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How One Man - and His Notebooks - Revived a River

reelblue LLC
Dick Goin looks at his fishing logs from a half-century ago

There aren’t too many good-news stories about the state of rivers in the Pacific Northwest, but a new film tells just such a story. The Memory of Fish, produced by Jennifer Galvin of reelblue LLC, chronicles the life of Dick Goin, who worked for decades to bring down two dams that were slowly squeezing the life out of Elwha River. We watch as he finally succeeds in his lifelong work.

Goin was born in Iowa in 1931 and his family fled the Depression-era Dust Bowl for the lush banks of the Elwha when he was a boy.

“We were poor as rats when we went to live on the Elwha,” he says in the film. “Salmon was a major part of our diet. We probably wouldn’t have starved to death, but it would have been a lot harder. From that day on, they became an integral part of my life.”

About 100 miles from Seattle, the Elwha River runs through Olympic National Park and ends in the Straight of Juan de Fuca, across from Vancouver Island. The river was dammed in 1910 to provide electricity for local development and industry. The two dams included no fish passage systems.

Goin worked his entire adult life in a factory powered by the dams, but his true passion was fishing. As a young man, Goin spent 200 days a year fishing the Elwha. Over the decades, he watched as salmon numbers steadily dropped. And he didn't just take mental note; he actually documented every catch in his fishing logs.

“I was looking at my old log and marveling at it,” he said. “Hooked 16 a day; got 8, hooked 20; hooked 21. It was alive with salmon. But by 1948, I was noting that fish were dropping. In more recent years, it’s become precipitous.”

Goin took action. In 1983, he spoke out publicly, asking officials to tear down the dam. After all, its efficiency had dropped and it was providing only a tiny fraction of the local electricity. Most of the industry that it was meant to power is long shuttered.

The request gained traction, but slowly. In 1992, the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act authorized the Federal Government to acquire the Elwha and another nearby dam in order to tear them down. But the feds provided no money, and the effort stalled for another two decades.

The film shows Goin standing near the dam just a few years ago, watching salmon jump into the wall. He vents his frustration.  

“They’re beating at the dam, and it kills them,” he says. “It’s a slaughterhouse. It still is. That’s the crappy part about it, the bad part. It still is. And to the day they blow a hole in it, it will be. It’s just that simple.”

For this river, there’s a happy ending. In 2014, Dick Goin - now weak and with his memory fading - watched female salmon swim upstream in a newly-freed Elwha.

“What we see here are the survivors,” he told the filmmakers. “And their mission is almost, almost over. You notice, that fish is seeking quieter water, less current. Its energy is nearly gone. It will be a short time until she can’t hold in the current and she’ll die. She’ll be returned to the system. But she has done what she was here for.”

Goin could easily have been talking about himself.

The Memory of Fish will be screened on Friday at the Woods Hole Film Festival.

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.