The Long Run Home
A vanishing tribe, a critically-endangered fish, and the race to pull them back from the brink.
As the wet winter months set in last year, deep in the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean a large blue-green fish with silver flanks turned around and headed towards the narrow mouth of the San Francisco Bay. For three years she has been ranging along the coast, swimming hundreds of miles, fattening up on herring, pilchards, squid, and krill. Then, some instinct coded into her genes eons ago bleeped a message: Time to go home.
Alongside several thousand of her kind, male and female, she passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, then veered left towards the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond. At the jutting curve of the Point San Pablo peninsula, she hung a right and made her way through the Carquinez Strait and, a few miles later, slipped up the Sacramento River. Once in freshwater, she stopped eating. Tracing the unique odor of her ancestral natal stream – a blend of local soil and rocks, rotting vegetation, insects, and fish, as well as geographical, celestial, and magnetic cues – she navigated her way farther upriver. Past the high levees of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta she swam, past the irrigation canals that water the flat, human-altered agricultural landscapes of the Central Valley, past Tehama County’s recently decommissioned Red Bluff Diversion Dam. All her energy was focused on making it to the glacier-fed waters of the McCloud River and its tributaries, which run cold and clear in the northern reaches of Shasta County, some 600 miles from the San Francisco Bay. In the gravel bed of those waters, she hoped to dig a shallow nest, lay her eggs, and having spent the last of her energy, die, thus completing the epic, multiyear, river-to-sea-and-back journey of the salmon that has long inspired Native tales.
But this particular fish – which belongs to a once-abundant, but now extremely rare, salmon sub-species called the Central Valley winter-run Chinook – is never going to make it to the McCloud. None of her cohort will. Another 68 miles or so up the Sacramento, their journey will be cut short by the 602-foot-high concrete behemoth that is the Shasta Dam. She’s destined to die in the waters below the dam some time around June or July, as all winter-run Chinook have had to do for more than 70 years.
There are a people, however, who have been fighting long and hard to help fish like her come back home again. A riverine folk, their connection with the salmon is deep and ancient, one that they believe reaches back to the time humankind came into being. Like the winter-run salmon, they too, are a vanishing race, clinging on to existence against all odds.
They are the Winnemem Wintu, the Middle Water People.
This is their story as much as it is the salmon’s.
In the beginning, all the creatures came out of the spring on Mount Shasta.
Human had no voice, so Salmon gave her voice to Human.
In return Human promised to speak for Salmon.
The late afternoon sun was already losing its strength when the small flotilla of dugout canoes and kayaks finally began showing up by the McCloud Bridge Campground in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California. The 70-odd people who had been waiting at the site since morning hurried to the riverbank. As a few singers started up a welcoming chant that echoed around the valley, Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk held up a smoldering smudge root and pulled on her tobacco pipe, sending purifying smoke and blessings in their direction.
The paddlers had spent three days canoeing 20 miles up the McCloud River from Lake Shasta, the sprawling 30,000-acre reservoir created by the Shasta Dam. It hadn’t been easy going. On day two of the journey, strong winds had turned the waters choppy and hard to navigate. Some of the canoes had capsized, others had been blown ashore. But they had pushed on, determined to complete the last leg of what was a two-week “prayerful journey” on schedule. “The salmon have it much harder,” Douglas Scholfield, one of paddlers pointed out. “We had to show them we could do this for them.”
The journey, dubbed Run4Salmon, was a 300-mile relay-trip organized by the Winnemem last September that followed the path of the winter-run Chinook from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the McCloud River, a few months before the fish began their own trek to their birthwaters. Nearly 500 participants, a mix of Winnemem tribe members and their Native and non-Native allies, had run, biked, and paddled different parts of the route. One contingent, which was yet to arrive at the campground, was riding over horseback. In its second year now, Run4Salmon is the public-facing aspect of the tribe’s efforts to bring salmon back to the McCloud River.
At the closing ceremony under a makeshift arbor at the campground, later that evening, Sisk recalled the time when salmon were so abundant on the McCloud watershed that people in her grandfather’s village – which once stood on this very campground – would snag as many as 500 in a night. “Now we have no more than memories of salmon so abundant that you could walk across the river on their backs.”
The Winnemem were “running for salmon” because they still remember their promise to their nonhuman relative, Sisk said. Because they want to bring attention to the government policies threatening the fish, the waters they swim in, and the Winnemem way of life. But, she added, “we are doing this also to wake up our tribe, because somewhere along the way we forgot that we are river people.”
The struggle against forgetting their ties to the McCloud is indeed all too real for the Winnemem Wintu, who like other Native American tribes across the United States, have suffered more than two centuries of violence, displacement, and discrimination at the hands of the settler state.
The Winnemem are believed to be one of nine bands of Wintu tribes that lived in what is now Northern California. Archeological evidence indicates the Winnemem have lived in the McCloud River watershed below Mt. Shasta for at least 6,000 years, though the matrilineal tribe’s oral histories place them in these lands far earlier than that. Accomplished fishermen, hunters, and basket weavers, they called themselves the Middle Water People or Middle River People because their territory was tied to the McCloud (“Winnemem” in the Wintu language), which is flanked by two other big rivers that flow out of the Mt. Shasta region – the Sacramento to the west and the Pit River to the east.
Like other Indigenous peoples, they were keen observers of their world and had deep knowledge of the McCloud watershed, which they believed they were spiritually connected to. They lived on a rich supply of food – acorns, pine nuts, roots, deer, and, of course salmon, or nur, which was both their sacred relative and a dietary staple. They knew the annual cycles of the salmon and of its key role in the local ecosystem, how their spawned-out bodies return ocean nutrients to the rivers and streams where they were born, feeding wildlife, and even the forests.
“Somewhere along the way we forgot that we are river people.”
When salmon returned to spawn, they lit fires along the river and drummed and danced by the waters to show them the way home. They even captured some of the laggard homeward-bound fish and transported them up waterfalls. So prosperous were the Winnemem that they were “renowned among their neighbors for giving the greatest number of ‘big time’ festivals and for trading and sharing their region’s abundant resources,” writes historian Alice R. Hoveman in the book Journey to Justice: The Wintu People and the Salmon.
At the time of first contact with Europeans in the early 1800s, there were an estimated 14,000 to 20,000 Winnemem people thriving in Northern California. But their numbers were soon decimated by diseases brought in by settlers and by bounty hunters who were paid to kill Native Americans, $5 a head, during the Gold Rush years. Much of their land too, was either destroyed by mining or confiscated by settlers and the US government (through a treaty that was never honored). By 1910, the Winnemem Wintu band had been reduced to 395 individuals.
When Shasta Dam was completed in 1945, the resulting reservoir, Lake Shasta, flooded some 25 miles of the McCloud, submerging nearly 90 percent of what remained of the Winnemem’s homeland. The tribe was never compensated for the loss, as was promised to them through an act of Congress signed in 1943. (And if the federal government goes ahead with its controversial long-standing plan to raise the height of the dam by another 18.5 feet, it would flood many more of the tribe’s sacred sites on the McCloud.)
The Winnemem’s numbers have since dwindled to 125. They have no land except a 42-acre trailer park village called Tuimayali in Shasta County’s Jones Valley, where some 30 of them, including Sisk, live. The rest are scattered across California and other states. “The salmon and us, we are both on the brink of not being here,” Sisk says.
It hasn’t been easy for the Winnemem to hold onto their culture and traditions or pass them on to their youth, who have never lived on Winnemem land. Sisk is the fifth leader of the tribe in an unbroken traditional leadership since settler contact, and the first to have never seen the salmon come up the McCloud.
“My Grams had memories of the entire river,” she says, referring to the last chief, her great-aunt Florence Jones, who was about 40 when Shasta Dam was built. “I’m part of the last generation of fisher people, and my memories are only from Hirz Bay [a small bay on the McCloud arm of Lake Shasta] and up, and the memories of these kids may be even less than that.”
After Shasta dam blocked salmon runs on the McCloud, the Winnemem continued to fish in the main stem of the Sacramento below the dam. But, Sisk says, they stopped doing that in the 1970s because by then the fish coming up the river were mostly hatchery-raised, and their flesh was mushier and less pink, and “they all had bugs in their gills.” Now the tribe occasionally goes over to the neighboring Trinity River to catch a few dozen wild salmon for use in special ceremonies. However, she says, after nearly three-quarters of a century without Chinook in the McCloud watershed, the tribe’s collective memory of their particular salmon, things like its physical appearance and what creeks and the holding pools they favor, “is getting less and less.”
The Winnemem have an ancient prophecy that says: When there are no more salmon, there will be no more Winnemem Wintu people. Which is why Sisk believes they must do all that they can to bring the salmon back up the McCloud.
In this, the tribe has found common ground with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). In 2009, following a joint lawsuit by the Winnemem, environmentalists, and fishermen, the Fisheries Service issued a “biological opinion” saying that the winter-run Chinook was “in danger of extinction.” As a result, the federal Bureau of Reclamation – which manages dams in 17 western states, including California – is legally required to reintroduce these fish to historical habitats above Shasta Dam, where there are still several miles of ideal spawning grounds left.
Given that it is nearly impossible to construct fish ladders over a large dam like Shasta, the Bureau, along with the Fisheries Service and other agencies, is currently working on a pilot “two-way trap and haul” project that involves trapping adult Chinook below the dam and trucking them to the McCloud each winter, and then trucking the juveniles back downstream around August – a proposal that some fish biologists have called a “desperate measure” that’s unlikely to succeed in the long term.
The Winnemem, while supportive of the end goal of the project, disagree with the means. The tribe wants the Bureau to instead adopt a “culturally appropriate” pilot restoration plan that it has drawn up. Their plan involves creating a volitional swim-way around the dam by extending natural creeks in the area so that they connect Shasta Lake to the Sacramento River below the dam.
But there’s a twist: The only Chinook the Winnemem believe are fit to come back up the McCloud live some 7,000 miles across the Pacific, in New Zealand.
Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) – also referred to as king, Tyee, Quinnat, tule, or blackmouth salmon – are the largest of seven species of Pacific salmon. They can grow to nearly 5 feet in length and up to 125 pounds in weight. Native to most of the Pacific Rim, they range from Southern California to the tip of Alaska in North America and from northern Japan to northeast Siberia on the Asian side. As with other anadromous fish, which can adapt to both salt and fresh water living, Chinook populations are further defined by their rivers of origin and migration seasons.
California’s Central Valley, despite its arid climate, was once one of the richest Chinook regions in the world. By some estimates, until the mid-nineteenth century some 1 to 2 million adult Chinook made their way into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta each year. About half would swim up the Sacramento and the rest up the San Joaquin river to the south. Both groups would head to their natal waters in the high elevation tributaries of these rivers which, fed by meltwater from the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges that flank the Central Valley, ran cool all year long.
The sub-population of concern to the Winnemem – the winter-run Chinook – is unique to the Sacramento River system and is one of four seasonal runs of Chinook that once thrived in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed. The other three runs are spring, fall, and late-fall. Each of these four runs evolved different strategies to cope with the stress of being a cold-water fish that spends part of its life in the dry Central Valley during summer when temperatures there can approach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. (Most young Chinook stay in freshwater for a whole year before heading for the ocean.) The fall and late-fall runs do this by arriving in autumn as the weather begins to cool, spawning quickly in the lower reaches of the rivers, and moving back to the ocean as very young fish before the onset of summer. The spring-run fish migrate up to the high tributary headwaters and live out the hot season in deep, cold snowmelt pools, moving to their gravel spawning beds in flowing streams and rivers only during the cooler fall season.
The only Chinook the Winnemem believe are fit to come back up the McCloud live in New Zealand.
What sets the winter-run apart from all other salmon is that it actually starts spawning right at the beginning of the summer season, which means its eggs and young ones are in the river system during the hottest months of July and August, explains Jonathan Ambrose, a biologist with the Fisheries Service’s West Coast Region. As a result, winter-run Chinook require spawning streams where water temperatures range in the low- to mid-50s during high summer, cold enough to protect their embryos and juveniles. The winter-run’s main historical spawning grounds above Shasta dam offer the fish just that.
The Mount Shasta watershed has a volcanic geology that enables snow- and glacier-melt to percolate into aquifers and bubble up in a maze of spring-fed creeks that flow cold all year round, even during drought years. These creeks offer shelter to spawning salmon, allow their eggs to incubate without overheating, and provide the emerging juveniles food through the summer months. In fall, when the heat begins dropping in the Central Valley and rivers begin swelling with the first rains of the season, the new generation can swim downstream toward the ocean. “What makes this animal so compelling is that it’s found itself this unique ecological niche,” Ambrose says.
For thousands of years, winter-run Chinook would lay and fertilize their eggs in the rivers and creeks of the Mount Shasta watershed. Because of this extra run, the upper Sacramento watershed had a plentiful supply of salmon all year long.
But the Central Valley Chinook have been on the decline in this region since the Gold Rush era when their ecosystem began to change drastically. Hydraulic and dredge mining practices of the time sent enormous volumes of mining sediments into the salmon’s upstream spawning beds and downriver habitats. Extensive logging, railroad construction, and agricultural runoff from Central Valley and Delta farms did their part to destroy riparian habitats as well, as did intensive commercial fishing in the late 1800s, which was accompanied by massive wastage. In one instance reported by the then California Fisheries Commission, from September 15 to 17, 1880, “fully nine thousand fish were thrown back into the river, thus wasted, for want of purchasers.”
By 1872, when pioneering US government fish culturist Livingston Stone came to set up a salmon hatchery in California, the McCloud was among the last abundant salmon-spawning rivers left in the entire valley. It had continued to flourish mainly because of the Winnemem’s stewardship. In his first report back to the US Commissioner of Fisheries, Spencer Baird, Stone wrote that the tribe’s protection of the “great spawning-grounds of these fish,” was “singularly connected with the abundance of the salmon in the Sacramento River.”
But even the Winnemem’s stewardship of the winter-run couldn’t protect the Central Valley Chinook from the damage wreaked by the mid-century dam and irrigation projects, which blocked more than 70 percent of the salmon’s historical habitat in the region. The fish has pretty much disappeared from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries and continues to hang on in the Sacramento River system mostly because of artificial propagation in hatcheries that sustain California’s $1.4 billion salmon fishery.
For the winter-run salmon, the construction of Shasta Dam at the confluence of the McCloud, Upper Sacramento and Pit rivers was a death knell. Adult fish either battered themselves to death trying to scale the walls of the dam, which had been deemed too high for a fish ladder to work, or were forced to spawn in the main stem of the Sacramento River. The population went into a tailspin, falling to an all-time low of about 200 spawning adults in 1992. The run was classified as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1994.
The reason the winter-run hasn’t gone extinct yet is because the water at the bottom of Lake Shasta is very cold and the Bureau makes timed releases during summer to create suitable spawning conditions for the fish below the dam. That, and artificial propagation from the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery, which was set up below Shasta Dam in the late 1990s to keep the winter-run genome alive, have the species hanging on, Ambrose says. But he admits that at this point there are few purely wild winter-run left. The fish now spawns mostly in the 58 mile stretch of the Sacramento, between Keswick Dam and the Red Bluff Diversion Dam. It is currently under even more stress due to California’s record 5-year drought, and, of course, our warming climate. In 2017, only 1,123 winter-run Chinook returned to the Sacramento River. Of those, Ambrose says, only about nine were wild, naturally spawned fish. The rest were hatchery-born.
Ambrose says the Bureau of Reclamation’s trap and haul pilot project will help managers determine whether putting salmon in the McCloud will actually work. “We have to see if the ecology of the river is still suitable for the winter-run to survive.”
Peter Moyle, a renowned fish biologist at the University of California at Davis, however, says the trap-and-haul method itself is rife with problems. First, many adult fish die from stress and other factors after being transported, he says. But the most difficult part is capturing juveniles produced from natural spawning in the big and fast flows above the dam, for transport downstream. “Those flows are precisely what keeps the juveniles going, but that also complicates capture efficiency,” he says. And even if enough juveniles are transported safely below Shasta dam, “you still have the same problem of them finding their way to the sea alive given the poor habitat of their out-migration routes” which offer them little food or shelter from predators.
“Besides, the McCloud itself isn’t the river it used to be,” he adds. “Eighty percent of its water is diverted into the Pit River system by a PG&E hydropower dam” a few miles upstream of Lake Shasta, and “there’s a substantial proportion of rainbow and [introduced] brown trout in the river now that would offer the winter-run competition.” Basically, Moyle says, any program to restore the winter-run has to be comprehensive. Unless significant effort is made to address threats the fish faces through its entire life cycle in freshwater, such as restoring its downstream wetland and floodplain habitat, the trap-and-haul project will not save the winter-run Chinook.
There are some projects underway to improve fish habitat in the lower Sacramento. In Central Valley’s 60,000-acre Yolo Bypass, for instance, scientists from UC Davis and the nonprofit CalTrout are working with farmers to help restore salmon populations by reintroducing them during winter to floodplains that are farmed with rice during summer. However, even if the winter-run’s entire habitat is restored – which is highly unlikely since water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin is siphoned off to quench the thirst of some 25 million Californians and to irrigate about 3 million acres of farmland – there’s still another problem: Many wildlife experts, and the Winnemem as well, doubt there are any truly wild winter-run Chinook left in the Sacramento at all.
Much like its habitat, the winter-run isn’t exactly the same fish it was 100 years ago. Its genetic integrity has been compromised due to interbreeding with hatchery-born fish, including fish from different runs. “These fish have been around in some form or other for 50 million years. They have weathered mega-droughts, earthquakes, [and] periods of glaciation,” says UC Davis and Cal Trout biologist Robert Lusardi. “The reason they have been able to do that is because they have been innately diverse – in species, in genetics, even at the individual level. The problem now is that they have become homogenous, so it is very difficult for them to be resilient in the face of threats.” The key to improving the winter-run’s diversity, Lusardi says, is to minimize interaction between hatchery and wild fish.
That brings us to the second precondition of the Winnemem’s restoration plan, which is tied to a story so fantastical it would be hard to make it up.
In September 2004, for the first time in 117 years, the Winnemem held a four-day war dance near Shasta Dam to protest the Bureau of Reclamation’s plans to raise the dam. The $1.3 billion project to increase the dam’s capacity has been backed by the Big Ag industry and its political supporters, including Governor Jerry Brown. News about the dance, the Winnemem’s plight, and their relationship to the dwindling McCloud salmon made international headlines. Less than a year later, Sisk recalls, “a professor from New Zealand contacted us saying ‘We have your fish. Do you want them back?’ ”
photo US Bureau of Reclamation
It so happens that the fish culutrist who spoke so highly of the Winnemem, Livingston Stone, ended up building a hatchery on the McCloud. Between 1873 and 1881 the small operation, named Baird Fish Hatchery after Stone’s boss, managed to ship eggs packed in moss-lined canisters to fisheries in eastern states and overseas – to countries like France, Germany, Norway, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan – in such large numbers that it prompted one former hatchery worker to remark “the McCloud River was systematically robbed of its salmon eggs.” In fact, the last time the Winnemem had performed a war dance was in 1887, to protest the Baird hatchery.
The McCloud Chinook didn’t survive in any of these places. Except New Zealand, where records show they first managed to take to the country’s glacier-fed rivers in 1873.
“It is an astounding story, the way the salmon and the Maori all heard the Winnemem’s war dance prayers,” says lawyer and journalist Claire Hope Cummings, who has long been a legal advisor to the Winnemem.
The Rakaia River in New Zealand’s South Island currently has the best salmon runs in the country. The salmon there have split themselves up into four seasonal runs, says Dirk Barr, manager of Fish and Game New Zealand’s salmon hatchery there. The relatively small hatchery program on the Rakaia focuses on fall-run salmon, the group that, similar to California, has the highest number of fish. It does not breed the smaller winter-run population, which Barr says is disease-free and runs as wild as an originally hatchery-born fish can.
In March 2010, a 30-member Winnemem delegation, including Sisk, traveled to South Island, where, with permission from the local Maori tribes, they held a ceremony for the salmon by the Rakaia River. They also visited the modest hatchery by the river. It wasn’t yet time for the fall run to begin its journey home, recalls Barr, who was present at the hatchery that day. “But we were desperately hoping that some early salmon would arrive and, believe it or not, two salmon arrived upriver,” Barr says. Later, some tribe members released a few hatchery salmon fry into the river. “I remember being taken aback because many of them were crying, kneeling there by the water. It made me realize just how important the whole thing is to them.”
No surprise then that the tribe wants salmon for any restoration project that happens on the McCloud, including any pilot project, to be brought in from Rakaia. “NZ winter-run are wild fish subject to the rigors of the natural environment, which maintains adaptive genetic diversity and selects for the strongest to survive in cold headwater streams” rather than the weak and diseased hatchery-raised Sacramento winter-run, the tribe’s biologist wrote in their own salmon restoration plan.
Other biologists say it isn’t 100 percent clear yet that the New Zealand Chinook were originally of California winter-run stock, but a DNA analysis could help clarify that. “If they are winter-run it makes some sense to try and bring them back, but you have to realize that they have been in New Zealand for nearly 100 years,” Moyle cautions. “The environment there has exerted its own evolutionary pressures, so the fish may be genetically similar but behaviorally quite different.”
Last year, after years of negotiations, the Bureau of Reclamation gave the Winnemem a $200,000 grant to get the Rakaia Chinook’s genes tested. The tribe isn’t quite sure what to make of the offer, given their historically adversarial relationship with the agency. In fact, the Winnemem suspect that since the Bureau wants to raise the height of Shasta Dam, it has no interest in having the pilot project succeed.
“The pilot they have designed is so faulty and so reductionist and so completely blind to the fish itself and the relationship the people and the place have that it’s designed to fail,” Cummings says. She says the Bureau and Fisheries Service’s actions speak of the institutional racism that renders invisible Indigenous tribes like the Winnemem and the traditional ecological knowledge they have of local ecosystems.
Bureau officials, however, say they are trying their best to work with the tribe. “Our approach has been to treat [the pilot] more like an experiment to see if the fish will actually survive above the dam,” says John Hannon, fisheries biologist and project manager with the Bureau. Constructing a volitional swim-way like the Winnemem want “would be an expensive endeavor” for a pilot project, he says. But he adds that the Bureau would consider volitional passages as longer-term options down the road.
The agency has already spent nearly $15 million researching and planning its trap and haul pilot, which Hannon says was scheduled to have been implemented last year, but has been held up because its consultation with the Winnemem about historic sites along the McCloud that might be impacted by the project – as required by the National Historic Preservation Act – isn’t yet complete.
The Winnemem, who are making arrangements to collect DNA samples from the New Zealand Chinook in June, are using the consultation process as a way to buy time. They plan to prolong it until the Bureau agrees to their plans for the pilot project. “As long as we have the ability to bring back New Zealand salmon, we will do everything that we can to stop the [Sacramento] hatchery-bred fish from entering the McCloud,” Sisk says.
“In my mind, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring back pure, uncontaminated winter-run to the McCloud and I think it will result in a healthier river,” Sisk says. “If we can do this, we will have fulfilled our mission to always speak for the salmon …. And if the salmon get to go home, maybe we do too.”
Maureen Nandini Mitra is editor of Earth Island Journal.