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 71 – Day 76: The Tumultuous Lower Columbia
From the journals and thoughts of Hailey Thompson
07 July 2022 (audio-journal): “Alright. It’s 6 am. We’re less than 10 miles out of Hood River, and we’ve been absolutely wrecked by wind for the past 24 hours. It’s been really bad. We didn’t get much sleep last night on the public dock we attempted to rest on, we’re all pretty tuckered out. But we’re going to try to make it to Bonneville. It’s our last dam. Our last portage, with the assistance of friends. And then I guess we just have to make it to the ocean.”
The exhaustion in my voice was palpable. My groggy words were hard to discern over the loud gusts of wind and slapping waves captured by the mic in my phone. The flavor of the Lower Columbia was exhaustion—dismal amounts of sleep, violent headwinds, and enormous, shifting wind waves that reminded me of rivers like the Ottawa at high water.
The “portage” at Bonneville Dam may have been the greatest joke of them all. We paddled right up to the dam, stopping just beyond the safety radius of the intakes, searching fruitlessly for a portage route. Ultimately, we hailed the dam operators on VHF radio. The Army Core Operators informed us that not only would we, yet again, be denied passage through the locks (though we dejectedly watched motorized vessels emerge from the gates), but there was in fact, no portage route.
We paddled back upstream a bit, to the mouth of Eagle Creek, where we arranged for our friends Regan Byrd and Tyler Houck to meet us with vehicles at a sloping gravel riverbank.
We unpacked and loaded our gear onto a shuttle rig for—fingers crossed—the last time and drove roughly two miles on Highway 83 to the dam outflow. Barges bearing a cumulative 20,000 tons of goods chugged beyond us in the center channel, hauling agricultural goods and wind turbine blades to ports up and downstream. Military vessels and cargo vessels and container ships groaned at their berthings in the crowded river corridor running through the city of Portland.
We spent two days in a dreamlike state in Portland. Our kind friends Nolan and Farel picked us up from a boathouse where we stored our Stellar Sea Kayaks, and gently nursed us back to life with hot showers and food. We spoke to a wonderful group at Patagonia Portland, met for a conservation event with the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and before we knew it, our aching tendons and stiff muscles were back to the repetition of days on the water that had become both an inspiring mantra and dreary litany.
Shortly before we reached Cathlamet, the true violence of the Lower Columbia became known to us. Wind waves built to a height of 10+ feet, making it all but impossible to see each other, let alone communicate. An outgoing tide, usually a boon to making miles downstream, led to the waves growing steeper, cresting and breaking over the bows of our boats, beating into our hatches and spitting water droplets that hit our cracked lips and cheeks like tiny bullets.
I knew from vessel traffic reports that large vessels were scheduled to pass us around that point in the day, and as we had come to anticipate, all things went wrong simultaneously. Brooke’s faulty back hatch had completely flooded, which she communicated to us with a desperate waving of her hand toward the bank. We fought our way to what we thought was a beach, only to discover knee-deep muck. At that moment, an 800-foot-long vehicle transport vessel appeared from around the bend, forcing us to shelter amongst the muck.
So massive was the ship, in the relatively narrow shallow confines of the river (as opposed to the open ocean that these ships are built for), that we experienced a truly terrifying hydrologic event. We witnessed two bizarre effects, called Bank Suction and Bank Cushion by the maritime community. The hull of the ship had displaced so much water in the channel, that momentarily, the water along the shore had rushed below the hull (just as Bernoulli’s principle applies to airplane wings), both providing lift/buoyancy for the vessel which was “Squatting” in the shallow channel, and simultaneously appearing to drop the level of the river at the banks by feet in a matter of seconds.
Before we could register what was happening, the ship had blazed past at 14 knots, and the water that had so recently been sucked to mid-channel was sloshing back toward us in terrifying, tsunami-like waves. We dashed about in the mud, attempting to drag our boats to safety, with all our food and worldly possessions packed inside of them, and hung onto each other as the waves smashed violently into the shore.
Shaken, but relatively unscathed, we collected ourselves. The wind and waves, if anything, had reached a higher fever pitch, but we couldn’t camp in the sodden mud that had been our refuge. The tide was rising again, and if we didn’t manage to cross the channel to seek higher, drier rocky embankments, we would be in a much worse state than we were already in.
Knowing that Brooke’s hatch would re-flood as soon as she hit the larger waves of the main channel, we paddled closer together than we usually would, which ended up being a critically good decision. Three-quarters of the way across the mile-wide channel, Brooke’s hatch filled to the point that her rudder became ineffective. Shouting to Libby to make it to the rocky shore, where she could help prevent us from smashing into the cliffy outcroppings, I managed to get a throw rope onto Brooke’s bow and started towing one of the strongest paddlers I know. It took all the strength of both of us combined to get that swamped boat to shore, but we somehow managed it.
Wind peppered our faces with sand, but after gasping and dragging our boats above the high-water line, we all collapsed, crying and laughing at the heinous event we had just endured. In that moment, exhausted and wincing, I was beyond grateful that we were at camp, safe, for a moment, with the kind of friends that I would go to hell and back for sitting in the sand beside me.
Day 77 – Day 79: The Finish Line
From the journals and thoughts of Brooke Hess
Day 77: “We’re now so close to the finish line that we can taste the salt in the brackish water we’re paddling on. The Columbia River is ten miles wide at its mouth, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean, meaning the south side of the river was just barely visible from where we were paddling on the north side of the river today. We are camped on what I will forever remember as my favorite island ever.”
It was the last night that we would spend camped on the river of our massive endeavor that completely took over the previous two and a half months of our lives. Two years of planning and researching, followed by 79 days of skiing, paddling, and advocating, were about to come to a close. We were sitting atop a sand dune, overlooking the vast mouth of the Columbia River, popping champagne and reminiscing about all the wild and wonderful moments from the trip.
Our bodies ached from the abuse of paddling into the upstream winds of the mighty Columbia for the previous three weeks. Callouses covered our hands from the 25-45 daily miles paddled. And the constant moisture inside our kayaks rotted our feet. Hailey’s ears had been clogged with what seemed to be an ear infection for weeks, my right foot was swollen and purple from dropping a loaded sea kayak on it in Portland, and Libby… well, Libby seemed completely fine. She went straight back up to the headwaters of the Salmon River and proceeded to guide six Middle Fork trips two days after we finished.
I had three dehydrated meals left in my food stockpile, from which I had the luxury of choosing one to be my final river meal. As was expected, after spending nearly 80 days eating dehydrated meals, none of my options sounded appealing. So, I cooked all three, tasted all three, and threw all three in the poop tube to dispose of once we were back in civilization. I simply couldn’t do it. Instead, I filled up on Oreos and slightly soggy gummy worms that had been marinating in the front pocket of my PFD for who knows how long. It sounds bad, but it really was the best option I had.
All evening, we scanned the horizon, searching for porpoises, seals, sea lions, or any sort of sea creature that would validate us that we had made it to the ocean. I kept saying that once I saw a sea lion, I would be finished. A sea lion meant I had officially reached the ocean and could stop paddling. Unfortunately, we spotted no sea creatures that evening, which meant I had to continue paddling toward the ocean the next day.
The following morning, we packed our boats for the last time and paddled off into the most incredible sunrise any of us had ever experienced. Sparkling pinks and yellows glittered the sky as we made our way farther into the mouth of the Columbia. At around 6:30 AM, just as the sun peeked over the horizon line, providing a perfect reflection off the water, we passed a small island buzzing with noise.
“What’s that?” I asked Hailey. And before she could answer, the entire island erupted into movement, and a hoard of over 200 seals dove into the water right in front of us.
The seals were curious. They must have been wondering what these three crazy women were doing paddling in the mouth of the Columbia so early in the morning. They swam up to us, popping up everywhere around our boats. At times they were so close we could see every detail of their scrunchy faces—whiskers and all. The seals swam with us for about twenty minutes, cautiously playing under and around our boats.
“HUNDREDS of Harbor Seals accompanied us on our paddle into the mouth of the Columbia this morning. It was almost as if they were escorting us to our destination.”
It felt like they were thanking us for working to bring more salmon back for them to munch on. The whole experience felt like pure magic.
That evening, as we were scouting our final day’s paddling route, I spotted a sea lion playing in the waves. The next day, we paddled across the Columbia River Bar and into the Pacific Ocean.
Hailey’s Final Thoughts
What do you say at the end of something so powerful? When you realize all you have achieved and all that remains to be done?
I will never forget surfing the waves into the beach, beneath towering cliffs, at the collision of the Columbia River Bar and the Pacific Ocean. The misty swells, the joyous shouts of our families, mixed with the shrieks of seagulls. We jumped from our boats, stumbling and running knee-deep through the waves to the kelp-covered shoreline. From our hatches, we pulled out bottles of champagne and sprayed one another with the froth, clinging to each other, the women who had become so much more than paddling partners. We had finished the dam(n) thing. Until next time.
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.