Valentine’s Day is an occasion for romance. There’s something magical about this one-day celebration of love and partnership, buried in the cold, gray middle of February, a departure from the usual rote patterns of affection. A night on the town, breakfast in bed, a dozen roses, chocolate, wine, perhaps a handwritten note of devotion. For those not lucky enough to already have a partner of their own, February 14th is a golden opportunity: finding love is easier when others are out for it too, and no one wants to spend Valentine’s Day alone. So we go looking for love in the right (and wrong) places, some get lucky, and get to see where the journey takes them…

But imagine if, upon entering the local brewery that cold evening, the place was empty. The wine bar next door, too. Imagine being a high schooler, sweaty-palmed and nervous (but ready) to ask your crush to the Winter Formal dance – if they say yes, you’ll be over the moon; if they say no, you’d rather be smashed by it. But on the fateful day, they’re nowhere to be found. There might be an immediate reprieve from the stress, but what to do now that the Love of Your Life isn’t there? Your opportunity is gone, your Valentine’s Day ruined, and it’s another evening at home alone with your cat, who is great but doesn’t speak your love language.

Group of Sockeye Salmon swimming in spawning ground.

Minus the cat, and the Winter Formal dance, and the palms (sweaty or otherwise), this is more or less what happened to Lonesome Larry in 1992. Larry wasn’t always Lonesome: he was born with hundreds of other young sockeye salmon in Idaho’s Redfish Lake. He grew up with these other fish, nestling under rocks, logs, and other debris near the lake’s shore, swimming for long months beneath a thick layer of ice and snow. When the young sockeye got a chance to stretch their fins, they did, embarking more than 900 miles out to the Pacific Ocean, braving eight massive dams and hundreds of miles of stagnant reservoirs along the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Many of his comrades didn’t survive the journey, but Larry got to enter the wide ocean, meeting other salmon from all over the West Coast for lessons in the great school of fish. 

Two years passed. Larry got bigger, growing teeth and storing fat in a massive hump on his back. He roamed, moving north and south in the hunt for food, until he came back to the mouth of the Columbia River. Here, he dreamed of home at Redfish Lake, and the pretty ladyfish he’d grown up with. They’d agreed long ago to meet back home, but how much had she changed? Had she met some stronger sockeye who’d swept her off her fins? He burned at the thought. As he moved to swim upriver back home, he grew nervous and stopped eating.

Larry ascended the Columbia and Snake Rivers, climbing past the eight massive dams. He saw few other sockeye on the way, but he kept going. Swimming 900 miles upstream and 6,000 feet upwards, he got back to Redfish Lake, ready to approach the love of his life and spawn a few thousand Little Larry’s. Expecting a frenzy of flirtation, he was surprised to find the lake empty and silent. No other sockeye had finished the journey – of the thousands of sockeye who’d left the lake, Larry was the lone(some) survivor. He passed the fall in quiet confusion, waiting for a mate who would never arrive. 

The story ends with heartbreak for Larry, but that wasn’t the end for him or Idaho’s wild sockeye. Indeed, Larry’s legacy is similar to that of Saint Valentine himself. Valentine died a martyr, persecuted for his beliefs. Lonesome Larry, too, became a martyr for his species. After arriving in Redfish, Larry was captured and preserved by the state of Idaho to save the legacy of sockeye in Idaho. Starting in 1991, continuing in 1992 with Larry, and for several more years thereafter, sockeye returning to Idaho were captured and bred with each other to make millions of young fish, protected from dams, reservoirs, and predators. Some of these sockeye were slowly reintroduced back into Redfish Lake, where the namesake salmon began to return once more. 

In this way, Lonesome Larry is the father of his species, despite the lack of romance in his own life. Sockeye are still in trouble, but without Larry, they would be gone entirely. This Valentine’s Day, make sure his sacrifice wasn’t made in vain. Contact your representatives and urge them to pledge their support for salmon abundance!

The restoration of a free-flowing lower Snake River will ensure Larry’s sockeye descendants can migrate to and from Idaho safely. Every Idaho fish deserves a happy Valentine’s Day – we can ensure none of them spend it alone.

For the special fish-lover in your life, consider buying sockeye socks or other merchandise from the Lonesome Larry Project, operated by Idaho student activist Topher Jones! Proceeds from every purchase go to support sockeye conservation and research right here in Idaho.

Plus, if you’re really feeling the love this Valentine’s Day, please consider supporting salmon by making a gift to help send Youth Salmon Protectors (YSP) and other Northwest youth to Washington, D.C. this spring to advocate for salmon, orca, and Tribal justice! Last year, youth advocates with YSP, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) Youth Council, and Washington Youth Ocean and River Conservation Alliance took their advocacy work from the Northwest all the way to D.C. thanks to generous donors. Your gift –no matter how big or small – can help youth voices be heard and make a real difference for salmon. For the love of salmon, make a gift today!


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