Pia Soko Katete

The cover image for my 2023 calendar is an old one, but a new release. I shot it back in 2011 on a chilly and stormy but spectacular trip to Idaho’s Little Lost Valley, between the Lost River and Lemhi Ranges. Worth noting is that rocky summit in center left has received a much-needed new name just this year. Formerly called by a very crude term for a Native woman’s breast, the Interior Department upgraded this feature’s name to Pia Soko Katete. As best I can tell from the little Shoshone glossary on my bookshelf, the new name means Big Earth Hill (I’m open to correction here by anyone with firmer knowledge).

I’ve been disinclined to contribute to the frenzy of post-Thanksgiving sales promotions that overwhelms is all this time of year, but I would of course love it if you would buy my calendar! Many thanks to you who have already done so.

Crest, Cliff & Canyon 2023 Scenic Calendar: Idaho Landscapes – 11×14″ or 8.5×11″

2023 Calendar Now Available

Crest, Cliff & Canyon 2023 Scenic Calendar: Idaho Landscapes – 11×14″ or 8.5×11″

I was slow compiling it this year, but it’s here – my 2023 calendar is now available! I chose to use images from my Idaho collections this year. Idaho has long been an underrated favorite state of mine for landscapes, and the result is a set of scenes you won’t likely see on mainstream calendars, with images from the Lost River and Lemhi Ranges, Middle Fork Salmon and Selway Rivers, Salmon River and Clearwater Mountains, Hells Canyon, the Idaho Palouse and northern Panhandle.

Just like last year, you can purchase securely here and calendars will ship directly to you. I strongly recommend the generously sized 11×14″ for $33.95 including shipping, which looks great, but there is also a more compact 8.5×11″ version for $27.95, again with shipping included. They also added a Jumbo option this year, which I have not seen physically, but I expect it looks just as great as the others. These calendars are produced domestically, printed in and shipped from Wisconsin, and just like last year I am very pleased with the print quality.

And many thanks to everyone who purchased last year! It was definitely helpful for my budget and wonderful to feel everyone’s support for my work. Please do consider consider this as an easy option for getting my photography on your wall or as a gift, and know that I will be very grateful!

Mist, Creek, Yellow Leaves

…Cold in the mountains, gusting rain
This autumn harmony, its notes fresh and cool
First I hear it rinse away the sweltering summer
Rehear it as it assails my gloom, too many wearinesses…

-Bai Juyi, trans. Susu Knight

I’m still in the autumn mood, though this image is from 2021. Autumn is so different here than in my native terrain of the Southwest. Southwestern autumn is bright, crisp, cool in the morning, comfortably warm in the afternoon, expansive and luminous, beckoning travel and evoking distance. Autumn here is mist and wet, gathering darkness, introspection, damp chill inviting burrowing and coziness, light flickering in the loom of winter. I miss the aspen groves and spreading cottonwoods and clarity, but I’m really coming to love the maples and larches, the dark waters and shrouded mountains.

Perfect Reflections

Grass Mountains, western Idaho

Perfect symmetrical reflection in a mountain lake is very much a photographic cliché, but it’s a hard one to resist when you’re beside a calm lakeshore at sunrise. I found myself in such a spot twice this summer on rather spontaneous backpacking trips, first in western Idaho high country, then later on the Montana side of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness near the Bitterroot crest.

Bitterroot Mountains, Montana

Ordinarily, my preference would be to scramble high before dawn for birds-eye views, but fatigue and stubbornly clear skies made the lakeside seem more inviting.

Of course, one can try to get creative and artistic with it:

But it’s hard not to let a big peak like this steal the show.

Bright Understory

A little contrast to the dark mood of my recent set from northern Idaho: Even on a gloomy day, there were glowing colors in the understory on the slopes of the Scotchman Peaks Proposed Wilderness.

What Have We Awakened?

Careful what you awake in the woods…. Happy Halloween from the sleepy barred owls of northern Idaho!

Visions from the October Country

Bull River Valley, Montana

“The October Country… that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay… That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…”

— Ray Bradbury, The October Country
Moyie River, Idaho

The Idaho Panhandle region late in the year IS the October Country. We ventured north to see it last weekend, in the midst of the long-awaited first storm of autumn. It was stunning autumn scenery in its somber fashion. Broadleaf foliage was brilliant, glowing like Jack-o-Lanterns. Snow was fresh on the mountains and fog played in the valleys. The big rivers and Lake Pend Oreille brooded deep and dark. The rainy woods spread deep and green, with a few early larches flickering like candles in the forest shadow.

Fog in the Purcell Trench laps at the slopes of the Cabinet Mountains
Foliage on the shore of Lake Pend Oreille

I’m really growing enamored of this country, with its deep and winding waters, ghosts of massive glaciers, inland rainforest and moody autumn light.

Storm light in the Clark Fork Valley

Unseasonable Autumn

This fall in the Pacific Northwest has been ridiculously dry and warm. We had considered plans in the North Cascades, but wildfire smoke rendered that option unappealing. Happily for us, the Wallowa Mountains are always a nearby alternative, so we took advantage of the unseasonable warmth to see some high country in a month that would normally involve snow and ice.

The Wallowas aren’t really a fall color destination, but leaves are turning so late this year that it seemed like a good opportunity to scout out autumn possibilities in the neighborhood. The larches (of which there are quite a few in the Wallowa River drainage) we’re scarcely even thinking about changing, but there was quite a bit of nice color in the underbrush.

Up in the subalpine, we were surprised to encounter huge numbers of tiny toads. (REALLY tiny – the guy below probably appears larger on your screen than he did in real life.) I don’t know whether this represents some kind of unseasonable hatch and if they’ll be in trouble when the weather finally cools off. I hope not – hopefully they can go to ground and thrive next spring.

The reflected light off big white marble cliffs to the left really lit up this section of the valley:

A lot of the best fall color was lower down near the water:

I also shot a small set of more moody, artistic images by the creek that I will post shortly. It was a beautiful and mild three days so late in the year! But the autumn rain and melancholy is welcome to put in an appearance anytime now.

Coastal Forest

It was a quiet summer for me photographically, but I am emerging and new work is coming shortly. We did take a much-needed relaxation trip to the the Washington coast in late August, and while photography was not a priority for me, I did occasionally pull out the camera. The Long Beach Peninsula is not a terribly dramatic piece of coastline, but I still found it beautiful and interesting, with its lush plant life rooting out a geologically precarious foothold on so narrow strip of sand between Willapa Bay and the Pacific.

To an inland haunter of high deserts and rain shadows like myself, there’s something deeply foreign and surreal about northwest coasts with their dense flora growing almost to the very edge of salt water. That country always feels so lush and alive, yet also indifferent to humans despite all its human population, its lowland profusion of growth and erosion seeming to shrug at our presence, as if we are so ephemeral as not even to deserve hostility. And even under August sun, these woods seemed never far from gray sky and gray sea.

A Washingtonian’s Guide to Snake River Salmon Geography

Chinook salmon leaping up Dagger Falls, Middle Fork of the Salmon, Idaho

If you live or play in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve probably heard of the controversy surrounding the four Lower Snake River dams and their devastating impacts on Idaho’s salmon and steelhead populations. Conservationists have argued for decades that these four dams must be removed if these fish are to recover. Republican congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho came to the same conclusion more recently. And just this week, Washington Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee released a draft report concerning removal.

But despite all the recent attention and many excellent articles and resources, I find many people remain unclear on the fundamental geography of these rivers and dams. Washington residents especially are often not familiar with Idaho’s relevant (and confusing) geography. This page is my attempt to illustrate and clarify the terrain under discussion and to increase awareness of the remarkable wild river country beyond Washington’s eastern border.

So where exactly are we talking about?

Main Salmon River, Idaho

The area of fish habitat that would benefit from removal of the Lower Snake River dams encompasses most of central Idaho plus a respectable chunk of northeastern Oregon. We’re talking everything upstream of those four dams that does NOT have any other dams impeding fish passage. Sadly, and confusingly, this actually excludes most of the Snake River itself, which is dammed in Hells Canyon. It also excludes the North Fork of the Clearwater, which is blocked by Dworshak Dam. But this leaves a vast area and river mileage: the enormous and dam-free Salmon River drainage, the also quite sizeable Middle and South Clearwater, plus the Grande Ronde and Imnaha in Oregon.

The area looks approximately like this:

Let’s just superimpose that onto Washington:

Puget Sound to Idaho, Oregon to Canada – looks bigger already! This is the amount of fish habitat we’re talking about opening up again to the sea, approximately 26,000 square miles, a little bigger than West Virginia and larger than 75 of the world’s countries.

Here are a few other comparisons for anyone who may find them helpful:

Okay, fine, it’s big, but what’s actually there? Idaho is mostly potato farms, right?

Middle Fork Salmon canyon, Idaho

This area is mostly endless miles of deep river canyons, forest and rugged mountains. There’s a bit of farming, a bit more ranching, virtually no industry, but lots and lots of both legal and de facto wilderness. Excluding Lewiston and La Grande, the only substantial towns, both of which are on the area’s edges, the region’s population is about 50,000. This is a big, empty chunk of landscape.

And it’s full of wild, mostly unpolluted rivers. The Salmon and Clearwater fan out into a huge array of tributaries, most of them wild and healthy: the South Fork Salmon, the renowned Middle Fork, the North, East and Yankee Forks, the Secesh, the Pahsimeroi, the Lemhi, the Little Salmon, Rapid River, the South Fork Clearwater, the Lochsa and the unsurpassed Selway. Oregon’s Grande Ronde is fed by the Wallowa, Lostine, Minam and Wenaha. And each of these is fed by countless creeks, many of them nearly river-sized themselves. Most of these streams run cold and clear from high-elevation headwaters, with abundant cobble bar spawning beds waiting for fish that no longer arrive.

Cobble beds, Middle Fork of the Salmon

The region is also well-protected. The Selway, Lochsa, Main Salmon, Middle Fork, Rapid River, Imnaha, Lostine, Minam, Wenaha and Grande Ronde all have protections under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. And central Idaho has the largest complex of designated wilderness in the lower 48. This area once had huge fish populations and it could again be a major migratory fish stronghold if the salmon and steelhead could just get there.

If Idahoans are so concerned, why don’t they remove some of their own dams?

Selway River, Idaho

Which precise dams should they remove? I see this opinion expressed a lot in Washington, but it reveals a misunderstanding of the fundamental geography in play. Eight dams stand between the Salmon and Clearwater Rivers and the Pacific Ocean. Zero of those dams are in Idaho. The Salmon River drainage contains no dams at all, and only one Clearwater tributary is dammed. Fish on the John Day and Yakima Rivers only have to swim past three and four dams respectively, and they are doing much better than Idaho’s fish. Eight reservoirs is just too many. Dworshak Dam cut off some great fish habitat on the North Fork Clearwater, but removing it would achieve essentially nothing if the same eight dams are all standing downstream. And the rest of the Clearwater and Salmon drainages contain no dams at all – that’s why these drainages are so important as once and future habitat.

But the Hells Canyon Dams don’t even have fish ladders!

Rapid River, a Salmon tributary in the Hells Canyon region

Correct, but see above. The Hells Canyon dams did cut off some habitat (it was once even possible to catch salmon in northern Nevada), but again, improving fish passage there would make no difference with eight dams standing downstream.

A related point of confusion worth clarifying is that breaching the Lower Snake River Dams would not open habitat on the upper Snake and no one is claiming that it would. Breaching is intended to open habitat in the Clearwater and Salmon drainages, plus northeastern Oregon, which is much higher quality habitat anyway.

Crooked Creek, a tributary to Oregon’s Wenaha River

We should be working on pollution and fish habitat in Puget Sound!

I see this objection a lot from my congressional representative. Yes, we should. Puget Sound is important salmon habitat and improvements there are definitely a good thing. But the Salmon-Clearwater region is too large and high-quality a habitat to write off. Let’s look at another image of the area superimposed on western Washington this time:

Imagine the Olympic Peninsula, Puget Sound, the entire Central Cascades, Mount Rainier and the Goat Rocks and the Yakima Basin all being cut off from ocean connection. That is the scale of the ecological opportunity lost in Idaho due to the Lower Snake dams. Salmon are not so abundant in the Lower 48 that we can afford to give up on a habitat of this size and quality.

And remember, Puget Sound is full of people and industry. Central Idaho is not. It is far less polluted and better protected. The Frank Church, Selway-Bitterroot, Gospel Hump, Hells Canyon, Wenaha-Tucannon and Eagle Cap Wildernesses amount to over 4 million acres of protected landscape, waterways and headwaters. For comparison, all the Wilderness Areas of the Washington Cascades (and they are big) total 3,360,070 acres. In terms of American salmon habitat, cutting off Idaho from the sea was in many ways comparable to cutting off western Washington. We can’t afford to lose this region!

Middle Fork of the Salmon, Idaho

There’s also the issue of fairness to our neighbors and to Native Americans. People in Puget Sound would not react well to being told to give up on salmon and orcas because they can go see them in Alaska. Well, people in Idaho likewise should not be told to travel to the coast to fish for salmon that were once abundant in their own backyard. And our nation promised the Nez Perce people fishing rights in their own homeland. Washingtonians should be better neighbors and acknowledge that these four dams greatly diminish Idaho ecology and recreation and Nez Perce heritage while mostly benefiting only southeast Washington.

Grand Salmon – Source to Sea paddle team meets with Nez Perce representatives in Lewiston, Idaho, June 11, 2022

But doesn’t climate change mean salmon are doomed anyway? And what about sea lion predation and overfishing?

Middle Fork Salmon headwaters, cool even in summer

Rising temperatures are precisely why we need Idaho as a salmon refuge. Thanks to high-elevation headwaters and swift flow, Idaho’s rivers are better able to stay cool all summer than lower, slower rivers to the west. Water temperatures in the Lower Snake and Columbia reservoirs are cooking migrating fish, but a free-flowing Snake giving access to high-quality, high-elevation habitat would significantly improve the picture.

And threats like increasing sea lion predation and commercial fishing issues are again precisely why we can’t afford to give up on the opportunity of Idaho’s vast and intact spawning habitat. All our northwestern salmon populations face these threats. To weather these challenges, we need more salmon refuges, not fewer.

The Salmon River, still big, wild and dam-free

*****

I hope at least a few readers find this helpful. It is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to the issue – if you’re looking for a deeper dive, there are many excellent resources available, some of which I will link below. My intent has simply been to clarify the confusing geography and resulting misconceptions and emphasize why Idaho, a state without a coastline, is so important to salmon discussions. I also respect the importance of Washington’s agriculture and care a great deal about Palouse growers and the beautiful landscape they farm. They are my neighbors and I want them to thrive. But the limited benefits of the Lower Snake dams come at much too high a cost. For any Washingtonians who wish to see salmon thrive for future generations, the time to tell this to our Washington politicians is now, this summer.

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