We walked over to the creek to see if the coho were there yet. Some years it’s a little earlier and some years later. We’ve seen them as late as New Year’s Day and as early as the beginning of December. Today, though? I think we were seeing the beginning of the run. There weren’t yet fish in the upper pools and there were lots just entering the creek from Sakinaw Lake where they’d been gathering until water levels were high enough in the creek. This couple was the first we saw:
And this beauty waiting for an opportunity to make the leap up a small ladder:
We’ve lived here since 1982 and it never gets old. The fish crowding into the pools, pairing up, the dippers on the logs, the mergansers waiting at the creek mouth for stray eggs to wash down, the eagles in the cedars, the lake beyond leading to the ocean, the young couple we were ourselves when we first walked here with our children, our deep pleasure at the returning coho.
One year I accompanied Angelica and her friend Gloria to this creek and two others when they were 15 and conducting an aquatic insect sampling for a science project. They wore hip-waders and dipped nets into the cold water — after the salmon had spawned, and taking care to avoid the area where the redds were — making an inventory of what they found. I felt privileged to be part of their work, helping them to identify various larvae. And when I walk down to the creek each winter, I am aware of them, their voices calling out in excitement as they examined leeches and caddis fly larvae.
This morning the lake was quiet and the only sound was an eagle beyond the point and the splashing of fish as they angled for position in the gravel beds.
There’s a beautiful Tsimshian potlatch song that I think of when I watch the fish at the end of a long journey, a journey that ends in both death and life. These are the final three lines:
I walk around where the water runs into whirlpools.
They talk quickly as if they are in a hurry.
The sky is turning over. They call me.
And every year, they do.
This morning we walked to Haskins Creek again. Three days ago we didn’t see a single salmon in the creek but now they’ve arrived! These are Oncorhynchus kisutch, the coho salmon.
Haskins is a narrow creek, hung with salmonberry, ferns, and other native plants as well as Himalayan blackberry vines encroaching at the lower end where the creek empties into Sakinaw Lake. One year Angelica and her friend Gloria did a science project in which they sampled aquatic insects in this creek over a five week period and found that the numbers and varieties of insects indicated that the water quality was quite high. There are huge cedars near the creek too. Later in the run, we’ll find spawned-out carcasses distributed over the ground where eagles, bears, and ravens have dragged them.
For some years I’ve followed the work of Dr. Tom Reimchen at the University of Victoria. He’s a biologist who studies the relationships between salmon and forests of the western Pacific coast. One of his areas of interest is the occurance of the salmon signature in the growth rings of ancient trees. I’m not a scientist but I think it works this way. Nitrogen 15 is an isotope occuring mostly in marine organisms. Salmon are eaten by bears, wolves, and birds, and what’s left of the carcass enters the terrestrial ecosytem through decay as well as in the excrement of the birds and mammals who distribute the heavy nitrogen in the forests. The number of salmon in any one year will vary depending on species and whether it’s a peak year or not. So the tree ring growth will reflect these flucuations. The story gets more complicated of course as all good stories do but I think of this amazing cycle every time I see the fish and the huge trees growing by Haskins Creek.
Last evening we were out for a walk around the Sakinaw loop, a route that takes us down Sakinaw Lake Road to the lake itself, then along a trail through the woods to our own driveway. It’s a walk I love in all seasons. In spring the bigleaf maples all along the road produce their chartreuse flowers, sweet as honey, and bright with warblers. There’s a section of ditch where masses of maidenhair ferns grow, too, the delicate fronds held aloft by black-laquered stems. In summer the maples create deep and welcome shade. We often gather bags of maple leaves from this area to mulch our garden and often there are rough-skinned newts hiding in the leaves, waiting for the day to warm up enough for them to make the great trek across the road. Sometimes we find them frozen in place if the sun’s vanished before they make it to their destination but holding them in my palms for a few minutes usually revives them. There’s always a day in late fall when I smell fish and know the coho are in the creek that runs down off Mount Hallowell to enter Sakinaw Lake, a long length of water fed by many such creeks, some of which are home streams for coho. There’s also a race of sockeye salmon native to the lake — alas, almost extinct. The coho run is the hinge of the year, beginning in December, usually around the Solstice, and continuing into January.
On our walk last evening, we were just about to take the trail through the woods when we heard loud crashing ahead of us. We stopped, expecting a bear. Instead, we saw a bull elk, maybe the same guy who visited earlier our place earlier in summer. (It’s more usual to see them up the mountain, as we often do when hiking there, but the field guide says they move to lower elevations in fall.) He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him. And he was beautiful. John, who was wearing his glasses, counted five points on each antler. The full complement is six, so he was maybe a three year old. But huge. Deep brown with a golden rump. He stood absolutely still for a few moments, watching us, and we did the same. We could hear his cows in the woods, moving about. Then he trotted off into the trees and all that was left was his smell, and the smell of his harem, as pungent as horses.