Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Green Flash

By Susanna Danner, director of protection

For the past seven years, I’ve been writing conservation agreements for salmon in the Lemhi River, working from my faraway desk here in Idaho’s capital city. I’ve fallen in love with the upper Salmon River watershed – I’ve backpacked in the Lemhi Mountains, fished the Lemhi River, and even visited Sacajawea’s birthplace. But being in the Lemhi at the moment when Chinook salmon return home: it’s like seeing the green flash over the ocean. The timing, location and conditions have to be just right. I’ve squinted at ocean sunsets until my retinas look like a moth-eaten blanket, but I’ve only seen the green flash twice.

Green Flash © Kal Schrelber via creative commons license

Seeing wild Chinook salmon in Idaho is like that. They are creatures out of myth, as elusive as sea serpents. In the seven years I’ve worked for the Conservancy, I’ve never seen one. I read the data, so I believe in them, and I work on their conservation as an act of hope. It’s worth it even if I never see the living result of my efforts.

In late August, I had a meeting near the town of Salmon, Idaho. On the way home, I asked my colleagues if we could detour to a nearby cattle ranch where the Conservancy holds a conservation easement. We telephoned the rancher for permission to visit his ranch to look for spawning Chinook. He graciously gave us the OK, and we bumped down his dirt road to the Lemhi.I got out of the truck and heard splashes in the river. Big splashes. My eyes filled with tears. 

 The author admiring the sight from thistle © Ron Troy/TNC

These fish have swum 900 miles to get to this point. Odysseus couldn’t have done better. They’ve navigated the open ocean, avoided sea lion jaws and fishermen, plodded through slackwater, ascended seven dams, tolerated barges. They are tired, driven and massive: probably twenty pounds and 25 inches long. And they’ve made it past Scylla and Charybdis. There was no way I was going to hassle them at the end of this epic journey.

Luckily, I watched a lot of “G.I. Joe” growing up. I dropped to the ground and Army-crawled through a field of thistles to the water’s edge. I wanted to stay out of their line of sight, so they didn’t have to expend any precious energy in avoiding me.With my chin on the ground, I inched forward. Thistle prickles embedded themselves in my forearms and broke off. Big deal. I’ll dig them out later. This is important.I parted the riverside grasses with my hands to make a window. Two meters in front of me, an arched back rose out of the river, dazzling green speckled with black. A Chinook. The green flash!

I felt suffused with disbelief and joy. I could see their battered white fins and tails, where their scales had been abraded making their underwater nests (called “redds”.) A group of males sparred over the attention of a female, and I could see the gravel under her looked like pale copper, from where she had worn off the rocks’ surface algae digging her redd. 

 Chinook © Ron Troy/TNC

Later, we walked sock-footed across the Lemhi, careful not to cross near a redd or to kick up the fine sediment that could smother salmon eggs downstream. At a vantage point above the river, we repeated our low crawl to the edge. Peering down on the group of Chinook, the redd, the willow trees, the glinting Lemhi River unspooling across the green river valley, I felt 1.) sobby, and 2.) proud.

It’s the fish that deserve the accolades in this moment. They are 900-mile sojourners through countless hardships. But the rancher deserves thanks, too, for agreeing to protect the willows and the water flow levels the Chinook need. The funding agencies made salmon conservation a priority and provided the grant for the water and habitat protection. And The Nature Conservancy entered into the perpetual partnership – the conservation easement – that ensures the riverside habitat and water flow will be protected forever. We – Conservancy members, the funding agencies, and the landowner – we’re like the Chinook’s pit crew. They are the Green Flash, and we are here to give them a safe watercourse to come home to.

For more information on this incredible journey watch the story of Lee Creek here.