Ocean to Idaho: Following the Chinook Salmon

This summer, journalist, filmmaker, and outdoor enthusiast Kris Millgate of Idaho Falls is setting off on an epic road trip chasing salmon across the Pacific Northwest. Her adventure is intended to inspire the public to appreciate the improbable migration of native Chinook salmon from the wilds of Central Idaho to the Pacific Ocean and back again.  

Millgate will follow and film the migration through multiple states and across hundreds of miles while learning about salmon and their incredible journey to complete their life cycle. The project begins at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon and ends at the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho. Video footage gathered during the 850-mile trip the salmon make will turn into a finished film plus stories for print and video media outlets nationwide in 2021.  

Kris Millgate fishing. // Photo by Sarah Grigg, courtesy Kris Millgate

“From the deltas of the Pacific Coast to the vast public lands of Idaho’s backcountry, this project reveals incredible landscapes and the nearly impossible migration of Chinook salmon within those landscapes,” says Millgate, summarizing the project.  

Only a couple dozen of the native Chinook salmon at the center of Millgate’s storytelling adventure survive the annual migration and return to spawn in the Yankee Fork, however. As tiny smolts, the young fish must ride the spring runoff from the mountain waters to the Pacific. Along the way they face many challenges, including making it through or around several dams and reservoirs. Those that survive face other challenges as they grow and mature for several years out in the Pacific Ocean before turning around and making that same difficult journey back upstream to reproduce in the waters where they were born. Then, after all that, they die in their home waters, continuing their role in a complex and dynamic process as their carcasses deliver nutrients to the ecosystem.  

Millgate’s truck camper on the Salmon River.// Photo courtesy Kris Millgate

The choice to end her journey on the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River east of Stanley, Idaho, has personal and historical significance, says Millgate. “I had been to a spot on the Yankee Fork where there’s an old gold dredge still sitting there along the river from 70 years ago while shooting video for a film on salmon recovery. Everything we did to develop the West is on bold display right there,” she says. The Yankee Fork once supported thousands of native salmon, but the gold dredging of the river channel that took place for a little over a decade in the 1940s led to huge declines in native fish. Today, despite the habitat destruction unleashed by that five-story gold dredge, a handful of native Chinook salmon still make it back to spawn in the Yankee Fork each year. “This fish is stronger than all get out. I started thinking about the long journey those fish make to get to Idaho, and I wanted to take on a project that engages people to appreciate them.”  

While driving the thousands of miles it will take to follow the salmon as they swim upstream will be a challenge in its own right, the more difficult task ahead for Millgate is to fairly and accurately tell her story. There are heated emotions and tricky politics that surround most public dialog about the plight of Idaho’s remaining salmon. But Millgate says fish and wildlife controversies are right up her alley. “I’ve covered grizzlies, wolves, and other issues that get people fired up. As a journalist,” she says, “I’m attracted to those issues because of that dynamic.”   

She also knows she will be interviewing a wide range of people with different interests that are linked to the fate of Idaho’s salmon and steelhead one way or another. “I want to share those diverse views,” she says. “Nobody is paying me to represent a perspective, and I’m going to cover the wide range of the challenges salmon face, but the film will also focus on the different human perspectives.” Her goal with the final film is to appeal to a general audience of people who might typically be more focused on feeding their families than the plight of salmon and to get them to think about the issue and be inspired. “Just the idea of seeing the country these fish go through—it’s an incredible journey. With all the challenges they now face, it’s remarkable.”  

Millgate started planning the Ocean to Idaho project last year, but after the Coronavirus pandemic hit, she had to re-envision everything. She canceled her flights and hotels and had to rethink how she would travel. Desperate times call for creative measures, she says, and the best way for her to work solo and be self-contained was to find project sponsor partners to help her take her project literally on the road.  

Kris Millgate filming at a marsh. // Photo courtesy Kris Millgate.

Millgate found her ideal sponsors and started following the migration of Chinook salmon on June 25. She will now travel thousands of miles across the Pacific Northwest in a Toyota Tundra paired with a Four Wheel Camper, the world’s largest producer of pop-up campers. Her days consist of driving around from shoot to shoot and living out of her camper, where she also stores her gear and recharges her arsenal of batteries for her five cameras. “Living out of a camper is plenty of space for me,” she says. With the 4×4 Tundra provided by Inland Northwest Toyota Dealers, Millgate says she can get out on dirt roads away from people and to some of the remote places where she needs to film. “I can work all day, and the solar panels on the Four Wheel Camper charge everything. When I get in there at night, I turn on the lights and the fridge is on and I can pop the roof up by myself. With the top up, there’s plenty of room to stand up and move around.”  

You can follow Millgate’s adventure and the salmon migration on her social media channels this summer or from project updates, both of which can be found on the Ocean to Idaho website at www.oceantoidaho.com. Millgate stresses that her ultimate goal for the project is to increase awareness. “I hope it creates new appreciation of these fish and other wildlife and maybe inspires more people to do something to help them.”

Originally published as “Ocean to Idaho: Following the Migration of Idaho Chinook Salmonin the July-August 2020 issue.

Kris Millgate in her Toyota Tundra truck. // Photo courtesy Kris Millgate.

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