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Restoring the Lower Snake River

Elwha.webBy Pat Ford

May 30, 2013

The heart of the new book, Elwha: A River Reborn, is a photograph of Elwha Dam taken in 2010, one year before it came down.  Framed by canyon walls and a mossy rock garden, two thin cascades, leaking through the dam, join and fall down into the Elwha River, to embrace a dark pool just below the dam.

Turn the page too fast, and you miss the shadows in the pool: And there they were.  Elwha chinook, returned for their futile fall run, trying to reach the spawning grounds above the dam that still called them, even after a hundred years.

They were blocked at the dam just five miles from the river mouth. Some circled in the pool.  Some hung still in the water, right in a row, actually facing the dam as if to stare it down by sheer will.  I couldn’t believe that they were there at all, these fish about which I had heard so much but never seen alive, swimming in the river as adults.  Still genetically distinct from any other salmon in Puget Sound, still the kings of them all, these were the tyee capable of growing to spectacular size, staying out in the open ocean as long as seven years.  They were made to master this mountain river, with bodies that could, if conditions were right, grow big enough to thrash all the way to the top of the watershed.

The 2011 removal of the Elwha dams, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula west of Puget Sound, was a magical event. This excellent book catches much of that magic.  Lynda Mapes and Steve Ringman covered the Elwha saga in the Seattle Times over two decades; her words and his photos each get about half of the book’s 190 pages.  History, power, salmon and science are its themes; its sinews are the river and its people, native and non-native.

They follow scientists onto the river as they record fish, wildlife, insect and vegetation baselines in the year before the dams were opened and removed. They watch the dams’ operators shut down the powerhouses for the final time.    They trace the fights over removing them, the eventual deal to do so, and the first months after removal.

Mapes’ long relationship with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe serves this book very well.  When 93-year-old elder Adeline Smith leaves the official removal ceremony by wheelchair, Mapes runs to catch her, to make sure Smith sees the salmon waiting in the pool below.  Earlier, we heard her talk about the old days of Elwha salmon and the life of her people.  Now, Smith watches for a time, then points upstream to the river, soon to run free after 100 years – after her lifetime.  “They are going to go up there,” she says.

With the dams down, the Elwha story now moves on two linked tracks.  First is the action in and around the restored river for fish, people and the place.  Salmon and steelhead are already coming back, but how fast, which ones, with what effects and what new contentions will likely be both surprising and productive.  This book begins that story.

The second track is what Elwha’s particulars will mean for other rivers where people contest over other dams.  This book rarely mentions this second track, but every chapter is nevertheless also about it.  The Elwha dam removals are today the largest river restoration yet done on earth, but one ripple from their success may be that the honor is short-lived.  The Klamath, the lower Snake, and others may take the laurel soon. “Soon,” of course, means different things.  My friends who worked to take down the Elwha dams felt the 20-year campaign as an eternity that they often thought would never end, but now, looking back, they begin to see it as almost the blink of an eye.

Elwha:  A River Reborn is a bit expensive at $30. I hope the cost dissuades few from reading, learning and taking inspiration from this book.  Salmon are such wise and skillful teachers -- adaptive masters -- at a time when we have great need of their skill.  They teach by their presence, and by their absence, and now they teach us on the Elwha again by their presence.  Long may they run –– and bravo to all who played their constructive parts on the Elwha, and bravo to this book.

Pat Ford lives in Boise and is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He works for the Save Our wild Salmon Coalition, which leads the campaign to restore Washington’s lower Snake River by removing its four dams.

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