Field Notes: a Northwest nature blog
One of the reasons many of us live in the Pacific Northwest is the natural wonders that amaze us all. On this blog Seattle Times writers and photographers will share their explorations of the natural world from snowcaps to whitecaps. Write us at email@example.com with your own sightings, questions and wonders to share.
Remembering the Elwha, hoping for restoration
Posted by Lynda V. Mapes
Dick Goin, 80, knows a very different Elwha River.
His family moved to a house along the lower river when he was just six years old. His parents were Dust Bowl farmers leaving Iowa during the Great Depression, and it was salmon that fed their family.
So many salmon in those days returned to the river, he could watch the color of the river bottom changefrom green to grey at the turn of the tide, he told an audience gathered at the Science Symposium here in Port Angeles Friday.
In jeans and suspenders and a work shirt, his hair a thick shock of grey, with his walking stick stashed under his chair as he spoke, Goin traveled in his imagination back to the river when it was still abundant.
As dignitaries from Congress, federal agencies and tribes gather at the dam today to celebrate and officially commemorate the start of dam removal on the Elwha, Goin's memories, rich and deep, born of decades of time spent on this river, set the stage well for the day, and what everyone is hoping for in this $325 million restoration project.
He remembers a noisy river, thrashing with salmon, of course, but also stalked by bears gorging on fish, and great rafts of seagulls, drawn by pink salmon so numerous they crammed the river side to side. The gulls could even lazily lean over from shore and pick out the fishes' eyes, but the pinks would keep right on swimming upstream anyway, he remembered.
There were otter, and great silvery shoals of smelt that would wash in with the tide. Clams were abundant on the beach at the river mouth. "After a northeaster it would throw up huge amounts of clams. I remember seeing great windrows of butter clams, little necks, horse clams."
His family didn't know to use them -- but members of the Lower Elwha Klallam sure did. "The would go out and pick them up," Goin said. "We didn't know anything about clams, so we didn't."
He, remembered, too, how operators of the dam, constructed beginning in 1910, would ramp the river levels up and down, and even shut the flow of the river through the dam off altogether on the weekend, to refill the reservoir to power the pulp mills on the waterfront come Monday.
The green algae in the pools shimmered with the silvery smolts, "They used to sparkle like the decorations you put on a Christmas tree," Goin said. "And they all died."
So did the big adult fish, left high and dry on the gravel bars when the water dropped. "They were just lying there, flopping."
Every year he remembered, the big chinook would still come back to the face of the dam, throwing themselves at the leaks in the wall in their way, trying to get upriver. "They would jump and jump and jump, and throw themselves against the dam leaks. They would fly right at it, they would just keep banging themselves and fall back in."
By now, the chinook run numbers in the worst years in just hundreds of fish, and four species of fish in the river are at risk of extinction. It is the silence that is the most telling, Goin notes, for with the fish so diminished, gone too are the animals.
Dick Goin, seated with his wife Marie at the Science Symposium. The carved salmon was a gift from the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
Lynda Mapes photo
"You should have heard it," he said of all the animals the fish drew, "It was incredibly noisy, all this going on. All these bears came, some of them in the daylight, but mostly after dark, it was very common to see them fishing.
"They left the berries in the uplands, they were pretty much at that time on the salal berries, and they came and ate the salmon. I believe the bears were bigger then, for the high protein diet they were on.
"There were herons. And eagles. Even one time on the clay bank, there was a log jam where salmon carcasses had been washing down, and there was a cougar, going
around on the log jam. He didn't mind getting his feet wet for a meal like that"
Today, fishermen hope to deploy fancy gear once again some day to catch descendants of the fish Goin used to catch on a pole cut from a bamboo rod.
"You went to Wilson's hardware and there would be a bundle of raw canes for 25 cents and you could get in there and sort around, and I made some really kind of nice sea run cutthroat trout rods."
The big kings made a particularly indelible memory. "This was the grand sport of the Elwha, the kings were incredible scrappers, they were jumpers. One of their hallmarks was a full somersault in the air. They stood apart."
The fishing holes all had names, Trestle Hole, Spruce Hole, even Bedsprings, for the castaway springs dumped there, festooned, he noted, with many a fisherman's gear. .
The 60 and 70-pounders were routinely seen, he remembered, and even sometimes landed if you could call for the help of a friend. 'It was very common for them to have to yell for two men on a pole to land one of those things," he said.
Except for one man, he recalled, who would wade right in, playing the fish with one arm and paddling with the other. "Sometimes he came back with it in his hand, and sometimes he didn't."
But he had the advantage, Goin noted, of being fortified with alcohol.
And there were eulachon, and lamprey, even sturgeon in the river back then.
"It's a quiet river now," Goin said. "No fish jumping, no hoards of birds, no bears, no battles among the giant male kings, no huge redds by the great Elwha females. No quiet pools for the salmon, no great hoards of insects."
He paused. Thought. And said: "Well. I guess that is what I have for you."
It's a lot: Something to hope for, something to imagine might one day come again, on this day as Elwha dam removal is celebrated.
Goin doesn't know at his age how much of the river's restoration he'll see. Perhaps enough for it to be a bit like the river that still runs in his imagination.
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