This was a stupid idea. My knees tremble as I slump to the ground beneath a pack bulging with camping gear, drysuit, breakdown paddle, food and a whitewater packraft. But I don’t dare complain as I watch David strain to lean his fully loaded creekboat against a tree without losing his balance.
“We probably should have looked at the map,” he says, not for the first time. Our planning for this trip—an attempt to trace the Elwha River’s 45-mile path from its alpine source in Washington’s Olympic Mountains to the Pacific—had consisted primarily of watching GoPro footage of the river’s Class V crux. When we finally did take a close look at a trail map, we realized we’d have to carry our boats 30 miles before we could even start floating.
David had been in my ear about a source-to-sea descent of the river since 2012, when the Elwha Dam was removed. In August 2014, the final blasts cleared the foundation of the larger 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam upstream, and the Elwha ran free for the first time in 101 years. Within days migratory chinook salmon and bull trout were spotted above the dam site after a century-long hiatus. As river began to stir, so did our half-baked plans.
We knew the 2015 runoff would offer our first chance to witness the Elwha’s reawakening, but an unusually dry winter brought ideal paddling flows in May, roughly five months sooner than we expected. We rushed to scrape together gear and finalize our itinerary, which suddenly included a substantial hike to the put in.
Our friend Eliza Wicks-Arshack accompanied us on the trail, but didn’t join in our griping. Although she doesn’t have a boat, she’s carrying more than her share. She knows how be patient with overwhelmed people struggling in the backcountry; in the summers, she works as a wilderness therapy leader for at-risk youth, and regularly spends 50 days sea canoeing in Alaska.
We waddle up the trail with all the efficiency of backpacking seals. Thick forest surrounds us most of the way, but every so often we glimpse the far side of the valley where old clear-cuts have turned the slope to patchwork. Timber drew the first major waves of settlers to the Olympic Peninsula and provided the original impetus for damming the Elwha. Electricity from the dams, built in 1913 and 1927, helped fuel the growth of nearby Port Angeles, powering pulp mills fed with the old growth trees that once covered the hillsides.
As the dams’ turbines cranked out power, the salmon populations plummeted. The Elwha had been one of just a handful of rivers to support all five species of Pacific salmon and its historic runs consisted of an estimated 400,000 fish. After the dams went in, that number dropped to about 3,000 fish.
In the mid-1980s the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, whose people had suffered greatly from the devastation of the runs, joined environmental groups to launch a campaign to restore the river. The logging industry opposed the proposal, and the issue fell into a simmering gridlock. Congress first authorized the Elwha restoration project in 1992, but Washington Sen. Slade Gorton blocked funding for eight consecutive years. In 2011, the legal groundwork was finally in place and the funds, some $325 million in all, secured. Only then did the demolition begin.
Conservation groups praised the removal project, but I hadn’t talked to any locals about what had happened in their backyard. I got my first chance as we were packing our boats at the trailhead. Two silver-haired couples stepped out of a sedan and told us this was their first trip to Glines Canyon since the dam came out. After some small talk, I asked one of them, a mustachioed man in suspenders, what he thought of the removal.
He chuckled. “I’ll tell you, I’ve got mixed feelings. I worked for 30 years at the mill in Port Angeles that owned these dams. I was dead set against the project when they started—seemed like a waste of money—but now after seeing it, I’m not so sure. They did a beautiful job. It sure is great to see the river again.”
That night we camp in a grove of old growth Douglas firs. The low branches of hemlocks droop with stringy moss. Just beyond the fire ring, the Elwha rushes by, so clear that when it settles in deep pools, it glows a bright blue, appearing backlit in the otherwise dark forest.
As idyllic as this camp is, it’s still 20 miles from the river’s alpine source. Feeling beaten from the day’s long trek and dreading the trail to come, David and I begin to rationalize. We’re here to paddle, not hike. And as paddlers, why not shoot for the navigable source of the river as opposed to the hydrological one? That sounds reasonable and much easier.
So in the morning we leave the bulk of our gear and David’s creek boat behind and, carrying only our packrafts and lunch, strike out for a point we’ve picked on the map about 12 miles upstream. From there, we plan to paddle back to camp, arriving in time for dinner.
We hike up-river until the water is jammed with logs and too low to float our packrafts. Though it’s already late afternoon, turning back here at the ‘navigable source’ suddenly seems like a copout. The Elwha’s true source is only eight miles up the trail. Again we rationalize. Continuing means a cold night without shelter, and a long hungry day tomorrow.
“It’s been a while since I’ve done something really hard,” Eliza reasons, and with that we continue the slog.
The next morning I wake at dawn, shivering in my drysuit. My limbs ache from several long days of walking compounded by a night spent on an uneven bed of dirt and pine needles. I feed twigs onto the smoldering remains of our campfire, and breath them to life for the fifth time since darkness fell. Soon Eliza and David stir, also bundled in an odd assortment of rain and paddling gear. We sit in silence with our palms to the flames.
Eliza dumps our remaining food onto a stump: two Clif Bars, one pouch of tuna, a small bag of almonds and some hot sauce. She doles out 16 almonds to each of us. Breakfast.
From our bivy site, we hike three steep miles up the quickly shrinking Elwha. Before long, the trail breaks fully away from the forest for the first time since the journey began and we step into a meadow of wildflowers surrounded by an alpine bowl of bedrock. Wispy waterfalls pour down sheer cliffs. Snowfields cling to the mountainsides, feeding the several small creeks that join here in the newly born Elwha River. It’s a far more satisfying source than the log-choked river downstream.
This is where the heartiest coho and chinook salmon laid their eggs before the dams were built. For several months each year, this steep section of river would have thrashed with spawning fish. With the dams now gone and 70 miles of riverine habitat newly accessible to migrating salmon, fisheries experts believe they will return.
Tempting as it is to lounge in the sun, hunger soon has us hustling back downstream. We finally reach the first viable put-in six miles below the source at 2 o’clock. We eat the last of our food, three spoonfuls of tuna apiece, and say goodbye to Eliza who will hike the 14 miles back to camp.
On the river, David and I make slow progress, stopping often to scramble over barricades of fallen trees scattered across the river like piles of massive toothpicks. My head pounds from lack of electrolytes. When I climb out of my packraft to scout a sharp horizon-line I feel suddenly faint. I take a moment to collect myself before asking David, “Did you know there was canyon up here?”
Cliffs had risen seemingly out of nowhere, and walls of dark, moss-blanketed mudstone had replaced the meandering gravel bars. The canyon is worrisome not just because it constricts the river into rapids. A logjam here, at the bottom of a 75-foot-deep gorge, could be deadly.
“This reads like a bad accident report,” David answers. “Unknown gorge, no food, late in the day.” He is half-joking but has a point; we have about three hours before dark.
The canyon’s visible crux, a five-foot drop, looks to be straightforward and free of wood. I cinch down my knee straps. It’s my first time testing out this new model of whitewater packraft. Accident report be damned, let’s see what this baby can do. I peel out of the eddy only to feel the boat stall in a small wave above the lip. One last stroke for momentum and I manage to keep my bow up, landing upright at least. I give a hoot and lean back, letting the current twirl me in the pool below as I wait for David.
Blue light reflects on the canyon where it pinches down to only paddle’s width across. The walls are alive, dripping with dozens of small seeps. I’m suddenly aware of just how hard it would be to get here by foot: treacherous bushwhacking, slippery hillsides, a rappel. I can’t imagine anyone’s ever attempted it. At that moment I decide that the three days spent hauling our boats all the way here was worth it, even if it’s only to be in this place for 15 minutes.
A few more rapids and the canyon opens, wood-free. Tributaries enter and we start making good time. It’s evening when we finally see our drybags of food dangling from our bear hang. David and I each mow down a half-pound of jerky in the five minutes before Eliza walks into camp. She’s hiked 23 miles with minimal food today but is soon laughing as she cuts thick hunks of cheddar into a giant pot of mac and cheese.
We’re all asleep before dark.
THE NEXT MORNING, a uniformed ranger strolls into our camp. She’s 60-ish, with a motherly manner that her first words immediately reinforce. “I was worried about you,” she says, hugging each of us in turn. She introduces herself as Vicki, and explains that she’d seen us walk by her backcountry ranger station two days before. She’d become concerned when she noticed our camp was left untouched the next day. Soon enough though, she forgives us for our poor judgment and begins telling stories from her 15 years as a volunteer backcountry ranger in the park. For a few months each summer, Vicki lives with her husband in a small cabin on the banks of the Elwha, performing trail maintenance and keeping an eye out for park visitors in trouble.
“I love this place,” she says, “but it’s just dead up here. In the park’s other drainages like the Queets and Quinault, I see more deer, more birds, more bear droppings, and when I take a dip in the river, there are little fish all around my ankles.”
“Why do you think that is?” I ask.
Vicki doesn’t hesitate: “Oh, it’s from the dams.”
We’ve heard how salmon serve as keystone species in coastal ecosystems, bringing marine nutrients upstream that support everything from eagles to bears, but to hear Vicki’s first-hand report—the matter-of-fact tone, her easy use of the word ‘dead’—drives home just what is at stake here. Even in this extraordinary setting, amid the massive trees and the glowing river, something is missing. It strikes me that this is why we’ve come all this way: to see this wounded landscape for ourselves, and perhaps to witness the seeds of its rebirth.
The recovery will be slow, but Vicki is confident it will come. Indeed, the river is already showing promising signs of progress, according to year-over-year growth numbers for fish spawning nests in a recent survey.
“I hope I live another 20 years,” she tells us as she’s leaving. “And I hope to come up to this place and hear the salmon splashing as they spawn. That would be fantastic.”
As Vicki walks briskly up the trail, David and I give our attention to the river. Today we’ll paddle the Grand Canyon of the Elwha. Its crux is an un-scoutable drop pinned in by slick, over-vertical walls. Local paddlers call it Nightmare because of what it would become if it were jammed with downed trees. From the eddy above, it’s impossible to see the entire rapid.
David stares at it for 30 seconds. “I’ll give you a fist pump from the middle if it’s good to go,” he says.
“And if it’s not?” I worry aloud.
He thinks for a minute and shrugs before peeling out of the eddy. David is one of the best boaters I know. Though it’s only May, he’s already logged 100 days on Class V rapids this year, and the creekboat he carried 10 miles into this wilderness is the ideal craft for this type of whitewater. But none of that would matter if there were wood in the drop.
I feel a knot in my stomach unclench when I see his fist shoot into the air just before his boat drops out of sight.
With Nightmare behind us we find our stride, enjoying the Elwha’s stunning blue pools and read-and-run Class IV. The Grand Canyon opens into a valley, with the snowy Olympic Range visible upstream, and then makes a 90-degree turn into Rica Canyon, guarded by the aptly named Goblin Gates. After one portage, I have to throw my packraft into the current, leap into it, and duck a low-hanging log. More rapids. Then, a change.
The vegetation and moss vanish from the riverbanks and a dead-straight line appears along the hillsides. It’s as if someone traced a contour on a topographic map and stripped out every tree below that elevation, leaving dense conifer forest above and a destitute basin of dark stumps, bare bedrock and gray gravel below. We’ve arrived at the upper reaches of the reservoir that was once impounded behind Glines Canyon Dam.
In a new channel the river has carved through layers of sediment, we float past thousands of tree stumps, bleaching in the sun after 87 years below the reservoir. Bright orange water trickles through terraces of sand and cobbles like something you’d find in a mine tailings pile. The higher banks bloom thick with purple lupine and green shoots of native trees that have been planted as part of the reservoir restoration project.
It’s one of the most bizarre landscapes I’ve ever floated through—part clear-cut, part underwater tour, part frantic burst of new life. Much of the silt deposited over the dam’s lifespan is still here, but what’s even more remarkable is how much the river already has carried downstream to the river’s delta; about a third of the reservoir sediment trapped behind the dams was washed out in the first two years alone, far exceeding predictions. At its mouth, the river has formed more than 70 new acres of beach, rejuvenating historic shellfish and Dungeness crab habitat.
Soon the broken dam comes into view. Gated arches stand 200 feet above us on the canyon rim like something out of a Gothic painting, moss-covered and imposing. Its spillways appear oddly out of place so far above the water. A center crevasse, blasted away, falls into a gorge where the freed river disappears. This could be the youngest ruin in America, I think.
It’s not clear how long it will take for the upper Elwha to cease to be a dead valley, as Ranger Vicki had called it. But some changes are already apparent, even to our untrained eyes, as we paddle out the final miles of the river the next day.
Just downstream of the dam, rubble from the removal process left a wood-choked Class V boulder field, easily the hardest rapid of the entire run. Salmon are having trouble bypassing this section and more demolition blasts are planned this summer. David bounces his way through the mess, styling a first descent of the nine-month-old rapid. I take pictures from shore.
Farther down, we cross the remains of the reservoir that once stood behind the 108-foot Elwha Dam, removed in 2012. The riverbed here is two years further along in the recovery process than the area above Glines Canyon, its banks already lost in tangles of new growth.
Below this second dam site, we enter the five-mile section of river that never lost connection with the sea. Giant cottonwoods line the braided channels. We spot one bald eagle, then four, then seven. Songbirds flit through the brush, and I see the first fish of the trip dart below my boat. Even here, not far from highways and homes, there is an obvious difference from the designated wilderness valleys upstream, a surge of life ready to follow the migrating salmon as they begin to return.
Finally and with little fanfare, the trees fade into gravel bars behind which lines of shore break hang on the horizon. The air smells of salt. We paddle out into the breakers and surf our kayaks over sand that until only recently was trapped on the bottom of a lake.
Our trip ends there, but after a week on its waters, we’ve come to understand that the Elwha doesn’t stop at the sea. This river flows in two directions: snowmelt and rain run down from the mountains and, soon, the ocean’s sleek ambassadors will return to the headwaters. For nearly a century the dams interrupted the ecological circuit that energizes the Elwha’s valleys in favor of an industrial network of hydropower, clear cuts, and mills. Now, with the dams gone, the circuit is back in place, and it’s up to the river and salmon to send a current of life back into the valley.