Free the Snake Flotilla a 'glorious sight'

Betsy Hammar, dressed as a sockeye salmon, helps lead 300-plus people in cheers on the lower Snake River Oct. 3 during the Free the Snake Flotilla. Photo by Greg Stahl.

The sight was glorious as we assembled at Lower Granite Dam, paddles raised in salute to a day when the waters will heave with big fish once again—when we will sing its rolling song.
— Betsy Hammar

By Betsy Hammar, IRU Member

I had an opportunity in October to participate in the Free the Snake Flotilla to help bring awareness on a broader scale to the inefficiencies of four salmon-killing dams on the lower Snake River.

While economists and engineers have determined that the huge costs of operating the dams overshadow the meager benefits they produce, I found myself prior to the flotilla pondering what the argument looks like from a dam proponent’s perspective. So I picked up the phone and called a few friends who live near the dams to find out.

According to my informal survey, the Port of Lewiston is still on a podium of pride for many in the Lewis-Clark Valley. The perception is that the port can’t exist without the four lower Snake River dams—even if the long and steady decline of container shipping at the port dropped to zero in April of this year. And even if there’s an existing railroad paralleling the dammed waterway.

My friends in the Lewis-Clark Valley also said that water recreation like motor boating and water skiing is popular on the reservoirs behind the lower Snake River dams. But upon arriving at Wawawai Landing to stage for the flotilla, we discovered only a couple of unused motor boats and the Washington State rowing team finishing a morning practice. If the stilled waters behind lower Granite Dam are popular for motorized recreation there was no sign of it.

Having felt like I worked out a few of the major obstacles that might impede the compelling cry to free the snake, I donned a colorful salmon costume and joined the excitement of the flotilla. There were boaters and anglers and Native Americans and outfitters and recreationalists and concerned citizens from towns throughout the Pacific Northwest. I talked with one person who traveled from Alabama!

Yet, I was impressed with how many locals from nearby towns joined the cause. Folks from Orofino, Lewiston, Pullman, Moscow and other regional cities were there to protest their back-yard dams. This wasn't a high-brow crowd of environmentalists. It was a group of local citizens coming together to ask for change on their home river, to seek an end to government waste and a return to abundant wild salmon, a return to a free-flowing lower Snake River.

The turnout was bigger than I expected, with 300 people and more than 150 boats. There were fishing dories, canoes, river rafts, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. The sight was glorious as we assembled at Lower Granite Dam, paddles raised in salute to a day when the waters will heave with big fish once again—when we will sing its rolling song.

If we have to shout again, I’ll be there. If we have to write our elected officials, raise money, share videos or convince others to join the chant, I'll be there. I was inspired by the energy at the first ever Free the Snake Flotilla, and look forward to the next.

Betsy Hammar was born and raised near free flowing and whitewater rivers in the mountains of Appalachia and calls Boise her home for almost 25 years. She has been a member of IRU for 10 years. Although a big outdoor recreationalist, her passion for environmental advocacy fuels more from a sense of legacy to our inheritors and future for our planet.