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Float Trip Down the Middle Fork
Evokes the Dilemma of Dams

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, July 6, 2009

It's hard to jump back into real life after a week on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

The Middle Fork's 100 miles of 100 class 3 and class 4 rapids running through the middle of Idaho's wild heart in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is the classic Western river trip. I have done it four times now but no trip was better than my June trip with the guides of Rocky Mountain River Tours.

The river is managed as a true wild river, which means that each time you run it the rapids have changed, the landscape is different, the ecosystem reborn. Those changes were reflected in the relatively new rapid Tappen 3, so gnarly, guides will have to decide as the water goes down whether to make guests walk around it.

It made Pistol Creek, long a great rapid, even more technical and exciting. In high water, Redside Rapids flipped one of our boats, a reminder we were on an adventure trip, especially with the water at 47 degrees.

As we floated down the river, the spring Chinook salmon were swimming against the current heading for spawning grounds up stream. Once again, these fish are really wild.

Untouched by hatcheries, these fish that entered the Columbia in March, April and May carry the pure genetic material that may allow salmon to survive even climate change.

The trip reminded me of another very different river trip I made a decade ago thousands of miles away. I canoed the Kennebec River in Maine July 2, 1999, with a hardy group of people who had spent the decade before campaigning to remove the Edwards Dam.

The day before, workers had breached the dam, the first time a dam was removed because society valued its natural characteristics more than the power it produced. We paddled through rapids that had been covered with a reservoir behind the dam for 160 years.

It was an emotional day for my fellow boaters. A few years later I returned to canoe it again and the joy had grown as Atlantic salmon spawned upriver and a 6-foot-long sturgeon tail-danced over the site of the now long-gone dam.

Maine and the national river community celebrated again last week on the 10th anniversary of that historic day.

Earlier this month, I fished on the Sandy River in Oregon, which saw the Marmot Dam removed in 2007 with the support of the utility that owned it. It's still too early to tell how much the removal will improve its salmon runs, but if the Kennebec is any guide, my host on that trip, Jack Glass, will be crowing in a couple of years.

I still haven't gotten my head out of the Middle Fork, perhaps the wildest river in the lower 48 states. Like the other rivers, its fate and the fate of the wild salmon, which replenish its watershed with their dead bodies after they have returned and spawned, are tied to dams.

Our lead guide Aaron "Bird Dog" Beck gave a presentation Friday to his guests about the salmon, the four lower Snake dams in Washington and the future of the river he loves. It was a zealous appeal for the visitors from around the country to join him and the owners of Rocky Mountain River Tours, Dave and Sheila Mills, in advocating for removing the dams.

His talk reminded me of the passion of people like Brownie Carson and Steve Brooke, two of the people who led the campaign to remove the Edwards Dam. Their passion was remarkably similar to those of Ralph Broetje, the apple grower I interviewed in 2000 in Washington who gets his water from the reservoir behind the Ice Harbor Dam.

He has dedicated his life to growing the best apples and providing his workers with a good life just as Dave and Sheila offer a memorable trip and good working conditions. We in the region and the nation must find a path forward that honors both their work and keeps our world whole.

I returned to the real world, a couple of pounds fatter from the tantalizing Dutch oven cooking and relaxed like I haven't been for a long time. But the Middle Fork will never be far from my mind, a treasure shared by all who ever see it and all of us in Idaho.

Rocky Barker
Float Trip Down the Middle Fork Evokes the Dilemma of Dams
Idaho Statesman, July 6, 2009

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