I remember the moment I saw my first Idaho salmon. It was in 1987 and I was on the Middle Fork Salmon River-just days from moving to Seattle, leaving Idaho and my first job with ICL, to start a new life.
I was on the upstream end of a deep pool, mid-river, standing on a huge, partially submerged boulder. Casting a flyline, I was quite familiar with the cutthroat trout around me, so when I saw this much larger fish emerge from the depths not ten feet away before dropping back down in the pool I was struck by something primal. It was big. Really big. Its gnarly head had visible scratches and a splotchy white fungus picked up on the long transition and swim from the ocean back to Idaho. It looked both beaten up and very strong. It had obviously come from the ocean, an amazing thing to ponder in the Idaho wilderness.
Back then, in my 20s, I was out in Wild Idaho at every free moment. I was running ICL’s public lands program and running around every roadless area I could get into. And in this moment, right before moving to the Northwest’s biggest city, the wildest, most emotionally powerful thing I’d ever seen in Idaho appears right before me… and like a shadow was gone. I couldn’t believe I was leaving Idaho. I was off to do public lands work for the Sierra Club, stumbling onto a path on which I’d eventually meet the president of the United States. For many "career" reasons it proved to be the right thing to do. But in the moment I felt that salmon was telling me something about Idaho I’d better not forget.
As my own journey continued, I got to know salmon a whole lot better. Sea kayaking in Alaska and British Columbia, I saw thousands. In Alaska’s Wood-Tikchik State Park, in 24-hour light, sockeye were literally bumping into me as I fished. You could hear the pulsing movement of thousands of fish resonating through the nylon skin of my collapsible kayak.
Every time I saw one of these fantastically rich expressions of nature, I thought back to that single fish I’d seen back in Idaho. And I’d think about how much Idaho has lost.
Idaho salmon are coming home. While this year’s returns are low, they are here, back where they were born, in some of our rivers and streams right now. My music-playing buddy, Glenn Oakley, just returned from Dagger Falls on the Middle Fork Salmon River, above Boundary Creek where my first river trip began. Glenn makes his living with a camera, and has long chased salmon in Idaho with his lens.
Like the salmon in Glenn’s short film, after my own time by the Pacific, I came home to Idaho, 23 years ago. I came back to run ICL. I’ve since seen many Idaho salmon, in a few favorite haunts, but nearly always as individuals-icons of a species in peril. Each sighting of an Idaho salmon is a gift. These fish are role models, testament to the power and resilience of wild nature. These precious wild fish are simply trying to come home, to spread their seed and then to die and nourish our landscapes, bringing nutrients from the sea to the mountains nearly one thousand miles away. Whether facing a set of huge dams, or rivers that are warming with our planet, or countless other challenges, it sure isn’t easy for them.
Watch this short video. Share it. As you watch the Chinook power out of the whitewater to leap the falls many hundreds of miles from the ocean and thousands of feet above sea level-now in the true home stretch to the spawning gravels where it was born-you, too, will be cheering it on.
Wild Idaho is more than an ICL tagline. On the best day, you’re reminded that it’s something magic, something to be defended. Out there right now, Wild Idaho means salmon.