At 3:30 am on Saturday, I climb into my dusty, old, pickup truck and drive east on interstate 84 in the peaceful dark. I am embarking on what has become an annual pilgrimage to the Free the Snake Flotilla.
The Snake River runs through some of the prettiest land in this country. It’s drainage basin is larger in total area than the state of Oregon. It is the Columbia River’s largest tributary.
So, free the Snake River from what? Four hydroelectric dams.
Before the four lower Snake River dams, an abundance of salmon traveled from the Pacific Ocean, up the Columbia, and through the Snake River to spawn in the mountains. For thousands of years, the Snake River (or Weyikespe in Nimi'ipuu) was rich with fish that fed a vibrant world of plants, animals, and American Indians from Idaho to the Oregon coast. Today, the lower stretches of the Snake River are still, stagnant, and hot.
I drive past the ghost of Celilo Falls (or Wy-am). I say ghost because the famous cascade of waterfalls is covered in water, flooded by a dam. For 15,000 years, Celilo was a lively fishing hub full of families, commerce, life. As many as 5,000 people would gather here to trade, feast, fish, celebrate.
A red sun rises as I make my way east. I stop in Wallula, WA to stretch my legs. Wallula was once a permanent village site of the Wallulapum (aka Walla Walla) people. All I see is a large brown historic marker. Most of Wallula’s human history is now under water.
The Yakama teach in a story that the entire Columbia Basin was gorged by a coyote out of sorrow and anguish upon finding his children dead.
I pull into Chief Timothy State Park. There are trucks with trailers and a swarm of people carrying all colors of kayaks and rafts. A tall blonde woman directs me to a gravel lot where I can park. In the grass, near the river’s edge, Paul Cheoketen Wagner of the Vancouver Island Saanich tribe is sharing stories and songs. He teaches us the word “ye’how,” which means to work together. There are hundreds of us here this morning. Paul points to his heart and says he is proud to ye’how with all of us.
I grab a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, a Free the Snake T-shirt, and a life jacket. I climb into a canoe (don’t call it a boat I’m warned!) and am handed a hand-carved, wooden paddle. Sam and Jessica, who brought the canoe, ask us to take a moment to remember that we are on Palouse territory.
As we glide through the water, a lone salmon jumps up and out of the water. An osprey beats her wings and hovers overhead. Paul tells the children in the canoe a story.
We circle together in our canoes, kayaks, motor boats, and rafts out on the water. People are chanting “Free the Snake.” I’m simultaneously overwhelmed by how much has been lost and reminded that so much remains.
Some of the best salmon habitat left in the United States still exists within the mountainous Snake River headwaters, just beyond the four lower Snake River dams. Removing those dams might not bring back Celilo Falls or the Wallulapum village, but it would ease some of the sorrow in these waters. Removing those four dams would bring back a whole lot of salmon, help feed a hungry band of killer whales, be a start on a promise to protect ancestral fishing rights, and be the largest river restoration in the history of the United States.
Our best hope is in working together. Ye'how.