In the watery light of a Pacific Northwest afternoon, I stepped out of the forest onto the banks of the Cheakamus River and breathed in the sharp, sweet smell of decay. It was the end of summer, just hours after the first rains of a new season had fallen over the valley, and the Pink salmon were running in earnest. All through the river thousands of humped, silvery bodies leapt over driftwood and ripples, up tributaries and side channels towards shallow pools where they would circle, mate, and die, choking on the sandy banks, rotting into the air I breathed.
I walked along the banks of the Cheakamus to its confluence with the Squamish River. Great flocks of seabirds hopped from dead fish to dead fish, feasting on eyeballs. This was the second Pink Salmon run I’d seen since moving from Oregon to Squamish three years ago. I have tried to explain the scene to friends back home—it’s impossible. The abundance of life and mortality that comes together at this time and at these rivers is so overwhelming it borders on the sublime.
Two friends came with me to fish that afternoon along the banks of the Cheakamus River. We stood a hundred yards downriver from each other, swinging our flies in long arcs. Nothing bit, but we could see them swimming and jumping and we knew we had only to wait.
I always wonder how many of these fish swimming by will live long enough to spawn. I think of Oregon, where salmon migrate through the dammed and warming Columbia River, through miles of fishermen, fish passages, and ambient pollution. Sometimes up to ninety percent of a population dies before reaching their natal spawning grounds.
Catching a fish is a brutal act. Whether or not you kill it the creature will be exhausted, maybe wounded. And with salmon, every bit of energy and every body still in the river matters for future runs. Taking a fish home means claiming nitrogen and phosphorous from the land for yourself. Wasn’t it our responsibility—here, where the Pink salmon have only begun to rebound—to just watch and let them be?
As I casted and watched the silhouettes move in the water, I began to feel like I often do at the end of a heavy snowstorm. I felt a totally unjustified sense of loss, prefigured by the measure of the gift in front of me. But salmon, like snow, will not be preserved. Every fish dies this month, scarred and half-rotting from bacteria in the freshwater. And it is this death, finally, not their life, that is the great gift. It delivers the nutrients from the sea to the ecosystem, and helps make these glorious forests what they are.
It helps too that this river sees fish throughout the year. All five major species of Pacific salmon spawn in the valley—Pink, Chinook (Tyee), Coho (Silvers), Chum, and an occasional Sockeye. But like so many other rivers of the Pacific Rim, their numbers have declined dramatically in just a few decades. According to the 2005 Squamish Watershed Salmon Recovery Plan, Chinook salmon returns in the 1990s dropped to as low as 500 individuals, just 3% of an average run in the 1950s.
Each river and salmon population differs, however, and the Pinks of Squamish have their own story. They are the smallest salmon and most abundant here. They mature at sea for just two years, and unlike Chinook and Coho, which migrate in smaller numbers every year over a few months, Pinks swim up river en masse for just under two months of the summer, and only on odd-numbered years. They also spawn lower down the river, closer to sea, which explains why in Squamish, where an estuary meets a complex river system, we feel (and smell) their presence everywhere and all at once.
Each salmon run owes its existence to the last, and the two I’ve seen were shadows of the one before I came. In the summer of 2013 the run exploded. The numbers so overwhelmingly exceeded forecasts that, for the first time in fifty years, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada allowed commercial purse seiners back into Howe Sound. They were given three days, and in that time one boat claimed to have caught more than 25,000. No actual science supported the new fishery, but the DFO justified it as a way to monitor the run. Really, the political utility of the “experiment” was obvious: it suggested there were no consequences to cutting real monitoring and protective measures, so long as we tied our conservation goal to commercial interests. But the run was smaller in 2015, and the government canceled the fishery after just a day. They didn’t catch nearly as many fish, and both the Squamish Nation and local conservation groups urged them to cease. Two violent winters and dry summers passed, and the consensus for this year was it would be smaller still.
I cannot say how the run actually fared; I saw only abundance. That afternoon, a fish took my fly and ran hard downstream. We fought for twenty minutes. Each time I would strip in line and bring the salmon close, its hump would rise just above the surface before it tore off, harder than I could hold it. When it finally came, gasping, in the ripples where the current slowed, for a moment I did not know what I would do. I took the fly from its mouth, and held it, loosely, over the water. Its gills flared in little rhythmic gasps, but otherwise it hardly moved. Here is the reason I fish. Seeing this being erases all thoughts—of the river, of salmon runs, of anything. It is so strange and so alive that holding it becomes almost painful. I made up my mind then. I carried my salmon to the bank, severed its gills, and lay it in the water to bleed.
In the stories of the first peoples of the Pacific Northwest, the salmon runs are not so much a resource to be protected or exploited, but an encounter with another people from another world. Every year, they come and give themselves up to be eaten by the people of our world, who, in turn, promise to place their bones in the water. If they do, the salmon people will always come back to life.
I try and remember this story when I think about what it means to protect wild salmon. Conservation does not demand absolute preservation. It demands there be some wildness left for a vulnerable encounter between people and the places they inhabit. It demands we overcome that wall of separation, which like a dam, stands between our lives as we live them every day and that other world of the river and the fish.
My friends and I each took a salmon home that night to eat and save. We stayed up late cooking and talking. It became a celebration—for the end of summer, for this place we are so grateful to call home, and for the beautiful salmon we share it with.