By Dennis Kuklok
I spotted large groupings of pinks (a.k.a. humpbacks or humpies) in late August in the Dosewallips River, right on schedule. I had waited two years for this event (they spawn here only in odd numbered years), wondering if the worrying trend I had observed would continue (since I had began to live here, there had been ten pink salmon years, half of which had no fish at all counted). This year’s run looked promising, though the extremely low level of the much smaller Rocky Brook made me wonder if there would be enough water for those that spawn in it to come up and lay eggs.
I couldn’t stay to monitor this run though. I had to ferry up to Ketchikan in early September for a mixture of business and pleasure.
In Alaska, I was thrilled to see Ketchikan Creek, around which Ketchikan was settled, filled with pinks. For almost two weeks I watched these fish cluster together, trying to avoid the fat and happy harbor seals pick one out to snack on, navigate the rushing rapids and falls (there is a fish ladder around the highest), pair-up and spawn in the gravel before becoming yet another carcass lying along the streambank or hanging in the salmonberry branches.
All this while I wondered about what was happening back home on the Olympic Peninsula. Was there enough rain to trigger a Rocky Brook run?
When I finally arrived home at the beginning of the last week of September, it was nighttime, dark and raining. After checking the garden fence to make sure that the bears had not broken through to get to the ripe pears and apples, I went down to Rocky Brook. I really didn’t need the flashlight. The sound of splashing and churning told me what I needed to know; pinks were running up Rocky Brook, and there were lots of them.
What a welcome home.
The next morning I walked down to a sight I hadn’t seen in six years; fish in numbers which would rival any Alaska stream. They were everywhere, and by the sight of the dead ones along the shorelines, had been for some time. One can’t help but stand in awe when presented with wild creatures in such abundance. Especially during our time where we humans have smothered this richness and abundance, where in so many places it is only a fraction of what it once was.
I never tire of watching spawning salmon.
At first I thought they were all pinks. Their size and shape and coloration indicated this. But a flash of bright red, just for a moment, told me that there had to be at least one coho. This made sense; hatchery raised coho stray up Rocky Brook about this time every year (the hatchery is on the Quilcene River, just to the north.)
The next morning I was in the yurt, writing, when I heard what sounded like something big in the creek below. I got up to check, hoping to see a big black bear splashing about, trying to snap up a salmon in its mouth. It was a man in waders; Washington Fish and Wildlife Dept., counting fish.
I let him finish his count and get back to his pick-up before I biked up to ask for the numbers. He had counted 734 live pinks, 84 dead pinks and 6 coho. When I asked if the coho were hatchery, he said they were to fast and wary to be able to see if they had clipped adipose fins. He added that he was not familiar with Rocky Brook’s typical run history to know if coho should be present at this time. I have to say I was surprised at the count, not because of the large numbers, but because of the detail. I had watched him walking and didn’t know how he could come up with 734 and not 737. To me, there were just too many fish to count, at least to that level of specificity. Yet, I’m sure he has a methodology which is pretty accurate.
Later that day, while watching the pinks in front of The Observatory, I spotted a large, dark coho darting amongst the pinks, looking confused at all those fish, not a one that looked or smelled like a coho and were taking up so much of the stream’s available spawning real estate. I was able to see the intact adipose fin clearly, suggesting it to be wild. At least it had not been raised in a hatchery, had not been clipped. It might be the offspring of a hatchery pairing in Rocky Brook in some previous year. I like to think of it as a wild fish, and will be looking for more in the coming days. Wild coho are always wanted, this is a perfect coho stream in many ways.
Back to the Bears. I think the big run might have saved my pears and apples this year. Every fall the local bears walk around my eight ft. high garden fence, standing upright, testing it for weak spots where they might be able to get to the sweet, ripening fruit. Twice they have succeeded, once using an overhanging branch, once leaning on a corner post that had rotted out. Each time they had eaten everything, and knocked over whole trees in the process.
After the first time, I began to check the fence every fall. As added security I do two things (bears are unpredictable and will do surprising things to get to fruit, they started digging under my neighbor’s fence to get to his fruit trees.) First I place wind chimes and bells on corner fence posts, so that when the bears lean on them, they emit a “surprise and scare” sound. Second, I play a radio at night, set to a talk show channel. These things have worked … so far.
And the abundance of fish this year has undoubtedly also helped.
Finally, there is the smell.
When salmon come upstream in such numbers, they overwhelm the local ecosystem’s natural ability to deal with the carcasses. There is just too much biomass all at once. So dead fish pile up in the bottom of the creek and along the banks. Critters drag them into the forest. One finds them in surprising, unexpected places. There they rot, and smell.
A rotten fish in one’s refrigerator or trash can be quite strong, pretty unpleasant. However, hundreds of rotten fish out in the open air somehow do not smell as bad. To me, they almost have a sweet smell.
Maybe I am just so happy to see so many fish return that I don’t acknowledge the oder. Maybe my sense of smell gets tempered. I recall in Ketchikan how one could not but notice the strong fish smell that permeated the air along Creek Street boardwalk, yet visitors off cruise ships stood there and happily took their pictures. I didn’t notice any holding their noses.
This reminds me of one of my favorite fish-smell stories. Back when I was in University, some friends wanted to buy an old school bus and go on a cross country adventure in it. These were the days when young people did such things, inspired by Tom Wolf’s 1968 book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” describing the bus named “Further” carrying the “Merry Band of Pranksters” across the country. My friends found the perfect bus, great body, working engine, reasonable price. They were not quite ready to buy it though, and feared that somebody else would. So one of them (Elaine, a woman from Scotland who was quite resourceful and free thinking) bought a fish in the store, wrapped it in newspaper, and hid it in the middle of the bus. There it quickly began to emit a noticeable aroma. She figured that this would deter any other buyers (which it did).
I never asked how long the smell lasted once they had the bus, or what she did to make it go away.
As I write this, I can hear the splashing about of the hundreds of salmon right below me. This should go on for another couple of weeks.
The sweet smell of dead fish will be around much longer.
Dennis Lloyd Kuklok
Rocky Brook, October, 2021