TODAY, I’m watching salmon mating.
On the banks of the Sandy River, the naturalist explains that I am looking at a female salmon building a nest, but all I see is a white blob moving underwater. Supposedly, there are male salmon circling somewhere in the area while, in the words of our guide, “the woman does all the work.”
I am at Oxbow Regional Park, just outside Portland, Oregon, for this fall’s annual Salmon Homecoming. The water is high, so there isn’t much visibility as the salmon return to their spawning grounds. But the event still feels festive. There’s something about standing in a crowd of people who have gathered specifically to greet a bunch of fish returning to the bit of river they were born in that makes me feel hopeful. It’s a very Northwestern thing to do, this tromping out into the woods to welcome salmon. You have to drive forty-five minutes outside of the city before hiking another fifteen through the trees to get to the river, but we are determined, we human observers, to homecome these fish.
My home is not here in Oregon. I grew up in Illinois, and as a child, I learned the workings of that place by a kind of instinct. I caught frogs in my backyard and recorded the winter migratory patterns of red-winged blackbirds. I learned how to tell the difference between white oak and red. I observed the habits of field mice. I feel at home in the flat open spaces of a Midwestern landscape. The Douglas firs and dormant volcanoes of the mountainous Northwest still puzzle me.
When I first came to Oregon, I thought I’d learn this new home just like I’d learned the old one. I thought I’d learn the new weather by walking in rain. I thought I’d learn the landscape by hiking. I thought I’d learn how to tell the difference between species of fir trees and how to watch for slugs crossing trails. And I did learn. But it didn’t feel the same. Growing up in a place makes it feel like a part of your blood. Coming to know a place as an adult is different. It’s like learning a new language late; the tongue always trips a little.
The naturalist explains that the eggs laid by these salmon will hatch fish who will leave the place of their birth and make their way out to an estuary on the coast in Astoria. Following the paths of generations before them, they’ll learn to be saltwater fish before swimming into the Pacific. Everything changes in new water, even the color of their scales: the ocean will turn them silver.
The salmon will spend the majority of their lives in the ocean. They may venture thousands of miles over the next one to seven years, up to Alaska and all the way to the Bering Sea. But they always come back. When it’s time, they still know the way home.
I hardly ever return to the town I grew up in. When I do, the familiar feels foreign. I carry that town inside me. I wander its streets in my dreams and in those dreams it feels like home. But outside of my mind, that “home” feels different now, as if it isn’t mine anymore.
My grandma’s family owned a fish hatchery in Maryland. She grew up there. Then she left. Once, she told me about how all she’d wanted as a young adult was to get out of that small town, to move to another place, to travel the world. Sometimes she wondered what it would have been like to have stayed instead of leaving. Sometimes we wondered together. She ended up in California, having crossed the whole country in a lifetime. She did not, like so many of her brothers and sisters, die in the place she was born in. She died in the place that she chose.
The salmon we’re watching today are nearing the end of their lives. They have made their journey backward, driven by instinct against the currents, fasting for weeks, every bit of their bodies willing their way back home. Once they lay their eggs, they’ll die. Once home, they do not make the journey back out to sea.
So I tromp out to welcome them. I squint at the white blob under the water and hope that it is, in fact, a fish. I wonder if this place feels disappointing to her, if she remembers it differently, with clearer water and gentler currents. I wonder if she regrets coming back to it. I wonder if she longs for the sea. I watch and hope I can see what that fish sees, find what she has found, uncover the secrets of that endless loyalty she seems to have toward home.