By Chandra Brown // Photos by Robin Carleton

The Snake River – the largest tributary to the Columbia – was impounded and drawn to stillness in the early 1960s with the construction of four dams on its lower reaches. Its stagnant, warming waters form the political boundary between the states of Washington and Idaho. The Snake’s water also trickles through tangled divides between the whims of inland water managers, regional tribes, the interests of industrial agriculture, and a federal judge in Oregon.

The Lower Snake’s dams have been deemed, collectively, a mortal threat to at least 13 threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead runs and, by trophic association, the resident orca population of Puget Sound. In May 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon mandated that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries reevaluate its plan to revive dwindling fish populations. He advised that NOAA and the Army Corps of Engineers consider breaching the Lower Snake dams.

This fall’s ‘Free the Snake’ flotilla was a grassroots action inspired by Seattle-born practice of kayaktivism. It simply organized the boats and the voices of advocates for a free-flowing river, a healthy ecosystem, and the return of the salmon to the people and waters from which they are rapidly disappearing. Here are just a few of the people—the paddlers—behind that action.

Devon Barker-Hicks // Lewiston, Idaho

Professional kayaker Devon Barker-Hicks grew up in Lewiston where her family has operated Barker River Trips since 1974. The art on the bottom of her custom carbon playboat shows the Lower Granite dam crumbling away, opening upstream reaches to the migration of salmon.

“My father was always very outspoken, a big conservationist. He worked diligently to prevent the additional dams that they wanted to put in upstream [in Hell’s Canyon]. So I grew up in this environment, but it wasn’t really until last year at the flotilla that I really felt like I found my voice. I decided to ask FeatherWeight if they would help me design a graphic for my boat that would be a way, through my own personal kayaking and competing, that I could share my message of the importance of breaching the Lower Snake dams. That’s the message my boat shares: to free the Snake.”

Kevin Lewis // Boise, Idaho

“As an organization, salmon are a really big deal for us. We’ve been litigants in this issue for almost our entire existence – 25 years.” Lewis is the executive director of Idaho Rivers United, a nonprofit based in Boise. “The peer-reviewed science says the best chance to recover these species is to breach the dams. We have more than enough habitat. We have thousands of miles of pristine habitat. It’s just missing fish.”

Lonesome Larry // Redfish Lake, Idaho

Lonesome Larry was the name given to the only sockeye salmon to complete the 800-mile homeward journey – from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho’s Redfish Lake – in 1992. He was also the first to make the return to Redfish after his species was listed as endangered in 1991. Larry’s frozen sperm, captured by Idaho Fish and Game biologists at the mountain lake, was used to inseminate female sockeye in the government’s first attempt to rescue the Snake River sockeye populations.

Idaho Rivers United and Barker River Trips have commemorated the original Lonesome Larry with a giant inflatable sockeye of the same name.

Dan Lombardo // Lynwood, Wash.

Dan and Bridget Lombardo live just north of Seattle, where Dan teaches children about marine and watershed ecology at Pacific Marine Research.

“You’re working on the whole picture all at once when you’re working on salmon. They are literally this connection between the ocean and the land. And if we let them do their thing – if we remove these blockages and let them come through – they make a conveyor belt for us that brings food, culture, unity, and fertilizer. They used to say that the Pacific Northwest is anywhere that a salmon can swim. By that metric, the Pacific Northwest is getting smaller and smaller.”

Bridget Lombardo // Lynwood, Wash.

The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., estimates that at least 80 percent of the southern resident orca diet is Chinook salmon. In Puget Sound, endangered wild Chinook are at 10 percent of their historic numbers, and nine populations of Chinook have already gone extinct. The thread connecting orcas and salmon is evident – it’s undeniable. At the Lower Snake dams, that thread frays.

“They’re circling the drain and this needs to happen now,” Lombardo said about the whales. “Our orcas have no voice that we understand. We need to be that voice.”

Cole Walton and Hailee Lemon // Salt Lake City

Walton and Lemon were backpacking around the Pacific Northwest, on their way to Olympic National Park. Walton, in his faded Ed Abbey T-shirt, was a picture of youthful activism. When asked what they were hoping to see in Olympic National Park, and how that might contrast with what they see at the Snake, they exclaimed in unison, “Sea otters!”

And then Walton went on. “The Elwha: I’ve been following it pretty closely and it is an amazing success story. It shows the benefits of taking out the dams and how that affects the whole system – not just the part where the dam was and the reservoir consequentially behind it, but also how it affects the nutrients in the ocean and the forests around where the dam was.”

Gary Dorr // Kamiah, Idaho

Gary Dorr, chairman of the Nez Perce general council, wore a baseball cap that read “Pipeline Fighter” and his hair, in long twin braids, tucked inside a rain jacket. Dorr has been a key figure in major movements against threats to clean water in North America, including the Keystone XL Pipeline the Dakota Access Pipeline.

When asked how he is invested in this river and in this protest, he said, “We owe it to our relatives, the fish who swim. In the meeting of the council of the animals, before the humans came, the salmon were the first to offer themselves as food to us. So we respect them, we honor them with every effort that we can to protect their habitat. The reason why we’re here today is to honor them, to protect their lives. And by doing that, we protect our lives and our children’s lives and those seven generations that come behind us.”

“Water is the first medicine. I am water. We are water.” Today, Dorr said, every pull of the paddle is a prayer. “When we started this morning, the tribal members that were there – Spokane, Kalispel, Colville, Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce – we started with a prayer. You’re part of that prayer now, that spiritual movement. So I’m thankful for all of you who came here today and sacrificed a little of your own water through your sweat to be a part of this. From here on out, this is a movement. It’s all a ceremony.”

Wilma Cullooyah & Khara Whitman // Kalispel reservation, Wash.

Khara Whitman came to the flotilla with her son Tyreese and Wilma Cullooyah. Her husband Byron and eight cousins arrived fresh off the road from Standing Rock, where they floated their family’s dugout canoe down the Missouri River in protest of the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline. Cullooyah verified the spelling of the boat’s name, which means “the boss” in Kalispel dialect of Salish.

The men told me they didn’t want to leave the prairie, but that they had to go home, and that their canoe was also needed at this gathering, the flotilla.

At Standing Rock, protesters embraced a simple, familiar message: Water is Life.

These men paddled for something that’s historically, culturally, spiritually, theirs (or perhaps ours?), a homemade canoe and their voices their weapons against injustice, paddling and singing and drumming, when all these slow and stagnant rivers, one might guess, seemed to flow upstream.

Jaker had just turned 3, he was barefoot, and someone had Sharpied #NoDAPL onto his forehead. He rode his Radio Flyer tricycle along a waterfront sidewalk while his aunt prepared smoked salmon and fry bread for flotilla participants.

Two Army Corps park rangers approached, dressed in familiar khaki uniforms. But these rangers patrolled an uncommon park: Lower Granite Lake, a stilled and slowed portion of a once wild river, managed by the Corps and mowed over with concrete, green grass and a corrugated boat ramp. One of the rangers bent down to offer Jaker a sticker reading “Junior USACE Ranger,” like the kind you get at National Parks or from Smokey the Bear, but truly not the same at all. Jaker took a sticker and slapped it squarely and upside-down in the center of his tiny chest.

Zak Sears and the silos

Zak Sears, a river guide at OARS in Idaho, rowed his Rasta-colored dory past a Lewiston grain silo. The Lower Snake dams were originally erected to facilitate barge transport of agricultural goods from the bottom of Hell’s Canyon to the port cities at the mouth of the Columbia. Dam opponents say that Snake River barge traffic has decreased by 80 percent since its peak 20 years ago, and that the wheat, legumes, and lumber exported from the area can be delivered to the Pacific on the fully functional rail line that parallels the river.

Make the Snake Great Again

In the tense final months before an election whose outcome could directly affect the fate of the Lower Snake River dams, a ‘hydrophilic’ patriot capitalized on hidden campaign humor.

Drummers and singers from tribes from across the region convened the flotilla with song and prayers; this drummer represented the Colville tribe of North Central Washington. The Colville were among a number of tribes to sign the Columbia Basin Fish Accords, a 2008 compromise with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the federal agency that sells Pacific Northwest hydro-power. The Colville tribe will receive $223 million of the $900 million accord allotment during the decade between 2008 and 2018. The money goes toward the restoration of degraded stream sections and efforts to rehabilitate fish populations with projects like hatcheries. In exchange, the BPA was granted a 10-year period of power-producing security, during which the tribes agreed to a culture of collaboration: They were not to litigate for additional fish protection or the breaching of the Snake dams for the 10-year life of the accords. The Nez Perce were the only tribe in the Basin to decline the deal.