A 470-mile swim to save the salmon ended Tuesday in a sea of sound bites.
Five swimmers who had braved wind, cold water, rapids and exhaustion suddenly were faced with reporters who couldn’t paddle straight.
“Watch out! Watch out!” a TV cameraman cried as reporters paddling a raft nearly mowed down two of the swimmers.
A hundred yards away, a swimmer crawled through the water with a video crew perched on a raft behind him. A sound man dangled a fuzz-covered microphone above the swimmer to capture every splash.
“It’s obvious this battle is going to be waged with 10-second sound bites, so we need to do what we can do,” explained Charles Ray, a staffer for Idaho Rivers United, a Boise environmentalist group.
The group hopes the efforts of the “human smolts” will draw national attention to Idaho’s dwindling sockeye salmon population. And when CNN runs the clip, swimmer Jamie James hopes President Clinton is watching.
“I think he was something of a protester in his time,” James said, treading water for a quick interview.
The swimmers want the four dams on the lower Snake River to spill more water in the spring - enough water to help flush sockeye smolts to the sea. The slack water behind the dams, the swimmers say, leaves the smolts struggling to make it downstream.
“That’s why they call it a ‘dam,”’ said James. “You’ve damned this river.”
Four of the swimmers dived into Redfish Lake, near Stanley, Idaho, on July 1. They floated down the rapids of the Salmon River, were joined by a fifth swimmer and swam down the slack water of the Snake River to Lower Granite Dam.
“You do get wrinkly, but it doesn’t last that long,” said swimmer Paul Lundgren, a California professional triathlete.
The five swam in relays, with one person in a wet suit in the water while the other four rode in a raft. They camped beside the river.
“People came out on their balconies and applauded us. People gave us food,” said Lundgren. “The mayor of Asotin (Wash.) greeted us.”
On Tuesday, the five ended their trip at Lower Granite Dam, about 15 miles south of Colfax, Wash. A small flotilla of activists and Nez Perce Indians floated with the swimmers into the dam’s massive lock.
Bemused U.S. Army Corps of Engineers workers, wearing white hardhats and ties, peered down at the swimmers and news crews. One worker snapped photos. “Save the sockeye!” a woman shouted.
Water rushed out of the lock as one salmon protester drummed on a raft and howled. The water level dropped quickly, turning the lock from a channel into a concrete canyon 100 feet deep.
“These four dams on the Snake are the big fish killers,” said Ray. It would cost $710 million to convert the four to allow for big spills in the spring, he said.
“We want to turn this back into a river two months of the year,” he said. “It (the $710 million) is a small price to pay.”
Huge steel doors at one end of the lock opened, revealing the cliffs and rolling wheat fields of the Palouse. The swimmers surged out.
Suddenly, Lundgren was swimming with only one arm. With the other, he held aloft a dead steelhead he’d plucked from the water.
“What else needs to be said?” he asked.
Well, a lot, said the reporters, who began quizzing Ray about the fish. Finally, he said it probably had died a natural death.
“Actually, that’s probably a spawned-out fish,” he said.
Red-faced and sweating, reporters paddled a raft the final half-mile to a campground press conference. Smarter reporters whizzed by in a jet boat.
At the press conference, the swimmers said they were tired but pleased.
“The river’s like an artery, and it’s clogged,” said Lundgren. “We have to get our message out.”
When a TV reporter asked James how he felt now that the swim was over, James paused, then choked back a sob. He’d quit his job to make this trip.
James struggled with the words.
But then the camera battery died.
“Uh, sorry,” said the reporter, fishing around for a new battery.
Ray scoffed at the suggestion the swim was just a publicity stunt.
“If they think it’s just a publicity stunt, let them try to swim 470 miles,” he said. “People with this much heart can make a difference.”
James acknowledged that the swim was unorthodox but said he thinks it was the best way to draw attention to the sockeye’s plight.
“In this insane world,” he said, “it takes sort of a crazy person to get the message across.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo