Ceremony on the lower Salmon welcomes returning chinook

Gary Lane of Wapiti River Guides, red life jacket, blesses the 2009 salmon return at Spring Bar near Riggins, Idaho. (photo by Greg Stahl)

By Greg Stahl, IRU

Gary Lane is a believer. He believes in the power of nature, that we are all parts of a greater natural whole. He believes in balance and sustainability over use, that the earth will show people the power within themselves if they pause long enough to hear.

But we’ve lost our way, he says, in a day and age of consumerism and instant gratification, and the decline of Idaho’s once abundant salmon is as strong an indication as any.

Lane is wearing a bandanna over his head, and shades conceal his eyes. The Salmon River is pumping behind his back, where the swirl of the big eddy at Spring Bar upstream of the town of Riggins is swollen with the river’s 70,000 cubic feet per second currents.

“Welcome to the eighth annual salmon ceremony,” he says to the 16 people gathered round. “After the (government’s salmon recovery) hearings back in the early 2000s, a few of us were coming back from Lewiston, and we decided we needed to do more to welcome the salmon home.”

Lane’s wooden dory is beached nearby. It’s got antlers fixed with dangling feathers that blow in the breeze near the bow. He explains that Nez Perce tribal elder Horace Axtell typically conducts these spiritual ceremonies, but Axtell is tending to a funeral today, and this year’s event will be done without the tribal elder’s guidance.

“We do this,” Lane says, “to let the salmon know that we appreciate their gift and to welcome them home.”

Spring Bar is about 10 miles upstream of Riggins, a small western town where a significant portion of the economy is derived from recreational floating and sport fishing. In 2001, an above average year for returns of salmon and steelhead, $10.1 million was funneled through Riggins because of salmon and steelhead runs, according to a study by Boise economist Don Reading. But that was one of the better years in recent memory and was a small indication of what is possible should migration impediments created by four dams on the lower Snake River be removed. The Salmon River here, once the highway for untold thousands of migrating salmon and steelhead, has undergone a dramatic transformation.

That transformation has happened since construction of the four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington.

Lane, who owns Wapiti River Guides, has a vested interest in salmon and steelhead recovery. His livelihood depends on it. And while he appreciates that the hatcheries that sustain returning salmon and steelhead have helped keep him in business, what he wants are self-sustaining runs of wild salmon and steelhead.

And he wants to do the right thing, to help work toward harmony and sustainability over use and application.

Lane loads into his boat, and a man who goes simply by the name of Thumbs picks up a drum. They make a trial loop of the eddy during which cameras are permitted to be used. Then, cameras are put away, and three sacred circles of the eddy are initiated.

Lane’s is the lead dory, and Thumbs beats the drum as the boat peels into the Salmon River’s intimidating downstream current. The three laps are made, each time pulling into the flow, then drawing back into the gentler upstream swirls of the eddy. Three, Lane says, is a sacred number for the Nez Perce.

Lane says that, despite the absence of Axtell today, it is important to welcome the returning fish and to maintain an eight-year spiritual tradition. And it is important to let the world know that people still care about the salmon.

“Salmon are sacred,” said Elmer Crow, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and one of the tribe’s fisheries biologists, in an interview with this former reporter for the Sun Valley Guide magazine in 2005. “To us, salmon pretty much is sacred because when everything was being created, when people was created, there was nothing to eat. Salmon is one of the ones who volunteered: ‘I will sacrifice myself so these people can be fed.’ The salmon has two purposes in life: One is to reproduce; one is to feed the people.”

For that magazine article, Crow remembered the days of his childhood, when he watched his father fish the waters of Bear Valley and the Yankee Fork, both near Stanley in Central Idaho, more than 900 miles from the wide, blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.

“There was salmon all over the place,” he said. “They were huge fish. Oh, how do you describe it?”

He paused.

“Black. You see a sandy bottom. You know it’s all sand, and when you walk up on it, you see very few patches of sand because there are so many salmon in there.”

The salmon don’t return like they used to. But Lane is intent on welcoming the ones that do–and speaking up on behalf of the effort to restore them by focusing attention on what he believes is the core of the problem, the four lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington.