English: The first chunk missing out of the Gl...

English: The first chunk missing out of the Glines Canyon (Upper) Dam an the Elwha River near Port Angeles, Washington. Taken by ONP webcam. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We left on a drizzly, overcast June morning to drive to Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula to see the Elwha Dam removal efforts. I really wanted to see the river running free. I described what led up to this demolition of the two dams on the Elwha River in my last blog.

After passing through Port Angeles, we wandered around at first, trying to find a road that would take us close enough to see one of the dams. As we did that, I was excited to catch my first glimpses of the river–and then was shocked. The river was running fast, but it was a dirty brown. All the sediment built up behind the dams is now working its way downriver. We are so accustomed to seeing national park rivers, protected and pristene, running clear and clean and sparkling.

According to a Seattle Times article (September 19, 2010), an estimated 20 million cubic yards of sediment, “the equivalent of one million dump truck loads,” is backed up behind the dams. That sediment needs to drain downstream. Beyond facilitating the river’s flow, it will provide gravel in the river bed for spawning, as well as nutrients on the beach at the mouth of the river for the clam beds.

We stumbled on one quiet parking area that looked like a boat launch for the river. When we walked over to see, we found what we thought was a dried up river bed and the river running in the distance–and then realized that this had been part of the lake above the dam, and now that lake was gone. A small, dusty parking lot and a boat launch leading to a gravel bed was all that was left at this recreation spot.

Eventually we found a short trail through a heavily forested hillside of cedars to a panoramic view of the Elwha Dam–or more precisely, to where the Elwha Dam had been. Work has progressed much faster than the planners expected and the Elwha Dam is already gone. The big earthen mound you see in my photo was the result of the plan to redirect the river somewhat at this initial point. We could see one tiny man working, perhaps positioning netting over this earthen area?

Elwha Dam site

Standing there, in the warmth of the sun that had broken through the gray morning, I remembered as a child watching construction work from a distance on the Hungry Horse Dam in Montana–and seeing those tiny men (one of them was my father) moving beside the mammoth structure. All the machinery looked like toys as well.

We didn’t see the Glines Canyon Dam further upriver. Blasting continues there. Original plans called for the river to be flowing free by 2014, but the old, worn dam sections have come down much more easily than expected, and the operation should be complete well before that time. Because it’s the largest dam removal ever attempted, experts are watching it closely. Will the sediment drain? Will the fish really return? Flood control efforts for lower areas of the river were done early on and a new water treatment facility for Port Angeles was also built.

We ate a picnic lunch beside a dirt road and could hear the river through the thick underbrush and trees on the other side of us. I felt an incredible sense of peace as we sat quietly listening to the rushing water and feeling the warmth of a June sun.

One of my favorite books in the last few years has been Breaking Ground: The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the Unearthing of Tse-whit-zen Village by Lynda V. Mapes (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009). She describes in detail the unearthing of a Native village on the waterfront of Port Angeles. But she also includes detailed information on the history of Port Angeles and the building of the dams, as well as early efforts to have them removed.

I love this quote from her book:

“He brought me to the Elwha River every morning to bathe….And it was to make you strong, not only in your body, but in your mind and spirit. And I believe that’s what helped me to survive everything that was to come.”
—Johnson Charles Jr., Lower Elwha Klallam

This quote also reminds me of Thomas Aldwell’s observation as he dreamed about a dam. “Suddenly the Elwha was no longer a wild stream crashing down to the Strait, the Elwha was peace, power and civilization.”

If you visit the Elwha River today, you will see its real power and you will feel its peace. Civilization? Yes.


Building Up and Tearing Down

We often celebrate structures as they go up. Once in awhile we celebrate a structure that comes down.

The Elwha River forms high up in the Olympic National Park of Washington State, about 8,000 feet above sea level and fed by glaciers. It’s not really that long–about 60 to 70 miles, but it runs deep and fast and icy cold before rushing into the waters of the Salish Sea.

Goblins Gate on the Elwha

Goblins Gate on the Elwha (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Protected by national park boundaries and the remote path it takes, it is clear and clean. The river was once a prime spawning area of five species of salmon–coho, chinook, chum, sockeye and pink. Steelhead trout, sturgeon and smelt also traveled up it to spawn.

Before Europeans settled here, the river fed every aspect of the Lower Elwha Klallam people’s lives for thousands of years–their food, trade, arts, healing, and worship. They hunted in the rich watershed. Some of the elders described their fond memories of the river being “black” with salmon. They even believed that people were created at a sacred place upriver. At least 13 villages were located up and down its length and at its mouth.

European explorers flowed in during the late 1700’s and throughout the 1800’s, delivering smallpox, measles and influenza. The diseases decimated the Native populations and paved the way for settlers’ land claims.

And then Thomas Aldwell showed up on the Olympic Peninsula in 1890. In his autobiography he described his passion, “There is something about belonging to a place. You want to control more and more of it, directly or indirectly….land was something one could work with, change, and develop.”

His autobiography barely mentions the Natives of the area. He was much more impressed with the Elwha River which emptied into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, close to Port Angeles. He started secretly  buying land up along the river with a business partner over the next 12 years. His dream?

“The property on the Elwha River always fascinated me, but it was not until I saw it as a source of electric power for Port Angeles and the whole Olympic Peninsula that it magnetized all my energies….Suddenly the Elwha was no longer a wild stream crashing down to the Strait, the Elwha was peace, power and civilization.”

He built the first dam on the Elwha River in 1910. Even then it was illegal to obstruct a fish run without constructing a passage, or ladder, so the fish could continue to use the river to spawn. Somehow, Aldwell managed to get around this requirement. When a second dam, the Glines Canyon Dam was constructed further upriver in 1927, no fish ladders were required since  no fish were making it beyond the first dam. This second dam flooded the sacred area where the Lower Elwha Klallams believed people were created.

English: Elwha Dam constructed 1913, slated fo...

English: Elwha Dam constructed 1913, slated for demolition 2012. Photo by Larry Ward, Lower Elwha Fisheries Office (2005). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1986, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe challenged the re-licensing of the two dams. Dam removal has become increasingly common. Aging structures and the cost of upgrading dams that are not all that productive have produced new thinking and policies. In 1992, after hard work by the tribe and environmental groups, an act of Congress provided for the removal of both dams. This will be the largest of any dam removal in the United States to date–and likely the largest in the world.

Next post: my trip to see the Elwha River….unleashed.

* * *

Several of you have asked if my sons remembered the cowhide incident. My oldest son said, yes, he remembered finding it on the beach, but was a little confused about why I was dragging it to the meat market. Sigh…so much for the lesson I thought I was teaching. Actually, his perception as a young child may have been more accurate than mine was–the cowhide indeed may not have come from the market.

On the other hand, he says blood definitely was running across the road in front of the market. He and my younger son, as they waited for the school bus in the morning, often watched the crew hosing out the slaughtering truck next to the road.