The Salmon Forest

The Salmon Forest

Susan Double

Published in Written River #10


Every thread of creation is held in position by still
other strands of things living.
—Don McClean, ‘Tapestry,’ 1969

She waits with a million others for the taste and smell of the coming rain. For years she has roamed the ocean, growing hard and strong in its abundance, until her belly filled with eggs and she felt the call. A thousand miles stretches behind her, and a hundred more lay ahead. She followed the sun and the tug of earth and ocean to meet with her kin at this place of race memory, but now they pause, waiting for guidance from the rain.

And soon dark and leaden clouds roll in over the ocean, tumbling over themselves in their rush to climb the mountains ahead. As they heave their gorged bodies upwards their load is squeezed from them and the great rains come, thrashing and hissing onto the patient land. Soon the rills become streams, and streams become torrents, which evolve into monstrous white foaming snakes, scraping, scouring, and gathering up the rocks and dirt of the valleys through which they surge. A great weight of water hurls itself exultantly back down the mountains to the Pacific Ocean from whence it came. The essence of the land spreads far out into the sea, and finally comes to the waiting salmon.

A shiver runs through the shoal and she stirs as old tastes and smells fire her memory. The multitude divides into a hundred crowds and they press forward, at last, to the mouths of the rivers that bore them so long ago. Her strength is tested as she fights her way upstream, but there will be no rest, or food, until her journey is done many weeks from now. The days and weeks pass, and many of her companions lose the fight, dying from exhaustion, but so numerous are they that for each one that fails another is waiting to surge forward and take their place. Other dangers lay in wait as they fight their way upriver. Otters take their fill from below and ospreys from above. Death weaves life into others. Countless hundreds are taken, but a multitude still remains.

She leaps again, and again through ever-tighter races until with a last effort she finds herself in quiet water and knows she is home. Her respite is short. She fights with her sisters for a chosen place over the gravel stream bed, and defends it with all her being. Red, hook-jawed males battle for her attention, and soon she chooses. She turns on her side and thrashes at the gravel with her tail. All around her others are doing the same, until the shallows seethe with eggs, milt and struggling salmon. In the shallow depression she has made, she sheds her eggs, and her chosen mate covers them with his milt. Again and again she digs at the gravel, shedding four thousand and more of long-carried and precious eggs, until, with the last of her ebbing strength, the final clutch is gone. Utterly spent, she swims quietly away. Her body is torn and ragged from the rigors of her journey, and she will not return to the ocean. Her destiny is almost complete. She will die here not a meter from the place she was born.

A young male grizzly stands watching in the shallows. His muzzle glistens with fish scales, and his chest and belly fur drip from repeated dives to catch the fast moving fish. He has been successful a dozen times and is no longer hungry, but still he hunts. The stimulus of so much plenty is too hard to resist, but he is confused by the multitude. His head twists this way and that, but finally he spots a lone fish swimming listlessly a little apart from the melee. He lunges across the pool and picks up the fish easily, his first bite crushing the skull. He pauses with the fish, still weakly flapping, hanging from his jaws. He is about to drop it when, from the other side of the pool, a large, roaring mature bear rushes at him in a welter of spray and leaping fish. Unwilling to challenge the true owner of the fishing spot, the young bear retreats rapidly away from the river and back into the gloom of the forest, still clutching his prize. After a while he stops and drops the fish on the ground. He turns it over with a muddy paw and sniffs at it, but he is sated and finally loses interest, leaving the fish and wandering off to find a sleeping place. He will hunt again tomorrow, and day after day until the salmon run is over, and he will grow fat. Fat enough to hibernate through one of the hardest winters the planet can produce. He is not alone. Hundreds of  predators, congregate along the rivers for thousands of miles while the salmon run. The bears take the most fish of them all, but they are wasteful gluttons. They take only the most tasteful parts, leaving the rest for the scavengers or to rot on the forest floor or riverbank, before they return to the river for more.

The forest has stood for ten thousand years, since mighty ice-sheets weighed heavy on the land and great rivers of ice carved their names in the valleys. Spruce, hemlock, maple, alder, and cedar have grown tall on the salmon’s bounty. And they are old. Forty human generations in the life of one tree. Like terrestrial reefs they stand providing and nurturing a myriad of other beings. Birds roost and nest in their branches and cavities, while more earthbound creatures dig dens in the shelter of their roots. Ferns and mosses cling to their rough bark and hang as ragged curtains from their boughs: a vertical landscape through which scurry innumerable many-legged smaller forms. Agile martens prowl the branches searching out the nests of negligent parents. They lap rain cupped between branch and stem or dripping from the epiphytic plants suspended fifty feet above the rich earth, and never needing to return to it, except when the salmon come.

The run is over. The remains of tens of thousands of salmon litter the forest floor and the banks of the streams, and carpet the beds of the rivers and lakes for hundreds of square miles. A gargantuan feast for the scavengers. Gulls, wolves, eagles, pine martens, crows, and a host of others take their fill. In the forest, beetles, ants, worms, fungi, and microbes go to work on the carcasses and within the few short weeks of autumn the bodies become one with the forest, their minerals and organic matter fertilizing and enriching the soils. The explosion in the population of insects feeding on the decaying bodies nourishes small birds, fattening up for their long migrations south. In the streams, rivers, and lakes small crustaceans, insects, and a host of small fish do the same, until not a trace of the vast multitude of salmon is left, save for the treasure of pink pearls hidden in the gravel of the stream beds. But they are not gone. The salmon have woven the Pacific Ocean, carried within the tissues of their bodies, deep into the fabric of the land.

The bugs, in their turn, race to reproduce before the coming winter. Billions upon billions of eggs are laid, in forest and stream alike, to lie dormant and await the warmth of the spring sun many months from now. In the seasonal forests the trees turn golden and red, and finally drop their leaves. These miniature solar panels, grown from the bounty of the previous year’s salmon run, are no longer required for the dark days of winter, so the trees cut them loose and they form drifts of golden snow on the forest floor. There they break down and form a rich, dark, nutritious mulch which will sustain the tall trees in the years to come. They fall into the streams and are washed into the rivers and lakes, spreading their nutrients far from the forests in which they grew.
It grows quiet, save for the wind. The bears have retreated into their dens, and songbirds have long since departed for warmer climes. A growing canopy of ice gradually stills the music of the waters. Finally, the skies grow grey and heavy, and it snows. It snows as if it will do so forever, weighing down the trees, softening the rocks, and framing the pools and lakes. The landscape takes a last deep sigh and drifts into sleep.

Under the safety of the icy shield, the waters continue to flow, and the salmon eggs are far from sleeping. Inside their fragile translucent pink shells the tiny fry are developing and growing, until, as the ice finally begins to thin, they hatch. Transparent and all but invisible in the gin-clear water the minute scraps of life remain hidden in the gravel’s canyons and gorges, growing on the sustenance contained in their yolk sacs. Weeks later, as the returning sun warms the water at last, they emerge into the stream fully formed and hungry, in time for the first flush of hatching insect larvae: larvae that are nourished by nutrients from the fallen leaves decaying in the water, as the leaves in turn were nourished by the decaying bodies from millennia of salmon runs. As they feed and grow the fry become travelers, wandering the streams, lakes and pools of their home range. They take shelter in ponds created by the beavers building dams across small streams. Dams made from the trees sustained by the young fishes’ ancestors.

Eventually, borne on the downstream currents, the smolts retrace slowly, over many months, the journey that their parents made in just weeks. Their pace slows as they enter the estuaries and deltas. They wander leisurely through the meandering channels, seeking out the sea, and all the while their bodies are changing, and adapting to the ever more saline water. Until one day the waters mingle, and they no longer taste the freshwater of their birth, but the salt of the Pacific, and they are free. For years they will roam the ocean, growing hard and strong in its abundance, until they hear the call and gather together at the mouths of the rivers which bore them, waiting for the rains.

Full circle, and the story begins anew. The salmon feed the trees, the bears, and other predators; the bears bring the salmon to the forests; the beavers eat the trees and make ponds; young salmon grow in the beaver ponds; the trees feed the bugs in the water and the soil; the bugs in the water feed the salmon. The rains swell the rivers; the rivers wash the soil from the forest into the sea, and the tastes and smells of their ancestors bring the salmon home.

The same scenes, albeit with different players, are acted out in thousands of ecosystems, large and small, across the surface of our world. All are tiny threads woven into a vast cosmic tapestry, in which humans too, are mere strands of color. Within this rich, tangled, and multicolored fabric multitudes of diverse organisms are intricately interwoven with the environments into which they are born; each being, man, bear, salmon, tree, beaver, bird, or bug, is interconnected by a myriad of threads to every other, woven into the canvas of the very earth, air and water that surrounds them. Everything that any organism does affects every other in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. On and on in a never-ending story.

1. These temperate rainforests cloak the Pacific coasts and rivers of Canada, Alaska, and other North American states, but it is in the Canadian province of British Columbia that they have earned the name, “The Pacific Salmon Forests.”
2. Bears take more than 70% of the fish that swim upstream.
3. Pacific Coast of British Columbia encompasses one of the largest remaining intact temperate rainforests in the world. Over half of the original forest has gone and much of the rest has been scheduled for logging within the near future.
4. A quarter of the trees’ nitrogen comes directly from the salmon.

Susan Double has a life-long interest in natural history, which has led to a degree in science from Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, and a future research career in Vertebrate Palaeontology. However, she also has a passion for popular science and natural history writing and is currently working towards building a publishing history in this field.