PAT NEAL: Oh, for the good old days on the Elwha River

IT’S ALWAYS SAD to read about the loss of an old friend.

I prefer to remember the good times.

Picture a little campfire along a beautiful mountain stream rushing by in a roar of soothing white noise that drowns out the cares of the day.

A trout caught that day in a stretch of the river right in front of your camp is grilling on the coals.

Lanterns light up the shadows as nighttime falls on another night in the Altair Campground along the Elwha River.

The Altair Campground was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937.

That was back when the Olympic Peninsula was known as the last frontier and a sportsman’s paradise.

The Elwha River valley was party central.

There was the Olympic Hot Springs Resort with a lodge and campground just up the river from Altair.

There was Waumilla Lodge with a campground and eight cabins just downstream from Altair.

Farther down the river was a private campground, the Elwha campground and the Elwha Resort campground down where Hot Springs Road meets the highway.

In all, there were five campgrounds, three resorts and three boat launches along two beautiful trout-filled lakes with a trout-filled river running between them.

All this including the road that connected it all is gone or just about washed out.

Seeing all this disappear in my short lifetime convinces me of one thing: If we humans were suddenly removed from the Earth, there would be very little evidence of our existence within a very short time, geologically speaking.

Only one thing is for sure about access to the Elwha River valley: Future access is uncertain.

According to a March 5 Peninsula Daily News article, “Welcome Home For Fish But Hurdles For Visitors,” the National Park Service could close what’s left of the road going up the Elwha every time the river rises above 5,000 cubic feet per second.

Anything over 9,000 cubic feet per second is considered a flood, according to the late Robert Mauself, a fisheries instructor at Peninsula College.

Mauself said the Elwha flooded 40 times between 1897 and 1965.

The Elwha rose to 41,000 cfs on Nov. 18, 1897.

It was probably the result of a wet autumn snowfall followed by a warm rain that melted all at once.

While we are familiar with the term, “hundred-year flood,” Mauself speculated a “thousand-year flood” with a flow of 150,000 cfs was possible.

As to the effects of all of this water rushing down out of the mountains through the narrow canyons of the Elwha, Mauself referred to his pal, University of Washington fisheries Professor Milo Bell, a Port Angeles man who knew his rivers.

In 1913 and 1914, the Fraser River was clogged up at Hell’s Gate by landslides caused by blasting for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, blocking an estimated 30 million fish from their spawning grounds.

Bell built a fish-way for the migrating sockeye in 1938 that has been working ever since, according to “The Last Wilderness” by Murray Morgan.

He speculated that during a thousand-year flood, even with the dams intact, the Elwha was capable of destroying everything in the lower river.

Since the Elwha River dam removal experiment, we must consider the effects of the erosion of reservoir sediments released from the former lakebeds.

The final disposition of these deposits may not be settled for decades.

Add to this uncertain mix the impending Cascadia Subduction Zone event, climate change and an increase in violent storms, and we have the conditions for a natural disaster bigger than anything seen on the Elwha since the last ice age.

Forget about the roads and the campgrounds.

We’ll be lucky to have a bridge across the Elwha.

_________

Pat Neal is a fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].

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