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When I planned a trip to the Olympic Peninsula in early November I expected to be
working to find rivers that were not blown out and too high. But it has been a dry
fall in the PNW so finding something with enough water and not up a closed
road proved to be the challenge. We ended up on the Elwah, a river I had first
heard about in Patagonia’s film DamNation which documented the removal of the
dam on the lower river in 2014. So we figured while the whitewater on this section
of river might not be too much to write home about, it would be interesting,
beautiful to float through the rehabilitating reservoir, past the dam site and into the
ocean at the takeout.

We were unable to put in as high as we wanted as the access road in Olympic National Park was closed, so we parked at the closure on put on there. It was a bluebird day with the golden hues of fall in the tress backed by newly snow capped peaks of the Olympics in the background. Class 2 rocky riffles and a narrower river bed quickly changed to a widening channel with a few houses on either side that had seemingly once been reservoir side and now stood back from the bank, large strainers lined the shoreline. The landscape continued to open up as the river channeled through tree sump dotted gravel bars. I thought of the arc of these stumps’ lives: First that of a riverside sapling and tree, then felled in preparation for the reservoir and gradually drowned as it filled. Then newly exposed years later, still very much intact to sit once more by the riverside and watch the river find it‘s channel again. I wondered how long it’s lifespan would last, some of these stumps quite large obstacles. The riverbed was composed of layers of silt and gravel and while this year’s channel was clearly carved it seemed possible that a spring flood could easily move it elsewhere in the wide former reservoir bed. The whitewater was straight forward with the largest hazards being the wood and we watched the line of living trees, a former “bathtub ring” of sorts come closer to the river’s edge and the canyon narrow as we paddled closer to the dam site.

As we approached it a sign hung over the middle of the river which conveyed the message that by continuing down the rapid one’s vessel would hit underwater hazards and all its passengers fall out to certain peril. We hopped out to scout. Upon review chose to paddle the short, fun class III rapid through some boulders where the dam had been before turning a corner sharply and sneaking down the side of what seemed to be much of the detritus left over from the big wall. It was shallow and manky and I had not desire to hit anything or be anyways but rightside up and pointed downstream in it. This proved to be the biggest whitewater excitement of the day.

A Scenic Float on the Elwah

The rest of the river wound lazily through alder shoreline and massive log jams, some held in place by cables to create fish habitat, others naturally stuck and as the November sun grew lower on the horizon and we began to listen for signs of the ocean. When we paddled into the salt water and out past the surf we were slapped awake by the first bigger waves of the day as we paddled into the swell. Our nirvanas proved to be more than worthy surf vessels and we used the last sunlight of the day glide down friendly wave faces.

A Scenic Float on the Elwah

It was a beautiful day on the river, a chance to catch up with a good friend, an opportunity to reflect on river restoration, see it in action and enjoy a beautiful place. This is a good day on the river. More action has its place too, but is less and less what defines an enjoyable day out for me. I am grateful for any day on the river, for the people I get share it with, for those who are working to help rivers across the world flow freely again and for crisp fall days to enjoy our favorite playgrounds.

A Scenic Float on the Elwah

While the impacts of it’s former dam were still dominant in this section of the Elwah, the reservoir bed, the active fish restoration, the ghosts of trees past and the dam site itself, its future was visible as well. New increasingly established channels, young trees, more miles of river to play on and people enjoying the river in a variety of ways – fishing, climbing in the canyon, playing with their dogs and floating. May the restoration of the Elwah following dam removal set a precedent for the future rehabilitation of other rivers.