“There used to be a dam here!” A crew of Puget Soundkeeper donors, board members and staffers visited the Elwha River this summer for our second-annual Elwha River paddling trip. The crew camped in the watershed, explored the active river restoration project by raft and on foot, and learned about the processes involved in the largest dam removal project in history. Our hosts even treated us to a special outdoor screening of the documentary, “Dam Nation”  at our campsite, a movie that featured the Elwha prominently.

Site of the lower dam on the Elwha River.

We were lucky to have beautiful weather and—unlike last year—high enough flows to safely raft the river. With our expert guides at Olympic Raft and Kayak we travelled in reverse the same path followed by returning salmon and steelhead. These fish have already been observed in spawning tributaries above the lower dam site. Fish in the Elwha have been bumping their heads against this dam for decades, yet somehow the current generation knows exactly where to go – to their resurrected spawning grounds. Even more exciting is that the upper dam removal is nearly complete which will open up even more milesof the river that were previously inaccessible.

For almost a century, the two Elwha River dams were monumental fixtures controlling the flow of the largest watershed on the Olympic Peninsula. Built illegally, without salmon ladders and minimal hydroelectric capacity, the dams abruptly cut off native fish from their habitat upstream and changed the landscape dramatically while depriving the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of its ancestral fishing rights. Since dam removal commenced in 2011, the river has been changing daily, reclaiming its terrain, shifting back to a natural cycle that has not existed previously in our lifetimes.

Rafting the Elwha River

The Elwha River Restoration Project represents a huge potential for rebuilding the Puget Sound ecosystem. One of the few rivers left in the lower 48 with all eight native salmon and trout species and an intact watershed in its headwaters due to the national park, the Elwha also has the potential for restoring a super-sized run of Chinook (king) salmon, with fish that reportedly used to reach sizes of 80, 90 pounds or more. With all of the pressures that Puget Sound faces, restoring a highly-productive river for wild fish helps make the entire system more resilient against growing threats like urbanization, climate change, sea level rise and ocean acidification.

Restoration is not a simple project. The teams that work to tear down the dam, replant native vegetation, and monitor returning species can speak to the challenges of turning this river back over to natural processes. But the rightness of doing so is clear when we see native species flourishing and the formerly eroding beach at the river mouth adding material instead of losing it. The delta now has many channels making their way through soft sand, thanks to over 3 million cubic yards of sediment released since the beginning of the project, the largest controlled release in North America.

Newly formed beach where the Elwha meets the sea

As it turns out, dams can choke off the quality of marine habitat where juvenile fish and other species live. Sediment is the lifeblood of nearshore ecosystems forming critical habitat for many fish and other species. Anne Shaffer, executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute, has been monitoring the river since 2006 and recently found surf smelt, a foundational species that are eaten by many larger fish and birds, spawning on the new river delta. Their return is a hugely positive sign and a good omen for the future of the Elwha.

Much has changed since our visit last year, and we hope to return again to witness the restoration process unfold. Many thanks to Olympic Raft and Kayak and all those who made this trip possible and joined us for the great adventure!

Photo 1 and 2: Chris Wilke
Photo 3: Kathryn Davis