Ten adult salmon wait patiently in five inches of water. A foot above them, a culvert spills cold fresh water into the bay. All around them lie the scattered corpses of others who didn’t make it, pecked on by ravenous seagulls. It is low tide and the fish are temporarily trapped on their long trek upriver.
Every year in the late-autumn, the rivers of Western Washington swell with salmon who have come to spawn and die. After up to five years at sea, instinct and a keen sense of smell bring the salmon back to the very mountain streams where they were born to give birth to the next generation of their species. Some of these powerful creatures swim hundreds of miles upriver, some all the way to the rocky interior of Idaho to lay their eggs.
It is one of nature’s most incredible sights to see these large fish charge their way against the current to find little sandy pools where their young will be safe. They thrash and jump, splashing their way past rocks and each other in a desperate struggle to get home. Some have traveled thousands of miles from the salty waters of the North Pacific and navigated the Puget Sound’s extensive network of inlets and channels to reach these creeks.
This has been a dry year in the lowlands of the South Sound. Some the streams are barely flowing at all. Every so often, a silvery salmon can be found on a gravelly beach, where it drowned in the air before completing the journey.
As I watched those fish fight their way to their birthplace, I was struck by how little we have in common. Aside from the obvious physical differences, humans don’t really have that innate drive to return home. Or do we?
There are those who live close to the land, refusing to move from their family’s plot of earth. Even among the wandering travelers, we all feel relief upon returning to familiar surroundings. Around the holidays, it’s hard to deny a tiny instinctual tug in the direction of home and family.
I guess what makes us different from the salmon is our ability to choose. Where they are bound to a single stream, we can choose a new stream. While humans always feel an attachment to far away places they used to live, we are also capable to spreading out and domesticating strange places. I’ll always miss the streams I used to call home, but this new stream can be home, too.
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Jonny Eberle is not a fish. He is a human being who lives in Tacoma, WA. He waxes philosophic here and in the streams of Twitter.