‘Helpless and culpable’ while fishing the pink’s peak run

2017 Bell Prize runner-up: A writer reflects on salmon as symbol.


On a wet afternoon in late summer, two friends and I went to see the pink salmon run at its peak. We walked through the hemlock forest and tasted the bright, sweet flavor of decay. It hung everywhere in the air. On the banks, flocks of eagles and seabirds perched contentedly over dead fish, eating only their eyeballs and indifferent to the stumbling march we made in our waders. The Squamish and Cheakamus rivers met in turquoise ripples and broke in leaping salmon. We stood for a moment, pointing out the fish that jumped and swam beside us. Then we separated, walking a hundred feet apart, and began our long swinging casts.

The air had an unnamable tightness about it, and we had it, too. We knew that here in front of us, like a miracle, thousands of silvery bodies were leaping over driftwood and ripples, up tributaries and side-channels into shallow pools (and around our ankles), where they would circle, mate and die, gasping out their nutrients to the trees. We felt them everywhere, if not directly, then in our imaginations, as we were washed in the sight of the birds and the smell of decay and the feeling of the river on our legs. We cast for fish like idiots.

This is the second salmon run I have witnessed since moving to Squamish, British Columbia, from Portland, Oregon, three years ago. I can’t explain what seeing a healthy salmon run descend upon a small river means to me without first describing what it’s like growing up under the specter of this glorious animal. At school, we were taught to memorize its lifecycle, and we read children’s books on the subject. Later, we took field trips to hatcheries and watched salmon struggle up fish ladders at Bonneville Dam. In the summer, we watched boats come into the river and hang about for months, chasing their invisible prey. We knew salmon better as symbols than as flesh — on signs and souvenirs, license plates and sewer drains, murals and T-shirts.

Oregon honors its fish with a purity equal to the violence it inflicted upon them in the previous century. And while we knew our salmon to be important, we also learned they migrated every year through a dammed and warming Columbia River, past hundreds of miles of fishermen, through insufficient fish passages and ambient pollution. (If they got far enough, they met a nuclear waste site.) We came to learn that the legendary homeward-bound journey was no longer possible for many salmon, and that, even if it was, sometimes up to 90 percent of a stock would die before it reached its natal grounds. We learned, in short, about our people’s original sin. 

I began to worry, and I forgot about my cast. Did the rivers blow out the spawning grounds this winter? How many of these swimmers would even live long enough to spawn? The pink salmon run is larger and perhaps healthier than any of the other four that grace the Squamish Valley. But unlike chinook or coho, which migrate in small numbers over longer period, pinks swim upriver en masse, taking less than two months to complete the journey and doing it during odd-numbered years only. Therefore, I reasoned, this was all we would see. I began to feel what I always feel at the end of a heavy snowstorm: a totally unjustified yet immediate sense of loss, matched by the measure of the gift before me. I felt helpless and culpable.

Just then my reel spun out. A salmon cartwheeled out of the water and tore off downriver. I guided it in, slowly, across the ripples and current, careful to hold my rod up, not to hold the salmon too tight. It broke off again, and we repeated the same dance twice. Three times I cursed it, praised it and, eventually, kissed it before hauling its beautiful body on the banks and slitting its gills.

Whenever I fish, I think of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The River.” In it, a 5-year-old boy with alcoholic parents gets taken by his nanny to be baptized at a river. Under the water, he feels the presence of God, or at least a sort of grace. When he goes alone to the river to find it again, the current takes him, and the boy drowns.

The whole meaning of rivers is made by the people who use them. But rivers are never just symbols. They are places of encounter — between a person and some kind of wildness beyond them.

My friends and I each took a salmon home that day. We stayed up late cooking and talking. The evening became a celebration — for the end of summer, for a salmon run that we could feel in the air.

Elijah Cetas, 21, is in his last year as an undergraduate at Quest University Canada.