Spawn Till You Die

The waters of Indian River are coursing through a standing forest of fish. I could have missed the miracle on my after-dinner walk through Totem Park. Tonight it was my turn to cook and the flash-frozen Coho, a gift from a typically generous Sitkan down on the dock, had thawed just in time. Now I wanted to see the gift alive. Under dusky skies I forded skunk cabbage and the muddy meandering path to the bridge. Through a steamy, thin fog rising around the bridge and up into the canopy of alders, hemlocks, and spruces whose roots gird the pebbled riverbed, I first just saw the sheen of water. Just a river: a broad, shallow, quietly urgent on its last mile before the sea. Bummer, I thought; they’re already gone. I should have come out yesterday. What have I been doing, nursing a cold inside the walls of campus and a to-do list hemmed in by this screen, when ALASKA is underfoot and all around?

Minutes passed. Two salmon caught the evening light with upturned bellies in the streamside detritus. Ed Abbey on the cliffside, a bare body under a sapling, a fish offering its riches back–that’s what I would like to give as well, I mused, fixated on their elegance in death. Then I saw them. All of them, hundreds, thousands, swimming in place. Brown and camouflaged warriors in the quiet stream, silent save the occasional flick and ripple of a single creature changing lanes in a paused migration. The seeing was so sudden and obvious and invisible I exclaimed aloud, alone, “oh my, they’re here,” wondering if this is how it feels to see the pattern that solves a great math problem. Sleek muscled kings and queens of navigation stood nose to tail in rows upon rows. How humbled we ought to be in such presence, how we should supplicate for their ruby flesh, their oils, and their intelligence so honed at the sunset of unlikely survival from deep and treacherous worlds. Fewer and fewer though royal salmon may be, here they have returned again. No wonder this is a place where the sacred feels at hand.

Sunnier and more active salmon than the heroes of this post. Credit: Julie Zhu.

– – –

“You saw them floating, too?” asked Sam, just in for a bowl of rice pudding after a long night drawing comics. “Not to squash your romanticism, but it’s basically a big orgy. They’re doin’ it in the pebbles. That’s why they’re not swimming upstream anymore.”

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