On the Elwha, a New Life When the Dam Breaks

A huge dam-removal project will reveal sacred Native American lands that have been flooded for a century

Two antique dams on Washington state's Elwha River are set to be demolished. (Brian Smale)

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“We want them to think, ‘Maybe science is something I could do,’” said Robert Young, a coastal geoscientist who helped secure National Science Foundation funding for the program. “We want them to say, ‘I could be fixing this river. I could be helping it heal. I could be uncovering sacred sites. That can be me. And it should be me.’”

Beneath the reservoir’s surface, not far from the spot where Charles told her stories, lies a rock with two holes shaped like coil baskets, Elwha elders say. This is the tribe’s creation site, where God washed the people clean in the river water. For generations, young people visited the rock and meditated to learn what their future held.

But these days it’s hard to see the future, because the rock has been underwater for nearly 100 years.


The best way to understand the dams’ impact is to rise above the 200-foot fir and spruce spires of the Olympic Peninsula and view the river from the air, and so I chartered a two-seater plane. When it lifted above the marine fog, a tunnel seemed to open in the clouds, wandering above the Elwha into the high peaks. We were hoping to glimpse the river’s source, an avalanche-fed snowfield called the Snowfinger.

Behind us, on both sides of the river’s mouth, the Elwha reservation lay flat as an open palm. A long sand spit called the Ediz Hook crooked an emaciated finger out to sea. The Elwha Valley looks like a notch into an otherwise impenetrable wall of the Olympic Mountains—an ideal hangout spot for the gods the native people believed lived there.

We turned toward the mountains. The Elwha and its tributaries offer more than 70 miles of textbook salmon-spawning habitat, most of it practically pristine because it is within the bounds of a national park. Steep, tumbling and fiercely cold near its source, toward its mouth the river lazily wags back and forth across the flood plain, gushing turquoise with melted snow.

We passed over the two horseshoe-shaped dams and their reservoirs, 267-acre Lake Aldwell and, above it, 415-acre Lake Mills. Heaps of timber, which from such a distance looked like neat little stacks of matchsticks, clogged the dam in spots, and I could see the giant clots of sediment behind the dam—more than 20 million cubic yards of hoarded sand that belongs downriver.

Above the dams, the Elwha narrowed and steepened; the surface was scuffed with rapids in places, and rafters floated in inner tubes tiny as Cheerios. The snow-decked mountains we skirted were blotchy with the shadows of clouds. According to Elwha mythology, a storm god called the Thunderbird helps chase the salmon upriver, and indeed some of the highest peaks were scorched where lightning had struck again and again.

Waterfalls charged down the mountainsides and tributaries pumped frantically into the swerving, frenetic Elwha. Here and there were exposed gravel bars and other spots where the river had changed its mind over the years and sashayed away in another direction.

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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