2012 Sawtooth Salmon Festival celebrates wild salmon

IRU's annual Sawtooth Salmon Festival features tours of wild chinook salmon spawning in the Salmon River. (Photo by Gary Grimm)

The sun glared while smoke from nearby wildfires pumped 30,000 feet into the atmosphere, and 50 people crowded onto the willowy bank of the Salmon River where they peered through polarized lenses.

The river flowed almost delicately over shallow cobbles near Buckhorn Bridge, a little south of Highway 75 in the Sawtooth Valley. But it was easy to see why people stared so intently at the passing river. Big shadows lurked just beneath the water’s surface, an occasional dorsal fin breaking the reflective shine.

“This one right here is a five-year old fish,” said Tom Stuart, pointing to a large chinook salmon hovering over pale river stones she’d overturned as a place to lay eggs. “We’ve got three-year-olds, four-year-olds and five-year-olds in here. These are the Olympic champs of the salmon world. No other salmon swim higher—6,500 feet—or farther—920 miles—to get home than these fish.”

Stuart, an IRU board member and the leader of the day’s chinook salmon spawning tour, said chinook, sockeye and steelhead used to number in the millions in central Idaho. Now, in an era following construction of dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers, wild chinook number in the tens of thousands, and are listed as a federally endangered species.

The tour was part of the Sawtooth Salmon Festival, an IRU event held every year in late-August to bring further awareness to the plight of these struggling fish—and to encourage people to take action to help shape the politics that have, thus far, done too little to reverse the species’ decline. This year, on the twentieth anniversary of the return of a single sockeye salmon—Lonesome Larry—the path to recovery is still clogged by dams on the lower Snake River. The time for collaborative solutions is now, Stuart said.

“What you’ve heard here today is that recovering salmon is not a biological challenge. It’s a political, economic and social challenge—all of which can be overcome,” Stuart said. “That’s why we need folks like you to be involved: to write letters to your congressman, to support IRU and to tell your friends what you saw and learned here today.”

This year’s Salmon Festival was held Aug. 25 at the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association’s Stanley grounds, and it brought the story of wild salmon to hundreds of people throughout the day. With help from Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists, a tour was led to Redfish Lake Creek to view sockeye salmon—the extremely endangered red fish of Redfish Lake. And two tours were led to the wild chinook spawning grounds near Buckhorn Bridge on the Salmon River. A fourth tour worked into the Salmon River canyon downstream of Stanley to view what is left of Sunbeam Dam, a structure that completely blocked salmon migration from 1910 until 1934 when it was removed.

But beyond valuable education and celebration of Idaho’s iconic anadromous fish, the Sawtooth Salmon Festival was an opportunity for folks to kick up their heels, connect with old friends and enjoy Idaho’s breathtaking views. The festival convened the talents of musicians Dan Costello, Scott Knickerbocker and Jonah Schue of the Hokum Hi Flyers, and the sensational fretless guitar playing of Ned Evett. And it featured a delicious dinner of wild Alaska sockeye.

“Along with incredible support from the huge corps of volunteers who did everything from set up tables to cook our delicious wild salmon dinner, this year’s Salmon Festival was an incredible opportunity to celebrate the miracle of wild salmon, to consider the dams that still kill so many migrating fish and to look forward to biologically and legally sound solutions in the future,” said IRU Executive Director Bill Sedivy. “We offer our sincere thanks to everyone who made it happen.”

To view more photos from the Salmon Festival, follow this link to IRU’s Facebook page. To sign a letter encouraging Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to support collaborative salmon talks, click here.

The following people and organizations helped make the 2012 Sawtooth Salmon Festival a success: Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association; Idaho Department of Fish and Game; Ocean Beauty Seafoods; Atkinsons’ Markets; Big Sky Brewing; Redfish Lake Lodge; Big Wood Bread; author Steven Hawley; journalist Aaron Kunz; Dan Costello; Hokum Hi-Flyers; Ned Evett; and the dozens of volunteers and board members who helped set up, break down, prep and cook food.