Team of Four Women Paddle Salmon, Snake and Columbia Source to Sea
The plight of salmon on the Snake River got a boost this summer from a team of female whitewater paddlers—consisting of environmental educator Elizabeth Tobey, science writer Brooke Hess, fisheries biologist Hailey Thompson, and filmmaker Alia Payne—who skied and paddled the Salmon River from source to the sea to promoting the removal of the four lower Snake River dams and a moratorium on the Stibnite Gold Project, in an effort to help save Idaho’s rapidly dwindling salmon populations from extinction.
Their mission: connect, educate, and engage communities through conversations and storytelling around Idaho’s endangered chinook, sockeye, and steelhead populations, and raising awareness for indigenous populations and lands.
In all, the women traveled over 1,000 miles, following the natural migration path of anadromous fish from the rivers of central Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. The team is now making a film about their journey, the region’s salmon populations and communities most impacted by their decline, and the necessity to breach the dams for salmon recovery. They also elevated the voices of the indigenous populations whose culture and way of life have been affected by the dams and the declining salmon populations. The project included grassroots action through community events such as group paddling days, school educational events, tribal visits, river clean ups, citizen science and more.
The trip began in April when they began skiing to the headwaters of the Middle Fork Salmon. From there, they paddled from the source of the Middle Fork to Corn Creek, before getting shuttled to the headwaters of the Main Salmon to again start skiing and paddling. On May 19 they reached the put-in for the permitted section of the Main Salmon and floated it, as well as the Lower Salmon, to the Snake River, where they switched to sea kayaks. From there, they continued to make their way downstream, complete with portages of the four Lower Snake River Dams. By late June, they hit the flat water (and incessant headwinds) of the Columbia, with four more dam portages reaching the Pacific Ocean in mid-July.
Team member Elizabeth Tobey catches Paddling Life up on the trip, the plight of the region’s salmon, upcoming film project and more.
How did the trip go? It’s funny; summarizing such a long, involved trip has been one of the biggest challenges of the entire project. It was incredible on a lot of levels. To see the entire length of a river—the landscapes and communities it ties together—puts a lot of things into perspective. Meeting so many people who cared deeply about salmon was incredibly eye-opening. And we’ll never forget the feeling of paddling out into the Pacific after months on the river.
What was the hardest part? There were obviously physical challenges, but also some mental ones that were more difficult to foresee. The portages were undoubtedly one of the biggest physical hurdles. Portaging around Slide Rapid on the Lower Salmon, hauling all our boats and gear over a massive landslide, made for a hell of an afternoon. We also portaged five of the eight dams on our route, walking our boats anywhere from two to five miles around each one. The psychological challenges came more from paddling fatigue—especially towards the end. We were all sleep deprived and barely able to look at the food we’d been eating for two months. There were days when each one of us was ready to throw in the towel, but fortunately someone always had enough energy to put on a dance playlist and rally the crew’s morale. As far as close calls, one afternoon on the Lower Columbia stands out: we got caught in 8- to 10-foot wind swells, almost got run over by an 800-foot vehicle carrier, and nearly lost one of our sea kayaks all in the span of about an hour.
Did you accomplish your advocacy mission? While there’s always more that can be done, considering our original goal of raising awareness and getting people involved in the political process of dam breaching, I’d say we accomplished what we set out to do. We connected with hundreds of people at events along our route, from our friends in the whitewater community to tribal representatives, river protectors, and local salmon fishermen. We worked with those people to write hundreds of postcards to Congress. And we connected with people from across the country and even internationally through social media.
Could you see firsthand how the dams have affected the salmon population? Absolutely. Seeing the Lower Snake dams firsthand, along with the conditions they create, was one of the most striking and sobering parts of the expedition. We slogged through the long, hot reservoirs that restrict fish migration and often exceed survivable temperatures. We watched the juvenile fish transport barges moving downriver and saw the networks of tubes that sort and funnel young salmon into them. We watched a cormorant get shot below the dams by the “predatory bird deterrent” guy. It was hard to take in and made it perfectly clear—in the way only seeing something with your own eyes can—why the dams need to come out, and soon.
Why is preserving them so important? Thinking about salmon first and foremost as a keystone species tells you everything about why they’re so important. Essentially, removing salmon from an ecosystem has a disproportionately large impact—on the other plants and animals in that ecosystem, but also on human communities. Salmon are literally the foundations of their ocean and mountain homes—and everything in between.
Did the trip also give you a better understanding of the indigenous populations who have been affected? This was one of our big goals for this project: to better understand how Indigenous people have been affected by the decline of salmon populations, as well as trying to amplify tribal voices in the fight to remove the LSRDs. Although we as non-indigenous individuals can’t truly understand how the loss of salmon affects salmon people, talking to tribal elders and representatives helped us see the issue from their point of view. Restoring salmon populations to the Snake and Salmon River systems is a critical component of upholding Tribal Treaty obligations held by the U.S. Government. It’s a question of sovereignty and justice, and it’s long past time for action to help bring the salmon back.
What can people do to help? At the risk of sounding like a broken record, write to your Congresspeople. Encourage them to support the final report that Patty Murray and Jay Inslee recently released and follow their leadership in calling for the breaching of the LSRDs to protect the region’s native salmon populations.
Tell us about the Stibnite Gold Project…did you see firsthand how bad it is for the environment and what can people do to help? Several team members had a chance to tour the Perpetua mine site with representatives of the company and got a firsthand look into the threats the mine poses to the watershed and its salmon populations. Active drainage from old tailings piles into the upper EFSF is still visible. Although the area is a designated Superfund site and currently in remediation, re-opening of the mine as proposed by Perpetua poses massive additional threats to the watershed—and everything downstream. Currently, a key action is pressing the U.S. Forest Service to extend the public comment period on the forthcoming Supplemental DEIS, giving people ample opportunity to make their voices heard. Visit Idaho Rivers United to make your voice heard on this issue.
What are your plans for the film and where can people see it? They’re still in progress. We’re still working out the technicalities of production, but we will be sharing updates via social media and the website as we get further along. We do anticipate submitting to several film festivals such as the National Paddling Film Fest and Wild and Scenic Film Fest, so keep your eyes on those.