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Mountain in the Clouds

by Bruce Brown

IN THE OLD DAYS, the Chinook salmon of the Elwha River were known as tyee. The term meant "chief" in Chinook jargon, the crude pan-Indian trade language of the Northwest coast, and was applied to human and salmon society alike. Among people, it meant the political leader of a tribe; among salmon, it meant the largest fish, generally Chinook weighing thirty pounds or more.

The wild Chinook of the Elwha River, which flows off the north side of Mount Olympus into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, were easily the largest on the Olympic Peninsula. Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper purchased a number of "salmon of 100 pounds" from Indians nearby on July 25, 1790. Early American settlers remarked the exceptional size of the fish, as did the Department of Fisheries, which found "several males that would weigh 100 pounds each" on the river in November 1930.

Tyee apparently were encouraged by the basic nature of the Elwha River. Although no larger than the Queets, the Elwha contained many miles of ideal Chinook spawning grounds, especially between Lost River and Long Creek. To reach these shady riffles, salmon had to climb through a series of narrowing canyons, climaxing at the Goblin's Gate. "The strength of the rapids in this section of the river probably acted as a mechanism for the natural selection of larger fish," speculated the late Robert Mausolf of Peninsula College.

Long life was probably the way Elwha Chinook achieved the physique needed to fight their way into the upper river. Normally, sibling Chinook from the same redd reach spawning maturity over a period of several years. Salmon need a broad range in maturation to spread the effect of one good (or bad) year over many, but in the case of the Elwha Chinook the distribution was probably skewed on the long side. Because the smallest fish might not be able to make the climb to Lost River, the Chinook of the Elwha maintained the necessary age spread among spawners by living longer. Based on the record, it is likely that some Elwha tyee lived twelve or more years, compared to the four or five years common today.

All successful salmon runs develop this type of highly specific adaptation to the rivers they frequent. They know through the genetic legacy of their parents where to hide, what their prey looks like, when to run to the sea and when to return. Since every river is unique in its flow pattern and terrain, every run of wild salmon is necessarily different genetically from all others. The distinction may be obvious, as in the comparison of Elwha tyee to Chinook from nearby rivers, but even when the fish look exactly the same, important differences remain. "It's like a million different keys for a million different locks," said one biologist.

None of these genetic "keys" can be replicated, either through the lengthy natural process of selection, or the quicker, cruder man-made means. "New genetic combinations are created all the time, of course," observed another biologist, "but in terms of recreating a special run of one sort or another it can't be done." Certain runs with certain characteristics may be most numerous at one point in time, but all are important for the long-range survival of the species. This is because each genetically distinct race may provide a set of characteristics needed in the face of future volcanic eruption, glacial advance, geomagnetic reversal, and so forth. "Genetic diversity is one of the main ways that salmon maintain adaptive flexibility," said Lestelle.

When the tyee ruled the Elwha, more than 8,000 Chinook spawned in the river annually, according to Washington Department of Fisheries estimates. Of these, 4,500 were the choicer spring run. The Elwha also supported sizable runs of every species of Pacific salmon found in North American waters. Sockeye ran up Indian Creek to Lake Sutherland coho penetrated to the headwater tributaries, and chum filled the slow side channels along the main river. Most numerous of all were the diminutive pink salmon, which ran 275,000 strong every other year, according to Fisheries estimates. In 1909, the run of pink salmon in the Little River, a tributary of the lower Elwha, was so great that Harold Sisson's mother had to back her terrified horse across the ford.

Today there are no pink salmon in the Little River, and few tyee in the Elwha. To find the wild salmon that once graced this 320-square-mile river system, one must go to the state archives in Olympia. There, in a reading room adorned with pictures of the nation's vice-presidents up through Spiro Agnew, one can examine the records storage folder that contains the runs' remains. Filed under "Elwha Dam," the packet is comprised of a series of documents, beginning with a letter from James Pike, game warden of Clallam County, to Washington Commissioner of Fisheries J. L. Riseland. In an almost breathless tone that can still be detected seven decades later Pike sounded the alarm.  

"I have personally searched the Elwha River & Tributaries above the Dam, and have been unable to find a single Salmon," he wrote in a scratchy, fountain pen script in the fall of 1911. "I have visited the Dam several times lately ... and there appear to be Thousands of Salmon at the foot of the Dam, where they are continually trying to get up the flume. I have watched them very close, and I am satisfied now that they cannot get above the Dam." Pike added that "the big run of Silver [coho] Salmon just commencing to come into the River" would be lost if the fish could not reach their spawning grounds.

The dam in question was a hydroelectric project then under construction in a narrow gorge about five miles upriver from the mouth of the Elwha. It was planned as an eighty-foot-high concrete retainer with a radical design that called for the dam to be hung from the canyon walls without a footing on bedrock below the river. Financed by a Chicago investment banking firm and overseen by a board of directors that included several prominent Seattle businessmen, the Olympic Power and Development Company's Elwha project was the greatest monument to venture capitalism yet seen on the peninsula. It was also in clear violation of the law.

Washington's first legislature had passed a law in 1890 requiring the construction of fish passage devices, such as fish ladders, on dams "wherever food fish are wont to ascend." This law, which was part of the state's wider fisheries authority concerning the length of the commercial fishing seasons, empowered the commissioner of fisheries to levy fines for violations and obtain court orders for the removal or modification of illegal dams. Federal fisheries law, which was passed piecemeal during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, also required consideration for the passage of salmon, but left enforcement at the discretion of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The impetus for these early laws was the desire to avoid the unhappy experience with the Atlantic salmon of the eastern United States. As Anthony Netboy noted in The Atlantic Salmon: A Vanishing Species, "The decline of the [Atlantic] salmon had begun in some localities in the 18th century, not only because of the damming of smaller streams, but because of the excessive pursuit of the fish with nets and spears and other implements. It was not, however, until the first half of the 19th century, when industrialists seized upon the water power of larger streams and some of their affluents, and blockaded nursery grounds, that the rivers began to lose their fisheries." 

The New England states themselves had passed laws to protect the salmon as the nineteenth century unfolded, but without the desired effect. According to Netboy, there were 433 laws on the Maine books pertaining to fisheries and their preservation at the time that salmon virtually disappeared from the state's rivers. During the 1870s, R. D. Hume, who later made a fortune in salmon canning on the Rogue River of Oregon, witnessed a wild scene following the capture of one salmon in the Kennebec River near his native Augusta, Maine. Decades later, Hume remembered seeing:

two of the wealthiest citizens argue for half an hour as to how a salmon of ten pounds should be divided so that each should get a fair proportion of the fat, and which should have the head part; and finally, after appealing to a large crowd of bystanders for their opinions regarding the question, at length settled the matter by cutting the fish on an angle, from belly to back, so as to give the one with the tail portion a fair share of the belly; and then paid $1 per pound for their portion, and went home with smiles on their faces and eyes glistening in anticipation of the glorious feast they were to have on the morrow.

Despite the warnings of men like Hume, the familiar pattern was evident in Washington from the outset. In 1899, the U.S. fish commissioner's report to Congress noted that "in Washington, while the throwing of sawdust into streams is prohibited, it is reported that the regulations have not been well enforced." The same report was appalled that laws regulating the commercial salmon fishing seasons were not enforced outside southern Puget Sound in the vicinity of the state capital. One early state fish commissioner even issued a public mea culpa for the nonenforcement of laws to protect the salmon. In 1911, a disgusted British Columbia commissioner of fisheries described Washington fishery law as simply a "dead letter."


Moutnain in the Clouds by Bruce Brown: 25th Anniversary
Celebrating wild salmon
for 30 years.

Bruce Brown on Breckenridge Creek, September 1980 (Mary Randlett Photo)

Bruce Brown on Breckenridge Ck. in September 1980, dressed in full salmon-stalking attire. (Photo by Mary Randlett.)


"a male pink gives me the hump" by Bruce Brown, 8/24/79

Sketch of a Dungeness River pink salmon from the field notes Bruce Brown made while researching this chapter of Mountain in the Clouds. The caption reads, "a male pink gives me the hump... 8/24/79."


"a male pink gives me the hump" by Bruce Brown, 8/24/79

Aldwell Dam on the lower Elwha River on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, which is slated to be removed for wild salmon restoration beginning in the fall of 2011, part of the largest dam removal project in history. (Photo by Jay Cline, Sequim Gazette.)


Mountain In The Clouds

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Mountain In The Clouds
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Mountain in the Clouds
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"a model of ecological history..."
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"Profound and moving..."
-- Washington Post

"A magnificent book..."
-- Farley Mowat, author of Never Cry Wolf

"A powerful investigative report..." Los Angeles Times

About the Author: Bruce Brown is the author of 11 books, including Mountain in the Clouds, an environmental classic which launched the wild salmon mobement and inspired the removal of the two dams on the Elwha River in 2011, the largest dam revoval project in history.
He has done investigative reporting for the New York Times (the Karen Silkwood story), foreign correspondence for Atlantic Monthly (baseball in Cuba), and book reviews for the Washington Post Book World, as well as script-writing for PBS-TV (The Miracle Planet).
He is also a successful businessman and CEO, having created BugNet and built it into the world’s largest supplier of PC bug fixes before it was acquired by a Fortune 500 company at the height of the dot com boom.
He is presently the Director of the Museum of the Salish at Temixwten.net.

Mountain In The Clouds
by Bruce Brown

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The problem, of course, was that protecting the wild salmon inevitably meant limiting some private individuals' opportunity to enrich themselves at the public trough. This the authorities were loath to do, especially when powerful financial interests were involved. Washington Fish Commissioner Riseland managed to ignore the Elwha Dam throughout an extensive publicity campaign, as well as the first year of actual construction. Not even the warning from the Clallam County game warden could provoke him to action. When Elwha Dam was completed in October 1912, it still lacked fish passage facilities. Then two things happened in quick succession: the radical foundation of the dam blew out to a depth of eighty feet, and Ernest Lister was elected governor of Washington.

A last-minute nominee of the Democratic party who was not expected to win, Lister went to Olympia with few political debts, and some ambitious plans. Although he was born to a wealthy Tacoma family and maintained close social and business ties with the commercial leaders of the area, Lister drew much of his political philosophy from John Rodgers, the state's early radical writer and Populist governor. Lister was an idealist who saw growth and development as the way to a better world and was determined to hasten its coming with a clean government that consciously served the common good. "You gentlemen," he told the legislature in his inaugural address, "are sent here by your constituents to get your share of the pie. I am sent here by all of the people to see that not too much of it is distributed. "

Then as now, "the pie" was made up largely of public resources such as fish, timber, water and minerals entrusted to state management. Lister had little personal knowledge of the state's salmon resource, but he received some astute counsel on aspects of the situation from W. H. Kaufman, Whatcom County assessor and Grange leader. In a letter to Lister of December 28, 1912, Kaufman gave the governor-elect a vivid picture of the operations of the salmon canning industry, which was then centered around Bellingham in Whatcom County:

I came to this country in 1899, and the cannerymen had dominated county politics for some time prior, especially the assessor's [office] and board of equalization; so that up to the time I took office as assessor they had paid only HALF as much taxes as other people-having been able to keep outside of school and road districts, they paid neither school nor road taxes! Up to 1906 they paid NO TAXES WHATSOEVER, although the fishing privileges of this county alone are worth over $6,000,000... By 1899 the Fish Trust-by log rolling, and wining and dining legislators, had obtained enough influence in the legislature to secure the adoption of the infamous "secrecy" joker, by which it is provided that the statistics of the Fish Commissioner's office shall be "confidential," "shall not be open for inspection of the public," nor "communicated to any person" -- that includes county assessors, legislative investigating committees, the governor himself, ANYONE WHO MIGHT LET THE PUBLIC KNOW THE VAST PROFITS OF THE FISHING INTERESTS... No more scandalous piece of graft legislation disgraces the records of any state...

Kaufman had written a number of articles for the Bellingham American-Reveille to set forth "the facts in the case," but before long the cannery owners and their allies bought the paper and closed it to all coverage of their operations. Now Kaufman was asking governor-elect Lister to appoint a fish commissioner who was "fire tested." "We will get justice even with a fish commissioner as ineffectual as Riseland; but we will succeed more quickly and easily with a good man." Lister was impressed. Three months later, he named as fish commissioner Leslie Darwin, the former editor of the American-Reveille who, had run Kaufman's muckraking cannery articles.

An imposing man with erect carriage, dark bushy eyebrows and a head of prematurely white hair, Darwin had strong opinions concerning the state's salmon. He had come to Bellingham at the mouth of the broad Nooksack Valley as a young man, prospected unsuccessfully in the 1898 Mount Baker gold rush, served as secretary to the state teachers' college, and then joined the Seattle Times to manage the editorial and business functions of the American-Reveille, which it had just purchased. During his seven years at the helm of the city's morning paper, Darwin watched Bellingham become the greatest salmon processing center in the world, shipping more than five million one-pound cans of salmon to Europe and Asia annually during the first decade of this century.

Like Kaufman, Darwin was appalled by both the canneries' tremendous wastage of fish (so many unused salmon were dumped overboard that human health risks were commonly incurred wherever canneries operated, according to state and federal reports from the period) and their gross profiteering at public expense. "It seems to me," he said later, reflecting on the central dilemma of the salmon's already evident decline in Washington, "to be a crime against mankind-against those who are here and the generations yet to follow to let the great salmon runs of the State of Washington be destroyed at the selfish behest of a few individuals who, in order to enrich themselves, would impoverish the state and destroy a food supply of the people."

With Lister's approval, Darwin moved swiftly to reform the administration of his office and attack the canneries' use of dummy corporations to avoid paying the state tax on canned salmon, their frequent deployment of oversized traps and pound nets, and most especially, the "secrecy joker" that kept all cannery information hidden from public scrutiny. At the same time, he made some effort to enforce the wider environmental sanctions necessary for the salmon's survival, including the law requiring the construction of fish ladders at all dams. Writing to the bankrupt owner of a small mill dam on a tributary of the Elwha, Darwin put the matter bluntly: "Unless the dam is immediately equipped with a fishway in accordance with [the law], we shall have to proceed under statute to blow it out."

Regarding the much larger and more damaging Olympic Power dam on the mainstem Elwha, however, Darwin found the situation "perplexing." Although the dam, which was being rebuilt, still lacked fishways, Darwin never seems to have considered applying the law with the same rigor as in the case of the mill dam on the nearby Elwha tributary. The influential Olympic Power backers (among them, the salmon-trolling banker Joshua Green) and the governor's own infatuation with hydroelectric power (Lister was one of the first to propose a dam at Bonneville on the Columbia) encouraged Darwin to attempt a more exotic solution.

The Elwha Dam file in the Washington State Archives contains an August 1913 letter from Darwin to Olympic Power in which he proposed for the first time that the owners of the dam build a hatchery in lieu of a fishway. While acknowledging that "no officer of the state has any right to waive one of the state's statutory requirements," Darwin went on to say that the law could be circumvented if the hatchery physically adjoined the dam, which could then be considered a state obstruction for the taking of eggs to supply the hatchery. The science of artificial salmon propagation was entirely unproven at this time, but caught up in the sweep of the idea, Darwin declared enthusiastically: "my plan forever eliminates bother in the future."

Olympic Power was cool to the suggestion. "It would appear that you [Darwin] were making a very heavy demand on us," replied Thomas Aldwell, president of Olympic Power. Aldwell, who was a native of Toronto, Canada, had been promoting the dam since 1894, when he acquired the contested title to a 160 acre "homestead" on federal land in the Elwha gorge. His early life had been similar to Darwin's in many respects (he, too, came to the Northwest in the 1890s, served as manager of a provincial daily newspaper, and worked for the government), but when it came to personalities and politics, the two men were as different as the interests they served.

Bruce Brown's "Mountain in the Clouds," the book that brought down the dams on the ElwhaAldwell saw "peace and power and civilization" in the development of environmentally destructive industry and pushed the theme without respite for more than fifty years. He was deep into several unhappy railroad speculation schemes, the U.S. Army's unfortunate logging of the spruce above Lake Quinault, the development of the four pulp and paper mills that provide most of the employment in Port Angeles, his own commercial and residential developments and, of course, the dam. He himself saw his long and vigorous life as "an example of what any young man in this country can accomplish if he sets out to do so." Charles Clise, president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, called him "the type of pioneer whose vision and courage are still the bulwark of this state's growth and development."

Blessed with an ample portion of bravura, Aldwell cheerfully recounted in his autobiography, Conquering the Last Frontier, how as president of the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce he helped dispense more than $120,000 in bribes and kickbacks to persuade industries to locate in Port Angeles. When money would not do the trick, Aldwell used other imaginative methods. In 1914, for instance, he went to Washington, D.C., to divert a parcel of land that was supposed to be the site of the city's hospital into the hands of his associates for private development. After Aldwell presented his case to the House Public Lands Committee, the conservative Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon commented nostalgically that "this reminds me of the days when Illinois was on the frontier." Progressive Republican George Norris opposed Aldwell's scheme on the grounds that the "lots should be sold at public auction," if at all, and the others seemed to agree. Seeing the case going against him, Aldwell played his hole card:

I noticed that Congressman Norris was wearing an Elks' pin on his coat. I then told them that Port Angeles was the only Elks Lodge in the United States that had a name other than that of the town in which it was located... I showed Norris my Elks' card, and it wasn't long before Norris began favoring the bill, as did another member of the committee that had been opposing it. Going out to the floor, the other man who had helped approve the bill introduced himself to me as a Past Grand Exalted Ruler of the Elks.

Through similar appeals (Lister was an enthusiastic member of the Elks and Masons), Aldwell was able to stall the state for nearly a year, but on June 4, 1914, the fish commissioner delivered an ultimatum. "I am sorry that you have made no response to my last query to you relative to the hatchery at the foot of the Elwha Dam," he wrote. "Unless I hear from you in some positive manner in five days, I shall issue an order for you to erect a fishway .... It is out of the question for us to allow another run to beat its brains out against that dam." Presented with the matter in this fashion, Aldwell did an immediate about-face, signing an agreement with the state on August 14 which committed Olympic Power to donate land for a hatchery, and contribute $2,500 toward its construction.

The deal between Darwin and Aldwell was itself illegal, of course. State law still required the construction of fish passage facilities at every dam that blocked the migration of salmon. Olympic Power's Elwha Dam had been in violation of the law for five years, and should by rights have been removed at the company's expense. Darwin himself could have been charged with malfeasance in the case, based on the evidence in the State Archives. Instead, Lister convinced the legislature to change the law so that hatcheries could be built in lieu of fish passage facilities. With this legal nicety out of the way, the flood began. During the first few years of his administration, Darwin accepted seven hatcheries in supposed compensation for the substantial runs of wild salmon lost to dam construction on rivers such as the White Salmon, Chehalis and Elwha.

The Elwha hatchery went into operation in 1915. Initially, the state was able to collect as many as two million eggs annually from fish that were born before the dam was built but within a few years the pool below the dam was nearly empty of fish. None of the wild salmon that used to spawn above the dam remained, and the hatchery had been unable to replace them. In 1922, the year after Darwin retired, the Department of Fisheries abandoned the Elwha hatchery and left the few remaining wild salmon to their own devices. A subsequent title search revealed that ownership of the hatchery site had never actually been transferred to the state as promised, and Crown Zellerbach Corporation (which bought the dam in 1919) has retained title to this day. Nearly all the hatcheries built by Darwin in connection with dams met similar fates.

On the Elwha, the immediate effect of the dam was to reduce the number of salmon by approximately 75 percent. All spring Chinook and sockeye were lost, along with most coho, pink and chum salmon. Only the fall Chinook, which had always spawned in the lower river, were relatively unaffected. In 1971 the Department of Fisheries calculated that the loss of the Elwha salmon runs had cost the people of Washington $500,000 annually. By this token, the total expense of the dam has been more than $35 million to date. Crown Zellerbach, for its part, reported a profit from the very first year of operation in Port Angeles, where it used the power from the dam to run the first of that city's large lumber mills.

The loss of these runs was only the beginning of the damage done by the dam, however. As time wore on it came to affect the entire river and even the coast that stretches east along the strait toward Puget Sound. Like logging, a dam changes the basic nature of a river by affecting the critical element of sediment load. In its natural state a river is a sort of corkscrew twisting on itself as it flows downstream. Entering a bend, the fast-moving water near the top pushes against the outside bank and erodes it, while the slower, sediment-heavy water near the bottom moves to the inside bank and deposits some of its load, be it sand, gravel or boulders. This process produces the beautifully mathematical meanderings that can be found in most of the world's rivers, and serves the fundamental purpose of dissipating energy in the river's unending quest for equilibrium.

Glacial torrents like the Elwha are, therefore, as much a reflection of the sediment and debris they carry as of the water which does the actual work. "When a dam is built across a river and sediment settles in the still water of the reservoir," Luna B. Leopold of the U.S. Geological Service has written, "clear water will be released to the channel downstream. But the channel was accustomed to water carrying sediment. The clear water causes the channel to change its shape and slope. These changes in channels downstream from dams cannot be accurately predicted because of our lack of knowledge, but the changes are causing considerable difficulty to engineering works."

For the surviving salmon of the lower Elwha, the dam's worst consequence has been the disappearance of the gravel they need for spawning. As the bright green waters of the river have cut deeper and deeper in an effort to consume their excess energy, the riverbed on many of the best riffles has been transformed into a boilerplate of boulders and bedrock. Forced together by their constricting spawning grounds, the Chinook now dig one redd on top of another in a group frenzy that more closely resembles the habits of pink salmon and further wastes their efforts to continue their race.

An even larger problem that has only recently become apparent is the erosion of Ediz Hook. This three-mile-long spit, which forms the natural harbor of Port Angeles, is losing more than 13,000 cubic yards of material to the strait annually, and has been designated a "major problem area" in the Corps of Engineers National Shoreline Study. The reasons for the accelerating breakup of Ediz Hook, according to the Corps, are the Crown Zellerbach dam on the Elwha and the industrial water line supplying ITI-Rayonier's mill in Port Angeles, which have interrupted the natural supply of gravel to the spit.

Between 1967 and 1972 the federal government, City of Port Angeles and Crown Zellerbach spent $1 million to prevent the spit from breaching. Then in 1973, the Corps of Engineers began a fifty-year project to maintain the spit with rock and gravel quarried on the Elwha and trucked to the spit. The project, which is expected to cost taxpayers $4 million, has further reduced the survival chances of Elwha salmon by altering the composition of the spit and the species that live on it, for as the Corps's environmental impact statement noted: the "increases in the population of rockfish could increase predation on migratory juvenile salmon."

Ultimately, the dam on the Elwha had consequence for wild salmon all over Washington through the policies it fostered in the Department of Fisheries. Despite its biological failure, Leslie Darwin's deal on the Elwha became the model toward which his lesser successors strove. The immediate attraction of the hatchery lieu law from the standpoint of Fisheries was that it increased the department's funding. The drawback, however, was that the state gave up most of its power to stop a dam for the sake of the wild salmon, as well as the interest in doing so, since the bulk of Fisheries' energy was increasingly directed toward building the hatchery system that is today the largest on the Pacific Coast.

"Mountain in the Clouds" Copyright 1981 Bruce Brown
Salmon sketch by Bruce Brown


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