Day 50: Salmon
I’m deep in the Pacific Northwest now — Bigfoot territory. Walking into Astoria, the northernmost city in Oregon, I started asking around for a boat ride across the river. Down to the docks and among the charter fleet, I finally ended up at the Harbormaster’s office. “If you were here in August, during fishing season, there’d be all kinds of boats heading back and forth, but it’s pretty dead out there right now.” Following her gesture over the water, I could see she was right. It looked as though the bus would be my only option to get across the Astoria Bridge — I’d been warned that it was impossible (and strictly illegal) to walk its 4-mile expanse. So I followed the train tracks further into town, stopping for a veggie burrito, soon reaching the bus terminal, and scribbled in my journal to wait.
“Can you drop me off right close on the other side of the bridge?” I asked, climbing onto the bus and depositing my $1. “I’m hiking up the coast, and this bridge is about the only section I can’t walk.”
“You’re walking up the coast?” the driver asked, “You know this bus goes all the way to Aberdeen? If I was you, I’d keep riding. I mean, that’s a long walk.”
“Yeah I know,” I said with a smile, “but I’ve gotta walk. Can you just drop me as soon as possible after the bridge?”
“All riiiiight,” he replied with an unmistakable if-that’s-what-you-really-want-but-don’t-say-I-didn’t-warn-you inflection.
I took a seat near the front as the bus rumbled to life, setting my pack in the seat beside. There was something thrilling about the ride up towards the bridge — for one thing, it was the speed and acceleration of a motor vehicle; it’s been awhile since I’ve ridden in one! And then there was the excitement of starting a new state — the third in my long trek. But there was another excitement too, connected to this place, this mythic river. The Columbia, I thought, looking through the bridge struts out at its grey-blue waters, so wide they look more like an ocean bay. This is the river that carried William Clark and Meriwether Lewis to the Pacific Ocean in 1805, along whose southern bank they built Fort Clatsop to face their second winter of the expedition. The native peoples they encountered on the lower Columbia were diverse and went by many names, but had one remarkable thing in common: they were among the only native peoples in the world to adopt a sedentary lifestyle without agriculture, so rich was their Pacific Northwest home. Forget nomadic hunting and gathering; these people stayed put, and they did it for one reason alone: the salmon.
In 1805 the Columbia River was perhaps the greatest salmon river in the world, as tens of millions of migrating fish from 5 separate species pulsed upstream each year. For the natives, subsistence was almost as effortless as waiting for winter snows or spring flowers — when the time was right, millions of pounds of food would arrive from the sea, practically throwing themselves at their feet. No wonder these people attached spiritual significance to salmon, and built their identity around them, in some cases calling themselves “salmon people.” They are magic. You can take as many fish as you can eat, then take a bunch more to smoke and dry for the winter, then take a bunch more to trade, and still they will keep coming back.
But the great fecundity and resilience of salmon was nearly broken in the 20th Century, as the Columbia River was interrupted — choked off dam-by-dam. The entire Columbia River system now has more than 400 dams, bringing us irrigation, flood control, water storage, and most of all hydroelectricity generation. The largest of these dams is the Grand Coulee, which is not only our largest hydropower generator in the country, but (at nearly 7000 megawatts) our largest electricity generating facility of any kind, period.
Can you imagine the fish in 1942, the year the dam was completed? Can you see them swimming impotent circles in the frothing water under the spillway, piling up below the dam as the water piled up above, noses bumping concrete, every fiber striving against it, the fish finally sinking in exhaustion, their great life bidding unmet, their destiny dying a death of frustration? The Grand Coulee Dam has no fish ladder, making it totally impregnable to anadramous fish. It is a 550-foot diaphragm, forever barricading off the uterus of the life-giving river.
The loss of our wild salmon runs in the Columbia and hundreds of lesser rivers has led to some strange things, such as carrying trapped salmon by truck around dams to release points (a brand of human life-support that strikes me as rather pathetic), as well as a booming industry in salmon farming, to the point that most salmon eaten in the U.S. now comes from Chile, a hemisphere away from where wild salmon have ever lived in their 50 million year history (a deviance that makes me squirm in my chair).
Needless to say, with this kind of fishy destruction and disruption of peoples’ life-ways, large dams have been extremely controversial since the beginning. But for the longest time, the moneyed and powerful were allied on the side of dam construction, and it became the status quo for the vast majority of our rivers in the lower 48 — a system entrenched as the concrete foundations of the dams themselves. But lately, the conversation is changing. As many of our dams overshoot their useful engineered lifetime, their reservoirs silted to the brim and their joints straining dangerously, and as people question the prevailing wisdom of the past, Dam Removal, a blasphemy to utter just a couple of decades ago, has now become a movement, and it’s gaining real strength. I don’t think we’ll see the Grand Coulee coming down anytime soon, but there are at least 75,000 other dams in the U.S. that just might, re-connecting river to ocean, river to salmon, river to people.
A wonderful success in the dam removal story transpired on the Elwha River, on the Olympic Peninsula, right where I’m headed in the home stretch of my hike. After decades of debate and acrimony, the project was finally approved and the bulldozing and jackhammering got to work in 2011 — today, the Elwha Dam is gone and the Glines Canyon Dam is going, and the river will run free from its headwaters in the snowy Olympic Range to the Strait of Juan de Fuca for the first time in over a century. And the salmon are already teeming: the largest run of chinook salmon in decades hit the Elwha last fall. You’ve gotta love their resilience. It’s like David Montgomery describes salmon in King of Fish: they’re more like a weed than a delicate flower — give them half a chance, and they’ll charge back up the river. The burgeoning dam removal movement is the subject of what looks to be a fabulous new documentary called Damnation, which was just released and I’m eager to see.
Of course, salmon are a major part of our way of life up in Southeast Alaska too. On our Stanford Sophomore College course last summer, we got up-close-and-personal with salmon: spawning them at the hatchery in Sitka, walking the wet decks of a salmon processing plant, chatting with fishermen on their purse seiners and gill-netters, and culminating with eating a delicious meal of wild salmon out at the Hobbit Hole. This is experiential living and learning in wild Alaska. It should taste good.
And finally, for today’s sign, which has nothing at all to do with salmon — but I love the inappropriate use of quotation marks. And now, I’m off for the Olympic Mountain Range! Talk to you next from Port Angeles, the culmination of my long hike, where land meets ocean and the kayaking begins!