Islander chronicles major China project

By Dee Hitch

You might encounter Al Stenson shopping in downtown Mercer Island, walking from store to store. His beatific smile and slightly-stooped gait might lead you to think he is a grandpa, slowing down in his golden years.

You would be wrong.

Although Stenson is 79, he is hardly slacking off. After reading two newspapers cover to cover in the morning, he likely has completed a hike on Cougar Mountain in Issaquah a few hours later. He tries to hike every other day. And now he's doing something especially daunting. He's finalizing an ambitious project which will entail one more trip to China.

Stenson is working on a documentary entitled ``A Drowning Three Gorges.'' He went to China in 2002 and 2004 for the project and hopes to return in April or in 2007 for the final installment. The video of his first two trips is available at the Mercer Island Library.

Three Gorges Dam in China is across the Yangtze, the world's third longest river. When the dam is completed, the water level in three consecutive steep-sided gorges behind it will rise by 400 feet.

This controversial project is flooding three fertile valleys to provide hydroelectric power. It is displacing 1.5 million people, farming families and city dwellers. When the dam is completed, it will be capable of pumping out more than 18,000 megawatts of electricity from 26 generators, each equal to a medium-sized nuclear reactor.

``There was no intent at the beginning to do a trilogy,'' said Stenson.

``The first (tour) in 2002 looked interesting because of the opportunity to see the gorges before they were swamped. Then came the 2004 tour with the water partway up. From then it only followed that I should finish the job, showing as much of the before-and-after as I could.''

Thus far, Stenson's documentary records the building of government housing -- mostly austere apartments -- to replace the homes and farms that will be flooded. While Americans might view many of the original communities as unplanned villages of shacks, lean-tos, and sheds, families have lived there happily for generations.

Some of those families are inching their way up the hillsides, trying to avoid the rising waters. It is almost as if they are hoping for a last-minute reprieve as the water inexorably laps at their temporary campsites.

The Chinese government is well-known for not valuing history, Stenson said. Shrines and temples have already disappeared under the relentlessly rising waters with little attempt to move them out of the way.

The dam is being constructed with relatively modern equipment, said Stenson. But he recorded Chinese people using sledgehammers to break up cement for repair projects. Stenson showed women lining up to pass chunks of the cement to waiting trucks. Another segment recorded men sitting in a roadway using hammers and chisels to repair road sections.

The building of the Three Gorges Dam (officially called the Sanxia Dam) is modern China's most ambitious endeavor since the Grand Canal in the 10th century. In 1919, Sun Yat-sen originally proposed building the dam; Chairman Mao Tse-tung and his successors made the dream a reality. The project, located about 1,000 miles west of Shanghai, will cost up to $29 billion. It is controversial because it involves relocating so many people and because of concern that the giant lake that will be formed by the completed dam will become a cesspool as one billion tons of industrial and human waste are dumped into the resulting reservoir. No provisions have been made for waste treatment.

Stenson has been an Island resident for more than 30 years. His entire professional career was with KING-TV, where he started as a floor director and ended as a cameraman and producer. He was floor director for such shows as ``Sheriff Tex'' and ``Stan Boreson'' and cameraman for ``News with Chuck Herring'' -- programs which native Northwesterners will remember. One of his most challenging camera assignments was providing at least 17 minutes of edited film daily for a magazine show hosted by Bea Donovan, KING-TV's cooking expert.

``The purpose was to get her show out of the kitchen and on location,'' said Stenson. ``The show, ``Calendar,'' lasted two months before both Donovan and I wore out, and ``Calendar'' was canceled.''

Sue Stewart, also a longtime Island resident, who worked with Stenson at KING, said he was one of the preeminent documentary photographer-editors for years.

``Everyone knew him,'' said Stewart. ``He won so many Emmy awards (11) that he resisted setting them out on display in his home. He'd grin and say, `It just looks like a bunch of bowling trophies.'''

When Stenson goes back for the final filming of the final phase, he will return with Keren Su, a guide with whom he has toured four times in China.

``Su was caught up in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s in China and spent time in the (re-education) `camps,''' said Stenson. ``By the 1980's he had worked his way out as a mountain guide. In 1990 he worked for the American Expedition to the north face of (Mount) Everest, and it was because of that contact with Seattle area-climbers and photographers that he immigrated here. He lives in Redmond so I have easy contact.''

It was on a 2002 tour with Su that Stenson decided he needed to document the building of the dam.

``I saw that and I thought Jesus that's incredible stuff,'' he said.

Another local is involved in the documentary. Judith Wilson, a former Islander born in England and who now lives in Bellevue, is the ``voice'' of Isabella Bird. Bird was an English traveler who wrote in a diary about her travels along the Yangtze in 1898.

Stenson's next trip to China is tentatively scheduled for April but ``I want to wait until the goal water-level is met,'' he said.

The Chinese government actually marked red Xs on the gorge walls, designating the 175-meter -- approximately 600-foot -- level that indicates the dam is done.

``I want to record the water meeting those Xs!'' said Stenson

Dee Hitch can be reached at

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