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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Point of No Return Series, Part 4: Salmon Saga

Air Date: Week of

The story of one salmon, and its journey from the high mountain streams of the northwest to the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean and back again, as told by producer Sandy Tolan, with original music by Dorothy Wang. It's the final installment in our series "The Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest".


CURWOOD: For thousands of years before Lewis and Clark arrived in the Pacific Northwest, salmon were making rivers run red. Cohos, spring chinook, fall chinook, steelhead, all choked the streams with their return from the ocean. So many, it was said, you could cross a creek on their backs. Some swam just a few miles inland; others traveled for weeks back to Idaho, Montana, even Nevada, to the streams where they were born. Today we continue our series, Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest, with the story of the journey of just one salmon, a lucky one, whose bed has not been silted by logging operations or trampled by cattle. A salmon who has survived concrete barriers and polluted waters and changing ocean temperatures and predators, to go downriver and back up in an ancient and now rare odyssey. Salmon's Journey is produced by Sandy Tolan.

(Music up and under)

WOMAN: You think if they could talk, the stories they would have, and talk about persistence and patience and perseverance. I mean the salmon is it. They're just kind of like my heroes. I wish I had that toughness and persistence to carry on.

(Music up and under)

WOMAN 2: When we see pictures of salmon, they're frequently trying to cross some barrier, like a waterfall or something. And when we look at that, we like to say, "That's me. Against all odds, I'm that persistent, I'm that strong, I'm that graceful." I think it embodies everything that we would like to be ourselves, here in the northwest.

(Music up and under)

MAN: I've tried living other places, but I just spend too much time being homesick. So I keep coming back. And I think the salmon offer us something like that. A sense of absolute home. And on the other hand, they range all over the world. So, it's hard to imagine being a human being without having someone like the salmon as an example.

(Music, fading to flowing water and under)

TOLAN: In the beginning there is the egg in the streambed, a reddish-orange bead against the gravel. The embryonic fish is curled up inside its membrane. Soon a black point forms at the center. The salmon's eye, peering out. And then a tiny fish hatches, bursting through its membrane, and stays hidden in the cobbles, until it swims out as a fry. Here we journey with a single female spring chinook salmon from birth to death. Michelle DeHarte, fisheries biologist and salmon advocate, and Kim Stafford, Oregon writer and teacher, will help us describe and imagine the salmon's journey, from a bed of gravel in a tributary of Idaho's Snake River and back.

(Music up and under)

DEHARTE: They'll emerge from the gravel at the beginning of the year and be very tiny fry, and live in these tributary streams, until the following year. Winter, you know, will bring the freezing temperatures, will bring snow pack. And when the migration cycle begins, it is attuned to the natural weather cycles of the Earth.

STAFFORD: I imagined a little salmon waking up under the gravel, and all surrounded by this sustaining motion. And being tumbled along down the stream, rolling along and turning and catching itself in an eddy, and then going on at the mercy of momma, the river, that gets bigger and bigger. And down in the dark in the cold and then up in the light, and how would you orient yourself as you tumble through the first chapter of your life?

(Flowing water with music up and under)

TOLAN: The days grow longer and warmer, and our small fry becomes a smolt, changing her physiology. Preparing for a transition to salt water. At the same time, the snow pack melts and the waters rise, and she is swept downstream, toward the mouth of the great Columbia and open ocean beyond.

DEHARTE: All of this fits together. It's perfect. It's a perfect fit.

TOLAN: For millennia it was a perfect fit. Sixty years ago it changed, when young salmon coming downstream began to meet a new challenge made of concrete.


MAN: The fish are coming down the river. They approach the power house from that direction. And they're going to be intercepted by that, what we characterize ...

TOLAN: The first dam is called Lower Granite. It's operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Over the years the Corps has spent a billion dollars trying to make the dams friendly to fish. Special screens and diversion channels for the power turbines, where the fish can get dazed and disoriented. Monitoring systems at the spillways, where the rush of bubbles can give them the bends. The Corps wants to usher them safely through the dams and into the pools on the other side. Still, many die going through the dams. Sometimes their scales are ripped off despite the government's high-tech efforts.


MAN: And so, fish come to that behavioral guidance structure, and that thing extends 80 feet into the water, near the power house, 55 feet on the far end, 1100 feet in length.

TOLAN: Our fish is destined for another place. Along with tens of thousands of other spring, summer chinook, she is captured, put under anaesthesia, and pumped into a holding tank. From there, she comes down a kind of metal water slide and into a trailer, where 20 women in smocks sit waiting with syringes. At the helm is a government fish biologist.

(Beeps and fans)

MAN: Once they come down these lines a pit tag is injected, it's a little computer chip with an antenna on it. And it gives each fish its own social security number, basically; it's a unique character for each one of these fish.

TOLAN: The women in smocks insert the chips by hypodermic needle.

MAN 2: That's fish number 5277332941.

(Music, with beeps, fans, ambient speech and splashing water, up and under)

TOLAN: Now our fish can be tracked for her journey through the Pacific. And, if she's very lucky, back again.

(Music, with beeps, fans, ambient speech and splashing water, up and under)

STAFFORD: Well, for the salmon it must be mysterious, because so much surrounding them and buoying them up is as old as ever was. The river and the sunlight and the stones shaped by the river that they slip past as they go down. But then to have a gauntlet of obstacles that your body doesn't know, your body doesn't know how to help you, it would be like a human being in a foreign landscape, where you don't know where the poisons are, and who the thugs are. And if someone smiles, does that mean you're about to die?

(Music, with beeps, fans, ambient speech and splashing water, fade to water streaming)

TOLAN: When our fish wakes up, she'll be in a holding pen on a barge headed downriver, to speed her trip to the sea. Others continue their journey through the turbines, the pipes, and the spillways. Those smolts, no longer flushed to the ocean by snow pack, head slowly through the warmer slack-water pools, biological clocks ticking. The ocean they're adapting to is still hundreds of miles away

DEHARTE: Again they pass that dam, go another 30 or 40 miles, and then they get to Lower Monumental. Bypass, turbine, transportation, spillway. Again. And they go on down a ways, and they get to Ice Harbor Dam. Then they get to the confluence with the Columbia, they go a ways down the Columbia, and they get to McNeary Dam. And again at McNeary they've got...

(Rushing water)

TOLAN: And finally, the last of the Columbia dams, Bonneville. For the salmon who have been swimming downstream, it's dam number eight to navigate and survive. Barely half have made it down from dam number one. Our female chinook, who was captured upstream, continues her ride down on a barge, making one last trip through the locks of an engineered river.


TOLAN: The steel gates close. A man in a control room pushes a button. And the water in the locks drains, lowering the vessel. Then the great steel doors swing slowly open. The federal barge moves into open river. And the federal caretakers of young salmon get ready to dump their load.

(Sprays; fade to water dripping and music up and under)

TOLAN: And our young Spring Chinook, fish number 5277332941, heads out with 200,000 fellow smolts, and the others that have made it over the dams, toward the mouth of the Columbia and Astoria and the great open ocean.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

STAFFORD: Then you're spit out into the salt sea, and how do you find your way? You are with your kind, you are with your enemies, you are with your prey. There is that big deep out there, and you're swept by currents and tides and the moon, and you don't know anything but your own strength and your own confidence.


TOLAN: Our Chinook turns north, following the currents in a great counterclockwise arc. We can't be sure how far she'll go, but her kind from the Snake River have been found up on the Puget Sound, off of British Columbia, and well into Alaskan waters off the Aleutian Islands, up to 3,000 miles away by river and sea. For two, three, maybe four years she'll stay out there. Along the way always, there have been threats: lurking predators, elusive prey. Earlier this century there were fishers who took too much. More recently, some scientists believe, the ocean has grown warmer, making the salmon's prey ever more elusive. Others say no, the North Pacific is following common patterns of fluctuating temperatures. No one disputes the salmon's numbers have been plummeting. In the best of times, of the smolts who left their home streams, perhaps one in 20 lived long enough to return. Now for some runs, it is one in 250. Let us say our salmon is one of those 250, and that her life, spent in the ocean from youth to old age, reaches a point where she is called back home.

(Surf and music up and under)

STAFFORD: And then there comes a turning, as there is for any creature, when it's time to go back. It's time to go on by returning. And through some little thread, a few molecules of stone from where you began, you begin following and finding your way.

(Music up and under)

TOLAN: Our female Snake River salmon, who has traveled thousands of miles, knows how to head toward home. Her genetic clock has told her it's time. After her second or third winter in the ocean, she's come in to feed near the coast. And then it seems her incredible sense of smell takes over. Scientists say freshwater plumes from the great rivers can go hundreds of miles out to sea. And so it may be that our female chinook, swimming through such a plume, can detect the differences in salinity and temperature. Can essentially sniff her home river. So she heads toward it, toward the memory of the smells of her youth and all that awaits her.

(Flowing water.

STAFFORD: And then when you're coming home, it's not only that you're going to give all and die to get there. You may not get there. (Laughs) There are too many impossible things that you're contending against. So it's a stranger in a strange land, and it's your own land. What are you going to do?

(Flowing water and music up and under)

TOLAN: At the mouth of the Columbia our salmon stops feeding. She is all muscle and fat now, strong but aging, pointing her snout toward the place of her birth. She heads upriver, and finds concrete where she bangs her head before finding the fish ladder, a narrow passageway of steps around each dam. Bonneville, the Dalles, John Day McNeary, Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and at last Lower Granite. Past the big windows where people peer out and a tabulator counts off the returning fish. Some salmon are sucked back into the dams and have to repeat their upstream climb. It does appear the dams built with fish ladders make the journey upstream easier than the downstream trip of the smolts. The dams built with no ladders, like the Grand Coulee, simply exterminated entire salmon runs. At Lower Granite, where she began her journey three years before on a barge, our salmon is finally beyond her concrete obstacles, and facing new ones.

DEHARTE: If your home stream has been affected by people, the riparian habitat has been destroyed so the water temperature is high, there is a dam on your home stream and it affects the water temperature. Maybe it's polluted. Maybe there is agriculture. Maybe there is cattle. Maybe there is logging and it's silted up. All those things could affect you and could cause you to expire, to cause the fish to expire, before it gets a chance to spawn. We don't know.

TOLAN: In times past, incredible numbers returned, perhaps 15 million to the Columbia Basin. They sustained cultures and a native fishery for 10,000 years. Thousands of salmon would return to single, narrow stream beds. Horace Axtell, elder of the Nez Perce tribe.

(Flowing water and bird song)

AXTELL: They said when they come, you could hear them come up. You could see a mist from the water that they splashed coming up the creek, almost like misty water. They made a lot of noise. And when they get right to the creek there where they were, where the Indians would camp, they were so thick they said you could, just imagine, you could just walk across their backs and glide across the creek. They were that thick.

TOLAN: It was a gift. That's how the Columbia River tribes always saw it. Salmon were choking the rivers, expiring on the bank, where bears waited and raccoons. And all along the river, people with spears and nets, waiting for the salmon to give themselves.

AXTELL: They thought of it as the Creator has made these creeks and the rivers for all these fish that come up and bring their life up to us. And when they got it, they really give a blessing to that fish. So more would come. And that's why it was considered a sacred food. Because the Creator, through the creation of what the Creator made, the land and the water and the streams and everything. And that's considered like a high priority, because they have to travel so far to bring food to us, the way they did. It's like giving life, to us, with what they give to us, their life.

TOLAN: Salmon brought nutrients from the sea not just for people, because they brought phosphorus and nitrogen to the banks of the streams. Animals would feed and then fertilize the forests. In this way, sea elements have been traced to Douglas fir, to insects, to animals. The sea, a thousand miles away, was part of the forest. And the fish brought it there. The salmon was part of the trees and the animals and the people.

(Flowing water)

TOLAN: At her natal stream, our battered chinook arrives. White bruises from rocks and concrete, claw marks from sea lions, flesh peeling off. She drifts upstream and down, looking for good gravel in which to lay her eggs. With her powerful tail and the strength she has left, she begins digging, moving cobbles, kicking up silt, making ready her red, or nest, for the future of her race. She is the doe. When the red is prepared, she waits for her buck.

(Flowing water, fade to music up and under)

STAFFORD: And to see the male salmon ready below and all that power and purpose, just before the end. Imagine being a dancer unencumbered by hands or feet, unencumbered by gravity, buoyant. Completely free to, with the one long muscle of your body, shake everything. That's what I felt I saw when I looked down at that salmon spending all the coins of her life in one last dance.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

WOODY: My uncle took me up to this creek, where they were spawning up on our reservation.

TOLAN: Elizabeth Woody is a poet and a member of the Warm Springs tribe.

WOODY: We walked up real quietly to this doe, and he was saying that she was just waiting. And he said, and he goes, "It's real amazing," he said, "about these salmon, is that they come up and, if two bucks come up here and they fight for her, they won't fight too long. Because they don't have much time to waste. And so, the victor will stay with her, she'll build her red, he'll provide the milk. You know, he'll die. As long as she's alive she will protect those eggs. And then she would die." And he looked at me and he said,

"Now, isn't that a love story?"

(Flowing water and music up and under)

STAFFORD: You spend all that you have gathered in your life to get back to that place. And give up everything. And then disappear. That's a good circle to live. It has everything.

TOLAN: The circle is weakening. The factors are many. Across the northwest, salmon decline is linked to silted stream beds from logging, estuaries plowed under for urban growth, the dams, and possibly ocean temperatures. Recovery remains elusive. But still, every year some make it back.

JACKSON: You see it come back and it's been through a tough road. It's been through thick, thick, thick, and thick…

TOLAN: Quincy Jackson is a member of the Nez Perce tribe.

JACKSON: It's like, then you reflect back on your life and all, see I've been through some hard stuff. I bet that fish has been through even worse. Like an older person, older man or woman, handing down their ways of life, passing their knowledge on to their children, great-grandchildren. It's like, you know, planting their seeds, their own seeds, through their heart. It's like a big ball, just hope it keeps rolling. Just keeps rolling.

TOLAN: The hope for now, for some, lies in fish hatcheries. The tribes and the states are trying to pour so many young salmon into the river that enough will return to recovery the fishery. It has its share of controversy. But young Quincy Jackson feels he's doing something when he brings the young salmon, born in green plastic tubs, to begin their life in the streams.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

JACKSON: See, you actually drive out to this stream or creek, river, or whatever, and pull that plug for them to be dumped into the river. Just like you've kind of accomplished something, to see them come back. I mean, I made that contribution to the future, to the little ones that down the road might catch that fish. Who knows? Who knows what will happen? It's like hope, for one, to come back. Please come back. Me I say a little tiny prayer, you know: have a safe journey to the ocean. Just hope you come back. Just hope you come back. Please come back.

(Flowing water and music up and under)

CURWOOD: A Salmon's Journey was produced by Sandy Tolan. Original music was composed and performed by Dorothy Wang. Our series Point of No Return: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest was edited by Peter Thomson.



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