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Endurance Runners Complete “The Great Salmon Run”

Running over 130 miles and gaining 20,000 feet in less than two days, athletes raising awareness about Snake River salmon By Amy Baird Salmon, Idaho – –Inspired by the one-of-a-kind journey Snake River salmon make each year and by the pristine habitat to which they return, endurance athletes Luke Nelson and Ty Draney covered over...

Running over 130 miles and gaining 20,000 feet in less than two days, athletes raising awareness about Snake River salmon

By Amy Baird

Salmon, Idaho – –Inspired by the one-of-a-kind journey Snake River salmon make each year and by the pristine habitat to which they return, endurance athletes Luke Nelson and Ty Draney covered over 130 miles (more than four consecutive marathons) of extremely rugged terrain through the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness in early October. Their grueling journey took 52 hours to complete.

Snake River salmon travel more than 900 miles inland and climb almost 7,000 feet to reach their spawning grounds -– the highest salmon spawning habitats on Earth, and the largest and wildest habitat left in the continental United States.

Image courtesy of Matt Irving.

The wild salmon and steelhead that successfully return to the Snake River and its tributaries will spawn and eventually die in the very same place in which they were born.  As their bodies decompose, they provide vital nutrients not only for their young but the ecosystem as a whole.  Scientists have documented over 150 different species that depend directly on the nutrients these salmon provide.

Image courtesy of Matt Irving.

The runners lost over five hours trying to find their trail that had disappeared. Said Ty, “We were now a couple of lost salmon ourselves, knowing where we needed to go but also understanding that things weren’t quite right.”


“The migration of wild salmon, particularly to the Snake River Basin, is truly unique,” said Luke Nelson, member of the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Team. “No other salmon migrates farther or higher.  We hope our adventure will raise awareness about these amazing fish and the threats they face.”

Nelson and Draney began their trek at the confluence of Boundary Creek and the legendary Middle Fork of the Salmon River. After following the Middle Fork for roughly 75 miles, they headed up into the Bighorn Crags Mountain range before descending to meet the confluence of the main-stem Salmon River.  They tracked their journey along the way, via SPOT messenger:

Image courtesy of Matt Irving.

“I think we’re taking this whole salmon metaphor way too far…” Snake River sockeye salmon travel higher and further than any other salmon on Earth – a truly one-of-a-kind journey threatened by status quo policies, which have now failed in a court of law through three consecutive Administrations (first Clinton, then Bush and now Obama).

Image courtesy of Matt Irving.

Few places on Earth can compare to the wildness of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, through which the Middle Fork of the Salmon River flows. This landscape houses the highest, coldest, and largest contiguous piece of salmon habitat left in the lower 48 states.


The Snake River Basin in central Idaho and northeast Oregon is home to the highest, coldest, largest, and best-protected salmon and steelhead habitat in the continental United States.  It has been called the “Noah’s Ark” for salmon survival. Unfortunately, four federal dams on the lower Snake River kill the majority of Snake River salmon on their migration from this one-of-a-kind habitat.  Solutions exist to replace the services these dams provide, but the federal government thus far remains unwilling to consider all options and include all stakeholders in an equal discussion.

The runners are not new to the sport, and boast a long roster of accomplishments. Luke Nelson holds several skiing records, including fastest ascent and the fastest car to car on Mount Borah, the highest peak in Idaho.  Ty Draney has accrued several top finishes at some of the toughest mountain races in the United States: Hardrock, Bear, Grand Teton, and Wasatch 100’s. Nelson is sponsored by La Sportiva, UltraSpire First Endurance, and Nuun. Draney is sponsored by Patagonia, Black Diamond, and Ultraspire.


Image courtesy of Matt Irving.

The run was a small sacrifice compared to what Snake River salmon experience. Over 200 dams stand in the way of migrating salmon in the Columbia Basin today, making it one of the world’s most dammed landscapes. The removal of the four lower Snake River dams provides the U.S. with an opportunity to restore salmon, create jobs, save taxpayer money, and support new investments in clean energy.

Image courtesy of Matt Irving.

The Snake River Basin has been called the “Noah’s Ark” for salmon. Climate scientists and fisheries biologists stress the importance of this particular watershed as one of the last best places for salmon abundance in a changing climate. Unfortunately, the continued operation of the four lower Snake River dams puts the recovery and federal delisting of these salmon in serious doubt.

Image courtesy of Luke Nelson.

What was estimated to be a 120-mile run turned out to be just under 140 miles.  That makes their run the equivalent of over 5 marathons… in two day’s time.

Amy Baird is the Communications Director for the Save Our wild Salmon coalition, which works to restore self-sustaining and abundant wild salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific salmon states. Her work with salmon is a part of a personal evolution from ocean conservation to river restoration, which may ultimately lead her to saving land-based species someday.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn