Photo of the Elwha River without the dam, a large mountain in the background, on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula
Photo by Daimon Eklund

Reservoirs and Renewal

Love and the Elwha River

I’M STANDING IN FRONT of a locked gate near an entrance into Olympic National Park. Moss-covered trees and big leaf maples tower over fields of fern while warning signs caution bears and cougars frequent the area. Wet pine needles carpet the decaying concrete road. I shoulder my backpack and slip under the gate. Not far up the road, the fabled Elwha River, silty and silver, rushes below a broken bridge, flowing north toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Across the water, an old gazebo has fallen to its knees, and beyond that, an abandoned park center sits eerily quiet. Empty white buildings. A closed sign on the ranger station. Mist evaporates from the rooftops, and a pallor of decay spreads over everything, adding to the postapocalyptic vibe. It feels as if the landscape is trying to erase all trace of the park. But I did not come here to see ruin. I came here to witness renewal.

 

Photos by Joshua Earle

 

The road climbs uphill as I walk along, musing about what this place must have looked like before it was abandoned. Four miles beyond, I come to the site of the former dam, and I am unprepared for the scope of what I see. White railings guide visitors along a platform equipped with signs and even audio recordings that explain everything around. At the end of the walkway, the concrete ends abruptly. Two hundred feet below, the river cuts between the broken walls of the dam, forging its way between the steep cliffs of Glines Canyon. To the south, the river spreads out, meandering gracefully from a vast valley before it falls northward below me. The view is grander than I had expected, the height of the dam more imposing than I imagined. I lean over the railing and feel the exhilaration of the sheer drop and the roar of a river freed.

 

Growing up in suburban Washington State, I was taught to believe that people like me have no place.

 

I turn to an interpretive sign and read that after decades of advocacy work by tribal and conservation leaders, the actual dam removal began in September 2011. Though I remember hearing about this historic feat—the biggest dam removal in U.S. history, one that would restore the river and allow anadromous fish to spawn in the mountains once more—I was preoccupied with another historic removal, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in that same month. I came out during that era and left the U.S. Navy a few years prior to the appeal because of how that law truncated my military career. What strange timing, these two great obstacles being removed in the same month of the same year.

Growing up in suburban Washington State, I was taught to believe that people like me have no place. During missionary week at our Independent Fundamental Baptist church, I sat in the third pew on the left, next to my best friend, Jeremiah. We were teenagers, and our peers were dating, but the closest I got were fleeting moments with Jeremiah, shirtless together on the barn roof, sleepovers, or our thighs firmly touching while sitting together in church. A visiting preacher took the pulpit with one topic on his mind, homosexuality. Suddenly, the warmth between our legs caused my shirt to dampen. Flashes of sin ran through my brain. I feared the entire congregation knew, that everyone was staring at the closeness between us. Thick beads of guilt ran down the ravine of my spine. The evangelist bellowed and condemned. I pulled my leg away.

Soon after, I joined the military to become a U.S. Navy SEAL. I thought it would fix everything.

 

 

I’m struck by the sudden urge to see the dam from the viewpoint of the river and start making my way down a trail overgrown with alders. The thicket is dark, so I clap and whistle to let any animals know I’m coming. Dark memories weigh on me heavily. But soon, I’m back in the open, along the banks of the Elwha, standing in a space that would have been underwater not long ago.

 

If I still lived within the confinement I knew a decade ago, I would never have been able to love openly, to know that sweet flourish of loving and being loved, to marry another man.

 

There was a time when I felt underwater. At SEAL training, the instructors screamed, “surf torture!” as we ran into the waves and locked arms. A nefarious cold took hold as I interlaced my fingers, holding them tight to keep my elbows locked with the men at my sides. We were one large chain strung out to rust in the sea as waves crashed down, thrusting us underwater. Even then, as we shivered and choked, I was keenly aware of my difference among the most elite of heterosexual men.

Just a few days prior, on liberty at the mall, I was separated from the group of trainees when a rugged surfer asked me out on a date. His blue eyes and easy smile invited me to acquiesce, and I had wanted to say yes. But I didn’t say a word. Later I learned it was a planned operation to out me as gay.

In the dark of the thrashing ocean, I trembled as an irregular link in that great chain of men. Few choices remained: stay in that place where I did not fit, or go forth. A year later, aboard a Navy frigate, I would finally gather the courage to date another man—my first romance in the climate of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Three years later, the structures of ideological and legal discrimination forced me from the military.

 

 

If I still lived within the confinement I knew a decade ago, I would never have been able to love openly, to know that sweet flourish of loving and being loved, to marry another man.

Here now, the ragged walls of the deconstructed dam loom over the narrow canyon below. They look like a regal gate, new life spilling from its open doors. For a time, this ground formed the bottom of Lake Mills. Mature pines highlight a sharp line above, a ghostly demarcation of the former lakeshore, while fresh green growth practically glows where stagnant water once was. The salmon have returned, and their numbers are increasing. With them, seabirds, bears, and other animals come to feast. So much had been lost due to the dam, and so much has returned with the freedom of moving water.

A river, like love, was not meant to be reserved; it was meant to flow, to be shared freely with who and what it touches. In a time of often ominous news, I am bolstered by the knowledge that man-made obstacles have been removed in my lifetime, and that in the aftermath of their removal, growth and change may flourish. In this absent-minded reverie, I look down at my hands, raised to my heart in a kind of prayerful awe. My right fingertips rotate the silver band that sits lightly around the ring finger of my left hand. I take it off and use it as a monocle to gaze beyond the river and through the open gates of possibility.

 

Lance Garland spends his days fighting fire in Seattle, climbing mountains in the Pacific Northwest, and sailing the Salish Sea. He’s written for Outside, Backpacker, the Seattle Times, and The Stranger, which listed his essay “Assaulted and Silenced” among The Best American Journalism of 2018. You can read more about his time in the Navy in the essay “Brothers in Arms,” featured in the book anthology Earthly Love: Stories of Intimacy and Devotion from Orion Magazine.

 

Read more about the Elwha River dam removal project here.

 

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