Former Huron Resident
by Roger Larsen
HURON, S.D. - Bill Erickson stood before his 188 fellow classmates in 1994 and talked about the importance of dreams.
Abraham Lincoln lost many elections before he won the White House, the Huron High School class president said that June day.
"If you don't have a dream, I encourage you to find one," Erickson said. "And don't give up, don't ever give up." Erickson has been living his dream since high school and college graduation, and in August, he'll embark on a personal adventure to try to begin reversing the decades-long loss of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
In a Salmon to Sea Awareness trip, he'll kayak 900 miles on the Salmon, Snake and Columbia river systems in
August and September, retracing an ancient salmon migration path that is essentially extinct.
Kayaking solo for the most part, he'll start at the headwaters of the Salmon River in Stanley, Idaho, on Aug. 7 and plans to reach his ocean destination Sept. 27 or 28.
Erickson has always had a love of open waters.
He was perhaps thinking of his father and the uncertainty of life when he encouraged the other graduating seniors to find their own dreams. Warren Erickson died the year before.
"From the beginning, one of my first memories is my dad catching a salmon in Puget Sound in Washington," he said.
The Erickson family moved from Hot Springs to Huron in 1988. Both Bill and his sister, LeAnn, went to middle school and high school in Huron. Their mother, Nancy, now lives in Gilbert, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix.
Bill Erickson attended Mitchell Technical Institute and Black Hills State University and graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff with a degree in parks and recreation management. He worked as a backpacking, climbing and paddling guide in Virginia.
He says he cut his teeth as a river guide on the French Broad River in western North Carolina.
Erickson now works for Outdoor Adventure River Specialists-Dories based in Angels Camp, Calif. He is currently doing off-season repairs and in three weeks will start guiding again, first in Utah, the Grand Canyon and then Idaho. He leads people on multiple-day raft and dory trips.
While guiding in Virginia, he met hikers as they spent four or five months on the Appalachian Trail, a 2,160-mile footpath. It gave him the inspiration to look for a physical and mental challenge of his own.
It came in 2004 when he arrived in Idaho for a guiding job. The Sawtooth Mountains - so sharp, so jagged, so picturesque and so classic "blew me away," he said. At that instant, he spawned yet another dream: To kayak the Salmon River from its source near Stanley, Idaho, to the Pacific on the Washington-Oregon border.
Every mile, as he and his kayak continue dropping the 6,000 feet from start to finish, will be dedicated to salmon, particularly the sockeye salmon.
That summer of 2004, Erickson searched for salmon on the rivers he worked on.
"I didn't see any the whole time I worked," he said. "I have yet to see salmon in its natural habitat in Idaho."
While in British Columbia, however, he did see salmon.
"That was kind of a defining moment, seeing a salmon travel upstream 1,000 miles to spawn," he said.
Erickson hopes his trip raises money and awareness.
Salmon began disappearing nearly a century ago, when a country at war was building ships in the Pacific Northwest and constructing dams to generate hydroelectric power. Salmon numbers dramatically declined in the late 1970s.
Erickson has shared his research on his Web log, writing that salmon are born in freshwater streams and lakes.
When grown, they travel tail first to the ocean with the help of spring snowmelt to rush them along. But the large predator-filled reservoirs and a lack of current impede their progress.
What once was a 10-day journey can now take one to three months. But as they move along, their bodies change chemically to become saltwater rather than freshwater fish. When it takes longer to get to the ocean, they can't survive in freshwater if they've already adapted to a saltwater environment.
Those that make it spend up to seven years swimming the ocean currents before sensing it's time to return home to find a mate and spawn.
In the 1950s, about 4,000 sockeye salmon returned to Redfish Lake each year. Two years ago, only 24 made it back.
Erickson will encounter eight dams he'll have to portage his kayak around. All of them have shipping locks.
"But at the time I'm going through, they won't allow recreational kayaks to go through for safety reasons," he said.
He will load his kayak onto a collapsible cart and hike around each dam. The shortest distance will be half a mile, but the longest, a 10-mile jaunt, will be done by car.
Erickson expects to spend 10 hours a day in his kayak, averaging about 20 miles from morning to late afternoon.
Most of the time he'll be on his own, although another paddler will accompany him in certain areas, again for safety reasons.
The 900 miles includes 350 miles of rapids. One stretch of the Columbia River is a world-class wind surfing area, with 40 mph winds.
Salmon advocates will be watching his journey with special interest. The area he is kayaking through is a battleground, he says.
Salmon interests are fighting dams, fish hatcheries and streamside erosion. They hope to change policy, remove dams and return wild salmon and steelhead to sustainable levels.
Erickson's 900-mile dream will shine a daily spotlight on a fish he has grown to respect for its strength and courage, something he believes is unmatched in the animal kingdom.
Magazine writers will accompany him part of the way. Corporations have stepped up, donating most of the gear he'll need. He still needs to raise money for food and camping supplies and out-of-pocket expenses. Erickson will camp out each night along the river, spending his down time resting and trying to provide updates via satellite phone. His Web log is salmontosea.blogspot.com.
Back in Arizona, his mom will be his biggest fan.
"She's absolutely excited about it," he said. "She's a huge supporter as is my fiancee, who has pushed me and pushed me to do this trip. Everybody sees how excited I get about it."
He grew up with a father who loved taking him fishing on rivers called the James and the Missouri in South Dakota. He has come far in the 12 years since leaving Huron.
"It's not too bad, I'll tell you what," he said when asked about a job many outdoor lovers would envy. "It's hard to pay the bills sometimes, but I wouldn't want to do anything else."
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