Last Light on the Elwha | Olympic National Park

I am sitting along the bank of the Elwha River on the north end of the Olympic Peninsula, feet in the frigid glacial water. My tripod & camera are low over the water, pointed downstream towards the setting sun. Sunset light barely skirts the bottoms of the low clouds, which reflect in blue and silver in the quick water. 

I am learning this new place; I am learning a new routine; I am learning myself. 

A passing comment from a friend months ago turned into an inquiry, then an opportunity. The opportunity turned into a decision, a hurried preparation. Many farewells.

I’ll be living for the near future here, on the Olympic Peninsula, on the north shore of Lake Crescent, as a photographer for Olympic National Park. I didn’t need to move 2,401 miles away (as my trip odometer showed) to take more photographs, or hone skills I wanted to hone. But I ached to throw my days at something that is so closely (riskily, perhaps) intertwined with my own feelings of worth and alive-ness. A life’s work of creativity—of making—means enough to me to warrant such a commitment. I’ve enlisted my energy and days in its service, reprioritizing how my resources are spent. What course it takes is as-yet unknown.

The Elwha River is legendary for its rich salmon spawning ground. Chinooks were once reported over 100 pounds, and up to a quarter of a million fish used the waterway for annual spawning runs. Eager to harness the powerful river for electricity, the river was dammed in two locations for a good portion of the last century, severely stunting the natural fishery. 

After the world’s largest dam removal earlier this decade, the Elwha now runs from mountains to ocean, unhindered. Its reservoirs are drained and spawning grounds are well on their way to restoration. 

Returning now to the courses and bounds of old, unhindered, the “new” Elwha is a yearling, testing its banks and limits—at times, violently, jarringly. This spring, a tributary undercut the main roadway into the Elwha valley, washing it out. Newly-unearthed metal debris from the early-20th-century construction project is occasionally dislodged from old dam sites, crashing through the valley. River banks are still volatile and shifting. Revegetation projects are ongoing. However, the river is returning to what it does best: flowing, and cradling in its forceful waters, one of the richest spawning grounds in the world.

I will be returning to the spot in a few weeks, not minutes from my new home, to see the salmon run this course.