A traveler observes the changes of the Elwha River years after two dams were removed.
Winter had begun to settle on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and thick snow had covered the mountains by early December. Gray clouds, heavy with precipitation, blew in from the Pacific and obscured the views of Canada’s Vancouver Island, 20 miles across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The low clouds settled into the ridges and valleys of the foothills, dipping down to touch the water before lifting again.
My partner, Karl, and I had taken the ferry to Port Townsend from Whidbey Island the night before. That December morning, we rose early from our Victorian hotel. We drove Highway 101 along the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, searching for a place that he had loved for decades: The Elwha River.
The Elwha River drains the Olympic Peninsula’s largest watershed. It runs north for forty-five miles, where it empties into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then into the Pacific Ocean. The majority of the river runs through Olympic National Park or Klallam tribal lands. Before the 1900s, nearly half a million salmon would return to the river to spawn every year. However, the construction of two dams along the river’s course caused severe damage to the area’s ecology.
Engineers built the Elwha Dam in 1913 and the Glines Canyon Dam in 1927. The two dams created hydroelectric power for Port Angeles, fueling the paper mills there. While the dams kickstarted industrial and population growth in the region, they reduced the number of salmon returning to spawn, dropping to a mere 4,000 a year. The reduced number of salmon created a chain reaction within the Elwha Valley and Olympic Peninsula’s ecosystem, causing significant loss of plants and animals that relied on the salmon for nutrients and food.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed The Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act. This allowed funding for the National Park Service to embark on what would become the most extensive dam removal and ecosystem restoration project in history. Both dams were removed, restoring long-flooded sacred tribal lands and creating habitats for the salmon to spawn. The Elwha once again flows free.
We turned the car off the highway a dozen miles west of Port Angeles and navigated our way through thick forests to where the Elwha flows into the sea. We parked at a secluded trailhead and pulled on our waterproof boots. The two of us hiked along a muddy trail carpeted with fallen gold and orange leaves. Bare willow, alder, and cottonwood trees wove their branches together in a thick net around us. Clambering over large, river-rolled rocks, we broke from the trees and onto the banks of the rushing Elwha.
The frigid water was blue-gray as it roared past us, eager to meet the sea. The speed and force of the water picked up sediment from the riverbed, clouding the water. We clutched each other’s hands as we stood, silent and small, on the edge of such a mighty river. The river, the valley, the nearby sea: the air in this place felt sacred and sweet.
Hiking downstream, we came out of the trees where the river meets the sea. The bright blue freshwater mingled in swirls and eddies with the dark gray of the Salish Sea. Hundreds of gulls, geese, and ducks dove in and out of the water here, screaming for a meal. A great blue heron passed overhead and perched on a piece of driftwood down the shore. We walked over the black sand and crushed seashells toward it.
We picked our way over driftwood and ribbons of washed-up kelp. Makeshift houses crafted out of the driftwood, with small fire pits by their doors, dotted the beach. They make the beach sparkle and shine with their flames during the summer, but today, with the rain encroaching, they sat abandoned.
Karl took my hand. “There’s something I want to show you.”
We got back into the car and drove higher into the valley, further up the river. Briefly, we stopped near where the Elwha Dam had once stood. Traces of the engineering feat are still visible in the valley, but the Elwha River is beginning to erase them.
Winding down another road covered in a canopy of trees, we found what we had been looking for: The Elwha River Pedestrian Bridge. The bridge is two levels: The bridge’s top deck is for vehicle traffic, and the lower level is for pedestrians. Karl had discovered this place years ago while living in the area. The expression of joy on his face when we re-discovered it together illuminated the drizzly afternoon.
We were the sole visitors to the bridge, and the only sounds were that of the rain, the river, and the ravens. Droplets of rain pattered against our jackets and the fallen leaves as we climbed the stairs to the bridge. As we climbed the stairs, I picked up a fallen maple leaf that was the color of dark caramel and larger than both of my outstretched hands combined.
I carried the leaf along with me as we walked the length of the bridge. The blue waters of the Elwha gushed in weaving currents as it flowed down from the mountains, carving its own course, in control of its own path.
Karl went ahead to snap photos of the river and bridge from different vantage points. Content to watch the river, I rested my chin on my arms and watched it carry a cedar log downstream.
The year had been fraught with unimaginable challenges and grief. My life had changed in sudden and drastic ways. Now, as the year wound to a close, I realized I had been carrying the weight of the year’s obstacles around with me for far too long. I needed to move on; I needed to let those things go.
My thumbs ran over the maple leaf in my hands. Each vein in the leaf came to represent a challenge we had faced that year. I poured my grief into the central vein that touched all the others and, like the engineers who removed the dams, gave up the need to control what happened next.
I let go of the leaf.
The leaf dropped, flipping and furling, 85 feet into the gushing river below. Its reddish color stood out against the icy blue water. The leaf floated for a few hundred feet before getting caught in an eddy and disappearing beneath the surface.
Tears flowed in rivers down my cheeks at the relief of letting the year’s burdens go. Like the Elwha with her dams removed, I could chart my own course from now on. Nothing could hold me back.
The rain began to pour, and the water started to rise. We stood together at the sacred river’s edge, watching branches — that might someday be made into beach fires and fortresses — bob downstream. Spawned salmon lined the riverbanks, giving a future to the next generation of wildlife. The Elwha River showed us how beautiful something can be when you just let it flow.