Chinook salmon reintroduced above Shasta Dam to a river where they once swam
"You see these little people in regalia. They're five years old, they have a long way to go with the salmon and it's going to continue."Caleen Sisk, Spiritual Leader and Hereditary Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people
For the past five years, KALW’s The Spiritual Edge has been following the fight of the Winnemem Wintu people to return SALMON to their homelands. Here’s a preview of the upcoming audio documentary series, A Prayer for Salmon:
Chief Caleen Sisk says she and her people, the Winnemem Wintu, are following a prayer. To bring salmon back to their homelands on a river above Shasta Dam.
Overall, there was a prayer that came down from Mt. Shasta, Bulium Puuyuuk about the Landata Nur, which means the old time salmon,” says Chief Sisk. “The old time salmon want to come back to their rivers. They want to be upstream. They want to do the things they're supposed to be doing.”
To support the prayer and draw attention to their cause, the Winnemem Wintu started an annual ceremony called the Run4Salmon. Over several weeks, a small but dedicated group of Winnemem Wintu and allies walk, bike, and kayak along the salmon‘s historical migration path – from the northern reaches of California to the San Francisco Bay.
When it started back in 2016, they hoped the Run would raise awareness about the plight of salmon and California’s waterways.
“Hopefully, we wake up enough people in the state of California…that people will start talking about it and know that it’s the right thing to do,” says Chief Sik. “It needs to be done.”
Beyond the Run4Salmon, Chief Sisk has fought hard to have her voice heard. She’S showed up at public meetings whenever she can. But the Winnemem Wintu are not officially recognized by the federal government. And so, for years, she wasn’t allowed on official salmon committees.
Meanwhile, the situation grew worse for Chinook salmon, especially a species known as the winter-run. Blocked by Shasta Dam, the winter-run salmon are forced to spawn in waters that can be quite warm, especially during drought.
“I can't emphasize enough though how precarious the situation for winter-run Chinook is,” says Jonathan Ambrose, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. He says it’s imperative to return winter-run to colder waters above Shasta Dam.
Ambrose crouches on a small gravel bed off the McCloud River, one of four main tributaries that feeds into Shasta Dam.
“When I see gravel like this and how clean it is, it really makes me excited and happy thinking about winter-run Chinook back in this watershed,” he says.
The Winnemem Wintu fished this river until Shasta Dam flooded them off their land. It’s cold, fed by glacial waters and relatively unscathed by human development. Ambrose says it escaped the gold mining frenzy of the 1850s.
“So because there was no gold, the river wasn’t destroyed, like we see in the Sierras with the hydraulic mining,” says Ambrose. “When I first saw this river, I thought, how can this not work? Let’s just get the fish up here and see what happens.”
Planning for a pilot project began in 2010. The idea was to place winter-run eggs from a conservation hatchery into the McCloud. Once the eggs hatched, juvenile fish would be caught, loaded up in trucks, driven below the dam and released to swim out to the ocean.
Upon their return a few years later, either they, or their eggs would be trucked the other way around. It’s an imperfect solution, but at least it gets the salmon around Shasta Dam.
The agency had intended to plant the first eggs in 2023. But then successive years of drought threatened to push the winter-run to extinction. Cathy Marcinkevage is also with the Fisheries Service. She remembers the panic they felt at the agency earlier this year.
“It was the driest, January, February, March on record,” says Marcinkevage. “We were going into March. We didn’t know what April would bring.”
The project was accelerated. And to the Winnemem Wintu’s surprise, they were asked to be co-managers. It’s already a precarious relationship.
Last week, a truck carrying a small, orange cooler with 20,000 winter-run eggs made its way to a remote McCloud River campground down a bumpy and steep dirt road. The original plan was to helicopter the eggs in. But then the government decided that was overkill. The Winnemem disagreed. Eventually, they reached a compromise. For the next round, the eggs would be brought in by helicopter.
On this day, two young women from the tribe lift the cooler and carry it around a sacred fire.
“The intent was to have the sacred, bless those eggs,” says Chief Sisk.
The ceremony to honor the eggs going in the McCloud takes place as part of this year’s Run4Salmon. Participants and government officials watch as Chief Sisk and Winnemem Wintu children walk a steep path down to the river.
With small cups, the children carefully deposit eggs into a large blue barrel – an incubator fed by cool McCloud water. Here, the eggs will mature until juvenile salmon hatch and swim out into the river. The transfer marks a special moment.
“We’re showing the traditions of the salmon coming back,” says Chief Sisk. “You see these little people in regalia. They're five years old, they have a long way to go with the salmon. And it's going to continue. So you need to deal with us.”
This land is owned by the Forest Service now, but was once the site of a Winnemem Wintu village. It’s where Chief Sisk’s great- grandmother lived. Now they’re holding ceremony here for the first time in more than 80 years. Young Winnemem are seeing salmon eggs with their own eyes.
Chief Sisk says if the salmon can come back, maybe the tribe can bounce back as well.