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Paddling to the Pacific

Salmon to Sea kayaker Bill Erickson launches from Stanley

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Some might call Bill Erickson crazy. This week, the 30-year-old river guide will begin a 40-day kayak trip from the Salmon River near Stanley all the way to the Pacific Ocean. That's almost 900 miles of kayaking and a difference of 6,500 vertical feet.

Before you start name calling, consider this: Erickson is making the journey to highlight the decline of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest and he's copying the route of Idaho's wild salmon by maneuvering through the Salmon, Snake and Columbia rivers.

Perhaps that still sounds crazy—even if you're pro-salmon—but at least he's going in the direction of the water. "I'm making the journey downstream in a kayak and will be facing the same obstacles that sockeye encounter as young fish while heading to the ocean," Erickson says. "The largest of these obstacles, and the biggest killer of all salmon, are the four dams on the lower Snake River."

That's correct; Bill Erickson is going to act like a fish for 40 days. He'll shout "Damn!" when he hits the concrete walls, but he probably won't bite if you cast a worm in his direction.

For the last seven years, Erickson has spent his days working on rivers as a guide. He can't avoid facing the rivers' issues, so it's not surprising that he's concerned about salmon recovery, and the Snake River sockeye in particular. Apparently, only six sockeye made the swim back to Idaho's Redfish Lake in 2005. "What the sockeye need is real leadership from elected officials in Idaho and across the country to set a real path to salmon recovery that looks at all scientifically sound and economically viable recovery solutions, including more water for the river, and removal of the four lower Snake River dams," Erickson says.

The four lower dams are the biggest issue for returning salmon and extinction of the sockeye is a serious threat. Erickson's aim is to get the word out that the current numbers of returning salmon aren't sustainable. "I can only hope to raise people's awareness and educate folks who have no idea what's going on here," he says.

Erickson wasn't always such an educator, but he was always an outdoorsman. Born in South Dakota, Erickson grew up fishing with his father. "My first vivid memories are of when I was 4 years old, fishing chinook in the Salmon [River]," he says. "Since then I have yet to see salmon in their natural habitat in Idaho."

The idea of the river trip blossomed three years ago, and for the last year and a half, Erickson has been laying the plans to make it happen. With his desire to see the fish in their habitat and a desire, too, to go on a big-commitment trip, Erickson started to research salmon and discovered the disturbing facts of their dwindling returns after arduous migration journeys upstream. He thought maybe there was something he could do for the salmon.

As a member of Idaho Rivers United, he enlisted the organization's help along with Save the Wild Salmon and a number of other organizations to help make the trip possible. And what began out of his interest in wildlife has turned into an opportunity for Erickson to raise money for those organizations helping him.

"All the gear, the sea kayaks, the tents, the clothes have been donated by outdoor companies that support the issue," he says. At the end, all of Erickson's gear will be auctioned off and the money donated to the nonprofits.

Erickson says he wouldn't be able to do it without sponsors, as the gear slated for auction is worth about $10,000. The public is encouraged to make donations, as well, through www.wildsalmon.org. Any money collected through the Web site from the public will first help pay for the trip, and all other proceeds will head directly into the pockets of nonprofits.

Though the trip is long and some sections of his route can be dangerous, Erickson says he is absolutely confident he can do it. He has safety backups in place and electronics that will allow him to communicate with landlubbers. "I will be as safe as I can," he says. "I have equipment that is able to send a signal out and alert rescue." Hopefully he won't need it, but he will be kayaking solo for 85 percent of the trip. (Less adventurous kayakers will temporarily join Erickson for stretches just south of Lewiston and again just south of Portland.)

After a little celebratory pomp that will include histories of the dams along the route, Erickson will set sail at 11:30 a.m. on August 6 from the vestiges of Sunbeam Dam, which was removed in 1934 to better enable salmon to return to the Stanley Basin.

Now done with all the planning and all the fundraising (and hopefully a few extra paddling workouts), Erickson is excited and waiting to get started. "I've planned it as much as I can plan it and I am just ready to go."

Erkiskson's trip will end in Astoria, Oregon, on September 27. For more information on Erickson's trip, visit www.salmontosea.blogspot.com.

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