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Water | Environment

Field Notes: My First Date With the Elwha

(Editor’s note: EarthFix Field Notes are reporters’ personal impressions and experiences from their coverage of the Pacific Northwest. In this entry, Ashley Ahearn describes how a trip to the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River affected her.)

Confession: I am totally and completely head over heels whipped on the Elwha River. This isn’t a flirtation or a crush.

It all started on the morning of our first date. I was hanging out with a bunch of scientists who were clambering along her banks, their hands full of buckets and bottles and nets. We were trying to get to know the Elwha. How many fish are hanging out in the side channels of this mighty river? What types of fish? What are they eating? How much sediment lines her rocky bed? How clear are her waters? How fast do they flow? She’s a tricky broad to crack, the Elwha is. She’s been through a lot in the past hundred years or so, what with being dammed to within an inch of her life and all. She doesn’t share her secrets with just anyone, especially not on the first date. You have to put in some effort, as I would soon discover.

Coming Up

We’ll have coverage from Ashley Ahearn and KCTS9’s Katie Campbell next week on how scientists and a local tribe are preparing for the removal of fish-blocking dams on the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Look for content here at EarthFix, and listen for radio reports from NPR stations in the Pacific Northwest.

After setting up at the research site in a side channel of the river, a couple of scientists took off in one direction with a backpack device that would make the Ghostbusters jealous. One scientist explained to me that it’s pretty much just a car battery that sends electrical current into the water, temporarily stunning nearby fish. Then, when the fish float to the surface, they collect them in nets and do what’s called “gastric levage” – which is a nice way of saying they pump their stomachs – just like you would any errant college kid – but instead of pizza and beer, they’re collecting tiny insects and all the other gunk these rainbow trout eat and bringing it back to the lab for analysis. The goal is to understand who’s eating whom and in what quantities in order to get a sense of the state of the ecosystem now so that scientists can compare that to the way things might look after the dams come out and the species interactions change.

But I digress… I’m scampering off after the Ghostbuster scientists in my brand spanking new chocolate brown and oh-so-sexy hip waders (a girl’s gotta clean up for her first date right?) and then BAM, one foot slides over a slippery rock in water about 3 feet deep and I’m on my back, sopping wet and cursing in front of the group. My equipment (camera and audio recorder) is soaked through and I am panicking. “Smooth move Ashley, you spend weeks planning this trip. You’ve thought out every scenario, charted each interview, mapped all the locations – you even remembered to bring enough batteries but now you’re up the creek with no audio recorder. Good luck producing radio from memory.”

So, I find a sunny spot, take apart my equipment, dump the water out of my hip waders and mumble prayers to the radio gods as the scientists continue zapping and collecting fish.

And then, mid electronic CPR, I pause and smile to myself. The Elwha just bitch slapped me. She brought me to my knees, literally. This river has been tamed for about a hundred years. Dams have girdled her and weakened her. They have stripped her of her rich sediment and constipated her natural flow patterns. They have eliminated the mighty salmon runs from all but a five-mile stretch near her mouth, denying her the nutrients and other ecosystem benefits those fish deliver. And she’ll be damned if just any cocky journalist is going to just show up and presume to understand the HALF of what she’s been through; not without paying a price. The Elwha is not a cheap date.

The difference between loving the Elwha and being truly in awe of the Elwha is understanding her. She’s a tough lady, believe me I know -standoffish even- but once you get through her abrasive shell, this river’s a gem. In the coming days I will share what’s made me fall in love with the Elwha. I will tell the stories of the people working to undo 100 years of ecological degradation. They are all different and all passionate in the way that they approach what is to be the largest dam removal project in history. They - we - are unified in our awe of the Elwha. And as she groans and stretches in her chains we are all wondering what beauty, or havoc, may ensue when she breaks free this fall.

Right now I’m just hoping I didn’t screw things up too badly on this first date. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be lucky enough to get a phone call from her in a few days, or even a text. I’d definitely settle for a text.

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