I love salmon. I see so many images. Single words queue entire stories in my mind: wild, totem, heroic, sustenance, powerful, continuum, miraculous, keystone, tireless, beautiful. There is the biologic and the scientific, but here I offer songs that are more like the romantic, taken mostly from the perspective of the salmon, a narrative stronger than words.
1. The Kelp Forest
Relatively little is known about the lives of salmon at sea where, depending on the species, they will have spent one to five years. The salmon from different river systems intermingle, sometimes traveling thousands of miles in the open ocean, fattening themselves up before converging once again at the mouths of the rivers from which they came. They may wait for weeks at the mouth, until fall rains come and instinct tells them it is time to return.
2. That Click You Hear When the Two Ends of the Cycle of Life Finally Meet
And so the salmon begin their charge upstream. Of the millions of species of fish that inhabit the earth's waters, only a handful are anadromous, leaving fresh water for the salty sea in their youth. Their bodies mysteriously adapt to the abrupt change in salinity. When they return to those inland streams to breed, they stop eating. Their bodies begin a slow decay and actually morph as teeth are exposed, noses become hooked, coloration changes, and humps may form. The river becomes charged with their energy.
The salmon's upstream march continues. Before European contact, rivers would roil with their return. There are tales of horses balking at stepping foot in rivers so teeming with huge runs of fish. As they swim on, they burn their fat reserves from a life at sea. One salmon migration on the Yukon River stretches over 3200 miles, while the trek to Idaho's Snake River has a gain in elevation of over one mile.
4. Old Growth
A salmon stronghold represents a watershed supported by an entire ecosystem. And a healthy stream begins with a healthy forest. As rainfall and snowmelt trickle into rivulets, creeks and streams, it is the tall trees that secure the soil, provide shade to cool the water and support lush undergrowth that keeps the streams clear and free of sediment. Here, then, is a celebration of the virgin forest.
5. Hell's Gate
The classic image of salmon determination is seeing muscular bodies wiggle through the air as they leap up waterfalls. Rapids, rocks, turbulence. . . The banks of rivers may narrow and cause a forceful current, sometimes dubbed "hell's gate." Many will perish in the attempt, but the strength of all those who pass the gauntlet has been infused into the species for millions of years..
6. Pisces at Night
To aboriginal man, the salmon were larger than life. Since time immemorial salmon had been making their inland runs of bounty. As a keystone species, their bodies provided nourishment for all manner of birds, mammals, insects and other fish. Even the trees of the forest eventually benefited from the nutrients brought from the sea in a grand food chain. In myth and legend man cast salmon into the sky, swimming through the Milky Way.
7. Of Silt & Algae
Industrial logging practices like clear cutting and road building cause sediment to run off the hillsides into the river. This silt clogs the pebble riverbeds in which salmon would otherwise lay their eggs. Dams are insurmountable barriers to upstream migration. The lakes created behind dams raise water temperatures above levels salmon can tolerate. They also cause toxic algae blooms. Sadly, the fish often find themselves at such a dead end in a valiant but hopeless attempt to continue. Because of this, in a little more than a century, salmon populations have been drastically reduced and have even disappeared from many river systems.
8. Natal Stream
Salmon spawning does not generally occur in the main stream of a river, with its larger boulders and rocks and its strong current. They lay their eggs in the smaller streams and rivulets that feed the river. The miracle of salmon migration culminates as they finally reach their childhood stomping grounds. There is love in the water.
9. Working Her Tail Off
Salmon must endure a long, slow death. From the time they enter fresh water they begin to decay. This is particularly evident in the females. Just before spawning, she digs a nest or "redd" in the gravel bed of the stream. She does this by turning on her side and thrashing to create a depression. Her tail may appear white because the skin has literally been worn off, perhaps even revealing her bones. This is the final preparation for spawning, and it is a time of great anticipation.
10. Quivering Silver
The male and female will finally pair off and hover above the redd. They both hold their mouths open to steady themselves in the current. He will wiggle and while she deposits eggs, he will be slightly upstream and release the milt that will fertilize them. This is the kind of sterile description that might be found in a biology text. The romantic, on the other hand, would say that their mouths are agape in ecstasy as he quivers to excite his lover.
11. Spawned Out
There is still some tidying to do. The redd will be covered loosely with gravel to protect the eggs, and the salmon may guard the redd from predators in what days or hours remain of their lives. But they are now relieved of their earthly burden---Mission: Accomplished!
12. And the Weary Now Shall Rest
The salmon's body drifts listlessly in the water. This conjures up the rather inglorious image of salmon on the rocky shore, jaws gasping desperately for life. But just think of the serenity they must feel, knowing they have succeeded. What a satisfying and dignified death.
13. River Phoenix
The incubation period for the eggs will vary from weeks to months, depending on species, water temperature and oxygen content, and probably a hundred other factors. The alevin will emerge with egg sack still attached. They are a new generation of orphans, genetically programmed to make the epic journey out to sea and back. The torch is now theirs to carry.