ON THE ELWHA RIVER, Wash. -- The removal of the Elwha River dams unleashed an ocean of silt. The once clear water is now a pale, milky color that seems almost impenetrable.
But biologists have discovered wild steelhead are finding their way through the gloom and venturing beyond the site of the lower Elwha Dam, which blocked their returns for nearly a century.
The demolition of two dams on the Elwha last year was expected to result in the return of salmon and steelhead, but few scientists expected the return to happen in such numbers in the first year.
It started with one or two of the big ocean-going fish finding their way to upstream tributaries; now several have been counted and they keep coming.
Steelhead are powerful, determined fish. Underwater video shows their noses and jaws are rubbed raw from making their way by feel on the rocky river bottom. It's a late return, but it's a return that has shocked critics and delighted wilderness and fishing groups.
NOAA biologist John McMillan said he has found the reds, or nests, where female steelheads have laid their eggs. And McMillan has found wild steelhead in a tributary above one of the demolished dam sites and expects returning runs of salmon and steelhead to only get stronger.
The Elwha will discharge less silt as more time elaspses since the dams' demolition. McMillan is now waiting for the other iconic fish species to break through the removed barrier of the dam. Chinook salmon have already been sighted in the lower river and appear poised to make a run.