The Elwha

Elwha River estuary

by Scott Sadil

If the story of Northwest salmon and steelhead recovery is ever written – and I’m the first to confess I wonder whether it ever will be – we can be sure it will feature a prominent chapter on the Elwha River.

The Elwha, for those who don’t know, flows north out of Washington’s Olympic Mountains and National Park, meeting the salt along the Strait of Juan de Fuca directly south of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.  A small river, rising and falling dramatically in response to rainfall amounts measured on much of the Olympic peninsula in feet, not inches, the Elwha was once home to its own unique strains of all five Pacific salmon, plus sea-run cutthroat, sea-run char, and the salmons’ sometimes wandering cousins, summer-run and winter-run steelhead.  

And as with so many other rivers, both large and small, from California to Alaska, the Elwha’s runs of anadromous fish were crippled by construction of early twentieth-century hydroelectric dams, followed by decade upon decade of fisheries management based on the illusory notion that hatcheries could mitigate the degradation and destruction and outright elimination of spawning and rearing habitat along countless miles of river upstream from dams.

Construction of Elwha Dam

Another old story.  Yet this one took a dramatic and hopeful turn when, beginning a decade ago, the Elwha was set free in what is still the biggest dam-removal project in this or any other country in the world.

Sightseeing recently while autumn rains had pushed every river on the peninsula out of shape, I decided to visit the Elwha, hoping to see signs of recovery.  (The river, including all of its tributaries, it should be noted, is currently closed to fishing, while scientists and managers monitor recovering fish populations.)  I wanted to see what the river looked like where dams, penstocks, and powerhouses had been removed – and I was especially interested in the new delta that had formed at the mouth of the river, a result of sediments washed downstream from the dam sites, plus a return to the effects of highwater events now that the river was again in its natural, unfettered state.

A longtime student and fan of estuarine habitats, no doubt the most valuable and threatened of all coastal and aquatic environments, I was thrilled to find a long sandspit running out toward the actual river mouth.  Small, surfable waves peeled along sandbars just off the spit; nervous water showed where currents formed holes below driftwood logs scattered on the beach.  A pair of sea lions hovered just offshore.  I stood on the very end of the spit, current sweeping past my feet, picturing a swinging fly intercepting migrating fish sliding through the mouth on the rising tide.

Dam site today

Then, off in the distance, I spotted a cop coming my way.

I suspected I might be on reservation property.  Yet I had been careful, looking for a place to access the spit and park my truck at the end of a road with no “private property” or “no trespassing” signs.  Even so, while I might be on someone else’s land, I doubted I looked like a threat.  

Sure enough, even though Officer Woods, of the Lower Elwha tribe, could in fact have cited me, he said, once we got talking about fish and fishing, and the rejuvenated state of the river, he was more intent, instead, on giving me directions to the café that serves the best bowl of clam chowder anywhere along the Strait.

Later, pointing to an upstream bend beneath a grove of alders and cottonwoods just beginning turn color with the season, Officer Woods said he could hardly wait until things got sorted out between the tribe and the state, and the river was once more open for fishing.

“I’ve seen huge fish right along that bank,” he added.

We both looked that way.

“Well, you’re a young guy,” I said.  “Even if I don’t get one, I hope you will.”

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Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil always tries to remember that somebody’s good old days are happening right now, even as he writes.