Salmon Run: exploring the Elwha River Valley
By Andrew Fast
There was a time when we were cowboys, sailors, and natives living in a world of vastness that started at the edge of my driveway. The great density of adventure lingering like a low hanging fog on the bay behind my grandparents house on the Puget Sound or as palpable as wind on the tent wall of our family camping trips. Loading up an aluminum flat bottom boat with snacks and abecedarian spears made of grandma’s old silverware on the end of a broom handle, we’d point the nose upstream against an outgoing tide. Shirts tied around our heads, one man standing on the bow scouting for fish and the other at the stern. Tilting the prop to clear the shallows and leaving the blade flaring loud like a long tail boat in Southeast Asia. It was our Mekong River.
That was back when folks gave boys of eight or nine as much freedom as they could take. So we would take it all. And later, tucked in and topped off with Grandma’s over-buttered popcorn we’d slip into dreams. Pictures from the day smearing with imagination, we’d illuminate a collage of what might have been--our little boat motoring away from safe harbor, pitching back and forth on an open sea, eventually landing on the front porch of a coastal range; a silted river, chalk full of red spawning salmon plowing across the shore toward a tight valley drawing us upstream towards a headwater.
Twenty years later. Simon rolls over in his Feathered Friends winter sleeping bag (it’s late summer) and wakes us with stifling flatulence. Nick yawns loudly, slowly rolls the opposite direction to escape the smell, and starts to fumble for his glasses. We are back on the bay, camped out behind my grandparent’s house. It’s 3:30AM.
I go back and forth between reasons man has been put on this earth. One is to take full advantage, build things based on an idea of grandeur, and believe that everything out here is for us to do with as we please, to dominate. Or, we are one creature among many, here to coexist. How a person views salmon, dams, and nature is going to be influenced by which one of those world views they have. As a trail runner, retracing historical routes creates a deeper connection to what’s underfoot while learning a story. We tell stories to learn about life--to give things meaning. Running through the Elwha Valley is an experiential history book about dams and salmon and is painted on a canvas of temperate rainforest pitted in the belly of the Olympic Mountains.
In 1889 the Seattle Press (Washington’s only newspaper) put out a nationwide release calling for volunteers to find an overland route through the Olympic Mountains; there were no roads or railroads and white men had not explored the Olympic Peninsula at that time. The Press Expedition went up the Elwha River in the dead of winter searching for a way to the other side. They went light and fast; two mules instead of eight, as the O’Neal team had done on a previous attempt. Both mules died early and on separate occasions. The party of six emerged four months and forty-four miles later, likening their route to "exploring a dark rat hole." Our crew is pretty much doing what the Press Expedition did, only we have cranberry beef stick energy bars so we won’t have to hunt as we go, Gore Tex in the event of a summer rain, and we’re all on the 4G network.
Hopping the locked yellow park gait, we start our shuffle at first light. Today we get six bonus miles before the trail due to a washout. The double track bumps up hill then whamo--our first glimpse of the river: hundreds of cubic feet per second pour into a deep slot canyon. Swirling wind makes the mist dance and strobe light the sound of a river so powerful a person can feel it rumble in their stomach. After the largest dam removal in the world, the Elwha River is resetting its riparian rhythm--it doesn’t welcome anything made by man. The perspective makes us feel pretty small relative to our surroundings; the group gets psyched, pace quickens, and we hit single track twenty minutes later.
“We as a nation have been building, on average, one dam per day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence,” explains Frank Magilligan, a professor of geography at Dartmouth College. While dams were popping up like pimples between the National Reclamation Act in 1902 which funded them and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 which slowed production, a very important question spawned: dams or fish? The National Fish Hatchery system was born. With the most recent trend of tearing dams down the real question for our generation and those to follow is whether or not a self-sustaining ecological web will recover after a hundred years of disruption. The short answer: yes, all five species have returned within two years of the Elwha dam removal. As a runner I often use the word resilience, and think of this example.
Within the first couple miles the trail dips down and follows the river close enough to kiss. Undulating upstream and around bends, everyone stops talking and we sink into our own Chronicles of Narnia--the smell of a fresh rain, the sound of the river, the brush of the broad leaf understory. The trail is worn in as an old catcher's mitt, which makes for very good running.
Without announcing why or where to, Nick stomps off trail, stumbling over bowling ball rocks and into the river. Big rivers always look passable, until you try. As cowboy poet and songwriter Val Geissler says: “Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment.” We follow Nick across the river.
Growing up in the Pacific Northwest our class raised and released salmon less than five minutes from the elementary school, I watched the Grand Coulee Dam laser show on family camping trips that explains how damming the “mighty Columbia” provided electricity to turn aluminum into airplanes, and went fly fishing for Silver Salmon every September with my dad; for me there have always been dams and fish. Your run doesn’t have to be motivated by a philosophical debate about the purpose of man. It may not heighten the experience to think about the Press Expedition as you wade across the river only to find that old growth buried under two feet of moss and a two-dimensional wall of vegetation is in fact as hard to move through as they described. That’s the beauty of modern adventure--recreating routes in your own creative way. Regardless of reasons for going, as a trail runner the Elwha River valley is a place that will affect you.