Late summer’s low flow barely bumped our kayaks down one of the main veins draining the vast wilderness of north-central Idaho, delivering us to the mouth of a place I’ll call Bigfoot Creek. The thin skin of water over rock made the prospect of a 10-mile side canyon hike sans socks seem like a better idea than sticking to some lame compulsion to make miles on the water. Besides, it would be worth the blisters if we got to see chinook salmon finning in a clear, deep pool we knew lay up there. Before we’d even tightened the straps on our sandals, we startled three napping wolves from their creekside beds along the Bigfoot. The looks on their faces gave the impression they were as surprised as we were.
Wolves are thriving in the Idaho woods for the same reason salmon should be – lots of protected, healthy habitat. But it’s the fish whose presence triggers the larger ecological ripple. Salmon tend to wander a bit farther than wolves. In 2003, an Idaho steelhead was caught in the Pacific near the Kuril Islands in northern Japan. Fattening on the bounty of the sea makes salmon the building blocks of forest ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest and until recently, the region’s rivers were the highways that delivered them to and from the trees. More than a hundred vertebrates, from the tiny Trowbridge’s shrew to wolves to the more cumbersome killer whale depend on the sustenance salmon provide. Decomposing salmon bodies provide ocean-derived nutrients for soils that nurture old-growth forests.