Swimming Upstream

The Journey of Columbia River Salmon

USFWSSalmon tie together much of the Columbia Basin economically, socially, and spiritually. The fish also connect the region physically by moving through our cities and towns on great up- and downstream migrations.


Columbia River salmon are born in freshwater streams, grow to finger size in the river, pack on the fat in the nutrient-rich Pacific Ocean for most of their adult life, and then return to their natal streams to spawn and die. The upstream “runs” of millions of salmon, full of ocean protein, sustained rich tribal fisheries for thousands of years. In the early 1900s European immigrants took incredible volumes of salmon with nets, fish wheels, and traps. Between 1889 and 1920, the average annual harvest of Chinook salmon from the lower Columbia River was 25 million pounds.

If you were a salmon starting your upstream journey today, you’d cross the Columbia River bar and pass Cape Disappointment. On the Oregon side, you’d pass a replica of Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark’s men wintered in from 1805-1806, growing weary of elk (and rain) everyday while the nearby Chinook and Clatsop Indians ate salmon. Here, the river is wide and tidal with large bays, many tributaries and hundreds of islands. You’d pass fishing villages in Chinook, Astoria, and Cathlamet

The river narrows and becomes more industrial in Longview, Vancouver, and Portland. The tide still moves the water up and down but less noticeably. Continuing upstream, the Willamette flows in on your right. As you enter the Columbia River Gorge, you hit the Bonneville Dam and try to find the fish ladder to climb up through the dam. Above the dam, the tide is gone. The mainstem of the Columbia has eleven dams and the tributaries are blocked by 400 more. During the dam-building peak in the 1940s and 50s, the Bonneville Power Administration paid Woody Guthrie to sing “Roll on Columbia,” but did not invest heavily in salmon survival. Before 1850 an estimated 16 million salmon and steelhead returned to the Columbia River Basin annually to spawn. Over the last 25 years, the number of salmon and steelhead returning to the basin has averaged around 660,000 per year, although annual population levels vary widely. Thirteen populations are officially listed as threatened with extinction. Dams, overfishing, habitat destruction, and poor water all contributed to this stunning collapse.

After passing The Dalles Dam, you swim over the inundated Celilo Falls. Once one of the greatest fishing grounds on Earth, the roaring falls sit silent under the reservoir. You pass more dams and the Snake River confluence. The remarkable sockeye that spawn in Idaho’s Red Fish Lake travel a greater distance from the sea (approximately 900 miles) to a higher elevation (6,500 feet) than any other salmon population in the world. Even if the adults make it upstream, the real challenge is for the juvenile salmon to find the ocean due to a series of reservoirs, turbines and spillways. Since the 1960s, the U.S. government has captured juvenile salmon and trucked or barged the fish around the dams and dumped them near the ocean. While originally trumpeted as “predator-free migration,” many scientists question the effectiveness of this unnatural solution.

You stay in the mainstem, press upstream through grassland and farms. You feel the river’s pace quicken as you enter the Hanford Reach – one of the Columbia’s last “free flowing” sections. You pass by the B-reactor, which produced the plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki and killed 100,000 people. Nine nuclear reactors, some of which are now dismantled, perched on the banks of the Columbia and produced 75% of the U.S. nuclear weapon capabilities from 1945 through the 1980s. Today, Hanford is the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere due to huge stockpiles and spills of radioactive waste. You swim faster.

You continue to press upstream to a series of dams–including the Rock Island and Chief Joseph Dams–before reaching the Grand Coulee, which has no fish passage and has detached upstream habitat for over 70 years.

Today salmon populations are just 3% of the millions of salmon in the Columbia at the time of the Lewis and Clark. Thirteen populations are officially listed as threatened with extinction. Dams, overfishing, habitat destruction, and poor water quality all contributed to this stunning collapse. Despite the challenges, there is great hope as people recognize the economic and social imperative of saving the salmon. Our region is taking action to restore salmon habitat and improve water quality. Is it enough? Columbia River communities will participate in this story as the big river flows by.