How do conservationists speak for the animals and places that need protection? From gathering scientific data to storytelling, conservation has many tools to draw on. This summer, four women are giving voice to a river and its ecosystem by embarking on an epic 1000+ mile adventure, the Grand Salmon Source to Sea.

Elizabeth (Libby) Tobey, Brooke Hess, Alia Payne, and Hailey Thompson started their journey with a ski tour in the remote wilderness of the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho. They then launched kayaks, paddled down the Middle Fork, hopped over to the Main Salmon 10 days later to continue their paddle. Along the way, they are hosting events and “raising awareness about the need to breach the four Lower Snake River dams and placing a moratorium on the Stibnite Gold Project in order to save the rapidly dwindling Snake River Basin salmon populations from extinction,” Brooke writes to Adventure Scientists. The team has also been gathering water quality measurements for our Wild and Scenic Rivers project.

More than 40 days into the journey, the crew has reached the Snake River’s confluence with the mighty Columbia and are now paddling to the sea along the border between Oregon and Washington, struggling through portages around dams along the way. Follow along with the Grand Salmon Source to Sea via their website and social media channels.

Before their journey began, Brooke and Libby responded to a few questions from Adventure Scientists. Their answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

The team’s plan, mapped out.

How did you all decide to embark on this expedition together?

Brooke Hess: Libby and I met while paddling the Kaituna River in New Zealand in 2019. I was living there at the time and she was on vacation before starting her master’s degree. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Libby took me in. We isolated together in Missoula, which involved many Lochsa laps on the weekends Libby wasn’t busy studying. At one point, we decided to borrow a Dynamic Duo kayak (double kayak) from Tyler Bradt, and paddle it down the Lochsa at questionably high flows. It ended up being hilarious and one of the best days we’ve ever had on the river.

That day in the Duo sparked an idea for us to take a double kayak down the South Fork of the Salmon as a conservation project promoting a moratorium on the Stibnite Mine. That idea quickly spiraled into taking the duo down the ENTIRE Salmon River from the source to the sea and promoting the removal of the four Lower Snake River dams as well. We eventually realized that a double kayak for 1,000+ miles is a horrible idea, because we would definitely kill each other after about three days. We transitioned the idea to separate kayaks, but kept the source to sea plan.

Libby was chatting through our idea with Tess McEnroe, who was interning for Idaho Rivers United at the time. Tess expressed her interest and she became the third member of our team, connecting us with Idaho Rivers United and Rivers For Change. The whole thing expanded from there to far beyond anything any of us ever envisioned!

Last fall, I was chatting through this trip with my friend, Alia Payne, while we were paddling the South Fork of the American River in Coloma, California. I expressed our need for another paddler with film experience, but that the criteria for joining our team was quite extensive: they had to be female, they needed film experience, they needed to be an experienced paddler (kayak or raft) in Class 4+ rapids, they needed a background in science, and they needed to be unemployed and available to leave for a 3-month stretch over the spring/summer. Most importantly, they needed to be someone we would all be able to get along with for that three-month stretch.

Alia thought about it and then mentioned, “Well… I actually have all of those qualifications, and this sounds like a project I would really be interested in filming!” So we added Alia to the team.

Several months ago, Tess received her dream job offer to become the Communications Director for Idaho Rivers United. She decided to take the job, which meant she had to drop out of the expedition. She is still a huge member of the overall team, but she will not be joining us for paddling. We still wanted four women on our core team, so we added Hailey Thompson, who just got off a ten year stint as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard on active duty. She has a background in salmon fisheries biology, is a super solid whitewater kayaker, and an all around lovely human who we would all love to spend three months on the river with.

Why are you undertaking this expedition now? 

Brooke: Right now is a super pivotal moment in the fight to save the salmon and steelhead populations of the Snake River Basin. Governor Inslee and Senator Murray of Washington are releasing their recommendation for what to do about the four Lower Snake River dams (breach or not breach) this coming July. Our hope is that we can raise enough awareness and enough motivation behind this issue that we can convince people to write to their senators and representatives in support of breaching the dams BEFORE this recommendation is made. We want this recommendation made in favor of breaching the dams!

A person stands amid large rocks and boulders, looking at a river rapid

Scouting a rapid

Libby: There is an immense amount of awareness about this issue right now; both politically, as Brooke mentioned, but also among regular people! The boiling point that the dam breaching debate has reached is thanks to a HUGE number of people and organizations. We think we have an opportunity right now to add to that momentum and draw attention to a cause that’s been gaining traction for years.

What are the biggest challenges you anticipate?

Brooke: The biggest challenge is staying motivated through the massive flatwater slog. I think the whitewater will be big and exciting, and we will love every moment of it. But once we hit the flatwater, everything is going to slow down. We will be paddling through long, flat, hot, reservoirs in eastern Washington for weeks, and I don’t foresee that being the most fun and scenic portion of the trip. There will be strong headwinds, we will get tendinitis, we will get frustrated with ourselves and each other, and we will definitely want to quit at times.

Libby: I agree with Brooke; I think the lower stretches of the journey will be hugely challenging, both physically and mentally! But I think that’s also part of the beauty of this trip: that we will struggle with some of the same challenges that the outmigrating salmon face!

What inner fire propels you forward?

Libby: I think the inner fire is hope! We have this incredible window of opportunity right now– scientists tell us that breaching the Lower Snake River dams is the most important step for protecting anadromous fish in the Snake River Basin– and there’s huge energy building towards that action! We all care deeply about the rivers in our region and know how critical salmon and steelhead are to them– and to communities throughout these watersheds!

I think the possibility of contributing to the dam breaching momentum will keep us going when things get tough. That, AND the camaraderie of this incredible team, our support crew/volunteers, and all the amazing people who have stepped up to help us get to this point.

Using recreation as a tool for raising awareness and motivating action is pretty freaking cool (at least we think so)! We hope that folks enjoy our stories from the river, but ALSO learn something through those stories– and step up to take action for this cause!