Elwha, A River Reborn
The dismantling of dams along the Elwha River in, and just outside, Olympic National Park has been described as the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Trying to follow the story from afar is difficult, at best, which makes Elwha, A River Reborn, a very good book to read.
Through its 170 pages we're handed the legislative history behind efforts to remove the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams and brought to understand the importance of unleashing the Elwha River. Too, there are the stories pulled from the communities and individuals connected to the river, and those tied to the science conducted in conjunction with the dams' demolition.
The obvious aspect of the dam demolition is to make the river whole again, to allow native salmon that long ago would head up the river to lay their eggs to resume that instinctive behavior, to benefit the other species that live in, and around, the river: black bears, bald eagles, fishers, and cougars.
Coupled with the natural benefits of the river's restoration are the cultural benefits to both new visitors to the national park as well as to those who lived on this landscape long before the park was designated. When the Elwha Dam was built, it backed up waters that flooded the creation site of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe; when the dams came down, the waters returned to their channels and brought these sites back.
The Elwha restoration is also a cultural renewal for the tribe. Tribal members saw the prayers of generations of their elders answered in a ceremony celebrating the beginning of dam removal held above Elwha Dam in September 2011.
A richly illustrated, 170-page book co-published by The Mountaineers Books and The Seattle Times, Elwha was written by a Times staffer, Lynda V. Mapes, who has won awards for her science writing. Photography was provided largely by Steve Ringman, another Times staffer, who twice has won Newspaper Photographer of the Year from the National Press Photographers Association.
Together the two, aided enormously by the newspaper's long-running coverage of this story, have assembled a history of the dam demolition and all the stories -- cultural and resource -- that flow from it. And to accurately tell the story, Ms. Mapes had to recount the story of the dams' construction, a task she accomplished with the help of aged newspaper clippings and photos.
Building the dam was a daredevil exercise in rugged mountain engineering and improvisation. Logging-camp-style cook tents and bunkhouses and even a schoolhouse were thrown up in the woods to serve the needs of hundreds of workers, who got the job done using the tools they had and knew best: spar poles and rigging, picks and shovels. Photographs of construction show the near-madness of the risks, with workers swinging out over the mountain canyon on a simple open platform dangling from a rope, or toiling bareheaded and bare-handed on scaffolding without so much as a safety rope over the boiling rapids of the Elwha.
Though the first salmon already have been spotted moving upriver to spawn, a monumental achievement in itself, it will take decades for the river corridor to heal itself from being submerged for so long. And how that healing proceeds will be the stuff of another book.
This is the second time The Mountaineers Books and The Seattle Times have partnered to tell a story of the Olympic Mountains: The Seattle Press, predecessor to the Times, sponsored the historic Press Expedition into the Olympics in the
winter of 1889 90, an account later published by Mountaineers Books in Across the Olympic Mountains.
More recently, in the fall of 2011, the Times was on hand when a Montana contractor removed the first pieces from two concrete dams on the Elwha River which cuts through the Olympic range. It was the beginning of the largest dam removal project ever undertaken in North America-one dam was 200 feet tall-and the start of an unprecedented attempt to restore an entire ecosystem. More than 70 miles of the Elwha and its tributaries course from the mountain headwaters
to clamming beaches on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Through interviews, field work, archival and historical research,
and photojournalism, The Seattle Times has explored and reported on the dam removal, the Elwha ecosystem, its
industrialization, and now its renewal. Elwha: A River Reborn is based on these feature articles.
Richly illustrated with stunning photographs, as well as historic images, graphics, and a map, Elwha tells the interwoven
stories of this region. Meet the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, who anxiously await the return of renowned salmon runs savored over the generations in the stories of their elders. Discover the biologists and engineers who are bringing the dams down and laying the plan for renewal, including an unprecedented revegetation effort that will eventually cover more than 700
acres of mudflats.
When the dam started to come down in Fall 2011-anticipated for more than 20 years since Congress passed the Elwha
Restoration Act-it was the beginning of a $350 million project observed around the world. Elwha: A River Reborn is
inspiring and instructive, a triumphant story of place, people, and environment striving to come together.