This is quite a story and has many ties to our family. My father was born and raised in Salmon River country. He told stories of the huge runs of Salmon. Runs so heavy a person could literally walk across their backs and never touch water. I fished these rivers as a boy. Little did I know that what I was seeing then would have such an effect downstream years later.

Endangered orcas' fate is tied to a series of dams 400 miles inland

The river, I thought, looked like you could walk across it, there were so many fish. It was a wide and shallow stretch, the kind that salmon like to use as spawning beds, and it was positively alive with hundreds, maybe thousands of thrashing salmon.

To my five-year-old eyes, the sight of the returning salmon along the headwaters of the Salmon River in the early 1960s was so awesome it has been burned into my memory since. My granddad Mel had taken us to visit his favorite fishing holes in the Stanley Basin, but we weren’t catching many of the cutthroat we usually came for, because the salmon were crowding everything out, it seemed.

I’ll never forget what the fish looked like, either: Hook-jawed and fierce, some of them (the sockeye) flaming red, and huge. It confused me at that age that we couldn’t catch and eat these giant fish, but my dad explained to me that their meat was soft and almost inedible by the time they reached the spawning beds. All of them were scarred and battered, the results of their thousand-mile journey from the ocean.

By the time I was a teenager in the 1970s, most of the big spawning runs had dwindled to a few dozen. By 1992, when only a single spawning sockeye—dubbed “Lonesome Larry”—returned to the Stanley Basin, those runs had simply vanished. Gone, too, were the throngs of native cutthroat my granddad had loved to catch, because when the proteins that the salmon brought up to the Sawtooths from the ocean stopped arriving, the entire native ecosystem there collapsed.