THE MATTOLE RIVER starts out as a small stream in northern Mendocino County, California, and heads northwest until it runs into the Pacific Ocean 10 miles south of Cape Mendocino. The oldest surviving inhabitants of the Mattole watershed are the native salmon that spawn here.
According to Native legend, handed down by the Sinkyone Indians who lived along the Mattole until they were wiped out by white settlers in the 1860s, an agreement was made between the salmon and the Indians that allowed them to feed on the salmon as long as their home in the river was kept intact. And the salmon remained a totem to the native people.
Soon after World War II, the housing boom that "built California" brought a flood of loggers into Northern California who were looking for virgin stands of Douglas fir trees. Most of the conifer forest along the Mattole was stripped in search of the high-value hardwood.
While the impact of the logging was immediately evident in the visible devastation of the forest -- local pilots would later call the area along the upper Mattole "the big scar" -- it would take years for the damage to the river and the salmon to be noticed. But the erosion from bulldozer logging and the construction of hundreds of miles of logging roads along the slopes of the Mattole brought the salmon population -- its habitat severely degraded -- to the brink of extinction.
The California Department of Fish and Game at one point essentially wrote off any chances of the river -- and the salmon -- returning; but local residents who live along the Mattole refused to accept that conclusion. In 1982, they started using a simple "hatchbox" technique developed by residents of salmon watersheds in Alaska, and the delicate process of the restoration of the Mattole salmon had begun.