Three years since workers demolished the Elwha Dam, wild salmon have returned to the upper reaches of the Elwha River and the native firs and cedars are sprouting up in what once was the bottom of a deep, wide reservoir.
But the ruins of the old dam project remain if you want to find them, and they provide a fascinating glimpse of the past.
The sides of the rocky cliff are pocked with the remains of old, wooden beams that once supported the sides of the 108-foot-high dam. Nearby, I found small scatterings of concrete and twisted, rusty rebar.
The 270-acre reservoir known as Lake Aldwell is now a wide, sandy-banked river, although you can still see the watermarks on the sides of nearby cliffs. The 90-foot-deep lake no longer covers the old stumps left from logging more than a century ago. But the native firs, cottonwoods and thimbleberry that were part of a re-seeding project are fast overtaking the rotting relics.
We also found an old set of wooden wagon wheels still covered by rusty flat steel tires, no doubt dating back to the time before the land was flooded by the dam. The relics remain undisturbed, and souvenir hunting is tacky and illegal.
The Elwha Dam and the much larger Glines Canyon Dam were built in the early 20th Century to bring hydroelectricity to power the pulp mills in nearby Port Angeles. But the dams lacked fish ladders and blocked 40 miles of wild river and one of the richest spawning grounds for salmon in North America.
After decades of environmental studies and legal battles, the dams are no more. And the salmon that were nearly wiped out are now returning from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If the fish scientists with the National Park Service are right, over the next 30 or 40 years salmon runs could return to the days of old when the river was filled with hundreds of thousands of fish.
The old Elwha Dam site is off Lower Dam Road near the Elwha River bridge on State Road 112 a few miles west of Port Angeles on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It’s easily accessible and worth a visit.