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From the Salmon to the Pacific

by Steve Benson
Idaho Mountain Express, August 9, 2006

River guide attempting to kayak 900 miles to help salmon

Bill Erickson will float 900 miles from Redfish Lake, Idaho, to the Pacific Ocean during a 40-day trip to raise awareness for salmon and steelhead preservation efforts. There were no television cameras. No politicians. No widespread, regional sense of urgency. When Bill Erickson slid his kayak into the sparkling waters of the Salmon River near Stanley last Sunday—beginning an epic journey to the Pacific Ocean to raise awareness for the river's disappearing namesake—there was only a tiny crowd of passionate supporters, and a lot of determination.

"My pledge is to remove" the four lower Snake River dams, Erickson said prior to his launch from Sunbeam Dam. "They are inefficient, not cost effective, and killing our salmon."

Erickson, a 30-year-old Salmon River raft guide, plans to kayak more than 900 miles down the Salmon, Snake and Columbia rivers to reach the ocean—the same impossible trek thousands of migrating juvenile salmon attempt to complete every year.

With up to 80 pounds of gear stored in his kayak, Erickson will paddle an average of 15 to 20 miles a day en route to the Oregon coast, which he hopes to reach by Sept. 27.

Along the way, he'll make several stops to rally support for a fish that survived the Ice Age but is now on the brink of extinction.

Like juvenile salmon, Erickson's main challenge will not be the swift, wild waters of Idaho's Salmon River, but the slack, slow moving waters of the Lower Snake and Columbia rivers, which are broken by eight dams.

Prior to the dams' erection, up to 16 million chinook, sockeye, and coho salmon made the annual migration from the Pacific Ocean to the Columbia River Basin. Hundreds of thousands reached Central Idaho and the Stanley Basin. Last year, just six sockeye returned to Redfish Lake, which once boiled red during the annual spawn.

"That's unacceptable," Erickson said.

Sockeye and chinook were listed as endangered species in 1991. Steelhead, which are seagoing rainbow trout, received the same federal distinction in 1997. Coho salmon were declared extinct on the Snake River in 1985.

The primary cause of decline is said to be the string of dams on the lower Snake River—Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite. Those four dams, located in southeastern Washington, reportedly kill between 80 and 90 percent of Idaho-spawned salmon migrating to the ocean every year.

"Salmon are in deep trouble," said Tom Stuart, of Idaho Rivers United, which is sponsoring Erickson's trip. "Runs are declining seriously."

Stewart, who spoke about the significance of Sunbeam Dam and the plight of salmon as part of a pre-launch ceremony Sunday morning, said there are more than 400 dams in the vast Columbia River Basin.

"It does not sound radical or even unreasonable to me to remove 1 percent," an emotional Stuart said. "That's common sense, that's intelligent thinking."

The Sunbeam Dam was erected near the confluence of the Yankee Fork and Salmon River in 1910 to provide power for a nearby gold mine. With salmon runs cut off to the Stanley Basin and upper Salmon River, in 1913 "citizens started raising hell," Stuart said.

He added that locals began transporting salmon around the dam in wicker baskets and nets, and they eventually "threatened to dynamite the dam themselves."

With pressure mounting, the government caved in 1934 and enough of the Sunbeam Dam was detonated to allow salmon to pass. Stuart said the return of the fish was "immediate and dramatic."

A study released in February 2005 determined that a restored salmon and steelhead fishery, which is dependent on removal of those four dams, would add up to $550 million to Idaho's economy every year.

But removing the dams would raise the cost of power, shipping—many farmers rely on barges to transport their crops to market—and irrigation, opponents argue.

Supporters of the plan claim the dams only provide 5 percent of the Pacific Northwest's electricity, and alternative shipping methods for crops, such as by rail and truck, would be cost-effective.

Erickson's passion for salmon was spawned 25 years ago, when he watched his father reel in a chinook from Washington's Puget Sound.

"I remember seeing his eyes light up," Erickson said. "It's something that will be with me forever. Children in this valley may never experience this memory ... that makes me sad."

Erickson's been a river guide for seven years—three on the Salmon River for Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (OARS).

His plans to paddle to the Pacific to raise awareness for the fish formed during that first season on the Salmon.

"It's been a long road to get here," he said. "To be able to share my passion is a pretty incredible position to be in. I don't take it for granted."

Neither does his wife, Allison. The couple was just married in June, and will be apart for more than just a couple months. Allison will be studying in Germany for the next year.

"To say I'm not nervous would be a lie," Allison said as her husband changed into his wetsuit. "But I wouldn't want it any other way. Being able to follow your passions is the ultimate gift. I'm very proud of him."

As Erickson paddled out of sight down the Salmon River toward the Pacific, he did so with quiet determination—like the fish he's trying to save.

For information about Erickson's trip, contact Amanda Peacher at (800) 574-7481, or via e-mail at amanda@idahorivers.org.


Steve Benson
From the Salmon to the Pacific
Idaho Mountain Express, August 4, 2006

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