Sunday, December 17, 2006

A river runs through it

Salmon are fish that are born in fresh water, swim to the ocean where they spend their lives, and migrate back to the stream of their birth to reproduce and die. The salmon's journey is stuff that legends are woven around - they swim upstream against the flow of the river, dodge predators, jump up waterfalls and rapids, and scale fish ladders on dams, before reaching the place of their birth. All my life, I had read tons of articles on this journey in nature journals, enjoyed glorified accounts of it in fiction, and seen it in picture and film. However, salmon always had a bachchanized quality about them (bachchan [bach-chan] – adjective 1. a condition made possible by the mass media wherein millions of people know, closely study, and have strong emotions for an individual (or entity), but literally nobody thinks that meeting the individual in person is necessary to consummate the relationship). Last Sunday, the salmon debachchhanized themselves to me, and how!

It was an awfully cold and foggy morning when I hiked down to my favorite river-gazing spot on the American River, a few kilometers upstream of its confluence with the Sacramento River. The river runs slow and deep at this point with little visibility inside the water, and once in a while I would hear a loud splash in the water - the Chinook or King Salmon who run up the river like to jump out of the water dolphin-style - but I would barely catch a dissapearing tail or just a fading ripple, what with my rotten luck. Curious to see more, I decided to walk downstream where the river negotiated some shallow rapids and was much clearer.

I was walking eastwards, and I approached the rapids across the cobbly beach, the fog had lifted high enough that the early sun was reflecting brilliantly off the shiny cobbles and the water surface. A few feet away from the bank, I stood still to enjoy the sight and the sounds of the flowing water. At that moment, a huge fish jumped out of the water and suspended itself in the air for few microseconds, enough for the sun to glance off its shiny silver scales, then splashed back in. I was just upstream of where the it had dissapeared back in the water, and realizing that if it was a salmon it would be swimming towards me, I fell on one knee and riveted my attention into the clear shallow water near the bank. Sure enough, a second later the huge Chinook appeared to sight in the water. Quiet apparently, it was struggling against the current; but it only paused for a moment as if to garner a burst of energy, then with a quick quiver of the tail it was gone.

Sunday on the American River
[more pictures here]

I spent the rest of the day ambling by that section of the river and saw plenty more salmon, but that particular instance in the morning with the sun, the river, and my first jumping salmon was the kind that has the potential of what I can write about as a life-changing moment if I grow up to be some ustaad like Salim Ali or Jane Goodall or somesuch. OK, stop smirking, I only said potential.

Postscript: I was thinking of how amenable rivers are to glamorization, though I would also argue that much of it is well deserved. My textbook in open channel hydraulics in graduate school which was written by Terry Sturm, who also taught the course (and is my all-time favorite teacher), starts off thus:
" Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it, The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words,and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters
I never really appreciated the full meaning of this, but it sounds mighty profound so I remain awed. Sturm quotes this excerpt from Normal Maclean's autobiographical short story A River Runs Through It, a classic for river lovers. A eponymous movie was made out of this story in 1992, and I will urge you to see it if you havent. Shot amidst the rolling landscape of Montana, the story of the family that the movie follows it overshadowed by the outstanding cinematography of the river and woods. This story hooked me on to fishing (the opening line is "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing..."), but hopefully it will induce you into less bloody means to enjoy rivers.

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