Jason Jaacks is a National Geographic Young Explorer who documented the progress of the Elwha Dam removal in Washington state, the largest dam removal project in United States history.

Photograph courtesy Jason Jaacks
  • Jason received a Young Explorers grant from the National Geographic Society to document changes occurring on the Elwha River, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The largest dam-removal project in American history started there in September 2011.

    Jason’s project, Return to Elwha, records this period of change on the river and surrounding ecosystems through photography, video, audio, and writing.

    National Geographic’s Young Explorers program awards grants to scientists and explorers between the ages of 18 and 25. Grants are awarded to projects that generally fall under three categories: scientific research, applied conservation, or exploration and adventure.


    “[Filmmaking] was something I was always very passionate about,” Jason recalls. “I made little-kid movies with Legos and a big VHS camera in the early ‘90s, and then when I was in high school I picked up a still camera and just became fascinated and spent a lot of time in the darkroom really learning image-making. It was always something I wanted to do, and so it just sort of kept building onto itself.”

    Jason took a commercial photography class in high school before studying at the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico. Jason is now enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

    The idea for Return to Elwha occurred when Jason noticed a newspaper headline: “Will 100-pound salmon return to Elwha?” As a longtime fly-fisherman, he was intrigued. “I was thinking, 100-pound salmon, oh my God, that’s like both dogs and one fish,” he recalls. “I wanted to go check it out.”


    “The prospect of what’s to come.”

    “This is one of the few times that dam removal, looking at ecosystem restoration for salmon as a whole, really has entered the picture. There have been a lot of attempts in other watersheds to supplement the runs with hatchery fish and all these other techniques to try and eke out more of a wild run to bring it back to something like it was. But this has one of the highest chances for success.”


    “The physicality of it was pretty intense . . . We kept up a pretty solid pace,” Jason says.

    In addition to the day-to-day strain of long days of hiking and rafting, the debris in the river required Jason and his team to fight their way around obstacles.

    “There’s not enough flow, and there’s all of this deadfall. So every couple hundred yards we’d be clamoring up and over logjams and underneath them and sort of bushwhacking all around, hauling packs and camera gear,” he says. “And then in another twenty yards there’d be another logjam we just couldn’t move and couldn’t get around so we’d have to get up and get around it. So that was the physically demanding part of it.”


    “As Napoleon said, ‘Geography is destiny’. And I absolutely think that’s true.

    “Certainly you can see how the geography of a place like the Olympic Peninsula has absolutely dictated all of the lives of the animals and plants that live there and how human communities have interacted with those same animal communities. So for me geography is that kind of discussion that all of these different communities have with each other, communities of plants, communities of animals, communities of people. And how those conversations go I think really makes up what we describe as geography.”


    Jason says his project “lies at the intersection of geography and human history.” The installation of the Elwha Dam altered the geography of the Olympic Peninsula in a big way—“reservoirs were formed, fish were stopped, and the geography of the landscape changed.”

    While the dam’s removal is the focal point of Return to Elwha, Jason says the consequences of the restoration are at the heart of the story.

    “The interesting part happens in another six months when the second dam is completely gone. What does it mean for that river to start coming back to life? That’s what the story really is.”

    “The most powerful part of the restoration, for me, is knowing that fish are returning. During our expedition, scientists found steelhead in a tributary of the Elwha above the lower dam site. There is a lot of hope in that! One day, I hope to fly fish there with my grandchildren. I hope that the fish return to reclaim all of that habitat and that they return in significant numbers.”


    “Students today have to have passion. If they want to do something they have to be passionate about it. It’s a ton of work, and I’m just scraping the iceberg of that. I think that’s what anybody in any of these fields would say. You don’t just back your way into it. If you’re interested in photography or filmmaking, or if you’re interested in biosciences, then you have to push for it. You have to find ways to meld that into your spare time, you have to find ways to learn more about it, you have to read everything you can about it. You just have to devour it in the sense that it comes second-nature to you.

    “If you have a passion for something, don’t take no for an answer and don’t sleep on it.”


    Jason encourages people to visit Olympic National Park, where the Elwha restoration project is readily accessible to the public. Visitors can check out the lower dam site, or walk a discovery trail with interpretive signs.

    For the more adventurous, Jason recommends an evening walk along the former Lake Aldwell lakebed, which he calls “the best way to see dam removal in action.”

    If you’re not able to visit the park yourself, Olympic National Park’s website includes a section dedicated to the restoration. 

    Filmmaker/Photographer: Jason Jaacks
    Jason Jaacks is a National Geographic Young Explorer who documented the progress of the Elwha Dam removal in Washington state, the largest dam removal project in United States history.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    consequence Noun

    result or outcome of an action or situation.

    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    dam Noun

    structure built across a river or other waterway to control the flow of water.

    darkroom Noun

    enclosed area where light-sensitive photographic film is developed.

    deadfall Noun

    collection of brush, fallen trees, and other woodland debris.

    debris Noun

    remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.

    dictate Verb

    to command or give orders.

    ecosystem Noun

    community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    eke out Verb

    to barely survive or make a living.

    exploration Noun

    study and investigation of unknown places, concepts, or issues.

    fly-fishing Noun

    fishing method where an individual uses intricate methods to cast a lure (fly) attached to a line, rod, and reel.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    grant Noun

    money given to a person or group of people to carry out a specific project or program.

    hatchery Noun

    facility where fish and shellfish are bred, hatched, and nurtured in the early stages of life.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    peninsula Noun

    piece of land jutting into a body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: peninsula
    reservoir Noun

    natural or man-made lake.

    Encyclopedic Entry: reservoir
    restoration Noun

    repair of damage to an ecosystem so that it can function as a normal self-regulating system.

    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    steelhead adjective, noun

    fish native to rivers draining to the North Pacific Ocean. Also called salmon trout and rainbow trout.

    supplement Verb

    to increase or add to.

    tributary Noun

    stream that feeds, or flows, into a larger stream.

    Encyclopedic Entry: tributary
    watershed Noun

    entire river system or an area drained by a river and its tributaries.

    Encyclopedic Entry: watershed