When Salmon was King

Outsiders or newcomers to Washington may think that Microsoft, or Boeing, if they haven’t read of recent defections, is the King of the Northwest.

But anyone over the age of fifty who was born and raised in Western Washington will know that Salmon is the Once and Only King. There is no way to have been raised in this state and missed seeing and being inspired by the magnificent salmon runs that have historically shaped the Pacific Northwest and the cultures that have thrived here.

Richard Hugo, born in White Center, just as I was, offers poems that celebrate this event and others that mourn its passing as industry, aided and abetted by government neglect, have decimated these magnificent runs.

“Skykomish River Running,” though it focuses somewhat on the steelhead thriving on the salmon runs, beautifully captures the feelings one has when observing a salmon run.

The narrator begins by simply wading out into the middle of a salmon migration, accurately observing the “dorsal fins like gravestones in the air” and the bright autumn-like colors of the dying fish.

But in the midst of this sacrificial and holy grounds, the narrator suddenly feels“the river Sky” humming in his ear, as he becomes one with the river and identifies with the Indians who gave this river its name, SKYkomish, saying he’ll “pound the drum for rain.” He continues to transform, saying I will “be a trout,” “swim a/ week to be a witness to the spawning,” and, in the last stanza, “floating past the troutless pools/learning water is the easy way to go.”

I, too, am of these salmon, nourished of their flesh before I was flesh. I, too, struggled with them, brothers, nearly as big as myself, to discover through the struggle who I was and who I was to become. I, too, survived the winter to be reborn in spring by feasting on their flesh.

And I, like Hugo, discovered my common heritage with the American natives who celebrated the salmon’s spirit long before my ancestors came to these shores. I continually try to reinforce that shared heritage by attempting to ensure the salmon’s continued existence despite the many obstacles they face.