This time of year has me thinking about homecomings. Crowds making long, sometimes perilous journeys home. Fighting for space on choked throughways, overcoming obstacles, finally, hopefully reaching their birthplace.
I am not describing people traveling home for the holidays. I am describing an icon of our Pacific Northwest, a species so ubiquitous in our culture, our children’s books, our lore, and our diets that it’s easy to forget what a miracle they are. The salmon. Pink, coho, chum, Chinook, sockeye…even their names are musical and mysterious. My family rituals during fall and early winter always include at least one trip to observe these incredible fish at one of our local viewing spots.
It is something to see a salmon migration. To watch big Chinook herded by doe-eyed harbor seals at the Capitol Lake weir, then spy them at the base of pounding Tumwater Falls, circling and waiting for the right signal to try their luck at the fish ladder leading up to the hatchery where they were raised. Or watch wild chum jockeying for position, thrashing in the impossibly shallow waters of Kennedy Creek as shrieking gulls dive in for escaped pink eggs that will never lie safe in the sediment. We smell them before we see them as we hike on the McLane Creek nature trail, carcasses fertilizing the soil, feeding ravens and raccoons. If you live here, you’ve seen them. And if you haven’t, you should.
In my family, we are drawn to these spectacles. Understanding what we are seeing, that these few hundred fish in any given stream are the lucky ones who survived growing up in less-than crystalline waters near our cities, dodged seals, orcas and fish hooks in the ocean, and somehow, after a year or more, made it back to the place they first emerged from their tiny eggs. It could be that they started life after being unceremoniously cut from their mother’s belly and combined with their father’s milt by a guy wearing waders in a concrete hatchery. But no less brutal is the origin story of a mother thrashing out a nest in a packed streambed, laying her eggs and then guarding them as long as she can while slowly dying.
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I don’t shield my children from the brutality of either salmon beginning. And I don’t see fear or disgust in their eyes when they see it. What I see in their eyes is wonder. A salmon spawn can be painful to watch, and chaotic, but strangely mesmerizing. A salmon stream in full spawn is something full of mystery and improbability, energy, tragedy, and beauty.
I argue that we love our salmon, and we are indeed moved by these things. I could allow myself to get depressed about the backlog of thousands of poorly designed culverts and other fish passage barriers across the state, and the untold miles of salmon habitat they wall off. Instead I am choosing to see salmon as a potential success story of humans working together to fix our past mistakes.I remember that we humans took down huge dams for these fish on the Elwha River not too long ago, and the Chinook are already back. We blew up giant, hulking concrete dams that we paid quite a bit to put there in the first place. We don’t need those dams anymore, or at least, we need the salmon more.
As with any species heading in a downward spiral, we humans have the amazing ability to turn the course around by taking bold action. Banning DDT for the bald eagle. Ending the capture of orcas for aquariums. Letting old growth stand for the spotted owl. Reintroducing wolves. We literally can move mountains when we want to. It is never easy, it is always costly, and somebody always hates the idea.
But it can happen. I wonder what lucky creature is next? The species that sit at the popular table seem to be the ones with an industry that depends on them, are valued as symbols or cultural icons, or were the subject of a really good Disney movie. (Good luck, pocket gopher and Giant palouse earthworm.)
We have a long road ahead with the salmon, for certain. But we humans have sent people to space. We can certainly bring some more fish back home.
Jennifer Davis is an environmental planner and writer. She is a member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.