Final work on dam will open all 70 miles of wild Elwha River

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. -- The largest dam removal in US history will conclude in the next 2-3 weeks - and final dynamite blasts in a few days - opening all 70 miles of the Elwha River in Washington's Olympic National Park after being dammed up for 100 years.

The Glines Canyon Dam is lesser known than the Elwha Dam a few miles downstream that made headlines around the world two years ago when it was removed. Workers have now removed all of the Glines Canyon Dam except for 35 feet of concrete that prevents a narrow part of the river from returning to its normal width.

That, in turn, will open access for salmon to the upper reaches of the Elwha River all the way to the headwaters from glaciered peaks.

Salmon have already been spotted just yards below the Glines Canyon Dam. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, are spawning in the river system, experts say. The Elwha's legendary salmon runs exceeded 300,000 before the two dams blocked it for more than a century. It dropped to only 3,000 in recent years.

And what better way is there to demonstrate that the Elwha river is now largely a free flowing, wild river again than rafting through rapids and through quiet solitude as the ridges of the valley float by. Olympic Raft and Kayak opened earlier this summer on the new Elwha.

A team from the National Parks Conservation Association, a privately funded support group for America's national park system, floated the Elwha on Tuesday to make a statement.

"This is really a message of hope, in that restoration - putting things back the way they should have been - is possible," said Rob Smith, the Northwest Director of the NPCA. "We can set things right again. That's the Elwha's message is."

The most compelling part of the raft trip is that area of the river that, for more than 100 years, had been covered by the lake created by the dam that's no longer there.

Massive stumps from trees nearing 1,000 years old have now re-emerged as the artificial lake vanished. Tons of sediment and wood debris flowed downstream pushed by the naturally erratic flow of the wild river no longer controlled by dams.

Construction manager Don Laford will order the explosions next week, tearing down his second hydroelectric dam. He saw the irony. "Oh, I've spent most of my career building power plants."

Entranced with the Elwha is Robert Elofson, Lower Elwah-Klallam tribal director of this project.

"It's very emotional for me to talk about it any time because it's now going to happen," he said.

The river restoration, he says, can be summed up in one catchy phrase he now wears on his hat. "Jesus, you know, we want our dammed salmon back! I thought, 'wow, that's exactly what we want!'"

There've been nearly 40,000 sunsets since the Elwha last flowed freely. It a few more days, all 70 miles of it will flow freely once again.