The salmon wiggled in the tanks on the back of the truck, throwing water into the sky. A few people standing on the truck bed next to the tanks netted the fish, one at a time, then wrestled them into a rubber tube and passed it down a line of people, all smiles and laughter.
At the end of the line, the chinook salmon were released from the tube into the Little Spokane River. Once in the water, the salmon darted away, their shadows showing on the river bottom as they hustled for cover.
Spokane Tribal Historian Warren Seyler watched from the bank. He thought back to what the river would have looked like long ago, before dams blocked the chinook salmon runs that his ancestors relied on. He said people don’t realize just how many salmon there were.
“Take that shadow that just went by,” Seyler said as one of the salmon headed off, “and multiply it by 20,000. That’s what the ancestors would have seen.”
He paused for a moment and recalculated.
The Spokane Tribe’s connection to the salmon, the river and the land was one of a few things that about 90 people gathered to celebrate on Friday.
They were also celebrating big plans for the land they were standing on. Known as the Glen Tana Farm, the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy has the roughly 1,000-acre property just north of Spokane under contract, said Dave Schaub, the nonprofit’s executive director. Once the sale is closed, the group will start a fundraising campaign and work toward transferring ownership to Washington State Parks and the Spokane Tribe.
The event was a celebration of the progress that’s been made on salmon recovery in the Upper Columbia River watershed, a region the anadromous fish can’t reach because of the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.
The Upper Columbia United Tribes – the Couer d’Alene Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Kalispel Tribe, the Kootenai Tribe and the Spokane Tribe – have been working for the better part of a decade to lay the groundwork for returning the fish to the upper Columbia.
An analysis in 2019 found there were more than 700 miles of possible chinook salmon habitat. Now, biologists from the different tribes are working on the second phase of their plan, which is expected to take 20 years. They’ve released thousands of tagged salmon smolt around the region over the past few years and they’re tracking their movements to identify necessary fish passage improvements.
Friday’s release wasn’t directly part of that work, instead focused on culture and education, but it represented the importance of salmon recovery to the Spokane Tribe.
The event began with a few speeches in the shade, under a big tree.
Schaub spoke first, telling the crowd that the salmon release marked a celebration of the partnership between the land conservancy, Washington State Parks and the Spokane Tribe to permanently protect the property and the 2 miles of river it abuts. The land borders both the Waikiki Springs Nature Preserve and Riverside State Park.
Seyler described the Spokane Tribe’s historic use of the area to the crowd. He said people camped all along the Little Spokane River, particularly in the winter.
Monica Tonasket, secretary of the Spokane Tribal Business Council, also spoke. She recalled a similar salmon release almost exactly two years ago at Waikiki Springs, where she and many of the same people gathered to return chinook to the Little Spokane for the first time since the construction of the dams.
“On that day was the first time that we had salmon in the Little Spokane in over 80 years,” Tonasket said. “To be able to bring salmon back to these waters is just so important to the Spokane Tribe.”
She also said the acquisition of the Glen Tana property is a big step forward in that work. The Spokane Tribe has plans to build a salmon rearing facility there.
“For the first time, we’ll have 2 miles of the river for bringing salmon back,” she said.
Tribal singers performed a couple of songs, a ceremony for the salmon. Then the crowd moved toward the river, where the truck carrying the fish from the Wells hatchery in Chelan, Washington, was waiting.
In all, about 50 salmon were let loose in the Little Spokane. Brent Nichols, the director of the Spokane Tribe’s fisheries department, said the fish would likely hang around in the area for a few days. Then they’ll swim upstream and find places to spawn.
After they’ve finished spawning, the fish will die, their carcasses left to decompose. Their smolt will survive, and they’ll have a chance to swim downstream toward the ocean.
If they make it that far. A return trip remains impossible, but there was a strong sense among the people gathered there that it won’t be impossible forever.
Seyler said the release Friday shows that there’s been a great deal of progress made in bringing the salmon back due to partnerships between tribes and state and federal agencies.
In the 1990s, he felt the return of salmon to the upper Columbia system was many decades away. That feeling has changed.
“We thought maybe our great-great-grandchildren will see fish,” Seyler said. “Today, we can likely say it will be our children.”