KETTLE FALLS, Wash. — Along a rocky shore where his ancestors gathered for millennia at once thundering but now flooded rapids, Richard Armstrong stepped into the Columbia River to pray.
With eyes closed, Armstrong, a member of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, pounded a rhythm on a small hide drum and prayed and sang in a Salish dialect. His prayers urged the U.S. and Canada to renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty, which has cut salmon off from this stretch of water.
For thousands of years, Native people had gathered at these falls to spear and net the leaping fish. Armstrong is a descendant of the last salmon chief who regulated the bustling fishery.
But since 1942, adult chinook and sockeye salmon returning from the ocean have been blockaded more than 100 miles downstream by the Grand Coulee Dam, a high-head hydropower dam with a massive concrete face 551 feet high. It was built with no provision for fish passage.
Into these undercurrents of politics and history is where Armstrong waded out to pray in what has, since 1942, become known as the Ceremony of Tears. But the mood was different this summer. Rows of people lining the shore behind Armstrong were invited to pick up river rocks off the beach and knock them together, making their own private prayer.
Over the stilled water of Lake Roosevelt, the 165-mile-long reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam, stretching nearly to Canada, came a staccato sound.
Tok! Tok! Tok!
The steady clacking of rocks in dozens of hands, brown and white, beat time along with small drums. When Armstrong ended his prayer, people were invited to throw the rocks into the water so that their prayers might be heard too.
The clacking, it was said, is the sound salmon hear when a free-running river is sluicing at high flood, knocking rocks along the river bottom.
Despite their blocked passage, the salmon still come — or at least they try to. About 150 miles downriver from the ceremony, at the Chief Joseph Dam, constructed below Grand Coulee in 1961, native chinook salmon this summer bumped nose-first into its concrete face.
Randy Friedlander, a tribal member and fisheries biologist for the Colville Confederated Tribes, said it’s almost tragic to watch successive generations of wild chinook batter themselves against this unjumpable obstacle.
“There are still native salmon hitting the face of Chief Joe every year. They’re saying, ‘When are we going to get by this thing?’” he said.
Though building a fish ladder high as a skyscraper at Grand Coulee appears daunting, Friedlander said engineering solutions are probably simpler than political solutions.
The venerable practice of trap and haul is already an option. For decades, salmon have been netted and transferred into trucks or barges to get around dams. It’s low-tech but cheap.
More complicated systems known as floating surface collectors, or gulpers, have been constructed to get downstream-migrating juvenile salmon past the dams. The tiny smolts are guided through a complicated network of raceways and tanks with the aid of cranes and cable-guided barges.
While gulpers have dramatically reduced smolt mortality, they can cost tens of millions of dollars.
Late this summer, fish cannons have made bemused headlines from Gizmodo to NPR. But Vince Bryan III, CEO at Whooshh, said his company’s innovative solution to fish passage is gentle. The “cannons” are flexible tubes originally designed to move freshly picked fruit without bruising. The tubes work almost like pneumatic tubes in old office buildings, with a slight lowering of pressure in front of an object to create steady movement.
“Clearly the fish needed help, and we had this technology we thought was pretty good at moving stuff very gently,” Bryan said. As Whooshh has gotten more involved with testing and redesigning its tubes to handle live fish, salmon appreciation has deepened as well.
“The Native nations and the First Nations of Canada, certainly what you hear from them is that salmon is a spiritual thing. It’s fundamental to their culture. I think we as humankind have to be looking at it the same way,” he said.
Right now, a projected record return of 1.6 million fall chinook salmon are swimming up the Columbia and Snake rivers. Despite billions of dollars spent on fish passage and endangered species protection, Bryan said that’s only 10 percent of the historical population.
Friedlander said he is confident that salmon, which turn red when about to spawn, will spread like scarlet fire into the thousands of miles of tributary habitat and reclaim their place. They will overcome slackwater reservoirs, silt at gravel nesting sites and toxic heavy metals from smelters. “Salmon seem to be very determined,” he said.
Still, he conducts a private ritual for this outcome.
When he catches some of the first chinook to bump against Chief Joseph Dam each summer, he drives the 40-odd miles to the upriver side of Grand Coulee, where he cleans the fish and returns their remains to the stretch of river that was once their home.
“An elder explained to me one time we have to respect the salmon and take care of it, return it back to the river where it came from rather than throwing it away,” Friedlander said.
“Salmon really is one of our sacraments,” said Sirois. “It goes far deeper than just property or a resource.”