But the Klallam’s home did not remain pristine. In 1910, a Canadian settler named Thomas Aldwell started spanning the river with a 108-foot-high hydroelectric dam. As told in Aldwell’s autobiography, “Conquering the Last Frontier,” construction was such a spectacle that crowds gathered to watch. Two onlookers died when a guy cable snapped. The dam itself later ruptured, taking out a bridge downstream, but in the end Aldwell was able to proclaim, “Suddenly the Elwha was no longer a wild stream crashing down to the strait; the Elwha was peace, power and civilization.” The turbines churned, and in 1927 the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon Dam was built upstream on the Elwha. The two dams electrified the nearby Bremerton navy yard. They powered the sawmills and paper mills that would put Port Angeles on the map.
For centuries before, though, the Klallam’s economy has been based on salmon fishing. Now when the fish confronted the sheer wall of the dam, they could not swim upstream and spawn. Their populations slowly dwindled. Today, the Elwha is home to 3,000 salmon as it wends through Olympic National Park and the tiny reservation of the Lower Elwha Klallam Indians.
The story of the Elwha is, in essence, the story of the Northwest, where I have lived for 25 years. There are scores of hydroelectric dams here, and the dams power everything: Think of the Portland shipyards that built cargo ships for World War II; think of Kurt Cobain playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on an electric guitar in Olympia in 1991. The dams also freight a deep sadness. A Native American saying holds, “Every time you turn on a light, a salmon jumps out,” and the writer Timothy Egan has meanwhile averred, “In the Northwest, a river without salmon is a body without a soul.”
Most Northwest rivers now have only a glimmer of spirit left in them — a few remnant salmon. I was in Olympic National Park because the Elwha is undergoing a resurrection. Late in 2011, its two dams began coming down. The National Park Service, along with the Bureau of Reclamation, started tearing out Aldwell’s Elwha Dam, with plans to dynamite Glines Canyon later on, so the river could run free again. The feds vowed to spend $351 million on the whole project, making this the largest dam removal in U.S. history. Wildlife biologists were joyously predicting mass returns of salmon a decade hence.
In the meantime, change was coming in other forms. In being restored, the Elwha River was also being torn apart, and the soul of the entire Northwest was, it seemed, likewise in flux. We were ripping out the very structures that had given us light; we were trying to get back to the Garden of Eden. But could we really return, after all the insults we had delivered our rivers? And what would be lost by this transformation?