Just east of Glacier, at the Horseshoe Bend trailhead, an adventurous group stands around Zach Bursell, a passionate NSEA River Steward. With the boat unloaded and the Nooksack roaring, the rafters fidget with paddles and cinch life jacket straps. But they quickly realize this isn’t any old safety speech. Bursell catches their attention when he describes how they’ll share this river with thousands and thousands of salmon. “Cold, clear, consistent and connected. That’s how salmon like their water.” The rafters get it, because that’s what they want too. Rafting is no fun when the boat scrapes the bottom, or when you can only dowse your friend with a tepid paddle splash.
River Stewards work with over 300 rafters per year just like this crew. In the last miles of a salmon’s epic homecoming – back from the Gulf of Alaska to their waters of birth – paddlers thrashing through resting pools or redds (salmon nests) can be a source of stress. As a precaution, rafting season ends when federally-threatened chinook salmon start spawning in early-mid August. This charges the rafting experience with meaning and possibility, and by learning the salmon’s behaviors and anticipating their arrival, rafters become keen and vital lookouts for those special first fish.
This kind of watchfulness is what US Forest Service (USFS) biologist Brady Green hoped for when he rallied to start the River Stewards program in 2005. As visitors flocked to places like the Horseshoe Bend trail, Nooksack Falls and their three nearby campgrounds, Green and his colleague Scott Lentz began to see eroding streambanks, irresponsible campers and salmon poaching become cause for concern.
While the USFS lacked the time, staff or funding to police every incident, Green found an ally in the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA), who was thrilled by his idea to build a volunteer internship program protecting the Nooksack’s uppermost salmon headwaters. As a nonprofit organization, NSEA had earned local respect for their engaging, grassroots approach to salmon education that informs and inspires people wherever salmon swim.
NSEA’s Executive Director Rachel Vasak (who served as Program Director at the time) tried many sites and strategies for learning in those first years, but she knew that she wanted to create hands-on experiences that would feed visitor curiosities and be carried downstream or shared with others. By 2007, when NSEA honed in on series of family-friendly walks and talks along the Nooksack’s North Fork, things started to gel. Conservation leaders thought so too. That year the program earned national recognition with the USFS’s prestigious “Rise to the Future” Award that honors fish and watershed stewardship on national forests.
Rafting talks are one small component of what River Stewards offer and NSEA’s Program Coordinator Kendra Krantz has assured an impressive 2017 lineup. Of the six River Stewards Krantz will hire for the summer, at least two will be stationed at the USFS’s Glacier Public Service Center every Friday-Sunday from June 23 to September 23, ready to greet the hordes stopping in for water, information, backcountry permits or bathroom breaks. And every Saturday at 3 p.m. (with some 11 a.m. Sundays), River Stewards will lead public walks on the Horseshoe Bend trail to showcase native plants, salmon ecology and tests for water quality and macroinvertebrates.
Other River Steward programs occur only a few times per summer but not because they’re less fun! Two favorites include the fireside talks at Douglas Fir Campground and the Salish Stories event at Chair 9, where salmon books and tales are shared for children of all ages (both of these events provide S’mores!). This year River Stewards will also be hosting the second annual Fishtival, where the Maple Creek Picnic Shelter at Silver Lake Park turns into a frenzy of crafts, games and fun. And because 2017 is a “pink year” – when pink salmon make their late summer, biennial return to these waters – River Stewards will host Salmon Sighting events near Glacier, at the Thompson Creek bridge.
With nearly five million Puget Sounders and two million metro-Vancouverites just a short drive away, the Mount-Baker Snoqualmie National Forest may well be the most visited national forest in the country. That’s why the USFS continues to see the River Stewards as a vital partner advancing the Leave No Trace ethics that respect the needs of salmon and their habitat. That means thinking twice before taking wood out of the river, building rock dams or letting dogs romp through a pool full of fish on their last (or first) days of life. But while striving to minimize impact to the salmon’s epic life cycle, River Stewards ensure that conserving fish and healthy waters remains fun, and that nature leaves a big impact on people.