Hiking Up the Biggest Dam Removal in History

Restoring the Elwha | National Park Service
Restoring the Elwha | National Park Service

Before removal of Elwha Dam began in 2011, I wrote an essay for Wend Magazine about hiking up to the Elwha River’s headwaters. A short excerpt is below. Now the dam removal project is almost complete, and I still feel the same way — grateful to be a witness to this restoration and inspired by the work of our colleagues and partners. It’s a fire many of us share, and it’s spreading — this drive to restore rivers and communities and connections between ourselves and the world.

I was struck by the quote from Smithsonian researcher Christopher Tonra, in the August 16 Seattle Times article about the Elwha River’s recovery. He said, “…it is so mind blowing to me, the numbers of fish, and seeing the birds respond immediately to the salmon being there. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”

Whether it’s a shiver, a spark, or a fire, that’s the Elwha, working its magic. Do you feel it?

Excerpted from “Freeing a River,” Wend Magazine, Vol 6 Issue 3

We pick our way through wind-stunted trees, over lichen-blotted boulders, and come to the edge.

And there, far below, is the entire Elwha Valley. I can see the river flowing through the lush folds of green, the forested hills of the park. The river is the lifeblood of this landscape.

I feel tiny up here on this rocky ledge, as the dark clouds start to build overhead. The river and these mountains were here long before any of us, and they will be here long after we are gone. But while we’re here, we have a chance to make things better, to make things right. And maybe by removing these dams and restoring the river, we will restore something in ourselves.

Thomas Aldwell talked about creating “civilization” by damming the river. Today, we are redefining civilization to embrace what is wild.

We retrace our steps back down the trail, snacking on berries. But we stop picking when we see the clouds cascading over Mount Christie, and soon the rain is racing us down.

Raindrops rinse berry stains from my fingers and lips as the season closes in. We slip down the mud slicks and jump streams in the meadow. All this water, all these drops and trickles and rivulets running down, down to join the Elwha. I’m soaked and smiling. How lucky are we to be part of all of this? How lucky to be here, right now? We are going to be part of a rebirth. We get to witness a river coming back to life.

I hike back down to the divide, on fire in the rain.

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