Grand Coulee Dam Laser Light Show
Coulee Dam, Washington
This field report describes the classic laser light show that was retired in 2014. The current light show has new music and new narration -- but it's still the largest laser light show in the world, on the face of a dam, miles from anywhere, and free.
If you crave the spaced out magic that only a laser light show can provide, then you should check out the one at the Grand Coulee Dam. It isn't scored to Pink Floyd or Hawkwind, but it does have the synthesizer hits of Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre -- and when was the last time you heard Chariots of Fire or Equinoxe 5 booming from an outdoor megawatt speaker system?
The soundtrack dates from 1988; the lasers debuted on May 29, 1989, replacing a show of colored lights that had run for 30 years.
Synth-noodling music is an odd counterpoint to most of the spectacle, which is narrated by the Columbia River brought to life, and tells the story of the river and the dam. Water pours down the face of the dam and acts as the screen (clever, noisy) and the free show is designed for viewing from the dam's parking lot.
It was dark in the canyon, until our eyes adjusted. But once the show cranked up, we were bedazzled by 2-D flickering laser line drawings (A covered wagon! A fish!). Laser animation looks a lot like 1970s video games -- spidery, mostly green wire frames mimicking landscapes and objects. Your kids may gripe that the mindless music visualizer in iTunes does more with lush fractal synchronizing. Tell 'em to shut up, sit down, and enjoy the show.
The speaking River's occasional lapses into backward syntax ("Out of chaos I was born.") are part Biblical Genesis and part Yoda.
The River is awed by the dam's construction.
"In my thousands of centuries of existence, never have I witnessed a more ambitious task.... A refrigeration plant had to be installed in order to freeze an entire cliff face and put an end to its landslides. My natural course had to be diverted, and the granite river bed beneath hand-polished in order to prepare it for the massive amount of concrete to follow."
The River is sad when the Indians lose their salmon fishing.
"No change in the land could be without a change in the lives of those who inhabited the land, both man and animal. Painful were these trade-offs. But the benefits of this single project soon were to serve the entire country."
The River explains the benefits.
"Electricity. Hydroelectricity! Nonpolluting, inexpensive production of electric power from water. It may sound like a difficult concept for a river, but I understand all that involves me."
The River is grateful that it's been dammed.
"You have done what I could not accomplish alone. Through your engineering skills you have diverted part of my course, and spread my waters over the land. You have created the missing link in the cycle of life: the rainfall nature could not provide. You have irrigated the land. YOU have made the desert bloom."
Patriotic finale, accompanied by Neil Diamond's "Coming to America."
"I was once a raging torrent of raw energy and thundering rapids crashing headlong to the ocean, my potential energy spent carving the land in my blind race to the sea. Now my power is harnessed and I am part of an efficient system that serves the people and the land!"
The Grand Coulee Dam Laser Light Show is an unexpected sight in an empty part of Washington, but that's part of its charm. The nearest McDonald's is 90 minutes away (and powered, no doubt, by the dam) and the small nightly crowd in the darkened parking lot is probably the largest gathering of people within 50 miles.