Kris Millgate is no stranger to the outdoors or to Chinook salmon. She’s an experienced outdoor journalist who started Tight Line Media in 2006. Over the last seven weeks, however, she’s learned so much more. She’s in the middle of an 850-mile trip from the Pacific Ocean to Central Idaho to tell the story of the Chinook salmon and the people and industries the fish affects.
Millgate is calling her journey “Ocean to Idaho” and she’s following the same route the fish take when they return to the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. Over those 850 miles, the fish have to navigate four rivers, eight dams, predators and the natural current flowing to the Pacific Ocean.
"All of our water wants to be in the ocean, and they're swimming against that, that in itself is a huge feat and they never give up,” Millgate said. “So as far as telling their story goes, I never give up either. I want to match the resilience of the wild in a way that is so fierce that it brings out the storytelling that is respectful of what the wild is still trying to do."
Chinook salmon are one of the varieties of fish known as anadromous fish that are born in freshwater, head to saltwater (the ocean) to grown, spend two to three years in the ocean, then return to the freshwater to spawn and die.
"So you're bringing a fish born in freshwater, raising it in saltwater, coming back to saltwater to die and it's bringing all the nutrients from the ocean back into a freshwater system,” Millgate said. “It's kind of this magical mix of things that go on that people just don't even realize is going on right underneath all the heavyweight of humanity that we lay upon the landscape."
Millgate first came up with the idea years ago when she saw her first salmon.
"I was laying on top of a beaver dam watching a salmon do its thing, uninterrupted by us in the water, and I thought, ‘My goodness, this fish just swam 850 miles from the ocean, what on earth does it look like to do that kind of a migration?’ and ‘wouldn't it be cool to show everyone what it looks like?’" she said.
She really started to think about the project in earnest while she was recovering from a broken leg she got from a hockey puck. She’s a hockey coach for her son’s team in Idaho Falls. By October 2019, she had her plans laid out and the details were shaping up nicely. Then COVID-19 hit and “flushed all my plans into the trash.”
It took some ingenuity and adapting her plans, but she figured out how to still do her project while also safely social distancing. With donations from Teton Toyota and Four Wheel Pop-Up Campers, she’s traveling alone, without a crew, in a pick-up truck and camper. She safely sleeps on private property where she waves to the owners as she drives in at dusk and waves again as she leaves at dawn so she can spend 15 hours of daylight shooting video and interviews.
"When you're alone in your rig, you have no one to talk to, so you all of a sudden end up with a lot of time to brainstorm what's going to happen in the day,” she said. “You can't take a break to sleep because you're the driver. You can't write and edit while you're in route, because you're the driver. And when you're not driving and shooting, you're sleeping and eating. So it's kind of this roller coaster ride of drive, shoot, video, shoot, interviews, shoot scenic footage. Oh and by the way, hop in the camper and eat something while you import all of that."
During her interviews, she wears a mask, uses hand sanitizer, disinfects her gear with wipes between interviews and even keeps a log of her temperature.
While her journey may be a little isolated, Millgate is sharing the journey through blog posts and social media. She tells her followers about her gear, her interviews and her mishaps, like when she broke her camera when a wind gust tried to take her hat. Instead, it knocked over the camera.
"They want to know where I'm at, what I'm working on,” Millgate said. “So while I'm building all the elements for this film, people are following along and seeing what it's like to be on the route, to see what the salmon go through, what I go through. And in the end, we're going to have this great film but they've followed along as if they're in the truck with me."
Millgate is about halfway through her journey. When the fish hit Central Idaho, she’ll be able to travel the Salmon River. She won’t be alone this time. Only so many people can get permits to raft down the river. She knows somebody who got one this year and he’s allowed to have other rafts. Millgate will take her husband and two sons with her. Her husband will row as she films.
“That way I can work while he rows our house down the river,” she said.
The film should come out sometime in 2021. Her original plan was to show it to audiences along the 850-mile route which goes through Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Now, however, she’s unsure what will happen next year because of the pandemic. She will release the film and multiple features in magazines and newspapers throughout next year.
The journey is about more than the fish themselves. Chinook salmon affect different groups of people in different ways. Among the stories to tell are how Chinook affect native tribes to sport anglers, irrigators to dam operators and farmers.
“I wanted every perspective I could get, and I needed it across three states and I needed to make sure we were including everyone that has a connection to this issue in some way," she said.
Chinook salmon are just one variety of several in Idaho she could have documented. Chinook, however, still have a presence in Idaho. In 2019, the Fish Passage Center, which counts fish as they move from the Pacific and up the fish ladders at dams along the Columbia River, documented 4,178 at the Bonneville Dam and 250 at the Lower Granite Dam. Already this year, they’ve counted 4,457 in the Bonneville and 452 in the Lower Granite. Millgate said Idaho has the potential to hold 127,000 Chinook Salmon. To take the fish off the endangered species list, Idaho would need to have returns of more than 30,000 fish, Millgate said.
She does have hope for the fish and its survival. She said this journey is helping her learn something she’s had a basic understanding of in the past – the wild is resilient.
“Regardless of how much we develop the west, how much we try to extract the west or change the west - all the things that we do to our watersheds out here have a heavy hand - and despite that, in certain cases, the wild will still persist," she said.