Lonesome: Haunted by the Untold Elwha Story

12/17/23 04:01 PM Comment(s) By webmaster

Lonesome Larry Letter 3 of Many

Dear Tal,

My apologies for bringing up such a painful memory. I do see why it provided clarity on the question I asked.  As an apex species, if you don’t have enough food in abundance when you need it most, and the pod is always on the move hunting, I can see why this would be hardest on the mothers and their calves. The energy expended and the stress caused must be tremendous. As salmonid we play the role of both predator and prey during our life cycle in the ocean. In the rivers it’s different. We are more scavengers and prey as fry, and when returning home to the rivers we are more stressed and vulnerable to pre-spawning mortality than prey or predator. The journey out to sea is traumatic with so many predators both from the sky and in the waters upstream and downstream of every obstruction.

Returning home to our headwaters has also become more difficult. Just before we head upriver, we try to gorge ourselves in the salt waters and grow rapidly and build our energy reserves. Unless we have been very lucky, we do not grow as big and strong as we once did.  There is not as much food available when we need it either. To avoid the warmer waters that are now coming down the rivers, some of us have tried to adapt and head in a little earlier each year. This gives us less time to grow and sometimes our favorite foods have not yet arrived in the numbers we need. Some wait it out and take their chances that the water does not warm too much and becomes lethal. Unlike you Tal, we are not warm blooded and cannot regulate our body temperature. So, do we head in earlier, before our bellies are full and we are fully mature, or do wait and take our chances?

If only there were a way, we could get up to the cool waters of our spawning grounds faster, we could then feed longer on the Coast, and avoid the warming waters that are often too warm and stressful, especially when climbing in the fish ladders.

I promised you a story in my last letter. I know it to be true. It came from a friend whose home was in the Elwha River. When she returned to her home river some years back, things had really changed. The once clear waters were filled with so much sediment every time it rained the entire river would move. She was trying to return to a creek that led to the hatchery from where she was born, below what had been the Elwha dam.  However, the sediment was so great that with each rainfall more than a foot of new sediment would be left behind on the river bottom. She tried for days to get back to the hatchery, but it was no use. The sediment had blocked her path, as well as all her cohorts she had traveled back with from the Pacific. Each day that passed, the river moved further away.

With a belly full of eggs, she and her cohorts headed upriver and past the hatchery in search of other spawning grounds, and they began to lay their eggs. Again, the rains would come and fill the channel with feet of new sediment and bury their redd. They moved further upriver, in search of better waters, and each time her cohorts redd would be buried in suffocating sediment. She moved upstream further and encountered concrete, and rebar, and boulders below where the dam used to be, making it nearly impassable, and certainly inhospitable to laying her redd. She headed back downstream and prepared to lay her redd. Before she did, seine nets captured her and her cohorts. At great risk to their own safety, people in uniform pulled them from the nets and transported them into hatchery trucks. Some of her cohorts went to the hatchery and some like her were transported above where the dams had been, above from where the sediment flowed.

The people’s papers announced in the headlines how so many salmon had already returned to the Elwha. They weren’t wild salmon. My friend knew it. It was beautiful, the water was clear, there was spawning gravel, and there she was, but it was not her home. She could not wait any longer to spawn any longer, so she made her redd for her hatchery brood, and sacrificed her life to provide more nutrients for her fry, knowing it would not be enough. The water there lacked all the nutrients caring mothers seek. Why were they placed above those dams? Why is this story not told so that others can learn from the mistakes made on the Elwha?  Perhaps it just wasn’t the narrative that people wanted to tell at that time. Because of it, the people don’t know better or don’t listen to those that do. Whatever the reason Tal, this is why I am most worried.

There has been a long running argument by the people about the dams downstream of my home in Idaho. There are more dams than the two on the Elwha. There is more sediment, and it’s tainted with toxins, unlike the sediment that came from the pristine Olympic Forest that a decade later has now made a beautiful estuary in the Elwha river’s mouth.  The people tell the Elwha story, but they don’t tell the whole story. Our circumstances are different, our climate is much hotter, and the journey is so much farther from the Pacific. Our solutions may be different too. We don’t have time to wait, but we cannot afford any more people’s mistakes.

Despite all my concerns I remain an optimist; I know there are things that will help my prodigy multiply. We must do those things now, but how do we communicate with the people who have their own self-interest over ours? Tal your story reached inside the people’s emotions, and they were inspired to help in any way they could. Perhaps it is easier for people to relate to another mammal. I don’t think that will work for us; we must reach their minds. Help them think like a fish and act with urgency, and not be distracted by the noise. I know what needs to be done, but how do we reach the people, so they act upon it?

Do we try to educate them when they do not seem to want to learn? Do we call them out by name and risk their favor? Or do we put the answers in their hand with studies they do not take time to master? How do we reach their minds when emotion does not move them, when what they think is good enough, is now bad for us. How do we move them forward, without going back, when the environment has changed and so there is no going back to exactly the way it was in the past. You know better. We know better. How do we become the loudest person in the room, so the people really hear?  How do we magnify our voice over all the noise? How do we make our problem their urgent problem, so they can quickly find their way to our solutions?

Tal, we need to create an actionable vision, better than what has been imagined before.  I think we need a compelling plan, one that can be implemented right away with all available resources. Can’t wait to get started on this with you.

Your friend, 



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