Headwaters to the Sea: Hiking the Salmon River
One man's profound story of hiking the Salmon River's watershed from origin to ocean.
September 1 2012By Duncan Berry
It all started with a crazy question. Could I find the headwaters of the river I’ve lived next to for six years and walk from there to the sea?
The Salmon River is the perfect playground for exploration as it curls up against the coast range in a thirtymile long question mark, forming one of the coast’s shortest river systems. I became acquainted with it by poring over maps and satellite photos and interviewing hunters, loggers and agency personnel in the area. It took three tries before I reached its source, on the side of Saddle Bag Mountain.
I was accompanied on different legs of this four-day adventure by Scotty Evens, an ex-river guide and hunter; Matt Delaney, a forester; Katie Brem, a native plant specialist; Paul Engelmeyer and a coastal lands conservation expert; Rob Hollingsworth, chiropractor and expedition planner; and videographer, Ian Hietz. The following pages tell the story of our watershed expedition in journal entries and photographs. They are also a biography and tribute to the living system we call a watershed.
All photography by Duncan Berry.
Day One: The Headwaters
At the Source
It’s October on the western flanks of the Oregon Coast Range, and the water cycle is firing up in a big way. Moisture lifts from the Pacific in great draughts, and storm clouds pile up against conifer forests. They dump their liquid cargo by the millions of gallons— the source of all life falls from the skies.
After three attempts by both car and foot at forging up a web of old logging roads, twice blocked by late snows, we reach the side of Saddle Bag Mountain. We stumble out of dark forests into a meadow to find a crystal clear spring emerging from the ground and gurgling at our feet. After twelve long months of planning, we have found the elusive headwaters of the Salmon River.
The mythical oasis of Lost Prairie comes into view as we make our way downstream. Named by the first loggers to penetrate into this wilderness in the early 1900s, it is Hollywood’s version of a headwaters. Old growth trees ring cerulean blue pools. The Lost Prairie cradles a dizzying array of species that inhabit the grasslands, skies and waterways.
Starting at an elevation of 2,500 feet, these waters will take less than twenty-four hours to make their thirty-mile gravitational journey west to the sea. In passing, this river will sustain living creatures in its watershed, while simultaneously wearing down the mountains as fast as the inner workings of the earth can push them back up.
We pass remnants of what was once Oregon’s towering coastal temperate rain forest in the form of crumbling old growth stumps that are six to eight feet across. On all sides, as far as the eye can see, is a patchwork of second- and third-generation clear-cuts, essentially a giant topographical tree farm whose “crop” is harvested every thirty-five years or so to feed our appetite for new homes, paper and other useful by-products.
Wet Bowling Balls
In the upper reaches of most rivers, water tends to move fast and hard. The Salmon is no different, tearing though veins of basalt 45 million years old and reducing it to a ribbon of rock in an otherwise soft and fertile landscape. This liquid path is our only way out, and our inner gyroscopes are working overtime to deal with this uneven world of wet bowling-ball-sized rocks.
Seven Hours and Ten Miles Later
Every few hundred feet of elevation we drop, everything changes. Tall thin conifers used to being snow laden most of the year, give way to broad-leafed maples. Bright orange mushrooms sprout from rotting logs and beaver chew-sticks swirl in eddies. We have pushed at full throttle all day in drenching rains, finally reaching our stopping point where the river meets the Van Duzer corridor. We have covered ten rugged miles of river and lost more than 2,000 feet in elevation. I ask Evens, a buff former river guide, how his legs are holding up. The picture below says it all. Tomorrow is another day.
Day Two: Walking with Giants
Walking with Giants
Early the next morning, we set out down a greatly flattened grade of river bottom surrounded by old growth specimens of three of the earth’s tallest species.
Powerful sitka spruce, heavyweights of the forest, thrive only within a few hours walk of the sea—and poke their crowns up where the big winds blow. Graceful, thirsty cedars, with fragrant bark and elegant straight-grained wood, require up to a thousand gallons of water absorption a day per tree in the summer. Douglas fir, the mainstay of Northwest timber harvest, is immediately recognizable for its deep bark and graceful columns that create open spaces under its canopies.
Ten Feet of Rain
Ever stop to think what would happen if our annual rainfall happened Biblically and came all at once? In most places in the U.S. you would be up to your knees, but here in the coastal rain capital you would be over your head and swimming for your life. Stretches of this river receive up to 120 inches of rain annually. This creates a rainforest that rivals the Amazon in its diversity, with trees wrapped in mosses and ferns, soils chronically washed of their minerals, and a brief window of ninety days of sun in the summer for new growth.
10,000 Years in the System
They were seedlings pushing up out of the undergrowth while Cortés made his famous march across Mexico and the Protestant Reformation was spreading within Europe. These 500-year-old trees tower into blue skies above our heads and blanket the Pacific Northwest from end to end, over valleys and right down to the edge of the sea.
We stop for a riverbank classroom with Paul Engelmeyer, renowned conservationist, as he describes how these trees can stay in the river system almost a millennia—more than 500 years standing, 250 years lying prone in the river after being felled by wind and disease, and another 250 years as woody debris, providing essential nutrients as they make their way inevitably to the Pacific Ocean.
Climate Change Allies
A little-known fact, the coastal temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest contain more biology per acre (by weight) than any other forest in the world. These woody masses not only provide fertile habitat, regulate seasonal flooding and capture life-smothering sediment, but are also 250-foot-tall storage banks for carbon. While carbon is the staff of life, the human species has proven to be a great destabilizer of earth’s climate systems, with our dependence on fossil fuels and the burning of forests and croplands. There is consensus in the scientific community that a key counterbalance to these emissions lies in the thoughtful management of these coastal temperate forests in order to keep carbon stored in the bodies of billions of trees here on the surface of the planet.
Katie Brem, native plant specialist, stops us dead in our tracks. “We’re not going anywhere 'til I have this baby out by the roots”, she says, bending over invasive Japanese knotweed growing among the rocks at the edge of the river. Foreign species like this have been transported here from other locations in the world and have changed the botanical face of the Pacific Northwest. Think Himalayan Blackberry and Scotch Broom. Groups throughout the Northwest are dedicated to the removal of these aggressive species that crowd out natives and alter the balance of plant communities that have existed for thousands of years.
Signs of Fall
In the seventh hour of today’s hike through a tangle of giant jack-strawed trees, we stop for an energy boost. Blue huckleberry bushes loaded with ripe fruit line the banks of the river and soon our stomachs, too. While our taste buds enjoy this tart, wild treat, our eyes take in the seasonally brilliant vine maple on the far bank. These are the harbingers of winter here on the river. Tomorrow we will enter the spawning grounds of the wily migrating salmon that give this river its name.
Day Three: Salmon Pools
Near river mile seven, we encounter one of our first signs of human habitation along the river, a unique combination of housing and a custom-designed wood-fired bathtub.
This twenty-foot falls was formed by a fault in coastal basalt and is the largest we encounter on our journey.
Just before reaching the Highway 18 bridge, we meet our most challenging climb of the trip—navigating the high walls and narrow confines of this rocky gorge. I wince to think of the thousands of dollars of high tech video equipment on Hietz's back.
Return of the Kings
At the confluence of Slick Rock Creek and the main stem of the river, we come upon a series of pools with native Chinook salmon spawning in the current. Four years ago they had emerged from this same gravel as small fry to venture 5,000 miles out to sea and back again, returning as powerful twenty-five pound fish. Their dead, spent bodies are strewn on the banks around us, providing the greatest single source of nitrogen found in these coastal forests, stripped of elements by incessant rain. So critical is this nutrient that recent studies have shown a direct relationship between the size of salmon runs and the size of annular rings in trees.
They're not called “Dippers” for nothing. The Water Ousel is a compact bird with surplus energy; dancing up and down the river to a music only it hears, occasionally disappearing underwater to hunt for aquatic insects. They are the Pacific Northwest’s equivalent of a canary in the coal mine—their presence an indicator of a healthy freshwater system. So ubiquitous are they from the top to the bottom of the river that they become travel companions, staying just ahead of us every foot of the way.
We make our way through a crowd of fishermen on the banks of the lower river, each hoping for the tug of a fall Chinook on the other end of the line. We come to a makeshift dam across the river and a series of concrete fish ladders leading into a fish hatchery. Hatcheries started in nineteenth century Europe as native runs were wiped out by dams and industry, and were adopted en masse on rivers throughout the American West in the early days of the last century, often for the same reason. Each year, hundreds of thousands of small Chinook and steelhead are raised here to be released into the river. Some argue that native runs should be allowed to rebound without the genetic mixing of hatchery fish. Others believe that salmon would largely be extinct in the lower fourty-eight states if not for the presence of hatcheries.
Day Four: Estuary and the Sea
The Salmon River estuary is one of those rare stories of renewal in North America. Its once fertile lands were diked in the ’50s for cattle grazing, its banks covered in asphalt by the Pixieland amusement park and a trailer park in the ’60s. Consequently many of its native salmon runs were over-fished and replaced by hatcheries. In 1974, however, the United States Congress passed the very first Scenic Research Act to protect the future of the estuary. The Nature Conservancy bought nearby Cascade Head, and the United Nations declared it an International Biosphere—protecting its biological value. Today the dikes are gone, native Coho are making a comeback and a consortium of nonprofits and governmental agencies have helped return the banks of the river to grasslands.
A New Beginning
The sight of the river meeting the broad back of the sea unexpectedly brings me to my knees. I feel humbled and fortunate. At the end of the line, the memory of standing at the headwaters comes back to me vividly, watching the first gurgles of water flow from underground. Over the course of one hundred hours, we have experienced the life cycle of a river. Fed by one tributary after another, growing more boisterous and loud, it flows through countless numbers of lives, nourishing, cooling and cleaning as it goes. Humans cannot replicate the perfection, efficiency and beauty of a river system. This quiet miracle of water incessantly bubbling up from underground, down the side of a mountain and out to sea makes everything we do possible.