Swimming Upstream

The Journey of Columbia River Salmon

If you were a salmon starting your upstream journey today, you would cross the Columbia River bar and pass Cape Disappointment. On the Oregon side, you would 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.

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 into the Columbia 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. 

After passing The Dalles Dam, you swim over the inundated Celilo Falls. Once one of the greatest fishing grounds on Earth, the roaring falls are silent, drowned by the construction of The Dalles Dam. 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, Japan, and killed 100,000 people during World War II. 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.


Salmon need clean, cool water.
The journey of salmon up the Columbia from Pacific to spawning streams is one of the greatest migrations on Earth. Riverkeeper is fighting to protect threatened salmon from toxic pollution, hot water, habitat degradation, and dangerous fossil fuel proposals.