Haze from Northwest forest fires gave way to blue skies Saturday morning as hundreds of paddlers cast their boats on the impounded waters of the lower Snake River channel to call attention to the plight of Idaho’s endangered wild salmon.
“It’s a moving experience to see hundreds of people from different places and backgrounds come together, spend a day on the water together and say with one voice that they’re fed up with business as usual on the lower Snake River,” said IRU Executive Director Kevin Lewis. “There are four deadbeat dams here that are still killing Idaho’s salmon, and it’s past time for these expensive antiquities to go.”
Boaters gathered Friday night and Saturday morning at Chief Timothy State Park in Washington state. The park is about 8 miles west of Lewiston, Idaho, where the Snake and Clearwater Rivers join and are then stilled by four dams built in the 1960s and 1970s.
Beginning around 10 a.m. on Saturday, flotilla boaters paddled 3 miles downstream on the reservoir created by Lower Granite Dam, the farthest upstream of the dams and the last dam adult salmon must pass before working their way back into Idaho to spawn.
Before the formal flotilla launched Saturday morning, Lewiston native and IRU member Devon Barker-Hicks gave an inspiring speech to encourage people to refocus on building things up, not tearing them down.
“We built the dams,” she said. “We know how to build. Let’s use our collective knowledge to build. Let’s build beaches. Let’s build current. Let’s build shade. Let’s build fish runs.”
She went on: let’s build jobs, river communities, healthy water, native lands and whitewater.
“Let’s build this,” she said. “Let’s build a way together that supports fish, native ways of life and our communities. Most importantly, let us build on our knowledge, our knowledge of mistakes. Undam it.”
Barker-Hicks works as a river guide and owns a family rafting business. Her husband, too depends on the river. He works as a salmon fishing guide.
"If you are pro dam, you must realize you also say no to fish, local cafes, gast stations, guides, to my husband's way of life, to hotels, to the tourists. You are saying no to many things."
IRU is among the organizations that helped found the first Free the Snake Flotilla in 2015. Since then it’s become a growing annual event that attracts people from throughout the region and beyond to the Lewis-Clark Valley of North Idaho. In the 2015 flotilla participants paddled to lower Granite Dam. In 2016 they paddled a much more visible route on the river between Lewiston and Clarkston, Wash. This year the route took participants downstream from Chief Timothy to a scenic and secluded part of the Snake River canyon.
“We’re here gathering with all sorts of people to expose one of the worst-kept secrets in the entire Northwest,” said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our wild Salmon, one of the key groups organizing the event. “That secret is these dams are done. They cost too much. They destroy our salmon, they destroy our fishing cultures. We don’t need their energy. We made a mistake when we put them in, and it’s time to right that wrong.”
Brett Haverstick is another of the event's key organizers. He works as education and outreach director at Moscow-based Friends of the Clearwater and called the flotilla a “beautiful thing.”
“These diverse people came together to say loudly: we need the political leadership to breach the dams and do right by the people and the fish,” he said.
The Free the Snake Flotilla was a huge undertaking requiring the support and cooperation of numerous organizations and people. Notable among them are: IRU, Save Our wild Salmon, Earthjustice, Friends of the Clearwater, Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, Patagonia and many, many more. For a full list of sponsors, please visit the event website.