The Smell Of Home

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.

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3 thoughts on “The Smell Of Home

  1. Mr. Heilman I might don’t hold all the same views as you, but we do have something in common and that’s Douglas County. Douglas County has been my home my whole life, so when I came across your post called “The Smell of Home” I read it and like it. It was easy for me to picture the salmon as make their last journey home. It’s something to think about on how generations after generation salmon make this some journey home, each generation gives their life so the next generation can live on. The life cycle can be cruel, but necessity to the survival all living things.
    The best thing about Douglas County it’s in the United States of America, I think this is something we should be proud of. Being a US-Citizen gives us so many rights the most citizens take for granted. For example can you take your blog to another country and write about their government without punishment, or can a female in another country walk outside with her head uncover without punishment. I am not saying all country are bad, but I honestly cannot think of a better place to live then here in the United States of America the land of the free and home of the brave.
    Brandy

  2. Dear Sir, I would like to thank you for your elegance in writing this piece. It is very poetic. I am a lover of the salmon migration myself. It amazes me the Journey they undertake. From a small egg in the gravel to fingerling that fears for its very existence every second to the returning adult. As an adult in their river they fear not but man. Once they get up to your pool they seem to take on another worldly manner about them. To watch the majesty from that vantage point is a truly awe inspiring thing. The Pacific Northwest owes everything to these majestic beings. Their sacrifice that will be made for their young is what powers our Eco-system. To swim the Journey they swim to find they river they were born in to follow that river to the very spot they were born, some say to the very rocks. They then expend the last of their energy for their offspring. Then as we all do they perish in the same area. A true circle of life. Then from the dead springs life. They fertilize the flora. The microorganisms find them. Eat them and they in turn feed the fingerlings. I have been in the area you have described but cannot say that I have viewed them from that same vantage point. I can say that I have viewed them and they stir a certain spot in my heart, as did your writings. I love these fish. Writings like this and with conservation I hope that they forever make this journey.

  3. As I was required to post a comment on one of your posts for a college course, I find it necessary to note that it was not a painful assignment. Meaning that I actually quite enjoyed your writing style. I read almost all of your posts and this just so happened to be the last that I read so I decided to comment on this one. I moved here to Roseburg in the end of 2008 when I was only 12. I thought it was going to be the worst thing to ever happen to me because I had grown up in a big city (Las Vegas). Now I’m 18 and we moved to Glide about 2 weeks ago. I live right by colliding rivers and I can visualize so well the salmon traveling to home. Your writing style creates visuals so easily, probably because the majority of your readers are from Douglas county and have seen what you have described so perfectly here. When taken in a literal sense, this story is beautiful. But when interpreted in the metaphorical sense, it’s eye opening and so easily related to. Many people go through such a difficult struggle just to find home. Thank you so much for sharing.
    Brandi

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