Boots on the Ground: Salmon carcasses make a splash in Chiwawa River

This is my first year as an AmeriCorps member with the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC). I serve on a “spike crew” — or travel assignment crew —  based out of Wenatchee.

Kevin Wooldridge wears a yellow hard hat and stands in front of a blue WCC truck holding the top of a grub hoe.

WCC AmeriCorps member Kevin Wooldridge during his first month of service. Photo by Kelly Gilchrist.

Day one: meeting my new crew

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and recently lived in New York City. I moved back to Washington this summer to be closer to family. I enjoy working outdoors and even once operated a smolt trap, so I knew WCC would be a good fit. Now, I’m just one month into the position but I believe the  networking opportunities and hands-on experiences with our state, federal, and non-profit partners will help me decide if I want to pursue a career in the environmental field.

I met my fellow AmeriCorps members in Wenatchee on our first day of service, and we prepared for our first project on the Chiwawa River. Kelly Gilchrist, my crew supervisor,  and fellow crew members Khalil English, Rilea Dills, Chance Smith, and Bailey Haller are all awesome people with unique personalities. I look forward to serving alongside them. Since our first project was a spike, WCC provides food and lodging. So we got to stop along the way to purchase groceries. Then we headed out to meet the team from Cascade Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group (CFEG), our partner organization for our first project.

Project orientation: Chiwawa River gets a nutrient boost

Our task during the first half of October was adding marine-derived nutrients into the Chiwawa River. This meant tossing in thousands of pounds of salmon carcasses compressed into pellets (also called analogs)! As the analogs decompose, they return nutrients to the river. As insects move in to eat the pellets, they in turn become an excellent food source for juvenile salmon. Before we started unloading bags of stinky salmon pellets from a trailer into several truck beds, CFEG Executive Director Jason Lundgren gave us a brief introduction into what we would be doing and why. As we drove to the five-mile reach of the upper Chiwawa River where we would be applying the salmon analogs, I was impressed by the breathtaking mountains, crisp air, and fall colors. I had never been to the area before and even in the cold and rain it was easy to get distracted by all the sheer beauty that surrounded us.

At least five people wearing camouflage waders step into a river carrying large white bags around their necks.

CCFEG and WCC team up to carry heavy bags of salmon analogs through the Chiwawa River before dumping them in.

“For the fish!” we all chimed in before hauling the 50-pound pound salmon pellet bags through a mile-long obstacle course of thick brush and fallen trees to access the riverside. We made trip after trip, stacking bags near the river until the trucks were empty. We then donned waders and made our way to different spots in the river, being careful to avoid areas with salmon egg nests — or redds. Some of the treatment spots required we wade long distances up or downstream, which was tiring but so much fun! The last step was cutting open the bags and pouring the nutrients evenly into the Chiwawa.

Prioritizing safety on the daily

Although we did not know exactly what to expect on our first project, we knew what precautions to take along the way. It was important to wear enough layers and have extra socks handy on rainy, cold days to keep warm. Our strenuous activities also meant it was crucial to drink enough water and consume plenty of calories. To prevent accidents, we also had to be extremely careful how we placed our feet in the river. Although these seem like basic safety measures, being mindful of them was important to successfully complete the project.

By the second week, we were experts in hauling those stinky bags around. We learned the best way to carry them, cut them open, and effectively dump the pellets in the water. We knew all the trails to the river by heart and were prepared to face any weather. We dispersed a total of 42,000 pounds of salmon analogs into the Chiwawa River!  Because we were ahead of schedule, some of us got the opportunity to help Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with electrofishing, a fun learning experience. Electrofishing is a common technique used to sample fish populations. Biologists deliver an electrical charge into a body of water to temporarily stun and collect the fish, record data, then release the unharmed fish back into the water.

Inspiration and bonding

Four AmeriCorps members and a crew supervisor stand shoulder to shoulder in a line. They are wearing blue WCC sweatshirts.
L to R: Kelly Gilchrist, Bailey Haller, Kevin Wooldridge, Rilea Dills, Chance Smith (not pictured Khalil English).

I was inspired by CFEG staff members’ passion, drive, and ability to face adversity head on every day. The life of an environmentalist can be uncertain, and it is admirable these people are doing all they can to help save local wildlife. Everyone seemed to love the work, and their passion was contagious. The feeling of being part of something larger than myself kept me going when the cold or fatigue hit. I want to give a huge “thank you” to CFEG for their hard work, and making our first project experience memorable.

This project was so much more than just dumping pellets into the river. I got the opportunity to spend quality time with my fellow AmeriCorps members! Making communal dinners, playing cards and video games, and sharing stories next to the warm fireplace after a long day outdoors made everything so much better. Being able to share the experience together was one of the best parts of the Chiwawa River Nutrient Enhancement Project.