The cohos' baptism in this far-flung river marks the end of one journey and the beginning of another — an attempt to restore a lost species to a tribe and to a region.
The fish, raised by state wildlife officials in a hatchery outside Portland, were trucked 300 miles inland in nine water tanker trucks equipped with highly sensitive oxygen and temperature sensors and a bubbling system that mimics a river's current. Now in the Lostine River, they must turn around and swim 600 miles to the Pacific Ocean over the next month and then swim home after a year and a half in the Pacific Ocean feeding and growing.
Biologists expect to see the adult fish returning to this remote corner of the state next fall.
Coho salmon once numbered 20,000 here each year and were part of a rich tribal tradition for the Nez Perce. The tribe was driven from this part of Oregon by the U.S. government more than a century ago, but its members consider the species critical to their history and have fought for years to bring back the reddish, hook-nosed fish.
Numbers of coho declined throughout the 20th century due to pollution, human impacts on their habitat, overfishing and the construction of hydroelectric dams that impeded their progress upstream.
The Nez Perce successfully reintroduced coho salmon into the Clearwater River in Idaho in the mid-1990s. The program was so successful that Idaho permitted non-tribal fishing of coho during one season a few years ago, said Michael Bisbee Jr., coho project leader for the Nez Perce. The tribe hopes to repeat the Idaho project's success in Oregon.
"If we could get at least 800 total adults back from this release in a couple years here, that would be outstanding," Bisbee said Thursday, as he awaited the salmons' arrival. "I'm super excited. The tribe's been working on getting coho back here into Oregon for a long time and we're minutes away from making history."
As the fish waited in the truck under a steady rain, tribal leader Axtell welcomed them with a blessing and a traditional traveling song.
He then rang a bell three times, turned in a circle and watched with emotion as state wildlife workers poured the young fish into the current.
The juvenile fish are being released at a critical point in their life cycle when they learn to recognize their home region before leaving for the Pacific Ocean. Their bodies also are changing so they can survive in saltwater.
They face a long and perilous journey. The baby salmon must pass through several rivers before reaching the giant Columbia River and swimming into the ocean. Along the way, they must navigate hungry birds and sea lions, anglers and the hydraulic dams that power much of the Pacific Northwest and break up the highway of water they rely upon.
By the time the bulk of them return, the tiny fish will be more than 2 feet long and weigh up to 10 pounds.
"We'll be lucky if half of the fish we release even get to the ocean, and in the ocean only 2 or 3 percent will survive," said Becky Johnson, division director for hatchery programs with the Nez Perce tribe. "We would be really happy to get 1 percent of those 500,000 fish back. It would be even good if we got half a percent back."
Even such small numbers would be enough to start a renewed connection for the Nez Perce with their own lost home, said Axtell.
Multiple attempts to reintroduce coho salmon to the basin over the past century have failed.
But fish biologists, backed with lessons learned and the latest hatchery techniques, believe this time will be different.
"Just to play a small role in that legacy is really encouraging for me," said Jeff Yanke, a fish biologist with Oregon's wildlife agency. "I hope my kids and grandkids will be able to catch these fish and say that their dad and grandpa played a small role in making this happen."