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Downstream transitions

My last post earlier today was completely focused on running, which is appropriate because with my local half marathon less than three weeks away, I am primarily focused on being ready for that race. This will be my sixth half marathon, and it will be the first one for which I have actually managed to stay with a training plan, get all the planned long runs in on schedule, and (I hope!) will feel ready, rested, and able on race day. My new post-corporate status has helped make that possible, but it’s also because I haven’t ever given up. Over the last three and a half years I have kept at this running thing, making the plans and honoring them, adjusting them when life circumstances required, learning to listen to my body, when to push and when to back off. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other, I have kept on moving.

Hiking and (to a lesser extent because I’m still wobbly) biking have been wonderful cross training experiences, and I really do feel the difference in my strength especially when running hills. But hiking is a slow, immersive, meditative experience that I’m really coming to enjoy for itself.

Over this past weekend I had the great privilege of hiking the former Lake Aldwell. Not far from my town an incredible, unprecedented transition is taking place. Two century-old dams are being removed from the Elwha River. It is the largest dam removal project ever undertaken in the US, if not the world, and it’s been in the planning/approval/funding process for more than 20 years. The intention is to restore the historic salmon runs (according to folklore, in the old days you could walk across the river on the backs of the 100-pound salmon) and to return the Elwha, much of which runs through Olympic National Park, to its wild river state. Scientists of every stripe have come here to plan and oversee the process of removing the two dams, draining their lakes while managing the 100-year silt accumulation, letting the river find new channels through the lake bed, and watching new vegetation reclaim the area (while keeping the invasive species out).

The removal of Elwha Dam, the lower of the two dams, began last September and was completed a month or so ago. I saw photos of the lake bed shortly after the dam was removed and really wanted to go there, but I wasn’t excited about sinking into mud so I’ve waited until now.

What I saw was otherworldly and wonderful. The river has indeed found its channel, and it is a meandering one that cuts through layers of silt, sand, and gravel. The most striking feature of the landscape is the tree trunks. These are the remains of gigantic old-growth Western Red Cedars that were cut and salvaged just before the lake filled. The stumps range from 4 to 12+ feet high depending on where they sit relative to the silt/sand/gravel beds. They apparently were burned at the time, but because this is a virtually indestructible wood, much of the mass is still there… after being cut, burned, and submerged for 100 years! Most of these stumps are ten or more feet across, and they are everywhere. The lake bed is a “moonscape,” eerily desert-like, but teeming with signs of life.

See those notches in the stump? Those are proof that it was cut more than a century ago, using old logging techniques that I am unable to describe to you (but you can probably google it).

While it may look desolate, I’m happy to report that life is definitely returning to the former Lake Aldwell. My hiking friend and I marveled at the large number of tracks left deeply and precisely imprinted in the fine silt on the west bank. We saw lots of elk (or possibly mountain goat) prints, but what really caught our attention were these prints:

We can’t decide whether these are coyote or cougar prints. Based on their large size (compare the shoe prints) and roundness (not elongated/oval) we think they are cougar, but my field guide book tells me you wouldn’t see claws on cougar tracks. However, my field guide may not take into account how thick and gooey the mud was when those tracks were made. If I were a cougar I might have extended my claws to keep from sinking too deep. What do you think?

After we hiked about half the length of Lake Aldwell, we drove up to the upper dam (Glines Canyon Dam). This dam is still intact, but Lake Mills is being drained at a rate of about one foot a day. The reason for this slow trickle is to prevent a wall of silt from rushing downstream to the fragile, recovering downstream riverbed. It will be nearly another year before the upper Elwha runs free. I couldn’t photograph Lake Mills because construction barriers have been put in place… but I could peek through.

Back here in town, another transition is being envisioned. You may recall that one of my goals for post-corporate life was to become involved in local community building initiatives. Well, I have found my place, at least for now, with the Transition Towns movement. This is an initiative that began in the UK and is focused on creative local response to environmental and economic threats. Transition initiatives emerge within communities in a grassroots fashion in response to this question:

“For all those aspects of life that our community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (in response to peak oil), drastically reduce carbon emissions (in response to climate change) and greatly strengthen our local economy (in response to economic instability)?”

I’ve become a core member of a Transition Initiating Group, and we’re in the process of figuring out how to address this downshifting question in a way that uniquely fits our local small town — geographically isolated, with a dying/dead logging industry, millions of acres of protected wilderness, seasonal tourism, a short growing season, but LOTS of water. Our demographics range from Libertarian to Green, from Microsoft millionaire to retirees who are barely scraping by on Social Security. I don’t believe Sasquatch exists, but I know for a fact that there are homeless veterans living back there in the woods, and they do not want to be bothered by outsiders. All of these people, these voices, need to be brought into the conversation about the future that we are trying to initiate.

So it’s an interesting project, but it’s giving me exactly what I hoped to find. I’m meeting and working with people who may have widely differing perspectives but share a desire to thrive in the face of whatever future challenges we may or may not face. Whether or not you “believe” in whatever predictions one or another scientific model may make, isn’t it prudent to be prepared in case this or that worst-case scenario might happen? And even if it never happens, isn’t it a great thing to sit around a table with thoughtful people, sharing a meal and talking about one’s hopes and dreams for the future?

I think so.

It took vision and perseverence to make the Elwha River run free, and I want to lend my vision and perseverence to making my small town a freer, happier, more neighborly place to be.

Wouldn’t you?

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