In this pool in the Cooper River, they hover over the gravel. They are sockeye salmon. Sometimes they let go and drift with the current, then with a tail flip they dart back upstream. But mostly they hang there in the water, resting. Male sockeye in spawning colors are red, with olive green heads. Some have a white growth on their backs, as if they start to decay before they are dead. The hen fish are olive green.
Every little kid growing up in Washington in the 1960s saw the movies, film projector rattling and flickering at the back of the classroom. The story of how these amazing fish are born in the swift clear rivers, and are carried out to sea by spring floods. They live in the ocean for two or three years, eating and growing. Then, mysteriously, they are called back to the rivers of their birth, to spawn and die. The eggs stay in the gravel until they hatch. The tiny smolts grow a few inches long, feeding on the nutrients provided by their parents’ bodies. The cycle repeats. Stories were told of fish so numerous in the creeks that a person could cross on their backs and not get their feet wet. Or how if you wanted to catch some, you just scooped them out with a pitchfork. And of course we all knew how important salmon were to the native cultures.
I never saw that many. By the time I came along, the great runs were in trouble. Heavy logging along streams put silt in the spawning gravel. The fishing industry flourished. Dams on the Columbia River impeded the return of the adult fish, and churned the outgoing smolts into little pieces. Unscreened irrigation diversions sent their little bodies into agricultural fields. “Roll on Columbia, roll on,” we sang in school, celebrating mankind’s progress. Most of the salmon I saw were the ones going by the window at the fish ladders on the big dams.
But they’re coming back. Slow and steady efforts by the Yakama Nation and other government agencies are bringing the salmon back to tributaries of the Columbia. I don’t know the full story of the fish I saw today, only that they weren’t born here. They were trucked in from another place. Their progeny will be born in these waters, and will never forget. When they finish their years in the ocean, they will come back here to spawn.
Seeing these wild fish where I have never seen them before was a sort of spiritual experience. Salmon belong here. They are part of the landscape in a fundamental way. How can the Pacific Northwest not have salmon? I am excited to finally see the fish that I knew about as a kid. Are they back from the brink of extinction? Maybe. After today, I have hope.