Upriver from Tiller the river pours through a narrow channel between gray basalt rock faces into a deep, still pool where salmon circle slowly, waiting for fall rains. The Spring Chinook salmon arrive here in June after a two hundred mile journey upriver from the ocean.
The salmon know the smell of home, the scent of jasper, basalt, porphyry, quartz, agate and tufa carried by the waters from the gravel beds they were hatched in. Patiently, they work their way against the current returning from the Aleutian Islands home to the South Umpqua.
They wait out the long summer months when the river slows and the water grows warmer, never eating, living on the fat stored in their huge bodies. On summer mornings you can see them from the cliffs above, silvery ghost shapes in the sun dappled waters below, moving in a slow, solemn circle dance.
They are a bruised and battered lot, bearing the marks of their passage, old wounds from seal bites, fish hooks, nets and the scraping of rocks encountered in the riffles of the home stretch. Their flesh, once firm from the arctic feeding grounds, grows soft in the warm river water. Fuzzy white patches appear on their scaly sides, the mark of infection and a sign of approaching death.
They are prisoners here for awhile, holding in the deeper pools scattered among the shallow upper reaches of the river, rising in the cool, quiet morning hours and hiding in the depths when the afternoon comes bringing heat and the campers and bathers who splash about on the surface.
Evening comes, and the humans leave. Blacktail deer come down to drink. The firs and cedars cast long shadows across the pool. The clever-handed raccoons fish for crawdads along the edges and silence returns to their watery world with the night.
There is a quiet joyfulness to their languid circling– not the exuberance of their leaping struggle through white water on their way up here– but a deeper joy made of patience, survival and expectation. Their long journey is nearly over, the uncounted thousands of miles behind them. Soon the rains will come and they’ll swim upriver on the rising waters as their ancestors have always done, to dig their nests on gravel bars, and lay their eggs in the waters of home.
History: Overstory: Zero, Real Life in Timber Country, Sasquatch Books, Seattle Wa 1995; Jefferson Monthly, Ashland OR 1996; 100 Valleys Newsletter, Roseburg OR 1999.