Last weekend we went camping at the foot of Mt. Baker, near the town of Glacier. We camped at the Douglas Fir campground, which has great campsites along the Nooksack River. Normally, camping like this would be a swim fest for our dogs. But not this year: no swimming allowed. Why?

Because of this:

Humpies spawning! In the photo above, you can see the male with his telltale humpback, hooknose, and freakishly large teeth; with a greenish female next to him. They are wallowing out a nest in the gravel, to lay and fertilize eggs. Both my husband and I grew up in Washington state, and both in fishing families. So, generally, seeing fish, and salmon, is nothing novel. We’ve seen (and eaten) them all our lives, and have gone through the obligatory grade school salmon education programs that every Washingtonian does. You can see a spawning salmon or two in the creeks even in the city; more so these days now that habitat restoration is a big focus. But this was something else: I’ve never seen so many salmon spawning at once, nor had so many chances to watch them up-close. They were everywhere.

This year is apparently quite a run. Not only is it an “odd year” (Humpbacks only spawn every other year, odd years in Washington), we had a long dry spell this summer. So the fish really pooled-up in the lower reaches of the rivers, waiting for the rains, and their chance. Fishing was closed in many places, because of the unfair scenario of shallow waters and loads of fish accumulating. In the last few weeks, we’ve had some torrential rainstorms. This was the green light the fish needed to proceed upstream.

They were hard to photograph. I ended up with a lot of pictures of water. AnnoyedWhat could be seen so clearly in person often didn’t convey on camera, or my timing wasn’t right. There were places where hundreds of fish were lurking below the surface, in big, dark swarms. In shallow places, their fins cut through the surface like sharks.

Here’s a view from Thompson Bridge over a small stream, where a lot of dead fish had already accumulated; done with their life’s mission to spawn the next generation. There were plenty of live fish spawning here as well. And, some still working their way further upstream, clamoring over the carcasses of their brethren and wriggling over rocks, in the several-inch-deep water.

We hiked the Horseshoe Bend trail, and got to see more fish working their way up some very challenging natural “fish ladders.” Fish biologists call this “habitat complexity”- places where rocks and random fallen logs make both pools for resting and hiding, as well as rigorous physical tests for getting upstream.

I marred my photograph with a red circle just so you can spot the fish in one such ladder (click the photo for a bigger version):

This was a point where the river necked down and rushed over some very large rocks. This narrow opening was the only place where the fish could possibly get through. The current was brutal. Tons of fish were loitering below this point, waiting for a chance to give it a go. One at a time, each fish would attempt the jump. Most of the time, they’d barely make it, only to be pulled back down by the current. It was frustrating, yet mesmerizing, to watch.

At one viewing point we approached, people could be heard cheering as if they were watching a football game. “Go! Go! Go! Ohhhh! He didn’t make it! C’mon! Yeah! You can do it! There he goes!”

Two enthusiastic young interns from the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (N-Sea) gave an informative talk at the campground. Some interesting points they made:

  • A pneumonic device for remembering the five species of salmon we have here, using the fingers on your hand: Chum rhymes with thumb. Sockeye for your index finger, because it can poke your eye out. King (Chinook) for your middle finger, for it is the tallest. Silver (Coho) for your ring finger, where often silver rings are found. And Pink (Humpback) for the pinky finger. Cool, huh?
  • All five species spawn in the Nooksack River.
  • Salmon have a special design that’s different from other fish. They hatch from their eggs early, before they are fully developed, and lug around an egg sack on the outside of their bodies while they finish maturing. This gives them an advantage in evading predators. Though they can’t swim well during this time, they can at least move around and dig back into the gravel; versus being a helpless egg that’s vulnerable to being eaten or washed away.
  • Salmon have another unusual trait in that they morph from freshwater to saltwater fish. Anyone who has owned a fish tank knows that for most fish, mixing freshwater fish with saltwater, or vice versa, is lethal. Salmon “smolts” go through a drastic physiological change to enable them to transition to sea life. There, they are able to grow much bigger than they could in the rivers, since the food sources are better. When they make the reverse trip back to the rivers to spawn, they do not transition back to being a freshwater fish. So, this journey back is not only incredible in its length and physical difficulty, the fish are also being slowly poisoned by the freshwater environment.
  • When adult salmon die, their carcasses decompose on the banks of the spawning streams. This triggers and coincides with a massive wave of insects hatching, which then eat the carcasses, and also provide food for the hatching fish. So, it’s all a big food cycle.
  • We may think of the social movement for salmon habitat restoration to be all about nature, and species such as eagles and bears, which depend on salmon as a primary food source. But salmon are a huge part of commerce here, too, providing jobs not only in fishing, but in food processing, canning, boating, and all of the other industries upon which salmon fishing depends. Salmon are, of course, consumed locally on a large scale; and also have a big export market.

Salmon are a source of much political tension in our state, due to the challenges of balancing habitat preservation goals with all the other things people want to do with land and water. But pretty much everyone can at least agree that it is uncouth to disturb them when they are spawning, or to churn up fragile egg beds post-spawning. Thus the swimming ban for the border collies in the lower reaches of the river where we were camping and hiking. We did eventually find a place upstream of Nooksack Falls, where there are no more salmon,  that was shallow and safe enough for some water games. The collies were pleased.