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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One day they visited an Olympic National Park nursery where hundreds of thousands of plants were being grown for the reservoir revegetation effort. They helped repot seedlings, and nursery manager Dave Allen showed them maps of where they’d be planted in the valley. He explained how important it is that the invasive plants don’t elbow out the native species when the soil is exposed and vulnerable. Restoring the forest will be a long battle.

“You guys will have lived your lives and this will still be evolving and changing into forest,” he said. “When you are old people—older than I am, even—you’ll still be seeing differences.”

The kids giggled at his floppy sun hat. They seemed at the moment more interested in discussing cellphone keyboards, chanting the local high-school fight song and engaging in the peculiar diplomacy of middle school flirting.

The highlight of camp was the canoe journey across Lake Crescent, a long, deep natural lake. Counselors told me beforehand that to Indian children, canoeing is a spiritual experience akin to church. But along with meditative moments, the multi-hour trip also offered ample opportunity for slaying daddy longlegs and dunking friends in lake water.

The kids occupied two huge fiberglass canoes, sitting three abreast in places. Each crew had dark designs on the other. Though they stroked with cedar paddles painted with peace signs, hostile choruses of “We Will Rock You” prevailed over traditional canoe songs. The campers’ competitive passions, alas, outstripped their nautical skills. The canoes turned in slow circles, some part of a precise ceremonial choreography, but most unintentional.

They had to hone their rowing technique quickly, though, as they would sleep in tents across the lake for the last night away from home, then sail back in glory the next afternoon to the camp beach, where parents and other members of the tribe would await their return.

Dinner that night, cooked over a campfire among the redolent cedars, was native foods, supplemented by teriyaki chicken bussed over from the dining hall. There was a pot of steamed stinging nettles, which made Jamie Valadez’s hands burn as she trimmed them, but which cooked up into a deep green, delicious dish like slightly sweet spinach. The counselors prepared oysters, which a few of the kids had never tasted. They gagged dramatically over the knifed-open raw ones, but when the counselors placed them in the campfire rocks, rounded side down so they cooked in their own juices, everybody asked for seconds.

The finishing touch was to have been a taste of salmon.

But when it came time to serve the fish, the counselors explained that they’d gone to the grocery store, where a single filet of white king salmon cost $60, and the program couldn’t afford it. Instead, they fashioned a cardboard cutout of a chinook. Using the model, they explained how the Klallam might have smoked salmon in strips or boiled it in a bentwood box, eating even the eyes and cheeks. They demonstrated how the Indians would push a butterflied fish onto a split stick leaned over the fire, catching the ocean-scented juices in an oyster shell to drink afterward. The kids watched with wide eyes. Breathing in the wood smoke, one could almost taste pink, flaking meat.

That night, the children practiced the welcome speeches they’d recite at the beach in front of their parents the next day, and the journey and greeting songs they’d been learning all week, which tribal members—grieved that the originals were lost—composed in the late 1980s and early 1990s for get-togethers with other tribes, and which typically have a strong rhythm meant to be banged out by drums or canoe paddles.

About Abigail Tucker

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

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