Getting the film footage documenting the 850-mile migration of salmon from the Oregon coast to central Idaho looked to be in serious jeopardy after Kris Millgate nearly destroyed her main camera 200 miles into the trip.
It happened when a gust of wind blew off her favorite grizzly bear baseball cap.
“It was the worst accident I’d ever had in my whole career,” outdoor journalist Millgate said. “At John Day Dam it was an extremely windy day.”
Millgate reached for her hat and the wind dumped her camera into the dirt, breaking key components for filming.
“I threw a fit in the dirt, I was so mad about it,” she said. “I pushed all the pieces together like a bad sandwich and duct-taped around that. I could still shoot in certain depths (of field) …. By the time I got to mile 850, it had even more duct tape on it. It fell apart like the fish do.”
Filmed last year, Millgate’s month’s-long project “Ocean to Idaho,” will premiere at the Colonial Theater in Idaho Falls at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 12. Millgate is scheduled to speak and show her film at the Friday, Aug. 27 installment of the Sawtooth Interpretive and Historical Association’s forum and lecture series at the Stanley Museum. Her presentation of “Ocean to Idaho” begins at 5 p.m.
Millgate said the film, just under half an hour long, was edited down from 25 hours of film and lays out the challenges for migrating Chinook salmon and issues surrounding the future of the endangered fish.
Millgate said the idea of following migrating salmon has been on her mind since 2016.
One thing Millgate learned from the project is the difference between how anxious Idahoans are about salmon.
“When I interviewed people in Idaho they cry,” she said. “That doesn’t happen in Oregon. They do care about what happens with salmon, but the anxiety level is different. … Idaho may be the birthplace of salmon but it is the fringe of their migration route. The fringe loses them first. That’s why the anxiety level is higher.”
For Millgate, the end of the story, when the Chinook arrive at the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River in Central Idaho, is the most emotional and continues to stick with her.
“When I got to the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River at the end of August, the fish didn’t spawn. They were late,” she said. “I left with no ending. Then they decided to spawn in September and I made an extra trip back so that I could finish when they finished. It was so worth it to get that very last mile to show everyone what happens at the very end.”
The film also shows what the Yankee Fork means to the Shoshone-Bannock tribes “and what it meant long before we developed the West and mined the Yankee Fork.”
The tiny Yankee Fork stream historically had 3,000 Chinook salmon returning annually. “In 2020, 37 fish made it back,” she said. “That’s a huge change.”
Despite the demise, Millgate remains optimistic.
“It is very uncomfortable to be witness to the disappearance of a species that’s been on our planet longer than us,” she said. “There’s not many years left. When we’re down to 37 it’s not going to take long to get to zero. I can’t imagine that day. I don’t want it to come. I don’t think it will come. Humanity is above that. We’ve done it for bald eagles, we’re doing it for grizzly bears, we will do it for salmon.”