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.
To honor salmon’s vital ecological contribution as well as their uncanny endurance and navigational skills, a 5,000-square-mile swath of Idaho, Oregon and Washington (reserving Hell’s Canyon, all the forks of the Salmon and the Selway Rivers) has been blessed with federal protection. Visionary Idaho senator Frank Church didn’t set aside the Idaho portion of this Connecticut-sized area just for wolves or whitewater junkies. He did it for the salmon, and made sure this rationale was included in the language of his landmark 1968 wilderness bill. It became law, and the effort eventually spawned tribute to its sponsor. The largest piece of this salmon sanctuary is now known as the Frank Church Wilderness. Alas, over the past four decades, too few salmon have made it to the Church on time.
The sin lies not in the wilderness, but in the dammed. Wild Idaho waters feed the Snake, which eventually joins the Columbia. These two rivers have been transformed into a series of eight slackwater impoundments behind as many obstructions in the long, slow ride between Lewiston, Idaho, and Portland, Oregon. For nearly two decades, a growing constituency of fishermen, farmers, business leaders, brave politicians and conservation groups like Save Our Wild Salmon have been backing a modest proposal: Take out half the dams. Just the four smaller ones on the Snake. With the grim prospect of climate change posing an added threat to the myriad Pacific ecosystems, many of which rely on salmon as a keystone species, removing the dams has become a mission that’s moved beyond regional borders.
Ken Balcomb is the director for the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island in Puget Sound. It’s a long way from here to Lewiston, but Balcomb sees the connection. He’s spent most of his time tracking the resident killer whales that cruise the sound in summer. He knows that chinook are whale food. The health of these orcas and that of the chinook population in the nearby ocean neatly track each other. Unfortunately, it’s a track leading toward extinction. Orcas joined Snake River chinook on the Endangered Species list in 2006. “There used to be this huge biomass of chinook in the ocean, produced by all the rivers of the Pacific Coast; the Columbia was the big horse of all those,” Balcomb told me. “We’re down to less than one percent of historic abundance. Climate change doesn’t look good for salmon in the Klamath or the Sacramento. But there’s a lot of intact habitat left on the Snake. It’s our best shot. I think any reasonable biologist will tell you the only way to take advantage of it is to tear out the dams.”
In the pristine water above the dams, predators abound. Back on Bigfoot Creek we watched a black bear sow and her two cubs splashing about, the mama submersing her head in the creek looking for a quick snack. Her behavior made us all the more hopeful a few chinook would be waiting up at the pool. More wild luck: guarded by weathered granite spires, a dozen big kings patrolled blue-green water so clear you could make out the spider-web pattern of cracks in specific boulders at the river bottom. Basking in the last blast of summer heat with all eyes on the water, it was easy to imagine we were 700 miles out in the tropical Pacific rather than that distance from its colder gray shores.
We slaked a considerable thirst from the cold, clean water of the creek, toasting salmon, bears, wolves and whales, then made our way back to the boats. Camped that night beneath cedars on an acre of white sand we had all to ourselves, I swilled the last of that good water, thinking again of all the lives nurtured by the Bigfoot. Racked out with one eye on the rising moon, I succumbed to the sensation I’d drifted off to sleep by the sea, rising and falling on an unleashed Idaho tide.