Elwha River Unchained: Whitewater Remade as Salmon Return

With dams removed, new rapids form and the Washington state river begins to heal

On August 26, the final demolition blasts took down the remains of the Glines Canyon Dam on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, completing the two-year process of freeing the Elwha River from a pair of concrete walls which had impeded its flow for more than a century. Two weeks later, Chinook salmon and bull trout were spotted above the dam sites for the first time in 102 years. Biologists, park managers, locals and conservation groups celebrated the native fish returning to their historic migration route despite the long hiatus. The river was recovering.

But the Elwha River restoration project has expanded opportunities for another type of river user as well. Not only are salmon swimming up river past the old reservoirs, rafts and kayaks are floating down.

In the rubble of Elwha Dam, just downstream from Glines Canyon, a new stretch of whitewater has emerged. Local paddlers and those making the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Seattle have taken to calling it "That Dam Rapid," a challenging Class IV drop that's been changing constantly as the river clears out its old bed.

"Boaters are still learning this new river," said Thomas O'Keefe of advocacy group American Whitewater, referring to the effects of a century of wood and sediment build-up behind the reservoirs which is still working its way downstream. "Boaters need to approach the river carefully and be prepared for a very dynamic landscape, but it offers a unique opportunity to experience a river in recovery. It’s a place where we can appreciate the significance of the decision we made as a society to bring a river back."

The removal process began on the 108-foot Elwha Dam in 2011, though the commercially rafted day-stretch between the two dam sites didn't start to see real changes until fall of 2012 when the park service blasted out the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam. Morgan Colonel, the owner of Olympic Raft and Kayak in Port Angeles, Wash., bought the outfitting company just as the dams were coming down and debris was washing through, though he wasn't able to take customers out on the water for all of 2013 due to dangerous conditions.

"After Glines came out, we started to see the biggest changes," Colonel said of the 2013 summer. "Sediment and woody debris blocked off main channels. It basically just clogged the river."

Colonel and his raft guides spent the year watching the river transform. The entire gradient of the river raised as new sediment washed in, and the whitewater became more continuous. Deep pools filled up with gravel, which simultaneously ruined the run's cliff-jumping sites while creating prime habitat for salmon spawning beds.

One of the highlights was the emergence of That Dam Rapid, which rafters and kayakers first ran regularly in 2013. "That rapid is an amazing rapid. It's fun," Colonel said. "It's in a 100-foot canyon that's absolutely gorgeous."

Larry Little on That Dam Rapid. Photo courtesy of Thomas O'Keefe and American Whitewater
Larry Little on That Dam Rapid. Photo courtesy of Thomas O’Keefe and American Whitewater

But a rapid so new — and one created under such unique circumstances — is not without risk, warns Colonel. "When the river level started to drop, we began to see guardrails and rebar in the rapid,” he says. “All the talk is about the sediment coming down, but on the recreational side of things we're also affected by 100 years of man-made debris that's been collecting in the lakes and is now flushing down."

As the rapid stabilizes, Colonel thinks the stretch will become a staple for his company. Next year he plans to offer a trip which will include the rapid and three miles of canyon that was long buried under the reservoir behind Elwha Dam.

The 8-mile run from Highway 101 to the ocean has become increasingly popular among kayakers as well. O'Keefe notes the draw of the run’s crux, That Dam Rapid, is not just its whitewater. "It's also a great place to watch the athletic feats of salmon as they migrate upstream. As boaters, we may enjoy the thrill of running a great rapid, but sharing that river with massive Chinook salmon and witnessing the feats they are capable of as they migrate upstream is truly awe inspiring." Colonel agrees; clients on his raft trips have been splashed by jumping salmon — some as big as 30 inches — since the dams have been removed.

The whitewater potential of Glines Canyon, the section above the day-stretch, is still yet to be determined. Crews are in the process of cleaning up concrete from the dam site and the canyon remains closed to the public. Colonel has spoken with several of the workers, however, and he thinks it likely the Glines will be another Class IV-V destination on par with the technical Grand Canyon of the Elwha upstream from the former dams.

"I expect to see lots of good Northwest boaters in here next year doing full source-to-sea missions on the Elwha," Colonel said.

— Read more about the largest dam removal in U.S. history here.

Altair to the Sea from John Gussman on Vimeo.

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