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 58: McNary Dam on the Columbia River
From the journal and thoughts of Brooke Hess
Day 58: “A big theme in this project has been that we are an all-female team. We haven’t really talked about that aspect of the project publicly because we wanted our actions to speak for themselves. If we make a big deal out of us being an all-female team, then that’s what it becomes—a big deal. But if we just do it, and don’t make a big deal of it, then our hope is that the young women in the sport will see us doing this as if it’s no big deal and that is what they will perceive as the norm in the sport. There will be no preconceived ideas of ‘gender barriers.’ They will just see women going on a massive expedition, and hopefully, they will grow up to do the same.”
I’m still unsure if the thoughts I jotted down in my notebook that day make sense for modern-day feminism. Is it more helpful to talk about the invisible “barriers” that have held women back in the whitewater/outdoor industry? Or is it better to simply charge forward, pretending as if none of those barriers exist and lead by example?
No matter how we talk about it or face it though, this whole expedition has been a huge contrast to some of the barriers I’ve personally experienced.
“Throughout the entire expedition this far, we’ve received nothing but support. Not once have our skills, experience, or goals been questioned, and not once has our gender been brought up. The industry’s top companies have sponsored us, hundreds of our friends and families have donated, hundreds of people have volunteered to help us organize and host events, cook us dinner, let us shower in their homes along the river, or let us camp on their lawns, and thousands of people have shared our social media posts. It seems as if we have come so far. But today was a stark reminder that we still have so far to go.”
We woke at our usual 4 AM alarm so we could make some miles before the afternoon winds picked up. The goal was to reach McNary Dam in time for the public lock-through window at noon. Bob Beckwith, a retired high school teacher from Idaho, had wrangled his friend Erich into a fishing trip with a side goal of helping us lock through two of the Columbia River dams. Bob completed a source-to-sea expedition of the Salmon River in 2018 and has been one of the biggest supporters of our project. Erich is a current high school teacher who just so happens to own a really nice, motorized fishing boat—just the type of motorized “escort vessel” we need to be able to lock through the Columbia dams.
The Columbia River, just like the Snake River, is a publicly navigable waterway. In U.S. law, this means the public is allowed to navigate it. This should also mean that anyone and everyone is able to lock through the dams on both the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Unfortunately, that was not our experience on the Snake River. All four of the lower Snake River dams turned us down because we didn’t have a motorized “escort vessel,” which forced us to portage.
We knew there was no chance of being able to lock through the much bigger and more powerful Columbia River dams in our kayaks. Those portages would also be longer and trickier, so we enlisted some help. We’re forever grateful to Bob and Erich for generously volunteering to help us.
We paddled up to McNary Dam just after 11:00 AM giving us time to kill before Bob and Erich showed up with the motorboat. Libby and I pulled our kayaks on shore on river right and followed a paved road leading us to a view of the dam and downstream. We pulled out our phones to check for cell service, hoping we could contact Danielle (our land support), and our families, letting them know we are all good. I didn’t scroll for more than two seconds before I saw the headline: “Roe v. Wade Overturned.”
Here we were on this massive expedition—a team of women paddling over 1,000 miles in support of a decades-long fight to save an endangered species of salmon—and in the ‘real world,’ another decades-long fight had lost its foundation. We would never be here if it weren’t for all the women who came before us in our sport, paving the way, tackling gender barriers and setting examples in the whitewater industry. And if it weren’t for all the women and men who fought for our basic human rights—working, voting, owning property—we would also never be here.
We sat down on the road overlooking the dam and what lay downstream. Heat reflected off the tarmac, making us sweat in the midday sun. We contemplated what the overturning of Roe v. Wade would mean for us going forward, and what it would mean for the rest of the country.
If I’m being honest, we didn’t foresee the Supreme Court’s decision personally impacting us much. We come from backgrounds of privilege. If we need to access healthcare that our state doesn’t offer, we’re able to travel to find access. That same privilege provided the opportunities that led us to embark on a nearly three-month expedition fighting for salmon conservation.
Unfortunately, this privilege is not universal among women in the United States. Looking at it from a present-day perspective: Black, Indigenous, and women in low-income brackets have been disproportionately impacted by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Out there on the hot tarmac, we discussed how so many women in the United States would be denied healthcare, and how this denial would keep so many women in poverty.
While grieving the loss of this one fight, we couldn’t help but draw a connection to the other fight we were working on, the one that had brought us to this dam in the middle of the Columbia River in the first place.
The declining salmon populations in the Snake River Basin disproportionately impact the Indigenous and lower-income communities within the basin, as do many of the adverse effects of climate change. Which communities are primarily impacted? Most often, it is Black women, Indigenous women, and lower-income women, in particular, who are most negatively impacted.
There’s a word for this connection: Ecofeminism. This philosophy connects environmental issues, gender equality, and social injustice, and views them as being related issues. (You can read more about this in an article published by the UN.)
So, sprawled on the hot, sticky tarmac, we discussed complex gender and ecological issues that are intertwined in a way that is well above our pay grade. Around us, the sounds of cannons and gunshots blasted over loudspeakers—the dam operator’s “predatory bird-deterrent tactics.” Thousands of power lines sprouted out of the massive concrete structure before us like weeds in an abandoned field. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The whole situation felt apocalyptic.
As we climbed aboard Erich’s motorboat, Hailey secured our sea kayaks to the top and sides of the boat. While she communicated with the dam operators, the rest of us worked on capturing media. As the door to the locks slid open and we slowly motored in, I couldn’t help but feel like we were entering the belly of the beast, the interior of the system of oppression that we were working so hard to fight against.
Once inside the locks, the door slid closed, and the water level began to drop. The only way to describe the experience of locking through one of the Columbia River dams is by watching the scene in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, in which Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewie are stuck in the trash compactor. The walls are slowly caving in on them and they appear to be hurtling toward the impending doom of being crushed like garbage.
Physically, it didn’t feel as though we were dropping in elevation, because the water we were floating in was dropping at a level pace. But judging by the increasing height of the concrete walls around us, the water level within the locks was dropping rapidly. McNary Dam stands about 183 feet tall, which meant that by the time we were motoring out through the doors on the downstream side of the locks, we had dropped at least 170 feet of gradient.
Paddling through the waves formed by the outflow of the dam felt surreal. A lot had happened in only a few hours, and we still had 20 more miles to make before we stopped for camp. Hailey turned up “Sports” by the Viagra Boys on her speaker, and we started busting out the miles.
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.