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Swimming with Salmon


Nov 30, 2016

By Jonathan W. Moore

Out of the corner of my mask, I thought I saw something move. Cold water trickled down my neck as I turned to look; all I could see was a glistening cloud of tiny air bubbles racing past. The water surged, with a wooshing roar and white-out, and pressed against my face and shoulders. As the river pushed, the rock I was clinging to lifted up off the bottom of the river. Before I was swept downstream, I reached blindly through turbulence and grabbed a larger boulder with my neoprene-clad hands. 

Inches from my face, a tail appeared, wider than my spread hand. It waved gently through diamond-like bubbles. In the surging current, the tail vanished into bubbles; then the river ebbed, and the water cleared to green. Suddenly, twenty or forty silvery-red-green sockeye salmon, two hook-nosed maroon coho, and one sleek silvery steelhead materialized. Each one was as long as my arm and as thick as my leg. Two were under me. One shot past me in a blur. Some gently glided up and down, waltzing in the river. Salmon, dancing in the swirling diamonds of air bubbles, surrounded me. 

I pulled my head up out of water to make sure a grizzly bear wasn’t peering down. Nope. Just upstream salmon were hurling themselves up at a sheet of water pouring over a 10-foot-high bedrock shelf. I counted 106 jumpers in 2 minutes. Some would aim in the wrong direction and catapult themselves up into the air and then disappear back to the frothy water. Others would get smacked, with the audible crack of a baseball bat, down by the plunging water. Out of the thousands of leaping salmon, I saw only one make it up. It leapt up 8 feet, and then with miraculous fury, swam the last few feet up the falling sheet of water.  

River scientists have a concept they call stream power. Power is a function of the amount of water flowing downstream and the slope of the river. The steeper the slope, the greater the power. The more water, the greater the power. This stream power carved this canyon through the mountain, and it is the force that salmon battle to return home. It is the power of the river to erode its banks. In other words, it is the power to move. 

I felt this power to move. Physically yes; the current poured against me with intent. But it was more than that. This power was a function of all of the raindrops that fell in the upstream watershed, all of the melted snow and glacial ice. Salmon passed by me on their 500 km journey upstream. Connections to distant places and distant times swirled around me.

This is what I study and want to spend my life studying. But right then, I did not collect data. I stayed still, and let the power of the river move me. 

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