South Sounders, don’t miss the spectacle that is the Return of the Salmon

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.” — “The Outermost House,” Henry Beston, 1928.

November is upon us. The autumn rains are here. Out in the saltwater, hidden from view, the chum salmon are coming home, returning to the streams of their birth after an extraordinary journey.

Most of them left our South Sound streams three or four years ago. Some of them may have traveled as much as 18,000 miles in that time, mostly in the Gulf of Alaska.

We buy salmon at the grocery; it’s listed on local restaurant menus. What we may fail to appreciate is that the wild fish are animals with almost unimaginable capabilities.

Chum salmon hatch in the clean gravels of our local streams, then find their way as tiny fry to estuaries where their bodies go through a profound change. They somehow shift from living in freshwater to a saltwater existence, a change that would kill many other organisms. Then, as they grow, they swim to the open ocean.

“In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” — Beston

In that journey north, they grow as predators, competing for food and survival. They in turn are prey. That hidden world in which they exist gives no quarter. But some of them survive. Then their instincts call them home.

Can we imagine an animal that uses the earth’s magnetic field for navigation? Can we grasp sensing the waters of our birth by chemical signature? Can we fathom the strength in a cold-blooded creature that can power through thousands of ocean miles?

Now — in the rains of autumn — they are arriving for the last drama of their remarkable lives. They feed no longer, living on the energy stored within their tissues. They wait in the estuaries for the streams to flow strong with new rains. They surge up the channels, back into freshwater, searching for the place they will die. Their bodies change shape and color, their organs change size as the eggs ripen in the females.

The female selects the place for this final act. She excavates the gravel with her body, using the strong tail fin that powered her here to excavate the nest. The males fight for position, to dominate, to be the one to fertilize the precious eggs within seconds of the act of deposition. The cycle repeats as the female digs more nests, lays more eggs. In her last days she guards this place against all others until she dies.

As the run progresses, spent carcasses litter the streams. Each body is a gift of nutrients for the watershed, feeding both animals and plants, enriching the diversity of the entire drainage. Of the 3,000 or so eggs laid by each returning chum, perhaps two adult fish survive to complete this cycle.

“They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” — Beston

In South Sound, we have the opportunity to witness this drama close to home. While many area streams host runs of salmon, two places nearby provide excellent viewing of native chum salmon during November.

McLane Creek Nature Trail: This Department of Natural Resources site off Delphi Road has trails and viewing platforms along the creek and it’s open daily. Thurston County Stream Team volunteers are on hand from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on November weekends to answer your questions. Bring your Discover Pass.

Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail: This site off US Highway 101 between Olympia and Shelton features an easy path along Kennedy Creek. The trail is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on November weekends through Dec. 1 as well as on Nov. 11 and 29. Volunteer docents are on hand. No permit required. See the spsseg.org website for detailed directions.

If you visit these sites, go with the spirit of Henry Beston’s words. Open your mind and your heart to this remarkable spectacle. If you can, bring young people to view the salmon. Let them find that this earth is full of such wonders.

If they can see for themselves the beauty and the mystery of the “other nations” that share this planet, perhaps we can inspire the future stewards of this region we call our home.

Cleve Pinnix is a retired State Parks Commission director, a Panorama resident, and a member of The Olympian’s 2019 Board of Contributors. Reach him at cfp.ranger44@gmail.com.