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A Journey to Salmon River

Last weekend, I visited the aptly named Salmon River in Mount Hood National Forest hoping to see my favorite Pacific Northwest inhabitants, Coho and Chinook salmon, on their way home to spawn. This is a long, difficult, and always deadly undertaking – a hero’s journey, through and through, and it’s absolutely worth seeing if you can. 

Salmon are born in freshwater rivers and streams and once they’re old enough, head to the ocean where they feed on invertebrates and insects, and are fed on by larger animals like orcas, seals, sharks, and of course, humans. When they reach about four years old (the age differs between salmon species), a homing sense kicks in and they start heading back upstream, usually to their birthplace, to spawn and then die. 

Scientists don’t know exactly how a salmon finds its way back home. The U.S. Geological Survey theorizes that salmon navigate using the earth’s “magnetic field like a compass,” going back to where they were born because “they know it is a good place to spawn.” They navigate by smell and if they can’t find their way home, some will continue to search until they run out of energy and die. 

A salmon’s survival depends on a number of factors; most critically, the health of the environments they live in and travel through. Fry (baby salmon) can spend more than a year in the freshwater streams they’re born in, depending on the quality of the habitat. Once they’re ready to head to the ocean, salmon will spend days or weeks in estuaries – the area between a river and an ocean – adjusting to the new conditions and feeding heavily to ensure their oceanic survival. 

All of this relies on healthy rivers and oceans, which have been in short supply recently. Nearly half of the wetlands in Oregon’s coastal estuaries where salmon lived have disappeared, 80% of tidal wetlands in northwest Washington’s Puget Sound have been cut off from rivers or destroyed to make room for development, and roughly 90% of California’s wetlands have been paved over, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

And that’s just on the West Coast – Atlantic salmon face similar problems, including dams and culverts that block their migration on rivers. Climate change doesn’t help either: as rivers warm and flood flows become more frequent and severe, salmon’s access to healthy habitat diminishes. 

The fight to protect salmon has been contentious. In an historic move by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, four dams in Southern Oregon and Northern California will be removed, in large part because they block salmon migration on the Klamath River. Removing these dams comes with its own complications for the rural communities along the Klamath River, which I wrote about in an earlier edition of Keep It Rural.

Much of the West Coast’s Chinook salmon fishing season was canceled this summer because of population decline (scientists predict the Puget Sound’s Chinook salmon populations are as low as 10% of their historic numbers.) The last time a fishing ban was put in place was the 2008-2009 fishing season, so this year’s ban was certainly a big deal for fishermen and salmon consumers. 

All this is to say, I wasn’t expecting much when I ventured to the Salmon River this weekend. A nice hike was guaranteed, seeing a salmon would be a welcome surprise. 

I was surprised not once or twice but dozens of times. Countless salmon both alive and dead could be seen in the shallows of the Salmon River. My guess is they had already laid and fertilized their eggs in the gravelly riverbed because most of them looked to be in the throes of death, treading water next to their companions’ carcasses. A grisly sight, sure, but also just so dang cool. One still-alive salmon mustered the strength to leap out of the water over and over for no apparent reason. (Although some salmon do still feed during a spawning run, according to Michigan State University research, so maybe it was in search of insects.) 

These salmon had traveled hundreds of miles to get to the base of Mount Hood, and I was able to bear witness to the end of this legendary journey.

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