Running the Elwha River

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Hopping the locked yellow park gate at the Olympic National Park entrance, we start our shuffle up Whiskey Bend Road. It’s a damp fall morning in the Pacific Northwest. Nick Brewe is reading our now-wet map while running, and Simon Windell is already eating. Most of our adventures start this way. After a heavy 2016 snowfall, the swollen Elwha River ate the upper access road leading to the Whiskey Bend/Low Divide Trailhead, which translates to six bonus miles. The double track bumps up hill, then, wham—we get our first glimpse of the river: hundreds of cubic feet per second pour into a deep slot canyon. Swirling wind makes the rising mist dance, and we feel the rumble in our stomachs.

After the largest dam removal in the world, on August 26, 2014, the Elwha is still resetting its riparian rhythm. Invigorated by the power of the river, our pace quickens, and we hit singletrack 20 minutes later.

running the elwha river
Getting oriented at the Glines Dam Removal site.

In 1889, the Seattle Press put out a nationwide release calling for volunteers to find an overland route through the Olympic Mountains. Hence, the so-called Press Expedition went up the Elwha River in the dead of winter searching for a route over the mountains. They went light and fast—two mules instead of eight. Both mules, however, died early, and the party of six emerged five months and 44 miles later, likening their route to “exploring a dark rat hole.”

Our crew is here to follow their route up the Whiskey Bend Trail toward the Low Divide. But we have cranberry-beef-stick energy bars, GORE-TEX shells and a 4G cell network.

Within the first couple of miles the trail dips down and follows the river close enough to kiss. Undulating upstream and around bends, everyone stops talking and we sink into that unexplainable rhythm—the smell of a fresh rain, the sound of the river, the brush of the broad-leaf understory. The trail is as worn as an old catcher’s mitt, which makes for very good running.

“We as a nation have been building, on average, one dam per day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence,” explains Frank Magilligan, a professor of geography at Dartmouth College in an article by NOVA Next, a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) production.

The 108-foot Elwha Dam was built five miles from the river mouth in 1912, followed by the 210-foot Glines Dam, eight miles farther upriver, in 1927. Both dams created hydroelectric power for military installments and lumber and paper mills on the Olympic Peninsula. Before removal, the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams had gone from supplying enough power to provide economic growth and development for the entire Olympic Peninsula to supplying less than 40 percent of power to one paper mill. With declining production value has come the trend of tearing dams down in order to restore fish passage, ecological function and/or safety.

The real question for our generation and those to follow is whether or not the demolition is worth the cost, and whether a self-sustaining ecological web will recover after years of disruption. For the salmon in the Elwha, the short answer has been yes. Within months of the Glines and Elwha dam removals, upper stretches of the river were seeing the largest run of Chinook salmon in decades. As a runner I often use the word resilience, and think of this example.

After a couple of hours of rolling singletrack, we stop to fuel up at a large bend in the river. Between the warm afternoon sun and our long view up the river, I feel relaxed enough to nap. Apparently Nick has other plans as he goes stomping off trail, stumbling over bowling ball rocks and into the river. Big rivers always look passable, until you try. As cowboy poet and horseman Val Geissler says, “Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment.”

We follow Nick across the river. Using sticks to stay upright in the current, failing, swimming, then crawling, Simon and I eventually reach the other side. “I want to see if we can make it to the bridge four miles upstream from this side,” Nick says with a smile we should know better than to trust. Burrowing through thicket and fallen old growth covered in two feet of moss, the next few hours are best described as the Press Expedition did: like exploring a dark rat hole.

Stories of dams and fish have always been a part of my life. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, my classmates and I raised and released salmon less than five minutes from our elementary school. I watched the Grand Coulee Dam laser show on family camping trips, which explained how damming the “mighty Columbia” provided electricity to turn aluminum into airplanes. I fly fished for Silver salmon every September with my dad.

Now, with the dam removals, I feel a sense of hope and responsibility for places we get to enjoy as trail runners.

Your run up the Elwha doesn’t have to be all about dams and fish. It may not heighten the experience to think about the Press Expedition as you wade across the river only to find that old growth buried under two feet of moss and a two-dimensional wall of vegetation is in fact as hard to move through as they described. That’s the beauty of modern adventure.

Whiskey Bend Trailhead
Port Angeles, Washington

28 miles to Low Divide.

When to Go
May through September, snowpack dependent. Check conditions before you go.

Getting There
From Port Angeles, follow US 101 west for nine miles. At milepost 240, turn left onto Olympic Hot Springs Road (sign: “Elwha Valley”); if you cross the Elwha River Bridge you’ve gone too far. After two miles, enter the Olympic National Park. After two more miles and just past the Elwha Ranger Station, turn left onto Whiskey Bend Road. Follow this narrow gravel road to its end (4.5 miles).

Olympic National Park Visitor Center 3002 Mount Angeles Rd, Port Angeles, WA 98362. (360) 565-3100,

Day Hiking
Olympic Peninsula (Romano – Mountaineers Books).

Green Trails Elwha North-Hurricane Ridge No.1345.

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