From where we stood, the wide valley opened into the nothingness of low slung clouds. If brought here blindfolded, aside from a couple hints, I would’ve not known the location, other than a river valley in the Pacific Northwest. The give away was the river below, rushing through a thin cut in a breached concrete damn, the former Glines Canyon Dam. We stood above a point of major significance to National Park and environmental history: a free Elwha River.
I wish I could say I’d been up to see the two reservoirs, Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell, before the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams were removed. Of course, growing up adjacent to many a hydroelectric dam, I’ve seen the reservoirs that form behind them. Simply, it would have had more impact to see the before and after for historical perspective. By March 2012 and August 2014, both lakes broke through the blasted remains of formerly held them. I had never spared a thought to see them before that point, despite the bureaucratic process commencing in the 1980s and the entire process spanning my lifetime.
The dams were relics of the Olympic Power Company, which finished the Elwha Dam by 1913 and the Glines Canyon Dam by 1927, providing power to a pulp mill in Port Angeles. This was good for local economies, but not good for local fish. Ignoring the law, the dams were constructed without fish ladders and shut off all but around 5 miles of river habitat to the anadromous fish that had historically spawned in the river (FYI: “An anadromous fish, born in fresh water, spends most of its life in the sea and returns to fresh water to spawn,” NOAA’s succinct explanation).
We’d driven up in a light drizzle through the lower valley, where I expected Elk to pop out at any moment. The corpse of Glines Canyon Dam was something my partner in crime Caitlin and I had discussed for some time. As the largest dam removal project in US history and the largest restoration project the National Park System has ever undertaken, it was worth seeing. The summer when we met, we’d watched the independent documentary Damnation, which specifically highlighted the removal of the dams here.
The site was quite pleasing on a gray misty day, a blanket of dark green conifers above, highlighted with the lingering yellow of a few deciduous trees. With no historical perspective whatsoever, it would seem to many just another pretty valley. Upon closer inspection, we could see where revegetation was progressing up the former lake bed. The river was already starting to wend in the manner of a braided river, a course set by the upheavals of regular flooding. It was hard to imagine a salmon making it up the steep, narrow section of the Elwha that rushed through Glines Canyon, but according to the experts, upwards of 70 miles of habitat, including tributaries above the canyon will be opened up to the five pacific salmon and two trout that historically spawned here.
In reading about this whole process, I was slightly shocked to hear the National Park’s discussion of fish returning suggest that within 20 to 30 years the river could be back to historic runs of these fish. While I am no expert, I found this hard to believe, primarily because the river is just one small (but admittedly vital) part of their lives. How the species in the upper river already, brook, rainbow, and bull trout, will compete is not yet known. The estuary downstream is not perfect and the deep ocean waters are highly impacted and far from pristine. While sediments will decrease over time with the help of two water treatment facilities, we can again only model how we expect things to happen. To me, the slightly educated lay person, it seems optimistic to suggest that a river reopened will be sole driver in population increases. However, looking at a map of the potential spawning ranges with the dams removed is pretty exciting, so much habitat is again available and it appeared the fish aren’t dithering about in the bottom 5 miles.
After over a century of being excluded, in September 2014 Chinook were found in the Upper Elwha. This is testament to the plasticity of Salmonids. In the time that these species have evolved in the Eastern Pacific, countless floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes have required these species to be flexible. While we’ve brought a tidal wave of seemingly permanent changes and impacts on these species and strive try to fix a few, we sometimes fail to have perspective that we’re just a blip on the geological scale; if still a very very bloody, extinction prone, blip. I hope and suspect salmon could be around longer than us.
Salmon have the power to connect many different people to the land, something well known by many a forward thinking conservationist, but that’s not the only reason they’ve been the figurehead for the dam removal. Salmon are one of a few major vectors for carrying rich marine nutrients across many ecosystems. In the length of their lives they travel through riparian areas, estuaries, and into the Pacific Ocean. Upon death they end up fueling plant growth as corporeal packets of fertilizer and filling the guts of predators, scavengers, and detritivores alike. The Elwha has been a shadow of its former self without salmon.
Caitlin and I were of course convinced of the value of all this of course, as most people were. As we climbed the gravel road towards elevated viewpoints, we twisted around an increasing amount of old growth and dodged dozens of Varied Thrush which seemed to be the only birds about. It was wet and mushrooms were everywhere, a nice thing to see after a very dry fall. We paused, peering down through clouds to think about the good things people can do for places and imagined what the upper Elwha will look like in the future. A might bit healthier it would seem.
At a spot where the bridge crosses the river below Glines Canyon, we stopped to enjoy the view. Sliding down a muddy bank, I got onto the river bed, where great rounded rocks stood testament to the power of water and the diverse geology of the Olympics. Hopping about, I looked downstream to the large stands of Black Cottonwood, sublimely golden on the mist and thought about where this river coursed: below various bridges, through former Lake Aldwell’s basin, and lower still through the Lower Elwha Klallam’s reservation. If anyone, these people have something to be thankful for. All my mutterings about how vital salmon are, about healthy ecosystems, are valid and necessary sentiments, but at the end of the day, these people have had a real reliance on this river and its fish.
I’ve only been through the Nation of the Lower Elwha once, helping scope out an expansion of sites for the Seattle Audubon’s Puget Sound Seabird Survey. I don’t claim any true experience here, I don’t know the people’s history well, nor anyone from the tribe personally. I say this because I wish I could speak to the town of Lower Elwha’s beauty, with a river that stretches through it from deep in the mountains, flowing into the wide Strait of Juan de Fuca to the North, but it felt like most reservations I’ve been through. Decay and apathy were the pervasive tone. This isn’t a judgement on the people who call it home either. I’m fairly aware of the circumstances of reservations and I am also aware from perusing the Nation’s website that many of the tribe have pride for the place and its people. No one called the Strong People could be completely without pride. In some ways, it seems silly to think that a free river could bring the Lower Elwha better a economic and cultural climate, but I certainly hope that it does. Unlike many reservations, which in themselves are unrealistic ideas for the indigenous people of our region, many of the tribes on the Olympic Peninsula benefit from being on land that still offers them much. Casinos, gas stations with cheap gas, and still cheaper cigarettes and booze persist, and these lifesblood aren’t likely to disappear. Maybe in the future, they won’t be the only thing outsiders relate to the Nation.
Across on the West side of the Elwha’s mouth there’s access to the beach. I’d been there birding several times before the dams were out and again never given it all that much thought to the site. Embarrassingly, it was just a small river running into a strait, and I didn’t think of the estuary that should be there. That’s slightly scary considering I am a person that should probably have some semblance of a clue, but also not surprising. I don’t know many “free” rivers. There are almost none in the Pacific Northwest anymore, most altered for power production or water management well before I was born.
The last time I saw the mouth was also during the expansion for the Seabird Survey. It was remarkable how much it had changed. Here was the beginnings of an estuary, an estuary everyone expected but not nearly so soon. Even I was able to see a significant change based on my briefest of impressions; this was not change brought merely by storms and tides. Here was a new beach, according to the reports, 80-100 acres not there before, built of silt trapped behind the dams. In all an estimated 60 percent of the 34 million cubic yards have washed out of the former lake beds so far, building the grounds (3 million cubic meters deposited at the mouth so far), for an estuary reborn.
In this estuary researchers have found large numbers of juvenile salmon and trout, which will use this as a safe jumping off point during their journey to adulthood. Two species of adult bait fish have been found here too, species near the foundation for many a marine food-chain, surely looking for places to lay eggs. Birds were everywhere, where before gulls had few places to rest as the sea washed right into the cobbles on the banks of river.
Watch above how the Elwha has changed over time, how it lost an outlet, how it built and destroyed beaches, and eventually rebuilt an estuary. Beginning in 1939; even a damed river changes significantly.
This all seems a grand rebirth, but I’m both hopeful and guarded. Likely, all we need to do is stand out of the way and not meddle any longer (once the restoration plan is finished). East of the mouth, there’s further testament to what a river delta can do, held back or not, and what happens when sediments carried by a river accumulate.
The Dungeness Spit, a relic from the Vashon Glacial advance, is growing. This isn’t news to anyone, yet still amazing; the spit growing at around 4 meters a year. Estuaries are complicated and change over time but where the spit sits, it collects sediments from the West and from the mouth of the Dungeness River which empties onto the Eastern tip. Historically sediments drifted from the Elwha too. Off Port Angeles, Ediz Hook, a similar spit is no longer growing because the bluffs around the Elwha are armored against erosion. This slows the inevitable process of soil sloughing into the sea. Over the previous hundred years the Elwha hasn’t had the sediments to build up Ediz Hook. Now, we could be seeing things start to change (as if they aren’t always), and scientists for the Department of Natural Resources are gathering data to have a complete geologic story of how erosion and rivers influence near shore habitats in this region.
Stopping at Dungeness Spit, a familiar spot for me as a birder, it was hard to see a connection between the narrow dam far away in that river valley and this 5.5 mile long, drift wood strewn beach jutting into the strait. The day had cleared and we walked out onto the beach, seeing erosion in effect as powerful waves slammed into the bluffs stretching West. We played with the waves, clambered about the old growth drift, watched Dunlin scouring the shore on the bayside, hoped for distant whales on the strait, and looked to the distant San Juan Islands. As day had cleared, it all seem a bit more connected.
There is much to be happy, thankful, and excited for in the releasing of the Elwha. I plan to see its headwaters someday soon, at the Elwha snowfield between Mount Barnes and Mount Queets, deep in the middle of the Olympics. Maybe when I do, I’ll see salmon not far below. It’s an exciting time to be alive if you love rivers because we’re realizing not all have to do our bidding. And after-all, besides a flood or two, what’s not to like about a free and wild river?
Footnote: If you want to learn more watch these wonderful series of short videos about the Elwha’s restoration, the film Damnation (currently on Netflix), and read the documentation of plans and the science behind it through the National Park Service.