Life cycles are in your face when you live on the west coast, as close as we are to nature snuggled between the mountains and the ocean. And none are so spectacular as the cycle of connection between salmon and the forest.
In every town and city on this island there is a salmon-bearing river, or two, or ten. Above is the Campbell River, one of the biggest on the island, where 10s of thousands of salmon are born, leave and then return two or four years later to lay eggs. This life cycle has been going on for thousands of years and even with human activity it takes a lot to kill a river to the point where the life cycle stops. Luckily on the island people have recognized the need to protect our rivers and even those that were heavily disturbed by industrial activity are being revitalized.
Every fall a walk along the river means looking for the salmon. Watching them struggle against current and snags and rapids to get as high up the river as they can to lay their eggs (females) and fertilize the eggs (males), and then die.
The salmon cycle itself is an awesome sight. But it is only one cycle in a much bigger picture. And it is the bigger picture that makes the west coast a place of such magnificence.
As the salmon come up the rivers, the fish eating predators also come to the rivers. Around here that is mostly black bears and birds. These predators prowl the river banks picking off these fatty fish (especially the females with their nutritious eggs) when they can get to them. Watching a black bear fish in a shallow river is a sight to behold, they often miss but the commitment is impressive! When they do catch them, not only are they nourished for the lean winter months to come (and our island bears don’t hibernate the same way bears in colder climates do, they nap more than deep sleep so need more nourishment) but they leave the carcasses behind on the forest floor (and sometimes on the trails of course).
These fish remains (I was nice and posted a picture of a whole fish that must have been dropped before it could be eaten, but there were many ripped apart and mostly eaten carcasses strewn along the sides of the trail and into the forest beyond) along with the remains of the rest of the dying salmon (most salmon species die once the eggs are laid and fertilized, making this a one-time return trip) are nature’s fertilizer. Add in the decaying leaves of fall, and as every gardener knows you have the makings of a very fine compost. A compost that, in conjunction with the replenishing fall and winter rains, feeds the stunning, over-whelming, awe-inspiring forests that surround the island rivers.
Every child who goes to school on Vancouver Island at some time will go on at least one field trip to see the salmon in the fall. From a young age we begin to understand this bigger world on a physical and visual level and I am convinced that it impacts us as we become adults. True west coasters are known for their love of nature and the outdoors, for their appreciation of all our resources, and for their laid back approach to life. They know that it is a cycle, that they are all a part of it, and that the whole is so much bigger than the sum of its parts.
I am a West Coast girl. It is in my blood, in my soul, in my outlook on life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.