Riding to the Elwha

I keep coming back to the Elwha River, it seems.

And why not? It’s a beautiful place in the midst of an astonishing transformation, as the two century-old dams are being taken down and removed.

I’ve written here several times about our hikes up the Elwha, upstream from the dams where the river has always run free. I’ve written elsewhere about the changes already taking place at the former Lake Aldwell after the lower dam was removed earlier this year. The removal of the upper dam has been slower and more painstaking due to the immense amount of silt that has accumulated behind the dam in Lake Mills. I have not been able to show you photos of the process of draining this lake because the construction company has kept the site well shielded from the public. I have managed to catch glimpses through trees and construction barriers, however, so I have had a general sense of the declining water level.

A week or so ago they announced that the river was finally falling free over the last few remaining feet of the dam, and that the silt would soon be flowing downstream and muddying the lower reaches of the Elwha.

This sounded like an interesting thing to go and see. Yesterday we decided to ride our bikes to the Elwha. We started a mile or so west of downtown, at an access point to a newly-paved section of the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT). We guessed it would be about five miles each way, but were surprised to see a sign indicating it was only 3.3 miles! Given that we had the afternoon free, we decided to ride at a leisurely pace and enjoy the sights.

This new section of the trail was absolutely beautiful, nearly flat and mostly straight through fields and groves of big leaf maples. Once I got over my initial caution, it was great fun to aim my bicycle wheel toward the biggest piles of leaves I could find!

This being the rainy, wet Pacific Northwest, we got to cross another stream on our way to the Elwha. I couldn’t get a decent shot of the oddly-named Dry Creek — it was running freely but was almost hidden by the thick trees. Maybe that’s the joke? In any case, the bridge was terrific! This style of bridge is typical of most of the small stream crossings on the ODT.

After Dry Creek the trail headed gently downhill toward the Elwha, but it never got steep because it follows an old railway grade and crosses the Elwha at the top of the ravine. I was able to relax and not worry about having to ride up steep hills on the way back!

The bridge is very impressive. It’s a new double-deck bridge with a road on top and the ODT below. CFL laments the loss of a beautiful old bridge that was taken out when this one was built. I remember that bridge — I even drove over it once or twice. It was a bit scary! I’m glad the new bridge is there and I appreciate its human-friendly design that encourages leisurely river watching. Doesn’t this beautiful bridge make you want to ride your bike across it — stopping along the way for a long slow look?

As for the Elwha, yes it is muddy!

Looking upstream straight into the sun the view was difficult to photograph, but the river looked like a roiling cauldron of mud. We spent a long time watching the patterns that emerged in and moved through the cross-currents. The flows, ebbs, and whirlpools are somehow easier to see than they would be in clear water.

In contrast, the view downstream seemed serene. Even here, however, the water was obviously thick and murky. I like the shadow of the bridge in this photo. If you look closely you can see us standing there!

The silt flow is expected to continue for weeks to months. The dam removals were planned as a slow and careful process to prevent too much silt rushing out all at once — but no matter how slowly you take down a 100-year-old dam, everything behind it does get up and move downstream eventually.

We plan to keep coming back to check on the river’s ongoing transformation. We’ve heard that the stark lakebed of the former Lake Aldwell, which we last visited in May, is now lush with new growth as the forest comes to reclaim it. It’s definitely time for a return visit!

Further upstream, perhaps once the leaves are fully off the trees, I hope to be able to sneak a peek-a-boo photo of the former Lake Mills.

You can expect to read more here about the Elwha River… It is a place/time event that does, indeed, keep me coming back.

3 responses to “Riding to the Elwha

  1. I would come back, too! I am really interested in streams, rivers, water flow, and the history and maintenance of dams and reservoirs. The only real “knowledge” I have comes from observing and hearing about changes from others who share that news. The photos you did post are really beautiful and I’m sure it would seem you had a very lovely day. It was probably cold and crisp, but the sun gives a nice glow! I hope to hear more and maybe in time there will be better access to photograph. Is there a particular reason they have the view obstructed? I don’t know if it’s a safety issue, or they don’t want to reveal what they’re doing? :-) (Not sure I know who THEY are…ha!).

    • Debra, it was actually quite cold! My chronically cold hands went completely numb inside my gloves. I went out the next day and bought a much warmer pair.
      I’m really not sure why the contractor has fenced off and shielded the demolition site, but I suspect they simply don’t want to be bothered by looky-loos. The hillside at the upper lake is very steep and a careless person could easily fall and be injured or worse. “They” are whoever the coalition of federal, state, and tribal agencies hired to do the work. I’m sure there have been different entities at different times and places working on various aspects of this. It’s a big deal — one that should be getting more publicity and recognition than it has so far. I think there may be a feature-length documentary in the works… It certainly merits one.

  2. Pingback: Running to the Elwha « Slow Happy Living

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