The first wave of rain has swept in on an incoming tide of moisture off the Pacific Ocean, ushering in the season of gray. Forget 50 Shades! Here in the Pacific Northwest we specialize in gray, November through June, from platinum mist draped over trees to graphite storm clouds, and every shade in between.
The light of Summer may have faded but not all is gloom this time of year. Fall rains send a pulse of cold, oxygenated water down the depleted, sun-warmed creeks signaling the return of salmon. Today, a break in the rain prompts me to don boots and investigate. I stand on a bridge over the creek, gazing into water the color of liquid peat. Reflected light from a watery sun makes it hard to see, so I push my way through sodden vegetation, a pungent smell of rotting leaves and mud, to the creek side.
I hear the salmon before I see it splashing through the shallows, sleek muscular back exposed above the surface. With a determined flick of its tail, it half swims, half crawls snake like across the gravel into the deeper pool below my feet.
The vibrant spawning colors, red body, green head and tail of the sockeye salmon gives it a festive look. On closer inspection, I can see tatters of scaly skin trailing like streamers from its body. I begin to make out the shapes of more sockeye through patterns of light and shade rippling across the surface of the water.
A loud splashing! I look downstream in time to see a Chinook salmon muscle its way across the shallows, chasing the sockeye out of the calmer waters of the pool. Three feet long, at least twice the length of the sockeye, with hooked jaw and sharp teeth, I can see why the salmon relinquished its resting spot to this impressive looking Chinook. His sides are speckled, somewhat coppery.
These salmon hatched from eggs laid in the gravel of this stream around 7 years ago. As young salmon they made their way through Lake Washington, Puget Sound and out to the Pacific Ocean where they swam, some as far as Japanese coastal waters, feeding on smaller fish, and, avoiding being on the menu for a host of predators. Eventually, following a biological impulse to return to the Pacific Northwest, they navigate their way by unique signature scent chemicals in the water, to their natal creek where they will spawn and die.
Clearly, from their appearance the journey is tough. The transition from salt to freshwater results in chemical changes, making them susceptible to fungal infections. At this point they are no longer feeding. Their sole intent is to swim upstream, past natural or human created obstacles, and would-be hungry predators: bears, eagles, otters, raccoons, to name a few. Once they reach their spawning grounds, the females lay eggs to be fertilized by the males. The pair will guard their redd, the gravel nest of eggs, until they die, their decomposing carcasses enriching the stream system and providing food for the baby salmon that will hatch in the spring.
This annual cycle of birth, death and renewal has taken place for the last 12,000 years, when the glaciers covering this area during the Ice Age started to melt, leaving in their wake lakes and streams for salmon to colonize.
Historical accounts of this region 100 years ago, describe a press of returning salmon so great you could almost walk across the streams and rivers on the backs of fish. A few years ago on a trip to Alaska, we visited the Anan Creek Bear Observatory, south of Wrangell, to see black and brown bears that congregate to feed on the large numbers of pink salmon returning to spawn. In late summer the Anan is transformed into a river of fish by the incoming tide of salmon, water and fish blending into a seamless current.
Scientists describe salmon as a keystone species critical to the healthy functioning of wetland, forest and marine ecosystems. Living in salt and fresh water, they’re not only an important food source, they also cycle nutrients between marine and forested wetland ecosystems. Their decomposing carcasses provide a vital injection of nutrients into the streams, rivers and soils, benefiting plants and animals. Evidence of this nutrient exchange can be seen in traces of ocean derived chemical elements, marine isotopes, found in forest plants growing far from the ocean,
Watching the salmon runs in my local creek, I’m reminded these are remnant populations of the salmon that once spawned here 100 years ago.The challenges that have impacted salmon numbers are often referred to as the 4 H’s: over Harvesting, Hatcheries, Habitat degradation and destruction, dams built to generate Hydroelectric power. And yes! We mustn’t forget the 5th H in this puzzle: Humans. We are largely responsible for the problems facing salmon stocks yet we can be part of the solution. Surely our human qualities of tenacity and resourcefulness are mirrored in the survival instincts of salmon! We know enough to act, given the will. Humans and salmon depend upon healthy water: by protecting salmon we are provisioning our future.
Gazing at the salmon I slip into a naturalist’s trance, that perpetual state of awe and wonder of Earth’s bounty. Perhaps the key to our future, the future of the salmon, the future of the planet, depends upon our ability to see the extraordinary in the exquisitely ordinary, everyday patterns of life.