By Jason Jaacks
The first signs of life are beginning to return to the Elwha River in Washington State, where the largest dam removal in U.S. history is nearly complete.
The Elwha River begins in the heart of Olympic National Park and flows 45 miles (72 kilometers) to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Historically, all five species of Pacific salmon lived in the river–a rare occurrence even in salmon country.
Old photographs show smiling fishermen hefting 85-pound (39-kilogram) Chinook salmon caught in the Elwha. There were rumors of Chinook salmon that weighed over 100 pounds (45 kilograms).
I began photographing the Elwha River in 2010, a year before the dams were slated to be removed. The whole process has taken several years–each dam has been torn down bit by bit to allow the river to move as much sediment as possible downstream.
Source to Sea
Last year, I rafted and walked the Elwha from source to sea as a National Geographic Young Explorer. Over the course of several weeks, my team and I followed the river as it plunged through the mountains. While we explored the Elwha backcountry, I imagined how the river must have looked a century ago, surrounded by thick stands of old growth forest and running freely through the mountains.
The only thing that was missing was salmon.
Once we reached the old reservoirs downstream, the landscape looked completely different. As the reservoirs drained, the river chiseled through plateaus of mud, sand, and silt. At the time of the expedition, in August 2012, Elwha Dam was completely gone and Glines Canyon Dam was about ⅔ gone.
We left the river and crossed the emptied lake beds on foot. It felt like walking across a moonscape, everything was covered in ash-grey dust.
The most powerful part of our trek down the former reservoirs was finding stumps of giant trees that were logged before the dams were built, nearly a century ago. They had been perfectly preserved under the water and mud. We could even see where loggers had notched the trees to saw them down. At the time I found it hard to believe that a forest could ever reclaim the abandoned lake bed.
Returning to the River
A year later, I returned to the Elwha to see if the landscape had changed.
My first stop was at the reservoir behind Elwha Dam. What I remembered from the expedition–a dusty moonscape interrupted only by a small ribbon of flowing water–had completely transformed. The river was beginning to meander, to take shape and re-carve its path across the former lakebed. The plateaus of dirt left high and dry were covered in sprouting grasses, shrubs, and alder bushes. The old growth stumps were still there, but they were surrounded by new flora.
As I walked, I saw tracks everywhere: deer, elk, river otter, birds. The landscape was awakening and the river was coming back to life.
But I didn’t see any redds in the river–the nests that spawning salmon make in the river bottom. Were the salmon returning?
After several days of documenting the former reservoirs, I connected with several fisheries biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). We spent the morning below the Elwha Dam site looking for Chinook salmon. The water was dark and murky; it was still carrying sediment down from the reservoirs.
In the span of a few hours, we caught, measured, and released 19 adult Chinook salmon. According to one of the biologists, it’s only a matter of time before the fish move upstream.
I’ve been going back up to the Elwha River for the last four years and I’ve watched the landscape transform. Officials from Olympic National Park expect Glines Canyon Dam to be completely removed by September 2014. I hope to continue witnessing this incredible restoration project beyond the dam removals. The story of the Elwha, to me, is a story about a river slowly coming back to life, one season at a time.
Jason Jaacks is a visual storyteller focused on social and environmental issues. His work exists at the intersection of documentary film, photography, and web-based storytelling. In 2012, Jason was made a National Geographic Young Explorer in support of his transmedia documentary project “Return to Elwha,” about the largest dam removal in U.S. history. He is the Executive Director of Cordillera Productions and calls the San Francisco Bay Area home.