Elwha River

We left Seattle yesterday, though it seems much longer ago now, Jay drove, naturally. She drove us all to Edmonds, where we caught the ferry to Kingston. From there we drove to Port Angeles, which became our base of operations for the next 24 hours. Our first stop there was the Olympic National Park visitor’s center. There we got some bad news. Almost the entire park was still closed for the season. The road up Hurricane Ridge was closed and more importantly, both Elwha River Dam sites were all but closed. Hurricane was closed, because it is still winter at the higher elevations and one Elwha dam site was closed for dynamiting and the other was only open on the weekend.

We were kicking ourselves then for our lack of planning. We went back into town for some lunch and regrouping. What little planning that we did do had revolved around seeing the Elwha and its two former dam sites. For Jay, a hydrological engineer, seeing these two sites, were a dream come true and after catching the Burke exhibit on them, a few days ago, they were for me too.

In the first decade of the 20th century two hydroelectric dams were built on the Elwha. I’m sure in their day they greatly sped rural electrification on the Olympic peninsula. Fast forward a hundred years and now they are no longer viable. A few years ago, work began on tearing these dams down and restoring the river to its former state. The Burke exhibit covered this process in much greater detail than I will here. If you didn’t catch it, too bad, it closed the day I saw it.

We drove to the lower dam’s site and took the ¼ mile trail in. That was fine, but it was rather unsatisfying. On the way back to the car, we detoured down to the service road that had been used to deconstruct the dam. There was a gate, but it was wide open and more importantly there were no signs of prohibition to entry. We ended up traipsing in, getting a much closer and varied views of the dam site then we would have otherwise and then continued marching onward.

The work road started out being paved, but quickly turned to gravel. Past the dam site, the road was replaced with single-path. Mostly, we were hiking in what was for a hundred years lake bed. The footing was that of squishy grey clay. Only a quarter of the century long silt buildup has passed downstream. There will be many more years of grey water in the Elwha to come.

The former reservoir bed is studded with stumps that were clear-cut when the dams were first built. The one that the four of us are standing around has the girth of old growth. Many of the others have footing notches halfway up their stumps, carved for the lumberjacks who stood in them to saw down the tree. Most of the flat stumps still have a little pile of mud on top of them, but this artifact will soon pass. In the few years since the lakes were drained, grasses and brush have started to populate the former lake bed.

I’m sure that the Elwha will completely come back. It will just take a while. I just wish I was younger to see more of it happening. We went on and did a lot more that day, but this is enough for one post. Except to say that at dinner we had Elwha Silt to drink with dinner. It’s a Port Angeles brew. I’m glad that they didn’t capture the grey color of the river. It has more of an amber hue, but like the river, you can’t see through an inch of it.

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