Our exploration of nature on all 7 continents has taken us to Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. Now we cross the Atlantic for a view of nature in North America.
I always imagined salmon returning to their natal waters as a triumphant display of strength and resilience. Didn’t their natural history epitomize the theory of natural selection? How could any but the fittest survive their mandated journey through oceanic waters, navigating through rivers, up rapids and somehow finding their way back to the same creeks where they themselves were spawned? I’d seen salmon conquer the man-made fish ladders at Seattle’s locks and was confident that here, along Canada’s remote northwestern coastline, the salmon display would be ever more dramatic. I pictured powerful fish leaping beyond frothing waters to escape unrelenting currents, possibly dodging bear claws mid-air in their quest to breed. As our zodiac approached our target salmon tributary, the stench of decay that reached my nose suggested a less glorified finale.
I stared down at the creek we’d come to see, transfixed by the graveyard revealed in its clear waters. Motionless fish lay on their sides, trapped in place by rocks or eddies while the few survivors struggled to maintain their position in the current. To my horror, it was hard to distinguish the living from the non-living. The strength and regularity of fin undulations seemed the truest indication as to whether the skeleton in question was still fighting or had passed. Occasionally a burst of energy earned one of the fighters a few feet, and some maintained the distance. But the gain and then some could just as easily be lost as exhaustion from the effort weakened the fish and transferred advantage to the unforgiving waters. There were no cheerleaders encouraging these strugglers onwards, no one to tell them the finish line was just up stream. There were only individual fish trying to make it far enough to meet a mate and share their genes. If there was celebration here, it was that of a war beaten nation. There was no more energy for triumphant bravado and too much suffering and death for applause. And yet there was hope.
As we returned to our zodiac, I saw the gathering of Bald Eagles in the pines towering above in a new light. These two dozen colossal birds were sharing such a small area of such a vast forest for a reason. The death that had been such a depressing scene on the creek was being released to this larger body of water as an easy meal. A few days later, I watched Grizzly Bears benefit similarly as a mother and her cub plucked limp salmon from the banks of a large river. There was no fight. There were no majestic fish leaping for their lives. These reputedly ferocious bears simply scavenged carcasses from the shallows. There wasn’t even a twitch of a tail when mama bear lifted her prize in the air. This wasn’t part of the heroic scene I’d originally envisioned. Yet as I watched the cub devour mama’s offering, I was once again reminded of hope.
This journey had not been about death and decay as I’d feared at the creek. This journey was about life. It was about the eagles, bears and countless others supported by the nutrients spreading from the salmon tributaries. It was about future generations of salmon that would emerge from those very same creeks, and the life that they too would support.