Why Care About Salmon and Steelhead?

Apr 22, 2011
Why are salmon and steelhead important enough to rate our attention? The answer combines elements of classic tragedy, wild hope, and maybe a little magic.

The sun had dropped behind the dark pines across the little lake. There was just enough silvery light to see a shadow shape standing at the edge of the water.  The tip of his cigarette glowed like a garnet.  I watched my father cast and cast again, his arm rising and falling, the smoke from his cigarette curling up into the mountain air.

I would have been six or nine or thirteen. The rock on which I sat was still warm from the July day. It was granite, old, old Adirondack stone - but I would learn that many years later.  I’d watch till my dad reeled in his last cast and walked toward me.  Sometimes there were fish; more often not.  If there were, we would take them to the kitchen of the little cabin and I would clean them.

In the morning, my mother would dust the fish with cornmeal - the bass, the perch - fry them and we would eat the best breakfast I knew.  We would tell the story of Old Monster, the huge muskelonge that drifted slow as time in the little lake.  We had never seen him.  No one had ever hooked him.  But we knew, as we swallowed the last bites of buttery fish, that he was there.

I would take the bones down to the dock and scatter them in the water.  I’d lie on my belly on the weathered planks and watch.  One by one, brown fish would move in, hang suspended in water clear as mountain air.  I would think of Old Monster and the mystery of all that was not human.

I am seventy-one.  The mystery lives in me, perhaps the only magic left after seven decades of watching too much of the natural world destroyed.  It has been a gift to write here and to know that the Land Trust is both a receptacle and a protector of mystery - and a group of people who know why one might care about salmon and steelhead and, thus, care about mystery.

In the words of Rod Bonacker, Land Trust Board Member :
        “...folks asked the “so what” question about why steelhead are important enough to rate our attention...It is a valid question, and I thought I’d take a stab at an answer.

Our big sea-going fish, particularly chinook salmon and steelhead, are the iconic animal of the Northwest. Like bears in Alaska, moose in Canada, wolves in Yellowstone Park, or whales in Hawaii, people identify salmon with our little part of the world. For over 10,000 years they sustained the native peoples of the Columbia River basin, providing a level of plenty and comfort that allowed the development and flowering of one of the more complex cultures in the world.
Native Americans sometimes called the salmon “lightning following one another” Their journeys from the ocean up the hundreds of miles of dammed and poisoned rivers is breath-taking and heroic. Their return to the waters where they were born, to spawn a new generation and die, is classic tragedy and wild hope combined.

To many people of modern cultures, those values remain. Additionally, as salmon and their home streams become ever more scarce, these fish represent our memories of better times past. And now, when there is a real chance for their return to our community, in a river that we once turned our back on, it is cause for celebration, and an opportunity to share the story of how we made it happen in our town.”

The fish and the rivers that carry them fascinate me.  I found a book at Dudley’s our little local used bookstore.  The title leaped out and immediately hooked me:  Ricochet River.  The author, Robin Cody, echoes Rod Bonacker’s words:

"The only thing that rings Link’s bell in a religious kind of way is the annual run of fall Chinook.  Every year, ever since I was old enough, Link and I have gone out to meet the fish off the Columbia River bar.  Salmon gather there at the end of summer, waiting for whatever mysterious signal sends them surging up the river and home.

“Old Man Chinook,” Link calls them.

The really amazing part is how salmon know where to go.  Some kind of homing instinct - imprinting, they call it - guides a salmon to the very same mountain stream where it hatched and awoke to fishdom. Something in the water calls home, to a salmon.  He can find his way back to Eagle Creek, say, rather than to some place in Idaho he might just as well swim to.  You’d think finding the mouth of the Columbia again, after three years in the Pacific Ocean, would be miracle enough.  But they come back.  They come back to spawn in the same shallow freshwater riffles where the whole thing began.  At each branch of river, something in their tiny fish brains and wiring tells them which fork to take and when.  Imprinting they call it.  As if that explains it."

            ---Ricochet River, by Robin Cody

And magic.  As if that explains it.