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The Book That Brought Down The Elwha Dams!
Mountain In The Clouds
A Search For The Wild Salmon
by Bruce Brown

I DON'T KNOW about the old adage -- "the pen is mightier than the sword" -- but I do know that the book is mightier than the dam(s).

The following excerpt from Mountain in the Clouds: A Search for the Wild Salmon , the book that inspired the removal of the dams on the Elwha River, the largest dam removal project in history.

After reading Mountain in the Clouds, U.S. Sen. Tom Bradley drafted a bill -- and subsequently orchestrated its passage by the U.S. Congress -- which ordered the removal of the two dams on the Elwha River in Washington State.

Originally published in 1981, Mountain in the Clouds was the first to detail the flagrant violations of state law that allowed the original construction of Aldwell Dam on the Elwha a century ago, and the dam's subsequent destruction of the wild salmon of the Elwha, once the largest on the Olympic Peninsula.

Mountain in the Clouds was also the first book to explore the differences between hatchery and wild salmon, inspiring the wild salmon movement which has tranformed salmon management across the North Pacific Rim over the last 30 years.

In popular terms, though, it's probably easiest to see the effects of Mountain in the Clouds in the wild salmon that is now proudly offered in restaurants and stores, and the simple fact that it is common in our culture now to distinguish between wild and hatchery salmon.

Before Mountain in the Clouds, if you used the term "wild salmon" to someone on the Pacific Northwest, they probably would have thought you meant a color -- something beyond "hot pink."

Personally, however, I think Mountain in the Clouds's most important contribution has been in the realm of deep ecology. Mountain in the Clouds was the first to postulate that wild salmon are nature's main means of returning nutrients from the ocean to the land, thus completing the essential nutrient cycle that underlies the ecological stability of the North Pacific Rim.

This idea, and the deeper realization that arises from it -- that wild salmon are a crucial foundation of the entire ecology of the North Pacific Rim -- are now widely accepted and affect all kinds of public policy decisions at all levels. That idea originated here, in Mountain in the Clouds, in 1981.

The continuing popularity of Mountain in the Clouds -- it has been in print for over a quarter century -- probably has more to do with its passion than its theories, though. This is not a cold, fishy tale, or an academic one either. At its heart, it is a work of "sustained indignation," as Murray Morgan put it.

The following chapter, which is set on the Olympic Peninsula's Greywolf River, is part of Mountain in the Clouds' second section, entitled "Peace and Power and Civilization," which deals with the Elwha and the Greywolf.

It may be a little hard to imagine now, but when Mountain in the Clouds began the assault on the Elwha dams, the idea of removing hydro-power dams for wild salmon restoration was considered pretty wild eyed, even in the Pacific Northwest.

Now in 2011, exactly 30 years after the publication of Mountain in the Clouds, the dams are about to be torn out -- the largest dam removal project in history.

I can't think of a better birthday present!

-- B.B.

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First American hardback from Simon & Schuster.

cover thumbnail of Japanese edition of "Mountain in the Clouds" by Bruce Brown

First Japanese hardback from Shinshosha.

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First illustrated paperback from University of Washington Press.

First Amazon Kindle Edition.


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

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Mountain in the Clouds

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Chapter Five from...

Mountain in the Clouds

by Bruce Brown

I WAS WATCHING hundreds of pink salmon scatter the last, lurid light of evening across the Graywolf River when I heard the sound again. It was a faint, quavering cry, and as it rose and fell above the roar of the river, it was impossible to tell if it came from one throat or one thousand. Harsh and somehow urgent, it seemed to be echoing from the heart of the mountains.

The Graywolf, which drains the high valley between Blue Mountain and the Graywolf Pinnacles east of Port Angeles, is noted for its peculiar auditory mirages. Solitary travelers seem particularly susceptible to the river voices, but groups of people and even animals have heard them as well; I once saw a deer browsing on the bench above Divide Creek prick its ears and listen intently to these same faraway sounds.

Fifty years ago this steep valley rang with the howling of the wolves that gave the river its name. The now extinct Olympic Peninsula timber wolves favored the Graywolf above all others and made their last stand against the government-paid killers in its upper reaches. Straining to hear faint sounds in the deepening dusk, I could imagine the greenish-orange embers in their eyes a little too well, and I hunkered down into my big, smoky-smelling mackinaw.

The sun had left the valley floor at 3 P.M. and now, six hours later, my wait was nearly over. In front of my camp lay what is probably the single richest spawning grounds on the Olympic Peninsula for pink salmon, Oncorhynchus gorbuscha. As soon as it was dark, I planned to wade the river and observe the fishes' nocturnal cavortings. I was carrying a flashlight, but stealth demanded that I travel in complete darkness until I had reached my destination at the center of the glide.

It was late August, and the Graywolf summer pink run was swelling to the first of its three climactic waves. I had been following these pinks (which come into the river earlier than any other pink run on the peninsula) since before 6 am, when I spotted a six-pound male lying between two boulders the color of rotten ice. He had a high, knife-edged hump flying like a burgundy banner above the water, hooked snout and a rainbow across his tail that caught fire as the sun cleared the opposite ridge, charging the river with color and revealing thousands of diaphanous dew-covered cobwebs on the branches of the trees.

Farther on, I found several dozen pairs of pinks fighting their way up a riffle into a narrow crack of cloudless sky. Here the flat-sided males were less adept than their sleek, black-lipped-consorts. Several times I saw males washed down with the current when females passed easily into the small patch of smooth water above. With a fall of 3,000 feet in seventeen miles, the Graywolf is one of the swiftest rivers in the West, dancing white and foaming between the mountains and always moving down. Because it is not as glacial as the Dungeness (which it joins in the foothills of the Olympics), the Graywolf is so clear in late summer that one can actually see the air ripped into it wherever it surges over rock or log.

Pinks will pick out isolated spawning pockets when necessary, but their tribal nature encourages them to congregate on the river's few large spawning grounds. When I arrived at my present camp, I found the river alive with wild humpy males chasing each other in wide gyres across the smooth, 150-yard-long glide where the river flowed at a depth of two feet over a beautifully graveled bed. Redds extended in bunches from the edge of the lower fall-away up to the pool at the base of the riffle above. One popular female with a white belly and broad black stripe down her side sent her half-dozen suitors into a tizzy every time she rolled on her side to excavate the redd. As each puff of silt drifted away on the current, one or more males raced downstream several hundred feet, spun around like tail-skidding dirt-track speedsters, and dashed back.

Another ripe dame with pink crescents on her gills and an iridescent green head was run over by one of her own suitors in the confused jostling around the redd. She and the other females seemed willing to indulge the most extreme behavior by the males, but let one oft their own sex become involved in the act, and the situation changed dramatically. When one female dug too close to the redd of another, which seemed to be happening everywhere simultaneously, the proprietress would rocket after the offender. Their chases were much faster and more gracefully executed than those of the males, and when they caught each other they tore savagely at each other's fins and other exposed parts. Like the males, however, they were seldom able to discourage their challengers, with the result that the same fish would repeat the game of Advance, Chase and Retreat for days until one of them no longer had enough life left to continue.

On the heart of the glide a mass of salmon was wheeling in an endless circuit, drifting sideways to expose their broad sides when hostile, and gliding past each other like fingers into a glove when not. Viewed from the shore, the pinks appeared as a shifting lavender stain on the sunny river bottom. There were probably 100 redds on the glide, and several times that many fish. Upriver, another group of fish had holed up in the pool, where they were leaping at lazy intervals. Most of these fish (which I took to be part of the second wave) were not yet ripe, but among them were also some consumed and seemingly spastic fish bumping along the shoreline, and two white carcasses that glowed in the depths like lights in a swimming pool at night.

Owing to the still sizable Alaskan and Siberian runs, pinks are the most numerous salmon on the face of the globe. In 1926, I. V. Pravdin observed a massed run of Asiatic pinks in Kamchatka that was nearly a mile long, and made a roar "somewhat similar to the noise of boiling water in a gigantic cauldron." Besides their small size, prominent hump and white belly, several behavioral characteristics set pinks apart from other salmon. They always return to their natal streams as two-year-olds, and in Washington, which is near the southern extreme of their range, they are the only salmon that run exclusively in odd numbered years. And apart from chum salmon, they are the only salmon that immediately seek salt water after hatching.

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 was 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
Praise for
Mountain in the Clouds
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"a model of ecological history..."
-- New York Times

"Profound and moving..."
-- Washington Post

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

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

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Although not generally numerous elsewhere on the Olympic Peninsula, pinks have long thrived in the northern rivers that flow into the strait. Here the rivers are agreeably short, the steep valleys somewhat fortified against predators, and the rivers less likely to flood and scour the eggs out of the redds. In striking contrast to the Queets and the other rain forest valleys on the west side of the peninsula, the area around the Dungeness receives less than seventeen inches of rain a year. This climatological quirk is caused by the central mountains of the Olympic Range, which interrupt the flow of moisture off the Pacific and cast a rain shadow across the region. The Dungeness is one of the few places where cactus and ponderosa pine grow naturally alongside salal and Douglas fir.

Glancing down at my watch at 9:30, I saw a star reflected in the pool below, and decided it was time to go. I played the flashlight across the curving tail of the glide where I would be walking to avoid disturbing the fish too much, and then switched it off. The darkness welled up like blood from a bad wound. I could make out the black line of trees along the far bank and the mountains silhouetted against the starry sky, but nothing else. Concentrating on my feet, I found the gravelly riverbed strewn with large round rocks. Planting my staff, taking a step, planting my staff, taking a step with the other foot, I slowly waded thirty-five yards out into the rushing, shin-deep water, imagining each caress of the current to be a salmon.

Finally, when I judged that I had reached a point near one of the most active redds, I switched the light back on. There were many more salmon on the glide now, and almost all were in motion. Some dashed away from the yellow beam. Others seemed dazed by it. A tremendous fight between two females erupted to my right whew the wake from their repeated thrashings rocked along the shore for the entire length of the glide. A small female who had not yet spawned slipped by me so closely that I could see that her dorsal fin was capped with a series of jewel-like shields at the terminus of each ray that glowed pink on the upper edge, and gold on the lower. Beyond, six large Chinook moved upstream in single file through the melee like sharks among pilot fish. Several of these Chinook had large patches of white fungus on their heads from trying to get through the hatchery weir downriver.

Pink salmon are given to group sex, which can involve as many as six males spawning at the same time with a single female. Typically, spawning occurs when the female swims slowly over the nest, and then lowers her anal fin into the redd, stimulating the nearby male or males. As her consort joins her on the redd, both fish gape and quiver violently while the eggs and sperm are shed simultaneously into the waiting bowl of gravel. I did not get a chance to observe the penultimate moment in the life of pinks that night, but I did see what might be described as a moment of compassion. Oft to my left a hideous old male whose face had been broken away just in front of his eyes was holding near a still-prime female on her redd. The female, who had several active suitors, not only tolerated, but almost seemed solicitous toward her spent and dying companion, and it occurred to me that he was probably a former mate.

On the way back, I stopped again near a large boulder and turned on the light for the last time. Salmon all round me flew off in unison like arrows from a squad of archers, but two males remained. One of them hung right in front of me, rolling his back toward me whenever I shone the light directly at him. Just as I was admiring how cleverly he was diminishing the intensity of the light, the other fish, who had a prominent white stripe down the crest of his hump, swooped down on me from behind. Feeling a sharp tug at my leg, I found this bold cavalier had locked himself onto my right boot, and was trying to shake me. As I raised my staff to dislodge him, the other fish attacked my left leg. It was then that I noticed that I was standing in the middle of their redd, and I stumbled away toward camp, which trembled before me in the fading beam.

Forty-two thousand summer pinks returned to the Dungeness and Graywolf rivers in 1979. This was considerably less than the run's historic high of 400,000 fish, but still better than the 8,000 fall pinks that returned to the lower river one month later. The reason for the difference in size between the two pink runs in the Dungeness system is largely due to the availability of water. The early run, which is genetically distinct from the later run, enters the river in July when snow melt has swelled the flood, and made passage to the headwaters relatively safe. The fall run, by comparison, enters the river in September and October when it is fed almost exclusively by irrigation seepage, and spawns immediately at the mouth. In the old days, the Dungeness could accommodate both in profusion.

Captain George Vancouver, who commanded the second European exploring expedition along the north coast of the peninsula in 1792, was so impressed with the beauty of the Dungeness that he named it for a sentimental favorite that flows into the English Channel near Dover. "The country before us exhibited everything that bounteous nature could be expected to draw into a single point of view," he wrote. "The land . . . was well covered with a variety of stately forest trees. These, however, did not conceal the whole of the country in one uninterrupted wilderness, but pleasingly clothed its eminences, and chequered the valleys . . . which produced a beautiful variety of extensive lawn, covered with luxuriant grass, and diversified with an abundance of flowers." Vancouver's lawn was actually a series of prairies that the Klallam Indians kept cleared with fire, and which baked into a desolate waste every summer while the damp forest luxuriated all around.

White settlement began on the Dungeness a half century later at Whiskey Flats, which took its name from the proprietors' policy of selling liquor to the Indians. About this time the Klallam Indians were forced to abandon their three villages at the mouth of the Dungeness and move down onto the beach. It was here that the Klallams suffered the last epidemic of the white diseases that bad turned their land into "a slaughterhouse of human beings" as early as 1791. After plagues of "intermittent fever" and venereal disease, the Klallam were finally struck with smallpox when a sailing ship bound from San Francisco to Seattle lost most of its crew to the disease en route. As the ship drifted down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the survivors threw the clothes, bedding and bodies of the dead overboard. These items washed ashore and were picked up by the Indians, who died like flies in the winter of 1855.

The Treaty of Point No Point, signed that year, gave the United States title to the land of the Klallam. In exchange, the tribe was to receive a reservation, money and the right to continue to live their traditional salmon fishing life. Although the promised money was never forthcoming, the whites became increasingly anxious to remove the Indians from the area. Finally, after the Klallams murdered a dozen Tsimshian Indians camped on Dungeness Spit on the night of September21, 1868, federal troops were sent to burn the Klallam vi1lages at Port Townsend and Diamond Point, which was quickly turned into a leprosarium. All Indians who could be found were towed in their canoes down Hood Canal behind the government cutter to the reservation at Skokomish. The few Indians who managed to remain in the Dungeness area were forced to pay $500 in gold for 210 acres of logged-off land at the place they named Jamestown.

Meanwhile, early white settlers in the Dungeness, like Shetland Island sea captain Thomas Abernathy, began building their crude log cabins and clearing the forest of Douglas fir, noble fir and western red cedar. Some of the timber was cut and sold for shipment to San Francisco, but most of it was simply burned. "The timber of the eastern portion [of the peninsula] has been largely destroyed, either by axe or by fire, mainly by the latter," a U.S. Geological Service report observed in 1902. That same year, on September 12, the entire Olympic Peninsula experienced its famous "Dark Day," when 110 forest fires raged simultaneously from British Columbia to Central Oregon. Smoke from forest fires was so heavy that no more than a twilight gleam pierced the clouds all day, and many "thought the world was coming to an end, and prayed for deliverance," as an Olympic Peninsula schoolteacher recalled.

Potatoes, oats and peas were planted among the stumps, and early yields were so heavy that the Dungeness quickly became one of the principal exporters &f agricultural products in western Washington. New settlers pushed the clearing to the edge of the prairies around Sequim and into the hanging valley in the foothills of the Olympics ten miles from the strait. Whiskey Flats changed its name to Dungeness, and a group of farmers built a three-quarter-mile-long dock at the mouth of the river to facilitate the loading of freight and passengers. No longer could one see a woman "with her voluminous skirt and petticoats that swept the floor, hat with flowing veils, and kid gloves, being carried by a barebacked Indian" across the tide flats.

Irrigation became increasingly important for farming in the Dungeness Valley as logging and ploughing sped evaporation and run-off. Although not as grandiose as Thomas Aldwell's scheme for the Elwha, the idea of diverting the Dungeness for irrigation became a similarly consuming passion for Dungeness farmer D. R. Callen. When the first water from the river flowed onto the parched farms around the Sequim prairie in 1896, the settlers made "offerings" to the irrigation company he founded, one of which featured local children reciting a poem composed for the occasion ("A laurel wreath to honor those good men / Who brought about this glorious end, / So in the future there may be those / Who sees this land blossom like a rose"). Soon half a dozen irrigation companies were draining the river into an elaborate network of gravel troughs and wooden aqueducts, and the valley had become a leading dairy center with a combined herd of 9,000 cows.

Few of the low dams that diverted the Dungeness into irrigation ditches were equipped with ladders for salmon passage. Salmon could jump some of these at high water, but at other times they blocked all migration. Protective screens over irrigation intake pipes were even rarer. As a result, millions of salmon fry were lured into the deadly maze of ditches, from which there was generally no escape. Adult salmon seeking to spawn were also trapped in the irrigation systems. Jerry Angiuli, a member of the Clallam County Planning Commission, remembered how after "flood irrigating in the 1940s he bad to "go through the fields picking up dead salmon because the cows would leave an area of grass the size of a desk around the carcass. . . . There were hundreds every year, mostly humpies [pinks] and silvers [cohos]." A few years later, according to Angiuli, an irrigation diversion downstream from his family's farm on Cassalery Creek blocked the salmon and they disappeared.

Elsewhere, the shrunken streams provided salmon with less area to perform the vital functions of their lives. Many salmon were unable to find a place to spawn, and of those that did many lost their eggs when the river dropped more. Fry were limited by the lack of adequate rearing area, and all salmon, large and small, suffered from the fact that there was not as much room to run from their enemies. The water that remained heated up faster, thereby reducing the amount of oxygen it could hold and fostering the speedy growth of salmon diseases. Warm water dulls the salmon's senses, and above 55 degrees Fahrenheit (about the temperature of cold bath water) it prevents them from spawning. Water returning from irrigation ditches was warmer still, and often contained manure, pesticides and other poisons. In good years, irrigation generally took about two-thirds of the Dungeness, but during extreme droughts virtually all the water was removed from some sections, leaving pools and trickling rivulets in a broad bed of gravel.

With the passage of the Reclamation Act in 1902, this tale was repeated on a much grander scale all over the arid West. During the first three decades of this century, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation irrigated more than three million acres of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado. The addition of water made much of this land intensely productive and allowed the cultivation of new crops, such as the Yakima Valley apples for which Washington is now so well known. A triumph of the early Progressive movement, the Reclamation Act required the farmers who benefited from the projects to repay the government, and stipulated that no one person could own more than 160 acres of land under, federal irrigation. Advocates of reclamation, such as Nevada Congressman Francis Newlands, saw public irrigation as a miraculous font of free riches, but in fact there were great costs, both economic and environmental.

Because of bureau policies and subsequent changes in the law, farmers receiving bureau water have generally been able to avoid (or at least postpone) repaying the government for the cost of the irrigation works. They pay a monthly fee to cover operational costs, but only a small fraction of the outstanding debt, which bears little or no interest. On the Bureau of Reclamation's forty-year-old Columbia River project, for instance, the difference between the farmers' payments and the actual cost amounted to a 96.7 percent public subsidy in 1980, according to a U.S. Department of Interior report. Ironically, the people who benefited from these subsidies were not the small farmers Newlands wanted to help. Because of the Bureau of Reclamation's chronic failure to enforce the 160-acre limit, a great deal of publicly irrigated land has come under the control of large agribusiness ventures such as Jubil Farms Inc., an 8,000-acre operation in the Sacramento Valley that is controlled by a Japanese trading company.

One of the Bureau of Reclamation's first jobs was the Newlands Project on the Truckee River in western Nevada. At the time that the bureau built Derby Dam twenty miles east of Reno, the Truckee was the home of the world's largest cutthroat trout, Salmo clarkii. Long a staple of the Paiute Indians, the Lahontan trout gained considerable renown among sportsmen after early explorers, such as Lieutenant John C. Fremont, noted their "extraordinary size" and called their flavor "excellent, superior, in fact to any fish I have ever known." A record forty-one-pound Lahontan trout was taken in 1925, but a little more than a decade later, the fish had disappeared from the earth. The reason? The Bureau of Reclamation dam would not release enough water to allow the fish to reach their spawning grounds above Pyramid Lake.

In Washington, the Bureau of Reclamation's work centered on the Columbia Basin in the eastern portion of the state. Here eight unladdered dams were built on Columbia tributaries from the Tieton River to Salmon Creek. On the Yakima River, the bureau's dams wiped out the sockeye. that had been the single largest run in the river and played a major role in reducing the total salmon population from 600,000 to 9,000 fish. During the 1930s, the bureau decided to dam the Columbia itself near an immense glacial outwash known as Grand Coulee. Hailed as the greatest engineering feat ever undertaken by man, Grand Coulee Dam was also the single most destructive human act toward salmon of all time. When this unladdered colossus was completed in 1942, it closed more than 1,000 miles of spawning rivers and streams in the upper Columbia, killing the famous "June hog" Chinook that had previously been the mainstay of the great Columbia fishery.

Another hidden cost of the Bureau of Reclamation's work has been the loss of existing farms put out of business by the new subsidized competition. With tremendous production and the accompanying economies of scale, farmers on federally irrigated land were able to offer larger lots and lower prices than almost anyone. Selling to the mushrooming national supermarket chains, they helped amalgamate many regional produce markets into one national market. Washington apples and California lettuce were two of the many irrigated crops that came to dominate local produce. Less obvious to the shopper, but equally important, was the shift to irrigation-grown alfalfa as the base of large scale Western dairying. Inevitably, some of the smaller local agricultural areas that had lost their markets began to atrophy and fall prey to urban sprawl. Among the farming valleys that used to supply Seattle, one of the first lost in this manner was the Dungeness.

Instead of blossoming like a rose, the Dungeness grew a variety of common urban blight. The cooperative creamery was closed in 1954 when the small dairymen could see the handwriting on the wall. A few larger dairies survived, along with some cabbage seed farms and other assorted agricultural operations, but by the 1960s much of the valley was being transformed through the magic of real estate offerings. "For Sale / Small Acreage/Easy Terms," "Acreage View Tracts For Sale," "Open House/Condominiums/House Sites," the bright signs, among the quaint abandoned fields proclaimed. Many of the retirees who moved into the Dungeness area added signs of their own: "Keep out," "Beware of Dog" (in fluorescent orange letters on black), ``Watch for Flying Golf Balls," "For Sale," "View Lots" (amid bare, eroding soil and stumps), "Hobbies Ahead," "No Trespassing/Violators Will Be Prosecuted" (beside a mailbox painted with red and yellow flowers in a meticulous hand).

Bruce Brown's "Mountain in the Clouds," the book that brought down the dams on the Elwha"Here's how it works," Jerry Angiuli said, putting his feet up on the desk in his Sequim tire store. "The realtors like to sell five-acre ranchettes. A guy and his wife go out to look at the property on a sunny day when the mountains are out and the strait is blue, and he's got to have it . . . The first year is OK -- especially if he retired early and spent some time on a farm as a kid-because he's busy building his house and having the lawn put in. Then he's got a house and four and one-half acres of weeds. So the second year he builds a fence and buys a cow. Then be finds he's got to have a stall to breed her, irrigation and a tractor to plough the land, and the next thing you know he's got $30,000 into his 'hobby' farm. Then one of his friends says, 'Hey, there's great fishing out at Sekiu. Let's go out for a few days.' But he can't do it, because someone's got to take care of the place, and the next thing you know he starts getting real mad and decides he's going to subdivide his place into little lots. When someone tells him he can't do that, he calls his lawyer and starts screaming about his rights."

As the residential population in the Dungeness area burgeoned, its water consumption more than offset the declining use of water for irrigation. Drainage patterns were altered by the increased drilling of wells, and flooding was made more likely by the speedy run-off from paved surfaces. In 1975, the Washington Department of Fisheries estimated that a dozen separate runs of wild Dungeness coho and chum salmon had been exterminated by diversions for human and agricultural use. Two years later, fisheries, had to send a bulldozer down into the dry bed of the Dungeness to scour a narrow channel so that the wild summer pink salmon could reach their spawning grounds in the upper Dungeness and Graywolf rivers. This last-ditch effort saved most of the early run, but nothing could be done for the later fish that spawn in the lower river.

Irrigators, developers and water speculators claim a "legal right" to more water than actually flows in the Dungeness, thanks to the ruling of an accommodating Clallam County judge fifty years ago. Washington law has long required that "a flow of water sufficient to support game fish and food fish populations be maintained at all times," but as a recent report by the U.S. attorney in Seattle concluded, "this policy has not been implemented." The U.S. attorney's report, which was presented as evidence in a 1978 U.S. District Court case, blamed the existence of "potentially very destructive irrigation practices in Washington on the State Department of Ecology. "Although the [state] departments of Fisheries and Game have submitted 34 requests [for legal recognition of the salmon's right to water on various rivers] in the last 10 years, the Department of Ecology has acted on only one. Meanwhile applications for water rights other than fish are being filed, and these have priority by the time they are established."

Much of the development on the Dungeness has taken place within the flood plain, that is, the area normally flooded every few years. This had led to more diking along the Dungeness, and further reduced the salmon's chances of survival. In 1973, Clallam County asked Dungeness Farms for permission to divert the river so some new homes would not be flooded at high water. "They put the diversion in in 1974," recalled Polly Ball of the county's Shoreline Advisory Committee, "but the first high water pushed the river right over the diversion, which left the old channel high and dry and prevented the salmon from using what I understand was one of their best spawning grounds." The departments of Fisheries and Game have jurisdiction over permits for structural flood control projects, but they did not even check into the matter far enough to see that no engineer had ever approved the project. The U.S. attorney’s report cites severe short-staffing and institutionalized timidness as the causes of the departments' failure to act in situations like the one at Dungeness Farms. "The departments are concerned that if many [river degrading] projects are denied, their authority might be reduced," it observed dryly.

Harry McBride, a Department of Fisheries biologist assigned to keep track of the Dungeness pink salmon, shrugged when I asked about this. He was standing by the open gate in the Dungeness hatchery weir, clicking a hand counter as pink salmon hurried past. It is true, of course, that the federal government itself is the largest owner of illegal irrigation dams in Washington, primarily through the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, "The Department of Fisheries has done a lot of good work on the Dungeness," he said, referring to projects such as the installation of diversion intake screens during the l940s and 1950s, the gravel-cleaning operations on the lower river during the 1960s and erosion control on Gold Creek during the 1970s. "Maybe we might have done a better job," another Fisheries officer told me, "but you know you can’t get too far out in front of the public."

Pink salmon shot through the sights of McBride's orange cowboy boots in spurts. Their partially exposed tails snapped like the playing cards we used to clip to the spokes of our bikes as kids. McBride said he saw pinks pass through the weir "trailing all kinds of gear." With a couple of exceptions, the Department of Fisheries has not allowed a non-Indian sport fishery on these summer pinks since the 1960s, in order to insure that enough fish survive to spawn the next generation, two years hence. Legally, the Klallam Indians were the only people who could fish the river for pinks. In fact, however, the river is commonly fished by the Klallams and a much larger group of non-Indian fishermen, some of whom are sportsmen, some subsistence fishermen and some commercial poachers.

As I was departing, I asked McBride if the river was closed to pink salmon fishing then, and he said yes. My next stop was the Dungeness Forks Campground, which is located at the point between the converging Graywolf and Dungeness rivers. Most of the half dozen parties in residence seemed to be fishing. Walking down to the rocky shore of the Graywolf I found a man in his thirties showing his son how to gut a pink female he had snagged with a three-hook setup. The hooks had caught the fish in front of its still silvery tail which now bled on the rocks. Neither the Department of Fisheries nor the U.S. Forest Service, which has jurisdiction over the area, had posted signs notifying people in the campground that the pinks were closed for conservation of the run.

Farther up the river, I found the tails of three salmon that had been severed with a knife, and another pink salmon female that had been gutted and abandoned to the soft ball of maggots now unfolding on her tongue. Around dark, a crew of seven or eight hardy-looking types arrived in camp and set out for the river with snagging gear and beers in tow. "Lots of salmon up here," one of them called amiably as they passed my tent. Noting four pinks laid out on the grass by their trucks in the morning, I stopped and learned that they were Forest Service timber cruisers. Just then, another member of their party returned with the rest of the morning's catch: three female pinks weighing four or five pounds apiece.

That same week, I checked the price of salmon in a Port Angeles supermarket. A slender, four-pound coho (which was likely hatchery produced and troller caught) cost $4.50 per pound, or $18 for a fish that would barely feed two hungry men.

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

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