Before me a soaking wet incision opens into the Coast Range. The afternoon sky has finally tired of spitting rain, and a sea of overcast ruptures into vaporous breakers crashing silently against conifer ridges. Occasionally insipid sunlight peeks through, but it seems tired as well. A hermit thrush twitches its reddish tail from a bare hazel branch. Normally I visit this place in February. But spawning Coho have been calling to me, and I was compelled to come in December.
In my view the Coho is the iconic salmon of the Oregon Coast Range. Their cousins the Chinook are larger, more powerful, perhaps more charismatic. But Chinook lack the staying power of Coho, who continue in this world by spawning in filamentous tributaries deep the in coastal mountains. Coho seem uniquely adapted to use these small streams. They arrive later in the year than the Chinook, and their smaller size makes lower order streams more accessible. Later spawning might be a behavioral adaptation to ensure consistent flows that aid their journey far upstream, with ample winter flow to keep the spawning gravels submerged until the eggs hatch.
I grab an orange-handled machete from behind the seat of the pickup, expecting the old road bed in the bottom of the canyon to be swallowed by Armenian Blackberry brambles. But more years have passed than I realized, and the trail is mostly clear. The Douglas-fir in the clearcut have grown tall enough to block the sunlight, and blackberries are being excluded for lack of light, an outcome of the relentless replacement of plant communities inherent in uninterrupted seral succession.
At the end of the road, the Douglas-fir canopy is now completely closed. The ground is covered in dark duff, interrupted only by a variety of small mushrooms withering and rotting back into the nutrient cycle. From here, I walk into a newer clearcut, following a game trail across its lower end. The fir have doubled in height since my last trip. The trees were planted by humans, but I wonder if the land might heal better if left to its own processes.
Beyond this clearcut lies a native forest two centuries old. Some Douglas-fir trunks are four feet in diameter, furrowed by bark canyons six inches deep. On one trunk is a six-inch orange oblong hole excavated by a Pileated Woodpecker. Moving further inside the grove, the meager light dims. Soft creek music rises from my left. I descend to the bank and stand above a clear stream coursing along a shallow rill of blond sandstone cobbles. Very recently the flow was much higher. Small sandbars are scrubbed clean and devoid of tracks. I step into the shallow flow with impunity, thankful for knee high rubber boots, and immediately begin looking for evidence of spawning Coho. A light-colored scrap undulates in a small milky blue pool just upstream. Focusing hard, I finally discern a piece of old man’s beard lichen attached to a submerged fir limb, waving in the current like the scarred tail of a ravaged salmon.
Climbing out of the stream bed, I negotiate the thick understory. This forest is perennially wet, lush with salal, sword fern, and old growth vine maple. Large conifers have fallen haphazardly, lying in various stages of decay. My body reminds me of this flow of time—ducking under vine maple and crawling over down logs is more of a chore than I remember. But I persist and choose a route for keeping the stream in sight. The fish shouldn’t be hard to find in the narrow creek, and churned gravel in the spawning redds would be easy to spot. The stream meanders along the flat canyon floor. On the inside of crooked elbows the water forms quiet pools, potential resting places for spent salmon. But there is only the liquid rattle of the stream, the swish of brush against my rain pants.
People have been here before me. Pieces of pink flagging along the creek mark summer snorkel surveys for smolts. An ugly orange sign, edges curling, is tacked to a large Douglas-fir. In bold black letters it proclaims SALMON SPAWNING SURVEY, as though anyone or anything but me or the salmon spawning surveyors would care. Still, I appreciate that data are being recorded.
Continuing upstream, the sun breaks through briefly but only because the clouds have again relented, and in December the sun sets far to the south, shining into the south-facing canyon mouth. Diminishing light presses in. A warm cabin is waiting back up the road. I should turn back. But I can’t.
Finally, the canyon relinquishes. On a freshly scrubbed sandbar perhaps six feet long rests a small litter of bones. The vertebrae remain attached by sinew and bleached-out muscle fibers, all bent into a shallow, upwardly bending arc. Thin ribs bend downward into the sand like curved gray needles. The core of the skull remains attached to the vertebrae, around which are scattered the toothed lower jaws and bony gill plates. High rainfall earlier in the fall has already provided the necessary water for spawning, and the Coho have taken care of their reproductive business long before my arrival, the business prescribed by evolution.
On the surface of things, all that remains are the remains. I cannot know if this salmon successfully spawned. The only certainty is that orange flesh has melted into the creek or been scavenged by raccoons, becoming part of a larger cycle in which ocean nutrients are tethered to the reproductive will of the Coho, transported into forest ecosystems far upstream. The continuation of this story, the one now ending in dusk and a scatter of cloudy bones, is an article of faith. I choose to believe that this salmon parented a clutch of fertile eggs that are nestled somewhere in the sandstone gravel. The embryos await their time, to hatch, to renew the cycle of smolts growing and descending Smith River, to flash new nickel silver through schools of Pacific baitfish. I imagine nothing more or less, my hope tied to circles of ocean, rain, creek, and Coho.
[An earlier version of this essay appeared in the January 2017 issue of Nature Trails, the monthly publication of the Eugene Natural History Society.