Return of the River

Documentary Film, 71 minutes

Produced and Directed by John Gussman & Jessica Plumb


At first glance this film appears to be about dismantling two quite large dams constructed in the early 1900’s on the Elwha River, located on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. It soon becomes apparent that dam removal is just part of a much larger story; of a majestic river, of the fish and wildlife that depend on it for survival, of the people who lived along it for millennia, and of change wrought by pioneering newcomers who, in the name of progress and economic development tamed and made use of the area’s lands and waters. It is, in so many ways, yet another version of the story repeated, watershed by watershed, across North America.


I had already seen the 8 minute version on the internet. It is quite good. However, it in no way comes close to telling the story of the Elwha River. You have to see the full 71 minutes to begin to understand the significance of what is taking place there. Return of the River is a story of vision, persistence, renewal and hope. And, it is told respectfully and accurately, with eloquence and beauty. It was so good that I left the showing buying not one, but two DVDs of the film, an extra one to circulate amongst people that I knew would likely not have a chance to see it any time soon.


While the destruction by dynamite and bulldozer of the dams does provide visual focus and compelling action, the real “star” of the movie is the Elwha River itself. Indeed, the voice of the river is the thread which ties the whole story together. It is the voice of the water and mountains, ancient trees and alpine flowers, elk and otters. And, it is the voice of the salmon, for the Elwha was the premier salmon river on the Olympic Peninsula. It was home for all five wild Pacific salmon species as well as steelhead and bull trout. The huge size of the Chinook salmon of the Elwha were legendary, like those associated with much larger rivers such as the Columbia or Yukon. Hundred pounders were said to call the Elwha home.


The “co-stars” of the film are the people of the lower Elwha Klallam tribe, people who had their way of life pulled out from under them, who had to adjust to changes beyond their control, but people who continued to live a life that respected a heritage deeply rooted in the landscape. Fish, especially salmon, continued to play a key role in not just their diet, but their stories and celebrations.Their voice is given the space and prominence that it deserves.


The film revolves around a “crazy” idea; removing the two dams which completely blocked salmon passage to most of the Elwha river and the many streams and creeks flowing into it. These uplands were still wild and pristine, after all they formed the core of Olympic National Park, and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. There were bear and deer and cougar. There were trees which had stood for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. There were even remnant fish populations, steelhead and sockeye salmon, landlocked by the dams. But, something was missing, something important. There were no large runs of wild salmon who had spawned upriver and lived in the ocean.


And we are coming to realize that wild, ocean grown salmon are key to the long term health of Pacific Northwest ecosystems. For mature salmon bring nutrients back to the land so the land can flourish.


Dam removal was considered crazy at first. After all, they were there, formidable concrete and steel structures. They provided power and water, jobs and stability. People boated and fished in the lakes behind them. The landscape had healed, it looked natural. Even the dams had a kind of settled in, aged beauty. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” the saying goes.


But it was broken. For one thing, the dams were close to a hundred years old. They needed expensive upgrades and repairs to meet current regulations and safety standards. The dams blocked the salmon, and something had to be done about that. But removing the dams was out of the question. These problems could be solved. After all, they were doing it on other rivers. Dams could be redesigned. Hatcheries could be built. Fish could be transported around obstructions. Engineering and technology in combination with human ingenuity, resolve and money could do it. Many people thought that we had to figure out how to have dams, cheap renewable power, water and ... wild salmon.


But, as the film documents, the “crazy idea” of dam removal started as a little seed that slowly took root. This was, for me, the heart of the film. I followed the process carefully, for I was certain that there was much to be learned here. I was struck by the role that the Port Angeles based Elwha Citizens Advisory Committee played in this process. Such groups are often formed. And we live in such a divided political world that over and over they fail to reach any consensus, the divisions are so hardened. Apparently in this case the divisions were there, but something different happened. After weekly meetings for six months consensus was reached. Dam removal came to be seen to be the best, most logical action to be taken. I wished the film had focused a little more on how this unfolded, what kind of compromises needed to be drafted and agreed to. It appeared a little too easy.


As the film shows, once local citizen opposition shifted, the process of dam removal began, step by logical step. It was not simple. Money had to be allocated, agreements forged. Other sources of power and water needed to be brought on-line. Base-line studies of the whole Elwha river ecosystem had to be completed. Engineering was required to safely “un-build” two huge concrete and steel structures with significant amounts of water behind them. And, some powerful political opponents needed to step aside. It didn’t happen overnight. Indeed, from the time that public support shifted in favor of dam removal to the time when everything was ready for the very first explosion to go off, over 15 years had passed. Yet, to many people’s amazement, the work began and continued until the Elwha river, first damed in 1913, once again flowed freely on August 26th, 2014, 101 years later.


I saw the film in April, 2015. It premiered in the fall of 2014 just a month after the last blast took place, completely freeing the river. But the story continues. As the credits were playing at the end, statements on how things were progressing appeared; trees being planted, fish moving upstream for the first time. I can imagine a second film, maybe five or ten years from now, highlighting how the river is recovering, what we have learned, where this might be happening in other places. Since the filmmakers are local to the Olympic Peninsula and doing this because they believe that the story needs to be told, this is possible. At the very least, I would hope that their website www.elwhafilm.com becomes the place to look for updates and additional imagery.


A couple of days before I went to the local screening of Return of the River I was listening to the radio and my attention was caught by the words Celilo Falls. I knew about Celilo Falls, on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon. An amazing place. It was once one of the most important sites for commerce amongst Native Americans prior to European arrival (some historians called it the “Wall Street of the West”). According to Wikipedia, the trading villages at Celilo were the oldest continuously inhabited communities on the North American continent ... until 1957. In terms of volume of water, it was the 6th largest falls in the world. The Chinook people of the lower Columbia caught the huge salmon of the same name as they worked their way up over the rocky steps forming the falls. And I knew that it is now buried under water ever since the completion of the Dalles Dam in 1957.


The radio story was about an Oregon state representative proposing a resolution, asking the Army Corps of Engineers to look into the feasibility of drawing down the water level every year for one or two weeks to make Celilo Falls visible again. Another crazy idea. Right away, there were many voices saying just that, including some of the local Native Americans whose community, called Spearfish is also underwater. They said that such an action would only expose a mud covered former village site, and open up old wounds.


Yet, I can’t help but think that one day it may not seem so crazy. Just like yet another crazy idea which has been bantered about for years; removing the four dams on the lower Snake River. This idea persists because there is a logic which cannot be ignored. Removing the Snake River dams, which, like those on the Elwha, do not have provisions for fish passage, is seen as probably the most significant action which could be take in support of wild salmon restoration in the entire Columbia River watershed.


So, be sure to see the full length version of The Return of the River. Go to the website www.elwhafilm.com for information on screenings, ways you could host a showing, or how to order your own copy.


And remember that while dams may be built with stone, their logic is not always etched in stone.


Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook, April, 2015