The sun glared while smoke from the nearby Pioneer Fire 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 three-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. “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 event hosted cooperatively by IRU and the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association. It's 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.
“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. 27 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 three tours were led to the wild chinook spawning grounds near Buckhorn Bridge on the Salmon River.
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 attracted the talents of musician Scott Knickerbocker of the Hokum Hi Flyers and the amazing Native American rhythms of Shoshone-Bannock drummers and dancers.
“Along with incredible support from the corps of volunteers, this year’s Salmon Festival was an 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 Communications Director Greg Stahl. “We offer our sincere thanks to everyone who made it happen.”
The following people and organizations helped make the 2016 Sawtooth Salmon Festival a success: Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association; The Redd Restaurant; Idaho Department of Fish and Game; Atkinsons’ Markets; Payette Brewing; Scott Knickerbocker; Shoshone-Bannock Tribes; The River Co.; Idaho Wildlife Federation; Wood River Land Trust; Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the dozens of volunteers and board members who helped set up, break down, and otherwise add their contagious spirit to the day's festivities.