Resurrecting the Elwha

Times’ Mapes, Ringman track peninsula river’s rebirth

While work crews were busy deconstructing two massive dams on the Elwha River, writer Lynda Mapes was busy building a biography.


And all that took was hundreds of pages of notes, dozens of newspaper articles, the better part of two decades of research and one behemoth of a subject: the largest dam removal project in the world.


“I thought that (this could be a book) from the very beginning,” Mapes says from her desk at The Seattle Times, where’s she specializes in coverage of Native American tribes, nature and environmental topics.

“Elwha: A River Reborn,” a pairing of Mapes’ exhaustive research of the Elwha River’s history, science and politics with rich images from fellow Times staffer Steve Ringman, recently hit bookstore shelves.

“We went into it knowing we would do something special,” Mapes said.


The demolishing of the 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam and 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam, the opening of 70 miles of spawning habitat to steelhead and all five species of Pacific salmon (chinook, chum, coho, pink and sockeye) and the importance of sediment in their removals became an international story, one that Mapes had been recording for several years.


The thought that her work would become a keepsake beyond thin newsprint was born when Mapes first reported on the first concrete steps toward removing the dams in the 1990s, when she was reporting for The Spokesman Review.


“Those were critical years,” Mapes says, noting the groundwork for the $325 million federal dam removal project — including influence from players in the business community, politicians, tribal leaders and scientists — was in the works for decades before the project’s final approval. While Mapes gives a historical background to the creation of the dams, taking particular care with pioneer Thomas Aldwell’s drive to build the original Elwha Dam in the early 1900s, the book touches on all things Elwha through to the present day.


Research took Mapes and Ringman far and wide across the Elwha River Valley. They trekked alongside a cacophony of interagency scientists taking part in the Elwha River restoration, one of the most massive in-the-field scientific studies ever undertaken.


“It was fun to be with people so committed (to the project),” Mapes said. “They let us shadow them in the field for two years before it came down. We saw things you can’t see today.”


Fittingly, Mapes is scheduled to present an introduction of “Elwha: A River Reborn” on Friday, April 26, in the Carver Room at the Port Angeles Library, before hosting a similar event in Seattle later this year.

“It’s the world premiere; that to me is very intentional,” Mapes said of the Port Book and News-sponsored presentation. “I just felt like this is the place to kick it off.”


The free event features a slideshow and Mapes will be available to sign copies of her newest book along with another publication centered on the Olympic Peninsula: “Breaking Ground: The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the Unearthing of Tse-whit-zen Village.”


Mapes also will be a special guest at Peninsula College’s Studium Generale at 12:35 p.m. on Tuesday, April 30.


Coming full circle

One of Mapes’ first memories of the Elwha area came in her first visit in 1992, when she hiked to the Lillian River Camp along one of the Elwha’s major tributaries.


Since then, the Elwha has had a special place in the writer’s heart. Turns out Mapes wasn’t alone. In her research, the Seattle native found it wasn’t difficult to get people to talk about much of anything surrounding the Elwha.


“Everyone was eager to talk, nothing was secret,” Mapes said. “That’s unusual. Everybody’s got a story about the Elwha. I knew … this would resonate. They fought for (dam removal) or against it, or had great memories about it. This is a story people really wanted to tell.”


The 176-page publication is based on interviews, field work, historical research and period images and photography over the past 16 years. Mapes collected stories from figures such as Bea Charles and Adeline Smith of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and from dam workers as they powered down old turbines, and by following biologists and botanists in rafts, on foot, in waders and underwater, as they documented changes to the Elwha’s flora and fauna.


“I wanted to really make an effort to get the whole story, to get on the ground before the dam removal (and explain) why it’s such a special place,” Mapes said.


That’s evident in the full color photography by Ringman, twice named the national Newspaper Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association.


Getting the go-ahead from Times editors for the project and eventually inking a deal to design and market it through Mountaineers Books, Mapes spent a month turning notes from the past decade-and-a-half into a first draft, then added details from state archives, the Clallam County Historical Society and unique background from sources such as Aldwell’s personal scrapbooks, courtesy of Aldwell’s granddaughter.


Mountaineers Books touts “Elwha: A River Reborn” as a book that connects with readers of various ages and interest levels, from high school students to adult lifelong learners, policymakers and activists, science experts and the general audience.


Similarly, the book’s subject — the restoration of the Elwha River — seems to be all about interconnections, Mapes said. It was during one her jaunts into the backcountry that the river began to quietly speak to her.


“One day in particular I wandered off. I was looking at a tiny stream, these little pieces of leaf cartwheeling, the roots underwater … and fish. I could see a microcosm of everything the scientists were talking about in just a little tiny patch. It all interacts. All of these were connected, broken by the dam and they came back to life. It is a machine, an organic machine. All things depended on the river (that) fed everything else.


“It all fit together, wheels within wheels.”


See Mapes’ blog at


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