Salmon in the Mountains

I knew my chances were slim. Only a handful of salmon make it into the Idaho mountains this close to the Montana border.  The fact any do at all is remarkable.

I was standing six hundred and twenty-four river miles from the Pacific, upstream from eight major dams, three and a half thousand feet above the ocean they left. The trails I like to ski in the winter were only a few more miles up the road. The chinook salmon that swim up here are endurance athletes, problem-solvers, and mountain climbers. They seem to defy the laws of physics. They look contemptuously at the limits of biology. Yet every year, some return.

Sam, the seasonal fish trap monitor at my destination, told me she had counted seven new overnight arrivals that morning. This first week in August was the middle of the summer run. Sam’s solo days at the Powell Satellite Facility had become considerably more interesting now the fish were arriving. There were already one hundred and thirty-four in the holding ponds. In a few more weeks, she would be joined by a handful other fish techs and together they would spawn the ripening fish.

I stood on a rock on the edge of river just below the tributary whose scent the salmon sought out. It was hot and the sun beat down on the fast-moving water.  I shaded my polarized glasses with my hands and scanned the pool where the fish would gather before ascending the last few yards of their freshwater run. Up and down, side to side. I willed one of the fish to appear while hoping not to lose my balance on the dome-shaped rock. I had seen thousands of salmon before in Alaska, but never one here, so far from the ocean, so high in the mountains. Every rational bone in my body told me it was impossible.

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The miracle I hoped to see on this part of the Lochsa River also had a wrinkle. The returning fish were hatchery chinook. This satellite facility was set up under an agreement with the Bonneville Power Administration to compensate for the damage wreaked on fisheries by the four lower Snake River dams. The eggs taken from these fish would not even hatch up here, but would be driven to a larger facility one hundred and twenty miles away to spend eighteen months being raised under controlled conditions. Hatchery staff would then bring them back up to spend a few months getting acclimated to the scent of these waters before releasing them into the river.

Sam told me about an old timer from Missoula who dropped by fairly regularly to talk.  He claimed to have seen salmon redds on the river bottom a few miles upstream from here. This meant salmon swimming right by the Powell fish trap seeking even higher, colder water to spawn. They might be hatchery fish, a little lost on their upriver journey. The more tantalizing possibility is that they were wild fish, remnants of the original population, still making that epic journey from the Pacific into the Idaho mountains. These fish would be oblivious to the carefully engineered life cycle of the hatchery fish travelling alongside them. They would be responding only to an exquisitely-adapted  rhythm, climbing mountains on their own, living a world much less influenced by human design.

There is a sign just over the pass I crossed that morning on the way to the fish trap: “Winding Road next 75 miles.” Highway 12 runs along part of the northern edge of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, part of the largest continuous expanse of protected country in the lower forty-eight states. You are deep in the forested mountains. Really deep. You can feel it. You can even smell it.

I kept getting caught up on the idea that the fish I hoped to see were an intriguing version of wildlife. On the one hand, they had the power in their muscles and the wisdom in their genes to complete an impossible journey. They had negotiated the hazards of oceans, rivers, and dams to arrive at this steep landscape of western cedar and subalpine fir. On the other hand, they were about to be plucked from the water to have their eggs stripped and reared in a carefully calibrated regime at an industrial facility downriver. The wild and the engineered live awkwardly together in the same silvered bodies.

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I never saw a salmon. I guess they arrive mostly at night. But as I made a last scan of the pool, the shadow of a giant bird drifted over the reflective surface. Wobbling a bit, I looked up to see a bald eagle heading upriver, its brown and white feathers forming a sharp contrast against the deep green of the trees.

Something looked a little odd, so I raised my binoculars for a closer view. There, between its shoulders, was an antenna and a small pack. An eagle monitored at every moment while it looked for fish in a gurgling river high in the Idaho mountains.

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