Beginning in 2008, the two dams that span the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State will be removed. The Elwha is a 45-mile-long river starting near Mount Christie in the Olympic Mountains within the Olympic National Park and drains into the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Port Angeles. The removal of these dams, and the restoration of the Elwha watershed constitute the largest such project in history. According to the American River folks, “The removal of 2 dams on Washington’s Elwha will be one of the most significant river restoration projects of our time.” The river's Glines Canyon Dam (210 feet) will be the tallest dam ever removed in our country.

We are in an ominous gorge, trapped by towering walls and punishing rapids. Our pace has slowed to a crawl as we navigate labyrinths of rock, mindful of the sieves and old-growth logs that obstruct the chasms of the dark Olympic Peninsula. Five of us are exploring the Grand Canyon of the Elwha after a night recovering from the 8.5 mile hike in. It is early morning, and the ephemeral light of late summer barely enters the canyon. Already we are scouting long, complex rapids with no portage options.

Eskimo Pie, the entrance to the Grand Canyon, is famous for the fierce riverwide ledge hole at the top. After a long hole ride by our probe, we are glad to put it behind us. Before long, we arrive at unscoutable and unportageable Nightmare, crux of this upper canyon. We approach cautiously, and find the recommended left line plugged with wood. Luckily, we are able to climb atop a midstream boulder and scout the unscoutable. The sun filters through the trees and the walls are sheer and forbidding as the thunder of the rapid reverberates in such a confined space. Everyone has clean lines, and we continue through this most beautiful of canyons.

In the early 1900's the Elwha and Glines Canyon hydroelectric dams were erected, completely blocking native salmon and steelhead from most of their 70 miles of pristine spawning habitat.

We are working well as a team, and begin making better time through the rapids, until we arrive at an innocuous 3-foot drop around either side of a bedrock slab. David pins in the right chute and is quickly ejected from his boat. The shrill screams of whistles and frantic hand gestures convey escalating concern as David fails to reappear. He surfaces at last, after a terrifying flush under the bedrock sieve. As we continue quietly downstream, our thoughts are focused inward by David’s close call.

But on the Elwha, David is not the only one facing deadly obstacles.

The Olympic Peninsula’s largest river, the Elwha flows north through pristine wilderness for 45 miles to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, dropping 4500′ from the snowfields of Mount Christie. Olympic National Park protects 80% of its unlogged watershed — prime protected fish habitat. But beyond the Park, two dams impede spawning fish: Elwha Dam,108-foot-tall, built in 1913, and Glines Canyon Dam,210-foot-tall, , built in 1927. These dams have decimated native fisheries. Now, only 4,000 fish return to a paltry 4.9 miles of habitat each year, the remnant of annual runs of nearly 400,000 fish. The impact of the dam removal will be enormous: more than 70 miles of pristine habitat restored and estimated runs of up to 390,000 fish in 30 years.

For paddlers, this means an extended section from the current head of Lake Mills to the saltwater of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, including Glines Canyon. “We could see rapids from class III to class V,” says American Rivers’ Amy Souers Kober. “Pictures predating the dams show great whitewater in those canyons. Salmon were able to negotiate those rapids, so we expect them to be runnable.”

For the first time in over 100 years, the Elwha’s short steep rapids would tumble freely 45 miles from the heart of the Olympic National Park to the ocean.

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