The Wild Clearwater

By Krista Schlyer, Senior Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers, iLCP

A smoky haze permeates the air above Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains, obscuring the view from Chris Boyer’s Cessna 170 airplane. Wildfires have been raging for months in the region, the new normal in the global-warming-era world of the western United States. But the through the haze, the landscape that drew me here remains clearly, breathtakingly visible–the rich, wild Clearwater Basin. The region is one of the largest remaining roadless areas in the contiguous United States, boasting hundreds of thousands of acres of undisturbed wilderness, covered in ancient cedar, ponderosa pine, and spruce. Also visible are scars of clearcut forests and snaking timber roads crisscrossing the mountains, an apt illustration of an inescapable reality: the timeline for protecting the pristine places in the Clearwater is not endless.

A smoky haze permeates the air above Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains.
A smoky haze permeates the air above Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains.
The scars of clearcut forests and snaking timber roads crisscrossing the mountains in the Clearwater Basin of Idaho.
The scars of clearcut forests and snaking timber roads crisscrossing the mountains in the Clearwater Basin of Idaho.
The Bitterroot Mountains, Idaho.
The Bitterroot Mountains, Idaho.

For years, there has been an ongoing struggle here between wilderness conservationists and timber corporations, between backpackers and the off-road vehicle recreation industry, between divergent interests of local communities.  However, the situation has transformed over the last decade, and the Clearwater Basin Collaborative has emerged, linking together industry personnel, conservationists, and local communities (including the Nez Perce tribe) into a unified effort. Though the acreage of wilderness proposed in the 1970s has been significantly reduced to accommodate timber and off-road vehicle interests, the Clearwater Basin Collaborative has agreed on protection of 300,000 precious acres.

I am working with photographer Amy Gulick, the International League of Conservation Photographers, The Wilderness Society, and Lighthawk, to help tell the story of the land that the Collaborative has agreed to protect, and hopefully, to help move the wilderness designation and other conservation interests forward.

A Ruffed Grouse in the forests of Idaho's Clearwater Basin.
A Dusky Grouse in the forests of Idaho’s Clearwater Basin.
Morning mist over a stream, Clearwater Basin, Idaho.
Morning mist over a stream, Clearwater Basin, Idaho.

This story would not be complete without the tale of spawning fish, so Jeff Halligan, who has been working in Idaho with the Collaborative and The Wilderness Society, has agreed to help me look for some salmon. Much life in this region revolves around the arrival of the salmon and steelhead trout, following their long journey from the ocean. For me, finding the fish seemed very unlikely, as some of the Chinook salmon had already spawned, and there had been no sign of the steelhead trout on the streams where we would be working. Still hopeful, Jeff and I hiked up Meadow Creek, a tributary of the Selway River, to look. There we found a dead Chinook salmon that had, like others, already reached its destination and floated in exhaustion to the edge of the creek.

Undaunted, Jeff and I continued to search for spawning salmon. We went to Kelly Creek – a clear, cold stream that runs into the North Fork of the Clearwater River. As we traveled upstream, we found a positive sign–several fly fishermen, waist deep in water. Where there are anglers, there are most likely fish. Soon, we began to see kokanee salmon, which are smaller than the Chinook and steelhead, not by nature, but by circumstance. Decades ago, a dam blocked the kokanee’s path from their spawning grounds in the streams of the Clearwater Basin to the ocean, so now they can only travel from their natal streams to the Dworshak Reservoir, the body of water created by a dam on the North Fork of the Clearwater. Thus, compared to the Chinook, which can grow to several feet long and weigh 20 pounds or more, kokanee salmon are puny. However, what they lack in size they make up for in beauty. When kokanee come to spawn, their salmon-red bodies seem to radiate color, as if they are lit from within. As they band together by the hundreds on their journey they appear as streaming red ribbons undulating through the clear, clear waters of creak and stream.

And when they arrive, they attract myriad communities of hungry predators, from those with wings to those with fly rods.

Kokanee salmon spawning, Kelly Creek, Clearwater Basin, Idaho.
A Kookanee Salmon, Kelly Creek, Clearwater Basin, Idaho.
A Kookanee Salmon, Kelly Creek, Clearwater Basin, Idaho.
A Dolly Varden Trout, Kelly Creek, Clearwater Basin, Idaho.
A Cutthroat Trout, Kelly Creek, Clearwater Basin, Idaho.

This event, the spawning of the salmon, will last throughout the fall. When each of these fish has reached its natal grounds, their grueling journey and all the effort they put into breeding a new generation will have entirely consumed them, and they will die in the same streams and rivers where they and their ancestors were born. They are creatures whose whole lives are tied to the life of this river watershed. And all of this salmon drama is due to one overriding factor, a factor that governs the health of us all: the availability of clean water, falling onto and flowing from in-tact land and healthy forests.

This truth was brought home to me a few mornings ago in Chris Boyer’s Cessna. A blanket of fog arose that cool autumn morning, like an embodied spirit of the Clearwater River flowing through the valleys of the Bitterroot range. This fog is in its essence, the river itself in communion with the mountain air, it is the breath of the Clearwater basin, its salmon, and the system of life that orbits around them. And all of these, indeed all of us, depend on the healthy waters that flow from wilderness, from lands that leave water pure and safe. There are many reasons why we need wild lands, and many reasons to protect them, but perhaps this one should be enough.

The Clearwater Basin of Idaho covered in morning mist.
The Clearwater Basin of Idaho covered in morning mist.
The mission of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography. iLCP is a Fellowship of more than 100 photographers from all around the globe. As a project based organization, iLCP coordinates Conservation Photography Expeditions to get world-renowned photographers in the field teamed with scientists, writers, videographers and conservation groups to gather visual assets that are used to create conservation communications campaigns to foment conservation successes. iLCP is a 501 (c) (3) organization. Support our work at this link.
  • Theodore Chu

    That’s a cutthroat.

  • Theodore Chu

    Looks like a blue or spruce grouse. That’s a cutthroat.

  • Kevin Lackey

    I’m pretty sure the photo labeled a dolly varden is actually a cutthroat trout.


  • Kevin Lewis

    Another threat to this very special place is the attempt to industrialize the Wild and Scenic river corridor with the transport of massive pieces of oil sands processing equipment from Asia to northern Alberta.

  • Rita Humphrey

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I spent 10 years in the Clearwater River valley and have never seen a more beautiful or tranquil place.

  • Susan A. Stephens

    The gist of your article is why I moved here almost 24 yrs. ago and will die here.
    Thank You

  • George Ochenski

    That’s a westslope cutthroat trout in the picture, not a Dolly Varden. Dolly Varden look like brook trout — and obviously, the fish in the picture has the orange under the jaw that gives it its name — cutthroat.

  • Jim Sullivan

    No need to check on it. It’s a cutthroat.

  • Richard Behr

    The north fork of the clearwater is my second home. i return year after year to pursue the native westslope cutts. over the years i have learned a great deal about this ecosystem and was stunned by the significant inaccuracies in this article. Kokanee are a landlocked version of the sockeye and were introduced after the dorwshak dam. juvenile sockeye salmon require a lake environment and were not native to the drainage. the north fork, so i am told, was once a productive steelhead river. today, idaho and fish and game add nutrients to the reservoir to stimulate the growth rates of the introduced salmon. it’s true the kokanee die after spawning and of course contribute their nutrients to the river but it’s another example of humans attempting to replace what once occurred naturally albeit at a much grander scale.

  • Our experts say that the grouse is a Dusky Grouse, so we changed that. As for the trout, we will trusts our followers and change it to a Cutthroat Trout. Thank you for the feedback!

  • Jeff Halligan

    The cutthroat was my mistake, when I first unhooked the fly from it I thought it was a Bull Trout. It was a quick catch, photo and release. Looking at the photo I agree that it is a cutthroat.

  • Sarah Arnold

    I have had cutthroat trout,it’s not all that good.

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