In Washington state, the spirit of the Elwha River flows again

September 20, 2013

It was green everywhere. Low on the forest floor, on stones and on rotting old logs just outside my car window, the moss was vibrant green — a soft, velvety refuge. The slim licorice ferns were a paler green, as the rain pelted down on them. Eighty feet above the ground, so high they seemed almost lonesome, the spindly boughs of fir trees were black-green, as though they had swallowed up the full, brooding force of nature itself.

I drove on through Washington state’s Olympic National Park, which may be the most verdant place in the nation, receiving as much as 14 feet of rain a year in its Hoh River Valley. Rain pooled on the windshield, refracting a lambent green light as I gazed up toward the canopy. The road curved and climbed. I was on land that had, until 1855, belonged to the Klallam Indians, and it was easy to see what had kept the Klallam in this place for millennia: the huckleberries, the elk, the frothing Elwha River, which was now running just out of earshot. Starting in the last ice age, the Elwha — which flows for 45 miles down out of the Olympic Mountains, north, to the sea — was home to 300,000 shimmering, silver-backed salmon. Many of these fish weighed more than 80 pounds.

But the Klallam’s home did not remain pristine. In 1910, a Canadian settler named Thomas Aldwell started spanning the river with a 108-foot-high hydroelectric dam. As told in Aldwell’s autobiography, “Conquering the Last Frontier,” construction was such a spectacle that crowds gathered to watch. Two onlookers died when a guy cable snapped. The dam itself later ruptured, taking out a bridge downstream, but in the end Aldwell was able to proclaim, “Suddenly the Elwha was no longer a wild stream crashing down to the strait; the Elwha was peace, power and civilization.” The turbines churned, and in 1927 the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam was built upstream on the Elwha. The two dams electrified the nearby Bremerton navy yard. They powered the sawmills and paper mills that would put Port Angeles on the map.

For centuries before, though, the Klallam’s economy has been based on salmon fishing. Now when the fish confronted the sheer wall of the dam, they could not swim upstream and spawn. Their populations slowly dwindled. Today, the Elwha is home to 3,000 salmon as it wends through Olympic National Park and the tiny reservation of the Lower Elwha Klallam Indians.

The story of the Elwha is, in essence, the story of the Northwest, where I have lived for 25 years. There are scores of hydroelectric dams here, and the dams power everything: Think of the Portland shipyards that built cargo ships for World War II; think of Kurt Cobain playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on an electric guitar in Olympia in 1991. The dams also freight a deep sadness. A Native American saying holds, “Every time you turn on a light, a salmon jumps out,” and the writer Timothy Egan has meanwhile averred, “In the Northwest, a river without salmon is a body without a soul.”

Most Northwest rivers now have only a glimmer of spirit left in them — a few remnant salmon. I was in Olympic National Park because the Elwha is undergoing a resurrection. Late in 2011, its two dams began coming down. The National Park Service, along with the Bureau of Reclamation, started tearing out Aldwell’s Elwha Dam, with plans to dynamite Glines Canyon later on, so the river could run free again. The feds vowed to spend $351 million on the whole project, making this the largest dam removal in U.S. history. Wildlife biologists were joyously predicting mass returns of salmon a decade hence.

In the meantime, change was coming in other forms. In being restored, the Elwha River was also being torn apart, and the soul of the entire Northwest was, it seemed, likewise in flux. We were ripping out the very structures that had given us light; we were trying to get back to the Garden of Eden. But could we really return, after all the insults we had delivered our rivers? And what would be lost by this transformation?


The remnants of the Elwha Dam. The dam was constructed in 1913 and removed in 2012. As a result of the removal, the salmon population will grow from 3,000 to hundreds of thousands in 20 to 30 years.

I kept driving. When I reached the denuded crest of a hill, I found a bulldozer skittering about. I parked by some wreckage from the dam demolition — a giant hairball of bent, rusted iron rebar. Then I made my way past a 300-foot-high yellow crane, down toward the river and out onto the concrete abutment of the dam. Off to my right, upstream, was Lake Mills or, rather, its remnants — it now looked like a draining bathtub. The lake’s rim was now exposed gray silty muck — river sediment — and here and there ancient stumps, logged almost 100 years earlier, jutted up out of puddles, looking fresh. Everything had been preserved underwater: The lake bed was littered with shiny, rust-free bits of steel logging cables a century old. The river told a story of toil and resource extraction.

But still it was lovely. Directly beneath me on the abutment was a waterfall cascading over the lip of what remained of the dam — once 210 feet tall, the structure had been dynamited down to 70. The falls were manmade, and they would vanish a few months later as ensuing blasts obliterated the dam entirely. Even so, as I stood there watching spray dance over the slate-covered plunge pool, I was reminded of the “wild stream” that Aldwell had seen in his youth. I hoped that the untamed spirit of the old Elwha would soon triumph over the cables, the bulldozers, the crane. But when I talked to Mike McHenry, he assured me that Eden would not come instantly.

McHenry is the fisheries biologist for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. He took me out to the mouth of the Elwha and, with disdain, described how the river kept getting hurt through the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. “It was the age of the bulldozer,” he said. “They brought all that equipment back from World War II, and they had to use it, so they straightened the river.” McHenry pointed now to a 700-foot-long concrete dike adjoining the bank. “They hauled out all the downed logs, too, so the water could just speed right out to the ocean. They simplified the river, and so much was lost. In the old logjams, you’d get leaves and branches of conifers piling up. The river slowed and sediments accumulated — fine sand and small rocks. Salmon were able to use these to build the nests where they lay eggs.” The fish thrash the rocks into neat piles by wriggling their tails.

When I got into wildlife biology, I never thought I’d be working with excavators. ... But I came to realize that if you want nature back, you have to go big.”

Fisheries biologist Mike McHenry

We hopped into McHenry’s pickup and rode north to a stretch of the Elwha that carried great hope. Four or five miles upstream from the ocean, led by McHenry, the tribe was remaking wilderness by appointing the river with 50 huge engineered logjams: house-size piles of downed conifers, with spidery root balls likely to grab passing sticks and thereby slow the river. This project, too, involves mammoth machines. When we arrived, an excavator was gouging a hole into the riverbank — a nest for a logjam — as a loud pump hoovered water out of the hole. McHenry said: “It’s hard making a mess like this on a river you love. When I got into wildlife biology, I never thought I’d be working with excavators. We were taught to leave things alone. But I came to realize that if you want nature back, you have to go big.”

Eventually, the pump broke, and in the silence I talked to the man fixing it, 58-year-old Jim Bolstrom, who wore a denim work shirt and long gray-flecked black hair knotted into a ponytail. “I’ve always wanted these dams to come out,” said Bolstrom, who is one of about 1,000 enrolled Elwha Klallam Indians. “I remember when the Elwha had thousands and thousands of humpies and chums. That was back in the ’80s, and I fished for a living then. You can’t do that anymore. You hardly ever see a humpy in the river these days.”

No one alive today remembers the Elwha before it was dammed. But when I met Elwha Klallam elder Adeline Smith not long before her death in March, she had been connected to the river for almost a century. Smith was 94, and a tiny woman with curly white hair. She was one of only two people in the world who spoke fluent Klallam. In her doublewide trailer, she perched on a couch in a flowered housedress and spoke in sharp, aggrieved tones about the region’s white settlers. “In 1855, we Indians were kicked off the riverfront,” she said. “But a few families stayed, and when I was a girl we lived by the river. My mother had a farm. We had an orchard, and we had sheep, cows, horses, chickens and ducks. But the settlers wanted our land for a water-treatment plant, so they did it like any other war. They kept after my mother for 10 years. They had the mayor come talk to my oldest brother, and they told him they could condemn our land and we might not get anything at all. My brother stood up to him, but in 1929 his health was fading — he had tuberculosis. When my brother passed away, that’s when my mother gave up. She got $1,100 for the farm.”

Smith herself went away to boarding school then. She would live away from the Elwha River for the next 50 years, working myriad jobs — in restaurants, in a seamstress shop and on the assembly line of Boeing, the airplane manufacturer, during World War II. Always, though, she retained memories of the Elwha, and she remembered her grandparents’ stories about a certain riverside boulder that young Klallam men once visited on the cusp of adulthood. “There was a hole in the rock,” she told me, “and you’d reach into it. Whatever you took out, that’s what you became in life: a deer hair, then you’d be a hunter; fish bones, then you’d be a good fisherman.” As Smith’s elders told it, the Creator had made the Klallam people beside the rock, then bathed them in the river.

But the creation site had vanished by the time Smith was born, and the Klallam could only speculate on what happened to it. As she describes it, they thought, “Either it was buried in water behind a dam, or it had broken into bits when they blasted the dam.”

Bereft of the rock and shunted off their ancestral land, the Klallam lost hope. Then in the 1960s the American Indian Movement blossomed nationwide. Washington state’s Indians began to fight for their ancient fishing rights — and in 1974, Smith’s sister, along with her cousin, testified before U.S. District Judge George Hugo Boldt, who would render a stunning verdict. The Boldt decision entitled Indians to half of Washington’s commercial salmon harvest each year. For Smith, the victory was so great that, above her couch, there was still a framed photo of Elsa and Annie celebrating.

The Klallam tribe began pushing for dam removal in the early ’70s. By then, the two dams were almost irrelevant. They supplied power to only one user, Port Angeles’s Nippon paper mill, and by 2000 they were too costly to renovate. The feds bought the dams for $29.5 million. And in 2012, after the Elwha’s lakes began draining, the creation site emerged from the water, exposed and unharmed. Smith told me she wanted to visit the rock.

“Do you know where it is?” I asked.

“I do,” she said, “and I’m not telling you.”


Downtown Port Angeles, Wash., on the state's Olympic Peninsula.

Eventually, I wandered into downtown Port Angeles, knowing I’d encounter an old-school Pacific Northwest. Port Angeles, population 19,000, is a working-class town where the paper mill is still among the largest employers and the dingy taverns by the harbor are not ironic. When I visited the Corner House Restaurant one morning, a guy hunched at the counter was grousing about the silt that dam destruction has temporarily brought to the Elwha. “They ruined the river I fished my whole life,” Phil Dailey said. “The fishing holes just aren’t there anymore on the Elwha — they’ve been scoured out.”

“The lower dam’s been there 100 years,” the waitress said. “It was part of our history.”

In time, I sat down with Kevin Yancy, who managed the Elwha’s two dams for the Bureau of Reclamation from 2005 until they shut down. Yancy, who is 54 and beefy, described the work as an almost-sacred mission. “I’m third-generation Reclamation,” he said, pouring gravy over his hash browns. “My grandfather built irrigation ditches in Arizona with 40-mule teams. My dad was an engineer who helped bring dams to the Central Valley of California. When your life’s work is in hydropower, you have pride. I wanted to take these dams to the bitter end with dignity, and that was a challenge: They’re antiques. We were dealing with vintage equipment, all manual control — nothing digital. It was like keeping an old classic car running, except that you didn’t have the budget for replacement parts. We just had to fix things. And we did,” he said of his eight-man crew. “We kept everything spit-polished. The Elwha Dam was in shipshape on the day we shut it down.”

Now Yancy cracked out a scrapbook and showed me some pictures. Here were two generators from the Elwha Dam, their painted steel casing gleaming and white. Here was the control cockpit of the dam, with 36 brass gauges overhead measuring, among other things, river current and voltage output. Here was the bulky black-knobbed lever that Yancy solemnly pulled in 2011, a tear in his eye, to make the dam’s turbines grind to a halt.

These devices were relics from an era when Northwesterners believed, with Thomas Aldwell, that it was a man’s duty to beat nature into submission. They were brawny — big as nature itself — and they, too, embodied the spirit of this region. When you live out here in the rain and the mist, you live, always, in the shadow of two mighty forces. There is the ancient force of towering 500-year-old trees speckled with moss, and a newer force, still antique, embodied in the swaggering men who had the hubris and moxie to saw those trees down and then dam up the rivers. As Yancy kept turning the pages, I felt a link to those pioneers. I felt a flicker of sadness, too, for I knew that soon the magic contained in these photos would be forever gone from the Elwha.


What remains of the former Lake Aldwell, a reservoir made by the Elwha Dam.

One morning I walked out onto the bed of Lake Aldwell, which had drained months earlier, with the destruction of the Elwha Dam. The place was a moonscape: a mucky 300-acre expanse with almost no vegetation save for these weird shoreline formations that reminded me of the Truffula Trees in Dr. Seuss’s book “The Lorax.” Atop bare, spindly six-foot-high stumps, once underwater, there were small, delicate tufts of dirt sprouting baby trees: maples and alder. Meanwhile, the land surrounding the trees was such a geologic freak show that it lured 150 or so Olympic National Park visitors in tour groups each weekend last summer.

“You’ve got geology happening at lightning speed here,” explained my tour guide, Pat Crain, a fisheries biologist for the park. “Two weeks ago” — he gestured toward rapids in the river — “this was a quiet pool where fish spawned. Now all the nests have been scoured out. In other places, sediments are depositing. The river’s changing course. It used to be running over there, about a half-mile away, on the other side of the lakebed. Then it moved — the river is so dynamic. We’ve got our own Grand Canyon forming right before our eyes.”


Birds gather at the mouth of the Elwha River, where it meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, west of Port Angeles, Wash.

I drove down to the mouth of the Elwha, where the banks are flat, and met with Klallam elder Ben Charles, 74. Charles was for decades a minister for the Indian Assembly of God; he blended Native and Christian worship. Now, in retirement, he was a janitor at the tribe’s health clinic. We sat in my car and looked out at the water.

“When I was 8,” he said, rubbing his hands together, laughing, “the game wardens started coming after us. So — heh, heh, heh — we started fishing at night, five or six of us, and it was tremendous. There was a logjam about a mile up, and you could look at the clear water there in the moonlight and just see the salmon swimming around. We speared them with wire gaff hooks. If you didn’t have wire to make a hook, you just went to a farmer’s barn and took the tines off a pitchfork. My goodness, we’d get three or four salmon each, and then we’d hook them on alder boughs and bring them back home at 2 in the morning.”

In 2011, when the park service launched dam destruction with a gala ceremony, Charles gave the benediction — and paid tribute to his old fishing pals, who are long deceased. He quoted Hebrews 12:1: “We are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.”

“I just thought of Hebrews that morning,” he told me. “There were clouds in the sky.”

I realized that I hadn’t been quite right to regard salmon as a great metaphor — as the Consummate Northwest Issue dividing our history. The truth is more basic: For the Elwha Klallam, the salmon carries memories of the people they love; the fish is tied up in their lives’ earliest adventures and smells. Its comeback will be a dear thing.

After a while, Charles’s sister, Loretta, drove up to the banks to look at the river with us. Charles got out of the car and chatted with her for a moment or two. Then we drove off. In a little while, Charles’s next cleaning shift was starting. He had to get ready.

Bill Donahue is a writer in Portland, Ore., and a frequent contributor to the Magazine. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost. com.

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