Gary Lane was wearing a bandanna over his bald head, and shades concealed his eyes. The Salmon River was pumping behind his back, where the swirl of the big eddy at Spring Bar upstream of the town of Riggins, Idaho, was swollen with the river’s 70,000 cubic feet per second currents.
“Welcome to the tenth annual salmon ceremony,” he announced to sixteen people gathered on the river’s sandy shore. “After the government dam removal hearings back in the early 2000s, a few of us were coming back from the meetings in Lewiston, and we decided we needed to do more to welcome the salmon home.”
Lane’s wooden dory was beached nearby. It had antlers fixed with dangling feathers that blew in the breeze above the boat’s stern. The boat bore the name of Lane’s fishing and whitewater rafting company: Wapiti, a Shawnee term that means white. It refers to the pale rump and tail of the American elk. Elk, he said, is a fitting symbol of the wild, and Lane has reverence for all things wild.
“It’s a magnificent animal. When you see a big old grand bull up close when he’s bugling, there’s not much else in nature that’s as thrilling except maybe a wolf howl or a caribou migration.”
Lane is a believer. He believes in the power of nature, that we’re all part of a greater natural whole. He believes in balance and sustainability over use, that the Earth will show people the power within themselves if they pause long enough to hear. But we’ve lost our way, he says, in a day and age of consumerism and instant gratification, and the decline of the Pacific Northwest’s once-abundant wild salmon is as strong an indication as any.
Lane was accompanied that drizzly May afternoon by Nez Perce tribal elder Horace Axtell who has helped conduct annual spring spiritual ceremonies on the Salmon River since 2000, when the federal government held public hearings about the prospect of tearing four dams out of the Snake River in Washington state to make way for migrating salmon. The Nez Perce, who famously befriended Lewis and Clark in 1805, and were later chased across the West by the Army (“I will fight no more forever,” Chief Joseph said in surrender, in 1877), are regional leaders in the effort to restore Idaho’s endangered wild salmon.
“We do this,” Lane said, “to let the salmon know that we appreciate their gift and to welcome them home.”
Spring Bar is about ten miles upstream of Riggins, a small western town where a significant portion of the local economy is based on recreational floating and sport fishing. An old mining town that succumbed to the industry’s boom-and-bust cycles, Riggins is at the confluence of the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers. In local parlance they’re simply called Big River and Little River, and they’re the beating heart of the town’s economy.
The people of Riggins know this, and they know salmon fishing is one of the chief reasons people travel there and spend money with any regularity. In 2001, an above average year for returns of hatchery-raised salmon and steelhead, $10.1 million was funneled through this town of 424 people, according to a study by a Boise economist. But that was one of the better years anybody can remember and was a small indication of what would be possible if the four dams on the lower Snake River were removed. The Salmon River, one of the Snake’s largest tributaries, was once the highway for untold millions of migrating salmon and steelhead, but it’s undergone a dramatic transformation. That transformation has happened since construction of the four dams 100 miles downstream.
“I wish I could be more optimistic, but I think that’s part of the problem,” Lane said. “We have a conspiracy of optimism. We think we’re going to pull a magic rabbit out of the hat and figure it out with all our high technology. When you go to the city and you see all the people—telephones everywhere. They think they’re connected, but what are they connected to? They’re connected to another telephone somewhere, and the voice they hear on the other end, it’s not like you and me talking. You can smell each other, you can see the nuances in the facial expressions and things. That’s a connection. With all the technology—I guess it’s a nature deficit disorder.”
Lane has a vested interest in salmon and steelhead recovery; his livelihood depends on it. And while he appreciates the hatcheries that have helped sustain fishing opportunities in Riggins, what he wants are self-sustaining runs of wild fish. He wants natural systems to work on their own. He wants to do the right thing, to work toward harmony and sustainability over endless consumption. In riggings, that means removal of the four lower Snake River dams.
“I believe that in the long run, we’re going to have to change our world-view. We have the industrial world view and the natural economy. One is fueled by fossil fuels and the accumulation of capital, and the other driven by the sun and the need to reproduce. One does everything with nature. The other gobbles it up to get what we think we need. Our whole country was founded on manifest destiny. God gave us the right to take it. We do the same thing with nature today. We really haven’t learned that much.”
As a kid growing up in Eugene and Portland on the east side of the Cascades Lane watched cowboy and Indian shows on his parents’ black and white TV. While his friends sympathized with the white-hatted cowboys, Lane found himself dreaming about what it would be like to wear deer skin or carry a bow and arrow. “Maybe it was the feathers and buckskin and natural stuff,” he said. “I was just inclined toward nature, I guess.”
If the seed for his affinity toward native cultures was planted as a boy, it was nurtured to maturity when he began working on rivers as a guide. His curiosity grew, and he immersed himself in the stories of the people who lived in Idaho’s canyons before Europeans arrived.
“The more I learned about their philosophy and their world view, it just made more sense,” he said. More than most people with white skin, Lane embraced Native American perspectives. He moved into a teepee that remained his home for thirty years. He often wears a loin cloth. He’s been known to don a coyote-skin headdress. But he is also the product of his upbringing. He graduated from Oregon State with a degree in fisheries biology and knows what he’s talking about when he’s talking about fish.
There are four species of salmon native to Idaho. Sockeye salmon were listed as endangered in 1991, chinook salmon in 1992 and steelhead in 1997. Coho salmon went extinct sometime in the 1980s, though nobody knows for sure when that actually happened. The last coho known to swim into Idaho passed lower Granite Dam, the most upstream of the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, in 1986. Despite more than twenty years of federal salmon recovery efforts, lawsuits and grassroots campaigns geared toward raising awareness and removing unnecessary dams, the status quo remains. Idaho’s salmon are still very endangered.
This has economic ramifications for rural towns like Riggins, but it also affects the function of the raw ecosystem. For thousands of years, salmon have returned to Idaho with their bodies brim-full of nutrients gathered in the Ocean. After spawning, they die, rot and feed plants and animals nearby. For the region’s Native Americans, a cultural and spiritual well has been drastically diminished.
“Salmon are sacred,” said the late Elmer Crow, another member of the Nez Perce Tribe who worked as one of the tribe’s fisheries biologists. “To us, salmon pretty much is sacred because when everything was being created, when people was created, there was nothing to eat. Salmon is one of the ones who volunteered: ‘I will sacrifice myself so these people can be fed.’ The salmon has two purposes in life: one is to reproduce; one is to feed the people.”
Crow remembered the days of his childhood, when he watched his father fish the waters of Bear Valley and the Yankee Fork, both high-mountain streams, more than 900 miles from the wide, blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
“There was salmon all over the place,” he said. “They were huge fish. Oh, how do you describe it?”
“Black. You see a sandy bottom. You know it’s all sand, and when you walk up on it, you see very few patches of sand because there are so many salmon in there.”
On the bank of the Salmon River at Spring Bar there wasn’t a salmon to be seen. Even so, Lane climbed into his dory while Axtel, whose aging body wasn’t fit for water-borne adventure anymore, sat in a chair near the river’s edge. Lane rowed into the eddy with a string of rafts and dories following, and pulled on his ores, the muscles of his sinewy shoulders working the boat one smooth stroke at a time into the river’s surging current.
Powerful beats from Axtel’s drum drifted across the big eddy, and the river began to sweep the boats downstream. In this fashion they drifted with the river and then pulled back into the eddy, making three laps, each time pulling into the river’s stalwart flow, then drawing back into the gentler upstream swirls of the eddy while Axtel’s drum beat out a primal rhythm in thanks to the few salmon completing their life’s journeys, in thanks for the gifts they offered to the people. Three, Lane explained, is a sacred number for the Nez Perce.
Lane said it’s important to welcome the few returning fish and to maintain a ten-year spiritual tradition. Most of all he said it’s important to let the world know that people still care about the salmon, one of the Northwest’s most iconic species on the brink of extinction.
“The Columbia River fishery is world-class,” he said. “There’s no other river on the planet that has salmon and steelhead like it—like it used to have anyway. It’s hard to believe that we’ve allowed something of that magnitude to go away.”
Lane’s is a life that has weaved through more than six decades in the Pacific Northwest, and he’s old enough to remember when salmon were more abundant. He caught his first salmon in northeast Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness as a boy and has been smitten with rivers and fish ever since.
“Fishing for salmon is still fun,” he said. “It’s not like those days, but it’s still fun. When a salmon takes a line . . . I mean your pole goes down, and you have a fight. They’re just a really healthy and strong fish. But (these days) you sometimes have to wait for a while before you get a bite.”
The salmon don’t return like they used to, but Lane is intent on welcoming the ones that do–and raising his voice on behalf of the effort to restore them.
“We still get to fish for some fish,” he said. “Who knows how much longer that will last.”
© Western Perspective Press