OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. -- The waters of the Elwha River are clear right now, for a change.
For nearly three years, this glacier-fed river on Washington's Olympic Peninsula has been sluicing millions of tons of sediment that were held back for a century by a pair of dams.
The dams are nearly gone. The Elwha Dam has been completely removed and the last 30 feet of the upper dam, known as the Glines Canyon Dam, is set to be demolished Tuesday.
A dry summer stretch has temporarily slowed the Elwha's flow, keeping the sediments from muddying up the water.
The river was open for exploration until last weekend, when flows got too low.
“Alright gang, who wants to get the wettest?” says Morgan Colonel, owner of Olympic Raft and Kayak in Port Angeles, Washington, as he pushes a bright blue raft full of curious passengers into the newly-accessible waters of the Elwha.
Within a few minutes the raft is high-centered on a rock in the river, her passengers bouncing up and down to dislodge her, hooting with delight.
“We’re kinda just figuring it out a little bit as we go,” Colonel says. “It’s a brand new river to pioneer.”
Colonel bought the business and moved to the Elwha River Valley from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, three years ago when he heard the dams were coming out. Pointing to the lush green banks lining the river, he says it’s been a fascinating process to watch.
“The best evidence of the restoration we see are these banks on the side of the river," he says. "The river has risen in elevation about three feet from all the debris that’s come down.”
Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member Rob Elofson paddles along in time with Colonel. Elofson has advocated for dam removal on this river for years. He’s watching the banks closely, but he’s less interested in water levels or river recreation and more interested in salmon habitat.
“I’m thinking about the health of the river and how useful it is for salmon. I look at something like this and look at it from the point of view of 'can salmon spawn there?' Elofson says between paddle strokes.
He says the river's composition has changed dramatically from the days before dam removal began.
“It was just large rocks and woody debris. None of this small sediment, sand and gravel, was here before,” he says. “It’s the way it’s supposed to be now.”
Rivers act like conveyor belts, moving sediments from higher elevations and depositing them downstream. When dams go up, the conveyor belt is frozen, stopping the flow of sediment and leaving bigger and bigger rocks to line the banks, without any of the mucky silt that salmon and steelhead need to lay eggs.
More than half of the 27 million tons of sediment that had backed up behind the Lower Elwha and Glines Canyon dams has now been released. The mouth of the river, where it flows into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, used to be covered in basketball sized rocks. Now the conveyor belt of sediment has covered those rocks with silt, creating beaches and sandbars. Dungeness crabs have moved in, as have surf smelt, cutthroat trout, juvenile salmon other creatures that depend on a healthy nearshore environment for survival.
From his perch at the stern of the raft, Morgan Colonel says the recovery has spread upstream from the river mouth. First the salmon, then their predators.
“So as the salmon started to run we started to see the bald eagles come up," he says. "And they started down low and worked their way up. Lower on the river we’ve seen more wildlife, especially the fish -- chinook and sockeye -- we’ve been seeing running right now.”
Colonel chuckles as he recounts one recent salmon encounter he witnessed on the river above the former site of the lower dam. A mother otter and her two pups had cornered a sockeye salmon in a small side pool and were chasing it in circles when the fish skittered back into the main channel and took off for a few hundred yards downstream.
“That mom headed downstream,” Colonel recounted, “and then five minutes later she comes back up holding the sockeye by the mouth and that sockeye was about as big as her. It was impressive.”
A patch of rapids known as “Ferngully” is the favorite playground for Colonel's rafting company, which has an exclusive license to operate on the Elwha within the Olympic National Park boundary.
Colonel deftly guides the raft through the choppy rapids and emerges just above the bridge where U.S. Highway 101 crosses the Elwha. This is a favorite spot for the chinook, sockeye and steelhead that are pioneering the newly-available reaches of the Elwha watershed above the lower dam. And today Colonel’s passengers are not disappointed.
“There’s one. I saw something shadowy!” says Kati Schmidt with the National Parks Conservation Association. “Go, fish! Go!”
A streak of red in the clear waters beneath the boat triggers hoots of joy from the rafters as a sockeye salmon darts by.
Rob Elofson smiles as he looks out over the river.
“It’s always been the tribe’s top priority," he says. "They’re very proud of accomplishing the dam removal and the salmon going up the river.”
You can get up close and personal with the Elwha (and it’s well worth the trip).
The Elwha Dam has been completely removed. Visitors can park and take a short walk down the gravel road to an overlook point right on the river. There’s a “Road Closed” sign because cars aren’t allowed, but foot traffic is permitted.
If you want to see really cool old growth stumps that used to be at the bottom of Lake Aldwell, just above the lower dam, pull into the gravel lot on 101 West just before you cross the bridge over the Elwha River and look for the dirt path through the trees. You can still see the chunks that loggers cut out of the sides of the trunks to make room for the springboards they would stand on to manually saw the trees down.
The remaining piece of the larger (formerly 210 feet tall) Glines Canyon Dam will be blasted out this week. The Park Service says it will have a public viewing walkway out over the site within a few months, after the remaining concrete chunks are removed. Right now a massive orange crane is still on site to scoop the concrete out and the Park Service says it's not safe for visitors.