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.