On the trail of the Great Salmon

“Develop that inner perseverance, that attitude that says, I can do this! No matter what the opposition says I will find a way. Remember: Can’t never could. No never will. Success comes in “cans.”

Colonel Buzz Aldrin, USAF, Retired Astronaut and National Hero…Man on the Moon

I am going to break away from my usual themes of this column to relate a most poignant story that I wrote a few years back, but has yet to be published.

The events of the story have stayed with me always, and I hope that it provides you all with the same lessons of endurance, hope, and faith on your life journey.

As an adventurous young man of just under 14 years, living in Allegany, Oregon, on the East Millicoma River, just east of Coos Bay, Oregon; and in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, I caught rainbow trout, steel-head trout and salmon. The wonderful thing about where I lived was that the river was only about one-hundred feet from our house and the fish were plentiful.

It wasn’t a matter of catching the fish; the only thing to be considered was how many I wanted to catch.

One thing I was to learn was that the salmon were pretty tired by the time they got to our area of the river, after all; they had survived an arduous journey from the Pacific Ocean, into the Coos Bay, the Coos River, and then up the East and West Millicoma Rivers into the many tributary creeks feeding into the river.

Salmon would jump the small rills in the shallow part of the river, and one could catch them by hand if one were fast enough.

I will never forget my adventure of finding the beginning of one of the many tributary creeks feeding into the Millicoma River, to discover where the Salmon spawned and died.

Starting out at day-break, it took me about half a day to hike to the spawning grounds. When I arrived, I saw salmon by the hundreds. They were shining in the sunlight like pieces of aluminum foil, with occasional tints of crimson red and pink signifying that they were at the end of their life-cycle. Some were still swimming, writhing slowly in the very shallow water, still moving forward even at deaths last calling with all of the strength their muscles could afford; their gills were still moving, in and out very slowly as they gasped their last breaths.

Their eggs shone brightly in the water like thousands of pinkish-red pearls. My Native-American “self” wanted to pick the teeth of some of the skeletons that had been left by visiting bears and other carnivorous animas to make a necklace; to gather some eggs, or pick up fish or two to take back home. I reached down to do so and some far off voice inside said not to do it; perhaps the Great Spirit or that Native-American collective consciousness passed down in time.

I quietly left this grave-yard without disturbance. I learned that day that nature seems cruel, unjust, and unforgiving sometimes.

The Salmon spend all of their energy and time to spawn and die in a seemingly horrible way. At the same time I felt a sense of awe that these great fish were challenged in a way unlike any other. In their instinctual obsession to return to the place of their birth they had to be scarred by the rocks, the flesh on their bodies cut, torn, and mangled; some continued to swim with fishing lures in their mouths which they had manage to break from the line of a hopeful fisherman.

They endured the torturous rapids, rills and falls and then laid or fertilized their eggs at the end of their journey. These fish ran the great race and were victorious. They had laid and fertilized their eggs, and in a short while the hatchlings, the fry, would be making their way down river into the Pacific Ocean to start the life-cycle over again. I felt happy that they had accomplished their goal, and walked away thinking I had stood among winners, and I basked in the warm delight of my journey.

Life is like the journey of the Salmon…may obstacles, scars, and general ups and downs. I was to remember this and similar adventures on various occasions in my life, such as my trying times in flight and war while in the Air Force, during my many infirmities’, during my continuous battle with Cancer; when the going got rough and I didn’t think I had the strength to go on I mustered my hope and faith that things would get better…the lessons learned from my many adventures in nature have remained with me to this day.

There is one instinct we, as Human Beings, share with the Salmon and all living things…the instinct for survival. Individuals bodies and minds may be scarred, torn, and mangled by ravishes of substance abuse, mental illness, or physical disabilities; yet we all have the abilities to press on…to recover and progress with meaningful and productive lives. As the old proverb states, “When the going is tough, the tough get going.” As my Air Force Comrade Buzz Aldrin has shown us: “No dream is too high.”

May you endure the ups and downs of your life journey with faith and hope as does the Salmon, and remain healthy my friends!