The Afterlife

From Kenyon Review, July/August 2016.

A salmon’s second journey begins with its “collection.” At the Cole M. Rivers Hatchery north of Medford, Oregon, the crowder is drawn through the holding pond once a week, May through August, pushing the fish toward the rear, toward the spawning house. When I visited one June, three hundred spring Chinook were loitering, miraculously returned from the ocean to the place where, for them, it had all begun. They were conceived artificially and released as fingerling smolt into the Rogue River, which ushered them through Shady Cove and Grants Pass—all the way to Gold Beach and the Pacific. A fraction of them reach the ocean. A fraction of those return. These were the prodigal .003 percent, each fifteen or twenty pounds of sauntering muscle wrapped in silver.

Cole Rivers is an industrial-strength facility, a real doozy. “No one wants to work here,” David Pease, the assistant manager, said with a measure of pride. Tall and laid-back, with curly brown hair, Dave was in a short-sleeved beige Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform and khaki shorts, a classic game-warden look. There are eighty-seven ponds on the Cole Rivers campus, while the typical Oregon hatchery has about fifteen. On the other hand, elsewhere employees must wade through ponds with screens during the dead, or drizzle, of winter to corral their fish. Here you have the crowder, which is much like the automatic sweeper on a bowling lane.

But it can’t handle three hundred Chinook. Not close. Most, in fact, weigh more than your average bowling ball, and the contraption began to moan and screech as it approached the spawning house. The operator, Ada Carnes, a hatchery technician with long blond hair, freckles, and deep-set eyes, backed off and lifted the gate of the crowder a touch, letting some fish escape underneath. A reprieve. Instantly they darted the length of the pen, sleek torpedoes with jaws, speckled and scarred. Many had visible hook wounds on their flanks, pink gashes. Some were “whiteheads,” covered with a fungus where they had scraped the protective mucus from their scales while forging upriver, over rock. “They’re dying,” Dave said. All of them.

Salmon stop eating when they enter freshwater. Their whole purpose, then, is to flash upstream, and their intestines shrivel inside their massive bodies to make room for swelling gonads. The feast is over; the ocean becomes a memory. As they push on, they lean on their reserves. Become l. By the time they reach their natal waters, salmon give “running on empty” new meaning. The jaws of the male elongate and hook, becoming a “kype” that broadcasts his prowess. A female excavates a redd in gravel with her tail and deposits her eggs, which, at that same moment, are met by a cloud of milt, his offering, a clo settling and dissipating in a blink of current. She guards her brood until she has no strength. Then her body releases to the current and drifts, already disintegrating, to an eddy or shoulder of mud where its essentials are reabsorbed: by crawdads; by raccoons, bears, and bald eagles; by trees even several hundred feet from the bank; and by salmon fry, those thousands of unknowing mouths that need every advantage if they’re to swim the Rogue and home again, to die.

~

The water began to boil. As the crowder neared the back wall, the hulking fish panicked and frenzied in the diminished space, throwing their fins into the air. A salmon’s world, of course, is immeasurable: the ocean, the wild length of the Rogue, 157 miles of rapids and anglers to the hatchery. Raked together in this concrete pool, perhaps these salmon sensed time was finally closing in. That something was lifting them. The crowder has a bottom shelf, and once the school was pinned, their floor rose—Ada elevated it—until they piled at the surface and about fifteen spilled through a gap and down a wide ramp into the facility. To the “brail” that would subdue them with an electric pulse.

Momentarily. “If you don’t quiet them,” said Dave, “they beat you up. They’ll put a hurting on you.” Ada raised the brail ten feet and tilted it so the fish would pour onto the sorting table. The salmon flopped despite the current that had just coursed through their blood-orange interiors. But, not as much. Their heavy domes and tails thumped on the stainless steel, but they weren’t “hot,” as Dave called it. Another technician wearing a Stetson and camouflage hip-waders grasped each Chinook and stilled it, best he could, with one hand over its golden eye and the other on its tail. He slid each to Ada. Both of them wore nonabrasive cotton gloves that quickly became covered in slime.

It was an inspection line of two. The hatchery’s first need is broodstock—fish to spawn next year’s smolts—and throughout the four-month season, Dave and company select a variety of sizes to keep the gene pool diverse. Each week, they sort the arrivals and fill quotas along the spectrum. In front of the technicians were six chutes, dark tunnels, each a vacuum leading to a different outdoor pond: something like the pneumatic tubes that propelled canisters to the tellers at drive-through banks of old. Ada passed each fish, briefly, into a metal detector, and pulled them out by the tail. If the buzzer sounded, she dropped the fish headfirst into Chute 2, no questions asked. As a smolt, it had been implanted with a tiny coded-wire tag (in the nasal cartilage of its snout), which would be reclaimed to see when and where it had been reared. If there was no alarm, then Ada measured the fish and called out its sex and length in millimeters. Dave would glance at his data sheet, holler over the sound of water, and scratch tallies:

“Buck 670,” yelled Ada.

“Yeah,” shouted Dave.

“Buck 800.”

“Yeah.”

“Buck 870.”

That’s thirty-four inches.

“No.”

“Oh, whoops, got him anyway . . . How about hen 810?”

“Yeah.”

“Hen 830.”

“Yeah,” said Dave, as a three-inch insect called a salmon fly, hatched out of the river with orange legs and abdomen, alighted on the small desk where he sat perched on a stool.

“Buck 800.”

“Yeah.”

“Buck 830.”

“No.”

“This one’s comical,” said Ada’s cowboy partner, as he passed her the next.

“How about a buck sub-350?” she said.

“Sure,” Dave replied. The smallest are known as “jacks,” males that try to spawn after a single year in the ocean. Fewer than ten pounds, and sneaky.

The sorting occurs in episodes of only a few minutes, fifteen or twenty fish at a time so they aren’t out of water too long. Then the crowder lifts again and more cascade onto the brail—zap. Over the course of the morning, Dave shouted “No” more often as broodstock requirements were filled. He referred to his paper, and each decision was impersonal. Nonetheless, it reminded me of an emperor lifting his thumb up, or down. “Yeah” sends the salmon into Chute 4 (after it receives an injection, to prevent disease) for breeding in the fall. Those genes, randomly selected, will carry on—have a chance to—and four years later (jacks aside), a fraction of the resulting smolt will return transformed. But a “No” from Dave sends the salmon hurtling through the black hole of Chute 6, for a moment, and into the pond reserved for “excess.” The afterlife begins.

Essay continues …