“How do they know?” – Visitors come to the forest to enjoy watching and celebrating the return of spawning salmon to Lousignont Creek. While taking it all in, common questions asked include: “How do the Coho know when it is time to leave the ocean and return upriver to spawn?” and “how do humans along the rivers know when to expect the returning salmon to arrive?”. While working near the banks of the creek, I recently noticed something that provides one answer to both good questions. Looking up from my work, I watched a large, yellow leaf fall softly and gracefully from the canopy of a Big leaf maple into the creek’s current. After settling gently on the surface, the current of clear, cold water carried the leaf off toward the Pacific.
The reason why this sight automatically triggers in me “ah, the Coho should be headed upriver soon” is rooted in a belief held and shared by many native people in this rain coast region. The timing is explained this way: as fall progresses, salmon move from the sea into the coastal estuaries, waiting for a sign to tell them that conditions are right to head upriver. Up in the headwaters, maple leaves change from green to yellow and brown – and then fall from the branches. According to some native beliefs, when each maple leaf hits the water’s surface, it may be silent to us two leggeds, but it booms like the striking of a large drum to the salmon downstream. Hearing the boom, they set off to climb the 1,000 vertical feet up to the spawning beds in the Timber Forest.
For the roughly 10,000 years that humans have watched sustaining salmon pass upstream in this Nehalem River system, many of us have known that the falling leaves remind us when to start keeping a sharp eye out for that first, hope kindling flash of silver and red.
If a system works, why not stick with it?