By Pat Neal
It was daylight on the river on a dark and dismal day. It’s a favorite time of year. When the rain cleans the river of a summer’s worth of befoulment left by the tourist hordes. We need rain and lots of it. The rain cleans the river banks and sand bars and fluffs up the gravel in preparation for that other seasonal visitor, the spawning salmon. It’s still possible to observe salmon performing their mating rituals in some creeks, which to some people is almost as exciting as catching them.
Tis the season to witness this miracle of nature. Spawning salmon are the most important organism in our ecosystem. They represent a massive exchange of energy from the mountains to the sea and back again. Every living thing, the birds, bugs, and varmints even people and the fish themselves depend on the seasonal return of the salmon.
Salmon were the most important food source for Native Americans. A surviving crew member of the S.V. Nikolai, a Russian ship that ran aground near La Push, left an account of the Coho fishery in the upper Hoh River in 1808.
The Russians had endured a running battle in the pouring rain and gusty winds with the Quileute and Hoh people from Lapush, south clear to the upper Hoh River. The expedition members were so hungry they were forced to eat the walrus hide soles of their sealskin boots which would have left them barefoot until they could make moccasins out of a fresh elk hide. They ate their raincoats which were made from the gut of a bear and their gun covers made of sea lion hide. They tried eating tree fungus and mushrooms. They were so desperate they even ate the ship’s beloved dog. Which did not go far among the thirteen shipwreck survivors.
Fortunately for the Russians, they were able to trade with Hoh fishermen. One old man traded the ninety salmon in his canoe for brass buttons. The expedition was saved, temporarily.
The salmon were most likely Coho. The Chinook or King salmon are the largest but many people prefer the Coho Salmon. Fall Coho generally have better meat than a fall King. Vast numbers of Coho were harvested. They were speared, netted, and caught in traps made from tree limbs set into the bottom of the river and side streams, then dried in the rafters of the cedar longhouses.
The Russians “procured,” or in other words traded, threatened, finagled, and extorted hundreds of pounds of dried salmon at a time from the people they met living along the river. That along with sealskin bags of salmon roe and a bladder of whale oil kept the expedition from starving that winter.
A couple of hundred years later it is still raining and blowing in November on the Peninsula. The creeks are up and running high and some of them are full of spawning salmon. They have survived a migration to the Aleutian Islands and back, to find their rivers full of “nylon Pollution,” a catch-all term that attempts to describe over-fishing throughout the extent of the salmon’s range. The mouths of these rivers packed with seals and sea lions. Very few fish make it up the river without bearing the scars of these encounters.
Once on the spawning beds the salmon change color from blue, white, and silver to red, green, and black. They grow teeth and large hooked jaws and battle each other for the right to spawn with their mate. It is just another sign that despite everything there are some things right with the world.