The North-West

TWELVE At Night the Salmon Move

The day started well with hash brown cups for breakfast: simple receptacles of baked hash brown mix, filled (in my case) with some fried bacon, mushrooms and crowned with a perfectly fitting poached egg. This dish comes, of course, with a cardiac warning – but I tell myself that it is a damp day and a solid breakfast is necessary.

The previous post left the Elwha River barred to salmon and so it stayed through the decades – joined at intervals by other rivers in Washington State that were turned from natural habitats to engines of hydroelectricity.

Raymond Carver mourned the loss of the fish in a magical poem that begins at night the salmon move out from the river and into town – and goes on to imagine them rattling doorknobs in the early mornings. The people leave their windows open for them to come in and they call out when they ‘hear a splash’ – but they see no fish.

There were other newcomers who fought for for the ecology of the Olympic Peninsula. Dick Goin was early in the cause and his work was honoured by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe – the Tribe’s Chairman, Frances Charles, described him as “an elder to us” and “an individual with a good heart.” There is a recording of a speech given by Dick Goin (link below) which paints a picture of the now-lost world that he knew as a boy.

The Klallam people as a whole never gave up their fight to have the dams removed. But they were one voice in a complex of inertia and resistance: “different perspectives and standpoints assessed how and why resources were valued and used, and by whom” with the interested spectrum ranging across “immigrant settlers, industrial and commercial interests, governmental entities, regulatory officials and individual advocates”. [1]

The dams were built to power the logging and pulp industries of Port Angeles. These factories, of course, employed a large proportion of the citizens and, for decades, the voices of the Klallam and supporters fell mostly on unwilling ears. But time was on the side of the angels. By the 1980s, the dams and their generators were sagging – output by then sufficient to meet only part of the demand from one pulp mill. The costs of replacement in terms of construction and potential productive capacity were deterrents – as was the growing tide of public opinion. Inspired by Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, a 1975 novel that spurred environmental activism, someone painted a giant trompe l’oeil crack on the face of the upper dam with the words ELWHA BE FREE. The stunt was incredibly successful: the Elwha, the poison of the dams and the plight of the Klallam came to national attention.

Opponents continued a rearguard action – but eventually (though not till 1992) Congress passed The Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act , authorising the Secretary of the Interior to buy and demolish the dams and, crucially, restore the river.

The problem now was to work out how to remove the dams without destroying the lower reaches of the river and making Port Angeles uninhabitable: some 34 million tons of sediment that had built up in the reservoirs behind the ageing structures – a tsunami of slurry to sweep downstream. They came up with a successful plan: the sediment would be released gently over a three-year period and new treatment plants would protect drinking and industrial water supplies. This part of the plan succeeded – and the slow release of the slurry also worked to restore the estuary to something approaching its old self.

the first stage of removal (c) Olympic National Park Washington

The slurry has lined the shoreline with a delta of sediment extending out 400 meters, restoring a critical staging ground for newly-hatched salmon that need a way-station of fresh/saline water to acclimatise before they venture into the briny. And, upstream, work is still ongoing to recover and re-vegetate the denuded basins of the empty reservoirs. Carefully planned interventions have and are restoring the river, the estuary and the plants – and the reward is that the salmon really are returning. Now there is genuine hope that in 20 years’ time when the restoration has bedded in, the Elwha will again be alive with salmon and trout.

The reborn river will, however, have to exist in a world of wider ecological damage. But there is hope here, too: local action can cumulatively bring change – and last week Washington State launched its strategy for carbon neutrality by 2050. Identifying the need for “a comprehensive commitment to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions,” the strategy offers a “blueprint for how, by 2050, we can nearly eliminate the use of climate-threatening fossil fuels while continuing to maintain and grow a prosperous economy.” And they will do this though a combination of “efficient buildings, smarter appliances, vehicles using new sources of energy, investments in industrial processes, a stronger electricity grid and significant innovation …. [to] benefit people, businesses, and rural, urban, highly impacted and indigenous communities throughout the state.”[2]

The new grid will harness waves, tides, winds, geothermal, solar (in the south-central part of the State – certainly not up here) and hydropower. Hydro-electricity has always been a vital component of Washington’s energy strategy – currently providing 70% of the state’s electricity needs (an output that is roughly a third of all hydro produced in the United States). Power comes no longer from the Elwha but from the “hundreds of dams [that] line the Columbia and Snakes rivers …. The largest is the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River, which is also the largest hydropower dam in the United States”. [3]

The demand for electricity is estimated to double [4] as other power sources are phased out but the strategy rules out building any new dams. Instead, the existing infrastructure will be tasked with generating an additional 3.2 GW of power – about 40% more than is being generated at present. Presumably this means a greater flow of water; I have not seen any studies on the ecological impact of scaling up in this way. But at least the Klallam people have their river back – and, we hope, so do the salmon.


How to make hash brown breakfast cups –

Robert Lundahl’s film UnConquering the Last Frontier , a film about the Klallam and the Elwha, begins with a reading of Raymond Carver’s At Night the Salmon Move

Dick Goin speaking about the Elwha River –

This link takes you to a series of excellent five-minute films by the National Park Service about the removal of the dams and restoration of the river –



[1] Elwha: Value of a River. Managing Risk in the Pacific Northwest Philip R.S. Johnson (PhD. Yale. 2013)

[2] Washington 2021 State Energy Strategy (

[3] A 100% wind, water, sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy plan for Washington State Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Guillaume Bazouin et al. (Renewable Energy 86. 2016. 75-88)

[4] January 13, 2021. Washington State Releases 2021 Energy Strategy Karen McGaffey, Perkins Coie

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