A stone’s throw from 101, north of Hoquiam, the traffic is muffled by the growing things at the river’s edge between the road and me.
The river itself is glassy as we paddle the canoe north up the Hoquiam River, old pilings jutting out of the water at even intervals, the sun still shining this Wednesday afternoon but the clouds at the edge of sight presaging a change in the weather.
I’m headed upriver with Tom Kollasch, the watershed restoration program manager for the Pacific and Grays Harbor conservation districts, going to see tidelands isolated by an old logging railway one year after a five-year effort to restore their connection to the river.
“The full tide cycle, breathing in and breathing out of the channel — that’s what makes the Sitka spruce swamp productive,” he said. “You can envision it like your lungs breathing in and out.”
The bones of the timber industry are still plain to see for anyone going up the river — dark water swirling around the aged pilings on both sides and running down the center of the river, a reinforced platform in the center of the river that anchored one side of a gantry crane to transport logs from train cars pulling them down from where they were cut to barges that would take the logs to the mills. As we paddle up the river, the clouds go from mostly clear to a leaden sky in minutes.
The project cost about $2.1 million, Kollasch said, funded by the Washington Coast Restoration and Resilience Initiative and Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund. The land itself is owned by the Chehalis River Basin Land Trust.
“The Chehalis River Basin Land Trust bought this land in something like 2009,” Kollasch said.
The logging infrastructure was initially established by the Polson Brothers in the heyday of the logging industry in the first half of the 20th century, Kollasch said.
As we make our way past the main breach where the berm was cleared for the river to reconnect with its orphaned tidelands, we pull the canoe up onto the brushy bank, wet and muddy, and push our way through the thorny shrubs and trees into the scar the road to the worksite left. Mulched over with the trees that were cut down to make way, alder and Sitka spruce trees are starting to grow, Kollasch said.
“Alder is a pioneer species. They can fix nitrogen in the soil,” Kollasch points out as we walk towards the main breach, damp sprouts soaking pants through below the shin. “The spruce do all right growing in the shade.”
Along the way, Kollasch points out a ditch that was capped off by the contractors for the long-term health of the tideland. Brumfield Construction were the contractors for the project.
“It had this little muted tide at the top end,” Kollasch said as he indicated the ditch. “But it could never exchange enough water.”
When we arrive at the main dig site, the staging points, formerly muddy berms used by the contractors to work off, are growing shin to knee high. A drizzle patters down now, smearing the ink as I take notes, and the tide makes its way upriver languorously, stippled by the falling rain. The breach is marked on both sides by rows of pilings, but the hundreds across the mouth of the reopened waterway have been removed.
“We had to get rid of those piles,” Kollasch said. “If we left those piles, the expectation was that this was not going to be able to exchange water naturally.”
Kollasch said they initially estimated there were 360 pilings but they ended up pulling 703 out of the river, all of which took more work to dig out, haul off and dispose of. Kollasch praised Brumfield for working through the adjusted job parameters with them, and for their approach — instead of using a barge and being beholden to the tides, Brumfield built out the land of the berm and using a large crane, removed the pilings, a much more efficient approach.
“I was lucky enough to be there when they made the breach in the embankment. It was really amazing to see the water coming in after being blocked up for 50, 70 years,” said Jan Robinson, former president of the CRBLT. “It’s really amazing to help progress, to get nature back to where it’s supposed to be.”
Contractors eased the breach open, letting the water gently rise as the tide came in, Kollasch said, so as not to drain the orphaned system all at once. Once reestablished, this area will serve as a breeding ground for salmon, where the saltwater of the sea mixes with the freshwater from the rivers.
“The real benefit is for the juvenile salmon. They’re born in freshwater where the parents spawn,” Kollasch said. “When they get there, that’s where they first smell salt. They can’t breathe salt water. They have to go through this huge physiological change to be able to enter salt water.”
The tidal spruce swamps are productive places for the salmon to grow, Kollasch said, increasing their odds of survival when they hit the ocean.
“We wanted to have this floodplain bench that will develop Sitka spruce swamp characteristics over time,” Kollasch said, gesturing at the low shoulders around where the berm was breached and the channel dredged clear.
With the restoration of the waterway, more than a hundred acres of orphaned wetland will be reconnected to the flowing waters of the Hoquiam River for the first time in decades.
“It was at least half a century if not more,” Kollasch said as we tromp through the damp coastal rainforest. “We’ve restored the natural function of the tides across the whole site.”
Kollasch highlights the north spur of the train line where it loops back, and where contractors dumped the material they dug out of the breach to restore the slope of the land to its pre-train line state. Sapling trees are growing, a foot high if they’re an inch, and Kollasch occasionally stops to rip out Scotch broom, invasive weeds with yellow flowers.
“I haven’t been out here since we planted,” Kollasch says. “I’m very, very pleased with the explosion of alder.”
The site is difficult to get to by land, Kollasch said, a claim I have no trouble believing as I pick my way over dead logs and through waist-high brambles in the gentle drizzle of the humid afternoon. It’s not terribly easier to access from the water — we dropped in from a bend in the river that was close to Highway 101, but that still involved a scramble down the riverbank.
“When we came in, there was no road,” Kollasch said. “One of the really interesting things about this project was you are so close to Highway 101 but you cannot get there from here.”
As we paddle in the breach into the newly reconnected waterway, the sound of the highway drops off to nothing, and all I can hear as we glide between the towering trees is the sound of small birds flittering between the branches and over the glass-calm water and the drip-drip of water from the tips of the branches into the river.
“You can’t worry about the giant mess the place looks like when you open up a 100-foot-wide channel. You have to set it up to function in a natural system, so not in five or 10 years, but in 50 or 100, you say, how is this gonna look” Kollasch said. “There are these big Sitka spruce out there that are 90 years old, that are four feet in diameter. They just need to get established.”
For now, as the water returns to the orphaned tidelands, getting to the site is still relatively difficult. Even as we canoe back to the drop-in off 101 at the peak of the flood tide, there’s obstacles lurking under the dark water, pilings skewed out into the channel and trapped trees and branches to look out for. It wasn’t easy to get here, but the trip was a worthwhile one.
Want to learn more?