Over the course of the spring and summer in 2022, The Grand Salmon team skied, whitewater kayaked and sea kayaked from the headwaters of the Salmon River in central Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. The women completed this 1,000+ mile source-to-sea expedition as a conservation project, promoting the removal of the four lower Snake River dams and a moratorium on the Stibnite Gold Project, in order to save the rapidly dwindling Snake River Basin salmon populations from extinction.
Following the natural migration of chinook and sockeye salmon, the team launched on April 29, around the same time the salmon were hatching from their spawning grounds at the headwaters of the Salmon River. The team followed the salmon smolts’ migration path for the following 79 days, reaching the Pacific Ocean around the same time the salmon reached the ocean.
The following is a collaboration of journal entries, art, and reflection by the three core paddlers of The Grand Salmon team: Hailey Thompson, Libby Tobey, and Brooke Hess.
Day 27 – Day 29: Exploring the South Fork’s Fisheries
From the journals and thoughts of Libby Tobey
One of the most stressful, chaotic pieces of the Grand Salmon puzzle was undoubtedly the South Fork of the Salmon. From the early planning phases, the South Fork had been difficult to line up: road access and late-season snowpack for a headwaters ski tour were uncertain, and none of our crew had paddled the East Fork of the South Fork, the site of the proposed Stibnite Gold Mine and the tributary where we were hoping to start the last segment of the Salmon.
A remarkably wet April and May did nothing to help our planning, and by the time our planned launch window rolled around, flows were high with heavy rain in the forecast. For several days, we crashed in McCall with our amazing friend Trent, watching the Krassel gauge while we ticked off a handful of interviews and advocacy events with local partners.
Two days before we’d planned to launch, our plans grew even more complicated. First, we got two amazing but conflicting offers to explore the South Fork’s headwaters en route to the put-in. The first, looking for spawning steelhead with Russ Thurow, a legendary fisheries biologist. The second, touring the Stibnite mine site with Perpetua Resources, the corporation seemingly determined to destroy the South Fork’s fisheries via gold mining. While we were scrambling to divide and conquer, the Krassel gauge malfunctioned and stopped transmitting flow data.
We spent the better part of a day food shopping, reshuffling gear into creek boats, planning two separate tours of the headwaters, and accounting for the fact that the river might be way too high to put on. At one point, Trent’s living room was full of mountains of gear; all of us between them packing and everyone on separate phone calls coordinating parts of the trip. The incredible support our friends provided on this expedition was hugely evident on this day. Not only did Trent gracefully put up with our chaos in their living room, but our friend Sam (a hydrologist by training) literally designed a proxy gauge to help us estimate the flows on the South Fork.
In the end, Hailey and I hopped in with Russ, and we spent the day driving slowly along the upper South Fork. We followed his incredible knowledge of the basin downstream, stopping at river bends where he knew steelhead spawned. As we ate lunch overlooking a river bench that once held Nimiipuu summer encampments, he emphasized the importance of keeping the wild anadromous fish runs (and their phenotypic diversity) in the South and Middle Forks alive. Species that run as high and far as these ones do, he said, are uniquely resilient in the face of stressors like climate change. They may offer the best hope for preserving the region’s many anadromous fisheries that are currently endangered and will only become more so.
Day 27 – Day 29: Exploring the Stibnite Gold Project Mine Site
From the journals and thoughts of Brooke Hess
From my journal, day 29: “Drove to Yellowpine, all of us were lacking sleep because we had stayed up so late doing research on the Stibnite Gold Project. Only got lost once on the drive!”
We had scheduled a few “rest” days in McCall after finishing the Main Salmon and before we planned to paddle the South Fork Salmon. At this point, we already knew that rest days didn’t actually involve rest.
On our first day in McCall, we spoke at the local high school and the public library about the declining salmon populations and the need to remove the four lower Snake River dams and put a moratorium on the Stibnite Gold Project. The turnout at the high school pleasantly surprised us. Around 20 high schoolers sacrificed their lunch break to come chat with us.
Day 27: “We met Jack, an inspiring teenager who owns and runs South Fork Flies—a fly tying business that donates proceeds to Save The South Fork. We also met Camas, a young local paddler who said he would see us on the South Fork this weekend! It was rad meeting young people who are so invested in this cause. It gives us hope for the future.”
That evening, we had dinner with board members from Save The South Fork and picked their brains about the Stibnite Gold Project and the potential implications it will have on the salmon and steelhead populations in the basin. The Stibnite Gold Project is the proposed reopening and expansion of the Stibnite Gold Mine in Yellowpine, Idaho, at the headwaters of the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River. Conservationists are up in arms about this proposal, as it poses numerous threats to the already endangered species of salmon that spawn at the headwaters of the East Fork.
On the third day, we split up. Hailey and Libby went with Russ Thurow, a legendary fish biologist, to look for spawning steelhead, while the rest of us met up with Mckinsey Lyon, the VP of External Affairs for Perpetua Resources, the gold mining company behind the proposal to reopen the Stibnite Gold Mine. She had agreed to take us on a tour of the site.
Perpetua Resources markets the project as a “restoration” project, claiming they will be cleaning up the environmental damage caused by the historic mining site.
Day 29: “We had been warned by other conservationists that Midas Gold (now called Perpetua Resources) has previously hired actors to pretend to be ‘locals’ who were stoked about the mine. Well, we showed up to meet Mckinsey in Yellowpine, and sure enough—she had a ‘local’ named Willie alongside her. Willie kept trying to hype up the mine during conversation by interjecting little bits about the wonderful environmental work they (Perpetua Resources) were doing.
To this day, we still don’t know whether Willie was actually a Yellowpine local with genuine stoke about the mine or a paid actor. Though at one point during our tour, he interrupted our conversation to say, “And I’m not getting paid a single cent by Perpetua Resources to be here! Not a dime.”…
We peppered Mckinsey with questions while checking out maps of the site, before driving up to Stibnite. Along the drive, we saw many avalanche paths completely blocking the East Fork South Fork with log jams—something we’d consider later when making the final call to put on or skip that section. Along the road, yellow bins labeled, ‘Spill Kit,’ lined the riverbank—an eerie indicator of what’s to come if this mine is reopened.
The tour lasted five hours. Throughout it all, Danielle kept Mckinsey talking (and musing on what a positive impact the mine will have), while I interrogated Blaine—the geologist who was helping lead the tour. Sadly, it seemed Mckinsey and Blaine both truly believed the propaganda.
Day 29: “You can see the bright green marsh below the tailings pile from a mile away. And this isn’t a natural green–-this is a green that reminded me of the pieces of nuclear waste that Homer Simpson deals with at his job in The Simpsons. There is a similarly colored trickle of sludge coming off the tailings pile and flowing into the East Fork. Blaine told us it had arsenic, cyanide, and antimony in it—and it goes straight into the river.”
The whole day gave us a dreadful view into what the future holds for this watershed if they reopen and expand the mine. The East Fork, where the mine is located, flows into the South Fork Salmon River, which flows into the Main Salmon River, which confluences with the Snake River near Lewiston, then the Columbia River in Tri Cities, and eventually empties into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon. The East Fork is the headwaters for the entire watershed. Anything that happens at the headwaters will impact everything downstream. The entire riparian ecosystem is connected.
Day 29: The Final Decision
From the journals and thoughts of Libby Tobey
Toward the end of the day, as we drove up the East Fork to meet the crew that had toured the mine site, we watched full old growth trees coming down the silty brown river. It didn’t inspire confidence. In Yellowpine, as we waited, Russ kindly shared his thoughts on risk vs. reward. We used the minimal cell service to call the friends who were supposed to launch with us the next day. We deliberated for way too long.
Ultimately, we made the choice to back off. None of us liked the decision, as it left a key segment of the full-watershed source to sea unrun. But as we drove back toward McCall, we witnessed one of the most spectacular blowouts I had ever seen. It looked like a full avalanche path’s worth of debris and wood were washing downstream. For a few minutes, there appeared to be less water in the river than wood. If we had felt conflicted about bailing before, none of us did then. And so, driving back over the pass to McCall, we changed course for what felt like the fiftieth time and started planning for the Lower Salmon.
Editor’s Note: Photos courtesy of the ladies of the Grand Salmon Team unless otherwise noted. Read Part 1 of the Grand Salmon Journals here. Learn more about the Grand Salmon Source to Sea and donate here, if you’d like to support the cause.