Read an excerpt from Tom Lang’s salmon:
I’ve always been an emotional fish. My friends attribute my moods to my overly sensitive lateral lines, pores that run down my body from head to tail. These pores hook up with a canal under my skin that connects up with my brain, helping me sense minute disturbances and subtle movement. That’s how I can pick the best current, swim through murky water and maintain the tight formation of my school.
But I think my sensitivity has more to do with unresolved issues from my troubled childhood. My mother and father died when I was conceived. I lived under 6 inches of gravel in Chilkat Lake for 6 months before I emerged as a fry. I fought for a year with my 4000 brothers and sisters over cheap crustaceans and microscopic algae slop–green desmids, blue diatoms and blue-green dinoflagellates. I huddled in fear of swim-by killings when the Chars, a crazed fish gang high on zooplankton, would wipe out 90 of my siblings in one swallow.
Only a few good salmon, a hundred or so, survive from each family to become smolts and head out to the saltwater. I was one of the proud, brave and, I thought, lucky, but my years at sea were spent fighting off 42 different parasites while I swam the gauntlet of whales, sharks, sea lions, fish nets, cross currents and cruise ship rudders. I traveled over 2000 miles a year, battling the ocean all the way. What kept me going was the dream of the happy spawning ground.
And here I was, treading water in front of a sign at the mouth of the Chilkat River that read:
CHILKAT LAKE 25 MILES SWIM SAFELY.
My buddies and I went down to party at Sockeye Sushi, a bar and restaurant about 100 feet below the surface of the Lynn Canal. A banner outside the joint read, “Last Stop For Food.” Inside, Fry and the Fingerlings sang “It’s Dawn, Let’s Spawn” on the jukebox.
There was Milt, who was originally from a rival school, but he transferred over to us last month when his entire graduating class was kidnapped near Juneau and never heard from again. Milt and I hit it off right away, as if we had known each other our entire lifecycle. Some fish mistook us for brothers and couldn’t tell us apart.
Red was the brain of our school, a graduate of the Migratory School of Limnology, the study of lakes, ponds, streams and the life they contain.
Gill, on the other fin, was an airhead and a paranoid hypochondriac. He ranted on and on about a global conspiracy to capture all of us sockeye and ship us to foreign lands in cans and jars. Whatever you say, Gill.
We had covered over 20 miles that day and we were starved. We polished off a platter of arrow worms, a bowl of bivalve larvae, 12 orders of snails, 3 mixed invertebrate plates and 10 Alaskan amphipod rolls. While I squiggled over to the All-You-Can-Eat-Kelp Bed, the fellas started their usual arguments. If you ever want to get a school of salmon riled up, ask about how we find our way back to where we were born.
“What I’m trying to tell you boys,” Milt said, chewing on an ostrocod, “is that it’s all smell. We’ve got a half million receptors per square inch up our noses. We follow the scent, baby. It’s as simple as that.”
“No way, Milt,” Gill said, spacing out for a minute as he watched the air bubbles from his mouth float to the surface. “It’s electricity, man. See, as ocean currents travel across the earth’s magnetic field, electricity is created and we pick up those signals with our lateral lines. Takes us home. If THEY don’t get us first.”
“Gill, you’ve got the brain of a copepod,” Red said, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his pectoral fin. “ Our cycle is planted deep inside, imprinted on our chromosomes. Our homing ability is an inherited response to our environment.”
“Hey, Al, what do you say?” Milt said to me as I swam back from the kelp buffet with a plate piled high with Fucus, Porphyra and Nereocystis.
“I don’t care how we get there,” I said, sucking in a strand of Ulva, “I just want to get upstream and start spawning.”
“Here, here!” the boys cheered, raising their cups of Vin du Plankton, “to spawning!”
“Listen,” I said, tilting my head toward the jukebox. King Chinook was singing a bluesy version of “Hate Being Late To Mate Your Date.” We rocked back and forth, lip-synching to the song.