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.