On the cover North Coast Journal

June 16, 2005


Journey to the sea: Following the fish on the south fork of the Trinity

On the cover: photo caption/credit
Journey to the sea: Following the fish on the south fork of the Trinity

story & photos by LAUREL PEÑA

DAVID SHE'OM ROSE is a man shaped by the landscape. For 25 years he has lived on the south fork of the Trinity River, near its remote headwaters in the Yolla Bolly mountains, raising a dynasty of six daughters with his wife Paula on homegrown fruit and home-baked bread. His wiry muscles have been shaped by steep mountain trails and the hard work of daily life. He wears buckskin clothing tanned from local deer. His own skin is tanned by years of summer sun.

[David Rose standing in grass in front of river]Rose [photo at left] came to the South Fork in 1980 as a self-described "young raving idealist." He remembers the warm welcome extended by the two families already living at the community known as Riverspirit. It was early spring and the families had seen few visitors all winter. They boated across the rain-swollen river to pick up the young idealist and bring him home.

"I grew up in Los Angeles and always had a feeling that I was strange," he explains. "I only really felt good when my family would go to our cabin in the mountains around L.A., or the desert, or the ocean. When I was 14, I realized that I was not strange. I was living in a strange world, and I could leave."

Through the years of building homes, taking care of livestock, home-schooling children and other tasks, Rose maintained his ideals of living "in harmony with my brothers and sisters and the earth." In 1997, he founded the South Fork Trinity River Land Conservancy "to show people the beauty of wild places and to give them the tools to work to protect it."

But like the landscape itself, Rose is acquainted with loss. He deeply feels the absence of healthy salmon runs in the upper Trinity River. After years of living on the South Fork, he says, "I realized we can't be sustainable without the salmon. That's a crucial link." Only native salmon return to the South Fork to spawn; the tributary has no dams and therefore no hatcheries. Runs have been diminishing for the past hundred years.

"I'd love to eat those salmon! I'd love it -- that's what they come back for," he says. "But we just count them with Fish and Game, we watch them, we pray for them and give thanks for them, any of them that make it up there. We just want them to lay their eggs and have their babies.

[Trinity River with rafters]"So this year we decided to come on down the river with those young smolts, so we could meet some of those springers [spring Chinook salmon] that are starting to come up now."

Rose organized the Journey to the Sea, a 180-mile trek from the headwaters of the South Fork to the mouth of the massive Klamath-Trinity river system at Requa. He brought together an alliance of local residents, river rafters, Native fishermen, family and friends with the vision of traveling the major tributaries of the Klamath at the time when young salmon make their way downstream. "I always wanted to journey to the sea," said Rose right before the journey began. "So now I'm nearing my 50th year -- I'll be 50 years old this year, and I'll celebrate that by sharing it with many people."

Redwoods and Rivers Rafting offered to outfit the journey at greatly reduced cost. Separate contingents of river lovers planned to raft the Salmon River tributary and lower Clear Creek, both important salmon habitats. Rose organized the logistics while effectively snowed in at Riverspirit, miles from the nearest phone. He relied on a satellite Internet connection as he e-mailed potential participants.

By early May the journey seemed to be coming together. The skies were expected to be clear, for better or worse -- better for the travelers but worse for the salmon, facing another year of drought conditions. Then the storm hit. It seemed as if all the rain of a northern California winter had been held in a box that was now overturned above the Klamath-Trinity area. Snow blanketed the headwaters. The storm went on and on, as Rose and nine fellow travelers left the warmth of woodstoves, said goodbye to family, and began their journey to the sea.


The mighty Klamath

The Klamath River system, of which the Trinity is a major tributary, drains a vast area -- over 15,000 square miles of land in northern California and southern Oregon. From the high desert around Klamath Lake in Oregon, it flows south and west through a series of hydroelectric dams and enters the rugged mountainous area to which it also lends its name. Near Happy Camp, the river takes a sharp southern turn and runs through a deep V-shaped canyon through land managed mostly by the U.S. Forest Service. At the tiny town of Weitchpec on the Yurok Reservation, the Klamath joins with the Trinity. Their combined flow pushes on to the ocean, heading northwest to reach the ocean near the town of Klamath on the Humboldt-Del Norte county line.

In an area this large, perhaps it is not surprising that there are many claims on the Klamath River and much controversy. Over thousands of years river tribes worked out an intricate policy of resource sharing that allowed for co-existence in a potentially volatile situation: Salmon, the basis of traditional life, had to feed one fishing nation after another and still have enough population left to successfully reproduce. Meanwhile the river current carried drinking water from one village down to the next. Agreements among tribes to maintain the health of the river were sanctified with the weight of ceremonial practice.

Karuk fisherman and cultural biologist Ron Reed explained this to anthropologist John F. Salter in a 2003 interview. "The Karuk people manage their resources by way of ceremonies and traditional rituals. There was the First Salmon Ceremony with taboos associated. It was taboo to eat steelhead before the Pikiawish," said Reed.

"We believed that if we took care of our fishery we would always have food. If we didn't manage our fishery right something bad would happen. People would die. So we evolved with that concept. Conservation was the goal of the ceremonies, was the goal of the way of life and it continues that way today."

Through the disruption of European contact, these practices were maintained among the tribes. But they were ignored by those who planned and built dams on the Klamath and Trinity rivers. The connections between upstream conditions and downstream salmon runs were overlooked, as were the rights of each tribe to the harvest. The stage was set long ago for the tragedy of 2002.

In the fall of that year the lower Klamath was the site of a massive fish kill that left up to 68,000 returning Chinook salmon dead. It was a devastating event in an area where three native tribes (the Yurok, Karuk and Hupa) still depend on the salmon for their cultural, spiritual and economic survival. Relative newcomers also acknowledge a dependence on the salmon, emotionally and economically. The affected communities blame the fish kill on upstream dams and water diversions to farmers around Klamath Lake, a suspicion backed up by a later California Department of Fish and Game report.

The challenge on the Klamath seems to be this: To form new agreements between communities, to remember the connections between upstream and downstream. People who share a concern for the river -- from subsistence to offshore fishermen, from environmental groups to local farmers and businesses -- are learning how to work together for lasting solutions.

[Two ladies seated at table] 
[little child looking at adult cutting salmon fillets]  [man cooking salmon on sticks over fire]

Top: Yurok elders Florina Smoker and Georgiana Trull at the Weitchpec salmon dinner.
Bottom left: Preparing the salmon. Bottom right: Yurok fisherman Thomas Wilson oversees the cooking.


Into the wilderness

On May 14, as the journey began, the storms had not let up. "Ten people started at the upper part of the south fork of the Trinity River," Rose said, "below the headwaters -- it was too snowy to get all the way to the headwaters -- through some of the historic May storms, the pouring rain and cold winds." Their plans to hike the first 70 miles of the watershed were quickly scrapped. "I went outside my house to the river and realized the water was too high to hike it and that we were going to need to get boats."

Rafting the high flows of the Trinity proved challenging as well. The group had to portage around class V (expert level) rapids, hiking in soggy wetsuits. The high water was due not only to the late spring storms, but also to a recent change in water releases from Trinity's Lewiston Dam. To restore spawning habitat in the main stem of the Trinity River, a pulse of up to 7,000 cubic feet per second was released from the dam in mid-May.

Residents of remote Trinity River communities offered the travelers shelter and hot meals. "The first really hard rains, we were at Riverspirit," said Rose. "Then we went down to Hyampom where the people opened up their community hall to us. We had a big potluck dinner and met with about 30 people there." Discussion focused on the reasons for the journey -- the celebration of, and concerns for, the river.

Along the way, some participants took side journeys into areas included in the California Wild Heritage bill as potential wilderness additions. "Those areas -- there's 10 of them in the Klamath-Trinity basin -- it's those areas that are the refugia for the native salmon." Rose said. "That's where the native salmon come home to." The hikers collected cedar fronds from places they visited, including the headwaters of Red Cap Creek and Blue Creek. Both are included in the bill. Collecting cedar echoed the old First Salmon ceremony of the Karuk tribe, in which the aromatic leaves were brought to the mouth of the river in order to remind the salmon of their destinations.

The confluence of the Klamath and Trinity rivers at Weitchpec was a major milestone in the journey. Here, three rafters from the Salmon River tributary of the Klamath joined the group. Others arrived by road to float to the sea. Local residents met the travelers at a community potluck featuring fresh-caught spring Chinook. Some expressed concern about the size and danger of the flooded river. The attitude of the travelers was cautious but dedicated, and very optimistic. Rose was asked what people can hope to do when they love an endangered place but lack political and economic power. "Enjoy it," he replied, with smiling eyes that suggested he was taking his own advice.

  [group seated on river bank]
A boating safety lecture.
[fishermen in boat on river][man fishing in waves]

Left: Fishing. Right: David Rose reaches the ocean.


The 2002 fish kill dramatized the condition of the river system and helped to bring people together at an important point in Klamath water policy. The hydroelectric dams are currently going through a federal re-licensing process. River activists and residents see this as an opportunity to restore natural flows to the system by decommissioning the dams. PacifiCorp, owner and operator of the dams, has been put on the defensive by a flood of locally produced documentaries, rallies and other public involvement.

In 2004, delegates from the river tribes traveled to the Scotland headquarters of PacifiCorp's parent company, Scottish Power. There they met with Scottish Power CEO Ian Russell, brought the Klamath River to the attention of stockholders and shared a salmon dinner with the public. Perhaps their visit caused the company to think twice about their investment. Scottish Power announced the sale of PacifiCorp to Warren Buffet's MidAmerican Energy Holding Company last month.

Leaf Hillman, chairman of the Karuk tribe, reacted to the news with outrage. "Mr. Russell told us last year that we could trust him to resolve the issue fairly. Is this his idea of fair?" Hillman asked in a press release. "He is now attempting to evade the issue and put it off on someone else. Mr. Russell has let us down. It's not the first time the tribes have been treated this way."

This year looks like another bad one. The average allowed tribal harvest, which is set every year by tribal fisheries departments in cooperation with the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, is between 30,000 and 50,000 fish. But state and federal agencies expect only 48,000 Chinook, total, to return to the river this year, leaving the Yurok and Hupa tribes with a catch limit of 8,400 fish.

"The allocation is entirely inadequate to meet subsistence needs, let alone that there will be no [tribal] commercial fishing this year," said David Hillemeir of the Yurok Department of Fisheries.

[people with giant fish ][people, rafts and canoes in river]
[canoes and rafts in river]

TOP: Political theater at Requa. Middle: gathering near the river's mouth.
Bottom: Salmon Stroich and Keri Norgaard paddle a canoe at Requa.

Salmon country

Participants in the Journey to the Sea represented many different relationships with the river system and with the salmon. In the upper tributaries of this modern Klamath-Trinity system, salmon are often sensed as an absence and treated with a hands-off reverence that focuses on habitat protection and restoration. Downstream from Weitchpec the group encountered a different relationship: The physical interconnection of people and fish.

"That's our lifeline right there," said Thomas Wilson looking over at the bright orange spring Chinook salmon fillets cooking for the potluck on cedar stakes around a fire. "If that dies, this whole region dies. Even the coastal communities. We all depend on it." Wilson, a Yurok fisherman, had recently pulled the salmon from the Klamath River near his home in Weitchpec. Below the river bar where the fire burned, the white floats of his gill net could be seen in a calm eddy.

"Myself, I don't see why a few special interest groups like the farmers just up the river could take so much and not even think about the lower half. It's a big system. It's not just one part here and one part there, it's all together. It's one big ecosystem."

From Weitchpec to Requa the river runs through the Yurok reservation, where traditional fishing rights were defended by the people during the "fish wars" of the 1970's and upheld in the Supreme Court decision Mattz v. Arnett. Fishing is still a way of life. May is the beginning of the spring salmon run, which traditionally was the major food source for people along the river. The loss of spawning habitat to dam construction is one reason given by fishermen for the decline of the spring runs and the subsequent emphasis on fall Chinook for subsistence fishing.

In this heavily impacted river, all the salmon runs are declining. A 2003 survey of the Karuk diet conducted by sociologist Dr. Kari Norgaard found that 100 years ago each tribe member was supplied with 1.2 pounds of salmon a day, compared with less than five pounds a year now. In good years, that is -- last fall at the Karuk traditional fishery of Ishi Pishi only 100 fish were caught to feed a tribe of 3,000 people.

Still, people fish for subsistence and ceremony. The rafters' routine safety lecture was enlivened at Weitchpec with advice on how to stay out of gill nets if tossed overboard. What was a desire, a dream and a symbol was now caught, filleted and eaten.

This exposure to the reality of traditional Yurok culture made a strong impression on some participants. "When you fish the river, and you're on the river every day -- that's the best way to learn about the river. These people really know what they're talking about," said Jay Silwa, a Sonoma County resident who made the journey from beginning to end. "A lot of people go to school and take biology and think they know a lot about the land and the river, but these Yurok are there fishing it, watching the tides, gutting the fish, handling them, seeing the difference between native and hatchery fish, really getting to know this place."

Mouth of the river

On May 28, four days after leaving Weitchpec, the small armada of six rafts and one fiberglass canoe arrived at the mouth of the Klamath River near Requa. They were escorted into the estuary by two traditional Yurok dugout canoes made by Glen Moore I and paddled by the 85-year old Moore and Walt Lara, Sr. Landing at the sand spit that encloses the estuary, many of those who began the journey at the upper South Fork Trinity started running towards the surf. It was the climax of a 180-mile adventure, and, for David She'om Rose, the fulfillment of a dream. He stood in the waves and hugged his daughter Juniper. The 13-year-old had made the journey at his side, guiding a raft on portions of the river trip.

[Man and daughter drawing]When ethnobiologist Frank Kanawha Lake (participating in the journey as a cultural guide) was able to bring the smiling, splashing group back together he asked everyone to pick up a hand full of sand and look upsteam. "You're holding the whole watershed in your hand," he said, calling attention to the quartz, jasper, basalt, peridotite and other stones gathered here in miniature from every headwaters of the Klamath and its tributaries. He gave Rose a piece of kiswuf, a root held sacred by area tribes, to throw into the waves with the collected cedar and the prayer that there be as many salmon as there are grains of sand -- "millions, millions."

Photo above right: Journey to the Sea participants Jay Silwa and his daughter, Juniper Rose

The group then listened as Lara and Moore spoke of the historic fishery, of the days when a cannery operated at Requa, and of the Yuroks' First Salmon Ceremony that by Moore's estimate was last held in 1890.

At the base of Requa's cliffs the Yurok tribe had prepared a welcoming rally and salmon barbeque. Speakers from the tribe and from local environmental groups addressed the crowd of around 100 people. David Rose spoke, full of emotion. "I'm just a selfish guy, you know? I realized, `Well, if the salmon can't make it up this river right here at the mouth, they'll never make it up to the south fork of the Trinity!' So it's my selfish desire I guess that brings me down here to work with all of you to bring the salmon home."

The message of the speeches was one of support for the cultural survival of the Klamath River tribes, for the restoration of the salmon runs and for basin-wide unity from Oregon, where the Klamath begins, across the mountains to the south fork of the Trinity and down the river to Requa. The speakers made their points with science, with storytelling and with poetry. "Dead fish floating/through our minds," read Yurok poet Annalia Norris.

"Death still haunts our waters/It is time for spirits to rise."

TOP: Walt Lara, Sr.
Middle: Glen Moore I shows one of his traditional canoes to journey participant Caleb Soltau (left) and Curtis Kane.
Bottom: Splashing in the sea at journey's end.



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