By Kevin Colburn, American Whitewater National Stewardship Director
Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River is a primordial and sacred place with an expansive power that can only exist in a wide swath of natural space and time. Here, you feel small and free in an infinite and wild world. Paddlers travelling the 100-mile river corridor are awed by sublime vistas, hot springs, and the ever-present chance of seeing a dazzling array of wildlife. Elk become companions, golden eagles become pleasant visitors, and you feel certain that large predators have watched you float by. Perhaps one of the most important wild inhabitants of the Middle Fork, however, is largely absent. A wilderness with its teeth knocked out, the Middle Fork of the Salmon is missing most of its once-abundant chinook salmon.
In August 2011, I joined a group of salmon experts on a float trip down the upper reaches of the Middle Fork to investigate the river’s missing link. The trip was to be a challenging one as we planned to take a deep dive into the many hurdles salmon face, including potential recreational impacts. We met in Challis at “O Seven Hundred,” a fact I found disturbing both for its military edge and the early hour. I knew from the start that this was going to be a work trip—not a normal rejuvenating Middle Fork vacation.
“We got a creamer!” someone yelled shortly after we launched at Boundary Creek, and we pulled to the side of the river. We gathered around a rotting 30-inch salmon carcass that one of the fisheries biologists found first by smell, and then by sight. Far from being grossed out by rotting fish (called creamers because of their consistency), salmon biologists appear to relish working with them. First the crew took several length measurements from the eye of the fish to various parts of its tail. Next, a pencil-eraser-sized portion of a fin was cut from the fish for subsequent DNA analysis.
Then things got messy. They pulled out a saw, and adjoining vertical and horizontal cuts were made to remove the fish’s forehead. With tweezers, a University of Idaho fisheries professor, Dr. Brian Kennedy, carefully extracted two tiny calcite “bones” from the fish’s inner ear. These are called otoliths, and when cut in half they reveal a growth ring for every day the fish was alive. Even more amazing, the chemical composition of the rings results in a unique elemental signature providing insight on the chemistry and temperature of the water body in which the rings grew. This information allows biologists to track a fish’s life from its specific birth stream, down the Middle Fork, out the Columbia, into the Pacific Ocean, and back. With the otoliths stored in labeled ziplocks, the salmon are then opened up completely, and the remaining eggs in females are counted, or the amount of remaining milt in males estimated. This information reveals how fully the fish spawned before it died. Finally, the tail is cut off so our group or any others don’t create a duplicate record of the same fish.
This post-mortem process would play out a half-dozen times, once for each of the dead salmon we found. The location of each fish was recorded with GPS, and painstaking notes were taken on standard forms that are common to all the agencies working on regional salmon issues.
Not long into the first day our crew spotted a salmon redd – or fish spawning nest – along the right bank of the river. Salmon use their powerful tails to wash away fine sediment to create light colored circular areas 1 to 4 meters in diameter. When they are ready to spawn, they use their tails to dig egg pockets in the gravel, where they release their eggs and males fertilize them. The female then begins a series of covering digs just upstream of the egg pocket to bury the eggs and begins excavation of the next egg pocket within the redd.
While our paddling crew easily avoided the redd, some of the biologists watched a subsequent large group obliviously float over it while splashing each other. The salmon guarding the redd, or perhaps awaiting a mate, left the redd and presumably returned shortly thereafter. This event would provide for much discussion and debate for the remainder of the trip. The location of the redd was noted with a GPS unit, as were the handful of other redds seen on our trip.
Dinner, thankfully, did not consist of salmon that night. As darkness fell at Trail Flats Hot Springs the organizer of the trip, Middle Fork District Ranger Chris Grove, circled us up for a conversation. Teddy Roosevelt would have fit right into the scene, a throwback to how conservation problems were solved in his era—through shared experience, observation and respectful discourse.
In some ways, the impetus for the trip was a change in Forest Service policy that was aimed at reducing recreational use on the Middle Fork during the spawning period by not re-issuing cancelled permits between August 15 and September 15. Paddlers questioned the scientific foundation for the decision, which was based on observations in the upper Salmon River. Paddlers also questioned the equality of the policy because it appeared to impact non-commercial paddlers far more than commercial customers. The policy was based on a concern that a large number of boats floating over spawning salmon could cause them to repetitively leave their redds. This in turn could lead to a reduction in reproductive success or complete reproductive failure if the salmon expended too much energy in such repetitive avoidance behaviors. This phenomenon, called “pre-spawn” mortality can occur naturally and has been experienced at low levels throughout the Columbia River basin, but it is of particular concern when only a dozen or fewer mature fish return to a section of river. And that is the case on the Middle Fork.
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River contains some of the best salmon habitat in the world. But because of dams blocking passage on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state, there aren't many salmon left. Photo by Kevin Colburn.
The discussion at Trail Flats was spirited. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation fisheries biologists Bill Lind and Chad Fealko shared that only 1.5 percent of salmon returning to the watershed spawned in the main stem of the Middle Fork. The rest spawn in eight major tributaries—especially Marsh and Bear Valley creeks. There is a chance that the mainstem fish are genetically distinct from the tributary fish, making them a special concern. The biologists on the trip estimated that the salmon runs in the Middle Fork of the Salmon watershed are at 5 percent of their historical grandeur, with dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers responsible for a vast portion of the devastating 95 percent reduction in salmon populations. The biologists stressed that any impact to these few fish in the main stem, no matter how small, was a serious concern, in part because only 4 percent of the historical habitat for chinook salmon still supports wild, native fish. While concern was expressed about potential recreational impacts, stories were also shared of successful salmon spawning rivers in Alaska that have constant jet boat traffic, floating, wading, and fishing pressure. While the impacts of recreation were presumed by most to be light, in cases like the Middle Fork where there are extremely few fish—that are imperiled by dams and that are extremely biologically important—even small potential impacts are enough to raise concern.
From the paddler’s perspective, Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United and I shared our commitment, and the paddling community’s commitment, to supporting salmon recovery in the watershed. We shared the perspective that the Snake River dams are the real problem with Salmon recovery, and that it is important to keep salmon advocates in touch with the river through the paddling experience. We cautioned the agencies against alienating the river conservation community from rivers and reiterated that paddlers and anglers together are the river conservation community. I also encouraged any use limits to be dolled out equitably to both the general boating public and commercial outfitters. We proposed and discussed management alternatives that could meet both biological and recreational goals since in many ways the two are inseparable. That night I slept fitfully, as I suspect others did, my mind running over the science and management implications.
The next day on the water we found a few more adult salmon and a few more redds. Upon reaching camp we took turns donning snorkels, masks, and drysuits. The moment my mask pressed through the reflective surface of the Middle Fork a new world was revealed. Big cutthroat trout were feeding on eddy line as I swam past. The water was flashing with juvenile chinook salmon, called parr, that were darting about, feeding and likely very slowly working their way downstream. Endangered bull trout lurked here and there. Brown ornate sculpins clung to a large rock, and just downstream whitefish were lined up along an angled cliff wall, eating whatever came their way. The Middle Fork, just below the surface, is a brilliant aquarium.
That night circled up for conversation again, this time around a small fire. Lytle Denny, a Shoshone-Bannock tribal member and fisheries biologist, had been quiet the whole trip except while enthusiastically dissecting fish. As we stoked the fire he told us the story of how as a small boy he speared his first salmon and fed his family as his ancestors had for countless generations. This was more than a good fishing story. Salmon in his home river were elusive, and quite literally mythical. Spearing salmon was and remains a sacrament to his culture. This life-changing and life-affirming rite was followed the next year with a trip to the vastly more productive tribal fishing grounds in the South Fork of the Salmon River where fish, though raised in hatcheries, were more abundant. His story revealed that the tribal connection to salmon is not cerebral. It is experiential, a spiritual bond that is a fundamental part of tribal culture. Today, wild chinook salmon returning to Bear Valley Creek at the Middle Fork’s headwaters remain culturally important to the Shoshone-Bannock tribe.
A long day on the water, snorkeling with salmon parr, and Denny’s story around the fire got our gears grinding. The biologists recognized the value of keeping people connected to rivers through direct experience, and we discussed the value of keeping people focused and educated on the massive threat to salmon recovery posed by the lower Snake River dams. The paddlers recognized that no matter how small the potential impact boating may have on the few salmon spawning in the Middle Fork, we should work hard to make it even smaller. Ideas flowed.
We discussed ways of alerting paddlers at the put-in to the specific locations of redds and encouraging paddlers to pass by at least 20 feet away from them. We discussed how if paddlers float over or by redds as one tight group with minimal splashing detrimental impacts could be minimized. We explored the possibility of granting special permits to paddlers willing to volunteer to camp with a redd for a day or two in order to direct other paddlers around the redd and possibly to collect information from salmon carcasses. We talked about reviewing the user data from the 2011 season to assure limits were equitable. We talked long into the night about the potential of the Middle Fork to serve as a classroom for people to learn about salmon and their plight. About 10,000 people each year float the river, and few paddlers are aware of the opportunities to restore vast numbers of salmon to the watershed. Big things will come out of that campfire discussion.
On the third morning of the trip we were joined by Russ Thurow, a fisheries biologist with the Forest Service, who has been studying salmon populations in the Middle Fork for 25 years. We pulled over on a gravel bar where a wildfire followed by an intense rain storm resulted in a massive blow-out of a tributary. Thurow explained that debris flows like the one on which we stood create otherwise rare spawning habitat in the Middle Fork. We discussed how fire suppression over the past century may have limited spawning sites in the Middle Fork by reducing the number of natural debris flows. The conversation revealed yet another level of the astoundingly complex relationship that exists between salmon and the landscape.
The last night of the trip a sense of peace had settled on the group, and we were able to relax into our camp chairs and wrap up our conversations over an incredible Dutch-oven meal. The planes came early in the morning and wrenched us from the wilderness. If the flight wasn’t so spectacular I would have been inconsolable. The Middle Fork is a hard place to leave. I never feel better than I do following a long soak in a hot spring, some sage rubbed into my skin, the sun warming me, and the vanilla sent of ponderosas on the air.
I dream of the day when I’ll be able to paddle into camp, catch a massive chinook and feed my friends and family fresh salmon right on the banks of the Middle Fork. I hope the paddling community can share this dream, and that we make it a reality. Next time you’re on the Middle Fork take a pair of goggles and stick your head beneath the river’s glistening surface. Wish the young salmon a swift and safe trip through the dams, and promise to help them on their return journey. Salmon don’t have biological problems, they have political problems, and that, fortunately, is something we can fix.