In August I got to attend a National Park Service event for volunteers who had worked on the Elwha restoration. After hiking around former Lake Mills, we visited the Elwha delta, where the river lets out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Washington and Vancouver Island. Before the dam removals, the delta beach was fairly limited. Removing the dams allowed enormous quantities of trapped sediment to move downstream, building up the beach into expanses of space for native coastal plants, birds, and other wildlife. A lagoon area has formed where thousands of seagulls were hanging out as we walked along. And I’ve been told it’s even improved the surfing options!
Someday after Whiskey Bend road is rebuilt I’d like to do a hike into the park following the Elwha upstream. How cool would it be to see the Elwha from source to sea!
Nowhere have I been so overwhelmed by the transformative, vibrant power of nature as on the Elwha river. The transformation that occurs every season since the removal of the two dams on this is mind-blowing (also road- bridge- and campground-blowing, with the river restored to unfettered flood patterns).
In this place, too, shines the strength of restoration management, as the plants brought in to supplement the natural regeneration of this area take hold and promote others to grow. The riverbank lupine shown below has improved soil quality for a variety of species that follow it–much as other nitrogen-fixing species have done on Mount St Helens. Planted woody shrubs and conifers also claim space, even the ones that die in turn enriching the soil. It’s also fantastic to see the effects of microclimates–such as the small hollows near decades-old logs where seedlings are sheltered from the wind and sun–and straight, thin rows of cottonwoods where three years ago the water pooled for just long enough for the seeds to germinate and put down their roots.
I stand in awe here.
One of my favorite things about living in Washington is getting to watch the progression of the Elwha reservoirs as the vegetation and wildlife re-establish more each year. Pictured above is the former Lake Mills in the summers of 2013 (top left), 2015 (bottom left) and 2018 (on the right).
The dams on the Elwha were removed between 2011 and 2013, and I spent the summers of 2013 and 2015 studying the plant communities that colonized the drained reservoirs. Although recent floods have closed the road to public vehicles, you can still bike or hike in to see Lake Mills. I’ve actually been there three time this summer–once hiking in from the Madison Falls parking lot, once on a Park Service organized volunteers’ event, and once hiking down 5000 feet from Hurricane Ridge. I also made additional trips out to Aldwell reservoir and the Elwha delta, both of which are more easily accessible. I’ll post more pictures from those trips as soon as I stop hiking long enough to go through all of them!
We squeezed in a late-September backpacking trip up the Elwha. Despite a bit of chilly rain, it was a really beautiful trip, and we camped near a creek that feeds into the Elwha River. I’m really glad we managed this last-minute jaunt, as winter storms have once again destroyed the road leading to this trailhead, and it may not be passable next summer.