Photos by Ava Isaacson
Below the jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains lies Redfish Lake, a mountain tarn that’s the terminus of a monumental journey. The rivers between the Pacific Ocean and the Sawtooths historically brought tens of thousands of sockeye salmon back to Idaho.
Redfish Lake is a little more than 8 miles south of the hamlet of Stanley, a regional hub for river and alpine outfitters. It’s also more than 900 river miles east of the Pacific and Astoria, Oregon, where a recent journey began, not in the rivers, but following them.
MJ Wright, Kaitlin Spradley and Kat Cannell are three Idaho women who rode horses almost 1,000 miles to reach their home waters of Redfish Lake. Their expeditionary ride highlights the iconic pathway of sockeye salmon, a native Idaho anadromous fish species that returns to spawn in the lake, and whose numbers have been dwindling since four dams were constructed on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state. For 50 days this spring, the women ventured east and upriver following the salmon’s journey. It was an expedition full of challenges and innumerable rewards.
“We kind of came back to Stanley with an intense view of what every mile looks like downstream and what that means for salmon,” Cannell said. “We’re now hoping to share that with Idahoans. We don’t know what that looks like yet, but that’s on the radar.”
Idaho Rivers United is a proud sponsor of the trip, coined Ride of Redd and named for a salmon spawning nest, which is called a redd. IRU believes awareness raised and action taken for iconic salmon is essential to Idaho’s ecosystems, economies and cultures.
IRU staff and board members gathered at Redfish Lake to welcome the women home on Saturday, June 10. Seeing the horses arrive and gallop boldly into the lake was an emotional experience for supporters and bystanders. Whether people were gathered to welcome the women or to simply enjoy the breathtaking views, one could not help but rejoice in watching the exhausted horses play in the crystal-clear waters of Redfish Lake. After several moments of jubilation in the water the women rode to the people who had gathered.
Ketchum-based film producer Whitney McNees, a partner in the Ride for Redd expedition, introduced the three women to an ever-growing and excited crowd. McNees explained how momentous the ride was for the women and their support team. With the microphone out of her hands, the air opened for questions and strangers flocked to obtain more details.
Wright, Spradley and Cannell took turns answering a myriad questions:
- “How did you keep yourselves and your horses healthy?”
- “Where did you sleep?”
- “What was the hardest part?”
- “What does this ride mean to you, why salmon?”
The women paused and looked at each other as if conquering words that could convey their emotions and passions.
Cannell, a native of Stanley, took the microphone. With hot tears and a shaky but proud voice she described that the ride meant everything to her. She always held immense reverence for sockeye salmon and knows the species is missed from its home rivers in Idaho. She said finding a viable solution to salmon declines is of paramount importance to her and her community. The ride was all about raising awareness and bringing people together to focus on salmon and Idaho’s rivers.
“We learned a lot more, and in a lot different ways, than we expected,” Cannell said. “The most powerful thing I learned was how focused everybody (in different parts of the basin) is on where they’re at. Their view doesn’t necessarily expand beyond their town or their stretch of river. They’re not stirring the passion to look beyond that, to look upstream and downstream and how what they’re doing affects everybody else.”
The riders saw the whole story of the salmon’s struggles while riding by dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers and, conversely, truly wild country in Idaho. It’s a contrast that laid bare the inherent challenges for Idaho’s salmon. Salmon have abundant spawning and rearing habitat in Idaho, but they depend on free-flowing rivers to migrate to and from the ocean. In short, dams kill salmon—a simple truth that can get lost in 20 years of bureaucratic double speak and multi-million-dollar studies.
The women agreed that they would forever be in awe of the wonders of salmon, and know more than ever that something has to change to disrupt the status quo because these fish mean a great deal to a great number of diverse groups across the Pacific Northwest.
Idaho Rivers United is proud to support Ride for Redd and looks forward to working with this amazing team of women going forward.
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