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 39 – Day 43: Approaching the Dams
From the journals and thoughts of Libby Tobey
One of the most important pieces of the expedition (and, in hindsight, also the most grueling) was the Lower Snake River. Here, we ran up against the four dams at the heart of our project’s mission and the grim physical reality of the environmental and cultural crises they’ve created.
When we launched on the Lower Snake in Lewiston after reshuffling ourselves into sea kayaks, we were still riding the high of our sprint down the Salmon, packed with the buzz of high water, the company of the many friends who joined us along the way, and the electric, wildflower-splashed green of an Idaho spring. But within a few miles of leaving Lewiston, that excitement ran headlong into the sluggish torpor of a river that should be a freight train and the moodiness of a place that’s been chewed up and spit out by the industries that once promised prosperity.
For five days, it was just our team on the Lower Snake. Access to the river corridor is difficult, as the area’s winding rural roads lead to the dams and little else. It felt fitting that this sobering, crucial section of the expedition was ours alone. Instead of camping on sandy flats under old-growth ponderosas, we camped in rural highway pullouts or along overgrown 4WD tracks, some heavily graffitied and all adjacent to busy railroad tracks.
(The railroad tracks, at least, had a silver lining; they offer a cheap alternative to barge shipping and another indication of the dams’ obsolescence. So, we tried not to complain when the trains screamed past at midnight, only a few hours before our alarms began going off.)
Silver linings were hard to imagine, though, when the concrete face of the first dam, Lower Granite, came into sight. From a mile away, we could hear the hum of the turbines. We sat staring at it for at least 20 minutes, not talking, all of us in tears. There’s something visceral about watching a wild river turn slack and about running into the concrete wall that impounds it. I did almost no journaling during the exhausting slog of the Lower Snake, but one of the few entries sums up the gut punch of that day perfectly:
“What have we done here…?”
It wasn’t just the current-less, impounded river itself that was disturbing. It was the stark absence of people in a string of reservoirs questionably touted for their “recreational value.” It was the surprisingly sparse shipping traffic (although this, too, is one of the dams’ frequently cited benefits). And it was the general eeriness of a once-inhabited landscape that’s been carved into pieces and largely forgotten about.
In the 130 miles of river between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities, we saw two other “recreational” boaters paddling a tandem canoe. Two. The reason became abundantly clear when we stepped out of our boats for the first portage around Lower Granite. If we hadn’t realized the full extent of our self-sandbag on our first day of flatwater paddling, it slapped us in the face as we realized what the “portage” entailed.
I say “portage” because, although there are signs pointing non-motorized boats to a “portage route,” there’s not a route. The routes are the mostly abandoned highways. And we never encountered one shorter than two miles long. By the time we had finished the first one, we’d dodged several rattlesnakes, and one of Brooke’s feet was blistered and bleeding.
In full disclosure, on the grand scale of portages, these were pretty tame. We hiked paved roads, not through the jungle or over miles of talus fields around steep gorges. But they heap insult on injury by requiring paddlers to walk around a section of river they should legally, as taxpayers, be allowed to navigate. But upon radioing the dam operators for passage through the locks, they turned us down every time.
At each portage, we looked out over a dystopian maze of tubes and pipes, all meant to sort tiny salmon smolt and funnel them into barges for shipping downriver. Below the spillway of each dam, loudspeakers shrieked the sounds of dying birds to scare the living ones away, “protecting” the fish from a predation problem entirely of the dams’ making. One day, as we hauled boats and gear around Lower Monumental, we watched a dam employee in a motorboat in the spillway tail waves, picking cormorants out of the sky with a shotgun.
That portage around Lower Monumental came on our last full day on the Snake. What we had initially planned as a 30-mile day turned into a 40-mile slog. Presumedly promising camps turned out to be private land or swampy marshes. It ended up being a 12+ hour day of paddling, accompanied by headwinds that didn’t ease up until early evening. Somehow, we made it to the Army Corps’ Fishhook Park Campground just before dark.
As if the universe knew how badly we needed a boost, we got notice shortly after landing that the draft report from Washington’s Patty Murray and Jay Inslee had gone live. We had spent weeks advocating for people to write to the Washington delegation, and to our delight, the draft report contained many of the provisions we’d been hoping for. The report would consider breaching the Lower Snake River dams as the best option for preserving the continuation of the river’s wild salmon runs. We had a (very low-key) dance party as we made dehydrated dinners in the rain.
My last journal entry from the Lower Snake includes a quote from a friend who met us to film one of the portages. In his words, the whole place “feels like it’s held together by duct tape and baling wire.” Those words stuck with me for the remainder of the Snake. They still hung in my ears as we cleared the last dam, Ice Harbor, and paddled under the highway bridges that mark the edge of the Tri-Cities—and the confluence of the Snake and Columbia.
The Lower Snake wasn’t the longest segment of the expedition, but for me, it was the most impactful. Seeing the dams firsthand was a shocking illustration of what has been lost, but also of what is possible. We paddled into the Tri-Cities more solidly committed than ever to the project, with growing hope that a small team of kayakers could make a difference in something big.
Editor’s Note: Photos courtesy of the ladies of the Grand Salmon Team unless otherwise noted. Read previous parts 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.