Return of the Salmon

I admit that in my rambles up and down our river I get a little dreamy – about salmon.   In my defence, it’s not hard to day dream about these great fish considering our river was home to them since before the last Ice age. These ocean going critters and their cousins the steelhead came and went from our river to the ocean for millennia before the construction of dams that blocked their migrations.

At one time the Columbia River system was home to 16 million salmon.  The Spokane River had runs of Coho and a run of Chinook salmon called “June Hogs.” These fish weighed up to 80 pounds and were uniquely adapted to moving big rocks with their powerful tails during spawning.   They swam to the Spokane Falls and 55 miles up Hangman Creek where the Coeur d’Alene Tribe fished for them.

Sitting on the riverbank in the Spokane Gorge below the falls, it’s easy to dream about the active hum of Spokane Tribal villages that sat near the mouth of Hangman Creek for over 7,000 years.  These were urban centers of civilizations that relied on rich runs from the sea.   Closing my eyes, I can hear the laughing children and the songs of adults working as they catch and clean salmon.   I can smell the wood smoke from the racks of drying fish over fires. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the Spokane Tribe and all of the other Native American people who fished the mouth of Hangman Creek and the Spokane Falls.  Sitting and soaking up some of this collective “salmon happiness” never gets old.

If I look down river in my mind’s eye, I can watch these magnificent fish enter the river and announce their presence by smashing the surface of the water and wallowing in the shallows.  In the old days, homesteaders near salmon rivers reported of being kept awake at night for all of the fish frolicking past.  In other Northwest rivers I’ve seen big chinooks jump in nervous anticipation of their upstream spawning run – a primal push to go home, to return to the gravel, spawn and die.

Sometimes, it’s the cork handle of my fishing rod that triggers a salmon dream – the magic jolt of hooking a massive steelhead trout in the emerald green waters just below Sandifur Bridge makes my hands sweat.  I once took a Trout Unlimited staffer from Portland down the river to fish for trout, only to catch him staring into the river.  “Man,” he said, his voice distant but connected to the water he was standing in. “I can’t even imagine how cool this river was when you could hook a steelhead here. I can almost see one lying right there in that run.” I just smiled.

And there are the dark dreams too.  There is the long shadow that the salmon-absence has cast on all of us, whether we know it or not.  Not only did their absence strike at the heart of the spiritual and economic life of native cultures, but I believe it left America’s new comers in a kind of poverty as well.  A while ago while fishing the river, I found some graffiti at the base of a bridge that was the perfect reflection of that loss that too few are aware of: “RIP” painted into the concrete beside a beautiful salmon mandala. The image was soon painted over, and the lack of salmon continues to haunt many of our rivers.  The truth is, though, salmon never rest. Nor do their ghosts.

In 2014, the Spokane City Council passed a resolution supporting the return of salmon to the Spokane River after the Columbia Basin Tribes and Canadian First Nations developed a vision of re-introduction over the Grand Coulee Dam. It is clear that the public supports this beautiful idea.   If this happens, we would see the licences to run Spokane River dams open up for consideration of fish passage.  This vision of salmon returning to the Spokane isn’t just a dream.  Planning is happening and the dream is getting as focused as concrete dams that cross the river.

Imagining the presence of salmon in the river again is captivating.    Indeed, one day relatively soon, our salmon daydreams may be interrupted by the real slap of giant fish tails on moving water.  A tail slap that is a celebration of life, a beautiful homecoming, a real dream come true.

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Jerry White Jr. learned to fly fish at a young age and has been exploring Northwest rivers by boat and on foot ever since. In 2014, he signed on as the Spokane Riverkeeper, turning his lifelong passion for our local river into a full-time job.

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