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Epic Salmon Journey Dies in Slack Water

by Steve Benson
Idaho Mountain Express, September 8, 2006

Like smolts, kayaker can't overcome challenges of four Lower Snake River Dams

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.

More than 80 percent of Idaho's salmon are killed when trying to navigate the four lower Snake River dams during their migration to the Pacific Ocean.

On Aug. 6, Bill Erickson, a 30-year-old Salmon River raft guide, set off to emulate the journey of the endangered fish by paddling more than 900 miles in a kayak from Sunbeam Dam near Stanley to the Oregon Coast.

His desire to face the same challenges thousands of migrating juvenile salmon face every year proved more realistic than intended.

Fewer than 30 days, and 487 miles, after his launch, Erickson's journey was dead in the water.

"I woke up the day after reaching Little Goose Dam unable to move my right shoulder," Erickson wrote on Wednesday. "It would have been impossible for me to continue paddling downstream with my arm in that condition."

"It's kind of symbolic," said Amanda Peacher, outreach coordinator for Idaho Rivers United, which sponsored Erickson's trip to raise awareness for sockeye and chinook salmon. "He got through the whitewater portion just fine, but just like the smolts he couldn't make it through those reservoirs."

Smolts, which are juvenile salmon, become disoriented by the more than 400 miles of slack water created by the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and Ice Harbor dams on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington.

Many never make it to the Columbia River, which is also broken by four large dams en route to the Pacific Ocean.

Facing 5-to-10-foot swells and strong head winds, Erickson began to experience severe pain in his right shoulder. By the time he passed Little Goose Dam, which is the second of the four dams on the Lower Snake River, he had less than 10 percent mobility in his right arm. Sidelined since last Sunday, Erickson and Idaho Rivers United staff members decided it would not be safe or wise for him to continue his trip.

"This journey was all about bringing awareness to the critical state of our endangered salmon, and the journey's early end I think is an important sign," Erickson wrote. "I couldn't make it through four deadly reservoirs on the lower Snake River, and neither can Idaho's sockeye salmon.

"The sooner we remove the lower Snake dams, the sooner we will restore our salmon populations."

Peacher said Erickson will still attend a salmon rally in Portland on Sept. 19 with salmon advocate and author David James Duncan. He will also complete the final 90 miles of the trip by floating from Portland to Astoria and the mouth of the Columbia River.

"We're still so thankful for Bill and his efforts and think it's an even more powerful example of how deadly these dams are," Peacher said.

Steve Benson
Epic Salmon Journey Dies in Slack Water
Idaho Mountain Express, September 8, 2006

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