Expedition Clearwater Basin Blog – The Salmon Spawn

Much life in the Clearwater Basin revolves around the arrival of the salmon and steelhead after their long journeys from the Pacific Ocean.

The spawn is an important part of the Clearwater story and Jeff Halligan, who has been working with the Clearwater Collaborative and Wilderness Society on the ground in Idaho, has been on a mission to help me find some salmon or trout. Upon my arrival at the airport, the news looked grim. Some of the chinook salmon had already spawned, and there was no sign of the steelhead on the streams where we would be working. Jeff and I hiked up Meadow Creek, a tributary of the Selway River, to take a closer look. But it was as he had been told. We found a dead chinook that had, like many others, already reached its destination and floated in exhaustion to the edge of the creek.

But undaunted, Jeff and I continued on in search of some spawning salmon. My main assignment here is to capture a sense of the land that the Clearwater Collaborative has proposed as wilderness. But in my view, you can’t understand the land unless you see some of those who live wild upon it.

Jeff took me to Kelly Creek, a clear to the bottom cold stream that runs into the North Fork of the Clearwater River. We traveled up the creek, and began to see some fly fishermen waist deep in the water. This was a good sign. Where there are anglers, there are most likely fish. And pretty soon we saw them–kokanee. These salmon are smaller than the chinook and steelhead, not by nature, but by circumstance. Decades ago a dam blocked the passage of kokanee from their spawning grounds in the streams of the Clearwater to the ocean. So now they can only travel from their natal streams to the Dworshak Reservoir, the body of water created by a dam on the North Fork of the Clearwater. So these salmon are puny, a pound or two, compared to chinook, which can grow to several feet long and 20 pounds. But what they lack in size they make up for in beauty. When they come to spawn, they have reached a hue of the brightest salmon red with green heads. They literally glow pink, as if they are lit from within. As they band together by the hundreds on their journey they appear as streaming red ribbons streaming undulating through the clear, clear waters of creak and stream.

And when they arrive they draw myriad communities of hungry predators, from those with wings to those with fly rods.

This event, the spawning of salmon, will last throughout the fall, and when each of these fish has reached its natal grounds, their grueling journey and all the effort they put into breeding a new generation, will have taken all they have. They will die on the same streams and rivers where they and their parents and grandparents were born.

All of this salmon drama is due to one overriding factor, a factor that governs the health of us all. The availability of clean water, falling onto and flowing from in-tact land and healthy forests. The Clearwater, its salmon, and the system of life that orbit’s around them all depend on the healthy waters that flow from wilderness, from lands that leave water pure and safe. There are many reasons we need wild lands, and many reasons to protect them, but perhaps this one should be enough.