It’s difficult to put into words exactly how it feels to experience the newly free Elwha River. Gratitude, for sure, for all the people and organizations who put so much into bringing the dams down. And awe, as nature takes over and the river finds it’s new-old path to the sea. And fun, of course, to be there taking it all in with my good friend (and DamNation producer/underwater photographer) Matt Stoecker.
We floated the Elwha this weekend under crazy blue skies and warm air, with the winners of the Patagonia/DamNation photo contest and our gracious hosts at Olympic Raft & Kayak. All around amazing experience. Despite what the dam-removal critics said, the sediment load in the water has settled out quickly, leaving the water clear, with the slight milky, blue-green tint one expects of a glacial river in summertime. As we came into the former reservoir zone above the lower dam site, I was blown away to look up 40 feet above us to see the old water line still clearly defined on the rocks and trees. It was like finding a river at the bottom of a lake, which is essentially what’s happened here.
At the actual dam site, after much discussion and scouting, we decided to become the first commercial trip Olympic Raft & Kayak had taken down through what they’ve named That Dam Rapid. A short, steep, highly technical Class 4 drop through what used to be Elwha Dam proved to be as hairy as it looked, and provided plenty of adrenaline to jolt us out of the all the dreamy wonder and gratitude we were feeling. Great ride, and a perfect end to the float.
That night, Olympic Raft & Kayak hosted an outdoor screening of DamNation in the warm–and amazingly for the Olympic Peninsula–dry summer night. Mikal Jakobal, the activist who painted the now-famous crack on the dam here back in 1987, made a surprise appearance, much to the crowd’s delight.
Finally, the next day, Matt and I drove down to the where the Elwha runs into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This was, perhaps, the most tangible evidence of a river reborn, and an uplifting view of what a free river is supposed to do. Instead of the river channel running straight into saltwater along a sterile, clean-cobble beach as it once was, the Elwha had built a tremendous delta. Sediment, trapped behind the dams for 100 years, is now creating a complex system of barrier islands, sloughs, ponds and wetlands. The most perfect juvenile salmon habitat imaginable. We stood there in the wind, absorbing what it all means and feeling the uplift of a rare and valuable victory.