Part 1 - Idaho’s Platter of Salmon Habitat
Redfish Lake was so named because of the bright red color of these endangered salmon.
Standing at its shores, it was easy to imagine the lake densely packed with sockeye, their shimmering scales reflecting in the water’s surface like rose petals.
We were there too late in time, and too early in the season, for any slight evidence of this vision, but the migration journey of Snake River salmon is truly a remarkable, though ominous tale.
Navigating close to 900 miles (~1450 kilometers) of waterways inland from the Pacific rim to elevations above 6,000 feet (~1820 meters), the Snake River salmon travel farther and climb higher than any other salmon on earth. Now, dams prevent this migratory feat from happening.
This one-of-a-kind story needed to be told with images.
At 6,547 feet (~1,984 meters), near the base of the serrated Sawtooth Mountains, the glacier-fed Redfish Lake remains one of the highest salmon spawning habitats on the planet. Enveloped by the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA), a wild and remote landscape comprising roughly 756,000 acres (~305,940 hectares), including the 217,088 acre (87,850 hectares) Sawtooth Wilderness Area, it is also one of the most protected salmon spawning habitats left.
Add adjoining aquatic highways such as the Salmon River, the Middle and East Forks of the Salmon River, Bear Valley Creek, and Marsh Creek, among dozens of other tributaries, and Idaho presents a platter of some of the most ideal salmon spawning habitat in the lower 48 US states.
The issue is getting wild salmon to return there.
In part one of my week-long Tripods in the Mud (TIM) assignment, I traveled to the Sawtooth Valley in central Idaho to focus attention on the pristine habitat and the wild animals that are interconnected to this unspoiled environment.
TIM is a new initiative conceived by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). It unites professional photographers with conservation organizations for the creation of visual material to give life to specific regions or issues.
In this case, I partnered with Save Our Wild Salmon (SOS), a nationwide coalition of stakeholders working collectively to restore self-sustaining, abundant, and harvestable populations of wild salmon and steelhead to the rivers, streams and oceans of the Pacific Salmon states while focusing their efforts on the Columbia and Snake River Basin.
On the ground, SOS sent logistics wizard Emily Nuchols, co-founder of Under Solen Media LLC, who served as one of my field companions and an information guru for the week. Accompanying us was Greg Stahl, an amateur photographer familiar with many of the locations we planned to visit, and also the Assistant Policy Director at Idaho Rivers United (IRU), a non-profit organization devoted to protecting and restoring Idaho’s rivers, an effort that includes considerable work on behalf of recovering endangered salmon and steelhead. Tom Stuart, a Stanley resident and IRU board member, rounded out the contingent. Stuart’s long-time advocacy and encyclopedic knowledge of the issues were also integral to the trip’s success.
Our TIM team corresponded months before the Idaho expedition, as the assignment required a grueling schedule that would allow us to cover as much ground as we could in a short amount of time.
Our first day was dedicated to a long morning and an even longer afternoon as we scouted scenes that would depict the natural havens salmon could call home. In Idaho, this was not an arduous task, as the surrounding Boise, Challis, and Sawtooth National Forests and Frank Church Wilderness provided abundant backdrops. I used my neutral density filter frequently, as it allowed me to capture the details in lingering shadows and blur ripples above rocks. Often, we were surprised by mule deer whose curiosity brought them closer to my lens.
“Not since I was little, have I searched for wildlife so hard,” expressed the always energetic Nuchols, whose expertise in locating wildlife was a welcome surprise for me. “When you're out there stalking a moose in the woods, or hiding behind sagebrush to get the perfect shot of a pronghorn, or staring for hours at the river hoping for a glimpse of the first salmon runs, it's really not that difficult to see how all of these animals are connected.”
There is truth behind Nuchols’ observation. The Snake River salmon that migrate from the Pacific Ocean are jam-packed with nutrients. Some are destined to fill the bellies of predators who patiently await their return, taking their place in the food cycle. That is, if the salmon are able to come back.
Individual days began to blend into the pastel colors of sunrises and sunsets.
On more than one occasion, we were drawn to the presence of an adult female pronghorn before realizing that she was distracting us from her newborn fawn hidden in the sagebrush. In the meadows we saw more ungulates, as elk and moose pranced to the edges of lodgepole pine forests while I extended my tripod’s legs. We added mating pairs of sandhill cranes and adult female mountain goats with kids to our wildlife shoot following guided visits from SNRA Recreation Manager Ed Cannady and Nappy Newman, a passionate mountain goat advocate and local guide.
From above the landscape, the serpentine features of rivers and tributaries were more evident. My airsickness was kept at bay as I found comfort in viewing such vast sweeps of green architecture. Our pilot, Don Reiman, another IRU board member, graciously flew us in his Cessna 210 over Idaho’s wild backyard for more than two hours, as I surveyed the ground below for patterns and contrasts.
Midweek, the predictable weather followed suit and we floated the upper reaches of Bear Valley Creek on the hunt for wild salmon. With my underwater gear at hand, I wanted test shots I could evaluate before our return trip here in late August, I maneuvered an inflatable kayak by Stahl’s side, and he pointed out river features perfect for salmon redds, nests salmon build for spawning.
“Idaho has one-of-a-kind salmon habitat” Stahl said. “With dams downstream on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers blocking the natural migration corridor, what it doesn’t have are self-sustaining populations of wild fish.”
I stared at the water through a polarizing lens that afternoon and was rewarded when a dashing fish filled my composition briefly, though my shutter was too slow to capture its identity. Being so close to the water, I was tempted to slip in.
It is the reproductive coloration of the sockeye salmon that influenced Redfish Lake's nomenclature but other anadromous species swimming the basin’s waters are affected as well. Chinook and steelhead spawning numbers are also down from historical counts and they are down catastrophically. The statistics are clearer than Idaho’s alpine water. At one time, up to 16 million wild salmon returned to central Idaho each year. Today, as few as 10,000 successfully complete the obstacle-ridden migration. Determining how to share this narrative is the work of a conservation photographer and my quest has been enhanced through partnerships created by TIM.
Five days into the trip, I had not yet seen all of the species swimming the Snake River. Before departing for a stint on the East fork of the Salmon River near the end of our expedition, I had my chance to place another one in front of my camera when we picked up news of jumping salmon at Dagger Falls, a cascade fish must pass to reach the spawning waters of Bear Valley Creek and Marsh Creek upstream.
Perched precariously on a rocky ledge, with foaming water below, I was an arm’s reach away from the largest of the salmon species, the chinook, demonstrating awe-inspiring perseverance. Their movement up the falls seemed fictitious, and yet it was real. For hours I clicked while flying fish filled the frame.
In August, the TIM team will once again return to the salmon rivers of the Idaho and Oregon to create images that will inspire you to help their plight. This time we will be seeking images to relay the real-life drama that is salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest.
For more notes from the field visit the Save Our Wild Salmon Blog