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Our salmon, ourselves

Can an Idaho river town be saved?



The people of Salmon, Idaho may have reclaimed their namesake river this spring. It happened during Riverfest 2011, a fund-raising event created to help build a kayak park downtown, where the Salmon River splits into two channels. The event attracted a lot of the 20-something boater crowd of river guides and semi-obsessive kayakers, many of whom grew up here.

Riverfest's film festival, showing work by both amateurs and professionals, fed the crowd's thrill-seeking. Watching the raw talent of the paddlers portrayed by filmmakers fueled a sense of community pride.

The next day, as a local priest sprinkled holy water on the sweep boats, drift boats, and kayaks before they set out, more than one commercial outfitter murmured his hope that in addition to a safe season, it would be great if paying customers came this way.

This town of 3,100 has experienced some tough economic times. Just north of town is the put-in point for main Salmon trips and the takeout for trips through the Middle Fork. Veterans of the rafting and fishing industry, many of them the mothers and fathers of Riverfest's organizers, have found it tough to make a living. Some were here in the 1970s and '80s, when the Frank Church Wilderness was designated, when recreational salmon fishing season was shut down because of an alarming decline in fish returns, and when floating the Salmon's majestic forks first required a permit. Salmon residents have seen drought, wildfire, and bleak economic times that would make anyone in tourism shudder.

As these river veterans and parents pushed off to float the day-stretch of the Salmon with families and friends, many talked about how relieved they were to see so many young people among the celebrants.

One of the event's organizers, Amy Tonsmeire, wearing cutoffs and knee socks, stood ready to climb aboard a dory full of young women. Tonsmeire grew up as part of Salmon's river community; her family has owned a river outfitting business since the 1970s. She said the Riverfest celebration this year represents a torch passing from one generation to the next—an inherited responsibility to look out for both the town and the river's future.


In promoting the event, Tonsmeire and her cohorts discovered that the inaugural Riverfest really revived a town tradition. Long-time river runner Roger Nottestadt's video showed competitive and crowded community boat races from the '80s, a graphic reminder that Salmon's river culture was hardly invented by this generation. But for the last 20 years, the community's celebration of the Salmon River as its lifeblood lacked spirit.

Some say that a cherished connection to the river was broken when chinook salmon were cut off from these interior waters by dams. Fishing shut down, and chinook became hatchery fish raised in concrete tanks like a crop. This year's Riverfest explored that theory when it premiered Jim Norton's PBS Nature program called Salmon: Running the Gauntlet—perhaps the first PBS documentary ever projected at the Shady Nook, a local tavern and restaurant.

The documentary's spectacular images of the salmon's journey from this innermost sanctuary to the Pacific Ocean—and then back—along with Norton's narration brought most of us up short as we contemplated what had been lost over the years.

Salmon are heroic in their stamina, persistence, and toughness. Faced by the maze of barriers we have erected to obstruct their passage, fewer than 1 percent of the salmon that hatch in the cold, high waters of central Idaho make it back to spawn and die here. That even one fish can still do this is worthy of triumph and celebration.

The return of young people to Salmon, Idaho, is not nearly so dramatic, but it's what I was happy to notice and cheer. Sure, it's tough to make a living on the river and in this town, but that's not an insurmountable barrier when choosing a life that brings you satisfaction.

In the documentary, Jim Martin, a former Oregon state wildlife employee, said, "If the fish were in any worse shape, they wouldn't be savable; if they were in any better shape, people wouldn't care as much. This is the time."

Like the fish, the town of Salmon has suffered losses. But neither is beyond hope. Maybe this is the time.

Gina Knudson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an op ed service of High Country News ( She writes in Salmon, Idaho.

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