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.
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!
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.
Once again I’m staring at a calendar, watching my final days on the Olympic Peninsula flash past me. As excited as I am to return to my main research work and life in California, this place excels at being hard to leave. I’ve never called Washington home, but these mountains, and particularly the project on the Elwha, capture my heart.
My focus on this project is the vegetation, but as wonderful as it is to see valley turning green and the trees shooting skyward, I’ve been even more amazed by the transformation of the river itself. Now that the dams are completely removed and the silt has washed down to the delta, the Elwha has come alive. Each section of fieldwork I wrap up is a bittersweet victory, as I prepare to leave this shining, shifting river, which after almost a hundred years of constraint, is finally flowing free.
Photo: Mt Shasta, taken on the trip up here. I am in fact not flying home, but driving for fourteen hours, past some very pleasant scenery.
To an ecologist, summer means fieldwork. It’s a time to get off our computers and get on the road, migrating to wherever our research calls us. Between early morning starts and hours of outside work, long summer days get used to their fullest. This year, my summer is split between setting up a new experiment in a section of the Sierras that burned in a wildfire last year, and re-sampling my plots in Olympic National Park, Washington.
It’s wonderful being back in the Olympics. The project I’m working on here, a restoration of the Elwha river after the removal of two dams, continues to amaze me every day. The determination required by legislators, engineers, and ecologists to turn a legal decision into a reality is astonishing and motivating. In both reservoirs, plants are seeding in, growing tall in hospitable soils of the valley walls and fighting for survival in the harsher sediment on the valley floor. Take a look at how much things have changed!
Everything is bigger and greener, and yet some things don’t change: I’m still climbing around on old conifer logs, finding amazing wildlife from insects to eagles, and generally reveling in the opportunity to spend every day outdoors and call it work.
One of my current research projects is examining how plants are regrowing in the King fire, which burned last summer. Later this summer I’ll be setting up a manipulative experiment, to see how climate affects this regrowth, but first I wanted to familiarize myself with the area.
Before the fire, these hills were mostly pine forests, with some sections of oak and a couple hillsides that were dominated by shrubs. The fire scorched through at fairly high severity, burning out all of the shrubs and flowering plants, and killing many of even the tallest pine trees. In some areas, the pines are just black poles, all their branches burned off all the way to the top. Old stumps were completely incinerated, leaving enormous holes in the dirt.
This summer, wildflowers are popping up across the region, taking advantage of the open space to grow quickly. Other areas have shrubs resprouting from the roots of dead plants, and in a couple places where cones have fallen baby pines and firs are starting to grow. The colorful flowers against the sharp black trunks is completely different from anything I’ve seen before. I’m looking forward to taking higher quality pictures later, but I wanted to share with you some shots taken last week with my field camera (which proved itself to be ash-proof as well as water-proof).