From Living on the Peninsula magazine, December, 2011
Story by Jessica Plumb
I didn’t expect a river to make me cry, but this river was running free for the first time in a century. I was on a field trip with my daughter’s elementary school to visit the Elwha River restoration project. By chance, our group arrived shortly after the lower Elwha Dam had been breached. Water roared through an opening created by a giant jackhammer and a flock of bulldozers, sending clouds of mist into the September sunshine.
I dammed my emotions quickly, but the scene was riveting. The remaining ramparts shuddered with each blow from the jackhammer, which dissolved cement pillars into clouds of dust. Viewers crowded the small overlook, despite its remote location. Whether they were for, or against, the largest dam removal in the United States, I don’t know. Heavy machinery and the torrent of water drowned out conversation.
The last time I stood on an overlook above a dam project, watching giant trucks move like insects below, I was on the Yangtze River in China. The final pieces of the Three Gorges Dam were being put in place.
With a different group of young people, I speculated about the future of this river and the many people around it. I still think about the residents we encountered on the Yangtze River before the reservoir began to fill, living beneath red lines that marked the future inundation level in each town. Business went on below those red lines as though nothing would change, even though the first phase of dam construction was complete. The project was so big it seemed remote: impossible to stop and too vast to comprehend.
Here on the Olympic Peninsula, rivers flow from the heart of Olympic National Park in every direction, like spokes of bicycle wheel, with snow-capped mountains at the center. These are not meandering rivers.
They hurtle downhill, dropping thousands of feet in a few miles, and when they approach the sea they still feel like fresh snow. Salmon love these rivers and the Elwha River was known for exceptional salmon runs, until two dams sent its fish elsewhere.
I have lived on the Olympic Peninsula for more than a decade, but the fight to remove the two Elwha dams began long before I arrived. When dam construction began on the Elwha, the people with the most to lose were members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose economy and culture revolved around salmon. They have led the effort to remove the dams since they were built. A hundred years later, with the support of numerous environmental organizations and a handful of politicians, they’ve won.
Now I am watching the Elwha River roar back to life. It’s hard to say what is more thrilling: the power of the river itself or the power of a small group of marginalized people, who stuck with this river with the tenacity of salmon themselves. The annual Northwest spectacle of salmon fighting upstream is a lesson in persistence. Watching fish throw themselves against waterfalls again and again, falling and jumping higher still, I marvel at the mysterious resolve encoded in these creatures.
The Elwha River is a symbol of determination, human and animal. However, I want to see its new freedom as a symbol of something else: as a shift in the relationship between people and the land that sustains us. That flicker of hope feels naïve, though it’s the narrative that burbles up from the Elwha’s unlikely story. My doubt starts with my own contradictions: I’ve hiked in to visit a decommissioned dam and power station with a laptop, a smart phone, two HD cameras and a backpack full of batteries. The tools of my trade, all fully charged. I left urban life because I fell in love with the rugged mountain landscape that births these rivers. The same rivers power my technology, just as they power much of the Northwest.
I wonder if the kids who visited today can learn to be less hungry for electricity than I am or come up with a better way to make it. I wonder how the electricity generated by this relatively small rural dam will be replaced. Our region is defined by the relationship between people and natural resources. On the Olympic Peninsula, environmental history is a subject written in real time, an unfolding story marked by raw wounds, in the communities and the land all around us. On the way home, I learn of the approval of a massive dam in the Amazon rain forest. There’s a haunting image with this story, a photograph of a tribal leader convulsed in grief. Members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, now leading the celebration of the Elwha River restoration, surely understand this feeling.
I returned to the Elwha Dam site alone. The reservoir had dropped notably in a few hours and cascades thundered as the lake drained. I was overwhelmed by a sense of power unleashed. The power of water. The power of people who love a place. I made a promise to the river: I will come back unburdened by electronic devices. I will bring a notebook and a pen. And here I am.