Drifting Through the Elochoman River
An underwater exploration of newly improved salmon habitat on the Elochoman River
By Jay Kosa
On a damp late-October morning, I found myself standing thigh deep in the Elochoman River north of Cathlamet, Washington. Rain dripped from moss-covered branches as I yanked on my dry suit’s tight neoprene hood, adjusted my mask and snorkel, and delved beneath the surface. The current was stronger than I expected, but I made my way over the giant maple leaves carpeting the riverbed and toward a hulking mass of logs and boulders. A lone fish about the length of my hand came into view. It faced me, fins waving for a moment, before moseying on along a craggy wall of roots and rocks.
The land along this river has seen dramatic changes in the past 150 years. Notches in old cedar stumps in the forest recall the turn of the twentieth century when loggers standing on springboards felled the massive trees by hand. Other trees bear the marks of traditional bark harvesting by indigenous people. What was once a temperate rainforest gave way to pastureland until the 1950s, when—like much of the surrounding area—it was planted for timber.
Over time, forestry operations and infrastructure degraded both the river and lands alongside it, which were thickly planted with rows of Douglas-fir, resulting in a lack of diversity in tree species, sizes, ages, and stages of decay. Logging roads and a new bridge constricted the river’s flow, and since the area’s old-growth trees had been cleared decades before, few trees made their way into the river. Salmon and steelhead numbers plummeted.
Columbia River tributaries like the Elochoman once braided back and forth across wide floodplains, and fallen trees from the riverside changed the river’s flow, forming pools, gravel beds, islands, and side channels. These features outside a river’s swift-moving main channel offer crucial habitat for salmon to spawn, grow, and rest as they migrate.
In 2012, Columbia Land Trust acquired 148 acres along this stretch of river and forest with the goal of improving habitat for fish, including coho and fall Chinook salmon, winter steelhead, coastal cutthroat trout, and Pacific lamprey, plus waterfowl, elk, deer, and threatened northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet. We saw a straightforward opportunity to balance the equation of too much wood in the forests and not enough in the river.
With planning from Trout Mountain Forestry, Natural Area Manager Jeff Malone led a project to thin the Douglas-fir stands. Rather than clear-cut, they practiced restoration forestry, harvesting some trees to allow others the room to grow larger. They also left logs on the ground and snags—standing dead trees that provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. In addition, they planted western hemlock, spruce, and cedar to more closely approximate the historic composition of the area’s forests.
Malone then worked with Natural Systems Design and a contractor team led by Henderson to install 15 large engineered logjams (ELJs) in and along a 2,000-foot stretch of the river. Logs from the restoration forestry project were used to create these massive wood-and-boulder structures, which help establish new and better fish habitat. This also involved removing road fill from along the river and excavating historic side channels.
By the fall of 2017, with the heavy in-stream work complete and the riversides planted, all we could do was wait and see if fish would make use of the new habitat. A year later, Malone, a few colleagues, and I packed some snorkels and dry suits to investigate.
The river was running lower than usual, but we observed new pools forming around the logjams as planned. Though it was too early in the season to see spawning adult coho salmon or winter steelhead, we hoped to spy trout or juvenile salmon as we floated facedown along the icy stream to visit each ELJ. Malone was pleased to see fish where we expected them.
“With all the permitting, budgeting, and coordinating, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture,” says Malone. “In just five years, we’ve implemented some short- and long-term fixes that have changed the trajectory of the entire property.”
Downstream, I managed to wedge myself against a log that recently caught on an ELJ. I was amazed to find a dozen juvenile coho and a few adult trout lined up at the base of a riffle. They took turns gulping up insects while wriggling against the current.
In that moment, I witnessed a mere punctuation mark in the primordial story of Pacific salmon. With enough shelter to feed and grow, these coho will journey from this pool, downriver, and out to the open ocean, then back again to continue the cycle.
I floated weightless for a few more minutes, suspended in an ever-unspooling strand of time between this river’s wild past and its newly possible future—a future with salmon runs swelling and forests growing massive, mossy, and old. After releasing my grip on the log, I drifted in silence, then stumbled up the stony riverbank on numb feet, feeling small and at peace within the vast intricacies of nature in the Pacific Northwest.
Thank you to our project funders: USFWS North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA), Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB), Seattle Audubon Society’s Martin Miller Fund, Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic Fund, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), JW & HM Goodman Family Foundation, and individual supporters like you.