake Camp had to come up the narrow trail with the help of horses and mules. Local packers were hired to keep the camp supplied. Back to top...

    Tapping the Lake

Snow Lake

View of Snow Lake.

Dams were built across the outlets of Nada and Snow lakes to store more water. The plan was to tap Snow Lake from beneath with a pipe and valve system. When water was needed, the valve could be opened, and water would be released to flow down into Snow Creek, which empties into Icicle Creek. Bureau of Reclamation engineer Louis Ackerman was the principal designer. Hydraulic engineer Sterling Hill correctly calculated the water pressure that would need to be held by the valve gate. Back to top...

    Tunneling In


    Working on the Snow Lake tunnel.

    A tunnel 7 x 9 feet had to be cut into solid granite, reaching back 2,250 feet. Several crews of men labored on this monumental task.Back to top...

      The Vital Piece

      Hauling valve up trail

      Hauling the valve up the trail.

      A vital piece of equipment had to be delivered in the alpine: the valve that would hold back the water. The gate valve weighed 2,800 pounds! It took a month to maneuver its two halves up the six mile trail. In tight spots, the crew had to blast a wider passage.

      Back to top...

      The Final Touch

      Snow Lake outlet

      The Snow Lake valve after installation.

      On October 16, 1939, everything was in place. An audience assembled to witness the final blast that would crack the base of Snow Lake and let the water into the tunnel. But a short in the electrical wire leading to the powder charge caused a delay. Several men had to crawl through the 30 inch steel pipe embedded in concrete at the tunnel's mouth, then drag scaffolding and a ladder in after them to get across the many sump holes in the tunnel. The holes were designed to catch rock and debris that washed in after the blast and prevent the valve from clogging. They reset the charge, and at 6:15 that evening, dynamite allowed the water to rush in-- and the gate valve held! Back to top...

      Releasing Precious Water

      Releasing fish 1960s

      Water gushing from Snow Lake valve.

      Every year since 1939, someone from the hatchery climbs up the trail to Snow Lake and turns the opening to the valve by hand to let alpine water out. Snow in winter becomes valuable water in summer. Back to top...

      Wilderness and History

      Snow Lake outlet

      Water is released from Snow Lake, making its way down to cool Icicle Creek thousands of feet below.

      Snow and Nada lakes were enclosed by the Alpine Lakes Wilderness when it was formed by Congress in 1976. The Wilderness is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Since the dams and valve predate the establishment of the Wilderness, Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery retains the right to use them, as they have done since 1940. The trail is now a popular route for hikers and backpackers. Back to top...

Last Updated: October 9, 2014
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