Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/May 1881/Story of a Salmon




MAY, 1881.


By Professor DAVID S. JORDAN.

IN the realm of the Northwest Wind, on the boundary-line between the dark fir-forests and the sunny plains, there stands a mountain, a great white cone two miles and a half in perpendicular height. On its lower mile, the dense fir-woods cover it with never-changing green; on its next half-mile, a lighter green of grass and bushes gives place in winter to white; and, on its uppermost mile, the snows of the great Ice age still linger in unspotted purity. The people of Washington Territory say that this mountain is the great "Kingpin of the Universe," which shows that, even in its own country. Mount Rainier is not without honor.

Flowing down from the southwest slope of Mount Rainier is a cold, clear river fed by the melting snows of the mountain. Madly it hastens down over white cascades and beds of shining sands, through birch-woods and belts of dark firs to mingle its waters at last with those of the great Columbia.

This river is the Cowlitz, and on its bottom, not many years ago, there lay half-buried in the sand a number of little orange-colored globules, each about as large as a pea. These were not much in themselves, but, like the philosopher's monads, each one had in it the promise and potency of an active life. In the water above them, little suckers and chubs and prickly sculpins were straining their mouths to draw these globules from the sand, and vicious-looking crawfishes picked them up with their blundering hands and examined them with their telescopic eyes. But one, at least, of the globules escaped their scientific curiosity, else this story would not be worth telling.

The sun shone down on it through the clear water, and the ripples of the Cowlitz said over it their incantations, and in it at last awoke a living being. It was a fish, a curious little fellow, only half an inch long, with great, staring eyes which made almost half his length, and a body so transparent that he could not cast a shadow. He was a little salmon, a very little salmon, but the water was good, and there were flies, and worms, and little living creatures in abundance for him to eat, and he soon became a larger salmon. And there were many more little salmon with him, some larger and some smaller, and they all had a merry time. Those who had been born soonest and had grown largest used to chase the others around and bite off their tails, or, still better, take them by the heads and swallow them whole, for, said they, "Even young salmon are good eating." "Heads I win, tails you lose" was their motto. Thus, what was once two small salmon became united into one larger one, and the process of "addition, division, and silence," still went on.

By-and-by, when all the salmon were too small to swallow the others, and too large to be swallowed, they began to grow restless and to sigh for a change. They saw that the water rushing by seemed to be in a great hurry to get somewhere, and one of them suggested that its hurry was caused by something good to eat at the other end of its course. Then they all started down the stream, salmon-fashion, which fashion is to get into the current, head up-stream, and so to drift backward as the river sweeps along.

Down the Cowlitz River they went for a day and a night, finding much to interest them which we need not know. At last, they began to grow hungry, and, coming near the shore, they saw an angle-worm of rare size and beauty floating in an eddy of the stream. Quick as thought one of the boys opened his mouth, which was well filled with teeth of different sizes, and put it around that angle-worm. Quicker still he felt a sharp pain in his gills, followed by a smothering sensation, and in an instant his comrades saw him rise straight into the air. This was nothing new to them, for they often leaped out of the water in their games of hide-and-seek, but only to come down again with a loud splash not far from where they went out. But this one never came back, and the others went on their course wondering.

At last they came to where the Cowlitz and the Columbia join, and they were almost lost for a time, for they could find no shores, and the bottom and the top of the water were so far apart. Here they saw other and far larger salmon in the deepest part of the current, turning neither to the right nor left, but swimming straight on up just as rapidly as they could. And these great salmon would not stop for them, and would not lie and float with the current. They had no time to talk, even in the simple sign-language by which fishes express their ideas, and no time to eat. They had an important work before them, and the time was short. So they went on up the river, keeping their great purposes to themselves, and our little salmon and his friends from the Cowlitz drifted down the stream.

By-and-by the water began to change. It grew denser, and no longer flowed rapidly along, and twice a day it used to turn about and flow the other way. And the shores disappeared, and the water began to have a different and peculiar flavor—a flavor which seemed to the salmon much richer and more inspiring than the glacier-water of their native Cowlitz. And there were many curious things to see; crabs with hard shells and savage faces, but so good when crushed and swallowed! Then there were luscious squid swimming about, and, to a salmon, squid are like ripe peaches and cream for dinner. There were great companies of delicate sardines and herring, green and silvery, and it was such fun to chase them and to capture them!

Those who eat only sardines, packed in oil by greasy fingers, and herrings dried in the smoke, can have little idea how satisfying it is to have one's stomach full of them, plump and sleek, and silvery, fresh from the sea.

Thus they chased the herrings about and had a merry time. Then they were chased about in turn by great sea-lions, swimming monsters with huge half-human faces, long thin whiskers, and blundering ways. The sea-lions liked to bite out the throats of the salmon, with their precious stomachs full of luscious sardines, and then to leave the rest of the fish to shift for itself.

And the seals and the herrings scattered the salmon about, and at last the hero of our story found himself quite alone, with none of his own kind near him. But that did not trouble him much, and he went on his own way, getting his dinner when he was hungry, which was all the time, and then eating a little between-meals for his stomach's sake.

So it went on for three long years; and at the end of this time our little fish had grown to be a great, fine salmon, of forty pounds' weight, shining and silvery as a new tin pan, and with rows of the loveliest round black spots on his head, and back, and tail. One day, as he was swimming about, idly chasing a big sculpin, with a head so thorny that he never was swallowed by anybody, all of a sudden the salmon noticed a change in the water around him.

Spring had come again, and the south-lying snow-drifts on the Cascade Mountains once more felt that the "earth was wheeling sunward," and the cold snow-waters ran down from the mountains and into the Columbia River, and made a freshet on the river, and the high water went far out into the sea, and out in the sea our salmon felt it on his gills; and he remembered how the cold water used to feel in the Cowlitz when he was a little fish, and in a blundering, fishy fashion he thought about it, and wondered whether the little eddy looked as it used to, and whether caddice-worms and young mosquitoes were really as sweet and tender as he used to think they were; and he thought some other things, but, as a salmon's mind is located in the optic lobes of his brain, and ours in a different place, we can not be certain, after all, what his thoughts really were. What he did we know. He did what every grown salmon in the ocean does when he feels the glacier-water once more upon his gills. He became a changed being. He spurned the blandishments of soft-shelled crabs. The pleasures of the table and of the chase, heretofore his only delights, lost their charms for him. He turned his course straight toward the direction whence the cold fresh water came, and for the rest of his life he never tasted a mouthful of food. He moved on toward the river-mouth, at first playfully, as though he were not really certain whether he meant anything, after all. Afterward, when he struck the full current of the Columbia, he plunged straight forward with an unflinching determination that had in it something of the heroic. When he had passed the rough water at the bar, he found that he was not alone; his old neighbors of the Cowlitz and many more, a great army of salmon, were with him. In front were thousands; pressing on, and behind them, were thousands more, all moved by a common impulse, which urged them up the Columbia.

They were swimming bravely along where the current was deepest, when suddenly the foremost felt something tickling like a cobweb about their noses and under their chins. They changed their course a little to brush it off, and it touched their fins as well. Then they tried to slip down with the current, and thus to leave it behind. But no—the thing, whatever it was, although its touch was soft, refused to let go, and held them like a fetter; and, the more they struggled, the tighter became its grasp. And the whole foremost rank of the salmon felt it together, for it was a great gill-net, a quarter of a mile long, and stretched squarely across the mouth of the river. By-and-by men came in boats and hauled up the gill-net and threw the helpless salmon into a pile on the bottom of the boat, and the others saw them no more. We that live outside the water know better what befalls them, and we can tell the story which the salmon could not.

All along the banks of the Columbia River, from its mouth to nearly thirty miles away, there is a succession of large buildings, looking like great barns or warehouses, built on piles in the river, and high enough to be out of the reach of floods. There are thirty of these buildings, and they are called canneries. Each cannery has about forty boats, and with each boat are two men and a long gill-net, and these nets fill the whole river as with a nest of cobwebs from April to July; and to each cannery nearly a thousand great salmon are brought in every day. These salmon are thrown in a pile on the floor; and Wing Hop, the big Chinaman, takes them one after another on the table, and with a great knife dexterously cuts off the head, the tail, and the fins; then with a sudden thrust removes the intestines and the eggs. The body goes into a tank of water, and the head goes down the river to be made into salmon-oil. Next, the body is brought on another table, and Quong Sang, with a machine like a feed-cutter, cuts it into pieces just as long as a one-pound can. Then Ah Sam, with a butcher-knife, cuts these pieces into strips just as wide as the can. Then Wan Lee, the China boy, brings down from the loft, where the tinners are making them, a hundred cans, and into each can puts a spoonful of salt. It takes just six salmon to fill a hundred cans. Then twenty Chinamen put the pieces of meat into the cans, fitting in little strips to make them exactly full. Then ten more solder up the cans, and ten more put the cans in boiling water till the meat is thoroughly cooked, and five more punch a little hole in the head of each can to let out the air. Then they solder them up again, and, little girls paste on them bright-colored labels showing merry little Cupids riding the happy salmon up to the cannery-door, with Mount Rainier and Cape Disappointment in the background; and a legend underneath says that this is "Booth's" or "Badollet's Best," or "Hume's" or "Clark's," or "Kinney's Superfine Salt-water Salmon." Then the cans are placed in cases, forty-eight in a case, and five hundred thousand cases are put up every year. Great ships come to Astoria and are loaded with them, and they carry them away to London, and San Francisco, and Liverpool, and New York, and Sydney, and Valparaiso, and Skowhegan, Maine; and the man at the corner grocery sells them at twenty cents a can.

All this time our salmon is going up the river, escaping one net as by a miracle, and soon having need of more miracles to escape the rest; passing by Astoria on a fortunate day, which was Sunday, the day on which no man may fish if he expects to sell what he catches, till finally he came to where nets were few, and, at last, to where they ceased altogether. But here he found that scarcely any of his many companions were with him, for the nets cease when there are no more salmon to be caught in them. So he went on day and night where the water was deepest, stopping not to feed or loiter on the way, till at last he came to a wild gorge, where the great river became an angry torrent rushing wildly over a huge staircase of rocks. But our hero did not falter, and, summoning all his forces, he plunged into the Cascades. The current caught him and dashed him against the rocks. A whole row of silvery scales came off and glistened in the water like sparks of fire, and a place on his side became black and red, which, for a salmon, is the same as being black and blue for other people. His comrades tried to go up with him; and one lost his eye, one his tail, and one had his lower jaw pushed back into his head like the joints of a telescope. Again he tried to surmount the Cascades, and at last he succeeded, and an Indian on the rocks above was waiting to receive him. But the Indian with his spear was less skillful than he was wont to be, and our hero escaped, losing only a part of one of his fins, and with him came one other, and henceforth these two pursued their journey together.

Now a gradual change took place in the looks of our salmon. In the sea he was plump and round and silvery, with delicate teeth, and as handsome and symmetrical a mouth as any one need wish to kiss. Now his silvery color disappeared, his skin grew slimy, and the scales sank into it; his back grew black and his sides turned red—not a healthy red, but a sort of hectic flush. He grew poor, and his back, formerly as straight as need be, now developed an unpleasant hump at the shoulders. His eyes—like those of all enthusiasts who forsake eating and sleeping for some loftier aim—became dark and sunken. His symmetrical jaws grew longer and longer, and, meeting each other, as the nose of an old man meets his chin, each had to turn aside to let the other pass. And his beautiful teeth grew longer and longer, and projected from his mouth, giving him a savage and wolfish appearance, quite unlike his real disposition. For all the desires and ambitions of his nature had become centered into one. We do not know what this one was, but we know that it was a strong one, for it had led him on and on, past the nets and horrors of Astoria, past the dangerous Cascades, past the spears of the Indians, through the terrible flume of the Dalles, where the mighty river is compressed between huge rocks into a channel narrower than a village street; on past the meadows of Umatilla and the wheat-fields of Walla Walla; on to where the great Snake River and the Columbia join; on up the Snake River and its eastern branch, till at last he reached the foot of the Bitter-Root Mountains in the Territory of Idaho, nearly a thousand miles from the ocean, which he had left in April. With him still was the other salmon which had come with him through the Cascades, handsomer and smaller than he, and, like him, growing poor and ragged and tired. At last, one October afternoon, they came together to a little clear brook, with a bottom of fine gravel, over which the water was but a few inches deep. Our fish painfully worked his way to it, for his tail was all frayed out, his muscles were sore, and his skin covered with unsightly blotches. But his sunken eyes saw a ripple in the stream, and under it a bed of little pebbles and sand. So there in the sand he scooped out with his tail a smooth, round place, and his companion came and filled it with orange-colored eggs. Then our salmon came back again, and, softly covering the eggs, the work of their lives was done, and, in the old salmon-fashion, they drifted tail foremost down the stream.

Next morning, a settler in the Bitter-Root region, passing by the brook near his house, noticed that a "dog-salmon" had run in there and seemed "mighty nigh tuckered out." So he took a hoe, and, wading into the brook, rapped the fish on the head with it, and carrying it ashore threw it to the hogs. But the hogs had a surfeit of salmon-meat, and they ate only the soft parts, leaving the head untouched. And a wandering naturalist found it there, and sent it to the United States Fish Commission to be identified, and thus it came to me.