A Fish, A People, and A Tale of Resilience

“So, what’s your dream, Robert? How do you imagine things five, ten, or twenty years from now?”

I was standing on a beach moistened by the steel grey waters of Washington’s Puget Sound. Next to me was Robert Elofson of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Elofson is a long-time employee of the Tribe’s Natural Resource Department. We had met to talk about one of the most startling restoration projects in American history. Elofson had been pivotal in his role as the Tribe’s River Restoration Direction in the campaign to remove two large dams from the Elwha.

Elofson wanted to show me the beach because the scrappy expanse of sand, mud, and gravel had not existed before the dams came out. The thirty million tons of sediment that flushed down the river following dam removal entered Puget Sound and spun a lazy gyre to the right before settling near the river mouth. The slug of glacial till rebuilt the beach from scratch. It was now home to an abundance of butter clams and Dungeness crabs, just like those Elofson’s grandmother used to harvest before they were extinguished by deteriorating habitat.

“The return of a coho subsistence fishery would be nice,” Elofson said. “I just want to see everything back the way it should be.” Elofson had fished all his life. He kept a boat in the nearby harbor at Port Angeles. He, and the rest of the Lower Elwha Klallam, are a salmon people. Elofson possessed hard-won treaty rights for a salmon too rare to harvest.

Starting in 1986, the tribe began a dogged campaign to remove the Elwha’s two dams. They told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that the dams were dangerous. The Elwha Dam had leaked since it was completed in 1913. A major earthquake in the Pacific Ring of Fire could cause structural failure and catastrophe for tribal members living downstream. The tribe also wanted the dams out because of the pristine fish spawning habitat they obstructed. Behind the dams lay 75 miles of river and stream, all protected within Olympic National Park. Five species of Pacific salmon and four migrating trout species all ascended the Elwha in the eighteen hundreds. Pacific lamprey also joined the seasonal pilgrimage from Puget Sound’s salty waters to the teal-colored sinews of the Elwha. Ecologists were confident the fish runs would return if the dams were removed.

Last week, with my mind more on the daffodils blooming in our late Montana spring than on the Pacific Ocean, a newspaper headline caught my eye. Elofson had just secured his dream. Eleven years after the dam removal, the coho have recovered. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Olympic National Park, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife jointly announced the opening of ceremonial and subsistence coho fisheries for the fall of 2023. It will be the first approved catch since the dams came down.

The tribe, I can only imagine, are ecstatic. Tribal Vice-Chairman Russ Hepfer declared “I look forward to fishing the Elwha River…. It will provide food for my soul and family.” Ceremonies to welcome the salmon home can begin again in earnest. A river known as The House of Tyee, for the giant chinook that used to muscle their way through the Elwha’s current, is regaining its health.

I haven’t been in contact with Elofson since I spoke with him two and a half years ago. But I can imagine him now, hauling crab pots onto his fishing boat as it bobs a few hundred yards off the beach where we chatted. Below the hull, the muscled flanks of coho nourished by Pacific waters will twitch as their mighty tales propel them toward the Elwha’s fresh water. With his hands firmly gripping a crab pot, Elofson might be smiling at what he helped achieve. He certainly should. It’s a stirring accomplishment, a people and a salmon, rising together.

Photo by author

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