Once you've seen salmon migrating upriver, it's something you'll never forget.
The first time I saw the migration was when I was a kid at summer camp in Central Idaho. One moment, we were playing around in the stream, then suddenly, we were surrounded by the massive fish, their red-tinged backs rising above the surface as they struggled through the shallows.
We all froze, but the fish were so focused on their mission that they didn't seem to notice us and swam within inches. It was one of those wonderful moments when you get a glimpse of the bigger picture--that this world isn't ours alone.
I've seen the salmon at other points in my life, even watched them leap over waterfalls in central Oregon as Native American fishermen balancing on rickety platforms used long-handled dip nets to scoop up their catch.
But those opportunities have become increasingly rare as salmon numbers have declined, especially those making the roughly 900-mile journey to Idaho in what is the longest of all migrations among sockeye salmon.
But thanks to numerous restoration and breeding programs, there is reason to hope that others will be able to experience the sight, too. Last year, roughly 650 adult sockeyes made it to the Stanley Basin--the highest number since the 1990s. This year, the first few sockeye of the season were counted in Redfish Lake Creek on July 24. As of Monday, Aug. 17, 452 salmon have been counted, with 20 to 40 more coming in each day according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
The public, as well as wildlife managers look forward to the return of the salmon each year, and the 10th annual Sawtooth Salmon Festival will mark the migration with a weekend of educational programs, celebrations, music and general salmon-oriented merrymaking.
The festival will run from Friday, Aug. 21, through Sunday, Aug. 23, in Stanley near the Visitors Center. An educational tent will be set up on-site, giving guests the chance to learn more about salmon, and to hear stories based on the fish.
Kids can join in a variety of hands-on activities, including traditional fish printing (gyotaku), while adults visit arts and crafts vendors and take in live music by Gizzard Stone, Rebecca Scott, Audra Connolly, Bernie Reilly, Carter Freeman, Kelly Lynae and Ryan Wissinger.
On Friday evening, Mike Barenti, author of Kayaking Alone: 900 Miles from Idaho's Mountains to the Pacific Ocean will speak at the Stanley Museum beginning at 5 p.m. and at the Redfish Lake Campground amphitheater at 8 p.m.
Saturday's highlight will be a wild salmon feast (which seems a bit strange to be both eating and celebrating salmon, but the fish on the menu are ocean-caught Alaskan salmon).
Tickets for the dinner are $12 for adults and $6 for children younger than 12, and are available in advance at Idaho Rivers United's Boise office or at the festival. Proceeds from the event will go to IRU's salmon recovery programs.
But to really celebrate the return of the salmon, join one of the guided field trips to the Salmon River to view spawning chinook salmon. While all the talks and demonstrations are informational, the only way to truly appreciate the amazing journey these fish make is to see it in person. You might just be inspired to do what you can to make sure salmon always have an annual homecoming in Idaho.
For more information about the festival, call Jeff at 208-343-7481.