Three minutes into our float, the v-wakes of submerged rocks in the tailout begin to move, creasing the glassy surface as they peel away from the approaching raft. Skyla and Weston lean forward, scouting ahead.
“Are those all fish?” Skyla asks, then, with rising urgency, “They are! Look!” Weston climbs up onto the bow, afraid to miss out. Chaos ensues. I yell at him to keep his feet on the floor; he ignores me and scrambles for position. “There’s one over there!” he hollers, “And two more over there!” Our raft accelerates into the riffle, the glare shifts, and suddenly, I can see for myself: King salmon. Lots of them.
The final remnants of the upper dam came down last week; the lower dam was cleared more than a year ago. And we are here to experience the Elwha River reconnecting with the sea for the first time in 100 years. Despite dire predictions of newly freed sediment choking the river with mud, today, the water flows with startling clarity, colored only by a faint blue-green tint. Clean cobble—from fist- to basketball-sized—covers the bottom; new logjams and gravel bars line the banks.
And in every tail out and flat terrace, there are fish. Descendants of the king salmon we’ve watched for years banging against the lower dam have finally reached their ancestral spawning grounds. Countless light-colored sections of gravel indicate redds or nests. We watch a 30-pound female king tip onto her side, and with great tail-flapping exertion, excavate a new redd. Several males, with fearsome, hooked jaws and ragged fins hover nearby, while trout hold just downstream, waiting to snatch a salmon-egg meal. Nature’s conveyor belt is back in business, delivering ocean nutrients in the form of salmon.
Even as we float the Elwha, I can’t help but imagine this resurgence of life on the once-mighty Snake River. There, four enormous, salmon-killing dams have outlasted their useful lifespan—a concept debatable even when they were new—and now stand only as monuments to hubris. Is it asking too much to want something more for the Snake? I don’t think so.
We pull over to stretch our legs on a broad gravel bar. While the kids run the shoreline looking for more fish, I stare into the choppy surface. Perfect steelhead water. As I mentally work through the mends needed to fish the inside seam, I can almost feel my fly swimming through four feet of blue-green water, the line tight on my fingers. When the Elwha reopens to anglers, I will be here in this run—or, given the shifting nature of a new river, one like it—swinging a sink tip with crazed anticipation. In the deepest part of the pool, I can just make out the shadows of pale, chrome-colored salmon, fresh from the sea.
Our afternoon falls into the typical rhythm of a coastal river float: riffle, pool, the occasional joy and adrenaline jolt of small rapids. The kids remain absorbed by their quest to spot fish. Weston keeps count, as is his nature, and loses track when the number reaches triple digits. We are buoyant.
When we reach the takeout, the kids aren’t ready to give up the river just yet. Neither am I. We shed our float gear and pile into the car. Where the Elwha meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we walk to the beach. For longer than I can remember, the mouth of the Elwha was a sterile, sediment-starved channel pouring abruptly into salt water, but now, we find acres of fertile delta—a complex maze of tidal pools, flood ponds, sloughs and sandbars littered with driftwood.
Tiny salmon, flashing silver in the evening light, leap for insects and create intersecting rings across the smooth surface, a natural Venn diagram of salmon survival. We sit in silence, watching baby salmon feed and the new river pushing against the tide. On the far side, an adult king explodes into the air on its way upstream. “Dad?” Weston asks, “Can we come back here to fish sometime?” I’m way ahead of you, buddy. Way ahead.
Dylan Tomine is a writer, conservation advocate and father to Skyla and Weston. His book Closer to the Ground: An Outdoor Family’s Year on the Water, in the Woods and at the Table.
Beyond the Elwha
Let’s build on the success of the Elwha. Join us in asking President Obama to remove obsolete dams across America, starting with four on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington. These especially harmful, federally operated dams cost taxpayers millions every year, degrade water quality and impede salmon migration. Their removal would kick off the largest salmon and river restoration project in U.S. history. damnationfilm.com.