Matthew Dickerson: Four days on the Snake River: Part 3

3rd in a series; read the previous installments here.

Morning light creeps into Hell’s Canyon, carving the hillsides with light and shadow in just a few minutes as neatly as the water has been carving it for millennia. I look up the slopes for a glimpse of one of the wild goats, bighorn sheep, or mule deer that we have seen several times along the trip down the Snake River on the Idaho/Oregon border. There are none to be seen this morning. I take my mug over to the table where the guides are just setting out a thermos of coffee.

The excursion has been billed as a float trip through the deepest canyon in North America. And it’s a very enjoyable one. The setting is spectacular. The other guests are fun to hang out with. The guides are all great. Even without fishing, it’s far more than enough to make the trip worthwhile. We are glad we’ve come. But Snake River — along with many of its tributaries — is also notorious for its fishing. And for me anything involving water is potentially a fishing trip (even if nobody else on the trip has a fishing rod). So as I wait for breakfast, I walk 20 yards down to the river with my nine-piece travel fly rod as I have done each prior evening and morning and on one lunch break.

On our very first lunch break, in about 45 minutes while the guides prepared the meal, I’d managed to land six fat smallmouth bass. With the added advantage of the swift current, the fish had proven admirable fighters. One particularly good-size bass had broken my line. I’d also hooked a rainbow trout in the swift current, and fought it long enough to catch a glimpse of its sides and identify its species before it, too, snapped my line. On the second morning I’d hiked half a mile from camp to fish where a cold-water tributary poured into the Snake River off the steep mountainside on the Idaho side. There I had managed to actually land one fat and brightly colored rainbow trout before the raft came to pick me up. But on the rest of the trip it was all smallmouth fishing. Very good smallmouth fishing.

At the third campsite, the smallmouth action is a little slower. I catch a couple, but it’s not nonstop action. Still, I enjoy the remote setting, so different from anything I ever see in Vermont. Back at the beach, I spot a couple big carp cruising the quieter water. I think of some of my carp-fishing friends and consider casting for these fish. They look to be at least six pounds — bigger than any of the bass I’ve caught. But I don’t have any carp flies, and I have no experience carp fishing. So I ignore them. I do manage to land and release something in the whitefish family making it a three-species trip.

• • •

On the fourth and final morning, I learn that Jake is interested in kayaking, but can’t find a partner. Deborah is happy to return to one of the paddling rafts so I kayak with Jake. Having seen his excellent balance, I figure we’re probably safe. And we are. I even manage to avoid hitting him in the back of the helmet with my paddle.

The only moment I feel anxious is when we approach the confluence with the Salmon River. One guide warns us of challenging currents, and suggests we stay on the opposite side of the river and avoid the confluence. However another guide in another raft gives us more confidence. We will simply have to paddle hard out of the eddy into the main flow of the Salmon, she tells us. And we need to be prepared for the current to catch us hard in the side. It’s that part that makes me anxious. But after watching two of the big rafts navigate it, we give it a go. Despite the momentary catch of breath when the current catches us and it feels like we’re going to get flipped, it proves to be a piece of cake.

And as we enter into the water of the Salmon River, I start thinking again about salmon. The powerful current — usually flow at tens of thousands of cubic feet per second — rushes below us down toward the Pacific, carrying us at a pretty good clip. I think of the amazing annual feat of the salmon swimming up that river, against that current. I consider how the combined runs of salmon and steelhead up this watershed, which totaled 130,000 in the 1950s, has now dropped below 10,000 fish a year. The primary cause of the decline is both well-known and obvious: the myriad dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

The three dams on the upper Snake that we passed on our drive the first morning are entirely impassable by fish and have completely eliminated any salmon runs beyond that point. The four dams on the lower Snake — below the confluence with the Salmon River — and several on the Columbia River, are in theory passable for migrating salmon via fish ladders. But many fish don’t make it. And even with some successfully migrating back to their natal streams to spawn, the mortality rate for the juvenile salmon returning to the ocean is brutally high. The dams turn a relative quick downriver trip on fastmoving current into a slow slog across long reservoirs. Even for the salmon that survive the hydroelectric turbines, a trip that should take only a few weeks in cold water now takes a few months in much warmer water. Massive budgets spent on hatcheries and on fish transport have done nothing to salvage the salmon runs. The only hope for the fish is almost certainly the removal of the dams on the lower Snake.

But those dams are used for irrigation, navigation, and generation of electricity. As necessary as dam removal may be for the future of salmon — and for ocean creatures like orcas as well as terrestrial creatures that depend on salmon for food — it is not an easy sell politically.

• • •

A wonderful 80-mile float trip ends when we reach our take-out. A bus takes us another 40 miles to the small city of Lewiston. We step out of the bus onto tarmac and air temps in the upper 90s. It’s supposed to be over 100 tomorrow. We no longer have river water to keep us cool.

I think about how increasingly common heat domes with increasingly hot temperatures will make it even more difficult for salmon to survive in a dammed river. I think the solution should be obvious. But not easy. I think also of the current drought in the West and the increased demands on the water stored behind those dams. I think I will be happy to hop on an early morning flight back to Vermont and get out from under the heat dome before the sun is up in the sky.

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