Wild River

I spent two summers working in Olympic National Park, monitoring how plant communities returned along the Elwha river after the removal of two large dams and draining of the reservoirs. Summers in Washington are bright green, full of big leaves and new growth. This spring I had the opportunity to re-visit those areas, many of which have been drastically changed by winter storms.

As the river settles into new channels, it regularly shifts and floods, and the buildup of silt from the dams continues to move downstream, often in intense and even destructive ways. My visit to the Elwha revealed the destruction a wild river can create, with torn up logs and wrecked campgrounds. One of the reservoirs is not currently accessible, as the river has taken out portions of the road to it, and the other has been carved up significantly, with large chunks of fertile, silty soil washed downstream and the rocky bed underneath exposed.

At the same time, the river continues to be full of life, with new plants growing every day. Older willows and cottonwoods that germinated when the dams were first broken down have matured enough to start reproducing, contributing to the next generation of trees. Animals are making use of the space, with flocks of swallows moving through the open evening, eagles nesting in the tops of trees, and all sorts of amphibians moving in and out of the water.

The last two summers, the story of the reservoirs has been one of abundant growth and forward progress. This spring revealed a more complex path taken by nature, as destruction becomes part of the very process of restoration. We can only imagine what the river will do in the decades to come.

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