Saving a River’s Soul And Inspiring My Own

By Mitchell Clute

Salmon leaping upriver as they return to their long-blocked headwaters. Tribal elders mourning the lost traditions of their ancestral fishing grounds. The first rush of water storming downstream as a dam is demolished.

More than any of the facts, figures or cogent arguments presented in the new documentary film DamNation—available on Netflix—it’s these powerful images that make the strongest case for revitalizing our rivers.

DamNation—created by filmmakers Ben Knight, Travis Rummel and Matt Stoecker, and funded by outdoor apparel company Patagonia—is not a balanced film, with a step-by-step timeline and dueling pro-and-con talking heads. It’s livelier than that, crafted more to inspire action than to foster debate. From the film’s perspective, the facts are already out on the table, and they speak for themselves.

With tens of thousands of dams cutting across our riverways—many of them without any purpose relating to power generation, navigation or flood control, the three primary functions of such structures—there’s no question that dams can cause problems. Yes, DamNation is an argument against dams, but that’s not where its greatest power lies. It’s also a celebration—a celebration of rivers, of the creatures that inhabit them, and of the people who bring their passion and energy to protect and revitalize them.

In fact, the film’s most potent moments are also its most entertaining, abounding in larger-than-life personalities. There’s the feisty Katie Lee, a 94-year-old folksinger, activist and author of All My Rivers Are Gone, who describes stonescapes of Glen Canyon—now lost beneath the waters of Lake Powell—with a passion and vigor that belie her age. There’s Mikal Jakubal, a 48-year-old documentary filmmaker who was an Earth First! activist in his youth. With joyful exuberance, he describes how he painted a giant crack on the face of the Glines Canyon Dam back in 1987 as an anonymous act of civil disobedience. Back then, the idea of removing a dam was radical; now the Glines Canyon Dam is gone, and the Elwha River runs free again.

Numbers tell their own stories. It means something that salmon populations on the Columbia and Snake Rivers are only 8 percent of their historic numbers, or that each year the Glen Canyon Dam traps 100 million tons or sediment, or that Snake River salmon must navigate four dams on their 900-mile journey home.

But stories go deeper than numbers ever can. The Native American author Sherman Alexie described the salmon as the Eucharist of the Northwest tribes. It’s no wonder then that watching the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe welcome back the first salmon run in fifty years is an image of haunting beauty. A river brought back to life, a people reclaiming their culture—seeing the living power of that story makes the Glines Canyon Dam seem no more than a momentary mirage, a blip in the long history of a wild river.

After watching the film, I paid a visit to the banks of my own wild river, the Cache la Poudre, which flows from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park down the Poudre Canyon and through my hometown of Fort Collins, meeting the South Platte on Colorado’s eastern plains. Seventy-six miles of its course are designated wild and scenic; its whitewater is a magnet for rafters and kayakers, while calmer stretches draw fly fishermen in droves.

Yet for years, the river’s advocates have fought plans for a proposed reservoir that would divert its spring flows. Gazing at its silver surface in the last days of autumn, I vowed that I would do all I could to make sure its untamed waters remain protected, for my children and all the generations to come.


Find out more and download the film at