Elwha River Uplift

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The kids and I decided to squeeze in one last, close-to-home, weekday excursion before school started, so we headed over to the newly dam-free Elwha River for a little float. The last piece of the upper dam was removed last week, so it seemed like a good time to go see what had changed since I was there earlier this summer. And I wanted the kids to experience a river being reborn. That’s Weston and Skyla starting out, courtesy of our friends at Olympic Raft & Kayak.

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The first thing we noticed was the amazing clarity of the water. Opponents of the dam removal predicted the river would be constantly dirty with sediment for years to come, and yet, even just days after blowing the last of the upper dam, we had at least eight feet of gorgeous, blue-green-tinted visibility. Even more surprising, through that clear water, we saw hundreds of Chinook salmon migrating, staging and spawning. Their motor-boat wakes peeled away from the raft in the riffles, and we could see them spawning in every tailout and flat. There were fish everywhere. The river bottom, again contrary to what many predicted, was made up of clean, large cobble and gravel rather than soft silt and sand. Perfect spawning conditions. In the picture above, the lighter-colored bottom areas are Chinook salmon nests, or redds, where the spawning fish have turned over stones. The sheer quantity of fish thrilled us all, and knowing there had been no salmon in this part of river at all for 100 years made it even more uplifting.

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Here, the kids are standing on what used to be the bottom of Lake Aldwell, just above the lower dam site. As you can see, the river is carving a new path, with all the natural riffles, runs and pools one would expect. The line of low vegetation to the right is part of the restoration effort, a mass of native plants put in place to (hopefully) prevent invasive species from taking hold. Large woody debris, key juvenile salmon habitat, is piling up along the banks and channels throughout the river system.

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After our float, we drove down to where the Elwha meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca. As we walked toward the river mouth, there were flood ponds and tide pools scattered throughout the new delta. We stopped on the banks of one little pond and watched uncountable numbers of juvenile salmon feeding on the surface. Rings of rising fish formed and overlapped as tiny, silvery salmon flew into the air chasing insects.

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The delta has grown even larger since I was there with my good friend Matt Stoecker back in July. What used to be a sediment-starved, single channel pouring into the Strait is now a complex maze of wetlands, sandbars and tide pools stretching across acres and acres of new land. This, the biologists tell us, is the exact habitat juvenile salmon need during the critical time when they’re adjusting to saltwater. As the rising tide came in, it formed streams pouring into the little ponds, and we watched the baby salmon move toward the current and slide out into the sea. I grew up during a time when most of our salmon runs, not to mention other natural resources, dwindled away year after year; for my kids to be here now, witnessing the process of something getting better, lifts my spirits in ways I can’t begin to express. The Elwha is a river again. The salmon are back.

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A River Reborn

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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.

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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.

Elwha.Sideways

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.

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