Sockeye

It’s October and the birch trees flicker in brilliant yellow, like droplets of sunlight fluttering onto the forest floor. Red berries hang low from branches in sudden pops of crimson on trembling auburn arms. And the red fish forge upstream in the turquoise river, blurs of burning red in the cold shallows. That color most of all, stirs something deep inside of my humanity.

Witnessing the end point of this great migration feels like a miracle to me. It’s almost beyond belief just how far they have come, these warrior fish. Since their birth in this arm of this tangled, tumbling river, they have been to the Pacific Ocean and back.

Some of them look worse for the wear. Patches of flesh are gone, scales have faded white. These bodies have traveled hundreds of river miles to get back here. Dozens of dams stand between there and here. The river forks and divides, how many times, I wonder. But they made it. And even through the scuffs and scars, the vibrant red still feels stark. Bright like a scarlet waving flag. A burning flame.

I’m startled that this still exists. Despite the cogs moving elsewhere, the pattern of this migration has not been snuffed out by the slow encroach of humans here. I can see it with my own eyes. I can smell it. The salmon die soon after their eggs have been tucked under the smooth gravel and the shapes of their spent bodies lie in contrast to round river rocks. It smells like ocean, yes, but different. Softer, somehow. Like the woods welcome them home. These fish will live beyond this autumn, in the cottonwood trees that drink at the riverbanks, and in the small pink eggs waiting in the river rubble.

Seeing the scarlet shadows dart in the blur of rushing river, I feel a profound sense of loss. The lake that I swam in as a child was named Redfish after this same species. But it and the rocky rivers that flow from it are mostly empty now. Carp float beneath the boat docks and trout glide silently past sunken trunks of ponderosa pines. But the Sockeye, they don’t return anymore. Not like this.