Memory and The Return of Chum Salmon

Distractions abound in contemporary society with the increasing depravity in most aspects of public life – think big time business, entertainment, politics, and sport.

And now that it’s almost December, the endless ads for luxury cars, snooping servants masquerading as home electronics, and Christmas music that has been playing in most malls and stores since August have driven out the joy of the season. Even Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present has said enough already.

In all of the above, there is no past or future – there is only the Now for only the Now has commercial or political utility. But even the cynical use of the Now as distraction can not, and must not, destroy memory: memory of cherished past; memory of history, and memory of one’s self.

And there is another type of memory. That is the memory of the natural world and its cycles that stretch back farther than human memory.

All it takes is looking outside.

Here in the Northwest, the annual salmon return is one such cycle. December brings its own gift with the return of the chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) to Donkey Creek.

The name of the creek has its origin in a lumber mill. After the nearby Austin mill was built in the early 1900s, a donkey engine transport system was used by loggers to move timber downstream to the mill. The building used for the engine was demolished in 2002 but logs from the building were salvaged and used in the siding of the restroom constructed in 2004.

Today, the park of the same name leads by a path to the Harbor History Museum. The path allows easy viewing of the creek. And it is in the creek in late November and December where there’s the best chance of seeing a returning chum salmon.

On their return and out of sight of the public, the fish are captured, bucks and hens are separated, and milk and eggs are extracted – the fish are dispatched with a quick bonk on the head. And then the life cycle of another generation of chum salmon begins.

Their journey begins in the Donkey Creek Remote Site Incubator (RSI). The RSI was installed by local fisherman in 1974 in cooperation with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The purpose was to restore the chum salmon run that had been severely depleted by road building and urbanization.

The RSI processes 1.3 million eggs every year — 1 million eggs are planted in Donkey Creek and about 300,000 are divided up between Meyers Creek and Purdy Creek.

The eggs and milk are mixed together in incubator buckets, with incubation lasting four months until about mid April. When they hatch they are called alevins. They spend six weeks maturing in the incubator buckets before losing their egg sacs. They then leave the barrels through a small pipe and go into a bigger pipe that runs in Donkey Creek. When they enter the creek they are called fry.

The fry slowly move into Gig Harbor and out into Puget Sound – finally reaching the open ocean in late summer. They move northward along the British Columbia coast until they reach their destination in the Gulf of Alaska, where they will remain for at least three years, with most returning in years four and five.

Their journey out and back means a journey of over 2000 miles plus the miles spent in the Gulf of Alaska. It is an incredible journey out of sight to us except at the very end when we can watch a salmon swim, with all its remaining strength, to reach its spawning ground for the singular purpose of creating the next generation. It is truly awe inspiring to watch.

Standing along Donkey Creek also provides an opportunity to see the cycles in our own lives – particularly when we understand that others stood where we are now.

The S’Homamish band of native Americans spent winters in a village known as Twalwelkax meaning “trout” at the mouth of Donkey Creek. The chum salmon migration was a source of food during the long cold winters. While they spent their winters along Donkey Creek, it’s probable the band migrated during the summer months to Vashon Island for there is archeological evidence of them there.

Little is known of the S’Homamish, except they were one of the bands that signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek in 1854, which exchanged 2.24 millions of land belonging to nine Indian tribes and bands to the United States for three reservations, cash payments, and recognition of fishing and hunting rights. By all accounts it was a swindle, just like all treaties signed with Native Americans.

The fishing rights were in dispute for over 120 years until the Boldt Decision of 1974, which reaffirmed the rights of Indian tribes and bands to act as co-managers of salmon and other fish as well as continue their harvesting according to the original treaties. By that time, the S’Homamish appear to have disappeared as a distinct band. Hopefully they joined another larger tribe and their descendants live to this day.

If they do, they preserve the memory of the life cycle of the chum salmon – as we should for it is a reminder of the great cycles of nature and our own place in it. I take comfort in that when the Now attempts to crush all memory.


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Author: Tom

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