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Ocean to Idaho: Documentary tracks the 850-mile journey of chinook salmon

"I wanna show everybody every mile of the river route for salmon," Kriss Millgate said. "And what salmon mean to everyone who lives and works along that route."

BOISE, Idaho — With warming waters, droughts and dams, the plight Pacific salmon face in the Northwest is leading to shrinking populations. That prompted one outdoor journalist to tell the tale of the chinook salmon.

In 2016, Kriss Millgate saw her first salmon in Idaho's Yankee Fork, a tributary of the Salmon River, but it wasn't the animal's natural beauty that caught her eye.

"It was the first time I'd seen a chinook and I thought to myself 'it's a swimming corpse and it looks terrible," she told The 208. "What on earth does this fish go through to get back to Idaho and wouldn't it be cool to show everyone what that looks like."

Those questions spawned Millgate's project.

"We're following the migration route of threatened and endangered salmon. It's a doozy of a road trip -- 850 miles, one way!" she said in a promo of the documentary, which she called "Ocean to Idaho."

"I wanna show everybody every mile of the river route for salmon," Millgate said. "And what salmon mean to everyone who lives and works along that route."

For more than three months, through the pandemic summer of 2020, Millgate interviewed 17 people, shot 25 hours of video, followed fish by raft for 80 miles and put more than 4,600 miles on her camper truck -- all by herself.

"The fact that a fish leaves Idaho and is the size of your finger, goes to the ocean and grows, and then comes back to Idaho when it's longer than your whole arm, that is fascinating," she said. "And the fact that a fish is built to swim 850 miles to make it back to where it was born, lay eggs, then die, turning its crib into its grave, that's remarkable."

Millgate explained the chinook salmon's journey from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean has drastically changed over the last 100 years.

"Salmon that swim from the ocean to Idaho go through eight major dams to make it back home," she said. "No matter how many ladders you put in and how many other things you do to try and help salmon, it's still a contentious point because salmon aren't making it back."

According to Millgate, historically, 3,000 salmon make it to the Yankee Fork and she followed them home in 2020, only 37 chinooks make the trip.

"It's easy to point fingers in every direction and say 'well, take the dams out' well that's easier said than done," she said. "You have to realize what's at stake when we do that but you also have to realize what's at stake if we leave them in."

Millgate took her 25 hours of video to Idaho Falls, where she's based, and widdled the footage down to a 26-minute documentary over the course of seven months.

"Ocean to Idaho" will be screened at the Egyptian Theater in downtown Boise on Thursday at 7 p.m. More information about the film is also available here.

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