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Free the Snake: Restoring America’s Greatest Salmon River

Snake River Salmon have been trucked, shipped, sent up ladders—all costly and failed bids to stop their decline. It’s time: Remove the dams; reconnect wild fish to their watershed.

Free the Snake
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Snake River Map

Free the Snake!

Taking out big, deadbeat dams can be a long, grueling process. With nearly 20 years under our belt fighting for the removal of four deadbeat dams on the lower Snake River—writing letters, funding the grassroots, making inspiring films like DamNation—we know that sometimes what the movement needs is action.

On Saturday October 3, 2015, over 300 people—fishermen, Native Americans, farmers, orca lovers, business owners, salmon advocates, kayakers, and conservationists—gave us a moment to turn up the volume, protest, and push even harder on this issue. Together, this diverse group formed the “Free the Snake Flotilla”. Over 130,000 people have signed petitions and postcards asking President Obama, his administration, members of Congress, and key state and federal agencies to take these harmful dams out.


As they gathered in kayaks and other water craft, this group of unlikely activists all agreed that the current situation on the Snake is unacceptable, and growing worse by the year: thousands of endangered salmon died this summer due to over-heated river and reservoir water; endangered orcas starved because their favorite food supply of Snake River Chinook salmon has been decimated by the dams; and over $9 billion in government spending over the past 30 years, mostly on hatcheries and other failed approaches, hasn’t recovered any endangered wild fish runs.

Add your voice to the chant led by kayakers, and heard by officials standing on the dams: Free the Snake! Take action and sign the petition.

By Dylan Tomine

Three minutes into our float, the v-wakes of submerged rocks in the tailout begin to move, creasing the glassy surface as they peel away from the approaching raft. Skyla and Weston lean forward, scouting ahead.

“Are those all fish?” Skyla asks, then, with rising urgency, “They are! Look!” Weston climbs up onto the bow, afraid to miss out. Chaos ensues. I yell at him to keep his feet on the floor; he ignores me and scrambles for position. “There’s one over there!” he hollers, “And two more over there!” Our raft accelerates into the riffle, the glare shifts, and suddenly, I can see for myself: King salmon. Lots of them.


The final remnants of the upper dam came down last week; the lower dam was cleared more than a year ago. And we are here to experience the Elwha River reconnecting with the sea for the first time in 100 years. Despite dire predictions of newly freed sediment choking the river with mud, today, the water flows with startling clarity, colored only by a faint blue-green tint. Clean cobble—from fist- to basketball-sized—covers the bottom; new logjams and gravel bars line the banks.

And in every tail out and flat terrace, there are fish. Descendants of the king salmon we’ve watched for years banging against the lower dam have finally reached their ancestral spawning grounds. Countless light-colored sections of gravel indicate redds or nests. We watch a 30-pound female king tip onto her side, and with great tail-flapping exertion, excavate a new redd. Several males, with fearsome, hooked jaws and ragged fins hover nearby, while trout hold just downstream, waiting to snatch a salmon-egg meal. Nature’s conveyor belt is back in business, delivering ocean nutrients in the form of salmon.

Even as we float the Elwha, I can’t help but imagine this resurgence of life on the once-mighty Snake River. There, four enormous, salmon-killing dams have outlasted their useful lifespan—a concept debatable even when they were new—and now stand only as monuments to hubris. Is it asking too much to want something more for the Snake? I don’t think so.

We pull over to stretch our legs on a broad gravel bar. While the kids run the shoreline looking for more fish, I stare into the choppy surface. Perfect steelhead water. As I mentally work through the mends needed to fish the inside seam, I can almost feel my fly swimming through four feet of blue-green water, the line tight on my fingers. When the Elwha reopens to anglers, I will be here in this run—or, given the shifting nature of a new river, one like it—swinging a sink tip with crazed anticipation. In the deepest part of the pool, I can just make out the shadows of pale, chrome-colored salmon, fresh from the sea.

Our afternoon falls into the typical rhythm of a coastal river float: riffle, pool, the occasional joy and adrenaline jolt of small rapids. The kids remain absorbed by their quest to spot fish. Weston keeps count, as is his nature, and loses track when the number reaches triple digits. We are buoyant.

When we reach the takeout, the kids aren’t ready to give up the river just yet. Neither am I. We shed our float gear and pile into the car. Where the Elwha meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we walk to the beach. For longer than I can remember, the mouth of the Elwha was a sterile, sediment-starved channel pouring abruptly into salt water, but now, we find acres of fertile delta—a complex maze of tidal pools, flood ponds, sloughs and sandbars littered with driftwood.

Tiny salmon, flashing silver in the evening light, leap for insects and create intersecting rings across the smooth surface, a natural Venn diagram of salmon survival. We sit in silence, watching baby salmon feed and the new river pushing against the tide. On the far side, an adult king explodes into the air on its way upstream. “Dad?” Weston asks, “Can we come back here to fish sometime?” I’m way ahead of you, buddy. Way ahead.